Back in the East.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Topping out on Ice Storm.

Topping out on Ice Storm.

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

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

Thankfully topping out on Bubba...

Thankfully topping out on Bubba…

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Returning to Llanberis.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

Looking up The Nant Ffrancon toward Cwm Idwal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Lecture flier

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An Open Letter to Derek.

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


“Two words: bear spray.

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

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


Hi Derek,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick Bullock.



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From Dawn to Dusk. From Dusk to Dawn.

The calm before the proverbial…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher on pitch one. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

Greg higher on pitch three dreaming of the coffee shop…

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

And steep. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

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

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

The approach.

More of the approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red arrow is where the bear attack happened.

Bear meets Boswell, Boswell wins!

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The Glowing… Dawn of the Dead.

Stanley Headwall. If Carlsberg made mixed climbing crags…

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

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

I replied…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn of the Dead.

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

Greg approaching the climb.

Greg on pitch one of Dawn of the Dead.

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

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

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

Higher  on the third pitch. Credit Greg Boswell.

Greg leading pitch four.

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

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

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Betty Battles The Ghost.


The Real Big Drip. The Ghost

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

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

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

Driving into the Ghost. Credit Greg Boswell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bivi in Betty. Credit Greg Boswell.

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


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

Greg climbing the first pitch.

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

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

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

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

Greg seconding to the belay behind the pitch four icicle.

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The Dream.

The Toilet Window…


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I breathed out, turned and walked away.

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

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

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

Day Off 1. The Mitre.

Colin Croston on the summit ridge of the mighty Mitre.

The view from the Mitre summit.

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


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

Yamnuska descent.

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

The Lookout.

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

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


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The Life Around Life.

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

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

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

The Nemo seriously outclassed on Tre Cima carpark.

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

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

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

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

Tim displaying amazing no handed skills on a free ascent!

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

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

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

Myself on California Dream. pic credit, Tim Neill.

The hut beneath Tours d Areu.

A cow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich Kirby on Les Ailes du Désir Extension.

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown Czech climber on Tennessee.

Rich Kirby climbing Mistral Gagnant, La Croix

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

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The Vacuum.

Owain Jones, Jamie Fisher, Jules Cartwright at Tapovan BC on the Meru Shark’s Fin attempt, India 1997.

Keith Ball, Tim Neill and I stood in the col between Piz Cengalo and the Piz Badile. The space surrounding the Piz Badile’s huge North Face felt like a vacuum. The dark turned to grey and in the grey, we carefully climbed down – the space and the pull beneath the acres of granite were constant. I looked down to the col where, eleven years before, my close friend Jules Cartwright would have crossed with his client Julie Colverd. They had both fell and had been killed. I wasn’t sure how this mountain would affect me. The palms of my hands pushed down into dirt to take weight and my feet kicked steps. The dirt and rock moved hardly supporting bodyweight. Feral. Basic animal instinct. Survival. In the light breeze mist swirled, the mountain vortex, a minds vortex, a day, a week, a year… a split second … I thought of my friend who would have been forty years old now.

Keith Ball pushing down in an attempt to keep the slope in the place it should be on the descent from the col between Cengalo and The Piz Badile.

Tim had driven his well-used, black, VW Transporter from a stormy Chamonix the day before. Keith and I were packed beside in the front watching the windscreen wipers swish rain. We had walked three hours from the forested Val Masino in Italy, passing the Gianetti Refuge to gratefully – after hours on the move – relax and bivvi in the meadows beneath a massive sloping lump of shimmering granite, the south face of Cengalo. Boulders and grass and sheep and streams and red setting sun reflecting from behind the clouds – a heavenly haven.

The view from the Cengalo Bivi.

Tim and Keith were in front, kicking and pushing down. Rocks clattered and tumbled into the void, echoing and exploding. Dirt flowed like snow to cascade over the edge of the cliff and falling onto the rotten strip of snow hundreds of metres below. I looked across to the teams climbing the Cassin down below and to our right. We were aiming for the left side of the north face of the Piz Badile to attempt a seldom climbed route called the Peoples Direct. I hoped the climb would feel less intimidating than the approach.

Relief consumed as we made it to a point that followed a series of flakes heading into the granite wilderness. “That was fun.” “No, actually, it wasn’t.”

Tim Neill abseiling from choss to the base of the route, The Peoples Direct on the Piz Badile.

Keith tied on and started to climb. Seconding, wearing approach shoes and tied to a single half rope, my body twisted and turned, using smears while pulling flakes – high foot, rock over, pull. Pulling without first testing, I ripped the flake I was holding and then I was flying. The air and space grabbed. Quick. Quick. So bloody quick. I wondered if this is what it would be like? Fortunately the rope didn’t wipe Tim out who was above me and even more fortunate, Keith’s belay was bomb proof.  “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m fine.” I hoped the tremors running through my body did not extend to my voice. When I calmed, I continued, but now I would test every hold before pulling.

Keith Ball starting out into the wilderness. The Peoples Direct.

Creaking flakes and smears and cracks and streaks of water, old pegs with rings threaded through heads, faded cord. The cliff and rock and its history and the history of those who had been before were speaking. Clouds bubbled, but on occasion the sun broke from behind the cumulous and lit the face. The atmosphere lightened in the sun. Skin warmed.

Climbing in blocks, Keith led several pitches before Tim took over. The difficulty of the climb increased with height as the face barrelled. Undercutting a huge and booming flake, Tim moved fluently and confidently still in his approach shoes. It had been several years since we had climbed granite in Cornwall and on Lundy Island and I had forgotten how natural he moved across this rock type. I pulled close, “Tell you what, I’m struggling to get into the granite zone, the smears and the movement feel forced.” We both looked up to the overhanging crux corners high above, “Well, you better quickly get used to it”

Tim Neill on the start of the steeper stuff of The Peoples Direct.

I settled down with the first of my block while climbing a vertical corner and wide crack which consumed gear as well as hands and feet. I was more comfortable on lead, more focused, more relaxed on the steep, and I was less intimidated by the space while squeezed within the confines of my corner – but the second pitch of my block was the crux of the whole climb and it was obviously going to be more difficult as the angle increased, leading to an overhang near the top of the pitch. The grade of this pitch was reportedly 7a+, a grade, when rock fit, as I now was, should not be too concerning, but high on a mountain, wearing a rucksack with wet and grass and loose rock and with the pressure of time, I knew this pitch would be tough to climb free.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill seconding the first of my block of pitches on the Peoples direct.

Half way up the crux pitch, standing on a small edge, placing a cam and de-pumping while drying my right hand, unbeknown to me it was pouring rain. The rain was not hitting me or the rock but the crack and wall to the right of the crack was running with water. Smearing feet, finger locking and laybacking was going to take commitment and belief. I didn’t really think I had much hope to free the pitch, but as I began, the thought of pulling on gear didn’t enter my head. Finger lock in wet, half jams in wet, smearing feet on wet – I move up and up and up. For the first time on this climb, sweat began to bead. Shaking out, creeping, inching, placing gear, body tension – my Strawberries training had paid off. Every time I sunk and twisted fingers into a positive lock, I relaxed – my feet felt solid. Higher. Higher. The pump caught hold on the final pull over the roof, so, without placing anymore gear, I sprinted, laybacking until stood on a flat ledge.

Keith Ball seconding the first of my block of pitches.

After another hard pitch and one more long wet pitch, all three of us stood on the summit ridge in the mist and rain, there didn’t appear to be any other life, no birds, no animal noise. In front, Tim and Keith hopped, walked and climbed, we moved un-roped consumed, enshrouded, until finding the descent line down the south side.

Keith and Tim trying to decided where we want to go on the descent.

It turned dark as we stumbled back into our bivi where we spent a night zipped against heavy rain.

Visitors after the rain at the Cengalo bivi the morning after.

In the morning we reversed our three hour walk, sat in the sun with beer and pizza while joking about our language inadequacies with the waitress and drove the forty three miles to reach Bondo in Switzerland in the sunlit early evening. The river flowed against and around massive white boulders. Large pine trees butted the river and the track we were parked. Birds flitted, Jay’s screamed. The bridge where the path starts in earnest for the walk to climb The Cassin was a little way upstream.

The second parking up/bivi spot at the head of the forest track in Switzerland.

The alarm was set for midnight, but the rain woke me at eleven. I crawled under the van with my head sticking out from beneath the plastic bumper. At midnight Tim stepped from the back and nearly stood on my head. It was still raining so we delayed for an hour and a half.

Walking through the forest, along the steep zigzag track, my headtorch lit welts cut from muddy clods. Even though it was only just past two a.m., it was warm and humid. The wet pine-smell filled my head. I looked down and imagined my friend, Jules walking this same path, stepping the same muddy welts, stepping the same polished rock, grabbing the same links of chain that acted as handrails, smelling the same pine, while cheerfully chatting to his client Julie, while never imagining this would be his last walk-in. The Grande Jorasses, the Grand Pilier d’ Angle, The Cobbler, Savoia Kangri, The Sans Nom, Mont Maudit, The Sharks Fin, North Stack Wall, Wen Zawn, Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Teng Kangpoche, The Broadfield Pub, The Heights, The Vaynol, La Terrasse – I had walked to these and many more with my friend.  

It was still dark as the three of us down-climbed and abseiled the notch at the base of the North Ridge. This was it; this is where Jules and Julie had fallen from. I felt air and space – solitude, emptiness, loneliness, despair, grief – my mind spun with all kinds of pain and regret and loss. This mountain caused a vacuum.  

I caught-up with Tim and Keith who were flaking the rope beneath the first tricky pitch of The Cassin. It was still dark but in the sky, there were signs of daylight.         

Tim Neill setting off on the first roped pitch of the Cassin.

Tim Neill higher on the Cassin.

Tim Neill climbing another one of the technical pitches of the Cassin.

Looking down at one of the Austrian team behind us. Chatting to these guys added to the day as they were really friendly with great banter.

Keith Ball in the chimneys near the top of the Cassin.

Keith Ball getting us to The North Ridge.

Big Tim, me and Keith Ball.

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The Sound of Bill Birkett’s Jaw Hitting the Table…

Annie Wilkes, aka, Rachael Crewesmith leaves a little note of encouragement on my van windscreen.

I sat in front of my laptop and booked a ferry for France. My finger hovered for a second before hitting the confirm payment. I felt the strength ooze from my forearms. That’s it, my Strawberry relationship is over. Move on, walk away, time for the mountains.

Later, sinking deep into the sofa, broiling in front of the fire at Ynys Ettws, the CC hut situated in the Llanberis Pass, my friends Mark and Nikki sat opposite planning their day for tomorrow. Also on the sofa was Rachael Crewesmith who was staying at the hut for a big chunk of the summer while cragging – well, that’s what she told people, but the main reason was to prepare for her mountain instructors award. I met Rachel for the first time three days earlier when she burst into the living room, a forceful bundle of, you will get to know me, energy. Rachel is one of those people you instantly take too – small in stature but big in character and presence – bubbly, a couple of bottles short of a six pack, self-assured, fun, confident – she made me laugh. She had bright eyes that said, ‘take me on if you dare’ and a big smile. She also appeared to have that enviable skill, one which has always eluded, the ability to introduce herself to strangers and continue the conversation like they had been friends for life. Don’t get the wrong idea, she wasn’t all fluffy – a hippy type who sees no wrong and loves everyone – there were certainly some who scuffed her skin, especially the type who felt the need to offer forceful advice for passing the MIA.

“Everyone wants to tell me what I should be doing.” I let her know she was in no fear of that from me.

Mark and Nikki decided they would be climbing at Tremadog the following day. My ears pricked. “Really.” After hours if subtle cajoling, well, no, in fact it was full on badgering, I convinced Mark he would love to stand on a ledge in the middle of the Vector Headwall and belay me on my millionth attempt at Strawberries. Mark is a Poet. This may conjure softly spoken bard, but in reality he is opinionated and tough. Scrape beneath that forty something leather-bound cover and there is also deeply sensitive (he is a poet after all) and as I sat bullying and cajoling, I could see the thought of holding the rope as I climbed to the edge of my ability, with big lob potential, was already causing him to fret. “But I’m not sure I can’t give a dynamic belay while attached to the rock.” “Yes you can.” I had turned into one of Rachael’s feared harbingers of forced information, but maybe I had been one all along!

Rachael does a bloody good impression of Annie Wilkes from the film, Misery. If she starts to call me, “Dirty ole birdy and brings a sledgehammer to the hut.” I’m out of there.

Apart from being eccentric, well read, at times scary and most certainly barking, The Poet is also very cunning, think something along the lines of Jason Bourne meets Professor Brian Cox and within minutes of agreeing to belay, he turned to Rachael and suggested she join us, making a party of four, which would give her the opportunity to climb with Nikki on a VS or two in preparation for her award. Win, win…

Arriving at a sunny Tremadog the next day, The Poet pulled his masterstroke. “I’m going to climb a VS with Nikki first then I’ll belay you on Strawberries,” said in a Brian Cox voice with underlying Jason Bourne menace. This was fine; I’m not so selfish to insist he spend the whole day strapped to the Vector Headwall belaying me… (looks shifty), and without hesitation, I happily agreed to belay and follow Rachael on a VS called Clapton’s Crack (looks shifty all over again). Everyone appeared to find it amusing that I was about to second a VS, not me though, I had climbed quite a few Very Severes before and all had been with axes and crampons in the Scottish Highlands.

After slithering in mud and fighting the undergrowth we arrived beneath a fine looking corner. No, really, it was – it would have been brilliant to torque with picks and the walls either side had enough in the way of edges for front points.
Rachael geared up while I discovered I had forgotten my rock shoes. “Oh well, I’ll follow in trainers.” This garnered a stern, instructor-y kind of glair, “That’s very rude, we have been told never to climb in approach shoes because it demeans the client.” “But I am the client?”

Following Clapton’s Crack in trainers, I found the climbing style was quite similar to winter climbing, all thrutch and body parts, which gave pangs of winter longing. After fighting the cornice of ivy we returned to my van. Mark and Nikki had not returned from their climb (no doubt a planned scenario from the undercover professor of poetry), so, as I had enjoyed myself in my imagined VS winter wonderland, I suggested to Rachael she lead another climb. When she picked herself from the mud, she happily agreed and a climb called Shadrach was chosen.

Following Clapton’s Crack. Oh, the fun! Pic Credit, Annie Wilkes, aka Rachael Crewsmith

Shadrack was even more like a burly winter climb and even more fun than Clapton’s Crack and not to appear rude, I remembered my rock shoes this time but forgot to wear them.

Everyone returned to the van. Nikki, The Poet, Rachel and me, and within seconds the Poet, now in his Bourne the Bard role threw his literary poetic grenade, “It would be nice to do another climb with Nikki.” And Rachael, obviously an undercover, deep rooted mole in this conspiracy joined in, “Yes, you two should do another climb, I’ll belay Nick on Strawberries.”


The sun soaked the ledge above the Vector Headwall. The fields opposite, no longer resembled the Maasai Mara, they were boggy with furrows full of water, more paddy than Wildebeest. Rachael’s instructor experience came in handy. I tied-on and prepared to be lowered for a top-rope, warm-up, while feeding the rope the wrong way through the Gri Gri… “What do you mean I’m the hand?” Her paranoia, something I find in equal measure, be it instructor type or mountain guide, was already a bit too honed. “This block moves and the tree you have slung is a twig.” “Its fine, it’s well tested.”

The warm up went well; I managed to top-rope Strawberries in a single push and after sorting the gear for the belay, abseiled to the ledge beneath that other three star classic, Cream. Waiting to abseil, basking in the sun, Rachael practiced her dynamic belaying running back and forth on the dusty ledge above while rehearsing short roping scenarios and lapping the rope techniques. Her phone rang. “Hi Iain… Yes I found someone to climb with … no, just some bloke I met in the hut…. We are at Tremadog; yes I’ve led two climbs… I’m about to belay him… Oh, just something near Grim Wall.”

On lead – huffing and puffing, climbing at my limit – inches from the slim, but you’re never going to let go of rail at the end if the difficult climbing, I let go, and as I let go the image that ran through my mind was a person practicing dynamic belaying…

“BASTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD… “Rachael’s dynamic belay practice on top of the crag must have paid dividends; she was ripped from the stance and closely inspected the top pitch of Cream while always considerate, apologising to the climbers on Grim Wall Direct about the noise I was making.

Game over for another day, we all trooped back to Ynys Ettws.

The hut was warm. Fug swirled. Everyone sat in the living room. Around the large wooden table Rachel made new bezzy mates including Bill Birkett the Lakeland legend. Bill, gnarled and staid, was already hooked, he turned to Rachael, “Where did you go to today?”


“What did you climb?”

“Clapton’s Crack.”

This caused raised eyebrows, “Clapton’s Crack, hmm, tricky, that first pitch is difficult.”

“Yes, I thought so and the top was very overgrown and had ants.” (Cheeky smile for effect)

“Did you climb anything else?”

“Yes, we climbed Shadrach.”

Eyebrows already raised, flicked even higher with the mention of Shadrack and the whole table now joined in with the mention of this burly VS (if a VS could ever be burley!). There was much murmuring and discussion and nodding and shaking of heads.

“So was that it, did you climb anything else?”

“Ah, yes, well, randomly we finished the day with… (pause for effect), Strawberries.”

The room went silent; the only sound was the bump of Bill Birketts jaw hitting the table.


Here is a link to a film of that day on my attempt at Strawberries with Annie Wilkes belaying. Thanks to Nikki Clayton for the film, next time it would be great if you held the camera in the correct way 😉

Strawberries attempt by some old guy from the hut, belayed by Annie Wilkes

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