Dorys Dancing. Bam Bam & Requiem for a Vampire.

Bam Bam E7 6b in red. Requiem for a Vampire E8 6b in green, Stigmata, Craig Dorys, Llyn Peninsular. Credit, Mick Lovatt.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about climbing on Craig Dorys. I love the place. It’s a relationship with complication though, because the climbing, at almost any level, is terrifying. UKC description of the rock type is ‘crumbly rubbish’, but this is incorrect, it is compressed mudstone that breaks apart with predictably unpredictable regularity. On occasion the mud has a thin patina of quartz, and in this white and black speckled patina, there are holes, and looking into these holes takes you to an Alice in Wonderland world of soft. The strongest and most reliable rock on Stigmata Buttress is the reddish-brown. I’m no geologist, but I can only imagine it is this colour because of some sort of iron deposit, which makes this the colour to aim for, and savour. Unfortunately, these small bristly clots, occasional spikes and sticking-out plates do not occur often enough, and when marooned on these islands, it brings about a Robinson Crusoe kind of madness. Madness.  A word frequently used while in conversation to fellow enthusiasts talking about Stigmata. Funny that!

In the lowest section of Stigmata, the most unpredictable, friable and untrustworthy section, like a sick joke, is also the hardest section of the crag to protect. On occasion, a rusty peg can be seen poking its old emaciated body too far out from the rock, almost like septic Stigmata is attempting to expel everything that is not supposed to be there!

It’s difficult to describe what it is about Dorys, and especially Stigmata, that make it a very special place, I suppose this term, ‘special’ can be used in a few ways, and all would be correct. I suppose the same phrase can be used for many of the people that, like myself, love the place. But, and I feel it is an important and big but, the rewards of successfully topping out are almost unrivalled.

Stigmata takes climbing to a different, intense and psychologically bruising place, and the reward to the climber is also different. Having never taken drugs, apart from prescription and alcohol, I imagine climbing on Stigmata is akin to smoking crystal meth and possibly as addictive. Every little hold, every change in the colour of the rock, each creak, each slight movement (that’s of the rock, not you), every pinch and pull, is dissected, inspected, respected. Every hold is viewed with heightened consciousness and paranoia. And when you pull over the top of the crag, the colours of the world around, pour into a brain near the edge of explosion.

If you haven’t been to Dorys and stood beneath Stigmata you might be imagining this buttress is a slab or a vertical wall, because with rock so unreliable it has to be a slab doesn’t it? Well no, far from being a slab, some sections of Stigmata overhang so far as to rival a Catalonian cliff. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it isn’t: it really is as steep as something at Siurana, and the thought of stepping from the pile of shale to venture up, is so daunting it makes your mouth feel like someone has stuck a hair dryer in and flicked the switch to high.

I have once again become addicted. I’ve lit that pipe and the inhaled smoke has hit me with an anticipation of the highs to follow. I am addicted. There will be many who read this and don’t believe it, but the climbing on the more modern, very steep lines, is as good, if not better than anything out there. The movement through the steepest terrain, the crispy fins, the edges, the red crozzles, the roofs, the corners, the overhanging grooves, needs conviction and force, but always care, and above all control. There is no lunging here, and if there is, you’re on a countdown.

I have been to Dorys with Zylo and Mick Lovatt recently, and their reactions have been interesting!

I approached Zylo at the top of the crag after going on a cleaning and chalking-up, and looking mission: “It’s brilliant, it’s a bloody masterpiece. You pull through a roof using a heel-toe and crimping red flakes and then you have to stand on thin fins at the edge of the roof, they could easily break. Once over the roof, you have to pull another hard move before placing two, small and marginal cams into a shallow seam of dirt at your feet. More overhanging moves, but on holds that feel like they may rip-off, follow. Then in the most strenuous position of the climb, you have to place three more marginal pieces of gear while hanging from a spike of rock that has a crack all around it. (Senses heightened? Damn right they are!) And then… phew… you have to pull really hard into a corner, steady yourself,  while holding really poor rock, before getting a good wire in clay. If anything rips in this section it’s going to be massive.”

I was buzzing. Zylo looked at me and admitted later she was thinking, “How the hell did I end up going out with this crazy person!”

Mick Lovatt’s appraisal was possibly more telling.

(To be read in a gruff Lancashire accent) “What have you done to me? I don’t usually dream but the other night I dreamt I was climbing and as I climbed, a hold broke, and as I fell, I woke with a jump. I had to get up because I couldn’t sleep. The climbing here is brilliant and terrifying, it gets under the skin. What have you done?”. Mick continued, “You know Paul Pritchard’s introduction in your first book, the bit where he calls you a fucking nutter? When I first read that I though it a bit harsh, but he’s spot on.”

However, what all three of us agree on is that if the rock was solid at Dorys, it would be the best crag in North Wales. But we also all agree that if it was, you would never have the crag to yourself, as is often the case!

I seconded James McHaffie when he climbed the third ascent of Bam Bam back in 2009, and after pulling over the lip, completely exhausted with eyes on stalks, vowed I would attempt this climb on the sharp end, because it would surely give an unforgettable experience.

It took a few years to get back on it, via a minor episode on a climb near by, but a couple of weeks ago in the company of Mick, I climbed Bam Bam and it lived up to all of my expectation. What a fantastic climb… But quickly, possibly before I had even climbed Bam Bam, my mind wandered to the right… in the next, even steeper and less well protected section of the crag, there was another mind-bending Haston climb, an E8 6b called Requiem for a Vampire. After Haston’s first ascent in October 2009 Simon Panton described it on UKC and the Ground Up website as  “…an astounding line that eclipses all previous routes on the cliff” . Bam Bam was obviously gateway to this, the very real deal, class A in the loose rock addicts cupboard.

Mick had now fallen for my plan and was completely hooked on the thought of climbing Bam Bam, which meant I had a partner for my new obsession. After a few-clean-it-up and chalk-it-up-laps (not as easy as it sounds on rock so steep and loose, and quite a terrifying experience in another kind of way), Mick climbed Bam Bam, and a few days later, on Wednesday 27th, I climbed Requiem for a Vampire. The weatherperson said it was 31 degrees down the coast at Porthmadog on the day, and it did have both Mick and I cowering in the shade and the muck at the base of Stigmata beneath the climb Bobok (my first ever climb on Stigmata). Once my body temperature had decreased, I could face the cauldron and tie-on to begin my upwards Dorys dance. (The climb was now in the shade, but not the belay and I asked Mick if he wanted me to wait, but he said he would be OK. I think he looked on it as an extreme sunbathing session, so definitely an opportunity not to be missed…)

Stevie Haston (the first ascentionist of both Bam Bam and Requiem for a Vampire)  and I have had our difference of opinion in the past, but Bam Bam and Requiem are brilliant climbs that obviously took imagination, foresight and a bold approach. Maybe to create a true masterpiece, which both of these climbs are, you have to dance with the Devil. Cheers Stevie, both routes are a credit to you.

Another view of the lines, or roughly the lines. Bam Bam in red. Requiem in green. Both climbs are exceptionally steep and physical and bold. They do differ though, as once through the initial groove on Bam Bam, the gear is good and reasonably plentiful. On the whole, the gear on Requiem is marginal and run-out. The climbing on the routes contrasts also, Bam Bam is possibly more thrutchy and less on the arms, although passing the several roofs is physical. Requiem is more two dimensional and similar to sport climbing, this for anyone who knows the rock on Stigmata is a truly terrifying prospect!

The belay I used at the base of Bam Bam the day Mick led it. Falling from the initial groove would not be good.

The Perfect Man looks a little bit less than perfect! A fine and controlled ascent followed though, nice one TPM 😉

Mick high on his ascent of Bam Bam, possibly the 5th over-all.

Myself, just above the crux of Requiem for a Vampire. I think this lower section is the crux, both physical and psychological as the gear is pretty shoddy and the climbing is ‘sporty’ and the rock poor. Above there is plenty more climbing almost at a similar standard, but at least you’re a tad higher should a hold rip. credit, Mick Lovatt.

An island of sanity. Good gear and a good rest before the heel,toe roof moves where once again the gear goes a little south! credit, Mick Lovatt.

Myself about to successfully make the second ascent of Requiem for a Vampire? (I have not heard or read about any other ascent.) I did not on-sight it, the thought of going completely on-sight on this climb gives me cold sweats. If anyone fancies it though, (Lunatic!) its clean and chalked, but please make sure I’m not on the crag on the day you try it. And if you do it, in my old and bumbly opinion, give yourself an E9 tick. And if you get on it un-chalked, and without any gear knowledge, a true on-sight, you need therapy! Credit Mick Lovatt.

Looking down the line.

Old men who should know better. credit, Mick Lovatt.

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Dawn to Dusk to Dawn…

While Greg McInnes, (AKA Boswell) and I were at the Banff Centre November 2017 we were asked if we could give an interview about the bear attack, that would be edited and made into a short film including animated sequences. Below is the result. I’ve also included a section of chapter 35 from Tides, Dawn to Dusk to Dawn, that is an account of the attack.


Chapter 35: Dawn to Dusk to Dawn.

 October, 2015. Canmore, Canada.

Two years after the successful trip with Greg, I visited Canada for an eighth time. It was half-past midnight when I arrived in Banff, the last person on the white shuttle bus that had carried five passengers from Calgary Airport. I sat in the back of the bus in the dark. A freight train bullied its way through the center of town. Red lights flashed and an X between barriers marked the spot. The deep bass of the train horn blew. A grey cat with white stripes skittered across the tracks. It was almost twelve years to the day that I had walked from the door of Leicester Prison for the final time and fifteen years since my first visit to Canada.

I spent a month at The Banff Centre writing this book before moving to the Alpine Club of Canada’s clubhouse, where, sat now, age forty-seven I wait for my climbing partner Greg Boswell. Greg is from Scotland and half my age, but unlike some of my other, older Scottish friends, he doesn’t appear to have that aggressive Scottish nationalism. I don’t mean to belittle this fierce nationalistic pride, but Greg appears to place all of his fierceness into his climbing and when he is not climbing he is generally relaxed and good fun to be around.

The temperatures dropped and a meter of snow fell with Greg’s arrival. Winter was again with us. Our first climb had been one of those long-lusted-for climbs, The Real Big Drip set in the heart of The Ghost. After this climb, we made a return to the Stanley Headwall climbing Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Wolf Street, two big mixed classics. We thought we would try going even bigger after these routes and attempt the second ascent of a climb called Dirty Love.

Dirty Love is a 500-metre, twelve-pitch alpine climb, high on Mount Wilson, which is situated off the Icefields Parkway, the road that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. No coffee shops, no people, just wilderness, emptiness, deserted, alone … almost …

Jon Walsh and Raphael Slawinski had climbed the first ascent of Dirty Love in April 2008, grading the climbing M7. The climb had taken them twenty-three hours from the car to the summit of Wilson and another eight hours to descend. The trouble is, there is a very technical approach, which includes several mixed pitches and approximately four hours of slog through trees and alpine terrain before the bottom of the huge gash, something like Cenotaph Corner on steroids, is reached.

Greg and I aimed to put a track to the base of the climb to become knowledgeable about the approach, before retracing our steps back down to the valley and returning in two days’ time to attempt the second ascent. Everything was going well, although the three loose and difficult mixed pitches after half an hour’s walk didn’t really match Jon’s description, and took us longer than we had hoped. We assumed there should have been ice on the approach, but after the days of snow and the subsequent days of minus twenty, it had been warm and we guessed that the sun had melted any exposed ice.

At the top of these initial pitches, we slogged snow for an hour before climbing an M5 mixed pitch in the dark. Engulfed now by the last of the forest on the highest level of Mount Wilson, Jon’s description said, ‘two hours forty-five of snow slope to reach the climb’. We had come this far, so felt it would be pointless not to now put in a track, even though we were in the dark and the wilderness.

We left ropes and some gear at the top of the mixed pitch and after five minutes we also dumped axes and anything heavy before attaching snowshoes and bushwhacking through thick forest. Eventually we escaped the trees and found the snow gully that led to the foot of the climb and at seven thirty, really high and near the foot of the climb, we decided we had done enough to establish a track so we could return in two days and follow it without too much bother. Retracing our steps without snowshoes to consolidate the track, I walked in front with Greg behind, until the edge of the forest was reached.

The moon had yet to rise and darkness enveloped the both of us. We followed a glittering track in the light of our headlamps. I kicked as the snow clung to my knees. Small spruce lined the edge of the forest and all I thought about was how, in two days’ time we would return, fresh from rest, to attempt the stunning-looking line we had taken photographs of earlier. Having the time to search out the unusual made my roving and sometimes lonely existence bright and fulfilling.

Greg was behind, and then I heard something that took over my reflexes …

I spun. My headlamp caught blue as Greg flailed past, all arms and legs. Snow splattered everywhere. Just behind Greg, but moving quicker than him and with much bigger arms and legs, was a grizzly bear.

Ink-black, bottomless, unfathomable eyes turned and focused on my prone form. Erect ears, a broad industrial snout and an open mouth full of brown teeth was attached to a beautiful head etched with pale flecks. His bounding body was muscular, seemingly propelled by pistons. The snow lapped at the bruin’s belly, which didn’t appear to slow it. Frozen, terrified, my torch lit the snorting, carnivorous freight train that was now rattling by inches away from me, and dusting me with spindrift.

I just stood. I was frozen. Terrified. Incapacitated. For a second, the bear looked right at me, for just one second, and for that one second I thought this is it, this is really it. Or, more like, I would have thought that if I could have formed thoughts, but I couldn’t; my mind was white noise, it was a TV screen in the times before twenty-four-hour programmes, when the screen became horizontal bars and the sound was a constant ‘beeeeeeeeeeeee’.

All in that exact same second, the bear had seen Greg fall and it flew past me close enough to run a hand along its fur.  Immediately I ran away. I ran as fast as I could, I ran uphill, in the opposite direction, as fast as the deep snow would allow. And my now functioning mind had capacity to scream, and alongside that scream was another scream. Greg had fallen on his back and Could only watch as the bear bounded towards him. Screaming and shouting, Greg kicked at Ursus arctos horribilis, and it bit straight though his boot as if it were just a sock. It pounced again and crunched into his shin, while placing a paw around his other leg before lifting him clean off the ground.

‘Nick! Nick! Help it’s got me ARGHHHHH, HELP NICK, NICK HELP … ’

I stopped running then and hearing my friend and his high-pitched pleading, my mind insisted: the bear has got Greg, let it eat him, run, run as fast as you can, save yourself.

But on hearing the chilling, terrified scream, my survival instinct subsided. 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. My limbs and mind were unraveling but Greg was shouting my name, I couldn’t just stand there. I couldn’t just stand and listen to my friend as he was torn apart. I began walking towards the bear and Greg, thinking this was it: I was about to die. After fifty years I was about to return to the stomach of another living creature.

Suddenly, out of the dark, a shape came hurtling toward me. I screamed so loud the skin at the back of my throat tore. But the shape coming at me was Greg. My torch shone into his ashen face, and in that face I saw something I had never seen before…

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Modern Scottish Climbing Fables #4: Four, 4 star classics spell the end & an Alpinist Magazine podcast to boot.

Beinn Bhàn on the Applecross Peninsular. NW Highlands of Scotland.

My van is parked in a lay-by fifty metres before a bridge crossing the Kishorn River. To continue along the road, the Bealach na Bà, (Pass of the cattle), takes you to the wild, and almost deserted, Applecross Peninsular.

I’m sitting on the side-step of my van’s open door, drinking a mug of tea and looking across open marsh and the river. On either side of the marsh, the hills are snow covered. The river is slow moving, the sun reflects on the surface of the water and even though its three in the afternoon, on a winters day in Northwest Scotland, the air is still and almost warm. The sky is clear.

Hanging from open doors of the van are clothes, bedding and gear, all drying – all be it, slower than the water in the river moves towards Loch Kishorn. Eventually the water will run to the Inner Sound, a straight separating the Inner Hebridean islands of Skye, Raasay and South Rona from the Applecross peninsular.

My axes have sharp picks and crampons have freshly filed points. The rack is sorted, ropes and gloves dry. Set. In hundreds of days of Scottish winter climbing I can only remember a handful, (and a small handful at that) of days like this; sun, no wind, clear sky, frozen ground, hardly any humidity, and this is possibly the first time I have experienced all of the above and been able to stay in this peaceful, isolated environment after climbing.

Earlier, at 6.30am, Murdoch Jamieson had driven from Inverness to join me, where, in the dark, we sorted gear and began the walk towards Gully of the Gods, Coire an Fhamair on Beinn Bhàn.

Myself sorting the rack beneath Coire an Fhamair on a day of remarkable weather. pic credit, Murdo Jamieson

…The walk-in was like never before, almost dry underfoot with no snow and when we reached the coire we were by ourselves and the sun shone and the wind was none existent. We climbed the ultra-classic, Gully of the Gods, without any knowledge whether it was in condition or not because no-had had reported it. I would rather take a punt than have guaranteed anytime, because when it comes-off, it feels special and bloody hell, this was already special given the weather and conditions.

At 1.30pm we left the coire; having climbed, topped out, returned to the bags and packed up – then looking at the cliff, which was very lean in the dry and sunny weather, I took several pictures before returning to Murdo. “Here you go, look at this, I reckon Die Riesenwand will go.”

Murdo studied the shots and after brief consultation with pointing fingers that traced a weaving line from blobs of white to thin threads of silver, we decided that yes, Die Riesenwand would go and it would be a great option for tomorrow…

Myself, pitch 1 of Gully of the Gods. Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo on the second pitch of Gully of the Gods.

I pulled the bedding from the door and stuffed it into the back of the van. It was 5pm, the sun dipped and cast shadows across the surface of the river. A heron eased his stilts through the shallows and struck, coming out with an eel, all twisting and wriggling around his lance. One quick flip and the eel was gone. A chill breeze stung, soon I would go to the back of the van and sort some food before going to bed and another early one.

The second day of climbing was possibly even better than the first. Murdo and I climbed Die Risenwand adding a new, and more difficult finish. Once again, I had led the easy pitches that took us to the top, this time chopping through a large cornice, that once surmounted, led into the dazzling sun and a shimmering vista of the Isle of Skye and the Black Cuillin across the blue of the Inner Sound.

Day two of a memorable weekend of climbing. Myself on the first pitch of Die Riesenwand. Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo on the first of the traverse sections of Die Riesenwand.

Myself, just before the exposed step of the original. I belayed here. The new alternative goes right, making the exposed step more exposed! Pic credit, Murdo Jamieson.

Murdo follows on the high traverse.

Murdo approaching the belay.

The new alternative, more exposed finish.

Later that evening after saying goodbye to Murdo I began the two hour drive back to the hut at Roy Bridge.

The two routes we had climbed were both 4 star classics and each great experiences, but the weekend as a whole had been more special than the actual climbing. Staying in such a wonderful place, with settled weather and remarkable conditions made me feel exceptionally privileged. Two weeks later, I would remember this weekend, but only on reflection after answering questions posed by Paula Wright for an Alpinist Magazine podcast called Threshold Shift, and can be listened to here.

In this interview, Paula raised a point from two of the articles I have written for Alpinist Magazine. At the time of the interview I don’t think I answered well, although in the interview I think Paula covers the issue and answers it better than me, but I have attempted to write a better answer here.

Some of what I have written in the past, and what I still write, appears conflicted, but that has always been the case, or at least in the last several years. To change one’s opinion, to continually asses, and reassess, means having an open mind doesn’t it? To change an opinion is not hypercritical, it’s been open to all opinions, and changing one’s opinion, when a better argument is presented, possibly means admitting things are different from how they were perceived at the time. My opinion about climbing changes often, almost on a daily basis, and will be swayed by what is happening in the world of climbing and mountaineering at the time, it will also change depending on my mood and recent experiences.

The pieces of writing that contradict each other, or possibly a better way to say it is, the pieces of writing that describe a different emotion from the one before, are taken from Alpinist 30, Into the Shadow and the latest article from Alpinist 57, Threshold Shift. Both articles cover death and loss in the mountains, and loss in the mountains featured quite significantly in our talk. Paula quoted me from Into the Shadow with the following;

“All I can think about is Tom’s question. What makes you want to put yourself in that position? I dig into the snow, looking for ice, for something solid, but find nothing. Two of my friends from the Shark’s Fin expedition, Jules Cartwright and Jamie Fisher, are gone. So is Phillip Lloyd from Pritchard’s attempt. In the valley, the losses make no sense. But up high, surrounded by thousands of mountains, something seems to expand, briefly, minutes swell to contain hours; infinity bursts within an instant; one life holds many lives, many possible ascents; one existence races along several paths, each way leading to liberation; and nothing good or bad ever ends. In such moments, mountaineering makes every sense.”

But then in Threshold Shift Paula quoted me;

“Lying in the little tent, I came clean with myself. Possibly for the first time in more than twenty years. “Life affirmation, the challenge, live life to the full….” It was true at some point I suppose, and still is for some, but now it all felt cliched. It felt like marketing consumeristic bullshit. The most honest answer I could conjure up is to know what you are and what you have to do when you wake in the morning: today I will walk to the foot of something that intimidates me, and I will begin to climb. But even this statement was untrue, even this was my mind’s marketing, because the real reason was for the after, for the adulation and acceptance and the slap on the back. It was all just a big erect middle finger. I’m getting mine, how about you? But at least I’m being honest, and possibly this is my answer, this is why I do it. Honesty is easy. Honesty is open. Honesty is a weight off. Honesty is no secrets, and once discovered, honesty is peace. Maybe I’m getting old? I am old. Trying to set the record straight.”       

When I write, I attempt to write from a questioning position, one that will hopefully interest the reader enough into making them ask their own questions. I also write from a position that will make me ask my own questions, and in doing so will help me reach answers, or at least, form more questions and hopefully different answers. Sometimes I write from a position that I do not completely agree to see what comes back, but all of the time I attempt to write honestly.

I find attempting to answer the old question of why, especially when talking about loss, almost impossible. How can you justify the loss of someone fit and healthy, someone who had so much to offer, and how can you explain it to the people left behind? It all just ends up as platitudes and clichés. I think there is value to be had from not trying to explain because, as with many things in life, there are a thousand possible answers. At times the reason I climb is for the shear joy, the life expanding and at times it is in an attempt to be honest with myself, because being honest with oneself can be very difficult and climbing does help with this as long as you remember the real story when returning to the ground! And, at times, I struggle to come to terms with the whole climbing internet scene and the way some climbers appear to want to share everything they do, (whether they have actually done what they have said or not!). I become frustrated with the thinly disguised consumerism and self-promotion and retaliate with a big boast of my own, it is a big erect middle finger. For a very short period I may feel sated, but it isn’t long before I feel ashamed of myself and unfortunately it will no-doubt happen again in the future.

I’m pleased to say my final climbs in Scotland this winter gave me joy, satisfaction, and lasting memories and for that short period, I felt fortunate to experience some of the best of what life can offer and for this I’m glad I have climbing.

Brothers in arms. Pete Whittaker and Matt Helliker on the Fly Direct day. They really should make sure of their wardrobe the night before!

Walking in to Craig Meggy. Thanks to Andy Inglis for sending me a picture that stirred interest to go and have a punt at climbing the Fly Direct.

Myself setting off on the Fly Direct. It may look scrappy but it wasn’t, the route was one of the best of winter and in tremendous condition. We climbed it in four big pitches. Pic credit Pete Whittaker or Matt Helliker, sorry, I’m not sure who took it, maybe its because you both looked exactly the same!

Myself setting the belay after climbing pitch one and two together. Pic credit as before!

Myself setting off on the second pitch which was really pitch 3, supposedly the crux but it wasn’t, it was the closest I’ve come to climbing plastic Euro ice in Scotland. 🙂 Pic credit, Pete or Matt!

Matt on pitch four…

The day after the Fly Direct we went to Buachaille Etive Mòr and climbed Raven’s Gully with the direct finish. Well, I say we, I mean Pete led it all, Matt and I were still on a high from the previous day and it was too cold! The end of my Scottish winter with another 4 star route.


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With arms like a doner kebab.

We both laughed because, well, because it was funny. “Can you imagine being a fly on the wall of everyone who has seen us climbing over the last two weeks?” Rich Kirby said.

I leaned back, ignoring the slightly sour taste and took another swig of red wine. The Spanish heat, the clear plastic of the 5ltr bottle and the two weeks it had been open, none of this had helped with quality or longevity of the wine.

The clips had been in now for two weeks, and for two weeks both Rich and I had floundered and flapped – we had pulled, fallen, screamed, (but never in anger). We had torn skin, stretched sinew and almost ruptured joints. Climbers had come and gone. “Can you imagine being a fly on the wall?” We laughed some more as we imagined the conversation between other climbers.

We were both sat inside Rich’s black VW camper that is parked on the plateau above Margalef. Opposite, all stick thin and teeth and northern, Rich laughed. Outside the van, lining the plateau edge, I watched the massive propellers of the wind turbines slowly spin. Rich almost choked as he spluttered out the imagined conversation, “Them old blokes trying to do that route, who are they kidding, have you seen them, no chance… two weeks, two weeks –  t   w   o     w   e   e   k   s! – can you believe it, up and off, up and off… no chance, who are they kidding, they even top roped!?” I almost spat out my wine with the imagined scenario.

Bloody hell I felt old! Two ripped fingers, one bruised finger, unable to make a fist with either hand, my arms felt like the grease dripping meat of a doner kebab. Who the hell was I kidding, this route was never going to go. I have heard it said that age is only a number, getting old is just a state of mind, and in some way I understand the, ‘don’t let age hold you back’ attitude, of course we do whatever we can and try to do as much as possible to delay the onset of age, but all in all, its fallacy, how can we stop getting older and becoming slower and less strong? My younger body certainly didn’t ache and hurt like it does now after a day of hard exercise!

Rich and I are at Margelef and attempting to climb a route called Hard Krit which is a 40m 8a. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so out of my league, I’m surrounded by beings from another planet, mutant humans with pencil thin waste lines and shoulders wide enough to span an estuary. Just across the way is a route called Era Vella, it has a grade of 8c+/9a and has a queue of people attempting to climb it on a daily basis, in fact, at the moment, its possibly the most popular climb at Margalef. Alex Megos came across to climb on the ‘vertical cliff’ the other day. He had already climbed Era Vella and was using our section of crag as a warm down.

AAAAAAAARGE……………. There goes another attempt. No not at Era Vella, at our route.

A friendly Swiss woman attempting Era Vella told me there were no hard moves on the climb. She was not being elitist or tongue in cheek, she really believed there were no hard moves. I’m not so sure?

A French man had walked up to the cliff, joined the Era Vella queue, fallen off and headed our way. He didn’t acknowledge the two old men working the warm up. His shoulders and back were so wide he caused a shadow my van could park beneath (and I do own a very large van now!) and his waste was narrow enough I could see he had just eaten a peanut. I now not only felt old, but fat and out of shape.

Rich successfully climbed the crux section clean today. I thought it was on, he would now go all the way to the top. Then I noticed he appeared to be launching and only just hanging holds he usually managed to reach and hold without too much difficulty. Another 9a superstar was about to walk past me. He looked up and decided to wait because he could see an old man above in difficulty. BOOM. There he goes, Rich explodes from the cliff, but hey, he got through the crux section, its more than I’ve managed.

We have 5 more climbing days to plant a flag on the Hard Krit summit, I’m not sure I’ll make it. An unprecedented two rest-day strategy is now taking place to (hopefully), allow skin repair and the unlocking of fingers. I sit outside my van and watch a long train of black ants carrying stuff to their nest. All day, back and forth, carrying, working, labouring, back and forth and as day turns to night I watch the lights on the slow turning turbines change from white to red.


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Tides: The first review from Dennis Gray on Footless Crow.

I wont be posting all reviews, but to get the ball rolling this is the first published on Footless Crow and written by Dennis Gray.

As the book is not yet published its quite important to get the word out and hopefully the word will be favourable. This review is well balanced and good, but it’s always good to remember we all have different opinions and we like, or dislike, different things, and because of this, it doesn’t make a thing good or bad, just to your taste or not. I’m pleased Dennis liked Tides, thanks Dennis.

One thing to point out is Dennis received a pre-publication copy of Tides that was not the finished article. We have now done more editing and all of the pictures in the copy Dennis had were black and white and low resolution, the final book will have full resolution and colour plates.

Here is the review…

And here at Vertebrate Publishing is where you can buy the book.

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Modern Scottish climbing fables #3: Just because you share the same birthday as Jesus, doesn’t mean you can walk on water.

The Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe.

The Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe.


I have walked the long and gently, uphill path to Beinn Eighe’s Triple Buttresses many times. I have plodded past the smooth rocks scattered randomly amongst the heather, and carefully hopped the stepping stones that lead to that wonderfully wide vista of rounded mountains and snow-covered ridges. In later years, as objectives changed, an in over the top approach has been more usual, but on occasion, around the back is still used. My first climb, although for me, not the first time in the coire, was on a climb called Achilles. Achilles is not actually on the Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe, but on the steep, dark cliffs of Sail Mhor. The cliffs of Sail Mhor are on the right when entering the hanging coire, whereas the Triple Buttresses form the natural barrier at the back of the coire making it an even longer approach. On that visit to the coire, Jon Bracey and I had a late start. The snow had been down to the road and delayed our arrival, and after four hours of knee and waist deep, we decided we had done enough. It was already midday, and a line to our right – a line of icicles and daggers hanging from the entrance of a cave with steep rock above, looked worthy.

To cut a long story, Jon and I had a long day that continued into the early evening. We definitely had a bit of a tussle. We both took a big and rattling fall, but continued to the end of the climb with the direct finish. A traverse of the summit ridge, in a white-out followed, I navigated, (ha, how times have changed!) and a careful trudge down the steep slope, in the dark once again, landed us on the path and at last the van. They don’t make grade IV’s like that any more! Climbing on Beinn Eighe, or Sail Mhor had made an impression.

Old school. Rucksack, warthogs, leashes straight shafts, big boots and grade IV. In the gudebook description it said, 'After the ice traverse left into the gully, although it may be possible to continue direct.' Jon and I continued direct and both took a big fall attempting to pull an overhang. It went eventually though. The picture, taken by Jon, is a scan from a slide.

Old school. Rucksack, warthogs, leashes, straight shafts, big boots and grade IV. The guidebook description said, ‘After the ice, traverse left into the gully, although it may be possible to continue direct.’ Jon and I continued direct, and both took a big fall attempting to pull an overhang. It went eventually though. The picture, taken by Jon, is a scan from a slide.

The second climb, a few years later with Jules Cartwright, also made an impression because it was Piggotts Route on the Central Buttress, first climbed in winter by Alex McIntyre and Al Rouse, two climbers, who, in my earlier climbing life, had been revered.

Climbing, not only on Beinn Eighe, but in the Northwest, has always very much appealed and suited. I prefer the space, and the lack of crowds, and the extra effort needed to get there. I prefer the feeling of ancient, the smoothed-round mountains emanate old – the mountains almost speak of times past.

Earlier this winter Matt Stygall, Tim Neill and I climbed the East Buttress on Beinn Eighe in a day of less than perfect weather. Most of the time I like to climb routes that challenge me and to do this I prefer the weather to be calm. I do not climb at my best when soaked from the walk-in, and I do not enjoy being cold and wet, after all enjoyment is what it is supposedly about. But in some way, climbing the east Buttress in poor weather felt the right thing to do, (or at least, OK) as the difficulties are moderate, and if anything, the climb became more memorable because of the buffeting winds and the hail. The place was wild and empty, and to be there felt privileged. It was also relaxing for me because I was climbing alongside two mountain guides who would navigate me from the summit in the white-out.

Matt Stygall and Tim Neill soloing easy ice to reach the foot of Beinn Eighe's East Buttress.

Matt Stygall and Tim Neill soloing easy ice to reach the foot of Beinn Eighe’s East Buttress.

Tim Neill traversing the East Buttress to find the beginning of the route.

Tim Neill traversing the East Buttress to find the beginning of the route.

Tim on one of the upper pitches of the East Buttress.

Tim on one of the upper pitches of the East Buttress.

No worries getting off the top when alongside two mountain guides :-)

No worries getting off the top in a white-out when alongside two very competent mountain guides 🙂

I wanted to share this place with Zylo, my girlfriend, who had never climbed on, or seen the Triple Buttresses, and several days after climbing the East Buttress we returned together.

We left the car park in the dark. Our headtorches lit the track. Lying, and surrounded by snow covered heather, just a few feet from the path, was a stag. We took a moment – the stag looked at us from beneath his white coat that covered his red coat and we looked at him. He didn’t move, even though we were close enough to brush the snow from his antlered head. After a few minutes we left him alone and continued walking. A shower of hail stones made me hide beneath my hood, and beneath our feet the snow and rounded lumps of ice built. Reaching the coire, the wind and snow increased, and we made our way around the left side of the small lochan aiming for the West Buttress, our intended climb.

In front, I kicked a trail crossing a flat section of snow, when my foot broke through what turned out to be the partially frozen surface of a pool. Stepping forward quickly, my right foot plunged through the surface and then both my hands and in a second, I was wading in chest deep water. Zylo laughed, and then grew concerned, as I waded and floundered and struggled to get out of the pool, but get out I did, and that ended the climbing for that day.

Inside the bigger white van with Keith checking the way the night before, because he knows when it comes to navigation he's on his own!

Keith checks the way, because when it comes to navigation, he knows he’s on his own! Inside the bigger white van the night before the climb.

A few days later and with dry feet, I parked my white van alongside a bigger white van. Keith Ball was ensconced inside. The lay-by, beneath Achnashellach train station, near Loch Carron in the Northwest Highlands, was covered in deep snow, and the falling snow, blown on a cold wind, deadens and muffles any sound. Almost, without exception, whenever I drive the narrow roads towards Applecross and Loch Carron – the white passing place signs, Eilean Donan Castle, the train line running alongside the road, I reminisce, remembering a family camping holiday to Applecross years before, and the snow also brings back childhood memories…

… It was six p.m. and dark. The power was off in 6 Brookhouse Road. The heavy snow had brought down the telephone cables. The road passing the front of the house was covered. The rose bushes in the small flowerbed beneath the window were buried. A car sailed past, its headlights illuminating a million falling flakes, its tyres making a swishing sound.

Dad and I stood in the front room looking and watching while the candle in its brass holder flickered yellow. “Mum should be back by now.” Half an hour passed before a green, short wheel base Land Rover pulled up outside the house. Mum jumped out and waved goodbye, before wading the snow to reach the back door.

Mum’s car, the old blue Hillman Minx with the diesel engine taken from a van, was stuck in a drift of snow on the steep and winding top-lane, somewhere above the Rose and Crown pub in Dilhorne. “What made you come that way?” Dad asked. “I stopped and was just about to turn around to take the longer road to Cheadle, when a snow plough slowed and the driver told me to follow. Silly bugger got stuck, so I thought I’d carry on anyway. Lucky for me that Land rover was behind when I skidded off the corner into the snowdrift.” Mum’s hair and face were wet, the warmth from the log burner had melted the snow sticking to her hair. “OK, I’ll get a shovel and some sand and we can drive back, let’s see if we can get up there and dig it out before the snow gets deeper.” Mum turned to me, “Hi my love, how are you, I’ll get some tea on in a bit when we get back.” 

I stood looking out of the front window. Yellowing candlelight flickered across the herringbone bricks of the chimney breast. The log burning cast iron stove pumped heat and inside the stove, the burning logs made a snapping sound. Outside, the snow continued to fall and I watched mum and dad slowly drive away heading towards Dilhorne. The back lights of dad’s car, blurred and dimmed before disappearing into the blizzard…

… At 6am, Keith Ball and I started walking from our white vans and towards Fuar Tholl, the snow was still falling. We walked the track past the lonely building that passed as a train station, before crossing the tracks and heading onto barren, snow swept moorlands. Keith was navigating and the snow was deep.

It was light now, although seeing anything through the driven snow and the cloud was difficult. We dropped down from where the path should have been and Keith, in front, crossed a large stream that flowed with gurgling peaty brown water. Following, I stepped onto an ice covered boulder, and slipped, diving forward, arms and legs plunging into the water, both boots filled.

Sitting on my rucksack, I poured the water from my boots, wrung both socks and replaced them. “Guess that’s it, we should go back?” Keith said, but as I stood with the snow and cloud swirling all around us, I decided I couldn’t turn now, not again, we had already been out here for three hours and the cliff would have be in sight if it wasn’t shrouded. “Let’s keep going, its only wet feet, we’ll be back to the vans later.”

And we did, and we were…

Fuar Tholl's Mainreachan Buttress. Snoopy, first climbed by Chris Dale and Andy Nisbet, takes the left to right, snowy ramp on the right-hand side of the buttress.

Fuar Tholl’s Mainreachan Buttress. Snoopy, VII/7, first climbed by Chris Dale and Andy Nisbet, March 1998, takes the left to right, snowy ramp on the right-hand side of the buttress.

We climbed Snoopy in 7 pitches. It is possible to run a few together. This is Keith on the third pitch after one of the steep and insecure dangerous slab shuffles!

Keith and I climbed Snoopy in 7 pitches. It is possible to run a few together. This is Keith on the third pitch after one of the steep and insecure shuffles!

I climbed what in the description was the fourth, crux pitch, a pitch of superb thin ice with minimal protection and belayed on a thick pillar of ice beneath this, the fifth pitch where Keith climbed direct instead of following the description which describes a hard left traverse to join the line by moving right again after the traverse.

I climbed, what in the description was the fourth, crux pitch – a pitch of superb thin ice with minimal protection, and belayed on a thick pillar of ice beneath this, the fifth pitch. Keith climbed direct instead of following the description, which describes a left traverse to join the line by moving right again higher. I thought by climbing direct it made this the technical crux of the climb, but it was well protected and very worth doing.

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Modern Scottish winter climbing fables #2: Apples and pears. (Well, just pears really)


When I trained to be a PE Instructor, there were two phrases hammered home. The first was, Strength is admirable, but strength without skill is naught and the second was; An expert in one field is a beginner when trying something new.

Now, not for a moment would I call Pete Whittaker a beginner, especially where climbing is concerned, but as Matt Helliker, Pete and myself headed towards Church Door Buttress in Glen Coe, this would only be his fourth outing in winter, so, not a beginner, but not an expert by a long shot. Pete had yet to lead a technical pitch in winter, and of course he was keen to do so, because Pete was Pete – young and keen and everybody’s favourite sparkly eyed, smooth skinned, smiley climber. But the line we hoped to climb was new, so we were not sure what it would involve. We knew it was a crack though because Matt and Pete had spotted the line two days previously when abseiling after completing Pete’s third winter route, the second ascent of an VIII/9 called Church Door Angels (not too shoddy that for your third route). Perfect, a crack for Pete Whittaker, Pete ‘wideboys’ Whittaker, how appropriate, how intriguing, we would unleash the not so secret winter crack weapon… I wasn’t missing this for the world!

blog 2

The three of us sorted gear in a large wind scoop beneath the crag. If Pete was two years younger he would be half my age, and it showed. If I were to use a fruit metaphor, Pete, stood next to me, could have been described as a fresh conference pear; smooth and lean and pale, whereas, after the steep, two-hour walk, I would class my condition as past its best, a little brown and mushy. But hey, the fun was about to start and generally, as long as it’s not raining, and once the walking is done and I’ve dumped the rucksack and changed clothes, I’m reasonably sprightly, possibly a comice – more rotund than a conference, with tougher, darker skin.

Soloing, we climbed until beneath the intended line. A wide crack split the cliff before butting against a roof where a couple of steep moves left would reach a ledge and possibly a belay. There appeared to be a slim crack running the length of the wall above and then, beyond, was anyone’s guess.

Pete Whittaker on his first technical lead of winter. "USE YOUR AXES PETE!"

Pete Whittaker on his first technical lead of winter. “USE YOUR AXES PETE!”

Pete opted for what would be the first pitch, the hand-jam sized crack (no surprise there!). The crack looked OK, but in winter you can never tell, and once on his way, doubts started to flood into the juice of my over-ripe mind. Pete slowed and placed quite a lot of gear and he had only just stepped from the ground. My mind raced, I had watched the Wide Boyz film, Pete was… well, Pete was Pete, possibly the best crack climber in the world, (although Tom Randall may have something to say about this?) my legs almost buckled, and not from fatigue. Matt, belaying to my left, gave encouragement. I swung my head, turning to look directly at Matt and said, “Looks hard.” I found it impossible to encourage, how the hell could I encourage the best crack climber in the world while he was climbing a crack, I wasn’t qualified!

Pete moved a little higher and placed a load more gear. ‘Shit, it must be nails’ and then, he began to jam. No, not with his axe, he was using hands, one of his axes was jammed in a crack to the left, abandoned, deserted, unwanted. His hands – he was using his bloody hands and fists, he was jamming and swaying, and jamming. What was he thinking. Shit, it must be more than nails. More gear, more hand-jams, then Pete stopped. “Sorry, for stopping, my hands are numb… argh, hotaches.” I wanted to shout, “Well of course your hands are numb, its winter and you’re stuffing your hands into an icy crack, use your bloody axes” but again, who am I to tell the best crack climber in the world how to go about climbing a crack, so I remained schtum, while all the time quietly fretting about how difficult this pitch was.

Pete was almost at the top of the crack and needed to move left, but he climbed higher to place a massive hex. My fretting hit overload, Pete had successfully made an all free, rope solo of Freerider on El, Bloody, Cap-E-tan, in 20 hours. And he was now climbing out of his way for gear because he was nervous! I wanted to leave then, this was too much for me, I wasn’t good enough for this. Once Pete had placed the hex he made several attempts to move left, and when he did commit there was a sound that filled me with dread. A power scream. I leaned forward at this point and vomited.

And then he power screamed... And I vomited!

And then he power screamed… And I vomited!

But he made it, he was on the ledge beneath the wall where a belay was constructed. Matt convinced me to stay and at least try to climb this first pitch, which was obviously one of the hardest bits of crack ever climbed in Scotland in winter.

Matt set off and appeared to be doing OK. He complimented Pete on his fine lead. ‘Matt’s climbing well,’ I thought, as he is climbing the most difficult crack pitch in Scotland and can still manage to talk. Respect. But he hadn’t reached the hand-jam bit yet, that’ll slow him. But it didn’t, he stretched and reached right past the hand jams by using his axe and hooked a solid chock-stone. And then it hit me… then, while seconding the pitch using my axes for every move and finding it relatively easy, I remembered the phrase from my PE days… Maybe, on occasion, even the best in the world have to learn a few new tricks. Not a bad start though!

Looking down on the three of us. Pete and myself at the hanging belay. Matt starting the second pitch which was a fine, well protected and strenuous continuous crack. This pitch is just about as good a pitch as any I've ever climbed anywhere in winter. Tech 8.

Looking down on the three of us. Pete and myself at the hanging belay. Matt starting the second pitch which was a well protected, continuous crack. This pitch is just about as good a pitch as any I’ve ever climbed in Scotland in winter. Tech 8. Pic credit, Andy Sharpe

Matt close to completing the second pitch.

Matt close to completing the second pitch.

Pete using his axes for once and not doing a bad job of it. He was a little slowed by my sneakiness which was a lesson I learnt from climbing with The Hippy (Graham Desroy) in summer where I clipped any tricky to get out runners onto Pete's rope.

Pete using his axes for once and not doing a bad job of it. He was slowed by my sneakiness – I clipped any tricky-to-remove-runners onto Pete’s rope, a valuable lesson I learnt from climbing with The Hippy (Graham Desroy) in summer. Speaking of which, The hippy is a fine example of the other phrase I learnt from my PE Instructor days, the one about strength and skill, but with a twist, it would go something like, Strength is admirable but The Hippy doesn’t have any, so uses cunning and skill to get through.

Myself climbing the third pitch. A 50m pitch of dangerous shuffling. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Myself climbing the third pitch. A 50m pitch of dangerous shuffling. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Topping out in the Alpine glow. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Topping out in the Alpine glow. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Pete finds a better use for his axe. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

Pete finds a better use for his axe. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.

The route: Dark Angel, VII/8. Helliker, Whittaker, Bullock. Pitch 1: climb the hand crack, move left at the top, belay beneath a wall with a thin crack running the lenght of the wall.15m. Pitch 2. Climb the crack in the centre of the wall. We belayed on the slopey ledge at the top of the crack, but the best thing would be to continue to the wide snow ledge above after about another 10m. Climbed like this the pitch is about as good as it gets and 30m. Pitch 3: Move right from the snow ledge and climb into a wide over hanging corner on the right. Climb the corner and trend left into a series of turfy and ice grooves. 50m.

The route: Dark Angel, VII/8. Helliker, Whittaker, Bullock. Pitch 1: 15m, Climb the hand crack, move left at the top, belay beneath a wall with a thin crack running the length of the wall. Pitch 2: 35m, Climb the crack in the centre of the wall. We belayed on the slopey ledge at the top of the crack. Possibly, the best thing, would be to continue to the wide snow ledge above, about another 10m. Climbed like this the pitch is about as good as it gets. Pitch 3: Move right from the snow ledge and climb into the base of a wide over hanging corner on the right. Climb the corner and trend left into a series of turfy and ice grooves. 50m. Pic credit, Matt Helliker.


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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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