Wednesday 13 October 2010

Peace of Mind

 The Roaches, Staffordshire

In 1996 I was nineteen and, like most people, at a pivotal time in my life. In the previous twelve months I'd left school, got a driving licence, got stuck into what remains one of only two periods of full-time employment in my life, and then spent my earnings on a rack and a plane ticket. I spent more than a few days that winter at The Roaches, often alone, and it was during those magical days that my feelings on ethics began to slowly coalesce. Like many youths, I was keen to test myself, and got straight on with shunting a few of the areas classic testpieces. It felt wrong, but I wasn't really sure why. This was how the top guys worked wasn't it?

Some months later, I finished up in Yosemite. It was early August, and the heat was debilitating. I marvelled at how anyone could contemplate spending days on the shadeless walls. Arriving alone, in Camp 4 I hooked up with a loose bunch of Californians and got a tour of the valley. In the heat of midday we followed the Merced downstream, and swam in deep pools of frigid water where great boulders had tumbled from the valley sides to dam the river. Later, as the shadows grew and the air cooled, we toured the boulders behind camp, chalk and voices hanging in the thick still air. At dusk, we'd eat, settle onto the picnic benches, and share stories. It was a meeting of religions. For them, they were at their Mecca. Nothing could top it. Climbers packed for El Cap with typical American enthusiasm; “Tomorrow we'll be a thousand feet high on the biggest stone in the world!” For me, it was incredible... but not perfect. The rock a little lacking in friction, a bit harsh in its shapes, the moves a bit obvious. Size isn't everything. (I'm not alone here. A few years later a friend from down the road in Cheshire landed in Camp 4, met Ron Kauk, and immediately asked him if “he knew The Roaches at all?” Somewhat disappointingly, he didn't.)

El Capitan, Yosemite

One evening, over dinner, I made the mistake of bringing up gritstone. The superior friction. The magical moves. The pure style in which we climbed. At first the lads seemed impressed - “No bolts? No pins? At all? But what do you do on the face climbs?” “Well, if there's no gear, we just solo them” I told them. “Wow. Even the new routes?” “Yeah, sure, after a bit of top-rope practice.” The bombshell dropped, and they laughed, shook their heads, turned away. As the ridiculousness of dropping a top-rope down a giant Valley cliff dawned on me, someone started on another story “... its plumb-vertical dude! 5.11C, maybe D... so bold! Bachar goes way out, sixty feet man, just on these shitty knobs. Finally he puts a skyhook on a crystal, and drills a bolt. Each time he lowers back to the belay, and starts again, so he's not usin' the bolts to rest. Radical, man!”

I stuck to listening for the rest of the evening. I'd formed my views of right and wrong on the Pennine Edges, not realising they were being shaped by the landscape itself. Headpointing was no more suited to Yosemite than ground-up bolting was to gritstone. My perfectionist mind had followed simplicity as a sign of purity; now I realised all is compromise. But I could see a beauty there too, in those concessions - they fitted to their environment with a rightness apparent in all things that evolve in response to natural forces. For me, that rightness is something that is felt in the gut first and only later intellectualised. Perhaps nowadays the over-analysis of methods and tactics gives us a clearer view of the hierarchy of styles, but the visceral reaction remains, and I trust it.

So sat that evening in Camp 4, I struggled a little with this idea that bolts might be justifiable, but what resonated with me most strongly was something else. What is more natural in this sport than a ground-up approach? The gut feeling I'd had back in February swam into focus. Top-rope inspection suddenly seemed contrived and deeply unadventurous. Headpointing, for me, was a compromise too far. I never top-roped again.

This month's Climb magazine - out later this week - has a piece of mine on Grit on-sighting - partly my own story, partly the bigger picture. The above was part of the original draft of the article, but didn't make the final edit - word counts can be a struggle! I thought it worth sharing anyway -  hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Turn, turn, turn

Callow Bank, November morning
Every year, around now, I take great delight in being a gritstone climber. As August slides into September, the summer ends. Holidays are over, its back to school, to work - another disappointing summer over, and a long winter ahead. For most, a good excuse to moan. For the gritstoner, every chilly morning, every dark evening, the strengthening wind and the first falling leaf - all are reminders of the cold, crisp magic ahead. Come November - not so long now - and a clear sky will freeze the moisture from the air, leaving the Pennines sparkling like crystal under a cold, blue dome. The hills will be full of colour - great swathes of bracken red as a fox, beech leaves twisting copper and gold in the low sun. I can't wait.

In the meantime, things are busy. I've got lots of photography projects going on, including shooting a walking book, and some work on the new RSPB/ NT Eastern Moors partnership. I've also just finished a big article for next month's Climb magazine. New editors Dave Pickford and Ian Parnell have got some exciting ideas and its been great working with them. I'll expand a little more on the piece nearer the time, but its about finding my way to a fulfilling ethic on gritstone.

I'm also still teaching Rope Access - having just set up a new company with an old friend. Access Techniques Ltd will be running regular IRATA rope access courses from next week. Aide and I had both taught regularly for ATS over the years (something of an institution in the Sheffield climbing scene - being the first rope access training venue in town, and next door to the Foundry) and when they ceased trading it seemed like a good opportunity. Our new venue near Bramhall Lane is a much better building than the old ATS warehouse - being bigger, higher and with more interesting steelwork - and I'm looking forward to running some exciting courses there. Whether you're an old hand needing to reval, or just curious to find more about the industry, get in touch with us via the website.

Aide sorting gear down at ATL

Yet despite a busy year, I've somehow managed to keep a reasonable climbing standard. Back in June I managed my first sport 8a - The Ogre on Chee Tor, and in July I managed a clean on-sight of Supersonic at High Tor, which whilst not especially hard has been a long-held ambition. Last week I spent in Mallorca on a Deep Water Solo stag trip. Its not something I've ever been massively drawn to but can highly reccomend it - amazing. I'll post some more later, but here's a taster. Looks shit doesn't it?

Cala Barquez, Mallorca 12m high, sea temp 29 deg.

Monday 28 June 2010

Midsummer in Wales

Finally I could rest. I wriggled down into my bivvy bag, breathed deep and slow the mountain air, and tried to sleep. It was well after midnight, and late on this solstice night the darkness was almost complete. The patch of sky framed by my sleeping bag was small, and a lone star glowed small in the centre. Below, the skyline was reduced to a black cut-out against the last glimmer of light on the horizon. Bristly ridge, Tryfan, shapes from my childhood - when climbing meant mountains, and long days moving through them. I hadn't been back in a long time.

 Wild Goats, Glyder Fawr

Starting as the last walkers left the hills, I'd climbed Y Gribin to the high plateau of the Glyders, where a tribe of goats relaxed in the evening sunshine. My plan had been for Castell Y Gwynt, but on a whim I turned west and photographed the sunset amongst the little tors and scattered stones of Glyder Fawr. While the sun still lit the summits I worked on the view I'd pre-visualised - the vista of  Yr Wyddfa to the west. As ever, the elements that make the scene sing can rarely be planned, tonight - a great sea of cloud filling the west but held back by the hills, sending long tendrils of vapour along the valleys to the south.

The Snowdon massif from Glyder Fawr

As the sky glowed gently in the minutes after sunset, I made my favourite photograph of the night, facing east along the broad ridge of the Gyderau. I composed it instinctively, trying to simplify the elements and create a gentle balance between land and sky. There aren't many of the rules of compostion being obeyed here, but I'm happy that it works.

Glyder Fach from Glyder Fawr

A long stumble over Glyder Fach in the gloaming led me, finally, to Llyn y Caseg Ffraith, where I had water for my dinner and a plan for the morning. The dawn came slowly. A crimson bleed on the horizon, high clouds first dark then pastel pink, a cold breeze strengthening. The cloud sea had crept up the valley in the night, and spilled like a tide over the bwlch, burning away in the light of the sun. I was cold in my bivvy, and delayed rising too long. The gentle colours of the pre-dawn were far superior to the blast of light as the sun appeared. The air was clear, too clear, with no haze to soften the light, and no cloud to fill in the shadows.

First light on Tryfan 

I took the long way back to the car by way of Cwm Cneifon, hunting amongst the rocks of Clogwyn Ddu for the Snowdon Lily. It was perhaps a little late, and I found none. It was a treat to see the cliff decked in alpine flowers though - Stonecrops, Roseroot, Starry Saxifrage and Navelwort. As I walked down cloud boiled over the ridge and played with the light, conjuring pillars and gullies from the crags. All was silent, save for the dry ringing of my footsteps in the scree, and a Ring Ouzel's piping song echoing around the Cwm.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Life and Death at Donington


To the north, the fields and farms of the Midlands stretched away to the Ashbourne hills and the start of the Pennines. Closer, the parkland sloped downhill to the deer fence bordering the woods, through which the sparkling reflections of the lowering sun betrayed the River Trent. A little upstream, two swans turned gracefully on the current, silhouetted black on shimmering gold. Water from much of the English Midlands flows gently past this point on its passage to the sea. To the west tributaries fan out to drain the Black Country, the Potteries, and the southern Peak. Just downstream they are joined by the Derwent, bringing both the acid waters from the high moors of the Peak, and the warm, hard waters that rise from the caves and springs of Buxton and Matlock. Together they turn and flow slowly north across the drained fens of Lincolnshire, to a muddy confluence with the Ouse in the broad valley of the Humber.

Running east along the ridge was the broad tree-studded grassland of classic English deer park, on which my companion, Guy, was conducting a bat survey for English Nature. Mentioned in the Domesday book, it has been been parkland as long as records have been kept. Strictly private too, with a concomitant style of gentle management that can disregard concerns of public safety, liability, and tidiness. Here perhaps a third of the great Oaks are classed as 'veterans' - some 250 in all - often huge, always gnarled, and left to grow into a state of majestic decay that would be deemed dangerous elsewhere. It is not a unique site, but certainly significant - the famous ancient pollard Oaks, or 'Dodders', of Windsor Park number barely 100.

The younger trees are typical oaks, with a neatly deer-browsed base supporting the full canopy that the open setting allows. As they settle in to old age - and great age it is, according to the old rhyme 'Three centuries he grows, and three more he stays, Supreme in state, and in three more decays'  - parts of the trunk begin to die, and the tree seems to slowly collapse in on itself. Trunks become great barrels, often hollow, whilst upper limbs typically die first, creating the classic 'stag-headed' Oak - bare, pale branches reaching up from a shrinking canopy. With the gradual decline comes great character. No two veteran trees are alike. Their charisma is impossible to resist, deeply individual but always with the same qualities of stately, regal bearing combined with a deep, aboriginal wildness. I climbed a little way up one, and it unnerved me. The thickened, ancient bark felt light and weak, and poorly bonded to the dry trunk that groaned hollowly beneath. It was as if the tree had gone, leaving only the husk.

Quietly approaching a huge oak with a great almond-shaped cavity high in its trunk, a pale shape resolved blinking amidst the darkness. Before I could raise my binoculars it was out; the sandy back and silent, buoyant flight of a Barn Owl. I smile at the presumption of our name in this ancient setting - trees like this would have been their homes long before barns were even an idea. Its flight takes it past another Oak, this one long dead, its barkless, bleached limbs reaching upwards still into the dusk, frozen in life like a figure struck by lightning. It was from such a tree, perhaps, that Herne, the great hunter and keeper of Windsor forest, hung himself in a tale that was old whilst this tree was young. As the last rays of the sun left its branches a perfect full moon rose pink in the east.

Our transect takes us back to the woods above the river, and a sudden scuffling in the undergrowth. The striped head of a badger nods as he squints at us. He seems unable to convince himself that we are not just deer, and dashes noisily away only to return once, then twice, to stare, snort and rush off again. By the woods the bat detector chirrups constantly - the steady chip-chip-chip of a Noctule, then the staccato rush of a feeding Pipistrelle. Earlier their dashing, twirling flight was visible against the sky, often close enough to touch, but here by the woods the darkness has collected, thickened and now they fly beyond our senses.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Website move

My main website,, will be down for a few hours today whilst I switch host servers.

The new servers have much more potential, and will help me expand the site and its functionality. I'm looking into hosting the blog there too, or I might host a photography blog on there, and keep this just as a climbing blog... any preferences?

Friday 23 April 2010

Golden Feet

I've been climbing a lot recently with Neil 'Nige' Kershaw, a man memorably described by Si Wilson as the 'beady-eyed, self-proclaimed cock-of-Lancaster'. We've got a lot in common in terms of size and climbing style, and a habit of regularly climbing with The Best without quite making the grade ourselves. Kind of Premier League reservists, if you will.


The last few weeks, though, have seen Nige step it up a gear and hit a real run of form involving onsights and ground-ups of many sought after routes. As a result I've written a bit of a profile on his achievements (in what you have to remember is his second sport - his sports teacher thought he was god's gift to cricket...) over on UKC. On here I can cut to the chase, and instead of sober listings look at who he's burned off. Recently that has included all comers. Not just consistently myself (no big feat), the likes of P Whiddy but even Caff himself, a feat Pete Robins calls 'the best feeling in climbing'.

After I blew my car up checking on the Ring Ouzels last week, I was stuck without transport amidst perfect blue skies. Frustrating, but Nige was on hand in the evenings, so he provided the transport and by default therefore got to choose the crags. Tuesday night saw us up at Burbage South freezing our arses off. Its never easy judging your clothing on an April evening with a northerly breeze, but I was cold. Too cold to climb, so I settled for belaying Nige and getting some fresh air.

 Nige cruising Ramshaw Crack at the weekend

After a swift warm-up on Goliath, Nige got onto Braille Trail, sporting a bizarre rack of gear Pete had lent him. In the first slot, reached from the floor, went a bracket pinched from the gear display in Outside's rock room. Above is another slot, for which Nige had two allen keys finger-taped together, then a sort of metal spatula, again sporting a taped on quickdraw, which was presumably for the slot further out. Strange thing was, it seemed to be a better fit here. But surely the allen keys wouldn't go in further out? Turned out that they didn't, and neither did any of his sliders. Somewhere amidst this, rapidly chilling, something popped and he was off. Round two went a bit better, this time the allen keys went high and the spatula went in the slot. It looked terrible. Then onto the crux, desperately smearing out right, he threw his right foot out high onto the arete and started rocking. And he was off, the spatula came straight out, and he ended upside down, hatless, in a tangle of ropes. It was nearly dark, so we bailed.

Twenty-two hours later, we're back and the conditions are great. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade and the breeze has lost its edge. Ryan has come along for the ride, freeing me up from belay detail so I can take photos. We warm up on a few classics, then a couple of obscure slabs that are perfect training - Bath House Pink and Mad Llehctim. Then its back on with the programme. Nige is fannying about and I'm struggling to subdue my enthusiasm. Nige gets the hint, a coin is produced, tossed, and I lose. Balls. With painful thoroughness, he ties on and squeaks his boots. I fidget with my camera.

We've got a better gear selection this time - I've dug out a few of my Dad's old mild steel pegs and a couple of the BD micro-cams. There are no hitches as Nige gets out to the slot, places one of the BD cams and continues. The foot goes back out to the arete, and he's out there. Looks scary. A couple of false starts and then he starts rocking up, right where everyone falls off in the videos... but he doesn't, and runs it out up the flutings to the top.

 probably the physical crux - gaining the arete

Now my turn. I get tied on, step on and fiddle with the pegs. They're okay, but I'm on edge, my heart is racing and head woolly. I step back down, deep breath and try to focus. Back on, and I nail the entry foot swap pefectly and click into the zone. Step out, down to the pocket, reseat the cam and glide out to the arete in a state of flow. Now I'm really committed. Twenty years climbing, thousands of hours on the ropes, and I've got my cheek on the rock telling myself not to look down. The sidepull is a stretch, and poor. The foothold is similar. Hmmm. Deep breath. Stretch again, I catch an slight positivity and seat my middle finger into it. My right hand finds an undercut pinch and I'm stepping up, reaching through... and its a jug! Its over. Just a stretch to the next fluting and a romp to the top; I expected to be gripped stupid but am already celebrating.

 initiating the rockover (pics by Nige)

I really can't believe that in twenty-six years no one has climbed this route in good style before - surely someone has? Its a pretty sad indictment of the local hard grit scene if it hasn't, and I include myself in that. Its not hard for the grade, you can pretty much see what to do, and its absolutely classic. I guess the gear may be a problem as it was for Nige, so for everyone else - here's the rack; leave your allen keys at home. Our ascents are there to be improved upon.

Monday 29 March 2010

March Roundup

Well its been interesting month for lots of reasons. Did my first new winter route, lost my job, appeared on TV, and easily repeated what I had thought of as one of my greatest achievements... lots to think about!

Last night the BBC's Countryfile ran a short piece on the Ring Ouzels at Stanage (skip to ~52:40). It was nicely timed - the first birds arrived back from Morocco last week - but when we filmed it two weeks ago it was chilly to say the least. Its surprising how long these things take, and we were up at the crag for a full eight hour day, including a good ten takes of the topout scene (due to problems with wind noise on the mic), though having the same conversation repeatedly seems de rigeur for this kind of thing, and an interesting experience. Plenty of stuff didn't make the final cut, but overall I think the message that climbers and birds need not be at odds came across fairly well.

Elsewhere life has been a bit up-and-down. The contract which has been my bread-and-butter these last few years imploded during February leaving me both out of pocket and without a steady income. I didn't make any resolutions this year, but leaving my life more open to chance seems to be the new regime. So far its working out okay, with some interesting projects on the horizon, but adjusting to not knowing where the next mortgage payment is coming from can be trying.

 Sunset behind Mam Tor

Climbing form can be a funny thing. Almost exactly a year ago I did perhaps the most powerful problem I've ever done; this year my stock line is "well, I've not been bouldering much this year". Last time I tried Brad Pit I couldn't do it, and I haven't been to Burbage West in months. The weather, of course, has been the main factor, and I'm not complaining - this March a new route on The Ladders feels just as sweet as The Joker did last year.

Ben Bransby on the last hard move of The July Crisis V,5, Ysgolion Duon

But before the thaw finally set in I managed to bag not only that day's winter climbing, but also another classic day snowballing. It was pretty unbelievable to be up at Marble Wall almost seventy days after the main snowfall and still have huge drifts turning trad routes into highballs. Back in January Si Wilson reckoned Goosey Goosey Gander was perhaps the sweetest plum and I finally got it, and Nectar, done some six weeks on. Proud as these routes are, leading them is an experience defined as much by gear faff as it is with movement. Having the chance to go without, in a clean burst of pure movement was a real privilege, and one that's unlikely to come around again soon.

Nige Kershaw on Goosey Goosey Gander, normally E5 6a

Further along, under Good Clean Fun, several dead sheep remained in a huge hollowed drift that had become their grave. Huddled together yet frozen stiff, their fleeces moved with the wind, and it was impossible to think they weren't about to jump up and run away. Closer, a slight awkwardness of position belied the truth that the Ravens had long since had their eyes, and a stark reminder that for me a winter that has mostly meant fun has had another side all together. As spring gathers momentum, how the rest of the food chain will be affected remains to be seen. If previous hard winters are anything to go by, small birds will be the hardest hit.

Last of the snow cover, Wardlow

Yesterday I made my annual visit to Black Rocks, hoping to get some shots of a ground-up ascent of Gaia, but ending up highballing on The Block. A bit hungover, I struggled to get going and made very shaky work of the warm-ups. Amazingly neither Pete nor Caff had done much on The Block, a piece of rock to me that is almost the spiritual home of grit highballing. Thankfully a sandwich gave me some much-needed solidity and after an initial fumble I managed Velvet Silence fairly smoothly.

One from the archive - Jvan Tresch on The Block's entrance exam - Velvet Silence, E6 6b, 2002

Next was Jumpin' on a Beetle, on which Caff showed me a much easier sequence that went first go. Pete eventually followed suit, and ever-ambitious, Caff shifted the pads under Angel's Share. My ground-up of this three years back was certainly the most 'newsworthy' thing I've ever done, and since I think only Ryan Pasquill has managed a repeat.

Caff had a couple of goes, but didn't seem to be getting to grips with the palm I found crucial. I went up to show him, and next thing was on the top. I'm not sure at all where that came from! I knew last time I could have done it quicker given better form, but I'm really not sure that's the case at the mo. The clean Nige gave the slab back in November certainly helped (and proves a wet clean with a nylon brush is far superior to a dry clean with anything stiffer), as did having boots in perfect nick for smearing - ie soft to the point of being about to go through. But I suspect the bottom line is it isn't that hard. With seven or so pads, not an enormous number, its certainly a long way from cutting edge highballing nowadays. Things have moved on a lot in the last few years. The main lesson I could apply from last time was not to get summit fever. You can reach the top seam from the second smear, but not do anything with it. Try to, and your heels will lift and you're off. This is harder than it sounds, as most people are feeling somewhat adrift at this point and rather prone to clutching at straws...

Saturday 6 March 2010

Western Gully

Ysgolion Duon - The Black Ladders
When I was about fifteen, having kicked steps up the back of Cwm Ffynon Lloer, we walked the ridge between Carnedds Dafydd and Llewelyn and peered down into Cwm Llafar at the brooding mass of The Black Ladders. A big crag, a serious crag, I was told, not for the inexperienced. A couple of years later they were pointed out again, this time from the A55, en route to Idwal for my first day's ice climbing. I could tell from the tone of Gary's voice that up there was the real deal. For me motivation is closely tied to my relationship with a place, and little events like those from formative years have lasting effects. Finally last year I managed to get up there myself, and was impressed. Conditions weren't perfect though, and we had to be content with a couple of pitches at the base. This year was a similar story (see January's post)  and despite this great winter I was beginning to despair of ever completing a route.

Ben soloing up the initial steep band
So its not often I get a pang of jealousy when I hear about someone else doing a route, but for few years now ascents of Western Gully have illicited just that. Ysgolion Duon/ The Black Ladders aren't just significant to me, they're our best winter climbing venue outside Scotland. Western Gully is the best line and justfiably famous.

Ben on the famous crux slab

Classically graded a solid V,6, it's recently seen an upgrade to VI,7 amidst reports of it being a tough outing. The internet has made judging conditions so much easier in the last few years, but any reports were five days old and a rising freezing level was forecast. Would it be in nick? We left the van early, and walking into a bitter wind the ground crunched encouragingly. At the first steep band we geared up and then soloed up to the start of the gully proper. Placements were fantastic, even in the snow, and we romped up barely needing to swing an axe twice. Ben's ambition has its advantages sometimes, and his yen for the crux pitch left me the long 6 pitch below and the 5 above. All went without a hitch, too easily if anything, and things only got interesting on the final pitch of the direct finish where the bomber neve finally gave way to deep hoar. Feeling a bit short-changed by his crux pitch, Ben threw in a bit of final mixed spice above, and we were onto the final snow slope.

grand surroundings on the final pitches

I led through, stepped onto the ridge and into the sunshine. There was no wind. Instead I stumbled against the intense glare of the sun. The surface of the blanket of snow had melted and refrozen, and was covered in a thin skin of clear, shining ice. The sun was was hot, and squinting into the west the summits of the Glyderau and Yr Wyddfa shone like polished metal. Far beyond, Mynydd Cilan lay as a dark hump in a bright, still sea. A few distant walkers gave scale to the great ridges of the Carneddau, and we headed east up Llewelyn in an alpine wonderland.

looking west along the top of The Ladders to Carnedd Dafydd

The descent was a walk into spring. A stream sprang from the base of the snowslope, and I stopped and filled my bottle. The Cwm was absolutely silent except for the quiet gurgling of meltwater. No lambs yet, nor flowers pushing up, but the heat of the sun and the still air told of warmer times ahead. Lower down catkins the colour of sunshine hung in the hedgerow hazels, and a different bird sang from every tree. If winter was over, it was a great way to end it. But I suspect there'll be a little more yet.

Friday 19 February 2010

Raven's gully

I can't help being a bit of a believer in karma when it comes to the weather. Put the time in, slog it out even on the grim days, show the crag you're doing it for the love of it, and sooner enough you get rewarded with something special.


It might seem a just case of buying more lottery tickets, but the other way round seems to apply too - go out too fast, too keen, aim for a big tick straightaway, and the weather has a funny habit of shutting you down, knocking you back. So I'm blaming this grit season's weather (which, snowballing bonus aside, has been perhaps the worst in recent memory) on Caff's arrival in Hathersage last september, and subsequent lack of respect for the crags. Now he's tied up back at work, I'm expecting whatever the winter equivalent of an indian summer is. Stand by folks! The other possibility is of course that the crags are in a more permanent huff, caused by folk's general retreat to The Climbing Works given so much as a cloud on the horizon. I'll take dodgy weekend weather over crowds anyday, but if it stays like this y'all are going to have to show the rock a little more love!

Buachaille Etive Mor at first light

And so it is with the winter nick, which is what any sensible climber in Britain is concentrating on right now. After my shaky start to the season, I took a bit of a gamble and headed north despite not knowing much about the weather, or even how I was going to get back south again. It seems the gods love a trier, and we woke in Ben's van to a snow-capped Buachaille gently glowing in a perfect clear dawn. Its hard to drive past such a sight, so we headed up to Raven's gully, buoyed by a couple of other guys with the same idea. By the time we got to the base they'd already checked it out, and were heading down. 'Not enough ice' was the verdict, 'unless you're into that Dave MacLeod shit'. I caught a twinkle in Ben's eye and up we went, for the compulsory 'wee look'.

Raven's Gully

Raven's is a bit more intimidating than the average scottish gully. It's steep, deep and narrow - more of an oversized chimney-crack. Five or six massive boulders lie wedged at intervals and form the major difficulties. The moves past are short lived, but dependent on ice smears and the height of the snow banks underneath. The perfect route for a couple of boulderers? After ten metres of snow we were tucked in a dry cave full of delicate icicles. Two chockstones were stacked above, but the gear looked good, and retreat easy. Can't harm to try, eh? Fifteen minutes and a lot of scratching later, and Ben had given up on the traditional left wall and moved onto the right. A sneaky gloved jam, some hand-swaps, and he was up. Now my turn. Even in good nick the left option gets tech 6, not a grade I've climbed before, so it was going to be a tough warm-up!

Just getting past the first, easier, chock was bad enough, and I plomped back down in the snow when my attempted wide bridge popped. A more determined approach saw me laid on the chock, panting, and then it was onto the crux. I avoided Ben's jam with a sneaky torqued adze, and leant out left and got a placement in the base of the smear. Before I could stop myself I'd run my feet up, whacked in a heel-toe, freed the adze and crossed through and got a better axe placement. Feet out, lean forward, wriggle right axe out, wish I was leashless, big stretch, plant once, twice... and I was up. How hard could the rest be?

Ben was ensconced in the next cave, which looked even drier, and my pitch followed a similar pattern, though this time with some awkward chimneying thrown in. And so it went on: another pitch, another chockstone, the next one featuring some wrist-straining wide bridging, followed by locking-off dodgy hooks in snow which had me wishing for a face mask.

Above the gully branched, and I headed up only to find Ben a good way up the wrong branch. On the plus side, it meant a top-rope for the tricky section switching back into the left branch, and I gained some snowy grooves. I did my best, but a tricky section had me placing a big hex before I could get above Ben, and I knew I was in for some rope drag. Thankfully it eased above, and I ran out another twelve metres or so before another steepening. A frustrating search for gear came up with nothing, and I pushed on ever further above the hex on crappy snow, only to get to another steepening. Now I'm not shy of a run-out, but I wasn't prepared to push on any further, and got stuck into another long hunt for gear. Finally an almost-spike and an icy cam off to the left at least gave the rope some punctuation, and it was up again.

With proper neve, or some trickles of ice, this pitch would have been steady IV, but with only crusty snow and the odd buried turf blob it was decidedly tough. Above looked easier, but the rope drag was getting bad. Ben stripped his belay and climbed down, and I pushed higher, but still no belay in sight. Higher was a tight chimney that looked like the final hurdle, and in the back I found out a small chock and threaded my first decent runner in forty metres. By now Ben was climbing too, so I wriggled on and made the belay, about seventy metres out from the traverse. They say these things are enjoyable retrospectively... I'm still waiting!

Ben on top of The Buachaille

The reward, though, was the summit. Clear air, a few raggedy clouds, and hardly a breath of wind. Ben Nevis to the north, Ben More on the horizon to the west, and in every direction a sea of snow-clad hills. Having had an annual trip up here for the last few years I was getting to know them now, making the view all the more special. Ben Cruachan, Schiehallion, Kintail - . We headed down, and at the lip of Coire na Tuilach I paused for a last look around, drinking it all in, before, reluctantly, descending.

View north to Ben Nevis

Sunday 31 January 2010

'But can we still claim them?'

So said Grimer to me yesterday, with a kind of glazed glee in his eyes. He was drunk, drunk on being handed access to rock normally out of reach, and so were we. In a few, crucial places the snow has redrawn the landscape and, as far as certain climbs are concerned, all of history has become but a footnote. Forty-foot walls have become bouldering height, boulder-choked gullies have become soft, flat platforms. As I've said before, I'm all about getting the best out of the weather, and if there's one thing I'll avoid its contrived behaviour. With the crags finally dry and the roads clear, on thursday I was out to a crag transformed. Alternating digging and ticking was a great way to keep warm, and by sunset we even had platforms to come back to.

Nige Kershaw on No More Excuses, High Neb

So can we claim them? Who cares? I just want to enjoy them while I can. These local crags hold few surprises by now, but suddenly its like having whole new buttresses unveiled. A stout spade is handy, as most of the drifts have a ridges top that needs taking off, just enough to make a pad platform, and there's usually a crevasse down the back which can accomodate the extra. In some places, the top half of the crag becomes a bouldering venue. In others, its more a case of a poor landing becoming more acceptable.

Three Blind Mice is a good example. Normally a bold E7 popular with would-be hard grit headpointers, presently its a ideal bouldering spot with three problems, crossing the bulge at different points and getting harder right to left. The interesting thing is how arbitrary the crux of the route is. Cross the bulge as per the classic shot of Dave Pegg, and its a great move, but move only slightly right, and its easier but not as good, and fast becoming a bad sequence on a much easier line of holds. Bouldering encourages you to do all the variations and not worry which earns a tick. The left-hand line is entirely independent but a good bit harder and less secure. Whether it becomes a route when the snow goes remains to be seen, but for now its a great 7b that Dan Varian managed first and christened Snowblind Mice.

Matt Pickles, Shine On, BAWs crawl area

After a busy saturday at The Plantation, we headed up to High Neb on sunday, and enjoyed a wonderful day on a great circuit meeting no other climbers. More digging enabled me to sneak in a potential new line - a direct start to Old Friends - dubbed 'Friends like these' at around 7b, though likely easier for the tall. Currently it has a nice landing which will also make Old Friends feel a good bit friendlier too. Second ascent still up for grabs,...

Matt Pickles, Shine On, BAWs crawl area

Here's a list of this week's essential ticks, north to south.
*Snowball ratings: 3*** = landing revolutionised, have no fear, 2** = landing significantly improved, now highball, 1* = landing slightly improved, pack your balls. NB assuming a modicum of topping out skills, no lowballs here...


Pig's ear/ Crew Pegs Diffs/ No more excuses - all ***
Wolf Solent  ***
Kelly's Overhang **
Friends like These ***, Old Friends **

(Daydreamer might be worth a look. Shirley's looks totally buried)

Weather Report ***
Silk ***
Don *, Ulysses *, White Wand * (someone should dig out Fairy Groove, potentially***)
Big Air * and going fast...

Grace & Danger ***
Boys will be boys * (dug but not tested)
Cemetery Waits ***, Shine On *, Golden Path ***

Puck ***, Superstition * (tested!)
Long Tall Sally, Three Blind Mice, Ai No Corrida - all ***

Nige Kershaw, Shine On, BAWs crawl area

Lots more to go at too, I'm working this week but looking forward to a world of platforms by friday, over to you...

edit - just had some reports of Nectar (first pitch) *** and Goosey Goosey Gander **

Sunday 10 January 2010

Snow fun

One of the things I try to do is not fight the weather. In fact its more than that, on any given day I obsess about how to get the most out of it. Despite having well over half the days in the year at my disposal, it never seems like there is enough time. Climbing and photography have different requirements, so the first decision is which to prioritise, though both sets of gear usually make it into the car boot. Both pursuits have plenty of sub-disciplines with their own requirements, so with really good local knowledge there's usually plenty of choice. At this time of year though, bad weather can really be a challenge for climbing, along with an almost desperate urge to make the most of any sunlight going.

White Edge, a couple of days before the snow really hit

The last couple of weeks have been no exception.Although a select few bouldering venues remain snow free, there's much more to be gained by embracing the snow. I've had a few days out winter climbing which have proved a little frustrating due to the short days, long drives and crowds. Twice we ended up on obscure routes to avoid queues, only to get lost and have to retreat by abseil to avoid benightment.

Barson lost on the frozen wastes of Ysgolion Duon

Having spent a frustrating last week indoors whilst the clear skies froze the country, it was no surprise to find with the weekend came the cloud, and I remain sceptical of the big freeze lasting much longer. Snow in the eastern Peak isn't unusual, but it is twelve years or so since we had anything comparable and whilst it has of course raised questions about just how climate change will affect our little maritime bubble, on my first day off I was pretty desperate to make the most of it. This is what we came up with.

Mam Tor clips from Adam Long on Vimeo.