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.