Wednesday 4 October 2017


On the headwall of Testify 8b, Loch Maree Supercrag last weekend. Yesterday, on the first ascent, these lovely rough Gneiss crimps were a wee bit wet in the pouring rain, but they are incut enough I could get past them. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

In May I got a chance to visit the brilliant new sport crag at Loch Maree - beautiful setting, excellent crag, mostly waterproof routes. Thanks to the NW usual suspects for putting a huge amount of effort into developing it (or anyone who opens new sport crags anywhere!). On my spring visits I ticked the 8as already established and completed an 8a+ extension which was 50m long (The Circus). I couldn’t help eyeing up the  unclimbed terrain to the right and figured there would be at least one great route to be done here.

Approaching 1/3 height on Testify 8b. It's massive! Photo: Dark Sky Media

As soon as my recovering shoulder was up to it, I packed my Hilti and my titanium glue-in bolts (to last many decades in the maritime environment) and drove north west. I bolted a line right of The Circus that splits in two at 25 metres (halfway). The right hand version looked around 8b with an easier but exhilaratingly exposed upper half. The harder version has a brilliant but desperate boulder problem at 45m.

Last week I got stuck into the easier version. The tech crux is actually low down and is a fingery cross-through move - pretty much the only move that still hurts my recovering AC joint. I knew it would take a couple of sessions to get used to moving dynamically on this move, and it did. But yesterday I got through it and the sustained section above. But with numb hands I slipped off near the end of the crux section and split my ring fingertip which bled everywhere and seemed to indicate the end of my session.

It was the first cold day of the autumn and I’m not up to speed with my cold weather tactics yet. Next try, I spent a few minutes moving large rocks around at the base to improve the sloping gully ledge at the foot of the route, but more importantly to get muscles up to temperature for the next blast. It worked a treat and I felt way stronger and found myself on the brilliant easier middle section of the route. I checked my finger, which was only bleeding a little and so was fine to go for the top. The previous week of heavy rain had some serious waterfall action fringing off the top of the crag and unfortunately was catching four of the crimps near the last bolt. But this section is not that hard so I was pretty determined to make it through. It was just too good not to! Of course I didn’t let go and was delighted to clip the anchor on my first new route since the shoulder injury.

I would say that this closes a chapter on the shoulder injury story for me, but not the book. I am obviously beyond the sufferfest stage of climbing withdrawal, but I have a bit to go to feel my right arm is really strong again. For that I have the harder line to focus my efforts. Given the encroaching cold weather, this is most likely a spring project for me, but I’ll give it some goes and this can direct some winter training for it. I think the boulder at the end is in the V10 range, and on some really tiny edges. It’s going to be hard to pull on these after so much climbing below. Exactly the sort of project to fire up a winter’s training.

Friday 22 September 2017

AC joint recovery, progress and protocol

It’s coming up for 8 weeks since I separated my shoulder. I’m delighted with my progress and although I’ve obviously got a long way to go yet, I’m a lot further along at this point that I expected.

Even two weeks ago, although I was doing some gentle endurance type climbing on my wall and an ever increasing load of rehab exercise, I was still unable to load my shoulder dynamically without some pain. How it would respond to ‘proper’ climbing i.e. 100% effort, with dynamic loading still felt like a big unknown.

Now, I feel rather more confident that I will be able to recover really well from this injury. I can campus without any problem, complete a half one-arm pull-up and have managed to get up some of the ‘medium-hard’ problems on my board. Fewer and fewer moves are causing pain and strength is improving daily. It will still take quite some time to recover 100% of the strength lost. But my day-to-day work is feeling less and less like rehab and more like real training.

I also just had my first day back out at the crag which was a huge boost. Through experience I’m well equipped to cope with the enforced break from my normal routine of outdoor climbing that is so important to me. But ‘coping’ is the key word. It takes active effort to get through the stress of deprivation from being outside in nature and doing that you love. So when you can stand outside in the quiet of the north west, smell the autumn air and dangle about on a cliff preparing a new route until the sun sets, it feels like a huge weight is lifted.

Just this experience is like the sun coming out in my head. Both body and mind are telling me it is time to GO.

 i.e. Go climbing.

A lot of people have messaged me asking to know exactly what I’m doing for my rehab since the results have been good so far. Obviously my program is personally tailored to me, but here is a quick list of the bulk of what you need to know. You’ll see that none of it is rocket science, but also very easy to get wrong in our modern way of life.

There are three central foundations on which the rehab protocol are built. Sleep, nutrition and stress management. The detail of much of this is described in my book Make or Break. But aside from the myriad of sleep hygiene tactics, the main issue for me is just to enforce a hard bedtime to ensure I get at least 8 hours of quality sleep (not just time in bed) with no exceptions. Nutrition wise, I eat what most would describe as a Paleo type diet, although I certainly don’t set out to follow the Paleotm rules. Basically I just eat unprocessed foods - lots of red meat from properly raised animals, lots of leafy green vegetables, lots of eggs and high fat dairy depending on my energy needs. I’m glossing over a ton of detail here but broadly I eat this way for three main reasons. It helps me maintain my weight without having to constantly watch my calorie intake. It is generally anti-inflammatory and this makes a huge difference to recovery from injury or training in general. Finally, it makes it a lot easier to make sure I get all the nutrients in abundance. For geeks, Marty Kendall’s site is a fantastic tool to explore various options for getting your nutrition right. Cronometer is also a great tool for monitoring. I also try to actively limit stress. Getting injured and then trying to recover is already stressful enough and I can see the physiological effects of this quite readily. Lowering the allostatic stress load is important to give your body a chance to heal. In practice this means getting the above factors right, making some space for relaxation and managing my work as well as possible. The biggest challenge in my case is that time spent outside at the crag is possibly the biggest stress reducing behaviour in my life, and being injured tends to remove it! Although I did make an effort to have days outside as soon as I could, I definitely could have done more to get outside earlier in the rehab process.

On top of this foundation comes the exercise protocol. I’m not going to go into the detail here because the principles are in Make or Break. On top of the basic shoulder rehab exercise program, I went for testing with my physio every three weeks to identify weak areas and extra work needing to be done as I progressed. But once I could tolerate movement of my arm I started climbing immediately, but very gently, just moving round a vertical wall covered in jugs. So easy I didn’t really need to pull with the arm at all, and only for a few minutes a day. Each session I could do more, progressing to quicker (or more accurately less-slow) movement and then to a slightly overhanging wall and eventually to moving slowly on a 45 degree wall. I tended to find with almost every new stage of the progression that the first session introducing a new level gave some soreness, but subsequent sessions were fine and I could consolidate that level over the following days.

Off the wall I maintained a daily routine of a standard shoulder rehab protocol - rotator cuff, back and arm exercises with bodyweight, dumbbells, bungee cord and rings. For an AC joint rehab, chest presses, press ups and dips were the very last thing I was able to add - not until 7 weeks and even then very gentle. However, pull-ups were tolerated far earlier. I had a good setup with my rings and feet supported on piled up boulder mats to take weight off. In the first 3 weeks I did assisted one-arm pull ups on the good arm, then two arm static hangs on bent arms, then assisted two-arm pull ups, then unassisted building up from sets of 5 to sets of 20, then one arm locks on the injured arm, and at this stage I can do 50% of a one-arm pull-up. Standard progression. Clearly, someone who was unable to do one-arm pull-ups before the injury would have a progression at a lower level, for instance with a more drawn out progression of assisted pull-ups and then progressing through low numbers of unassisted.

Over all I would say that I have done 2-3.5 hours of work per day, just about every day. Not all of this was hard exercise on the shoulder of course - that is a total of everything, from grip-strength work to hip stretching. There was no hard and fast rule to progress other than monitoring how the shoulder felt during the session and how well it recovered the next day. The only time I felt I’d overdone it was actually in week 7, adding too many dips and press-ups too quickly. I needed to take two full rest days before continuing, and after that left those particular exercises for another week. I was careful to complete all the rotator cuff, scapular and back exercises in my program before doing the climbing related ‘fun’ stuff. It’s all too easy to just climb and ignore the real work.

Now at 8 weeks I am starting to climb and focus on real climbing goals and days out at the crag rather than just rehab goals. So I need to continue to be careful to schedule in the rehab exercises  on days at home, so that they don’t slip off the radar and slow my continued progression.

I must say, 6 weeks ago I could not even imagine the position I am in now. I felt so awful and disabled at that point. If the next 6 weeks brings anything like the same consistency of progress that will be fantastic.

FWMF Minifest trailer

FWMF Minifest 2017 from Fort William Mountain Festival on Vimeo.

Here is a trailer I put together for the Fort William Mountain Festival Minifest which is running on Saturday 7th of October in the Nevis Centre. Some of my own aerial footage from around Lochaber in the trailer, and the list of great looking film showing.

You can get tickets for the night at

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Separated Shoulder

5 weeks ago, I had an accident playing with my daughter and separated my shoulder. I did it properly as well; a grade 3 separation tearing all three ligaments which join my right collar bone to my scapula. It was a classic shoulder separation scenario - diving into a roll but instead landing on the point of my shoulder. Seeing my reflection in the car window was all I needed to know what had happened (it was obvious!), but nonetheless I headed off to get an x-ray and exam to confirm. My clavicle was elevated with a marked deformity across the top of my shoulder.

I’ve always counted myself lucky not to have had any traumatic shoulder injuries. There is a first time for everything. On the first two days it was so painful it took me 30 minutes to get sat up in bed. Taping it had me yelping like a kid! Obviously at this point I was not too happy about the situation.

But even by the third day I was able to make some tiny movements. By the beginning of the second week, the immobilisation of my arm in the sling had devastated my arm and shoulder muscles, which looked (to my eye at least) tiny. It is always shocking how fast immobilised limbs waste away, especially when it is your own limb.

Step deformity at the AC joint (the end of my collar bone)

With my daily exercises, I did everything I could to progress the return of range of motion, strength and muscle mass. At first, I could only really do 1-2 hours per day, but by the third week that was more like three in total. Early on I was just doing a ton of grip and pinch exercises, biceps curls with my arm supported, internal/external rotations with tubing or my other hand for resistance, isometrics at different angles and many more.

It got noticeably better every day, although there were of course still some mornings when I felt rotten, and some evenings when I sloped off to bed exhausted and sore at 7pm. Speaking of bed, the exercises were as always only half the picture. These days I am rather more careful to enforce a minimum amount of sleep, go after a far higher maximum and I’m much more careful with my diet now I have better knowledge on what I’m optimising for. While its not possible to know just how much all of these things make a difference, here is the output so far.

At five weeks I have fairly decent range of motion, but still a bit to go to achieve the last few degrees of pre-injury flexion and especially crossing my arm across my chest. I can manage about 12 pull-ups pain free and can now tolerate short climbing sessions on a 45 degree board doing moves which are fairly easy for me.

I can’t yet tolerate long training sessions, any really hard moves at 45 degrees, forceful ‘gaston’ press moves, very dynamic jumps on steep ground, or other heavy loading of the AC joint with my arm overhead. To me that feels like excellent progress, and I’m still seeing daily improvement. I’m sure I’m not the first climber with this injury so I’ll report back as a few more weeks pass and see what I can manage or cant manage.

Although it’s obviously a massive pain in the ass to have an unexpected traumatic injury I could have done without. But once it has happened, it’s happened. You have to deal with it head on. Its a good opportunity for me on three fronts. First, it allows me to test out the principles I detailed in Make or Break and continue to build on them. Second, it’s allowed me to work on some other projects that needed done. Thankfully the weather has also been rotten for the past month anyway, so there is no FOMO for the mountain crags going on. Finally, as always it allows me to go back to square one and assess my weaknesses to work on in training, and put some proper time into addressing these without the constant drive to just go out climbing all the time.

So let’s see what the next month brings. It would be doing well to be worse than the previous one.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Summer of Shuas

The first crux of Dun Briste E8 6c during the first ascent. Thanks to Cubby Images for these pics. Cubby, when are you doing your book?!!

 This summer I’ve tried to make up for last summer’s wet weather and broken legs and have picked up where I left off, trying to do some of the superb new routes just waiting to be climbed on Binnien Shuas. In this effort, I’ve been following the lead of the amazing Iain Small, who has made a great effort in developing the crag over the past year. Let me take a moment to underline just what he’s done here. Although I can barely keep count, Iain has added one E8 and five E7s to Binnien Shuas in the past year. And, having repeated a few of them, I can say that they are brilliant routes. Not only that, but Iain has done a very thorough job of cleaning them, turning three star routes into four.
Having broken my leg trying to make the FA of Stronghold, E8 6c last autumn, I was playing catch up with Iain this year. I kicked off by repeating Siege Engine E7 6c which takes a soaring diagonal ramp on the left side of the crag. It’s ridiculously steep and a long winding pitch but well protected and about 7c in difficulty. This for me was a pre-requisite before trying the obvious project cutting through the roof above the ramp.

Nearing the top of my own route Stronghold E8 6c, which was very satisfying after breaking my leg on an earlier attempt past September. Pic by Cubby Images

My first abseil down the project was an exhilarating and nervous experience. The headwall above the roof has this amazing flake in it. It’s hard to describe, but sort of like a ‘slice’ out of the granite resembling the cut you would make in the top of a mound of bread dough about to go in the oven (not that I bake any bread these days ; )). It’s such an amazing feature, I was really nervous that the stretch across the roof to the flake from the undercut flakes below would be too far and the line would be impossible. As it happens, it’s perfect - 8a+ with good gear and excellent, athletic climbing. You start by doing most of Siege Engine to the perfect cam slots in the roof. What follows is a huge powerful reach to the lip from here, some toe-hook trickery and another piece of gear before the culmination - a powerful slap to a perfectly placed side pull right below the top. 

I’d just had a week off climbing for my birthday fast (blog on this will follow) so on my first day up there with Iain I opted to top-rope it in its entirety to see if I could actually get through that top crux. This is something I don’t often do these days on headpointed trad routes. I usually tend to mess about on the moves on a shunt and then just go for it as I’ve got a lot of experience at knowing when I’m likely to succeed or fail. I was glad I did on this occasion though. Although I did manage to link it, I really needed the extra training burns before adding the effort of placing the gear on lead. I also seconded Iain on yet another great new E7 just left of my route Stronghold.

A couple of days later I was back with Iain and Cubby and after a bit of faffing decided to get on it. I felt really good all the way but was still full of apprehension for whether I could power through the crux with a bit of a pump on. I could feel that pump starting to kick in just a wee bit on the first crux, so got pretty fired up and let out a battle cry on the final slap to the side pull. It was an exhilarating surprise to stick it and a few moments later find myself standing on the ledge above with another classic new route in the bag. 

Setting up for the final crux on Dun Briste E8 6c, during the first ascent. Pic by Cubby Images.

Between Iain and myself, we eyed up a possible direct entry to the line from below. The following day I returned by myself and spent a long afternoon cleaning it. I think this could go but it’s at least another grade harder and will need a bit of work yet. With the sun staying out I was back again the following day with Murdo and Cubby. After the hardcore cleaning session the day before, I was pretty exhausted and at first wasn’t sure if I could climb anything. But after checking out Iain’s Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c on the right side of the crag, it was too good not to lead and both myself and Murdo dispatched our repeats with great enjoyment. To really finish myself off, I started up Isinglass E7 6c on the proviso that if I could manage the wobbly initial slab, I’d just try my best to keep going. I’m sure you’ll understand that after decking out and breaking my leg on the next route to the left, I’m a little nervous of Binnien Shuas starts now. I was a bit tense, but the start went fine and I pressed on. It was kind of cold and windy and I was really too tired to be on a big E7, so I didn’t hesitate and blasted on. Isinglass is another climb with the crux right at the top and I’ll admit I had to do a pretty committing slap on the key move onto the top slab.

Nearing the end of an intense and bold crux section on Iain Small's Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c, Binnien Shuas. Pic by Cubby Images

Enjoying Iain Small's excellent route Isinglass E7 6c, Binnien Shuas. Pic by Cubby Images

This really is an excellent crag for accessible mountain trad that dries quickly and is often in condition even in fairly mixed weather. The two E8s I’ve added myself are both brilliant, but I really do want to see an E9 on this crag. So I’ll be back as soon as I have the opportunity to get on the direct entry to Dun Briste. Although the E7s and E8s in this post will not be targets for most readers of this blog, it’s worth pointing out that the classics at the other end of the grade scale are highly recommended too. Ardverikie Wall probably gets twenty ascents for every one of any of the other routes. But there are plenty of other great ones too. The place is really other keeping in mind as a Lochaber mountain crag to visit. It’s in condition earlier and later in the season than many of the other mountain crags in the area and you can easily get in there and climb many pitches even with a half day and often when the higher mountains are catching the showers. See you up there.

Training with Freida after getting back from holiday last week. She insists on doing her rings workout to Katy Perry. I now know all the words to 'Roar'.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Sailing to St Kilda


Setting up for the crux of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b on Ruabhal, St Kilda. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Several years ago I was lucky enough to climb on the spectacular islands of St Kilda, which sit 50 miles out in the Atlantic to the west of the Outer Hebrides. We had just one day and did a fantastic three pitch E6 on perfect black gabbro, similar to the Cuillin of Skye. Ever since, I have wanted to return and do something a bit harder. So when the veteran sailor and explorer Bob Shepton asked if I’d like to sail there with him, I obviously had to grab the opportunity, despite having no sailing experience and not really being a ‘water person’.

It was probably a good thing that I had a very busy few weeks of film shooting before we were due to leave Oban on June 10th. I had no time to consider how the journey across would be. So I had no expectations at all, except to have an adventure. Sailors Bob and Stuart, climbers myself and Natalie Berry and filmmaker Chris Prescott hopped aboard and off we went down the Sound of Mull. Although we had chosen June for the probability of fine weather, the standard Scottish summer fronts were ruling the skies and so we had three short days of dodging unfavourable waves, wind and rain in the small isles and Outer Hebrides. Eagerness to finally get there helped us decide to set sail west from Harris into a forecast of possible Force 7. There was an occasional Force 8 forecast a little further north, and of course once committed to the big waves west of Harris, we discovered that was a slight underestimation.

Bob Shepton's boat, the Dodo's Delight on a very calm departure from the St Kilda islands.

Some new ropes to learn. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

For my part, I was happy with being in the storm. Knowing nothing about sailing in storms or the capabilities of the boat, I could only go by Bob, whom I could still hear laughing and joking below deck as the boat was being thrown all over the place by waves which rather dwarfed our boat. I also garnered a slight note of caution from the odd bit of chat, that it could get really bad. Therefore, I expected it to be horrendous - like hanging onto the boat and being half drowned by waves. This probably helped as by the time I clocked the jaggy islands of St Kilda through the driving rain, I’d still been waiting for it to get really bad. Nonetheless, I was certainly ready to get off the cramped space of the boat and be able to spread out a bit and exercise limbs.

It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that it was calm enough to get us ashore and we set up camp as the clouds finally parted. Desperate to get going, we hot-footed it over Hirta to the cliffs of Ruabhal and found the rock to be dry, despite some huge waves battering the bottom 50 feet of the walls. Chris and Nat were still feeling a bit wobbly and spaced from the journey, so I rigged a line and went over the edge to check out the two lines I had in mind to climb.

 Bob noting down the shipping forecast. A regular ritual on the boat. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

The forecast was none too good. 

I had a fantastic evening dangling about on the wall, sussing out new lines and watching the impressive show of breaking waves blasting huge plumes of water skyward. The combination of natural sights and sounds really makes sea-cliff climbing on St Kilda a sensory feast. The first line I looked at seemed to have roughly 7c climbing with decent gear although you do move a bit away from it on the crux traverse. The next morning we waited out another wet start and tried to hold back as long as possible before walking over to the cliff. In late afternoon we were in place on a hanging belay just above the waves, with the cliff above us now nicely dried out in the sun and strong northwesterly. The first pitch was a beautiful easy pitch of E2 5b on great rough holds and sinker gear. I was actually happy Chris asked me to climb it twice for different angles and stills. I could get warmed up a bit after getting chilled on the belay.

The climbing on the crux was just so good and exposed that it seemed crazy to waste time worrying about whether I could do it or not. I just launched through it and before I knew it was stretching for a nice finger lock on the slab above the lip of the roofs. The remaining pitch was great fun, especially when a curious guillemot flew up to my face and attempted to perch on my head. I’m not sure who got more of a fright. On top it was 9.30pm and would have been nice to just go back to the tent and eat some dinner, but we had one more day of climbing and the forecast was good. I was eager to climb something harder, and I knew this meant going straight back down to spent crucial hours scoping out another line.

Starting the difficulties on Making a Splash E7 5b, 6c, 5c. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 

Just past the crux on Making a Splash. The Gabbro is perfect stuff. Made to be climbed. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Once over the edge again I was happy, and glad I’d decided to do it as it took me until after midnight to suss out the line of the second route I wanted to do. The plan was to breach a long roof in the middle of the cliff. I looked at it in two places, both of which were possible but far too hard for a single day of climbing. As I abseiled through a potential line, at first I wondered if it might only be another E7, but it quickly turned out to be far harder. A sequence of minuscule crimps and sidepulls round the roof worked out at Font 7c-ish. Actually pretty hard to pull off first try on a route in this situation, well for me at least.

However, the next day conditions were perfect. I knew I had an opportunity to take, so I had to calm myself down a bit and take my time to wait until the sun was going off the cliff in the afternoon. After arranging the gear I reversed back to the belay to ditch some of the rack ballast and generally sort myself out. Although I was a little worried about slamming into the wall below the roof should I fall, the conditions were just too good not to go for it with total commitment. As I set up for the crux slap, the holds felt unbelievably grippy and I knew I was going to do it. After another airy hanging belay the final E5 6b pitch was a total joy to lead. We shouldered our packs and headed off to village bay to sleep and look forward to the journey home.

Natalie seconding pitch 1 of Old Boy Racer, on perfect sea washed gabbro (like sea-washed up to 100 feet on a south west facing cliff such as this. Those winter atlantic storms must be some sight!).

The exit corners of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b. Not too sure I'll find sea cliffs climbs much better than this. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

My strongest memory from the trip was walking back to Village bay after working on the E8 by myself. It was after midnight, but only half dark since it was just around summer solstice. Once over the crest of the hill and out of the wind, the silence of the late night was intense and very relaxing. As I walked I could pick out the calls of the handful of different birds still out and about, the seals on the shores of Dun. But mostly, there was just pure quiet. It was lovely.

Natalie on the 'Mistress Stone' at the top of Ruabhal. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 

Monday 5 June 2017


Repeating Iain Small's Siege Engine E7 6c yesterday. Amazingly carefree feeling just to have to worry about sending the route and not much else. The rope is hanging down another project which goes out left across the roof. Cant wait to get back on that one. Photo: Kevin Woods

Last September I broke my leg on Binnien Shuas. I didn’t really write much about it on this blog for a couple of reasons. First, because I was pretty upset with just how badly the whole climbing day went wrong and second, because the accident was only really the start of the story. I felt like I needed to try and recover before making any sort of sense of it.

Yesterday I was up at Binnien Shuas again and repeated Iain Small’s superb new E7 ‘Siege Engine’. On the way down I stopped at the nice beach by Lochan na h Earba and just took a moment to enjoy being there and not having a broken leg, and instead to be heading off for some dinner after a nice afternoon climbing.

What a contrast to when I stood by that beach for two or three horrible hours in September.

It started with a crap July and August with continuous rain in the west highlands. I’d bet on doing Scottish mountain trad for the summer instead of going to an alpine big wall. My gamble had fallen on its face. The best I managed was three days of mountain trad with two E8s and one E9. Instead I spent most of the summer on my board. So I was quite fit, but getting fed up waiting to actually climb some rock. So when a couple of dry days appeared, I cleaned and worked a great project though the roof on Binnien Shuas. It was around 8a climbing with enough gear and a brilliant line. If I could just salvage this project from the summer, I’d feel happy with that.

As August drew into September, the rain just kept coming. My friend Masa and I had made several arrangements to go into Shuas, only to bail at the last moment as the rain was worse than forecast. It was getting ridiculous. One morning we bailed again, but by 1pm it looked better and Masa texted to see if I still wanted to go in and look. I bit his hand off for the opportunity and next thing I was abbing down the project. It was just dry enough. Masa climbed first and tried Ardanfreaky (E3) but found the crux bulge wet and took a good whipper, before lowering off. He looked disappointed. It underlined the desperation of trying to trad climb when the weather is just not playing the game.

Abseiling down the line and drying holds. I should probably have just left it for another day! Photo: Masa Sakano

I racked up carefully ready to lead my project. I was really excited. It had literally been months since I’d tied in to start up a hard trad route and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to go for it. I pulled onto the start and climbed up a couple of moves, reaching for a big flat undercut above my head. The next second, I was tumbling through the air. The side pull I’d been holding with my right hand had broken off. I shot off backwards without any warning and landed hard on my right foot on the sloping rock slab below, slammed into Masa and both of us stopped in a heap of tangled ropes in the heather slope below.

One minute later I had a broken leg. Enough said. Photo: Masa Sakano

I stood up in a little shock and disbelief as to why I was suddenly back on the ground. I felt okay but within seconds could feel my right ankle and leg beginning to hurt. It didn’t feel too bad, but I also felt a familiar feeling of adrenaline and shock from previous climbing accidents, killing the pain and giving me a peculiar buzz racing through my brain. I put my boots on and walked around a few steps. Within minutes I realised all was not well in my ankle. But this was not the time to consider feeling sorry for myself. I realised I needed to get myself out of a mountain crag situation rapidly, before I would need to bother a mountain rescue team. 

I agreed with Masa that I would start hobbling down the hill with my poles straight away and he would retrieve my static rope which was still hanging down from the top of the crag and meet me at our bikes by the beach.

Off I went, in more and more pain but determined just to get down to safety before letting myself worry about the future. Masa had the option of either walking to the top of the cliff, locating a scramble down to a terrace and getting down this to access the static, or soloing a V-Diff gully climb to arrive directly at the terrace; harder but much quicker. Just before I dipped down the hill out of sight of the crag, I looked back once to see Masa starting to climb the gully.

When I eventually reached the beach by the loch, I took off my boot, put my swollen ankle into the cold water and sat and felt sorry for myself. I’ve had three ankle surgeries in the past four years and spent over a year on crutches. I was finding it hard not to get miserable at the prospect of going through it all again. But what else could I do? 

Time passed, a lot of time. It started getting dark and midges bit me. Masa still hadn’t appeared. I’d  hobbled down the whole way on a broken leg and he still hadn’t caught me up. Shit. What could be delaying him. As it got dark, I went over possibilities in my mind and got more and more agitated and intensely worried. Realistically, a fall would be the most likely cause of delay and he was last seen soloing to the top of the cliff!

I could not sit still and hobbled round to the far side of the beach so I could see more of the approach path and the cliff. No sign. But the light was failing. I strained my eyes and kidded myself that distant rocks were in fact Masa walking down. There wasn’t much point in me hobbling back up on a broken leg to look for him. What would I achieve? But I was reluctant to raise alarm before I had any evidence of something going wrong. Trad climbing faff can suck up a lot of time. But at some point I’d have to make the decision. I stood for nearly an hour in full ‘fight or flight’ mode, my heart pounding in my chest, shaking and really upset. Finally, my eyes saw a spec of moving orange below the crag. Was it? Shit I’ve lost it again. Then I saw it again, a little lower. My heart dropped a little from my mouth. But it was basically dark now and as I looked lower again, I couldn't see anything else. For a further 20 minutes I cursed my eyes for showing me what I desperately wanted to see.

But then, there he was, appearing almost right in front of me out of the darkness. Masa was a marvellous sight despite looking pretty dishevelled, helmet lopped to one side on his head and generally looking muddy and messy. ‘Are you alright?’ was the only thing I could think of to say. I just wanted him to say something so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. ‘Kind of’ came the answer back. As swarms of midges devoured us, Masa told me that he’d slipped near the top of the V-Diff and fallen the full length of the route. But that every time he’d hit ledges on the way down, he had landed on his back on the rucksack full of ropes and gear. After spending some time in a heap at the base, he’d gathered himself, apparently uninjured apart from lots of bumps and a staved thumb and tried to walk over the top, but failed to locate the descent in the failing light and eventually staggered off down the path. 

Masa Sakano starting up Ardanfreaky E3, Binnien Shuas

Like a pair of drunk old men, we struggled, moaning onto our bikes and cycled off down the track. I discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to get going on a bike with one leg broken. Back at the car, we agreed that it was at least good that we were still alive and headed off home. Masa later got an all clear from hospital in Inverness and after a few days in bed and a few weeks off climbing, he seemed fine. I went for a leg x-ray in the Belford hospital. I was also given an all clear, although I could not weight my foot at all. A nurse looked at my X-ray and said it looked normal. I also looked at it across the corridor and asked what the big line was that stretched down my tibia. “Oh that’s nothing - you can just see the bone behind”. Taking my own advice, I wanted another opinion so paid £350 for an MRI scan, which despite the cost still took a week to arrange and another week to report (the radiologist was on hols - lucky her/him!). While standing up a ladder setting routes at Three Wise Monkeys in Fort William, an email popped up on my phone from my surgeon, who had thankfully glanced at my MRI before the report and let me know that the ‘nothing’ line on my tibia was in fact a fracture and to urgently go and get a cast. Oh and I’d basically reversed my ankle surgery from the previous year. Great.

Despite my experience with getting through injuries, I will admit to being rather knocked back by all this. In other words, fucking depressed. I did my best to try and do something positive, and enrolled to start a part time masters degree in human nutrition at Glasgow University. But when I went, I was struggling to find my normal motivation. After Uni I’d drive across to TCA to do some training. But a couple of evenings I just sat outside staring at the entrance and couldn't face going in. Being self-employed also meant I couldn’t drop out of life. A particular low point was a drone flying job I had booked on the Cairngorm plateau in October. Going up there on my crutches and still being a delicate painful mess just made me feel very weak and vulnerable.

The consequence of neglecting to continue training properly only compounded my problems. I lost a huge amount of physical form and confidence. At the end of October, I left my crutches in the car at the airport and left for a long booked trip to Margalef to sport climb. My second route there was 8a and it felt desperate! I don’t think an 8a had felt so hard for over fifteen years. To be fair, walking to the crag also felt desperate at the time. I managed to get up to 8b+ redpoint in two weeks, but even that was a real struggle and I relied on experience far more than fitness to manage it. On the harder routes, I just got totally shut down. End of story.

Smiling after climbing Via Del Quim 8b+ at Margalef, two weeks off my crutches. It was great to be trying hard, but I still felt really awful.

It was a weird bittersweet experience. One one hand it was fantastic to still be able to just go out and climb rocks, but on the other I felt like a shadow of myself. But it does amaze me how these feelings eventually pass if you take good care of yourself (with basic things like sleep, nutrition, good friends, careful training etc). I have slowly regained some strength and fitness and feel quite good again now. Last month, I returned to the project I broke my leg on. After carefully cleaning the bottom section where the hold broke, and carrying a boulder pad up the hill, I sent it with ease. That was definitely a satisfying and hopeful moment. 

Sending the FA of Stronghold E8 6c a few weeks ago. A great feeling. Photo: Calum Muskett

I’d say the recovery is not quite over yet. But I just spotted an E9/10 project on Binnien Shuas. Something to drive forward the progress.

PS: Many people patiently helped me through my brokenness and recovery. Thank you, all of you.

Monday 22 May 2017

Busy spring

FA of The Mighty Chondria E7 6c, 5c on Creag Mo, Isle of Harris. Pic by Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

It’s a good sign when you are too busy being outside climbing all the time to write a blog. Finally it is raining today after quite a few weeks or largely dry and fine weather in the highlands. I’ve been keen as mustard to get out after the general absence of climbing last season. After climbing my project at Arisaig in April, I spent a couple of weeks trying another 8B+ boulder and was ridiculously close for 5 sessions in a row. But for one reason or another, it didn’t work out and I’ve missed my window. It was a long shot anyway. I was losing fitness from being out on rock with lots of rest days and zero training, so you can only maintain a peak for so long in this pattern.

I've got to say, I will really miss the bouldering season. I really really enjoyed it and didn't want it to end. Maybe that's because I focused on it a bit more instead of trying to go mixed climbing in the rubbish winter for snow and ice? Either way, I'm already thinking of next season.

I’ve also been on the trad. First up I went to Harris with Masa, Chris and Nat. We were a bit early and it was baltic. I tried to climb anyway and on one day where it was slightly less windy and cold, I did a brilliant two pitch E7 on Creag Mo called The Mighty Chondria. The first pitch takes the same 35 foot horizontal roof I climbed further right on The Realm (E8) some years ago, this time via a big crack with lots of kneebarring and undercutting madness. That pitch is a fine 7c+ wrestle. Pitch two felt like a grade VIII winter route, and not just because it was almost cold enough to me mixed climbing. It was a highly traditional pitch, with some drips, some chimneying, some great rock, some turf and some darkness at the end. Masa followed me in the dark and we abbed off into the blackness below. 

That was pretty much it for the week, I cleaned another awesome four star E7, but on the last morning it was a waterfall pouring over the crag as the next front arrived and we just retrieved the gear and headed for the Calmac. 

Finishing the FA of Lucky Break E8 6c, Binnien Shuas. So happy with this route.

Since then I got back onto Binnien Shuas and led the E8 which I fell off and broke my leg last September. That was very satisfying and I shall write about that in a separate post as there is a bit to the story. I even got onto the Ben and repeated Trajan’s Column E6 6b with Calum. This felt surprisingly not too bad. Maybe I was just hyped up by the description that made it sound scary? I must admit that because I often do new routes, I sometimes get psyched out by guidebook descriptions. I’ve also been exploring some other new venues with massive potential. More of that later.

FA of The Circus 8a+ at Loch Maree Crag. Yes it is that big! The route is an extension to Hafgufa and was bolted by Ian Taylor who kindly let me climb it. It's an awesome climb, nearly 50 metres long and with great holds and climbing.

Last week I was up at the new sport sector on Loch Maree Crag. I’d seen a couple of pics of the place and it looked really big, steep and waterproof. And of course in a lovely setting as you would expect from a highland crag. It was even better than I expected. I repeated the great existing 8as and Ian Taylor kindly let me finish the huge extension to Hafgufa that he’d bolted which gave a monster 50m 8a+ called The Circus. This was an intensely enjoyable climb with brilliant exposure up the top arete, where the climbing is easier and you can just enjoy yourself. An absolute must-do for anyone climbing at the grade. I’ll be back here with my drill, soon.

Fingers crossed for some more mountain crags type weather coming up.

Cold hands on Trajan's Column E6 6b, Ben Nevis. This is a must do E6, people.

Move it or Park it E5 6c in Glen Nevis. Now without it's pegs but still a well protected route with a tricky move.

Calum Muskett eyeing up a huge arete. Many, many new routes to do here.

Thursday 23 March 2017


A video still on the send of Lithium 8B+, Arisaig.

Yesterday, I sent my project in the Arisaig Cave. Nine years after Johan first told me about the cave, that’s me climbed all the good lines. Time to move on! I’ll really miss the place. I’ll miss driving west on the Road to The Isles, leaving behind torrential rain or snow in Fort William, to arrive into bright sunshine as you hit the coast at Lochailort. I’ll miss watching otters and sea eagles going about their business on the beachfront by the cave, as I went about mine. I’ll miss a pre-climb brew in the Arisaig caf, looking out to Eigg. And of course I’ll miss the superbly physical and technical climbs.

In many ways, my days at the cave have helped me to see just how much climbing helps me with life. Given that the climb is almost 50 moves long, in the past few weeks as I’ve reached the stage of redpoint attempts, I’ve needed to rest for the best part of an hour between tries. This experience took me back to doing the same, seven years ago on At Eternity’s Gate, which is similarly long.

On those long rests you walk the coast to stay warm and send lactate through the Cori Cycle. But more importantly, you reflect. There is not much time for that in modern life, even in many types of climbing. Going to the wall to train, for example, is not often a great reflective opportunity.

On both those long climbs with long walks in between, being there and doing them helped me get through some very bleak feelings I was having. It did not diminish them, or take them away. Just helped me to remain resilient. For that I am very grateful. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to live in a country full of places like this, and have the opportunity to spend time in them, so there should be no trouble having similar experiences elsewhere.

Why did I send it now? A huge list of things. I would say that first and foremost, my two primary changes I made to my training had the desired and dominant effect. Firstly, I basically cut 4 hours out of my work day and replaced it with winding down time and going to be early for around a month. Secondly and even more importantly, I dropped my CHO intake south of 50g per day again (on most but not all days), together with restricting the daily feeding window to 6-8 hours. This made my ass lighter and improved my recovery from training. NB I am skipping over a whole world of detail here! I also continued to make improvements in the sequence, right up to the successful try. On the last hard move, I consciously focused on arching and stiffening my back as I threw for the hold. In combination with a hefty power scream, this kept my feet on. I also continued to get more used to the upside-down rest position on the halfway kneebar, and could relax more, stay longer and breath deeper than on previous sessions. I also timed my sessions nicely with good conditions, for once. I also solved my ‘glassy skin’ issue by rubbing some thick skin off my hands on sharp rocks, and then washing them in water to get to the ideal balance of cold and dry vs soft and sticky. At last I could really apply my strength fully to those smooth undercuts. 

The psychological side of the attempts I usually find the most straightforward. I definitely feel that I have a good system in place for managing my level of effort and controlling any nerves or self-consciousness. However, On the successful try I was particularly lucky that I had to dry a couple of seepy wet footholds (the climb starts outside the cave, and is the only part of the venue to be exposed to seeps). After drying them I had only a few seconds to get started before the water ran back onto them. So there was no time to develop any sense of anticipation for the attempt ahead. In fact, I had to spend the moments on the first kneebar trying to dry the other kneepad which had caught some drips as I started. So I arrived at the crux with a fresh mind, unhindered by any sense of occasion, and was free just to be in the moment and give it everything. On that last try I was definitely climbing through the moves faster than ever before. So it made sense that I surpassed the previous highpoints.

***Warning: boring part below. Feel free to stop here***

I’ll call the climb Lithium, and grade it 8B+. I have gone round in circles with the grade for a day or two. 8B+ in the UK is pretty tough. I am not certain this is a grade harder than some of them, nor have I done enough of them to know. So since I am not sure, I’ll just go with 8B+. I also completed the project quicker than I expected, a sure sign that it is easier than my initial expectation. 

Going by Magic Wood, where I have done a lot of my boulder repeats in recent years, Lithium is definitely a grade harder than New Base Line 8B+, Shallow Water to Riverbed 8B+, Mystic Styles 8B+ and definitely harder than Practice of the Wild 8C. It feels similar in difficulty to In Search of Time Lost 8C which I tried for two sessions at the end of my last trip, and got good links on. But perhaps it is easier than The Understanding 8C which I tried for 30 mins but couldn’t do. By this logic perhaps it’s nearest easy 8C. But again, the UK perhaps has stiffer grading. Whether that is right or wrong is another argument. The bottom line is that it is very hard to reduce grading to an entirely rational calculation. I just don’t do enough bouldering to have a good handle on grades.

It’s also a very specific type of climb, in some ways it plays to my strengths (steep, with rests and technical). But I think I am really weak on the undercuts and pinches. So someone else might find them much easier than me. So, lets go with 8B+. 

Anyway, bring on the spring and more great climbs this year.

PS: In case anyone wonders about video of the send, it’ll be in a feature I’m doing with Chris Prescott this year which will hopefully include some great trad projects I’ll be pointing myself at in the coming few months.