Thursday 28 June 2018

Mr Fahrenheit

Iain Small starting out on the bold lower half of Mr Fahrenheit E7 6b on the Comb, Ben Nevis. The prow on the right is my own route Anubis (E8) from 2005.

This summer is ridiculous. Anyone who reads my blog a lot will know I hate climbing in the heat, and so you wouldn’t need to be Sherlock to deduce that my recent location has been among the shady recesses above 1000m on Ben Nevis. There was a brief interlude of far cooler temps and so I was on my projects on Binnien Shuas. Unfortunately Iain’s car broke down on the way to meet me so the easier one did not get led on the cool day. Instead I shunted on the harder one and have now done the moves and some short links. Its going to be a hard one. It could be as hard as 8c, and out of range of the gear on the last couple of moves of the crux section. It will have to wait until I have more sessions on it in good conditions. 
Iain going around the corner on Don't Die of Ignorance

Back to this heatwave. When Iain got his car fixed we walked up the Ben. At least the inside of the CIC hut was coolish. We decided on checking out a brilliant looking finger crack I’d seen on The Comb while abseiling down ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ years ago to retrieve some gear after my FFA in winter (a long story). To access the pitch to clean it, we reclimbed the crux pitch of Don’t Die which was weird to see it in summer conditions. Particularly odd to go back to the belay with no t-shirt on, where I’d previously spent 4 hours in a hypothermic state getting frost-nip in my fingers.

I spent the rest of the afternoon/evening cleaning the 55m pitch on the wall below. It looked absolutely amazing on immaculate rock. Ben Nevis at its best. It was however a pitch of contrast, the lower slab was something straight out of Cloggy, albeit on better rock. 6a climbing on edges but with one real runner in 20m. The upper half was well protected but sustained and physical.

We stayed in the hut and I got sunburned just drinking a cup of tea outside in the morning. Time to get into the shade of the cliffs. After spending some time with my feet in the snow (lovely!) I tied in and climbed the slab quickly to get it out of the way. My feet were hot and sore already and I couldn’t get settled for the hard half of the pitch above. So I just had to carry on, unsettled. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the scrap with the wall cracks since the climbing was just so good and abseiled off to give Iain his turn.

Ian told me he had listened to my comment about sweat running out of my helmet at the top and so paced himself a bit on the rests. Whether that made a difference or not I don’t know, but he looked like he enjoyed the pitch as well.

Iain getting racked up for the lead.

Iain at the top of the slab section, where you reach some welcome runners.

We called the climb Mr Fahrenheit. The first route on the buttress, Don’t Die of Ignorance, was first aid climbed by Andy Cave and Simon Yates in 1987 (and freed in winter by myself in 2008). That name was the slogan for the widely seen scary public health ads for the feared AIDS crisis in the late eighties. I remember clearly seeing those ads as an 8-year old even though I had no idea what they were on about. Anyway it made me think of Freddy Mercury and so we thought of something from Queen’s songs that related to the unprecedented heat right now.

Every time I climb on Ben Nevis in summer, I think ‘I should do this more, the rock is so good’. And of course, you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere cooler in the UK. As we trotted about the Coire en route to this line, we eyed up the endless potential for other new routes that still exists on Ben Nevis.

Reaching the end of the wall cracks section.

Aerial shot of the Comb. Mr Fahrenheit takes the obvious brown streak.

Aside from various gloves, goggles and very new and very old Nevis bits of gear lying about the screes, we found lots of other odd things folks carry up the Ben.

Monday 11 June 2018

24/8 film

Back in March I had a great day out climbing a link-up I’d thought about for many years: Font 8A boulder, E8 trad, 8a sport, VIII,8 winter route and 8 Munros in 24 hours. I blogged about it at the time here, but now the film is ready. Enjoy. 

I think its a nice reminder of why people make such a big deal about Scottish climbing. Thanks to Kevin Woods for making the film and Mountain Equipment for supporting it.

Friday 25 May 2018


On the lower quarter of Hyperlipid 8c, common to my other route Testify 8b. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Last October I bolted two 50m new routes, sharing the same start, at Loch Maree Crag. I knew they would be among the best sport routes I’ve been on anywhere. The variety of climbing, quality of the rock and moves, length, exposure and setting are all pretty hard to beat.

The easier one ended up being a soft 8b and a nice introduction back to climbing after separating my shoulder in July. The left hand line looked much harder. After the 8b lower section, although there are good rests, there is a further 8a+ section leading to a brilliant but tough boulder crux, right below the last bolt. The holds on the crux are amazing but tiny edges. I couldn’t really imagine them feeling like actual holds after nearly 50m of climbing to get to them.

I’ve visited Loch Maree crag as often as I could during the last month. First I completed another nice 8b first ascent called Rainbow Warrior, and an escape left from my project just below the boulder crux to give Spring Voyage 8b/8b+. These were really great climbs but also useful to build a little fitness.

I was feeling low on power though, after getting a bout of food poisoning on holiday at Easter that took a little while to recover from. However, every time I went on the project I seemed to chip away at the beta, finding several big improvements that lowered my initial estimation of hard 8c+ to more like hard 8c.

I felt I’d left it too late though. The crag is very sheltered and so its best just to avoid it in midge season, not just for the midge, but because of the difficulty in getting a good breeze for the hardest routes. The season there is really March-May and late Sept-early Nov. I had one more visit booked with Murdo yesterday before I leave for 10 days on Shetland. When I return, it will be time to hit the trad for the summer.

At the car park there was little wind and strong May sunshine even at 9am. Maybe I’m just not used to warmth on my face after a long cold winter shivering under boulders or icicles? But as we entered the shade of the crag, the air was actually surprisingly cold and dry and there was a fair breeze. On my warm-up I found another wee tweak on the crux that took the edge off it, and the intimidation of that crux, so high on the route, waned just a little more.

After a rest I made the long voyage through the lower wall, stood on the rest for an age, attacked the 8a+ power endurance part above and arrived at the pre-crux jug. This is a great place to hang out. I stay here for well over 5 minutes, relaxing, recovering, focusing, letting my body cool down after the work done below and also just enjoying the spectacular position up on that headwall.

Hanging out at the rest before the crux of Hyperlipid 8c. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

All this, followed by a brilliant explosive boulder crux. The key moment of the route is really taking the first of the two ‘tinies’ with the left hand. If you are even slightly tired, it just doesn’t feel like a hold and your momentum evaporates in an instant. But I got there and thought ‘I can pull on it!’ and so gave it everything to match and then throw for the good edge above. I woke up with a shock when my body, starting to fall, stopped and maintained contact with the good edge. Time to keep the effort level up!

The following moves are easier, but a little delicate for the feet. If you stood a little too hard on the smears, and one slipped, you’d be off. I was acutely aware of my shouts and grunts echoing round the crag, adding to the sense of being super high on the route. What follows is a rest and then just a little 7c+ crux to get to the top. It ought to be easy if you can get to this point, and in the end it was. The north west of Scotland has several excellent sport crags, and it’s nice to finally get an 8c on one of them.

I know I often say it, but I was not expecting this project to go down so quickly, even taking into account that it had started off as an 8c+/9a prospect until I found better beta. I suspect that I am feeling the benefit of being injury free for a sustained stint. I’ve not had more than around 6 months of continuous climbing since 2012! I’ve either just broken ankles/legs/shoulders, or just had surgery on one of those. I managed to climb most of the projects I had lined up for the winter/spring. So now I can turn thoughts towards summer projects with a good vibe of confidence. Top of the summer list is the E9 project on Binnein Shuas I started cleaning the day before I separated my shoulder last summer. 

For now though, I just want to say that Loch Maree Crag is well worth a visit for long, high quality sport routes in a lovely setting, many of which stay dry in the rain. The 6bs are just as good as the 8bs. I would recommend visiting in the spring and autumn ‘windows’ rather than summer though. I will miss day trips up there. I guess I’ll just have to get myself to Carnmore at some point soon - something I’ve been meaning to do for years.

On the FA of Rainbow Warrior 8b. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Ultima Thule

For about 15 years I’ve been exploring the Scottish Islands and opening many trad routes on all sorts of cliffs, big and small. I’ve often focused on the Hebrides and also had a great time visiting Orkney to free the Longhope Route (E9) on St John’s Head on Hoy. But I’ve never been to the Shetland Isles.

Top of the list for the archipelago had to be the huge cliffs on Foula, Shetland’s most remote island. Foula has one of the highest sea cliffs in the UK, Da Kame (370m). However, it is the adjacent and almost as high Nebbifeld (290m) which was the obvious target, since it looked much steeper and harder to climb. I’d seen a small picture of it years ago and it looked quite terrifying - bands of overhanging sandstone, of god only knows what quality, towering for hundreds of metres. It might not be climbable at all, it might be amazing. There is only one way to find out. I’d made a plan with Calum Muskett to make a visit in late May. 

Foula is quite the place. Things in the islands are ‘more relaxed’ in general but Foula definitely takes it to another level. The locals are however not relaxed about helping visitors. Everyone bends over backwards to look after people coming to visit the island. There is no shop on the island and aside from worrying about how to carry 440m of rope and a huge rack of gear, I wondered how we would carry food for an entire trip as well. I asked around if any of the local crofters had any meat or eggs they could sell and in one email there were to be preplaced local lamb and eggs at our accommodation. Eggcellent.

Arriving off the wee ferry, we were met by the locals, offering unexpected lifts, advice and arrangements to sort us out with whatever we needed. By the following morning we were also provided with several iron stakes to make anchors at the top of the cliff. It’s great to see the tradition of being kind to visitors extends to yet another island I hadn’t been to.

On the first evening, we walked round the island and inspected all the cliffs. It was raining and blowy, as you might expect. And so the cliffs looked extra huge, intimidating and rather uninviting. However, the next day, a period of good weather arrived and I used the drone to locate the top of a line we had spied on Nebbifield. The stakes were hammered in with large rocks and we abseiled over the edge, extra 100m static ropes tied to our harnesses to advance further down the cliff.

In a couple of sessions we’d done a lot of work to clean and stabilise the top half of the wall, but the lower part, at least in the line of the rope, had a long open wall of pretty soft sandstone. The line to take looked much further right, making a long traverse to gain a corner system, and another 70m traverse back left, above it. The only way to get to it was from the bottom, climbing onsight. 

Spot the climber

I was a little tired after a few days of cleaning, but the forecast was only good for one more day, so off we went down the rope to commit to an attempt. At the base I attempted to pin the static rope to the ground with a wire and a rock, so that it would resist blowing off in the wind (and stranding us, should we fail on the route) but allow us to pull it up from above should we succeed.

A soft traverse on pitch 2 to reach the corner system with relief.

Calum set off up an off width, lobbing loose blocks off at regular intervals. My second pitch got fully into the Foula climbing vibe. I balanced over some huge death flakes and dug out a ledge for an essential runner to justify further progress. I eventually unearthed a crack that took some gear and inspected a horizontal traverse along a honeycomb band of softness with the consistency of stale bread. Just about hard enough to convince you to pull on it, and then snap! But amongst the flakiness there were some fingery pockets that were more solid and I made it to a fine belay ledge at the base of the huge roofed corner. Hurdle one complete.

Calum burled round the roofs above which looked incredible and continued out of sight above. I reached him at a hanging belay with a blank looking section just above. The rock here was really good - washed by a waterfall coming over the top of the cliff, it had hardened and cleaned it perfectly. The blank bit went with one committing rockover and I made it to a fantastic ledge in the middle of the cliff. This made a great spot to relax for a minute and enjoy the setting. Next up was a 70m traverse pitch along a diagonal break, starting with fulmar fighting and ending with a long stretch of pumpy laybacking, using up out large rack of cams. Calum worked steadily along it, running out of cams after 50m and switching to fiddly wires as well as brief stop for some gardening as well.

Although this only took us to the start of the hard pitches, at least we were back in line with our static rope, so we if we failed on the hard climbing, we wouldn’t have a complex abseil back to the foot of the cliff, followed by a 250m jumar! We had a comedy moment with Calum pulling up the lowest 100m static to tie it off and complaining about it feeling heavy or his arms feeling weak. When the end finally appeared, it still had the large rock I’d pinned it with attached!

Kind of hard to fathom that this is a 300m cliff.

I dispatched a short E6 pitch on which I was very glad I’d cleaned it carefully. I think it might feel more like E7 if you didn’t know exactly which holds were strong enough to pull on and every rubbish cam that would fit in the chossy breaks. Calum followed and then asked if I might lead the next pitch as we was feeling the effects of a winter’s skiing in his arms. I’d just been sport climbing for a month and even then I was pumped on the next pitch and had to give a bit of a shout on a fingery snatch at the end of it. Next up was another E6/7 pitch. A sparsely protected wall with long reaches. Calum started up it but felt pumped and it was too dangerous to commit to the crux section, so he lowered down and I tried. I was shivering quite badly in the ever increasing wind and although a serious pitch was not so appealing right at that moment, I was happy to take the opportunity to get some blood flowing. I achieved that goal, and could indeed feel my heart going a bit, right at the end of the pitch, a long way out from the gear and doing a little bit of a ‘move’ to the final hold.

Pitch 7, another 6b pitch, and the hardest ones are still to come.

One more E6 pitch remained, but a long and varied one. First, more of the same bold wall climbing with no runners, then a sandy groove with collapsing footholds, culminating in a fulmar ledge, followed by a stomach crawl leftwards along the break, processing fulmars along the way and avoiding dropping loose stuff directly onto Calum. And then a bouldery 6b section through the capping roofs. I was quite wide eyed on this section, with the wind blasting up into my face and the knowledge that a second try would be highly unlikely at this point in the day. It wasn’t needed.

Calum opted to follow this pitch on the static rope rather than second such a weaving pitch in a very cold and tired state. So he arrived in no time and led off up the final corner, roaring at fulmars and scaring them off very effectively. 

The next day I could hardly move. 

We called our route Ultima Thule; apparently the name the Romans had for Foula, meaning the farthest land. Overall it goes at E7 5c, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6a, 6b, 6b, 6b, 6b, 5a.

The superb Nebbifeld. It's easy to see from this angle why we chose the line we did. The small waterfall coming over the top of the cliff has blown all over the upper part of the wall, hardening the otherwise slightly soft sandstone, and turning it the bright rust colour.

Da Kame and Nebbifeld from my drone.

Monday 23 April 2018

Spring Voyage 8b/8b+

On the lower half of Spring Voyage 8b/8b+ last October (this part is common to my route Testify, 8b). Photo: Dark Sky Media

After doing the 24/8 link-up I was pretty keen to move on to preparing for some spring projects. Before that, I had some family time for a couple of weeks and then drove straight to Loch Maree. I have a 50m long project there, in the 8c+ ballpark. It has a lot of pumpy climbing to get to the crux boulder problem right at the end, and I’d spotted a variation going out left just before the crux onto a route I’d done last year called ‘The Circus’. This would be perfect for getting familiar with the bottom part of the route as well as gaining some fitness after a long winter of bouldering and then two weeks with almost no climbing.

More than 20 sport routes here now from 6b-8b/+ and my 8c+ project. Routes up to 50m long and climbable in the rain. Pretty good. Although definitely not a crag to miss the pre-midge window! If you are gonna go there, go there now!

Various issues (jet lag, glassy skin and a bout of food poisoning) slowed me down a bit on the first day there with Murdo and I didn’t quite make it to the top. But on the second day I felt rather better and got it first try. I nearly blew it three metres from the top when part of a hold broke with my other hand mid-reach. I was lucky to stay on. Although it’s a link-up, it’s a pretty amazing one. The climbing is a good and varied as you’ll get in the UK in fact. I’ll call it ‘Spring Voyage’ and give it 8b/8b+. I hate split grades but I’ve not done any sport climbing for a while so just don’t have much of an idea at the moment. And given its length, theres not much to compare it to locally! Its probably a bit like Kalea Borroka 8b+ in Siurana, less sustained but with a rather harder crux.

Either in an effort to give myself another route to get fit on, or put off getting fully involved with the 8c+ a little longer (I’m not sure which), I also bolted another line. A direct finish up the leaning headwall above Hafgufa. I reckon that one will come in around 8b+ as well, with a superb crimpy crux section on the headwall after a lot of climbing below. I’ll get involved with that tomorrow.

Murdo working on Testify.

Although there’s nowhere I’d rather be climbing than here in spring time, I always have one eye on whats coming next. It’s rather wet at the minute, so I’m hoping these sport redpoints will serve to set me up for getting back on my E9 project on Binnien Shuas which I was cleaning the day before I broke my shoulder last July. I’m watching the forecast for the first warm days of May when I can pick up where I left off with that one. It also has 8b+ climbing, but thankfully mostly well protected.

View from my tent at the end of Loch Maree. Pretty good place to hang out.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Gutbuster video

As promised, here is some video of me climbing Gutbuster 8B+ at Dumbarton Rock back at the end of the winter. I’ve been so busy going out climbing I’ve never got round to putting this together. Enjoy.

Thanks to Paul Diffley at Hot Aches Productions for the old footage of my initial attempts, back in the day.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

The 24/8

Enjoying the summit of Ben Nevis on a climbing day I will remember for a long time. Photo: Kevin Woods

I moved to Lochaber ten years ago and one thing you cannot escape as a local is that in spring, conditions are amazing for every type of climbing. If you are an all-round climber in the area, spring equates to doing very little work, having no rest days at all, being exhausted for three months straight but having a huge number of fantastic memorable days out climbing. You find yourself trying to recover from winter climbing fast enough to take advantage of great conditions for your rock projects, almost wishing for a rainy day to make an excuse to rest. This is why it is the best all-rounder climbing area I know of, anywhere.

Soon after I moved up, I had the spark of an idea to link up routes of all the climbing disciplines in one day. There are so many different types of climbing crammed into the Nevis area. I wondered if it would be possible and if so, at what level of difficulty? I don’t normally do link-ups or that sort of thing (not because I don’t like them, I just tend to focus on my climbing projects), so if I was going to do one, it would need to be a special one, that would be hard to complete and require a high general standard of climbing ability.

Kevin Shields at Steall just before we left him at 9am, the refrozen Steall Falls behind

I settled on doing ‘all the eights’ as a good target:

- An 8A boulder
- An 8a sport route
- An E8 trad route
- A VIII,8 winter route
- And 8 Munros

In 24 hours.

I started calling it ‘the twenty four eight’ in my head and mentioned it to various people. I put a recce day or two into preparing for it in various winters over the past 8 years or so. I even lined up to have a proper go at it once, about 4 or 5 years ago. It was the usual problem. If the mixed routes on the Ben were white, the rock routes in the glen were either also snowed up, or soaking wet. Or if the rock routes were dry then so was the mixed on the Ben. So although I said above that spring in Lochaber allows you to do everything, thats rarely true on the same day, at least if you are talking about EVERY discipline, and going for hard routes. If it was grade Vs it would be no bother. The problem with picking hard routes is it narrows the choice considerably.

The idea drifted in and out of my mind each winter, but it was always such a long shot to catch it in condition at short notice, yet be fit enough to actually do it, it hardly seemed worth bothering with. But at the same time, I’d been going on about it to friends for years and years.

This year, with the ‘Beast from the East’ easterlies we had in early March, I was stuck in Glasgow in the snow and hearing that at home in Lochaber there was no snow in the glens but it was really sunny. The 24/8 suddenly popped into my head again. That period of weather didn’t yield a suitable day. But when a second bout of easterlies came into the forecast models, I started to take a closer interest, and leapt out to Glen Nevis to look at the rock routes I might try.

I spent a couple of utterly grim days trying to re-familiarise myself with Misadventure (E8 6c) and Leopold (8a) while getting pummelled by 60mph easterlies with snow stinging my eyes, on a low level crag! It seemed ridiculous. Previously, I’d thought the boulder of choice would be my own ‘Bear Trap Prow’ 8A+, but that is also often wet in winter. When I walked up to recce it, it was completely soaked. So my mind jumped to the Cameron Stone Arete, climbed only recently by Dan Varian at 8A+ and I’d repeated it a couple of years ago. It is very sharp and can cut your fingers, but does dry quickly. Thankfully I could repeat it in a session and felt like there was a good chance I could do it early in the morning if conditions were good.

Monday 19th emerged as a weather window from nearly 6 days out. As the high pressure approached Scotland, the cold eastern would drop and leave a still cold, but fine day with light winds. It seemed possible that it wouldn’t be too cold to lead Misadventure, but the mixed on the Ben would stay white.

Topping out on Frosty's Vigil VIII,8 around 5pm. Photo: Kevin Woods

Choosing a winter route for the challenge was rather more tricky. Winter routes on the Ben at grade VIII do have a habit of taking a good chunk out of a 24 hour period, not leaving much time for 39km of walking and all the other rock routes. It needed to be something I could do quite quickly, and ideally as reliably in condition as possible. I had two days out last week with Helen Rennard, trying to figure it out. Both were complete failures. On the first day we headed for the routes above Echo Wall but had to turn back with avalanche danger. On the second, I climbed most of The Secret, but the crack was so completely choked with hard ice and reversed from a good bit up the crux pitch without any runners worth speaking about. Frosty’s Vigil was another idea, being high up and often in condition. But it was still an unknown whether the top pitch needed specific conditions of useable ice, or ice free cracks?

On Sunday I was in Glasgow, watching Freida do Judo. The forecast looked pretty good, if cold, and I’d arranged to climb with Kevin Shields for the rock routes, Iain Small for the winter route, and Kevin Woods to film the whole thing and join me for the Grey Corries traverse.  A strong team!I was grateful to Claire for getting us home early and I thankfully got to bed at 8pm which set me up to feel rested and ready to climb hard at 6.30am. In case I did get a day to try it, I’d deliberately had nearly two weeks on climbing every day to really wear myself down, winter climbing, training and rock days back to back, followed by one rest day.

I got up at 4.30am and made my usual pile of eggs, but struggled to eat them. I think I was actually a little nervous. There were quite a lot of logistical things to remember, but thankfully I’d spent the Saturday afternoon packing gear into separate packs so I could just lift them out of the car without thinking.

Arriving at the Cameron Stone just as it got light at 6.30am, I realised the conditions were going to be even better than forecasted - probably the best day of the whole winter. It was zero degrees and no wind. Spot on. I had been worried that the forecasted minus two and northerly wind would just make it too cold for E8 trad.

Pulling down on Cameron Stone Arete 8A+ at 6.50am. Photo: Kevin Woods

I took maybe ten minutes warming up, doing the moves of the Cameron Stone Arete (8A+) all first try. Then I pulled on just to do the start moves but continued all the way to the last move. I pretty much knew I could do it next go. A glance at my phone - 6.50am, chalk up and go. I climbed easily to the last move again but fumbled the foothold slightly, so the jump to the good hold was a bit wild. I grabbed it and felt like I was falling but just didn’t let go for a long second. Next thing I was standing on top of the boulder. Game on.

Don't let go of that jug! Photo: Kevin Woods

Half an hour later I was starting up Misadventure (E8). The climb takes a blunt arete with a bouldery sequence of slaps. There is gear, but it’s off to the side in a corner, so a fall from the crux would smash you off the left wall of the corner. Its obviously hard to predict what would happen. But I doubt you’d get away uninjured. I suspect you couldn’t turn to take the impact feet first either. A sideways smash could be really horrible. So it’s not really a route to start up without knowing it will go. But after the boulder I knew I felt really good. However, as I set up for the crux slap out right, my foot slid a little on the foothold. I was completely committed, so the only solution was to up the power output and commit even more. I realised sometime afterwards, replaying back the sequence in my mind, that in that moment of psyching up for the move, I’d completely forgotten to move my right hand to an intermediate crimp first. Oh well, it worked out anyway, and I raced up the easier top section, carefully avoiding some holds that were covered in ice.

Dispatching Leopold 8a about 9am. Photo: Kevin Woods

At Steall car park it was still only 8.30am, half an hour ahead of schedule. Kev Shields, Kev Woods and I bounced up the gorge path into lovely morning sunshine in Steall Meadows and I felt plenty warm enough for jumping straight onto Leopold (8a). The crux all felt easy (it ought to, I’ve done it countless times while trying my 9a there in the past). But as I approached the upper part, I realised that there was a lump of ice on a key foothold for the final rest, and a sidepull on the upper crux was completely encased in an icicle! Thankfully, I’d already sussed out an alternative sequence on my recce day, so could just move through without a problem. By 9.15am, I was back at the entrance to Steall meadow, thanking Kev Shields for coming out and off we went, contouring across Meall Cumhann and up the shoulder of Ben Nevis to the Car Mor Dearg Arete by 11am.

Iain Small literally making a VII,8 pitch look like a walk. He has a habit of this.

I had arranged to meet Iain Small between 12 and 12.30 in Observatory Gully. Thankfully, Iain carried up a full rack and a single rope as well. I opted for going over the summit and down Tower Gully, being careful at the cornice, since twenty years ago this is where it collapsed on me and I ended up going the full length of Observatory Gully in the resultant avalanche, including some impressive airtime on the way down Tower Scoop. No such problems today in the bullet hard neve. I met Iain just cutting a ledge at the foot of Frosty’s Vigil VIII,8. The route was first done by Greg McInnes, Guy Robertson and Adam Russell in 2017. I led pitch 1 and had a great belay stance under a roof, to protect myself from all the rime Iain had to clear from the corner on pitch 2. While I suffered the hot aches after seconding the pitch, Iain helpfully leaned out from the belay to arrange a nut runner to protect the steep looking traverse out right across the wall.

Iain sniffing out some useful ice in the steepness.

This pitch was really the linchpin for getting the link done. Would it be in climbable condition? I knew that it sometimes gets iced, but looked fairly mixed in the pictures of Greg leading it. Somewhere in between (iced up cracks, so no rock protection, but not enough ice to climb) could be a stopper. After a couple of steep moves across the wall, I had the reassuring ‘thunk’ of my ice tool finding a nice runnel of climbable ice. Moving up under a roof, everything fell into place with two really good Spectre runners to protect a steep step out from a roof to gain an icicle dribbling down the left wall impressively. Climbing this was very exposed and amazingly satisfying. With every ice tool placement I could feel the success of the day getting closer. I think it was just before 6pm by the time we were all stood on the summit of Ben Nevis, hurriedly rearranging kit and having a brief chat before saying cheerio to Iain and jogging off down to the CMD arete, now a team of just Kevin Woods and myself.

What can you say? Photo: Kevin Woods

Running round to CMD was stunning in the sunset, one of the best I’ve ever seen on Ben Nevis. Kevin was just laughing all the way round. No words were needed. I felt exactly the same, it was so good it was funny! The sun was just about to drop below the horizon as we legged it down to the low col between CMD and Aonach Mor. The 400m climb back up was always going to be a calf burner. So there is nothing for it but to embrace the pain and keep moving. As an aside, I guess everyone has their own mental technique for beasting themselves through a big hill climb. I’m sure it will sound ridiculous to some but I always tend to find the rhythm of my feet kicking steps in snow aligning to proper trad pipe marches in my head. An acquired taste even for Scots but its what I grew up listening to so it is in the blood, as they say. They are so ruthlessly simple, bright and cheery, they just keep you going, putting one foot in front of another and somehow actually enjoying it. It’s no accident that they were often designed for the express purpose of making men march to their death. So now that we lucky modern folk have to dream up mad challenges to push ourselves to the point we actually realise we are alive, unsurprisingly they still work. My favourite is probably Mrs John MacColl, expertly played in this clip by Stuart Liddell.

Lovely sky from Aonach Mor some time after 7pm. Ben Nevis on the left, Carn Mor Dearg centre.

We were rewarded as we reached the Aonach Mor plateau with a stunning deep red horizon and amazing colour in the sky. But I noted that it already seemed extremely cold and I was starting to shiver after a couple of minutes food stop.

Aonach Beag was straightforward as you would expect and we ploughed on down the ridge, Kevin’s good knowledge of the range helping us to locate the right spot to drop through the cornice and down to the col at the start of the Grey Corries. On the way down, we discussed our mutual state of dehydration. Gear carrying had been an issue for both of us (climbing gear for me, camera gear for Kevin) and the downside of the sunny day was more fluid requirements. We skirted around the col before Sgurr Choinnich Beag in futile search for some moving water. There was none of course, so munching on icicles and rime biscuits it was.

The Grey Corries ridge line is always a pleasure to move along. Of course we were getting tired, but just plodding on is not so bad. It is only really an injury or fuel crisis that would stop you on this terrain. Several years ago I was doing a fasted Grey Corries run and had just such a fuel crisis; acute hypoglycaemia symptoms that forced me to stop, lie down and then have a long stumble out to Leanachan Forest and Spean Bridge. No such problems now with a much improved metabolism from two years of eating a lot of fat and doing a lot of fasting. I knew I would eventually slow down a bit with fatigue, but not stop, regardless of taking on calories.
In fact, as we reached Stob Coire an Laoigh I noted a slight euphoria spreading gently across my brain, and feeling slightly stronger again in the legs. The wind picked up a fair bit and still felt colder than I expected, which I thought must just be the effect of eating ice biscuits and having damp gloves I’d sweated into for 8 hours. It was definitely chilly though. I had stuffed rime crystals into my Platypus and then put it into my base layer to melt. But even after two Munros I got barely 5ml of liquid water.

Another from Aonach Mor, since it was so nice! Photo: Kevin Woods

I remembered slogging up Stob Coire Claurigh at the east end of the Grey Corries with Andy Turner while filming ‘The Pinnacle’ eight years ago and feeling kind of knackered (we’d done Orion Face in the morning). This time it felt okay and so we wasted no time in ploughing on to the base of Stob Ban, the final Munro. I did feel tired enough on this to need to stop for five minutes and eat a tasty combo of dark chocolate and ice biscuits to help it go down. The funny thing was, once I got up and started again, the summit was only another 40 odd metres above! As expected for this type of day out, I was a bit too fatigued and cold to jump around and celebrate the success. I just noted the time (1:20am, 18.5 hours after starting) and we celebrated by taking a bearing for Larig Leacach and discussing the imminent prospect of getting down to a stream.

The first water we found was right by the bothy in the larig. Kev pointed out that it was still an 8km walk out to my house in Roy Bridge and asked if we could have a quick snooze in the bothy. Kev snoozed. I was impressed he could. I couldn’t even sit still without shivering like mad and instead had myself a mini aerobics session in the bothy to arrest the shivering (didn’t work). I’d warmed up after a few Kms and all that was left was a nice wade through the river Spean. It was partially icing over. I later found out it had been minus 8.6 at Tulloch during the night, which explains why it  felt so cold in the wind. The dawn just started to break as we walked up my street and back to my house. Claire kindly got up and made us piles of eggs and tea and I started to realise that a little climbing dream of eight years had actually been quite a big climbing dream I had never thought I’d get in condition, or myself in condition to manage it.

It was so glad of the opportunity to do it and to have a good climbing team of Kevin Shields, Iain Small and Kevin Woods, all excellent climbers and exactly who you’d want on a day like this. Having filmed Ramsay's Round last summer I was particularly impressed that Kevin was able to follow me for the whole thing and film at the same time. Not an easy thing to manage, either physically or logistically. I’m looking forward to seeing his footage!

Its been a fantastic winter where I’ve done most of my projects for the season, all of which were hard for me. Time to move onto my spring rock projects I think. But this one will definitely live long in the memory.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Moth Direct

Iain Small approaching the roof on pitch 1 of the Moth Direct. After the first couple of pitches I didn't get the camera out much. It wasn't really photography weather!

Last week I was sat in my car Dumbarton just after climbing Gutbuster. I had arranged to climb the following day on Crag Meagaidh with Iain Small and Helen Rennard, with a rough plan of doing a direct start and finish to ‘The Moth’ VII,8, a 380 metre route first climbed by Es and Guy on the Pinnacle Face. We looked at the wind forecast and postponed. I’m glad! 

Iain heads up into the morning gloom at dawn.

We reconvened at the Meagaidh car park at 5am yesterday and marched into Coire Ardair under leaden skies but fairly benign weather. In Raeburn’s Gully, Iain pointed out the first couple of pitches (beyond that it was in the cloud). The first pitch looked really logical, taking a nice dribble of ice emanating from a roof, then stepping left and pulling over the roof to gain the ledge Es and Guy had traversed in on to reach the main corner system on pitch 2. Iain made chilled out work of the pitch, as he does. I then lead the crux of The Moth which had a fun ‘Quarryman’ style crux palming off a corner.

Iain rapidly dispatched the following 2 pitches (run together) and then I led an 80 metre pitch (with 10m of moving together of course) that was standard Meagaidh tech 5 icy face climbing with basically no gear and eventually found a belay below the barrier wall that tops the buttress. Iain launched up the steep wall directly above the belay and made it to a the next ledge just as darkness fell. From here Es and Guy escaped rightwards along the ledge in the dark and deteriorating (thawing) weather.

Iain on the hardest part of the first pitch. Great climbing with a good bit of gear.

We followed in the dark. The wall above still looked steep at first and well rimed up at this height, it wasn’t clear where to attack it. I led off up a bulging wall, with one well placed cluster of runners to encourage me to keep going up, followed by a long groove which was great except there was basically no protection and the updraught was hammering my eyes and face with spindrift every time I looked at my feet. This still didn’t make the top. But thankfully the final pitch was easier and led us to a wee cairn at the top of the Pinnacle.

One of the side effects of always trying projects which are super hard for me is I don’t get out and about ticking loads of easier routes on nearby crags. It's kind of odd that Meagaidh is less than 20 minutes drive from my house, but I’d only ever done two routes on it before yesterday. Hopefully I can start to address that issue! It was the same with Binnein Shuas which is even closer. I hadn’t done anything there at all until recently and now have done several E7s and two E8s. Yesterday I was also thinking about my rather harder project on Binnein Shuas which escaped last year thanks to my shoulder accident in July. Ideally there is time for some more winter routes before that project thaws out and I can get started on it again.

Helen eyeing up the line from Raeburn's Gully.

Friday 2 March 2018

Ten years after

Highpoint on Gutbuster 8B+ in sunnier times in May 2017 - very very close but needed some more cold days! Thanks to Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media for the pic.

Oh man, thinking about it, it’s actually eleven years. In 2007 I was 29 and was climbing really well. In that period I did my first E11, my first 9a and was doing a lot of high standard climbing across the disciplines. I was living in Dumbarton and doing a ton of climbing there, but in May 2007 we made a plan to move to the highlands and so I did a bit of a mad rush for a few weeks to finish various remaining projects on the boulders.

I climbed all of them except the hardest one - the link across the roof into the start of Sanction (Font 8B). I got really close at the time but it didn’t happen before I left. It seemed like madness to drive back from my new home in the highlands to finish it off so I was happy enough to forget about it. Although I did have kind of a niggle that it would have been nice to open an 8B+ boulder at Dumby.

Thankfully Malcolm Smith sorted that out in 2008 and made the first ascent, calling it Gutbuster 8B+. The strenuous kneebar rest between the two halves of the climb certainly is a Gutbuster, but it’s pretty important to get as long as possible on it, to be fresh for the tricky jump move right at the end of Sanction. 8 years after its first ascent it is still unrepeated to my knowledge.

Last spring I was going climbing in Arrochar but got rained off and since I’d driven down, I bailed to Dumby instead. I stood looking at Gutbuster again and decided to get on it and see if the moves felt harder for my ten years older body. I did actually feel a tiny bit stronger on it although obviously memory is not perfect! The curiosity switch was instantly flicked and I decided to see if I really could burn off my 30 year-old self ten years later.

I had some sessions, but with it being May it was getting kind of late and although I got ridiculously close, I ran out of conditions. I also noted that I’d been doing lots of redpoints and lots of rest days and had lost fitness. I really needed to get some training in, but there wasn’t time with just a couple of weeks left of the hard bouldering season. So I left it and aimed to come back in September.

But in September I had a separated shoulder and was battling just to raise my arm above my head, never mind climb anything. I managed to get back on Gutbuster by November while I was down studying at Glasgow Uni for a month. I was climbing but still not nearly on 8B+ form and my right arm was still extremely weak. Sometimes it can be good to work out the moves while weak and find the best method. My plan was to build up my strength with a few sessions on it, get it wired and then go to Spain in Jan and try and get back towards 8B+ form. On top of that I had my usual experiments with various aspects of diet and recovery protocol. It worked really well.

I had one session on it the other week in poor conditions and felt noticeably stronger, then another hard week of training on the board. I really wore myself down in that training stint and was exhausted every night, but hoped after a rest day I’d feel very strong right on time for a busy work period finishing and the good conditions starting. Then I went back down on Tuesday just before the worst of the recent snow arrived.

It was snowing at the crag but seemed okay for climbing. I warmed up and tried a few moves and instantly knew I had a chance to send it that day, feeling by far the strongest I’ve ever felt on it. But on my first two tries my foot slipped at the same move halfway up Sanction. I tweaked the beta and it was much better. I also realised I wasn’t able to fully relax in the kneebar rest and spend a fair bit of time faffing with the kneepads to get them in the right spot on my thighs. That also made a huge difference and I could relax and get my breathing down at the rest.

On the third try a full on blizzard started while I was on the shakeout. My hands went numb and I fell off Sanction, but even if I hadn’t, the top holds were full of snow and I’d never have made it through. I retreated to the cafe for a brew while the snow raged and then returned and brushed the snow off the holds. But it was getting dark and getting silly.

Snowstorm started mid attempt. It wasn't going to happen.

I had my ‘one last go’ and fell near the end of the first half when I couldn’t see a foothold in the gloom and slipped of it. Och well. Just to finish myself off, I went back to the start without even taking my rock shoes off and started again. This time I scrapped through the first roof but with the kneepads properly positioned and jumper on this time, I was warmer and much more relaxed and able to ‘shake off’ the stress of the first part. I took an extra moment to compose before taking the little spike crimp, for no particular reason, and started up Sanction. This time I just happened to make all the moves really error free and got to the jump. I was just that much stronger on it than previous sessions and next thing I’d done the crux and my eye level creeped over onto the top slab. I did feel powered out while setting up for the last tricky stab to a crimp, but held it nonetheless. At that point there only a real mess up would send me off and I found myself stood on the slab, wide eyed.

Gutbuster finishes up Imposter arete, a straightforward 5a but really a solo with a horrendous fall if you did decide to come off it. Normally I’d just walk up it, but now most of the footholds were wet and holds were full of snow. It felt more like E4 5c, crimping the hell out of the damp snowy crimps. Getting off the boulder was even more of a gripper! The descent climb faced directly into the snow and was snow covered slippery death.

So I guess I showed to myself that its possible to burn off your 30 year old self ten years later. Clearly I need to be cautious in how I interpret this. But I have to admit that I find it hard to doubt that the changes I’ve made in my approach to training have made a difference. Actually the training hasn’t changed that much, its more the lifestyle and especially nutrition practice. I do feel generally better, but specifically a bit stronger and more resilient to training stress, illness, injury. In other words, I feel like I bounce back a little better than I did before. I’ll keep testing, trying to falsify. If it keeps working in this direction, I’ll take it!

I’ve read a ton of recent research in various corners of physiology over the past two and a half years. The details of this are rather complex and thee’s no doubt it’s like looking at a half-finished jigsaw puzzle of evidence. But I increasingly form a hunch that at least a decent proportion of the age-related decline in performance and/or increase in brokenness seen across sport could be prevented by deviating from some of the standard advice in sports science discourse. Doing this involves a bit of curiosity to use the evidence base as just that, a base, a starting place, from which to take some educated guesses and head off in search of new places for organised research to follow on behind. To me this has always been what sport science has been about.

I'll post up some video of climbing it shortly.