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.