Sunday 18 December 2011

Breaching The Citadel

I won't lie. My heart sank when I woke, peered through the frosted window, and saw that snow was falling heavily on the Cairngorm ski car park. I had really hoped for a perfect blue sky day and just enough snow to ease, not hinder, our planned assault on the great bastion of the Shelterstone. Alas, the early signs showed that this wouldn't be an easy won battle and so it was proved.

We had heard that conditons on the Shelterstone were good. News had broken of Greg Boswell and Will Simm's repeat of the awesome Stone Temple Pilots (X 9) two days before and a dramatic failed attempt on the Citadel had been reported earlier in the week. I had also heard rumours that Murdoch Jamieson and Martin Moran were on the Needle (VIII 8). Said rumour was confirmed when I was awoken by the succesful duo stumbling back into the ski car park in the early hours of Saturday morning. Martin has since blogged on their impressive ascent.

Our own drama was to be played out on the Citadel (VII 8). An established hard classic often referred to as one of the most sought after winter routes in the Cairngorms. Modern gear and improved climbing standards may have opened this route up to the masses. But with infrequent favourable conditions and hard, sustained, climbing on a big cliff, success has to be earned and is still something to be savoured and celebrated.

On this occasion I was climbing with Neil and, as I've become accustomed, Neil does like to pack alot into a weekend. He arrived at the ski car park at about half past midnight, having first enjoyed his staff Christmas party. When we sorted gear in the morning, he told me he also had plans to climb with Any Inglis on Sunday on Beinn a Bhuird. Hmm I thought...

The usual 2.5 - 3 hr trek across to the Shelterstone took 4 hrs as we misjudgingly followed the eratic trail presumably left by Mssrs Jamieson and Moran several hours earlier, so it was a late 9.30 am when we got to the base of the route. Being mid December it would be dark by 4pm. I've never liked climbing in the dark, but on a climb of this scale and at this time of year it is inevitable. Head torches packed? Double check!

Jim on the Lower Crux (Photo: Neil Adams)

The early pitches passed without incident, but perhaps more slowly than would be ideal due to vast amounts of unconsolidated snow. I led the excellent peg protected lower crux on perfect hooks and, so that Neil could have the upper crux, I led through to the atmospheric aerie stance below the impressive flake. No sooner had I called for Neil to follow, then the last light faded and we were left with a star spangled sky. Two thoughts crossed my mind as my head torch reilluminated the immediate world around me: I don't like climbing in the dark and I'm glad Neil has got the hardest pitch on the route.

Now, I think it's fair to say that from here-on time appears to have advanced at double pace. Neil calmly led the upper crux, as my chilled body stiffened and my toes became numb. I turned my head torch off for a minute as my conscience reasoned I should conserve battery power. In that one minute I have never felt more alone and vulnerable. I quickly turned my torch back on and regained some connection with my surroundings as I intermittently paid the ropes out. I don't mind saying that I found the pitch hard to second. I was losing energy, enthusiasm and warmth quickly and I pulled on every piece of gear Neil had placed to ease upward progress. At the stance I felt in no fit state to lead on. "Neil, I feel really bad about this, but you'll have to take this pitch as well". To his credit and my relief he moved off without challenge.

After several aborted sortees in various directions, we agreed that we could not locate the crack that is supposed to continue from the crux pitch. Did we belay in the right place? Is the crack in the powder covered slab above us? We just didn't know and, to be honest, we just wanted to get the hell out. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Neil traversed out left a short way across more powder covered slabs to a small snow bay, from which rose an open-book corner. "Will it go Neil?" I called. "Not sure yet" came the reply. All I could see was the flickering torchlight around the corner which was gradually gaining height as I paid out the rope. Some time passed and then I heard the call for me to follow. I was now struggling to handle any gear at all with my numb hands and, regretfully, I lost some in the process. But I got to the corner and, as before, simply hauled my way up using the protection Neil had placed.

Before too long I spied Neil belaying above. He was on the top of the Shelterstone, shivering uncontrollably in the biting wind and my first thought was that he was having a fit! It really was time to be off the hill.

Having meekly shook hands, coiled the icy ropes and located our sacks just away from the summit I looked at my watch that I had left behind. It was 11.55pm and we just couldn't believe it!

For the next hour we walked and stumbled on a compass bearing across the Cairngorm plateau and with immense relief we emerged at the mass footsteps marking the Goat Track. Down we went headlong into a maelstrom that was giving us "ice cream" headaches, until we were once again sheltered within the Coire. Another couple of hours on a compass bearing and we saw the welcoming glow of the ski centre. It was 3.15am when I unlocked the van, threw my wet kit in the back and put on a brew. It had been an epic 22 hour day. We were both exhausted, but what a prize! And, yes, we would do it all again!


Sunday 11 December 2011

The Vicar... or Maybe Not

I was out with Jim in the Northern Corries yesterday. It was one of my more eventful days' winter climbing and won't be forgotten in a hurry!

We were both feeling good and had developed a bit of confidence from the first couple of routes of the season so decided to have a wee go at something hard. The Vicar (VII,8, summer E1) is a route that has both inspired me and scared me for a while; it looked to be in excellent nick so we decided it was worth a shot.

The first pitch is shared with Nocando Crack. After reading about Messrs McPherson, Moran and Robertson's recent ascent of that route, we were expecting to find a bit of ice but were still surprised by how much was there. The steep corner near the start of the first pitch was climbed purely on ice, which meant Jim had a fair old run-out by the time he got established on the mixed ground above.

From there, I led a fairly short but quite exciting pitch up to the base of the Vicar cracks themselves. These looked to be in perfect nick from below but on closer inspection, they were heavily iced, making placing solid gear difficult but providing no assistance for the climbing itself. From the belay (a stonking peg plus a couple of nuts in the icy crack), it was obvious that this wasn't going to be easy!

We transferred gear, Jim psyched himself up, I shuffled across to try to get out of impalement range. Jim moved off, clipped the top piece of the belay as a runner, reached up past towards the ledge above then slipped and shot past me. Before I knew it, I was upside down with Jim below me. Looking up, the gear in the icy crack had ripped reducing the three-point belay to one. Jim and I shared a wide-eyed stare and some deep breaths for a second or two, both quickly coming to the conclusion that another attempt wouldn't be wise. I lowered Jim to the ground, rigged an abseil (with lots of paranoid triple-checking of the knot and the anchor) and descended.

We knew we'd been lucky to get away with it, and we had neither the nerves nor the daylight left for an attempt at anything else of a similar standard. However, talking through the options, we realised we were probably he only two winter climbers in Scotland that hadn't done Savage Slit (classic V,6) so we decided to nip up it.

The route was well plastered so it was a little more time-consuming than expected but we managed to get up & down before dark. It certainly helped to settle our heads. It seems a shame to think of it as a 'consolation route' as it's an excellent climb and deserving of its classic status.

In the end, though, our experiences on the Vicar will be the abiding memory from the day. We made a few mistakes - over-ambition under tricky conditions, belaying from a non-ideal position, trusting gear that was compromised by the ice in the cracks - and we both know we were lucky to get away with it. It was a timely reminder that these routes have their reputations for a reason and that we need to pick & choose our moments to push the grade, scaling back our ambitions when conditions aren't ideal.

Monday 5 December 2011

STS on the Ben!

Last Thursday my stomach was turning summersaults and I barely slept as I anticipated my first early morning alarm call of the winter. It wasn't a particularly unreasonable hour (5.45 am), but I didn't feel good. The morning of my first winter day out of the season always fills me with anxiety, but this time it was compounded by the thought of carrying a huge sack up to the CIC hut for a three day stay. So many thoughts running through my befuddled head - have I remembered to gather together everything I need for a big winter day out? Have I stashed those extra batteries? Did I pack the toilet roll for the CIC? Am I going to let anyone down? This is suppoosed to be fun for goodness sake!

It was a late rendezvous at the gondola car park and, as the rain stopped, our advance party distributed copious quantities of food and drink. Our large sacks became huge. There would be 12 of us for 3 days. We had enough provisions to sustain a small expedition for a month. There was no danger of leaving behind the 1.5litre of Famous Grouse but, when Simon Yearsley produced a substantial 5kg block of cheese, astonished faces quickly looked away. I'm not carrying that up there! "Yo Boi Mutherfuddas" cried the ever enthusiastic Mr Boswell as he stashed the cherished cheddar under his rucsac straps. Game on!

This was the 2011 "STS on the Ben". A gathering of prize winners from the Scottish Tooling Series and selected guests. Whilst I wasn't here on merit, I do happen to possess a key for the forest gate (legitimately I hasten to add) which will save us 45 minutes of hell and, as we reloaded the vans, I was conscious of my growing popularity and the principal reason for my invite!

The weather forecast was shocking, so bad that the day before I had genuine doubts about the sensibility of the trip going ahead. However, having staggered to the CIC hut, we were presented with some very white buttresses and significantly better weather than MWIS had indicated.This set the tone for a very enjoyable weekend! It would be several hours before the remainder of our team would join us, so time enough for an afternoon tussle with Gutless (IV 5) on the Douglas Boulder with Greg Boswell, Malcolm Bass and Harry Holmes. We descended in the rain as darkness fell. Although it was wet and windy for much of the night, Saturday morning brought an improvement, albeit the lower buttresses had been stripped of their white coats. We would have to venture higher into Coire na Ciste.

Malcolm Bass (whom I first had the pleasure of climbing with last year when he and Simon Yearsley generously invited me to share the first ascent of Free Range (VII 7) on No 5 Gully Buttress) and I headed for The Groove Climb (V 6) on South Trident Buttress, whilst Greg and Fiona Murray made the second ascent of The Minge (VII 8) on the lower side of the buttress. The latter filmed by our very own "STS on the Ben" film crew.

Malc and I were back at our refuge in good time to enjoy tea and cheese and a passing natter with Simon Richardson, whose tracks we had seen heading to his latest addition on the Ben on the upper reaches of South Trident Buttress. Afternoon became evening and, as Simon Yearsley's fantastic curry creation bubbled away on the stove, our thoughts turned to the likely fate of the remaining team of 4 (including one camerman) who had been climbing Thompson's Route (IV 4), but were yet to return. Thankfully, past 9pm, they stumbled into the hut after a worrying 3 hours lost on the summit plateau in white-out conditions. John Muir Trust please listen and understand that the Number 4 Gully marker has a value way beyond its perceived impact on this wilderness landscape. The sense of relief our friends felt on finding it was all too obvious.

Sunday morning and a slow awakening for me. Perhaps a whisky too many, but I'll blame it on the stiffling heat generated by the fire that had been burning all night. Still, the cloud-base was rising and the buttresses looked promisingly white, so it wasn't long before Greg, Harry and I were breaking trail in the fresh snow. We had intended to climb Sidewinder (VII 8) on South Trident Buttress, but on the approach to Moonlight Gully Buttress we were attracted to an icy hanging groove on the unclimbed face to the left of Right Hand Gully. Good stuff! Your lead Greg!

As it happened, this wee route packed a bigger punch than was evident from below. The crux demanded an aggressive approach to surmount an overhang from the steep slab to enter a hanging icy groove. Ice, just a little too thin, and turf, just a little less frozen than would be ideal, meant tool placements were tenuous. A hard won solid hexentric gave Greg the confidence he needed to push on. A little higher and "Argh, I'm off". Nice lob Greg - glad the hex held!! Having lowered back to the ground, Greg's second attempt led to success. A scary VIII 8 on the day.

Harry and I followed in less than perfect style and, joining Simon, Karen and the cameramen higher on the buttress, we interspersed the giggling banter with talk on how much harder Scottish winter climbing is to dry tooling at Newtyle!

As for the route name, there was little debate. The Big Cheese, in homage to our fromage!

So here's to STS on the Ben 2012. I'll endeavour to earn my place but, failing that, remember guys that I am the gate keeper!!


Sunday 4 December 2011

Battle of the Bulge

I was out in the Northern Corries today with Heike for our first winter route of the season. Plan A was black and we'd both done each other's Plan B, so after much deliberation we had a shot at Bulgy.

I first tried this route last winter with Andy Inglis. The entire crag was sheathed in ice, making it almost impossible to get any gear. We backed off at half-height, fearing a full-on epic or worse if we continued through the crux. Bulgy was therefore unfinished business for me.

Conditions weren't as different today as might be expected. There was certainly lots of ice around, although there was also good neve, crud and powder-on-verglas. It was also pretty wild first thing this morning so all in all, it felt very Scottish.

Heike led off up the first pitch. The leftwards traverse our into the main groove looks trivial from the ground but is actually sketchy, teetery and fall-off-able, but Heike made short work of it and continued up the groove to the base of the steeper corner. I led on from there and decided to bring Heike up to a belay below the crux, letting us communicate a bit more than would otherwise have been possible.

Now came the difficult bit. I'd heard that this route required big gear to protect the crux, but I didn't realise how big - I couldn't even stack hexes to contrive anything big enough. After much procrastination, I finally summoned up the bottle to commit to the move out under the roof which let me get some gear in. All of a sudden, the moves up round the end of the roof looked much more feasible and with only a little more faffage, I got through the crux. This was by no means game over as the climbing above was insecure in the icy conditions, but I eventually teetered, thrutched and grunted my way to the top. There then followed the excitement of the partially free-hanging abseil back to the packs then off home for tea and medals.

Winter is definitely here, and I hope this'll be the first of many satisfying days in the mountains in the months to come.

Monday 28 November 2011

The Power of Psyche

Well that's it. Job Done. Project sent!

Last week felt intense, with the anticipation of success weighing heavy on our shoulders. But this week was different with a chilled vibe in the cave courtesy of Greg Boswell, James Dunne and their tunes! I don't think I've ever met anyone quite so enthusiastic for everything and everyone, but Greg's psyche is infectious! My moods and confidence are heavily influenced by those around me (that's me in life, not just as a climber) and with bucket-loads of Greg's psyche being thrown around there was to be no failure today!

A quick warm up and then Neil teased us by failing at the crux figure 4 move on his first red-point attempt of the day. A rest, and then he sent it in style! Neil will say he struggled. But to those watching below it appeared effortless. Perfectly choreographed. Faultless. An hour later Neil had another go for the sake of training. But this time it was a different man who tied into the end of the rope. Having already accomplished what he came for, there was no longer any hunger. No psyche. So, having fumbled his way to the sixth clip, it was time for Neil to call it a day. It had been a good day and now it was time to relax, enjoy the banter and drink tea!

My ascent was by no means flawless. Typically tense with red-point anxiety my fingers began to uncurl, again, from my right tool on the figure 4 crux. But with encouraging shouts and tunes below, I managed to relax just enough to complete the move. Dropping my right tool in the process I had no option but to make the l-o-n-g reach to clip the lower-off from the second to last hold. Back on the ground I think I smiled outwardly and shared a polite handshake with the supporters in the cave. But inwardly I felt psyched and, but for the effects of four all out red point attempts and the fading winter afternoon light, I wanted more!

Great things can happen when you're psyched. Time will tell for me. But in the words of Alan Partridge "You're a tiger. Grrrrrr!!!!"


Monday 21 November 2011

Gorilla's in the Mist!

Another week of work draws to an end..... another week of watching the never ending autumn and warm wet weather fronts drift by. And yet, for one more week, all i can think about is climbing the wall of dark, dank, dripping, man-made hole in the ground..... bizarre to the outsider yes, but not to those who know the challenges that the cave provides! And that cave would be the Tube at Birnam Quarry, Scotlands premier tooling venue, and probably most frequented crag this autumn! The target....the Fast and the Furious, D/M10/+/quite hard.

Yesterday was another crack at the Fast and Furious for Neil, Jim and myself, with 1 significant difference from the previous 3 or 4 sessions, this time we knew it was on! No more pussy footing around trying to just make 1 more move, or 1 more clip, today was Team sending day..... or so we thought! Conditions were unusual with mist hugging the trees and in the cave, more drips than usual and strange air to the place...... and not just in that corner of the cave! Gorillas in the mist indeed!

First up, get the clips and rope in. A couple of lasso's later and the rope was in.... small bonus, someone must have been smiling down on me, but then I should have already known it was going to be a good day after seeing the finest ever example of a 'walk of shame(r)' at 8.30am that morning in Aberdeen! Truely amazing! Female, early twenties, short skirt, terrible hair, stumbling across the road looking like an extra from Shawn of the Dead, as I brake to avoid running her over...... although by the look on her face, she might have been happier if I had just put her out of her misery!!!!

Anyway, back to business..... a quick pull up through the first few moves, back to the ground,then 1st RP of the day. Boom! Route done! Amazing what happens when you know the route inside out, your muscles know what to do, you have the confidence to execute the moves in the right sequence and you can just hang on long enough!

Jim Styling his way up!

Neil chilling out at a semi rest.

Now for support team, photography and belaying duties to complete the Team send, which was not to be, with Neil managing a phenomenal effort to deny himself the tick while having the rope and lower off clip in the same hand..... NOOOO.... sooooo close! Another sterling effort of smooth climbing by Jim took him past his previous high point to a clip from the top, although really he loves the place so much that he is willing to forego the tick just so he is motivated to return! ;-)

As with some projects, the relief of completion often outways the enjoyment, and in my case that is definitely true. Knowing that winter was on its way and having lots of other commitments coming up soon, it felt now or never..... maybe I just need that pressure sometimes!

Suppose I should now concentrate on the other big thing on the go at the moment......hmmm oh time!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Training for Something?

As I write this its early, theres a nip in the air and even frost on the grass outside. The heating is on (but not for long as although I now live in Scotland, I mustn't forget my Yorkshire roots) and maybe, just maybe, winter is finally on its way?

The last month has seen me taking part in all four rounds of the Scottish Tooling Series as well as four sessions on "The Fast and the Furious" at Newtyle Quarry. Whilst this style of climbing is far removed from the Scottish winter scene, it's provided training opportunities and alot of fun along the way. But now the tooling series is over, and the white stuff is yet to arrive, I'm left with a distinct feeling of an anticlimax. What to do now?

I've come to the conclusion that I like training for something definite and tangible. With the tooling comps it's a date in the diary and X number of sessions leading to it. It's the excitement and nervous energy with a day to go... and with "Fast and Furious" its a tool placement closer each session and the eager anticipation of when I'm next going to be able to drive the 2 hours down the road to get my "fix"... hopefully this weekend!!

But with the last two winter seasons (my first living in Scotland) I have been spoilt. This time last year I'd already climbed my first winter routes. Like everyone, I have my goals. My big "ticks" for the season. But, right now, I feel like I'm in limbo. WHEN will the winter finally arrive and WHEN will my targets be in perfect "nick"?

Well I have 2-4 December as a definite date in my diary. I will be the lucky occupier of a bed in the CIC Hut courtesy of Big Tree Campervans and the Scottish Tooling Series. Who knows what, if anything, will be "in". But all I can do is prepare for and train for the next 2 weeks and, with a bit of luck and a prayer to the winter gods, I will achieve something worth training for.


Thursday 10 November 2011

Welcome to the Scottish Climbers Blog!


Through this blog, a few of us plan to record our adventures in the Scottish hills and further afield. None of us is an elite climber but we're all keen, reasonably experienced and motivated for the next big route. We read other climbers' blogs regularly, particularly over the winter to gauge conditions, so we hope this blog is just as useful and entertaining for others as many of our favourite blogs have been for us.

Since we're on the countdown to the start of the winter season, here are a few of our highlights from last winter to get the psyche going:

Andy Inglis eying up the pillar on Square-Cut Chimney on Creagan a'Choire Etchachan

Francis Blunt on the crux of Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears on Beinn Eighe

Jim Higgins on the second pitch of Sioux Wall on Ben Nevis

Andy Inglis on the top pitch of Messiah on Beinn Dorain

Me on the start of the main pitch of Strident Edge

Lets hope we get another winter like that this year!