Modern Scottish winter climbing fables #1: Bright red trousers.


I had once spent a weekend in the company of those shocking red trousers when alongside the owner and Guy Robertson we had climbed in the far Northwest. But today, it was early, and I didn’t make the connection, it just didn’t register. The loud Scottish blather didn’t click either. I am old, and truth be told, I would have thought a team so young and fit would have been moving faster. It just didn’t register.

It was dark on the steep approach to Stob Coire nan Lochan. It really was dark. And even when I stopped to allow them past, because they were too happy and chatting too loud for me, (a person who finds happy blather at 6am too much) I didn’t recognise them, and in my defence, they didn’t recognise me either. Another old boy who doesn’t know when to let it all go…

Tim Neill and I crawled up the steep hill. Red Trousers and his partner pulled away. I was happy to bimble and relaxed with the return of peace and quiet. I really do struggle with early and gregarious!

The stream to my right gurgled, and the sun breaking the horizon lit the snowy track ahead. Red Trousers pulled the final steep slope, (which I call Heartbreak Hill) leading into the coire. As I topped Heartbreak Hill, the sight was one to behold. The coire was stuffed full of smooth snow, not a single boulder poked its nose. Red Trousers and his partner had stopped on the flattening, which was quite a long way from the climbing. They chatted while changing clothes and looking around.

Earlier in the season I had climbed in Stob Coire nan Lochan with Murdo Jamieson. Murdo regularly climbs with Iain Small and on that occasion Murdo told me the story of Iain refusing to stop and gear up until he was ahead of anyone else. The reason for this was to be sure he was ahead of the game (aka the competition). With this in mind, and because Red Trousers and his mate were obviously undecided on their route, I bumbled, following their track, until passing close by. It was then I heard them mention the climb Tim and I were here to try, a climb called The Duel. But this was fine, they were obviously just talking about all of the climbs and the Duel was well known, it stood out, it was a good marker and the logical place to orientate where the other climbs went. No worries, keep walking. (We actually wanted and did climb The Duel into En Garde, a recent winter addition for folk who don’t like off-widths).

On hearing mention of the Duel for a second time my head dropped to look at my boots (I was weary) and this was the reason I didn’t spot the massive cam clipped to the outside of a rucksack. Now, being old, I don’t remember, have I mentioned that the Duel has an off-width and in the guidebook description it suggests the use of a massive cam to protect the off-width. No, maybe I didn’t! But with my weary head hung low, almost looking away, skulking some may say, I quietly shuffled past.

After passing Red Trousers I followed another teams steps for as far as possible. They were heading to the main section of the cliff, but I surmised by following their steps I would save energy. Not for a moment did I think by heading in the less direct course to the base of the Duel I would disguise my route intentions. Of course I didn’t, I was just saving energy. Although for no apparent reason, as soon as I began to traverse and my intentions would become clear, I managed to stir the old body and find a bit of extra energy, and unless the red trousers were being worn by Usain Bolt, I was pretty sure no one would be passing.

I stood beneath the buttress where the climb began and below Tim had stopped to chat to Red Trousers and it was then I remembered Andy Inglis owned a pair of extremely bright red trousers. I liked Andy, in fact I had been meaning to contact him to see if he was free to climb. Andy was a very good winter climber and the Duel would no-doubt have been on his hit list, but no, no, it couldn’t be Andy, because Andy would never had stopped where he had. But you never know, maybe it was Andy, and a bumbling old man was judged to be no competition?

The red line is the line Tim and I climbed which was first climbed climbed on the 16th December 17 by Murdo and Iain Small which basically covers the crux of the Duel into an E1 called En Garde ramping up the sustained nature of the whole climb but does not need a massive cam! The red into blue, is the original line of the Duel. More info here

The red line is the line Tim and I climbed, (first winter ascent on the 16th December 17 by Murdo and Iain Small) which basically covers the crux of the Duel into an E1 called En Garde, ramping up the sustained nature of the whole climb, but does not need a massive cam! The red into blue, is the original line of the Duel. The grade of both is IX/9 More info here

After inadvertently attempting a new, not direct, more coming in from the side, but much harder start, I found the correct line! pic credit, Tim Neill.

After inadvertently attempting a new, not direct, more coming in from the side, but much harder start, I found the correct line! pic credit, Tim Neill.

The groove is not as giving as an old climber would hope. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The groove is not as giving as an old climber would hope. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The biggest hold in the world but standing on it is quite tricky. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

The biggest hold in the world, but standing on it is quite tricky. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

And the difficulties keep coming. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

And the difficulties keep coming. Pic credit, Tim Neill.

Tim on the fun but really steep second pitch of En Garde. Pity his jacket wasn't a bit brighter!

Tim on the fun, but really steep, second pitch of En Garde. Pity his jacket wasn’t a bit brighter!

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Never forget the first time.

Stob Coire nan Lochan a few days ago.

Stob Coire nan Lochan a few days ago.

At the moment I’m winter climbing in Scotland, and after a couple of routes I thought it fitting in the run up to the publication of Tides (and being in Scotland), to include some writing that was first published in Echoes. 

I’ve played around and added to the paragraph that featured in Echoes, this paragraph is about the first route I climbed on Ben Nevis, which was Glovers chimney, and climbed with Clive Taylor.

Another reason to publish this bit of writing is to try and remind myself of how it used to be, and for me to try to be humble. We all start somewhere and we all climb at different levels and that’s fine, it is only climbing after all. And no matter the level someone climbs, it does not make them a good or a bad person, but it can make them a better or a worse person?

The two climbs that have started my Scottish winter are both of the same grade and in climbing them several thoughts and emotions have been running through my head, which, in some way, is connected to what is written above and is hopefully explained in the picture captioning below.


January, 1994. Ben Nevis, Scotland.  

I was hungry, (some may say desperate) to become a proper winter climber, whatever that may mean. And at the end of the winter 1994, I felt like I had succeeded, especially since, alongside fellow Physical Education Officer Clive Taylor, I had survived my first route on Ben Nevis. Glovers Chimney, is a three star, grade III, situated on Raeburn’s Wall, Tower Ridge.

Glovers Chimney, is an icefall leading to the crux, a steep mixed chimney that exits at the tower Gap on Tower Ridge and from here the rest of Tower Ridge is climbed until the Ben plateau is reached.

Clive had done less winter climbing than me, but because he was a PE Officer, he was really fit. Clive was also a triathlete, so as a base layer, he wore an all in one lycra, cycling suit, which he had boasted about the warmth. We geared up beneath the icefall, and paid no concern to the party already climbing above us. The party were a couple, a man and a woman, and as Clive and I geared up, and began to climb, they were so far ahead that it should not have been a consideration. Unfortunately, we caught them up as the man began to climb the chimney. The weather forecast had said earlier in the day would be OK, but it went on to say as the afternoon approached, and into the evening, gales would build to 100 mph gusts and snow would dump. Well, it didn’t say ‘dump’ but it used some technical term that suggested as much!

Now don’t get me wrong, I was very inexperienced and not the quickest, especially at this mixed stuff, and Clive was less experienced than me, but above us, wrapped tight into the snowy, and rocky confines was the mother of faff, and it soon became obvious the pair were less travelled in the ways of Scottish winter than either Clive or myself. Clive and I waited. And waited. At first we chatted to the woman, passed time, had a little social, a laugh and even the odd guffaw, but as day turned to night, and reasonably calm turned to crazy, we all went quiet and delved into our hoods where we delved into our inner selves. After another half an hour, the woman hanging from the belay was now frozen and being pummelled by snow and started to cry. Clive started to complain about desperately needing to pee, but he had found a flaw in his nice and warm tri-suit, because he had to take the whole thing off to pee and that wasn’t going to happen.

Snow thundered down the chimney, but at last, in the gloom, the man above topped out and the woman began to climb. We sorted ourselves, fastened headtorches to helmets, shook blood back into limbs, and began to climb. Clive, had at least stopped whittling about needing a pee, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have listened because the shock of how difficult and awkward mixed III could be was now consuming. Topping out in the Tower Gap, the wind hit me, but not as hard as the shock of being caught in a storm and the dark, high on the longest ridge on the Ben.  I fixed the belay struggling to see my hands, for the wind and the snow needled my eyes, and below, Clive began to climb. Having soloed a few grade V’s on ice and done several grade III’s and IV’s, I must admit the climbing had been difficult and I had not sprinted, and neither did Clive, but he eventually he stood by my side and pummelled by gales, the pair of us finished Tower Ridge, crawling onto the summit plateau of Ben Nevis. It was a complete white out, 100 mile an hour gales ripped across the plateau. Hunkering down, kneeling in the snow, close together, the map and compass were found and eventually, still roped, we started to crawl. Snow covered boulders were passed, and sometimes hidden behind, and occasionally a gust of wind so strong flattened us. Following a compass bearing and nothing more, secluded and separated, I imagined the lights shining orange along Fort William high street wishing I was there. We crawled and gasped. The rope flew into the white snow filled air. Down, down and down, Red Burn was at last reached. The snow and wind eased, the clouds were now above us, and below, a few flickering lights could be seen. We could at last talk and laugh as we wallowed in the scree and the dirt and the rain.

“Well, at least you can have a pee now, you must be busting.” I said looking at Clive who appeared to have aged.

“No need, I did that while hanging from the belay in the chimney, kept me warm as well.”

After an 18 hour day we were back pushing the door open on the Alex MacIntyre Hut in North Ballachulish, we were both very happy and I must admit, even the smell emanating from Clive’s nether regions did not diminish my fervour.

Murdo on pitch 1 of Unicorn. I've waited a long time to climb this route, its such a great line but the climbing does have a reputation and after climbing routes of a higher grade I really did not want to fall off, my ego would not have liked that, maybe this is part of the reason I have left it so long? fortunately I didn't fall, of and what a great but difficult climb it is.

Murdo on pitch 1 of Unicorn.
I’ve waited a long time to climb this route, its such a great line, but the climbing does have a reputation and after climbing routes of a higher grade, I really didn’t want to fall off, my ego would not have liked that! Maybe this is part of the reason I have left it so long, but by eventually climbing Unicorn it proves that fear of failure is not as high on my radar, and at last I’m growing up? Possibly I’m becoming less worried about what people say? Possibly! Fortunately I didn’t fall, but even if I had, it shouldn’t have bothered me because at times winter climbing is so tenuous, anyone, no matter how good they are can fall. What a great, but difficult climb Unicorn is and puts the second route of the season, Arthur, a climb of the same grade, under a little scrutiny!

Murdo higher on pitch 1.

Murdo higher on pitch 1 almost escaping the thrutch.

Murdo higher on pitch 1.

Murdo higher on pitch 1, although I think he was a tad greedy and climbed some of my pitch.

Myself seconding the first pitch. Pic credit, Murdoch Jamieson.

Myself seconding the first pitch and a bit of the second pitch? Pic credit, Murdoch Jamieson.

Myself leading the second pitch. This pitch is about as good as climbing in winter in Scotland gets! Pic credit, Murdoch Jamieson.

Myself leading the second pitch. This pitch is about as good as climbing in winter in Scotland gets! Pic credit, Murdoch Jamieson.

The second climb of the season was on the Ben reminding me of my beginnings.

The second climb of the season was on the Ben reminding me of my beginnings which were somewhere to the left in the mist .

Matt Helliker on the first pitch of Arthur, Number 3 Buttress, Ben Nevis.

Matt Helliker on the first pitch of Arthur, Number 3 Buttress, Ben Nevis. Arthur is the same grade as Unicorn. I’m not so sure to be honest, but maybe modern techniques and conditions have made this so? But in the end does it matter? Is it a good climb and was the experience a good one, the answer to both is yes, so the grade does not make the slightest bit of difference. Winter climbing in Scotland is very subjective and the old adage, there are only two grades, those you get up, and those you don’t, is, in my opinion, a true one.

Myself on the second pitch of Arthur. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Myself on the second pitch of Arthur. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Also me on the second pitch of Arthur. Credit, Matt Helliker.

Also me on the second pitch of Arthur. Brilliant climbing up a short, steep wall. Credit, Matt Helliker.

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Tides. The out-takes: 1

Hardback jacket_OFC.inddTides, my second book is due to be published by Vertebrate Publishing and on the shelves in May. I’ve worked for five years writing and editing the book (10 edits) and in the last few months the final edits  have been time-consuming, hence the lack of blog posts. But, at last, the book is almost done, its being proofread now, although there is still picture selection and captioning, setting out, printing and a load more I don’t know about I’m sure.

The cover is an ink by Tessa Lyons which I think is wonderful. Tessa did such a great job, as everyone at Vertebrate Publishing have done and who are, of course, still doing.

My initial draft was 150 000 words, the final draft is approximately 95 000 words which means there are a load of prose not included. So on a run-up to Tides being published, I thought I publish some out-takes here as a bit of a teaser.

This number 1 is a mish-mash of an essay I wrote that was first published in the CC journal and some of it was also published in Echoes. For anyone who has read a lot of my writing I’m sure you will recognise bits of it, possibly big bits, and this goes to show how, for me, writing a book goes. Generally I start with loads of content that is pulled from all over, then played with, added too and in the end most of it gets pulled and chopped and I’m left with something else, something completely different, but this start has to happen to lead to the end result.

Tides out-takes 1.

A moving modern art painting passes in front of my face. Greenblackgreywhite, but mostly red. Slipping, blending – shimmering oil. I slide the length of the abseil rope. Inspecting, dissecting, attempting to fathom lines amongst the mayhem of runnels and cracks. Bands of white clay cut through red-rock with Stanley knife precision. The last time I had seen a cut this true, it was running the length of a prisoner’s cheek. Pink fibrous scar tissue, a lesson learned and a reminder for life. Bird shit runs in festering, infecting, fish-stinking, streaks. It pours from insect ridden nests looking like icicles pouring from a frozen overflowing gutter. Nests fill the ledges, almost blocking passage with their mud-thatch. The fledgling guillemots have long departed. The sickly stench of shit and fish and sea make an intoxicating aroma. The smell burrows like cigarette smoke into the fibres of my brain.

Insects burrow into the dirt and slime. Speckled fat spiders spin a yarn strung between crinkled dock leaves. Vibrant green explodes from the ramp that we carefully sort our gear for the first time this season. For me it’s the first time ever on Red Wall at Gogarth and the excitement I feel is dulling the ache of loss.

Stu McAleese and I settle on the grass ramp at the foot of Left-Hand Red Wall and beneath, the sea crashes into the gaping void.

“Go for it, but take your time and lace it.”

Stu, who has teamed up with me for most of the time I’ve been here in North Wales instils confidence. His energy and relatively easy-going nature make climbing with him enjoyable and fun.

Stepping from the green and sloping and into the red and grey-vertical world of the crumbling first pitch of the climb, Stu adds encouragement

“Twid says to climb here you have to spread your weight,” I move back and forth several times scared to pull on a single hold.

“Yes, well that doesn’t give me loads of confidence as Twid’s an expert on this stuff.”

I recall a conversation with Louise, Twid’s partner the previous day,

“Twid says the rock on Red Wall isn’t loose, it’s soft.” She follows this with a look that tells me more than any words could.

This gives me no confidence as I ease five points of contact into chimney made mostly from clay and spiders web. Pushing. Pressing. Palming. Careful transference of weight in an attempt to become an astronaut in a solar system of red and smelly. I wished gravity didn’t rule on planet Gogarth. But, truth be told, I’m glad it does. Life would be staid without gravity.

I have carried more gear and placed more gear than ever before in the previous weeks of rock climbing in North Wales since returning from Peru.

“Place as much as you can, whenever you can,” Stu calls.

He really doesn’t need to convince me. Placing cams into clay, wires into moving flakes and slinging spikes whenever possible, I tell myself something will hold should the unthinkable happen.

Sitting, belayed on the pedestal in the middle of the wall, the first pitch of Left Hand Red Wall is in the bag. Relatively easy, but feeling more serious than many of the harder climbs I’ve led. I look down to the glittering sea crashing into the zawn a hundred feet below and reflect on the reason I’m now in Wales rock climbing and not mountaineering in Peru.

Cartwright had died. I thought I was ok, I thought I was tough and I was coping with the death of my friend until I started climbing after the wake. It was then I discovered that my usual carefree attitude had taken a serious knock. Jules was indestructible. If he can die, what hope for the rest of us? What hope the rest of us? The last time Jules and I had rock climbed together was here, here at Gogarth and it was here at Gogarth that the sea sparked as much as it does today.

The first few weeks were difficult and I was still carrying a rack of gear more suited to the walls of Yosemite, along with a heavy heart and a head of emotion. But my confidence was slowly returning along with the strength in my fingers.

As I sat and belayed I recalled landing at Heathrow and visiting my parents boat. They were on the move, touring the canal system in south of England. Both Mum and Dad were very fond of Jules, dad in fact appeared to like him more than any of my other friends I had introduced him to. I’m sure he connected with Jules’s don’t give a dam attitude, his drinking and smoking, his opinionated personality, sometimes I thought dad must wonder where he went wrong?

Stu, passed by looking sure, and in control on the more solid, but technically more difficult second pitch. We met on top of the crag to ask what next?

“Cannibal sounds interesting don’t you think?” The confidant Cumbrian states while reading the guide book.

“You reckon? It sounds pretty bloody scary to me.” The older, not so confident one replied, knowing it was my lead. But feeling the need to push myself a little more, I was soon on the downward journey and ready to do slow and cautious and calculated amongst the soft.

E4 5c is not a popular grade for some climbers. It suggests scary run-outs and sustained unprotected sequences. Normally this is the type of ground I love when I’m going well and feeling confident. Unfortunately, at this moment, I was neither. But the voice had returned, the voice of questioning, of pushing, this hopefully was a sign my drive was returning.

Potato-crisp, dust covered fins had to be pulled until another clay band could be grovelled. Here, recuperation could take place, before once again stepping into the moon-like meringue of soft sandy rock.

Having pulled the lip of Red Wall for the second time that day my thirst for adventure was sated and with the blond Cumbrian wilting in the heat, we ran away for an ice cream hit.

A couple of days later I return with John Bracey who is living in Wales for the summer in preparation for his summer mountain guides test.

Gulls swoop and soar on thermals, screaming, crying, liberated. I envy their skill and their view, but not their ability to fly. Once again, I stood on the grassy ramp at the base of Left-Hand Red Wall – the dirt and smell shocked me with the intensity. Bracey slid beside me and looked with disgust at the first pitch of Pagan, the three-star Pat Littlejohn route. His lip curled as if the barman had served his martini stirred and not shaken.

“Wow, that looks disgusting…your lead I reckon.”

“Ok, but it really isn’t so bad once you start,” hoping to sandbag Bracey into leading the pitch.

“No that’s ok, you go for it, I know how much you like this sort of thing.”

This sort of thing was a traverse along a green and slimy wet ledge. A nest filled the ledge at one point. Grass bushed from beneath and above, impossibly clear drops of water sparkle in the sun. The water runs through the orange before mixing with green to become tainted and infected. Welcome to the world.

Knocking lumps of ash from the rubber soles of my climbing shoes, I wondered why I was bothering, this would be no technical-soft shoe shuffle across clean solid rock. The thought of chalk was laughable. Gentle and cautious. Once again, I step slowly into the world of the unknown, it surprised me how quick I focused on the climbing. Easing along the break, avoiding the old dried smears of bird shit, tapping the rock, assessing, gently weighting, creeping, inching, pulling. I was consumed once again.

Escaping and climbing into the dark intense place in my head is definitely one of the reasons for climbing. Forgetting the mundane, ignoring the insane, questioning mortality. And my immediate future depends on dirt encrusted, sand-coated with ball bearing like friction. It depends on cams wedged into clay and pockets overflowing with ashtray grime.  Life is OK?

Bracey ambles along the first pitch with the confidence of a top-rope and begins to climb the second. The rock here in the middle of the wall is cleaner, steeper and more solid. The moves are beautiful exercises in technical footwork, planning and route-finding.

I climb the final pitch that traverses right following flakes and cracks. Then I move left with less gear and more exposure. This is no place to take a wrong move and at last, I launch into a sequence that once committed, could prove irreversible. Topping-out, the old desire returns, I long to be back on the wall pushing myself, living on the edge, or at the very least, close to my edge.

How fate twists and turns our way. One day everything is fine, the next you find life is ticking and kicking hard, like being curled in the gutter outside the nightclub. Arms and legs pulled tight, the blows keep coming. Hopefully, inner strength is enough for recovery. Hopefully the memories will never subside but become less painful.

I stare into the Gogarth guidebook and look at the pictures. One image stands out more than the rest.

Paul Pritchard’s eyes burn into the rock. He peeps from his duvet jacket focused only on his immediate future. Thin, black striped lycra-clad legs poke out from the oversized jacket. Socks pulled high. Clinging to life on a cold wind driven day. South Stack lighthouse glows yellow in the background, lighting the way with methodical, mesmerising regularity. The sea is in turmoil below. Stare long and hard and be there with him. Smell the sea’s salt, the seagull shit. Listen long and hard. Hear the cry of the gull and the crash of the sea…listen to his heartbeat. Now feel yours. Paul, like Jules, was such an inspiration to me, he was what I once wanted from life. Freedom, anarchy, energy, determination, confidence. Paul was badly injured on the Totem Pole in Tasmania, Jules was dead.

Another day… Another sea scape and once more the sound of waves and gulls.

Shittlegruber, climbed in 86 by Pritchard and Harms gives intense, technical climbing with spaced gear and thought-provoking sequence. I sketch across the biggest holds on the climb, nearly falling, pumped stupid, feet scrabbling. Reaching a ledge, I look back at the gear, gear I nearly fell and tested. It surely would have ripped. Two measly wires wedged behind an expanding red flake. But I feel fully sated now as the steep, overhanging and fragile, moving groove, the groove above the fiery wall of red is climbed. Life is porcelain, life is a delicate balance.

In two days Stu and I fly to the Alps and not long after I travel to Nepal for a second attempt at Tengkang Poche with Nick Carter. I fear that on my return to Nepal I will be rendered useless once again. My body wastes and grows weak in the mountains. I fear my head may also weaken on my first visit to the Alps and then to Nepal since Jules had been killed.

Living in Ynes Ettws, my mobile propped in the window to receive a signal informs me I have a text message. Bracey wants to climb and as the rain pours down the window, Heart of Gold Direct is mine if only the weather will allow. Racing across the island of Anglesey, following the dips and hills of the duel-carriageway, the clouds finally part. A shaft of sun spotlights the way to Red Wall, the soft and vertical demarcation between sea and land. And within no time Bracey is inching into the middle of the wall, carefully pulling and testing. He reaches the hanging stance and rigs a solid belay. I move toward him stretching, warming my arms between moves. Crowds of tourists stand on the promontory by the RSPB information centre, no doubt wondering if they will witness an epic.

I leave Bracey hanging from a cat’s cradle of half sunk wires and cams smeared into clay. I don’t envy him. By the time I’ve led forty metres of extremely technical uncertainty, his legs will be numb.

Time appears to still, but of course, it doesn’t. The sea is quiet, the gulls are quiet, no more the cacophony like revellers on the dance floor. Stu McAleese’s beta on how best to approach the route runs constantly through my head,

“It’s all on good holds, you just have to trust and yard. Don’t stop to think, just keep moving.”

I wonder if the same beta could be used for life, for my life?

I screw the inside edge of my right foot onto a sharp flake. It doesn’t break as I weight it. Leaning from the wall eyes dart looking for edges, crimps, cracks, crozzles. Orange and red. The smell of the sea. Tides of emotion wash through me with every move.

Bracey is twenty-five feet below, leaning from the rope watching me. We have both been in this position before. At least this time there is a rusty old peg between us unlike the fall from Omega on the Petites Jorasses last winter.

‘Trust and yard, just keep moving. Just keep moving…’


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The approach. Storm Creek.

The approach. Storm Creek.



Because the forest was dark, I put on an occasional spurt.

Just a small trot when the others weren’t looking

an attempt to keep up.

I felt like a bit of a fool.


Storm Creek was flowing even though the temperature was a long way below zero.

A dark pool, then peaty brown to another dark pool before a constriction and another dark pool.

A dipper lifts from a polished pebble in the centre of the creek. Flying upstream, he follows the flow before tucking his white bibbed paunch beneath a roll of snow.

I shiver at the thought of diving into icy water and wonder what will happen to the dipper once the creek is completely covered.


A small trot.

“It’ll never happen again, lightening does not strike the same place twice.”

But it does and we all know it does. Serendipity has no form.

I shoot a look and imagine the pine branches flicked clean of snow.

Keep talking, make a noise, make any noise – a laugh, a cough, a croak, a howl.

The snow muffles our footsteps, but above the creek’s babble I can hear them, “What an idiot, he had no spray.”


A little run.

Don’t look behind.

Don’t look behind.

You may see it coming.

And if you do see it coming there will be no stopping it.

Best just to get on then,

I suppose.

Because in the end it gets us all.

The Silmarillion Indirect is the right to left slanting line leading to the left ice flow.

The Silmarillion Indirect is the right to left slanting line leading to the left ice flow.

The second pitch of the Silmarillion Indirect is a tad of a slab slither.

The second pitch of the Silmarillion Indirect is a tad of a slab slither.

I'm playing it cool while beneath it all panicking at the thought of the slab slithering i'm about to embark. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

I’m playing it cool while beneath it all panicking at the thought of the slab slithering I’m about to embark. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Still quietly panicking... pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Still quietly panicking… pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Raphael decided he was short changed as he thought it best to belay to reduce rope drag and considered it fair and correct that he should continue! The third pitch was a classic.

Raphael decided he was short changed as he thought it best to belay to reduce rope drag and considered it fair and correct that he should continue! The third pitch was a classic.

Myself seconding the third pitch. pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Myself seconding the third pitch. pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Even though it was my turn to lead I managed to stay strong in the face of adversity and keep hold of my pitch while belayed from an always ready to jump in Professor. Piic credit, Bayard Russell.

Even though it was my turn to lead, I managed to stay strong in the face of adversity and keep hold of my pitch while an always ready to jump in Professor belays. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Another day and another three hour approach…

Superlight. Protection Valley. I took this picture of Jon Walsh and Michelle Kadatz completing the second ascent of Superlight on a previous visit.

Superlight. Protection Valley.
I took this picture of Jon Walsh and Michelle Kadatz completing the second ascent of Superlight on a previous visit.

From the previous visit. Michelle is on the off-width pitch 3.

From the previous visit. Michelle is on the off-width pitch 3.

Approching the base of the climb in different conditions than our previous visit.

Approaching the base of the climb in different conditions than our previous visit to Protection Valley.

Raphael on pitch one. Some pretty typical Rockies insecurity.

Raphael on pitch one. Some pretty typical Rockies insecurity.

Myself on pitch two. More secure and a lot more fun. Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski.

Myself on pitch two. More secure and a lot more fun. Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski.

Raphael on the off-width pitch.

Raphael starting the off-width pitch.

The wrong way to start the fourth pitch. Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski.

The wrong way to start the fourth pitch. Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski.

Progression. The correct, or at least, the easiest way to reach the ice is by climbing the rock flake high before stepping right. Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski

Progression. The correct, or at least, the easiest way to reach the ice is by climbing the rock flake high before stepping right. This fourth pitch is 60m and one of the best pitches of ice I have led. Again I’m glad I didn’t give it over to my very keen partner who resembled a Labrador looking at a chocolate digestive biscuit! Pic credit, a disappointed Raphael Slawinski 😉

The final pitch and the professor is once again a happy man.

The final pitch and the professor is once again a happy man.

Raphael revelling in a great pitch and a wonderful situation.

Raphael revelling in a great pitch and a wonderful situation.

A big thanks once again to all of my friends in and around the Canmore/Calgary/Golden area of Canada. I had a great trip made even better by your company. Cheers 🙂 And a big thanks to my friend Bayard who always makes a trip entertaining and fun.


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Protection. What once was a 5 hour walk with a Bivi recommended becomes a 2.45hr jaunt!

Protection. What once was a 5-hour walk with a Bivi recommended, becomes a 2.45hr jaunt!

Raphael Slawinski sent me an email, and attached to the email was a picture. There was no information or description – there was no telling where it was, or even how long the drive to where-ever the start of the walk-in began. A mystery. A Slawinski mystery. What’s the worst that could happen? The only information Raphael gave, “three hours in, two out”. I returned an email letting him know that Bayard and I were keen. The line in the picture looked almost alpine – deep gullies, pencils of ice, and it finished at the top of the cliff. Later that same evening I squeezed the possible length of the climb from Raphael, “Its 300m.”  But still no hint as to where it was.

While climbing on the Headwall two days later Raphael let it slip.

“Protection Valley.”

“Protection Valley! Doesn’t the guidebook suggest taking bivouac gear because the walk-in is five hours?”

“Yes, but its not under snow and there is a track, it’s much quicker this year.”

I have walked into climbs with Raphael frequently now, and to be honest, I didn’t believe him, or more to the truth, I did believe it was three hours, but three hours at his pace, a Slawinski pace, even Mo Farrah would be taking silver in that event!

Over several visits to Alberta, I have climbed on the Trophy Wall on Mt Rundle four times. The Trophy Wall is where the famous climb, The Sea of Vapours is found. The guide book time states anything between two and a half to four hours. My first visit to the Trophy Wall was in 2003 with Dave Hunter and it took five hours. The second time in 2008 was with Ian Parnell, it took four and a half. The third visit took four, and the fourth, which was on the same trip in 2012 and alongside Rob Greenwood (no slouch) while following Raphael, took two and a half, car to car! Either I was lazy or Raphael is something of a speed freak, and I know where my money is placed.

Bayard, Raphael and I set off heading for Protection Valley with two teams ahead of us. Other people climbing at the same time and day was almost unknown for Protection Valley and not a good omen. Raphael was a little put out. I feared for my legs, especially as one of the teams ahead were friends,  Jon Walsh and Michelle Kadatz. Michelle had set off in a run trying to keep up with Jon. Jon had set off in a sprint as soon as he clocked Raphael. Michelle shouted, “Hey, Jon, slow down, I don’t want to race, I definitely don’t want to race Raphael.” But Jon was nothing but spindrift knocked from a wispy branch.

Two hours, forty five minutes later we stood beneath the base of the climb. And the climb, which would have been a new route, was called Grab the Cupcakes – it had been climbed three days earlier by Kris Irwin and Jay Mills. Not being locals, Bayard and I were unconcerned about the line being climbed, but I’m not so sure about our speedy friend. But we decided to climb the route anyway, and it was enjoyable and fun, well for most of it anyway!

Jon Walsh picture showing the crag and the line of Grab the Cupcakes.

Jon Walsh picture showing the crag and the line of Grab the Cupcakes.

I hung from the belay. My two friends hung alongside. The daylight was becoming washed out, jaded almost. The end of the light was about an hour away. Plenty of time for thirty metres, although this thirty metres was an overhanging groove of what looked to be quality Canadian Rocky Mountains choss. I racked up thinking it might be fine. I could see ice, a few pockets, a crack, some vegetation and the top. No problem.

In the final groove. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

In the final groove. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

At fifteen metres in, wedged into the base of the overhanging groove, all was good. ‘Its good, its fine.’ The rock around me was yellow and orange and if it had not been frozen it would have poured with dirt. Over-cramming a cam into a crozzled pocket, I hook an edge with a single tooth of my pick, while hooking frozen moss with the other. The wind increased, causing a whirligig of snow to whip the groove above. Dirt in my eyes. Scraping. Wind whistling. Leaning back. One, and then two front-points to high and out of sight edges. A fleeting glance at the cam and heave. The wind howled. The rock, all jagged and orange stayed in place. The top of the climb, almost the end, was in reach, but the wind increased and with the wind was spindrift. My head was blasted. Ice cream brain hurt like the worse headache ever. Eyebrows froze, a thick white, and eyelashes, so heavy with frozen tears of ice, almost pulled lids closed. I couldn’t look up, I couldn’t look down. I closed my eyes and yelled profanities. The skin of my face tightened to a frozen mask. Every time I attempted to move up, or look for feet placements the spindrift strafed me in the eyes and face. “FUCKER!”

At last a slight lull in the wind and I scrabbled the last few moves to clip a newly constructed abseil point. Before leaning back, I checked the two nuts that made the station, both looked good, so I weighted the tat that joined the nuts, took a breath to calm myself. “SAFE.”

Raphael climbed first, followed in close proximity by Bayard. I didn’t expect either of them would fall, but the groove was fall-offable because of the quality of the rock. Raphael was into the crux and the wind dropped and along with the drop in the wind the spindrift ceased. I felt hard done to, so looking down I shouted “Shall I kick some snow on you?” His reply was a little curt, “You fucking well better not, I’m climbing the crux.” I laughed, but in a second my laughter stopped as the lower nut of the belay popped, hanging in front of my face like some gold beacon of very bad.


“How many nuts are in the belay?” Raphael shouted hopefully, but I’m sure he knew the answer.

“Two, I’m hanging from a single nut.”

Bayard's helmet sporting a little dent is up to the job.

Bayard’s helmet sporting a little dent is up to the job.

Raphael, above the crux and alongside me started to run for the top of the crag, which meant I had to pay out and take in Bayard who was at the mossy hook move. I yelled, “STOP.”  Taking in, paying out, attempting to replace the nut – the wind chose to pick up again. I repositioned my foot so I could see into the crack and unbeknown to me my foot released a rock that clattered down the groove and hit Bayard in the middle of the helmet. He screamed. Raphael wanted slack. I wanted to replace the nut. The wind howled. The snow scuttered. The sun was almost gone. The sun was almost gone…

At last the nut was replaced. Bayard was climbing again but complaining about his neck, (what a wuss!) and above me, just up there, Raphael who had complained about the tame nature of the climb was at last looking content.


The left hand side of Protection.

The left hand side of Protection.

Grab the Cupcakes takes the deep chimney in the middle of the picture and leads to the ice on the right beneath the top of the cliff.

Grab the Cupcakes takes the deep chimney in the middle of the picture and leads leftward, to the right hand icefall beneath the top of the cliff.

Bayard gets us going.

Bayard gets us going.

Raphael hoping for something a little more exciting while climbing some pretty uninspiring and easy climbing! ;-)

Raphael hoping for something a little more exciting while climbing some pretty uninspiring and easy climbing! 😉

Bayard gets to grips with a typical Rocky Mountain slippery groove.

Bayard gets to grips with a typical Rocky Mountain slippery groove.

Aesthetic ice. pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Aesthetic ice. pic credit, Bayard Russell.

Raphael climbs another uninspiring and easy pitch...

Raphael climbs another uninspiring and easy pitch…

The wider view. In the groove. The final pitch almost looking at the top but not able to see the top. Pic Bayard Russell.

The wider view. In the groove. The final pitch almost looking at the top but not able to see the top. Pic Bayard Russell.

This is not the android you are looking for... Starting to brighten up a little as the danger increases. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

This is not the droid you are looking for… Starting to brighten up a little as the danger increases. Pic credit, Bayard Russell.

A rock on the head makes you look like this.

A rock on the head makes you look like this.

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Escaping the alligator.

Sound and fury, love is a battle field finish

The Sound and the Fury takes the two pitch ice streak on the lower wall. Love is a Battlefield finish takes the ramble and 30m WI5 above. My suggestion to parties is climb the excellent streak and don’t bother with completing the ‘difficulties’ above, the climb for me is most certainly the first two pitches.

The Headwall

The Headwall. 2017

the sound and the fury blog 1

Raphael and Bayard approaching The Sound and the Fury.

Thursday 9th November 2017.

The three of us, Bayard Russell, Raphael Slawinski and myself stood beneath a line of ice. The word ‘line’ suggests continuous, and the ‘line’ we now stood was anything but! This ‘line’ was disjointed islands, feeble daggers, and frozen blossoms crawling insidiously down from the snow field ninety metres above. This did not look to be a ‘line’ or a climb that I would choose to warm into winter.

The day before Bayard and myself had climbed Nemesis, the really classic ice climb of The Stanley Headwall. For Bayard and myself this was the first ice climb of the winter and most certainly a ‘line’. A week before I had completed two days of pulling on drilled pockets in the dark and rainy confines of a slate quarry up above Llanberis in North Wales and Bayard had hammered a few nails into wood. Nemesis was a sturdy progression.

Off the couch. I suppose off the couch can mean different things for different people? In email contact with Raphael the night before, I thought it prudent to point out to my lovably understated, and if truth be told, slightly bonkers friend, that if the three of us went to The Headwall to attempt the ephemeral streak that Raphael had spotted in an internet picture, he would possibly be leading the whole ‘line’. “Sporting.” That was how I described it to Raphael after taking a picture and emailing it to him. “Yes, ‘sporting’, it certainly looks that” Raphael emailed back, no-doubt rubbing his hands together at the thought of leading the first two pitches. “I’ve only climbed ice two days so far this winter also.”

The very classy Nemesis with Bayard leading the way the day before.

The day before. The very classy Nemesis with Bayard leading the way.

Exactly what the climb was, was almost as disjointed and ephemeral as the ‘line.’ “It’s a new route.” “It’s been done before.” “Its not been repeated.” “It was not climbed to the end of the difficulties.”

What appears to be the truth is, the first two pitches had been climbed, and the climb is called, The Sound and the Fury: Jeff Relph, Paul McSorley and Tom Gruber, November 04, although if folk law is to believed, Sean Isaac, author of the mixed climbing guide and the Canadian Alpine Journal decided not to enter it into the journal, because they stopped at the top of the first two pitches before the end of the difficulties.

These facts really didn’t concern me, I had other considerations, mainly staying alive and not being attacked by bears, but I’m sure it made the prospect of reaching the snow-bowl and continuing even more juicy for one member of our party, and as the three of us sat beneath the ‘line’ after a somewhat late start, I had several scenarios running through my head. The most obvious and sensible scenario was scenario 1:

Scenario 1. We would have a play and run away.

There were two other reasonably sensible scenarios…

Scenario 2. We would possibly make an inroad and run away.

Scenario 3. We would have a serious go and run away.

Every scenario ended in the sensible option of running away. Nowhere in the scenarios was reaching the top of the first two pitches. And the thought of us continuing to ‘the end of the difficulties’ (that is such a hilarious concept because if all of the ice was climbed until there was no more ice to climb, it still left half of the cliff above, with some very difficult, difficulties!) was about as possible as my booking a ticket for Pluto as a passenger on a microlight.

After a little mincing there was no-doubt Raphael was going to give it a go and when Raphael gives something a go, he goes. Sometime later he had a collection of gear below and some of it may even have held a fall, before he chose to leave the ice for the comfort of a corner on the right, where he belayed at the top. A two bolt belay that his corner had by-passed, was down and to the left of a hanging dagger.

With snapping teeth the alligator begins to climb.

With snapping teeth Raphael begins to climb.

the sound and the fury 3

The Alligator Alternative! A fine and well protected corner when the ice is not enough to climb direct.

The Alligator Alternative! A fine and well protected corner when the ice is not enough to climb direct.

Bayard entering the corner of The Alligator Alternative.

Bayard entering the corner of The Alligator Alternative.

It was a fine and bold lead for someone not quite off the couch, definitely not as much as Bayard and myself because he had 100% more climbing days logged, but when I pulled alongside Raphael, I felt less off the couch, and looking at two bolts that would protect the overhanging pull onto the thin dagger, I began to un-clip gear from Raphael’s harness.

“ERM, what are you doing Nick?” Raphael said looking somewhat shocked and even a little panicked.

“I’m racking up.”

“OH, YOU are going to lead this pitch.”


“OH, erm, well, that’s OK, you are the guest.” (begrudgingly)

I looked at my friend and laughed, he looked like a child who had been told no more chocolate. And for a second I thought of saying you go for it, but then I looked at what ‘it’ was – a dagger of thin ice protected by a rocky overhang, leading to a narrow and rippled spine of thin ice, that turned into a confined corner. It looked exceptional. The chance of a Brit getting to lead something like this was rare, and I knew if I showed the slightest hesitation or even the merest hint that I would bow to pressure and pass it over, there would be no getting it back, Raphael was like an alligator with his eyes popping just above the water. I continued to un-clip gear from Raphael’s harness and for a few seconds Raphael continued to look like a child without chocolate.

I set off determined to give this pitch a good go and show no hesitation for the basking alligator was watching closely. I would like to say I pulled through the overhang like a majestic wildebeest, but I didn’t, I tackled the overhang and dagger almost like climbing a steep and muddy bank on the far side of a river. I skated and slipped, but at last, at last I was above and established, and no way was I going to allow the predator to sink his teeth into this pitch now. (The story of the alligator ascending the overhang goes something along the line of this… He turned to Bayard, mid crux, while wearing the rucksack and said, “I’ve been bouldering in the gym, and that move felt very easy.”)

Myself escaping the gnashing alligator teeth. Pic Raphael Slawinski.

Myself escaping the gnashing alligator teeth. Pic Raphael Slawinski.

the sound and the fury blog 10

Pic credit, Raphael Slawinski.

Some time a lot later, I belayed at the top of the second pitch looking above; a large snow bowl; a few steps of ice, a ledge, a gully and a 30m pitch of WI5. Some may say these are the difficulties above, but not me, the climb was the two pitches, the difficulties above were nothing to do with what we had climbed, and as I took so long to climb, the dark was not that long away. The alligator was on a time limit having a dinner date back in Calgary, and Bayard would certainly see sense. That was it then, I would be drinking wine in a few hours with a couple of great pitches to help with the warming into winter.

The alligator, just below me now, poked his long snout from the icy cleft and proceeded to climb past and look above. What was he thinking? What was he thinking? He had a dinner date! The stuff above was pointless and inconsequential, it really was not the route.

“Its not the route Raphael.”

Bayard now joined this feeding frenzy. Bayard would be the voice of sensibility. The alligator looked at him, he fixed on him with glazed eyes.

“What do you think Bayard, makes sense to go to the top of the difficulties, we have plenty of time.”

This was the first time Bayard had been in the company of a prehistoric climbing predator and he crumbled in a second.

“Yeah, lets go to the top of the difficulties.”

The alligator rolled his eyes as if latched to a fresh piece of meat. It hadn’t taken long for him to get his own back for my ‘stealing’ his quarry!

The Alligator continues to swim up-hill without slowing, almost as if he smells a fresh kill.

The Alligator continues to swim up-hill without slowing, almost as if he smells a fresh kill.

Back to the depths...

Back to the depths…


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Shifting Thresholds… A long letter of thanks.

Collage of Winners_0

…The world is changing. I’m changing. People—or at least many of them—appear to be more each for their own: they want walls between them, and the louder an individual can shout the better they are thought. And what of solidarity, what of feeling of community, what of loyalty?  [from Threshold Shift Alpinist 57]

I’m working, stuck behind a computer and maybe feeling a bit low, lacking confidence, lacking drive, wondering where it’s all leading and I see a social media post, or more commonly, repeated posts, over and over – pictures of rock climbing, pictures of success in the mountains, a slither of ice, messages of fun, orange tufas dripping like jewels from the roof of a cave. And almost, almost without pause, the pressure I feel to try and emulate, the feeling of not living my life as full as I could, hits me with the force of a truck.

I write a blog and put a link on Facebook and within hours, maybe even seconds, a throwaway comment, hurtful and typed in a thoughtless second by a close friend, can be even more crushing. “But it’s just a bit of banter.” But it isn’t and the effects are long lasting.

I constantly battle with the concept of social media, the boasts, the one up man ship, the hubris, the advertising, the self-promotion and I especially struggle with Facebook, because I feel it has made its-self, something of a necessary evil for people like me, people attempting to make a living from what they write or do, although I do wonder if permanently signing off comes from a lack of courage and confidence on my part. I’m also confused why it is that people who earn money in ways that don’t require advertising share their lives and activities with such vigour. I’m confused why there is a lack of empathy for the effects their constant pictures have on others, people who are less fortunate, people stuck in a situation they struggle to escape. Are they trying to prove something to others or (more likely) themselves with their continuous posts? Do they care about the effects of their sharing on others and why is it we only see the happy times?

This being so affected by social media and the constant my-life-is-better-than-yours advertising may sound ridiculous coming from someone like me and given the way I live, but driven people are forever striving and the downtimes are full of self-contemplation and questions. Imagine then how bad this drip feed of fun and privilege can be for others?

It could be an age thing but I find hitting the publish button on a social media site can truly be traumatic, and boasting about achievements makes me feel incredibly ashamed. Hitting a re-tweet on something favourable that someone else has written about me takes serious contemplation and often I will not re-tweet or I will hit re-tweet only to cancel it a few seconds later, which then leads to me feeling rude for not acknowledging or thanking the person publicly. It really is a complex situation brought about, in the main, by very clever people working on our emotional fragility, ultimately topping up their already overflowing bank accounts.

But, over time, I’ve become more confident about not hitting the publish button. I have given up reading news-feeds, I have given up liking, wishing happy birthday, saying well done, giving it the big thumb or the smiley. I much prefer to talk, say hi, say thanks, offer support and encourage face-to-face. Interactions with people without advertising and gloating. I don’t need to advertise my support because if you are my friend you will know it is there. I’ve found I enjoy being out of the loop and feeling surprised when I hear first-hand stories from friends. This first hand, face-to-face interaction is rewarding and enlightening and it’s being lost. I prefer to give as little away as possible to Facebook (a multimillion dollar, advertising behemoth) so their algorithms have less information to profile me and then use to influence the way I live or what I buy. I still feel rude when I ignore friends’ posts and birthdays on Facebook, but this is what these influences of modern culture prey on: they love that humans have guilt and they love even more that people just can’t help themselves with their need for attention. I can’t imagine how much pressure there is on young people in our Facebook-Snapchat-Instagram-Twitter, society, and the damage it inflicts is, I think, becoming obvious. On the other side, for the young but confident (and sometimes the not so young) I can’t imagine how it is to be so at ease with their boasts. The world we live is becoming one big advert.

The internet is a wonder of the modern world, but a curse also, and social media is the worst offender. I think in time the effects of social media will bring about a massive rise in mental health issues. In fact, I’m sure it already has.

I have never done recreational drugs because I know I will like them too much. Like my old man in Threshold Shift, its generally black or white, full throttle or stationary, and social media, is addictive, but I hope, at last, I’m getting balance right, but I do think there will come a time it will go from my life completely.

I will continue writing in what I hope is a constructive and thought-provoking way on my blog, which I like to think is a bit deeper than many social media posts. People also have the choice to hit the open button on a blog, an important difference to the in-your-faceness of a news-feed that goes around and around and around, and the only advertising you’ll see is that of my sponsors, people I value and trust.

My article, Threshold Shift has just won an award, and I need to thank some people, because if it were not for them my article would not have been what it is and it would not have received the attention it has. And for this I am very grateful, because all said and done, a writer writes to be read. I’m probably fooling myself, but in a small way I hope my writing helps some people and makes a small difference, but maybe this is hubris of my own, because as I sit and write this, I know I will advertise it on social media, and because of this I have a strong feeling of confliction… #complicated

Threshold Shift, the whole article can be read on Alpinist website here


Katie Ives and everyone at Alpinist Magazine, including Christian Beckwith the original editor. I was first published in Alpinist 5, and ever since the people at Alpinist Magazine have had a firm belief in my writing and have helped me tremendously. Long may the magazine continue because it gives such a valuable platform and support for climbing writers who strive to be a little different.

Zylo my girlfriend who is patient, supportive, a great editor and a fine sounding platform and puts up with me even when I become obsessed.

Jo Croston and everyone at the Banff Centre who have been incredibly friendly, helpful and supportive and like Alpinist Magazine, if it wasn’t for the Banff Centre and the platform it offers where would we be.

John Long, Kelly Cordes and Angie Payne for being shortlisted alongside me for this award. I constantly remind myself that awards, in general, are the personal preference of a few people and it does not devalue work when not selected. I have not read any of Angie Payne’s writing but John Long and Kelly Cordes have always inspired me and I’m sure Angie’s writing would also, thanks for the inspiration.

Mark Goodwin and Nikki Clayton. Friends, confidants, editors, sounding boards and experienced navigators.

Finally, thanks to Mayan Gobat-Smith, David Stevenson and Ian Welsted. The cheque is in the post, although since Brexit it’s worth very little.

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Breadgate. Fable for another time.


In April, 2005, Tim Neil, Dougal Tavener, Jonny Garside and I travelled to the Gorges du Tarn. This was the first time any of us had been to the Tarn. I remember the four of us packed into the small hire car and entering Les Vignes, the village where the camp site was, and already I was in awe of this quiet and beautiful place. Steep, pocketed and orange limestone reared from both sides of the road. Large bulbous pillars towered above pine and spruce, the gorge felt almost fairy-tale. And the blue of the river cutting the base of the gorge was radiant.

Unknown climber on Les ailes du désir Extension. Tennessee.

Unknown climber on Les ailes du désir Extension. Tennessee.

I had known Tim for years, but I hadn’t known Dougal or Jonny for long. Dougal was on the Assistant Instructor scheme at Plas y Brenin, as Jonny had been at one time, but he was now working for the BMC. Dougal was extremely gifted at most things, he had been the British junior white-water kayak champion, and even though he had only been climbing for a few years, he was already knocking off some routes with a reputation. Jonny was talented also, but talented in a reserved way, and unlike Dougal, who was blond and angular, and had what my Mum would have described as dashing good looks, Jonny was dark and calculating and a little predatory – less dashing, more hawkish and flittery, missing nothing. I found out that Jonny’s nickname was Birdy, a name that suited him well. I also discovered Jonny had a penchant for packing his day time snacks in a selection of different sized Tupperware boxes. Jonny liked Tupperware! I was soon to find out Jonny had another love alongside that of Tupperware,and that was one of being irritating and argumentative and Jonny took to what was soon to be known as Bullock baiting with a passion. If there had been a championship for the sport of baiting a Bullock, for it was most certainly sport to Jonny, he would have won gold. His nickname took on new meaning, as he now resembled a Peregrine pecking and pulling at a pigeon, and I was pigeon!


Unknown climber on Les nouvelles plantations du Christ Extension. Tennessee.

Unknown climber on Les nouvelles plantations du Christ Extension. Tennessee.

I returned again to the Tarn the following year. I loved the place – the river, the vultures, the Jays with their shock of blue and screech, the friendly local people and the style of climbing. Long run-out pitches, with pockets of various depths, which generally meandered up a vertical, or more often, overhanging sheet of perfect orange. That first trip with Tim and Dougal and Jonny had only been my second ever sport climbing trip. I really enjoyed the climbing and the physicality, but at that time, especially coming out of winter, I only really looked on these trips as a way to get fit for the summer trad climbing in Wales. But it was on my second trip with Phil Dowthwaite, when I was walking along the road, looking up at the massive cutaway in the seventy to one hundred metre walls of Dé Qué fas Aqui, that I stood fixated. There was a climber who was continuing on his climb after what looked like he had already reached the lower-off, and continue he did, almost topping out in one huge, almost inconceivably long, single pitch. He was so high he must have needed oxygen. Do they make ropes that long, surely not! But they must because I could not see a join. Just before he stepped onto the top of the crag he fell and my, did he fall. And as he fell he screamed. At first he screamed in terror. Then his scream lightened with joy. Then the rage took hold, before finally, he sobbed. And when he eventually stopped falling, he let out a loud and machine gun like list of expletives that I didn’t understand as it was all in French. I remember thinking how the hell does a person become so fit to even contemplate climbing a pitch so long, and later, when I found out the grade of the climb was 8a, my fascination turned to a complete lack of comprehension.

One of the Locals almost latching the hold on Dessèchement Planétaire, L' Oasif. Pic Rich Kirby.

One of the Locals almost latching the hold on Dessèchement Planétaire, the 8c in L’ Oasif. Pic Rich Kirby.

On that first trip, Tim, Dougal, Jonny and I improved as the days past – getting fitter, understanding how to use pockets and how to get to grip with the run-outs, which on some climbs were dramatic. Dougal soon became the front runner, but annoyingly, it turned out Jonny was a great climber, he not only had good technique, he was also bold, taking repeated whippers, although I must admit the tiny shorts he wore were embarrassing for everyone apart from Jonny. Tim was solid and I did my usual, using strength and fitness as my ally, fighting my way, and on occasion even reaching the chains. It’s fair to say, I was more suited to the lines that were long and ‘trad like’. Big corners and faults that soared into the sky with overhangs that could be skirted by underclinging, by-passing the steepness. Knees, elbows, back, thighs, push as much onto the rock as possible, that was my style. There was one climb in particular that fitted this bill, it was called Féerie pour une autre fois, Fable for another Time, a thirty five metre 7a+ with a Tremadoc style groove, surmounted by fingerlocking while trusting the feet to smears. Layback. Thrutch. Udge. After the crux there was a run-out overlap that traversed by underclinging with the feet pushed to smears, until at last the chains were reached. I was attracted to this line like slobber to a bulldog’s jowl. Unfortunately, like slobber is prone, I stretched and snapped and fell from the traverse, much to the amusement of everyone below. What a brilliant climb. I got it second go, but only just, flapping, and screaming and blowing. My arms were so full of blood, if someone had pricked them, the walls would have splattered red. Féerie pour une autre fois was the start of the seventy metre 8a I would stand and watch the French climber fall from the following year.

Tim, Dougal, Jonny and my trip continued with the tension hitting a high point at about the day five mark. For many years, ever since being a PE Instructor and training for most of the day, I eat very little after breakfast, training on a full stomach never appealed. I have taken this habit of not eating through the day, on into my climbing life, but there comes a point in the evening when I really need to eat. It was on this trip that Tim pointed out to me how not eating in the day effected my mood later in the evening. At the time, I could not see it, but with hindsight, he was correct. I’m also what some people may call a ‘bready person’ I love bread of most types and eat bread with almost every meal. Bread is a very important thing in my life! Our trip was early in the holiday season and the little shop in Les Vignes only opened in the morning, and each morning Tim would take it on himself to get up and walk to the shop to do the bread run. On his return, we would all eat breakfast.  I would not make sandwiches for later in the day because I didn’t eat through the day. Jonny, I noticed, always made a big sandwich, almost using a whole baguette, before packing it very carefully in his Tupperware.

When we returned to the camp site in the evening the shop was closed, and more often than not there would only be a small amount of bread left. At this point I was very hungry, but I believe in delayed gratification where food is concerned, I’ve never been one to wolf down whatever in a quick fix before preparing my tea. Needless to say, years down the line I can see this is my thing, this is my shit, not everyone is the same, and on this occasion Jonny was not the same! But to be honest, I’m sure neither was Tim or Dougal, but neither Tim nor Dougal had taken so well to Bullock baiting so if they were eating bread I chose not to notice. For days, I had watched our last remaining bread be guzzled by a Birdy without, what in my mind, any consideration to me and the fact I did not make a sandwich. In my mind, I was due some bread, if not all of the bread reserves. I snapped at about day five! “Fucksake Jonny, leave me some bread, you’ve had your share.” It would be at this point that most people would have read the warning signs and acted appropriate, they possible would have thought, ‘Here is a very hungry and annoyed Bullock, he is close to snapping, maybe I need to back away from the mike… But not Jonny, this was not Jonny’s style, he could now see this was the time, because this time would have the best effect and cause me the most upset. “The bread is bought for all of us Nick, its team bread,” he said in a really annoyingly sanctimonious way, and continued, “If you don’t want to make a sandwich or choose to wait until you’ve made your dinner before wanting any bread that’s your choice, if it runs-out before you want any that’s your problem.”

Tim is six foot seven and on this day it was a good thing, he manoeuvred quick and pinned me down. Eventually, Tim calmed the situation by promising each morning to buy an extra baguette, which would be my very own baguette, and eaten when I liked.

I have now visited the Tarn seven times, it’s my favourite sport climbing destination and over the years a few things have changed. I don’t consider sport climbing as training for trad climbing any more. I now favour the more ‘sporty’ types of climbs and less, the trad thutchfests. I don’t go out to break myself by climbing as many routes as possibly on a trip or even in one day. I try not to climb all day long and in the direct sun light. I don’t run on rest days, I rest on rest days. I’ve discovered Hydration is good, but over half a bottle of wine the night before redpoint attempts is too much hydration. Belay glasses look weird but for 70m routes they’re a must. And Jonny and me are very good friends who laugh about Breadgate almost every time we meet.

I stood all those years ago watching in disbelief as the French climber reached the chains on the 7a+ section of what I remembered to be a really pumpy route and then continue to climb until he eventually fell. A few days ago, I’m still not sure how, I managed to successfully climb Féerie pour une autre fois Extension, the 70m 8a. Some things have certainly changed, but one thing hasn’t, I still love bread.

Rich Kirby psyching up before the big ascent!

Rich Kirby psyching up before the big ascent!

Rich having climbed the first 35m and about to embark on the second 35m.

Rich having climbed the first 35m and about to embark on the second 35m.

Myself on the 'rest' just before starting the crux sequence at the 50m mark.

Myself on the ‘rest’ just before starting the crux sequence at the 50m mark.

Myself setting off before falling once again from the crux!

Myself setting off before falling once again from the crux!

Belaying duties were long!

Belaying duties were long!

Belay glasses a must for what at times were up to 2hr belay sessions.

Belay glasses a must for what at times were up to 2hr belay sessions.

Rich also on the hangout just before the crux. "It'll be fine Nick, you'll never fall off the move after latching that pocket." It was a close one though hey Rich? ;-)

Rich also on the hangout just before the crux. “It’ll be fine Nick, you’ll never fall off the move after latching that pocket.” It was a close one though hey Rich? 😉

A happy man with a pile of stripped gear. It took us so long to climb this route clean its a wonder the gear hadn't rusted!

A happy man with a pile of stripped gear. It took us so long to climb this route clean, it’s a wonder the gear hadn’t rusted!

And the vultures looked on hoping for another failure.

And the vultures looked on hoping for another failure.

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In through the outdoor.

blog 1

Several years ago, after three months of sport climbing in Spain and France, I climbed Plenitude, a nine pitch 6c+ on Les Vuardes, the big crag high above the small town of Magland and the river Arve that flows a milky grey, down the valley from Chamonix. You would think 6c+ a doddle. I fell off the 6c pitch soon into the climb, and it was then I realised what this crag was about. The crux pitch needed binoculars to see, not only the holds, but where the next bolt was. Successfully climbing the crux pitch without falling was almost the highlight of my summer. A whole load of hours later (about eight from the start), I pulled the top pitch of physically and mentally battered.

So, it started a few weeks ago. Maybe it was more. Van, ferry, van, toll road, toll road, aire, toll road, Servoz. The Walker Spur was the plan but that was not happening because of the weather, so Keith Ball and I took the next best. Well no, of course it wasn’t next best, it wasn’t even second best, but multi-pitch rock climbing down the valley from Chamonix always gives a thrilling outing as long as the ego can be controlled.

Ten exhausting days later, my cunning plan to get a kicking on Aravis limestone, before heading to the Dolomites, where everything would be easy in comparison, came to fruition. Two visits to Les Vuardes did the job. A serious beating was dished on day one, but Keith and I were gluttons, so we returned for a second bruising the very next day joining the family of kestrels skimming the grey while hunting the young martens. We took the grade down on this second day, managing to climb the easiest route on the crag without floundering or pulling on the very spaced gear or falling. Wonders will never cease. La Costa, my first climb of three on Les Vuardes without a fall. If someone said I would not be pleased to climb 6a without a fall, they would be wrong, both Keith and I were very happy.

Myself at the start of La Costa, which is the same start as Plenitude vividly recalling the kicking. Pic credit Keith Ball

Myself at the start of La Costa, which is the same start as Plenitude, vividly recalling the kicking. Pic credit Keith Ball

Keith seconding pitch three of La Costa.

Keith seconding pitch three of La Costa.

Keith on the 5+ pitch of La Costa. (E3 5c)

Keith on the 5+ pitch of La Costa. (E3 5c)

Myself Seconding the 6c pitch of Exhalation. There wasn't much 6c about this pitch and there weren't many moves made free!

Myself Seconding the 6c pitch of Exhalation. There wasn’t much 6c about this pitch and there weren’t many moves made free!

The weather was not the best for the Walker Spur.

The weather was not the best for the Walker Spur.

I picked Zylo up from a very busy Geneva Airport and a frenetic journey heading towards the Dolomites ensued. I adore my new van and I have named it Betty Blanc (my van is white and French). I have waited long in life to own a van like Betty, and taking her onto the Italian roads was something I could have done without. *Generalisation alert* Italian drivers are fucking crazy! Almost without exception, Italians dive very fast, and without any forethought or apparent notion of consequences. And as the storms hit Milan, and the rain bounced from hot tarmac, the traffic turned to a warm wet mass of one hundred mile an hour mental. To say I find driving in Italy stressful is very much an understatement.

Zylo, Betty and I eventually reached Cortina in one piece and we headed to the hills. The roads were still crazy, in fact, in some ways, they were crazier, because they now had a million cyclists and motorcyclists and buses and cars and camper-vans, and all of these vehicles were weaving and whizzing while attempting to negotiate a million hairpins and taking selfies and talking on their mobile phones. Mental.

At last we found a pull in away from the road and peace ensued. Speckled nutcrackers with large and sturdy beaks balanced on the very top of the pines. The thin and single branch swayed as the robust bird balanced while grinding out a rhythmical, almost electrical buzzing call, which was music after the constant drone of traffic. A Three Toed Woodpecker tap, tap, tapped its way up the trunk of a mature pine.

The Dolomites are busy. In fact, the Dolomites in August is so busy as to be avoided like a sexually transmitted disease. But the climbing is exceptional and worth putting up with a mild infection, because antibiotics are available and can cure most things, as long as the full course it taken.

Zylo and I climbed for two weeks and the climbing – multi pitch and single pitch, was exceptional. Ottovolante on Torre Brunico coming out on top. But all good things come to an end, Zylo had to leave and go back to work, so back to the motorway madness heading towards Venice Airport and another motorway service station doss.

We had only been parked for a short time when a family pulled up in a blue Audi. Mum, Dad and teenage son. Son had a plaster cast on his arm. Making an assumption, I would have guessed they were refugees travelling up through Italy. They pulled matting from the rear of the car and laid it on the grass beneath a massive brightly illuminated road sign. After a short time, Dad came over and in broken English asked me if I had any bedding he could borrow. I leaned into my van and pulled a sleeping bag. He was grateful and asked me if I had another. I did, so I loaned him that as well explaining that I wanted them back. Zylo and I sat in the grass eating our tea when Mum came across asking for more bedding. Unfortunately, we only had the duvet, which we wanted for ourselves and apologised. Mum walked away disappointed. Both Zylo and I felt guilty, but later, as we walked back from the service station we saw the three of them all tucked up beneath the two sleeping bags. We joked that that was the last we had seen of them, and when we woke in the morning, the family had gone taking the bags with them. I must admit to been disappointed, maybe it was a misunderstanding, but it was only a couple of sleeping bags and their need appeared to be more than our own.

Zylo on pitch two of Finlandia.

Zylo on pitch two of Finlandia. Cinque Torri

Zylo Abseilng

Zylo Abseilng from the summit of Torre Grande.

zylo after climbing Ottovolante

Near the summit of Torre Brunico after climbing Ottovolante

Betty and Zylo after Ottovolante.

Betty and Zylo relaxing after Ottovolante.

That evening I met Matt Helliker on a bend in the road above Cortina. Matt is a Dolomites regular and suggested we start on Tofana with the five hundred metre and twenty plus pitches of the Constantini, Apollonio. Both Zylo and I had repeatedly looked at Tofana with its dramatic orange and black striped South Face, but once warmed up, the weather became unsettled and getting off the top of Tofana is tricky if shroud in cloud. I jumped at Matt’s suggestion and we headed to the car park near the Tofana Refuge which was much like the others, busy and noisy but with a great view.

Matt hadn’t climbed in the Dolomites in August and he suggested leaving the carpark at 8am. I said I thought it may be a tad relaxed for a route as popular and long, but being lazy I went for it anyway.

In the morning, I looked up and counted five parties on the climb and none appeared to be moving quickly. To give them, and us space, a relaxed start became even more relaxed and we eventually started the climb at ten. At around midday, the climbing became steep and we caught the people ahead. Ah well, a relaxed start meant a relaxed climb and we kicked back for an hour on a ledge but still reached the summit with plenty of daylight.

A second route on Tofana was fun, although like Les Vuardes, a pair of binoculars were needed to see the next bolt, but unlike much of Les Vuardes, the rock became interesting, in a terrifyingly loose Craig Dorys kind of way, so after this climb we decided to head for the higher and hopefully more solid ground of Cima Ovest’s North Face!

As we reached the steeper stuff on Constantini, Apollonio things slowed.

As we reached the steeper stuff on Constantini, Apollonio things slowed.

Taking care of the rubble on Gladiator. Tofana. Pic credit Matt Helliker.

Taking care of the rubble on Gladiator. Tofana. Pic credit Matt Helliker.

Matt and I arrived at the Tre Cima car-park late, as do many, by driving in through the out gate at the toll booth that closes at eight thirty, but leaves the barrier up on the exit. It was clear and peaceful and bright as we parked above the camper-vans. Caught in the cone of Betty’s headlights were names and comments and phrases written in small stones by people who had now left. White limestone rocks, rocks made of the dead, placed in a pattern that said something by people that had gone. In the morning a short walk from the carpark, something akin to the walk to Gogarth Main Cliff, found us looking at some very impressive and shady rock. Two vast faces rear from the tons of silver scree that brush their base like snow. And like snow, there are tracks made by humans that form zigzag patterns. Both the Ovest and the Grande overhang in their lower sections and have bands and lines running horizontal and vertical. Looking at these shadowy monoliths it’s like they have been photo-shopped with the antique filter. The bells of cows grazing in the meadows below chimed almost making music.

Cima Ovest is at a higher altitude than Tofana, no disputing that, although I’m not so sure about the more solid than Tofana that Matt had been selling. Cragging on a large scale without much of the hardship that is normally involved with climbs so big. I would call the climbing style on Tre Cima fast food mountaineering, but that would possibly be showing disrespect, as both the Ovest and Grande North Faces are gobsmacking. Matt and I decided to climb as far as we could and in whatever style on a route called Pressknödel, then we would abseil. If we liked the climbing, the intention was to work the route and try for a clean ascent. I had never done anything like this on a big face, a sort of redpointing on a grand scale, but after climbing loads over the last month, and knowing I was meeting Rich Kirby on the 30th of August for three weeks in the Gorges du Tarn, I thought what the hell, it would be a laugh hanging out in such spectacular territory and getting fit at the same time.

Pressknödel is a sustained twelve pitches, the easiest pitch being 6a+ the most difficult 7c and a few in the middle of 6c, 7a, 7b and 7b+. The climb covers a distance of four hundred and eighty metres and is athletic. What could go wrong. Well, for those that would like to try and climb all of the route without pulling on gear, but are not good enough to on-sight and free the harder pitches like me, abseiling the line, after working the harder lower pitches is not as easy as you may think, because the climb is quite overhanging and weaves a cunning way between steep sections.

Matt and I climbed the first four pitches, which were tremendous, before deciding we had done enough. Matt led the abseils and clipped everything while abseiling back down pitch three – a fifty metre, more meandering pitch than the others, to reach the next abseil/belay station. I had a haul bag hanging from my waist, and set off down the ropes, unclipping quickdraws while shooting miles to the left before having to do it all again and again. This was not my idea of fun and reminded me of something I was told a long time ago by Stuart, a friend and PE Instructor from the Prison Service in my first few years of climbing. “Nick, there have been more mountaineers die abseiling than of lung cancer”. This fun outing had suddenly become very serious. Don’t be fooled by Matt and the way he looks – big and blond, more suited to the beach that the office, he is as sharp as an unripe kiwi fruit and by going first played an ace! Fortunately, I’m still here to get my own back by writing this, but it was a tad touch and go. Now, we both hung clipped to what had been the second belay station looking down at more, very overhanging. It was impossible to tell if the ropes were on the ground. The first pitch was fifty metres and the second was thirty, but with rope stretch and a direct line? “I’ll go and clip-in, to get to the first belay” Matt said. I looked down and imagined myself swinging around with a haul bag again while the ropes twanged across more sharp edges. Fuck that! “They’ll reach, look they’re down – stretch will do it, they reach that ledge just above the ground anyway.” “No, I’ll clip in to the first belay,” said the man who wasn’t about to risk his life. “No way, just abseil.” I said. “Ah, so you want me to go.” “No problem, give me the ropes, you take this stupid bag, I’ll go, it’ll be fine.” “Have you got a prussic, in fact do you know how to use one, here have a sling, here is a mini traction? “What the hell is a mini traction? I’ll be fine,” And with that I clipped in to the ropes and launched into space.

As predicted the abseil was fine. I did have to down-climb a little from the ledge but that was OK because I didn’t have the stupid haul bag. And after Matt reached the ground only complaining a little about the down-climb, it was decided we should continue with our endeavours of attempting to free climb the whole of Pressknödel, but we both also decided it would be prudent to fix a few of the abseils.

Matt Helliker walking in to the north side of Cima Ovest.

Matt Helliker walking in to the north side of Cima Ovest.

Myself on the first, 6a+ pitch of Pressknödel. credit, Matt Helliker.

Myself on the first, 6a+ pitch of Pressknödel. credit, Matt Helliker.

Matt approching the belay at the end of the third ,7b pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt approaching the belay at the end of the third ,7b pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt on the 7b+ second pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt on the 7b fourth pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt pulling the roof on the easier section of the sixth 7c pitch of Pressknödel.

Matt pulling the roof on the easier section of the sixth 7c pitch of Pressknö

Myself seconding the sixth, 7c pitch. Matt Helliker.

Myself seconding the sixth, 7c pitch. Matt Helliker.

Almost at the top of the 6th pitch. Matt Helliker.

Almost at the top of the 6th pitch. Matt Helliker.

Matt seconding the seventh, 6c pitch.

Matt seconding the seventh, 6c pitch.

Matt leading the eighth, 7a pitch.

Matt leading the eighth, 7a pitch.

On the top in a storm after climbing Pressknödel. Matt Helliker.

On the top in a storm after climbing Pressknödel. Matt Helliker.

And some random abseiling pictures from working the route…

Myself hanging out. Matt Helliker.

Myself hanging out. Matt Helliker.

Matt on his way down.

Matt on his way down.

Matt almost down...

Matt almost down.


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The cost of the (sweet) dream?

If at all possible, this piece will be more in context if Hazel Findlay’s article, Sweet Dreams, featured in the summer edition of Summit Magazine 2017 is read first. The Summit app can be downloaded and if you are a BMC member you can download the article for free. For non-members you can still download the app and read the article but it will cost £2.95. 

This is very much an opinion piece. I know people will have a different opinion from my own, which is fine. In no way have I set out to make it an attack on anyone in the climbing world, because it’s not, it’s just an attempt to highlight some of my fears and concerns and if by doing this I make a few people think or even share some of my concerns that’s great. In writing this piece I had the valuable help and feedback from several friends. You know who you are, thanks, it’s such a better piece for your input.


The cost of the (sweet) dream.

Lev-Beh-Ziz red

Behemoth. Ziz. Leviathan.


Greed: excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions. Excessive desire, as for wealth or power: (


July brings frequent and prolonged rain to Llanberis. But if I happen to be cat-sitting in a house with a good internet connection, July is one of my favourite times because it’s when the Tour de France takes place. I have followed the Tour for almost thirty years, possibly every year since the first time I watched it in the dark and smoky confines of the TV room in Gartree Prison Officers’ Mess. I don’t watch or follow any other sporting events, but I really do enjoy the Tour. I like so much about it: the tactics, politics, drama, excitement, competition, rivalry, characters, commitment, scandal, colours, bikes, commentary. The event is massive; it’s a giant of a sporting event and a dream for advertisers, which should make me dislike it because I struggle with the greed involved with much big business. Many of my favourite riders in the Tour ride or have ridden for the British Sky Team, yet I should find the mere existence of this team repellent. Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox owns a 39.14% controlling stake in Sky, which means Murdoch ultimately owns a big stake of the Tour. I dislike Murdoch and all he stands for with a passion: I struggle with one person having so much influence and owning such riches. I find it grotesque that one man has so much power and influence over others. According to Forbes, Murdoch is the 96th richest person in the world with a net worth of US$13.1 billion as of February 2017. Isn’t it strange how I manage to let all of my morals slip while watching a bike race? But these morals are in place where climbing is concerned, or at least I try my best to keep them intact: I can’t imagine how utterly distraught I would be if a climber took a sponsorship deal from Sky … but looking at the way things are going, it’s probably only a matter of time. Climbing has changed so much and continues to change at an alarming speed… but then climbers are changing too.

I like watching the Tour de France, but it isn’t ‘my’ thing. Climbing is my thing, and I love it. I love its history and traditions, and its mix of odd and difficult characters, driven (mostly) by something other than money. So, for the Tour, I can put aside my morals, and gratify myself in front of the TV each July. I can relax, despite my double-standards, because cycling is not mine. But climbing … I feel strongly rooted in climbing, I belong to climbing, and so I worry about how it might grow… or might distort.

Climbing is heading to the Olympics. The competition aspect is becoming ever more prevalent, and with this transition climbing is moving further away from its roots, turning rapidly into a competitive sport. But with this change comes all of the inherent marketing and money-spinning we see in other mainstream audience-dependent sports. I’m not making this observation as an angry old climber who longs for the past –, because change is, as they say, ‘the way of the world’. But the way I see it, climbing is in a strange transition at the moment, and perhaps at a cusp that will see it emerge from its amateur and quirky roots into a monster. Currently, climbing is an activity that is accessible and attainable to many people, at whatever level, where personal achievements and internal battles are more important than grades but also an activity that is being rapidly turned into to a serious professionalised sport, which will come to recruit only serious professionals, and will come to depend on making serious money.  So, looking to the future of climbing – will it be dreams or nightmares? Sweet or bitter?

In the summer 2017 edition of the BMC’s Summit magazine there is an excellent article by Hazel Findlay called Sweet Dreams. It takes a sharp, informed look into the sponsorship of individual climbers by large soft drinks companies, and in particular the sponsorship of the 16-year-old prodigy, Ashima Shiraishi by the Coca-Cola corporation. It is a well-researched and thought-provoking opinion piece that urges the reader to start asking questions, of themselves, and of others. It definitely got me thinking, and has stirred me up a little! Since reading it I have been fighting an internal battle, while attempting to answer some of the questions Hazel raised.

It seems obvious to me that Coca-Cola has no interest in climbing or climbers, apart from one young climber they feel they can use as a marketable asset. Coca-Cola a super-brand that has got not just its claws, but arms, shoulders and upper body thrust deeply into the lives of individuals. This said, sometimes the Coke monster can use its power of for good: During the US racial tensions of 1964, J. Paul Austin, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, was embarrassed by the lack of support for an inter-racial celebratory dinner that Martin Luther King Jr was attending. After telling the Atlanta business community they should buck up and support the event, the tickets sold out in two hours. See what Coke did there? You can’t fault them for helping out the black man who had a dream! Or can you? Was this guilt and repayment on Coke’s part? Or was it, well, just another sweet dream to ease their domination?

Sponsorship is the issue here., Or at least I thought it was the issue when I started writing this. So maybe not sponsorship itself, but more who sponsors who, and how, and above all why? And what are the consequences sponsorship? I felt this was the important issue for me to think and write about, but I’ve since come to the conclusion this is part of the issue but not the whole issue, not for me anyway.

I’m a sponsored climber. I’m lucky enough to receive modest financial support from two and gear from all three of my sponsors. The three companies that sponsor me produce stuff for climbing, of course! I’m not fooling myself: these folks are in it for the money and are businesses. But it comforts me to know that all three companies were founded in a love of making and developing kit for climbing and climbers. They were formed because they like climbing equipment and climbing, and many key players within them are still climbers. Sometimes they don’t get it right, but on the whole they have a deep understanding of climbing and climbers, of the roots and ethics, the history, and in these transitional times they are in a position to help climbing grow. But now it looks like the leading transformers of our climbing culture are not going to be companies that make money out of us by selling us carabiners, or jackets or climbing shoes, but instead the manipulators of our culture and traditions will be huge corporations that sell lies and sugar and caffeine and anything else addictive, to anyone. These beasts know nothing of, nor care for climbers.

Although I’m sponsored I don’t class myself as a professional climber, and I certainly don’t fall into the category of ‘climbing superstar’ that Hazel’s talking about. The word professional relates to a main paid occupation, something you’re qualified or trained to do. Conversely, an amateur is someone doing what they do just for the love of it rather than for financial benefit, and I very much class myself as an amateur. But, because of my fortunate position, brought about in part by some unusual life choices, I am sponsored, which has been something I’ve struggled to come to terms with. Being sponsored, in the modern commercial age, isn’t just about getting on with your art or sport, but it’s also about endorsing a brand: it’s about putting your name and what you stand for to a product or a company, with which your involvement will hopefully help to sell more goods and make more money.

I’m sure there are small businesses of all kinds around the world partly in it for passion and fun. But not the big multi-nationals, they are in it just for profit. Combined they are the monster from the Book of Job: the awful BEHEMOTH, the beast that is immeasurably large and irrepressibly powerful that has monstrous greed, trampling the weak under its feet as it runs amok, unsated and devouring the heart and passion of everything in its path. This is the thing I constantly struggle, this is the thing I found by writing this piece I am most concerned about: I find the greed of some humans repulsive, and I find the lengths they go to in order to influence, control, and affect the lives of people unfathomable.

The way money is pouring into climbing is forcing it to change. In some ways, of course, this can be good. In other ways it’s most definitely bad. So can you say to a person without much in their life, who suddenly finds a big cash handout and a ‘comfortable’ existence what they are doing is wrong? Yes, I think you can. How much is ‘comfortable’, and how much is greedy? How much money does an individual need to live? It’s a very confusing time for climbers, because all said and done a lot of us around at the moment began climbing for the simple joy of it, not for the money, and not to make a living as a professional sports person. Since reading Hazel’s article it’s become clear to me that other climbers appear to be struggling as much as me with how to live with themselves and this change, but perhaps more so with how to justify their decisions.

In the Summit piece and in  a long article for the Men’s Journal Alex Honnold is said to have turned down a six figure offer of money from Dr Pepper. Alex says he ’would never feel comfortable encouraging people to drink soda’ Yet Alex appeared in a short film that is an advert for Dewar’s whisky.  Dewar’s is owned by Bacardi, a behemoth of the alcoholic drinks industry reportedly making $4.6 billion in 2014. Alcohol is arguably more directly damaging to health and costs to individuals and families, but also carries costs associated with social issues and crime. A report can be read here.

Bacardi don’t care about climbing or climbers, nor for Alex (who does not drink alcohol making it a strange choice of company to promote). I would suggest that there is some conflict going on here: Alex says, “An athlete has to be comfortable with their own choices” and “I understand Ashima’s decision…. I doubt she uses any of their products but if she is comfortable with it and can handle the criticism then power to her.” Is he just talking about Ashima here I wonder? My intention here isn’t to attack Alex, it just illustrates how complicated the situation is when big manipulative businesses begin throwing around deals at people who are passionate about their activity.

I don’t agree that Ashima’s deal is ‘everything in life’: she is so talented and personable that something would have come along whatever, like a company that cared for climbing. Maybe when Ashima is older she will take more control of her own life, and perhaps then she’ll speak out against this deal? Regardless, I truly wish her the best, and I hope that my fears for her are unfounded.

Adam Ondra says ’I comprehend athletes who endorse companies they do not fully agree with, most of them are in a different situation than me and it is the only way for them to pursue their goals.’ I don’t comprehend them. I think it’s dishonest and lacks integrity to support something you don’t use or believe in yourself. There are other ways to pursue goals but perhaps ways where the financial gain is less?

To cherry pick Alex and Adam’s comments from Hazels article is perhaps unfair and takes them out of context, it appears to me they are being diplomatic which shows they are decent people, but these behemoths play on this, they do not care, and I believe there is a point when greed and excessiveness, no matter how much a person dreams or secures their future, is too much.

In the article many climbers Hazel spoke to suggest that professional climbers need to make a living somehow. Mina Leslie Wujastyk says “Can you blame an athlete for taking that deal that gives them the security to follow their passion and succeed?” Well, the answer is yes if that deal is with a huge multi-national behemoth which has no direct connection to what you represent and is offering you a load more money than you actually need. It’s a symptom of the consumer culture we live in, a culture that in general worships money. Climbers do need to make a living. But what is stopping people who climb making money out of something other than their actual climbing? Nothing. Why do we feel so entitled? No-one needs to be a sponsored climber, just as we don’t need climbers who are sponsored. It’s a choice, not something we are forced to do. Who says it is our right as climbers to survive as climbers, and make a living as climbers? Climbers are privileged. And climbing is the privilege of wealthy people. I’m wealthy and privileged. To climb regularly takes time and expensive gear. A climbing wall entry costs more money than many people can spare. As climbers we travel around the world, and we often have vehicles to get us to crags and even sleep in. It’s great being a climber, I love it, but I do appreciate how bloody lucky and privileged I am.

It is a great thing to follow your passion and ‘live the dream’. But unfortunately, unless you are born into money, for most of us we will have to work to fund our lives, or maybe make some form of sacrifice, (which for many climbers in the UK is never going to really be that much of a sacrifice among the grand scheme). But that’s OK, there can be compromise. There can be good times and ‘dreams realised’ without a big monster hand-out that eats you away from the inside. There are climbers out there that are proof this can happen, climbers who are climbing at the highest standard but who do not pursue deals with companies that have no interest in climbing. To say we have no choice but to let Behemoth devour our freedom so we can realise our (selfish) dream is just not true.

Hazel said “The climbing community has never really spoken out against our many Red Bull sponsored athletes.” This is possibly correct: there has been some dissent over the years but not much, more than likely because the Red Bull directors (dictators?) and marketing gurus have been exceptionally astute … because this is what they are, this is what they do. Red Bull fund films and create events and owns teams and owns races. They don’t support these things, they engulf them until their name is synonymous with an activity. I have heard it said that Red Bull are OK because they give adventure film makers opportunity and a platform and they support (a few) climbers around the world. But it’s all brilliant marketing so more of a horrible sugary drink that costs just pennies to produce can be sold to make billions. In Hazel’s article, Will Gadd says Red Bull make it ‘possible to follow some big dream.’  But ‘big dreams’ are followed every year: films are funded, dreams’ realised, climbers reach their summits and succeed without funding from Red Bull. This is just another way for climbers to justify being involved with a giant all-consuming, profit-making monster. In The Book of Job, it is revealed that one of the forms of the Behemoth is, wait for it, yes, a red water buffalo!

Over the many years I’ve been climbing I’ve seen some strange rituals before a climber steps from the ground. For myself I can’t help but spit on the sole of my climbing shoe before rubbing it with the palm of my hand and squeaky-cleaning the rubber (yeah, disgusting I know! I even do it indoors). Yet not once have I been at a crag and witnessed someone crack open a can of Red Bull before they tie in. In fact the only person I have ever seen consume an energy drink before and during climbing is the Hippy, and not being sponsored by Red Bull, he drinks Tesco’s own brand and even then it doesn’t appear to help him that much (for full disclosure Will Gadd says in the article he drinks Red Bull before a hard training session and before a hard climb!) The only place I’m likely to see a Red Bull can outside of a shop is in a hedge, presumably thrown out of car windows, along with the McDonalds and KFC, wrappers. Is this what we want to support and be part of? Maybe a Red Bull funded litter pick?

Alex Megos tells us how well Red Bull look after its people, and that he has never received better support from anyone. This is not a surprise: they have invested a lot of money for him to advertise their product and Shauna Coxsey adds that if it wasn’t for Red Bull paying for scans, surgery and rehab she would not have been able to compete this year. But if she hadn’t competed this year then Red Bull would not have had their name appearing on the podium and in all those pictures so of course they are going to pay to keep their talent going. It’s a variable cost to a lucrative business: farmers spend a lot of money on fertiliser.

But who is paying the price? I’m not sure, but we are being lied to and controlled, and the greed of this monster is easy to see, and I want nothing of it. In the past I received free private health care and used it for treatment so I could keep on climbing. I thought nothing of people with similar injuries but who couldn’t afford insurance or treatment and had to wait to be seen by an overburdened health service. I thought nothing of my encouraging a two-tier health system, I thought nothing of more money going into a private health system and widening the gap. It was all about me and getting back to climbing, I was greedy and selfish. Being young and driven makes it harder to see the right path; maybe the moral high ground is for the old with fewer dreams to live? Did Shauna need to compete this year? Shauna’s fantastic and inspirational endeavours might have been slowed down without Red Bull, but I doubt it. For someone so very talented and driven I’m sure it would have still happened, driven people make things happen. It’s just such a shame the monsters plug into the hard-drives of the talented. Perhaps if she had held out, maybe there would have been another less controlling, less dominating company, one to fit her better, one that didn’t just want her for making money, but one that also could feel for the dream with her.

Red Bull exemplifies most that is wrong about big sports business. They don’t support sports, they buy them. It is well known that Red Bull make ‘their’ climbers sign contracts forcing them to always wear their logo, speak no evil, actively promote the drink, and promote whatever else the Red Bull commands. That, as far as I’m concerned, is disgusting as it forces dishonesty with a bribe, but it is, in the end of course, up to the individual who signs the contract.

I hugely respect how, in her article Hazel goes on to question and challenge Red Bull, and all that they stand for, and especially because she is certainly good enough to be sponsored by them, but because she has been bold enough get off of the fence and tell it how she sees it. I’m sure she will now never be offered Red Bull sponsorship. Good for her, and her courage!

I receive sponsorship from three companies which almost fit with my personal ethics. But I still have to compromise, I still try to justify my actions, and by doing so I feel something of a hypocrite; I live with conflict and contradiction. Alex Honnold says ‘a person has to be comfortable with their own choices’ I don’t know if they do: I’m not. I bear my choices and constantly review. Yet even though I’m not comfortable with them, I can be certain I’m not greedy, which in a small way goes towards easing my own guilt.

We live in complicated times for sure but that isn’t an excuse! I dislike big supermarkets with their huge profits and monopolies but I still use them. I wear a pair of jeans made in China, probably by someone paid a pittance. I don’t buy fair trade, but instead buy something cheaper, telling myself I can’t afford to pay extra, even though I can. I use Google as my search engine, a company that earns multi-billions mainly from advertising. I have a Facebook account (Mark Zuckerman’s personal fortune is $62.7 billion June 2017) another advertising and influencing behemoth. I order from Amazon (Jeff Bezos net worth $85.4 billion June 2017) and drink the occasional Starbucks coffee ($4.2 billion profit in 2016). I own a house that is paid off and rented out. I own a brand new van. I have savings. I am privileged and I live a great life. I don’t think it’s a case of being comfortable with your own choices, because I’m not, I think it’s about attempting to live in a way that is honest about your choices, and constantly re-evaluating these and hopefully make improvements to the way we live and the influence we have on each other. Having integrity is something to strive for but something that can be so difficult in these times. But integrity trumps all the climbs, all the mountains, all of the first ascents and 9b’s. Integrity trumps being a world champion, soloing El Capitan and having an income that goes way beyond your personal needs. Attempting to live life with integrity, improve the lives of others, and get on with other people is the greatest of complicated dreams.

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