Wednesday, 19 December 2012

North Ridge

We climb in the dark early hours of the morning and lose our way on the glacier. Chossy ice, rotten rock. Crampons skate and grind. Pat trips and breaks a toe, and will not realise until we return home. Cold, we huddle round the map and look for an answer. Turn back or try again. We try. This time no mistake. Steepening snow leads to the lowest point of the ridge. It’s just getting light.

The way is clear. A north ridge, saw-toothed pinnacles, distant snowy summit hidden from sight. We climb. Over spikes and towers, traversing slabs, we move together quickly. If one falls the other will hold firm or die trying. But it will not come to that. Though we don’t yet know it, this day is ours.
Flashback a year. Chamonix, black clouds fill the skies, mountains made inaccessible by snow and by storm. Shut down. Months of training gone to waste. We are trapped in our tent for long hours by a blizzard that kills on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Early return, disappointment. Failure. A hunger unsatisfied. No question of coming back again. Given a chance I know we can accomplish anything.
The ridge is unrelenting. I find the easiest way and worry about time. Perfect weather, little wind, the sun rising fast. Too fast. The way back down off this mountain will be dangerous in the midday heat. A maze of seracs waiting to fall, ever weakening bridges over crevasses without bottom. No matter though. We live for the present, for this winding ridge of golden rock. Concentrating on finding handholds. Feet clumsy in big boots. Hard to trust upon tiny imperfections. And just above, the crux awaits.
A steep tower. Finger cracks and edges. Pat belays and I climb quickly. Smearing on nothing. Muscles tremble as I hang on to place protection. Legs ache. Cold fingers uncurl. I must not fall now. Upwards, ever upwards. If I can reach the next ledge we are halfway there. Old rusty pegs hammered into fissures. They will not hold but I clip them anyway. The ledge within sight, within reach. A final grasp. I catch my breath and bring Pat up. We continue without rest.
Meters pass, the ridge drops away beneath my feet. Pure instinct. Life or death desicions made in a heartbeat. I realise I am experiencing one of the great days of my life. Putting ideal into reality. We forge our dreams of rock and ice. The climbing is getting harder, more intense, each pinnacle a riddle we must solve to carry on. Gatekeepers of the summit. We climb effortlessly as one, each safeguarding the other. Communicating through the ebb and flow of the rope alone.

A final obstacle. The ridge narrows. On either side a terrible void drops away. Incuts hewn into the stone, a stairway to perfection. Beckoning me onward to exponential heights. Tired now. We slow and puff. At last the rock ends and a snow arête climbs up to nothing but sky. The summit. The reason for my being. Pat out in front, a lone figure battling through the wind. His ice axe bites deep, his crampons cutting the steps that I will follow. Lost in the wonder of the moment. Not there yet but soon we will be.

Just a few feet now. The crunch of snow. I can see mountains all around me, challenge enough to last ten lifetimes. Nowhere else I’d rather be. Fuelled by a fire within that burns hot and bright. Time loses meaning, seconds crawl by with the weight of decades. One more step and I can go no higher. An experience that will be mine forever. I step at last into a depthless, rushing blue, where the world ends and the mountain becomes the sky.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Alps Photos

Approaching the Lagginhorn (4010m) on the Hohsaas cable car. We climbed the obvious left-hand ridge line.
Looking towards the chossy approach from our bivy spot.
The view towards the Bernese Alps from the summit, which we reached at first light.
Me suffering from the altitude, having not fully acclimatised prior to our ascent.
Pat very happy to be back down again.
The death trap face we had to traverse underneath to reach the Brittania Hut.
Panoramic shot from our bivy. The peaks, from left to right, are the Strahlhorn (4190m), the Rimpfischhorn (4198m), and the Allalinhorn (4027m). I returned a couple of weeks later with Jordan and finally succeeded on the Rimpfischhorn after several failed attempts back in 2010.
Pat on the summit of the Allalinhorn with the Zermatt peaks on the horizon.
Looking back at the Allalinhorn from the cable car station. We climbed the left-hand snow ridge through the obvious rock band to reach the top.
The awesome north ridge of the Weissmies (4017m), viewed from the Lagginhorn.
Me climbing a typical pinnacle on the ridge with the summit still a long way away.
Best route I've ever done!
Panoramic of the rock section of the north ridge, with the Lagginhorn in the background.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Putting My Head Back Together

At some point over the summer I lost my trad head. I went from being steady at HVS to gibbering my way up Severes and shouting ‘watch me’ every time I so much as moved a finger. Of course, it was all Swanage’s fault. The loose rock, the steepness, the greasy limestone, the horror, the horror...

I lost all confidence in my ability to climb, found lose holds everywhere, got twatted by a block the size of a melon that Rich broke off on some chossy, god-forsaken VDiff in the depths of Cormorant Ledge. Even when I placed good gear I couldn’t stop questioning the rock I’d put it in. On one route at Cattle Troughs I clung on mid crux, steadily getting more and more pumped and terrified, and placed about 37 nuts before I finally manned up and pulled through. Then it started raining as I inched my way up the easy headwall, which freaked me out so much I seriously considered untying and throwing myself into the sea.

It took a few sport sessions at Winspit and Portland to regain any semblance of the climber I’d once been. Sure I was crap, sure I made grade 5s look like 8as, sure I probably retreated from more routes than I finished. But somewhere along the way I found the spark of confidence I was looking for.
Cue a fairly hopeless attempt with Lurch to climb a route on Lliwedd, a subsidiary buttress of Snowdon, described in the guidebook as the biggest mountain cliff in Wales.
We couldn’t even find the fucking thing.
It was so misty all we could see was the very bottom of something that might’ve been a towering 300m crag, but could’ve just as easily been a boulder. We thrashed around on slimy choss for hours, hoping against hope that the fog would recede, that we might somehow stumble upon the start of the route by accident, that, despite all the basic principles of reality, it might actually be dry and climbable, rather than a piss wet death trap that would brush us off like bothersome gnats into the hell we so richly deserved.
Angry, cold and soaking, we trudged back down the Miner’s Track to Pen y Pass and headed back towards the Llanberis slate quarries, where Luke was already climbing. He said he was on a crag called Australia that was awesome and we should get on it right away.
Once a-fucking-gain, we couldn’t find the fucking thing. I fatally neglected to look at the book, and instead just hiked up to the top of the first quarry I could see. It was steep and took ages. Poor old Lurch fell further and further behind, until I started receiving a string of increasingly worrying text messages from him; Where are you?; I’m bloody knackered; I think I’m lost; My phone’s about to die; Something comes...
And so on. I realised my mistake at the top, turned around, found a somewhat traumatised Lurch (muttering ‘the eyes, the eyes’ over and over again), and we went and climbed a route at the bottom. It was a weird sport/trad hybrid, and I decided that slate was rubbish. Rather than do another, we went back into the Pass and climbed an uber-classic Severe called Crackstone Rib, which was fantastic.
The next day we hit Tremadog. Lurch led most of a cool multipitch VDiff called Hail Bebe, then I had a go at Merlin Direct, a classic HVS. As usual, I faffed about on the hard bits, got pumped, took about three days to build a belay that would hold 18 stone of plummeting Lurch, and climbed the final crux wall at a speed that made tectonic drift look snappy. But I got there. It was brilliantly sustained, with a bit of everything - thuggery, corner bridging, a slab, a jugtastic layback flake, and the techy headwall that almost spat me off the last move when I got my feet all wrong and had to do a desperate belly flop campus for survival off a sloper and a shitty crimp.
Bringing Lurch up and gazing out at the rolling fields and distant hills, I knew I was back in the game. A couple of weeks later I descended into the nightmare that is Boulder Ruckle, and amazingly, despite being weak, scared, and generally lacking in talent, I wasn’t killed.
And with ‘Hard Very Swanage’, that’s about the best I could’ve hoped for.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Headpointing Video

Video of me and Luke climbing 'Glacial Point' (E4 5c) at Fairy Cave Quarry, filmed by reliable minion Lurch. Muchas Gracias! Check out his YouTube channel 'JimWitt21' for more.

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Reasoning that anything, even claggy mountain trad, was better than Swanage, Lurch and I headed up to Idwal Slabs the other weekend to skid around on some polished classics. This was for the most part all very jolly and easy. One notable exception however was the innocuously named ‘Original Route’, which our guidebook sportingly described as featuring a chimney. Of course what they actually meant was ‘horrifically slippery off-width crack of death’. The only reason why I didn’t fall off was because I was afraid I’d leave one of my legs still clenched in the jaws of that hellish fissure...

Me leading 'The Arete' (VDiff) at Idwal Slabs

Obviously there was no bit of rock in the country that wouldn’t in some way try to kill me, so I resigned myself to climbing at Swanage once more.

This didn’t go very well.
I got halfway up a VS and shamefully lowered off. I abseiled into an obscure and committing part of Fisherman’s Ledge and seconded Luke up a HVS, which was steep and difficult. He’d spied an E2 on the way down and was keen to try and lead it; I sat and hoped he would change his mind. But he didn’t. Instead, he shot up the damn thing in about 6 seconds flat, and all too soon the ropes came tight and it was my turn.

This didn’t go very well.
Still unused to such gradients after a month of mountains and slabs, I struggled and swore and gasped and pleaded my way upwards, sitting on the rope and not moving a lot. I pulled on a crappy old bit of tat to get past the crux; it still felt hard as nails. I stared upwards with a sort of weak loathing at each new piece of malign geological architecture that greeted me, and prayed to gods that I didn’t believe in to get me to the top. Eventually, all sense of time and joy and hope forgotten, I flopped over the cliff with blood on my hands, weeping softly.

Disheartened, I scurried back to the nice, easy angled slabs of Fairy Cave Quarry, and tried to headpoint an E4.
This didn’t...oh, forget it.

Warming up on 'Withy Crack' (HVS)

I’d never headpointed a route before, and I have to say it’s an interesting experience. The process of breaking down the seemingly impossible hold by hold, move by move, is fascinating. First go on the top rope I fell off about eleventy-million times, and laughed a hollow laugh at the idea of ever being able to lead such a featureless monstrosity. But the second time I got it clean. Interesting. It still felt bloody hard, but I’d managed to link all the moves. The third try was the same. Alright then. Luke had already placed what little (and spaced) gear there was, and successfully led it. So did Rich, although he had made cunning use of a quickdraw to get past a tricky overlap. My turn came.

Me on the successful lead of 'Glacial Point' (E4)

I climbed quickly, negotiated the first crux, clipped a cam, ran it out to the second crux, forgot the sequence, and lobbed off attempting a stupid dyno move for a pocket.
Half falling, half skidding, I cheesegrated about 8m down the slab and managed to smash into a sapling just before the cam caught me. I lowered off back to the deck, tried to regain my focus, and got back on it again. Why, I have no idea. About halfway up I became genuinely concerned that I’d shit myself in the fall, and did the rest of the route more worried about the state of my underwear than the tenuous moves. In fact, I discovered a slightly different sequence through the crux, which actually made it a bit easier. Padding up on rubbish footholds and muttering to myself, I reached the top with a sense of dazed satisfaction, then scurried off into the bushes to see if my sphincter had undergone a critical relaxation during my impromptu skin-displacement exercise. Thankfully it hadn’t.

I was far more pleased about that than the fact I’d just done an E4; I wouldn’t be walking all the way home to Ringwood like some half-peeled incontinent tramp after all.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Smear and Fear

My head hasn't really been into hard trad for a while now. Partly because I've been more focused on mountains, and partly due to being fed up of having my arse kicked at Swanage. This probably wasn't helped by my recent near miss at Guillemot Ledge. I got stuck on a route, went to lower off the gear, only for a hex to ping out and smash me in the teeth the moment I weighted it. Needless to say I scrabbled back onto the rock faster than the speed of light, pumped and gibbering, before finally managing to place something decent and retreat. Apart from the hex all I had in was a dodgy little nut and a bigger one too far below me to do anything more than prevent my mangled corpse from bouncing all the way into the sea.

I still shudder to think of what might've happened if I'd just slumped onto the gear, or worse, gone for the next move and fallen off.

However, with the mountains out of the way for now, and my deep and somewhat groundless hatred for sport climbing showing no signs of abating, I had no choice but to get back on trad and hope I could sort my head out. Enter Fairy Cave Quarry.

Off vertical slabs, soft as pig shit grading, and reasonable landings if you really screw things up. Sounds good. In fact, the average gradient is such that you're far more likely to just cheesgrate back down rather than properly fall off. Practically heaven for a shellshocked Swanage refugee.

After seconding a HS, I racked up and jumped straight onto a VS. It felt pretty good. So I tried an E1 next. It was typical slab climbing, all balancing on tiny footholds and padding up bit by bit past spaced gear. Again, I found myself unscathed at the top rather than broken at the bottom, having found the route a walk in the park compared to the handful of E1's I'd been on before.

I was happy enough with that, but the guy I was with, Luke, is the sort of enthusiastic climber who can psych you up for anything. First E2 lead it was then. The route, called Slight of Hand for obvious reasons, was short and extremely cruxy. I did a couple of moves to reach a horizontal break, stuffed it with cams, then stood up on it. Here I managed to fiddle a hopeless micro-wire into a pocket. The 5c crux awaited. Tenuous moves on smears and non-existent handholds led, with massive commitment, to a crimpy edge. I flapped my way up, feet on absolutely nothing. Just past the edge was a good gear placement but I carried on for one last hard move to the haven of a vegetated break. It was easy all the way to the top after that.

E2? No idea. I can't seem to get any perspective on slab grading. Perhaps it's just too different to the steep choss of Swanage that I'm used to. My instinct says probably not, although you'd definately deck if you fell off the crux. E2, but only if you cock it up maybe. Luke led an E3 with a massive runout afterwards that felt leagues ahead of what I'd just done.

I finished off with the classic Rob's Crack, which was utterly brilliant, and another E1 called Smell the Glove. Regardless of the grading, the climbing was fantastic; the perfect antidote to a Boulder Ruckle assault. Even on the badly protected bits it never felt that serious.

So now, lulled into a false sense of security, I will probably return to Swanage and get the living shit beaten out of me.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 7

After descending from the Rimpfischhorn back into the valley Jordan and I took a rest day and debated what to go for next. We knew we would probably only do one more climb, so it had to be something big. Initially the Dufourspitze and the Dom (2nd and 3rd highest independent peaks in the Alps respectively) were the main candidates. However, both would demand long approaches, tedious glacier/snow plodding, and not an awful lot of exciting climbing. I couldn't summon any enthusiasm for either. Several other ideas were discussed, but really there was only ever going to be one answer.

In Zermatt it is impossible to forget or ignore the Matterhorn. It is far more than just an imposing, isolated physical presence at the head of the valley. Every shop has dozens of duplicate images of it, on t-shirts, mugs, and posters. Businesses with no connection to mountaineering are named after it. There is no escape from it, the peak gets under your skin and whispers in your ear 'climb me'. The moment the idea entered my head I knew we would be attempting the Matterhorn, whether Jordan liked it or not.

In good weather we took the lift up to Schwarzsee and followed a trail to the Hornli Hut at 3260m. Our target of course was the Hornli ridge, by far the mountain's easiest route. Despite this, and the large amount of fixed protection on it, the ridge is still a serious proposition. Over 1200m long, and notoriously much harder to get back down than climb up. It would push us hard.

We pitched the tent on a scree field, geared up, and went off for a quick recce up the first part of the ridge. Apparently the route finding on this section was especially tricky in the dark, so we wanted to get to know as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, after barely 10 minutes out it started raining and we were forced back to camp with all our gear soaked. A worrying evening followed, where we tried to dry our kit over the tiny gas stove, and listened to a rescue helicopter lift stranded climbers off the mountain. Further warning, as if we needed it, that getting up and down again quickly was essential. Due to its isolated nature, the Matterhorn attracts bad weather very easily, and is prone to sudden thunderstorms in the afternoon.

After fitful sleep, we geared up and started the climb around 4:30am. Dozens of parties from the hut soon overtook us, and we followed a chain of headtorches upwards at a very rapid pace. The first few hundred meters passed by in a blur. But as each team settled into a rhythym, we all spread out, and Jordan and I had to find the way ourselves again. The climbing was sustained scrambling, up ribs and chimneys, never hard, never really easy. Sometime just before dawn we made a route-finding error and stuck to the crest where we should've traversed onto more straightforward terrain on the adjoining east face. Harder grade III climbing cost us time. Two guided parties overtook us and we followed their lead to regain the correct route.

By this point it was fully light. What we saw was not encouraging. The last 300m or so of the peak was completely hidden in a wall of ominous looking black cloud. All around the skies were grey, there was no sun coming through. We carried on up slabby ground, enthusiasm waning. Our aim was to be at the Solvay emergency hut, perched around 4050m, within 3 hours of setting out. This was a turn around time we'd agreed to strictly adhere to. The hut was still some way above us, and 3 hours had been and gone. I was tired, Jordan was moving very slowly. I realised that we'd struggle to reach the top like this, and if we did getting down would be very hard indeed, perhaps impossible if the weather got any worse.

Belayed to an old thread, I brought Jordan up to my stance and told him we were going down right now. He'd been thinking along the same lines. Better to retreat with enough time and energy to safely get off the ridge. So at c3950m, we turned our backs to the summit and began the long climb down. True to reputation, it was constantly difficult, requiring concentration and technique every step of the way. We moved steadily, as a team, belaying each other wherever possible. It didn't take long for the guides who had overtaken us to reach the same desicion, and abandom their attempts as well. Those who caught up with us said the rock became increasingly icy higher up.

Several hours later, the weather worsening all the while, we finally stepped off the ridge and back to our tent. There was no disappointment, only a sense of being challenged, and satisfaction at having made the right desicion. Live to climb another day, the mountain will still be there next time. As we began the long hike down to the valley, I looked over my shoulder at the shrouded bulk of the Matterhorn, and knew I'd be back.

Zermatt 2012 - Saturday 18th to Sunday 26th August.

Peaks/Routes climbed/attempted;

Rimpfischhorn (4198m) - West-South West flank, PD+, descent via the same route.
Matterhorn (4478m) - Hornli ridge, AD III-, retreated from c3950m due to our insufficient speed and deteriorating weather conditions.

Alps 2012 Part 6

After a few days at home, I headed back out to the Alps with another old climbing friend of mine, Jordan. Our intention this time was to have a more relaxed approach, probably only attempting a couple of peaks and having rest days in the valley. We arrived in Zermatt late in the evening, and immediately started hiking up steep woodland trails towards our first objective; the remote 4198m Rimpfischhorn. This was a peak of personal significance to me, having made several unsuccessful attemps on it back in 2010 with my Dad.

Sometime around midnight we found a meadow to camp in just outside the alpine village of Findeln. The next day we pushed on past the Berghaus Flue (traditional starting point for the route), and made a base camp by a pool at just under 2700m. From here the route followed a long and tedious trail over a subpeak called Pfulroe (3314m) before finally reaching the West-South West flank of the Rimpfischhorn.

In order to split up the long approach, and also help speed up Jordan's acclimatisation, we packed what we needed for the climb, hiked over Pfulroe that same evening, and found a good bivy spot on the Rimpfischhorn itself at c3300m. We slept on a ledge in our sleeping bags. Fortunately the night was clear and warm, and we began our attempt at 4am feeling pretty good.

We traversed over easy slabs and snowfields for a while, before joining a whaleback glacier. Two years ago, Dad and I were sinking up to our thighs in fresh snow every step; this time it was bare and icy. We gained height steadily. At 3800m the glacier ended abruptly in a wall of rock. Here we scrambled up the vague crest of a loose ridge, passing the odd step of II.

At the top of the ridge lay the snow dome of point 4001m. This gradually steepened into a couloir which breached the defenses of the final summit buttress on the right hand side. Here we encountered bad conditions, and the crux of the route. The couloir wasn't steep, I'd guess somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees at the top, but it consisted of bare, bulletproof ice which our axes could hardly penetrate. Knowing it would be much worse coming down, we moved together as fast as possible, and were relieved to get back on rock again. Slightly harder scrambling, and sections of II+, led to the summit, which we reached sometime around 8:30.

As feared, the couloir was tricky to descend. We belayed the initial steep part then front-pointed down together back to the snow dome. A sudden storm developed on the neighboring Monte Rosa massif, so we retraced our steps to the bivy ledge at full speed, anxious not to be caught out should it spread any further. Fortunately it didn't, and we regained our bivy kit and slogged back down to our tent in the afternoon.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 5

On Saturday Pat and I went back up to Hosaas to attempt the North ridge of the Weissmies (4017m). This long and difficult route would be the hardest thing we'd ever done. Being rock nearly all the way we opted for a later start around 3:30.

We made a big route finding mistake on the approach, traversing NW across a glacier rather than NE, and ended up on icy choss miles from the start of the route. After retracing our footsteps to the base of the glacier we spent awhile wondering what to do. Having already wasted time and energy, with our confidence in the conditions shaken, we debated turning back for the tent. Then some other climbers appeared. Reminded that later starts seemed to be the norm out here, we carried on.

Having finally found the right way across the glacier, an easy snow slope led to the start of the ridge. It was just before 7:00. The route followed the jagged crest over an endless series of pinnacles and towers. We moved together quickly over the first third. Protection was a simple case of looping the rope over spikes as we moved. The exposure was constant but the climbing straightforward until the first crux.

Called the 'Grande Dalle', the crux was a steep grade IV (equating to roughly Severe/Hard Severe) slab protected by various in situ bits of kit. I led, and found it tenuous and challenging. The footholds were very small and hard to trust in big mountaineering boots. I climbed it 'French Free', which is to say not free at all, time being the key rather than style.

Easier scrambling led to a subsidary peak at around c3700m. After a brief descent to a col, the ridge rose up sharply in a series of knife edge pinnacles. Here we encountered the most sustained climbing of the entire route. None of the pinnacles were easy, and we had to move together over slabby Diff/VDiff terrain for long periods of time. The last tower was the second crux, a short pitch of IV-. It was well protected by bolts, so we moved together past this as well, pulling on gear wherever possible.

Although the hardest climbing was now done, it took us almost an hour to negotiate the rest of the rock section and reach the snow arete that led to the summit. It was now gone 12:00. Very late to be topping out on an Alpine peak. The arete was easy but in shocking condition, the snow largely melted away leaving bare ice that our crampons could barely penetrate. We put our heads down, and Pat led the way to the top.

We reached the summit at 12:50. Conscious of the time, we hurriedly snapped a few pictures then started straight down. Although the standard descent route of the Weissmies was a simple snow plod, it was threatened by numerous seracs, which would be very prone to collapse under the hot afternoon sun. We went as fast as we could. A couple of crevasses proved awkward to negotiate, but we made good time, and were back to our camp an hour and a half after leaving the summit.

Sadly, finnancial issues forced us to end the trip a few days early, and we packed up and left when we reached the valley. However, it was a fantastic week, the most successful in the Alps I've ever had, and the North ridge of the Weissmies was a fitting climax.

Saas-Fee 2012 - Friday 3rd to Monday 13th August.

Peaks/Routes climbed;

Lagginhorn (4010m) - West-South West ridge, PD, descent via the same route.
Allalinhorn (4027m) - Holaubgrat, PD+, descent via the West-North West ridge.
Weissmies (4017m) - North ridge, AD+ IV, descent via the North West face.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 4

Today Pat and I summited the Allalinhorn (4027m), via the classic Holaubgrat route.

We hiked up to the Brittania hut yesterday and followed a trail to the Holaub Glacier. Our intention was to bivy nearer the hut but we couldn't find a decent water source. Instead we ended up perched on broken moraine on the edge of the glacier. There was nowhere flat to pitch up, so we slept with rocks digging into our backs.

At 2:30am we left the tent and started up the mountain. Finding a way through the glacier was far harder than we imagined, and we had to make several twisting detours around crevasses, and jump straight over a few more. Eventually, the glacier became a steeper snow slope, which was long and tiring. Somewhere around c3500m we crested the ridge proper. The climbing was straightforward but exposed in places, and there were large cornices to our left the whole way.

After traversing the sub peak 'Point 3837', the ridge briefly descended, before finally steepening up to the crux rock band. We climbed this moving together, ensuring there was at least one bit of fixed gear clipped at all times. The gear consisted of wobbly pegs and rusty old stakes jammed under boulders. Grade-wise, it was around 'Diff', with fixed ropes over the hardest bits. Easily the best climbing of the entire route.

After topping out onto snow again, we put our crampons back on, and Pat led through a narrow arete to the summit. We reached it around 6:45. Rather than reverse the Holaubgrat we opted to shoot down the easy North-West flank to a ski station at 3500m. The hardest bit was probably dodging all the skiers as we ran across the pistes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 3

Monday's weather forecast was bad, but rather than waste the day Pat and I decided to get into position for our first summit attempt. We took the Hosaas lift up and once again hiked past the Weismiess hut to a base camp at the foot of the Lagginhorn (4010m). It rained heavily. Our kit got pretty soaked and we had to dash outside the tent and spread it all out to make the most of the brief dry spells.

However, we knew the rain and cloud was due to stop sometime around midnight, which would be ideal for an early start on Tuesday morning. We slept fitfully, and woke at 12:30. I unzipped the flap and saw a clear night sky and the dark bulk of the mountain looming over us. Perfect. We left an hour later.

The start of the West South West ridge followed a vague trail up a moraine crest. We hiked up this to the Southern flank of the Lagginhorn glacier. Here we put on crampons and traversed the glacier North West, and entered a shallow couloir which led to the crest of the ridge. Clouds drifted up from the valley but disappeared before they reached us. We passed a pinnacle tower at circa 3500m, via some straightforward scrambling, and began the final stretch up to the summit. We moved together on a short rope the whole time.

It was all going well for a while, until first Pat, then I, began showing signs of altitude sickness at c3700m. Clearly we'd been wrong to assume it would be alright having been to 3200m on Sunday. Despite headaches and nausea, we continued upwards, climbing a steeper slab that was probably the crux of the route (easy 'Moderate', perhaps). Here a broken snow slope appeared, running parallel to scree and loose blocks. We should've put crampons back on and climbed the snow, but we couldn't be bothered. Instead we followed lines of weakness in the blocks and slid all over the place on the scree, protecting each other with marginal running belays.

With the summit in sight but still a way away, we considered turning back. Instead we carried on. I had to dig deep just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Finally we reached the top at 6:30, just as the sun came up. The wind was bitterly cold. After taking a few photos of each other standing beside the iron cross fixed onto the peak, we sheltered in an alcove and put on our crampons. The descent was much easier following the snow, and we both felt better with every meter of height lost. Roughly 10 hours after leaving, we returned to the tent, exhausted but happy.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 2

Despite a bad forecast it was clear and sunny when we woke up this morning. So we packed light, got our free lift passes, and headed up to the first station of the Hosaas uplift. From here we hiked up a trail to the Weissmiess Hut and pushed on towards the Lagginhorn (4010m), our first target. We had no intention to make an attempt. Instead we scouted the first part of the route and looked for potential bivy spots. We hoped to get all the way to the first glacier, but a thunderstorm rolled in and we descended rapidly from circa 2900m. However, it looked fairly straightforward, so we shouldn't have any problems navigating at night.

Rather than go all the way down we got back on the lift and rode up through the rain and clouds to the top station some 3140m high. It would be valuable acclimatisation. Here the weather cleared again and we pushed up another path to the base of a rotten glacier at c3250m. Neither of us had any problem with the fast altitude gain. We hung around awhile longer before catching the lift back down to the valley. A further night spent sleeping around 3000m will hopefully see us fully acclimatised. Once the weather clears up we will have a go at the Lagginhorn.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Alps 2012 Part 1

Sitting on a ferry with 12 hours of driving across Switzerland to look forward to. Pat and I are heading to Saas Fee to climb in the Valais Alps. We have no specific targets, no definate objectives. It depends on weather, conditions, our own fitness and confidence. After a shitty trip last year it will be good just to get up a few peaks, regardless of how easy or difficult they may be. If everything goes well, we might have a go at the Matterhorn, or the Dufourspitze. Something big anyway. There's plenty to do out there.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Cuillin Traverse Part 2

We arrived at Glen Brittle around 7:30pm. The weather was perfect, the skies completely clear. Just a few patches of mist clung to the highest summits of the Cuillin Ridge. Abandoning our initial plan to camp by the car park, we packed lightweight with the minimum of gear and headed straight up. Our aim was to be on the first peak, Gars Bheinn, by nightfall. It was going to be close.

There was no path, just a steep slope of grass and scree. Nearly 900m of height gain. We followed a vague gully most of the way, until the ground became rockier just before the top. Here we climbed a series of steeper slabs and ribs to avoid dangerous loose terrain. Darkness chased us all the way up. After a series of false summits we finally reached the crest of the ridge at 10pm, and immediately began hunting for a bivy spot. Dad found a small niche between two huge blocks, cramped and uncomfortable, but sheltered from the wind. We got into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep.

It started raining.
We had no tent, no way of escaping the downpour. Fully committed to a bivy, we had no choice but to grit our teeth and suffer it out till dawn. The wind howled around the mountain. In minutes all our gear was soaked. Water found its way through my breathing hole and onto my face. Hours dragged by, unbearably slowly, each more miserable than the last.

Eventually it got light. We hoped for better weather but it was just the same, wet and cold, zero visibility. Not a chance of doing the traverse in these conditions. Our thoughts turned to escape. Neither of us wanted to go back the way we’d come, not with the grass slick with rain, so we decided to push on across the ridge and find another bail out point. It was freezing cold, we couldn’t see 50 feet ahead. The scrambling was never particularly hard, just unnerving over slippery rock. I knew from last year’s attempt there was a corrie on the western side of the ridge we could retreat down as long as we could find it. So we kept climbing. We traversed 3 more summits, navigating with map, compass and GPS. Eventually we reached a col I remembered from last time, and I knew the corrie was just there on the left. A short downclimb through a chimney was the only obstacle. Once in the corrie it was just a case of ignoring the pain and trudging down a streaming path off the mountain. We were down by midday.
We wanted to hang around and try again after a day’s rest, but the updated weather forecast put an end to that. More rain, more cloud, more of the same shit we’d fought through to retreat. Defeated, we drove back south, and hiked up Ben Lomond in a brief window of clear skies as a consolation prize before the long journey home.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Cuillin Traverse Part 1

Next week Dad and I will once again be heading up to the Isle of Skye to attempt the traverse of the Black Cuillin ridge. Our first go, last August, failed for a number of reasons. Somewhat naively, we didn't gather an awful lot of information about the intricacies of the route, and therefore lost a lot of time trying to figure out where we were supposed to go. We started late in the day, and ended up bivying in a bad position tactically. Day 2 was better, and we managed to negotiate one of the hardest sections of the ridge, and scale the notorious 'Innaccessible Pinnacle', Scotland's toughest 3000 foot peak. But by then it was too late, the weather broke, and we were just too tired to press on in the pouring rain. Although the scrambling is easy enough, the exposure remains constant, and an exhausted mind can often lead to careless mistakes. One slip and you're a goner.

So we escaped off the ridge (which was harrowing enough in its own right) with a promise to try again next year. And here we are. Our goal is much clearer this time. Last year we didn't really have a plan concerning sub-peaks, optional climbs, etc. For example, we skipped the TD Gap pitch, but subsequently lost time doing King's Chimney. So what exactly were we going for? A full traverse with all the trimmings, or just getting from one end to the other? How about the summits, do we only bag the Monroes, or does it only count if we climb every last bump of the ridge?

These were questions we did not consider last year. Big mistake. So this time round we will embark with a very clear goal in mind, and a plan to achieve it. Simply put, the target is the traverse. Up one end, all the way across, down the other. We will climb the Monroes, and ignore any sub-peaks that do not have to be climbed to make progress. The same goes for the graded climbs. Any that can be avoided will be. The less we pitch the quicker we will be. I intend to short rope pretty much the entire thing. If we can get from Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean in one push I will consider it a success, and the traverse done, regardless of what we did or did not do inbetween.

Obviously Skye weather is hugely fickle, and we may very well encounter bad conditions up there. If so, we must decide whether to still attempt the full traverse or just go for day hikes in the Cuillin. A bivy will be pretty horrific in the rain, but at the same time I'm not confident enough in our ability to do the whole lot in a single day to not take bivy kit with me. It's an age old mountaineers conundrum; to bivy or not to bivy? Take the gear with you and you'll almost certainly end up using it due to lugging the extra weight around. But to get caught out without it...

Hopefully, whatever happens, we should have an adventurous few days in some of Britain's most beautiful hills. The Cuillin Traverse is alpine in scale, pretty much the biggest traditional mountaineering challenge in the country, and completing it with Dad would mean the world to me.

Fingers crossed then. Here's some pictures from last years attempt.

The Cuillin ridge from the car park, just before we set out.

Me on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest point of the ridge, at dusk.

Our bivy...

...and the view looking out.

Day 2, and the weather turns.

On top of the Inn Pinn between showers.

Dad abbing off.

Undoubtedly not the right way down!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


The ledge ended abruptly, dropping straight down into the sea. A black cave was carved out of the cliff before us. I could see steep, slimy rock walls disappearing into the darkness, foaming waves crashing all around, the noise incredible. This, apparently, was where the route called Benny went.

I belayed Luke, who had done it before, as he vanished around a corner into the mouth of the cavern. Slowly paying out rope, I sat on the ledge and wondered what the hell I was doing. Why, I thought, am I going into this hellish place; this miserable, sun-forsaken pit of pitch black hopelessness? Why?

To get back out again. Obviously.

“Safe!” came the shout, and I started dismantling the belay. Here was my chance to escape, to pretend that I had never come to Swanage on this piss wet day, and I could tell the authorities that Luke had been soloing and that I didn’t know who the hell he was anyway. Then the rope came tight. Too late. Attached to a single skinny 8.6 mil half I lay down on my stomach on the soaking ledge and wormed my way lower, feet feeling for footholds on the steep wall. Once established I began traversing into the cave. Into the very jaws of hell itself...

A few tenuous moves later I could see the first of the aid slings hanging off the wall. The rock was far too featureless and slippery to climb conventionally, so instead you had to follow a line of tatty old threads, clipping them directly to your harness using extended slings as foot stirrups. Or something like that. Apparently the person who had placed them was a giant, because I found each one to be just far away enough to necessitate a sort of desperate horizontal stretch, one foot scrabbling and sliding all over the slimy rock in a vain attempt to find some kind of purchase. All the while I could hear the sea crashing just beneath me. If any of the shitty old threads broke under my weight I would get very wet indeed.
And probably very drowned as well.

But as I delved deeper into the cave I developed a steady rhythm of reach, clip, step, unclip, and soon enough made my way to Luke’s belay. He was sitting on a small ledge at the back of the zawn, maybe 20 feet above the sea. Above him was the dark chimney of the second pitch. The one I was going to lead.
After some awkward shuffling on the confined stance, I established myself above Luke and started sorting out the gear for my pitch. It looked genuinely terrifying. The black walls rose up above me, leaning out all the way, towards a tiny circle of light at the top. In the darkness I couldn’t tell whether it was 10 or 10,000 meters away.

“This is perverse,” I muttered, wedging myself into a corner and trying to wriggle higher. There were plenty of good handholds where the walls converged, but not much for the feet. After struggling past a chockstone I finally found a decent foot ledge. With both feet pressed into it, I simply pushed my back and arse into the opposing wall, and got myself into a suspended sitting position. Proper old school chimney climbing, no fancy moves here. Inch by inch I wormed my way upwards, squirming towards the distant light. The sound of water and waves echoed around me, joined by my own grunts of exertion as I climbed higher.
All this in darkness. I could hardly see a thing, didn’t have a clue what my feet were on. I blindly fumbled with my hands to find holds, hoping all the while that I wouldn’t grease off and go plummeting back down into the foaming sea. At least the protection was good. There were several fixed threads, some of which felt almost new, and I realised that somehow, unfathomably, I was enjoying the route. A hard move past another chockstone, and I saw that the roof of the cave was just above my head. The blowhole was in front of me, a vision of salvation, a window into a forgotten world of brightness and life. Still wedged in like a tic I worked towards it, pressed one way then the other, bridging and smearing on the slippery rock, using my own body as a block to prevent me falling.

A last step out to the opposite wall brought me into an open tunnel of light. I walked through the blowhole to a huge ledge covered in bird crap and feathers, actually kind of sad that it was over. I had become almost used to the bizarre contortions and sweaty jams of the chimney.
Luke followed, far quicker than me, and led through the blowhole, across a loose traverse, and back onto the clifftop. This was made only slightly harder for him by the flocks of birds perched on all the holds. I seconded the pitch easily enough, and we made our way back to the ledge where we’d stashed our gear. It was gone 9 by the time we got to the car, we’d been in the cave climbing Benny for hours. I felt like I’d just had the shit kicked out of me. My hands were bleeding, Luke had smashed his knee somewhere; we were both absolutely knackered.

And my conclusion? If Swanage is climbing porn, Benny would be the weird German stuff they keep behind the counter.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Falling off bits of rock... always much easier than climbing them.

I recall saying once that I could never be persuaded to try BASE jumping. My argument was that, as a climber, I’m simply too accustomed to not falling, to doing everything in my power to maintain contact with the rock rather than embrace the void. Only now I’ve sort of changed my mind. Climbing, you see, is very difficult. Falling isn’t.

My first lead fall came during an onsight attempt of a route called Stroof at Swanage. The crux was a steep finger crack and to be honest would have been at my limit on bolts let alone trad gear. I don’t remember much beyond clinging to tiny holds one moment and dangling in my harness at the bottom of the cliff the next. As my belayer lowered me I think I said something along the lines of “I’ll get back on it next time, there’s no excuse now I know the protection’s good.”

I still haven’t though. “It’s too hard,” I say, when what I really mean is “I’m too scared to lob off again.”
Not long ago I screwed up some deeply misguided courage and tried to climb my first Boulder Ruckle E1. This went badly. Despite what had happened on Stroof, I picked a route with a similarly fingery crux section, and only realised after the rock and I had become suddenly and profoundly disconnected that this really was a particularly stupid idea. With my last bit of strength, one hand clawing at a desperately small crimp, I’d clipped a shitty old rusty peg and slumped straight onto it a millisecond later. Not a proper fall as such, but had the peg broken I would have gone a long way indeed. And had the gear below the peg blown as well, you could’ve scraped what was left of me off the boulders below and presented it to my parents in one of those little jam jars you get at breakfast in hotels.

Now fast forward a week to the wind-swept, wave battered expanse of Guillemot Ledge, where I further indulged in my new passion for Ueli Steck-style speed descents of routes that have traditionally taken climbers hours to negotiate in the old-school upward fashion.
I was with my long suffering friend Pat, and neither of us had ever climbed at this part of Swanage before. So, glorious leader that I am, I jumped straight onto a route near the top of my grade limit with the eternal words “It’ll be OK” ringing about the towering grey cliffs.

Basically, it wasn’t.
Most of the first pitch was easy, bridging type climbing, and I got up to the last resting ledge before the crux pretty quick. Above the rock steepened into a thin tapered crack that guarded access to the midway belay. I placed some gear and pulled up. The holds demanded lay-backing technique, something I conveniently happen to be rubbish at. With strength draining from my arms like air from a punctured balloon I stuttered higher, a Quasimodo of the stone, legs shaking like Elvis with Parkinson’s. The last gear placements were getting further and further below me, but the ledge was getting closer, just a few moves away, all I needed was a good hold and everything would be alright...

One last all or nothing lunge, my fingers wrapped around what I urgently hoped was a thank god jug.
Basically, it wasn’t.

With the weak resignation of a man who knows he’s beaten I pawed at some other holds with my right hand, while good old lefty uncurled finger by finger. One good hold, just one, come on, there’s got to be-
My hand slipped off the hold and I was falling. I shot down past the crack a lot faster than I’d climbed up it, tumbling through the air, still wondering where I might find a nice jug. Then my harness jerked, a huge pain shot through my right leg and I was unaccountably hanging and inverted about halfway back down the pitch. My aforementioned right leg was entangled snake-like around the blue rope, foot high above my head, and I swayed merrily in space like some grotesque, misshapen ornament.

“Oh bugger,” I thought, “I seem to have fallen off...”
I probably went about 4m or so; not massively far, but far enough, believe me. At least all the gear had held. After untangling my wayward leg, and a few bemused minutes resting on the rope, I climbed back up, had another go, and folded off the rock like wet paper the moment my weight came onto my arms. Strangely enough, considering the climbing to rope-dogging ratio, I was knackered.

But we had to get out somehow, and since I didn’t want to lower off and sacrifice gear, I decided to aid climb the crack instead, by clipping slings to the runners and using them as foot stirrups. I’d never used aid before, and naively assumed it would be a piece of cake.
Basically, it wasn’t.

It felt awkward and undignified and I eventually reached the belay ledge feeling like I should do the one honourable thing left to me; untie the ropes and fling myself into oblivion, the still sadly hanging slings my only epitaph. Pat followed me up in the solemn silence that befitted the moment. He led through to the top, and it was only when I seconded the pitch that I noticed a distinctly growing pain in my right ankle. By the time I finished it hurt to put any weight on it at all. So that was the end of the day, and possibly of climbing for some time.
So now I’m going to buy a parachute instead, and explore my new found talent for rapid vertical displacement of altitude. It would seem I’m already a natural. What can possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Vertical Limit Review

There are very few mainstream Hollywood films centred around climbing, and up until recently I had only seen one of them; Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger. The only scene I can still remember from it involves Stallone free-soloing an overhanging mountain face with something like 12 TRILLION KARABINERS hanging off his harness to rescue two climbers stuck on the summit of a neighbouring peak. Exactly why he does this I cannot say, given that there’s a perfectly good helicopter hovering in the sky besides them, but there you go. An elaborate escape is conceived (using shockingly few karabiners, considering the efforts our hero had gone to in order to bring them all), it goes WRONG, one of them PLUMMETS to a dramatic and messy DEATH, and so the film goes on. Audiences everywhere sit back and gasp in amazement at just how dramatic and death-defying climbing really is.

But as bad as I recall Cliffhanger being, it pales in comparison to Vertical Limit. Just thinking about it makes me angry. Take the first scene, for example. We see three intrepid climbers, father, son and daughter, scaling a sandstone tower in the desert. The son reaches a roof on what looks to be a difficult pitch, all the while singing an Eagles song that his sister, dammit, simply DOESN’T RECOGNISE. He cuts loose and hangs there, like a TWAT, saying “You give up?”

And her response? She scowls, does something (I don’t know what) with the ropes, and says;

“On belay.”
The father was the one who led the pitch, he’s way up on the next stance, surely he’s the one belaying? Or maybe the siblings are so competitive they only allow each other the security of a belay if they succeed in baffling the other as to what song they are singing? But no, look closely and you will see that the son is indeed climbing with a rope from both above and below. What’s more, it’s only after he surmounts the roof, and presumably the crux, that good old Dad decides to strap on a gri-gri and actually safeguard his son’s climbing.

I am not exaggerating, you could sit me in a room with every climber who has ever lived, is living, and will live, for the rest of time, and I could not be made to understand what kind of system they are using in this scene. Fortunately it doesn’t matter, because a few seconds later the team above them fall off, all their bolts EXPLODE, and the trailing ropes floss everyone off the face.

A single cam holds them all, and, despite the incalculable force of a 5 person mega whipper, does not break. Surely this is the most bomber gear placement in the world? Well yes, except for the fact that it then starts merrily sliding down the crack, threatening to send them all to their frankly well-deserved DEATHS. How does that work? Is the cam ALIVE???

Whole essays could be written on everything that is wrong with this scene, but suffice it to say there is a lot. And that’s only the opening 10 minutes. Good old Dad, the world’s most haphazard belayer, is CUT FREE in order that his horrible children survive, and so the emotional drama is cunningly set up for the remainder of the film.
It focuses on an egocentric millionaire and his desire to summit K2 at the exact moment his new fleet of planes fly over. Or something like that. I think. Anyway, the daughter is a member of the team, and her brother, who she blames for Dad’s DEATH, just happens to be in the area. They meet up, sparks fly, it becomes quickly apparent that a lot of VERY STUPID PEOPLE are about to set foot on a VERY DANGEROUS MOUNTAIN, and that’s about that. The brother stays behind with a predictable bunch of mismatched idiots, and the sister and the millionaire begin the climb. At one point real life mountaineer Ed Viesturs shows up, with the dazed expression of a man who can’t quite believe what he is witnessing. You’re not alone there, Ed.

They climb. It all goes TITS UP.
Avalanches, blah blah, bad desicions, blah blah blah, “we can’t possibly turn back now”, etc etc, they all end up trapped in a crevasse, injured and cut off, IN THE DEATH ZONE. Now the brother, who hasn’t climbed since Dad’s DEATH, must venture up to save his sister. And maybe the others, but they don’t matter as much. Because, you know.

In a sequence of events that bend over and arse-rape credulity, climbing logic, and even the fundamental laws of reality themselves, our team of chalk ’n’ cheese rescuers inch closer to the crevasse. They take with them NITRO-GLYCERINE, so obviously some of them EXPLODE before they get there. We witness wonders such as dynamic cam placements (for the uninitiated, this is where an un-roped climber escapes from a ledge by jumping, cam first, at what may or may not be a suitable crack placement, sinks the device, and thus is saved). More people DIE, but that’s OK, because none of them are AMERICAN.
I can’t actually be bothered to type anymore, so here’s a quick conclusion. The sister is rescued, with the NITRO-GLYCERINE, of course, but the foolish millionaire PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH in a crevasse. However, this is alright, because prior to that moment there is a lingering shot where he clearly, beyond any reasonable doubt, does THE EVIL EYES. The brother and sister reconcile, new relationships are forged, and no one seems to mind the fact that dozens of people DIED in order to save just one.

So, after much careful consideration, I have decided to award this film a score of 27 hexes out of a pair of 50m half ropes, and now I’m going to KILL MYSELF.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Black Zawn

I took a deep breath and lowered myself off the edge. The cliff overhung by about 10 feet, and the abseil rope went 25m straight down into the sea. Will, who went in first, had clipped the line into some nuts on the way down to pin it to the rock. However, as the second man, I would have to take them out again, and rely on him to pull me in. The target was a hanging belay stance just above the water line. I slid down the rope, thinking that the battle music from the Lord of the Rings would be a perfect soundtrack to this.

Enter the Nine Riders. I descended into the Black Zawn.

Many months ago, when I first read through a Swanage guidebook, two routes immediately jumped out at me. One, Behemoth of the Boulder Ruckle, I had since done. The other was called Astrid. A HVS, it lies in a deep, gloomy fissure known as the Black Zawn, hemmed in on three sides by vertical cliffs. A difficult and committing free hanging abseil is the only way in. Just a stones’ throw away from the crowded Subluminal area, the Black Zawn is an altogether more serious venue. The sun rarely reaches the dark rock walls, and the routes are often wet and slimy. For some reason, this appealed to me. Now, as I swung in towards the stance, I wondered why.

Will had done a brilliant job of building the belay, even making two loops in the static line to hang the climbing ropes from. I attached myself and studied the route. It followed an obvious crack all the way to the top. A steep bit getting around a flake looked to be the crux. The entire lower section was damp, and droplets of water kept splattering on my helmet. I gazed around at the overhanging walls surrounding me, unable to quite believe where I was. No way out but straight up. Time to get going.
I got established on a good foot-ledge and placed some nuts to prevent a direct fall onto the belay. Above me was the start of the hard climbing. I pulled upwards, aiming for the bottom of the flake. I placed a hex. Then one of my feet greased off a wet hold.
“FUCK!!!” I yelled, fingers digging into the rock, somehow keeping me in place. Lunging higher, I managed to reach a decent hold and bridge out to gain an OK rest position.
“Jesus, you scared me there,” said Will.
“Bloody well nearly shat myself,” I muttered, fumbling around on my harness for some more gear.
I was at the crux now. A thin, damp crack snaked immediately above me, promising protection but few holds. To the right was the bulging flake. I felt around, finding nothing. Fantastic. I gripped a wet undercling, trying to wedge my shoulder under the flake to take some of the strain off my arms. Slick footholds gave me no confidence whatsoever. Shit. I was getting pumped. Shit.
Desperately, I reached above rightwards, hoping to find a thank god jug. No chance. I moved my feet higher, tried to pull through, instead almost fell off again. Eyes bulging, chest heaving, I scuttled back down to the undercling, shouting “Watch me!” with each movement. Will held the ropes and waited for me to peel off. It felt like even if I figured out a sequence I wouldn’t have enough strength to go through with it. The gear was good, there was nothing to hit but air; still I refused to give up. I wanted this route badly, had been dreaming of it for too long to fuck it up now.
“This is it mate,” I said through gritted teeth, bridged out and hauled for glory. The holds were greasy and unhelpful, the angle forced me outwards. I squirmed higher, my arm muscles burning. It was all or nothing climbing. The steepness demanded intricate footwork, I was splayed out X-shaped to use the best possible edges. Then suddenly, wonderfully, my left hand grabbed an uber-jug, and I yanked myself on top of the flake to a decent resting ledge, whimpering with relief.
It wasn’t over yet though. The crack spiralled upwards, still steep. I placed some gear and carried on, as pumped as I’d ever been before. My arms were shagged out so I paid attention to my feet and rested wherever I could. It got progressively easier, the rock drier. Putting in tons of gear, I climbed my way towards the sun.
“Keep it together,” I whispered to myself, “Just keep it together...”
Then at last I reached the point where the route branched off left to easy ground, and I knew it was in the bag. A final undignified belly-flop mantle onto a block, which made Will piss himself laughing, and I was there. A simple scramble brought me up onto the abseil ledge, where I pitched forwards face first and lay there for a few minutes with a mouthful of grass. The passing kayakers must’ve found this particularly amusing.
Both my hands were bleeding and stank of salt, everything hurt, but it was done. The terrifying Black Zawn conquered at last.

Monday, 16 April 2012

North Wales Trip

We started late at nearly 1 in the afternoon, the route was polished to buggery, and Lurch (‘So awesome he can take his coat off and put it in his coat pocket’) fell off the first pitch. It really wasn’t going fantastically well.

“I think we’re off route,” I said to Pat as he struggled up a greasy corner to the belay stance.


We were two pitches up the East Face of Tryfan, on what we hoped was a classic route called Grooved Arête. The weather was unpredictable, sunny one minute and cold and windy the next. Heavy traffic had rendered most of the footholds smooth and glassy, hence Lurch’s impromptu test of my belaying abilities. I knew we’d started in the right place, due to the letters ‘GA’ scratched onto the rock, but now it was all beginning to look the same. Maybe they actually meant ‘Go Away’...

“I’m going up there,” I said, pointing upwards at nothing in particular.

“Are you sure?” sighed Pat, showing a justified lack of faith in my route finding skills.

I shrugged and started vaguely climbing up the face. A few moves past a slab led me to a grassy path. Feeling like an utter prat with a full rack and half ropes, I walked up it. There were no gear placements, so I just ran it out. The crux was a slightly more slippery bit of grass.

“Badly protected but the climbing’s easy!” I yelled down to Pat and Lurch. They’d been watching the rope shoot out with alarm, not happy about the prospect of a 50m pitch with no gear. Lurch followed up the path in a daze, probably wondering what the hell was going on. This was his first proper mountain climb. I’d dragged Pat up stuff like this before however, and he simply followed with the weak resignation of a condemned man on his way to the gallows.

A quick scan of the guidebook revealed that we were definitely on route now. I led up the fourth or fifth pitch, a kind of groove/arête thing (funnily enough). It was a bit harder so I actually placed some gear. A tricky step onto the arête brought me to the next stance, a sloping ledge with a boulder to anchor to at the back. By now the weather was decidedly bad, with fine snow billowing all around the crag. It was starting to get properly cold and we still had to do the crux ‘Knight’s Pitch’ and find our way onto the north ridge and down.

The rock was getting harder to grip, and it was with some trepidation that I made my way onto the chessboard-like slab. I clipped an abandoned nut and looked for footholds. Nothing. We didn’t have any time to waste so I just yanked on the gear and hauled myself higher. Oh, the shame! A supposed HVS leader using aid on a VDiff...

I didn’t really give a toss though. You don’t get points for style in the mountains when the weather’s crap and daylight’s running out. Fortunately, the rest of the slab was OK, and I climbed up on jugs to the next belay stance. Which was a horrible, sloping ledge covered with wet snow. Chuffing excellent, I thought, that’s just what we need.

“The stance isn’t big enough for all of us,” I shouted down.

Unbeknownst to me, just moments before Lurch had said to Pat something like “I’ll kill myself if the next stance is rubbish.”

I brought a traumatised Lurch up, then led the final chimney pitch to a thankfully bigger ledge. Lurch then belayed Pat, who’d been hanging around for ages now, up to the cramped stance. Finally, in a full on whiteout, I brought them both up the last pitch. Lurch, Captain Footwork himself, dispatched one bit with a dyno because he couldn’t bridge on the soaking wet rock.

“Bet no one else has done it like that before,” he said proudly as he crawled onto the ledge.

We were all freezing cold, and started yanking off tight rock shoes to massage numb toes. It was a relief to get back into proper boots and start trudging down the north ridge. A further pitch of climbing would have taken us up to the penultimate summit tower of Tryfan, but none of us were particularly bothered about it. We needed to get down as soon as possible, and not just because the pub in Nant Peris would probably stop serving food at 9. I’d been up the peak a few times before, and always found the descent a pain in the arse. You can’t just switch off and follow a definite path, and it seems to take forever to get back to the road. It was about half 8 by the time we eventually staggered into the pub. Never have fish and chips and a pint felt so satisfying. Despite the weather, Grooved Arête was a fantastic experience. It had all the sense of scale and commitment of a proper mountain route, whilst still being manageable, even for a bunch of idiots like us. The snow just made it more interesting.

The next day we hit sunny Holyhead Mountain. I had a go at a harder route, but still felt tired from Tryfan, so duly slumped onto gear and lowered off. Lurch sunbathed and took pictures of lizards. Pat and I soloed up a few slabby VDiffs then called it good. We headed back down south, via both a McDonalds and a KFC, greedy bastards that we are, already planning the next big mountain trip.

Pat briefly claimed ‘The Spanner Award’ for leaving the car door open overnight in the campsite, but given our excellent teamwork on Tryfan, we declared it null and void for now. He’ll get it back again soon, we have faith in him.

Lurch earned the nickname of ‘Penguin’ for his hilarious, stiff-legged, ‘I’ve just shat myself’ walk after the long hike down the north ridge.

I managed to spill half a bottle of coke down my trousers in the car.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Struck by Lightning

Boulder Ruckle always scares the crap out of me. It’s a huge cliff, made up of vertical, crumbling limestone. The top out invariably involves scrambling up unprotected choss held together by dirt. Every time I abseil in (40m, free hanging, fairly committing) I feel humbled by the place. Still, the climbing’s good, the gear's all there, and you’ve got to do something a bit hardcore every now and again, right?

I was partnered with a guy called Mick, who I’d got in touch with via the forums on UKC. He was the perfect person for Boulder Ruckle; wise, steady, seen it all before a million times. Just the match for my wide eyed, enthusiastic ineptitude. I wanted to have a go at a classic HVS called Lightning Wall, so he handed me the rack and in we went.

“How you doing, Boulder Ruckle?” I said as my feet touched the bottom. I hadn’t been here since last August, which, incidentally, involved a rescue epic. Boulder Ruckle didn’t respond. I looked up (and up and up and up), and felt a familiar sense of ‘Oh god, what the hell am I doing here’. Lightning Wall was a pretty intimidating route, climbed in a single long pitch, with a big traverse over the lip of a roof halfway. Nervously, I tied in and got going.

It was easy to the fault line, and I tried to extend my runners to avoid rope drag across the traverse. This didn’t work. I fumbled around on a small ledge before the crux bulge for quite a while. The gear was solid, albeit extended down to my feet, so I went for it. A couple of steep moves later I found myself clinging to a juggy undercut hold. Most relieving, until I gave it a tap and realised it was hollow. Brilliant.

My gear was way below me now, and can you guess where the only placement was? That’s right, behind the block. I wedged in a large nut and decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to fall off. So onwards, to the traverse! I made a committing step around a sort of arête, and found some very small, pinchy holds. And no gear. The rope drag was already hellish. I was making an absolute dogs arse of this, and it wasn’t hard to imagine Mick thinking the same; ‘Who is this idiot? I’ve got to stop climbing with random strangers off the internet...’

I gibbered my way across the traverse, still not finding any placements. For each move I had to balance on tiny holds and yank some slack for the left rope. After each tenuous step across the void, I was greeted with a distinct lack of protection opportunities. Mick belayed, perhaps wondering what he’d tell my mother.

Eventually, I reached the security of an arête, and thank god, some gear. Now it was just a case of keeping my head together and dealing with the rope drag. I clawed my way up, giving myself a stern talking to, until I finally made it to the usual choss and the top of the cliff. Mick followed easily enough.

I was fairly pumped after this, so I happily seconded Mick up a couple of routes, the last of which we only just got up before the sun went down. I’d never seen anyone climb so quickly or smoothly before. By the end he looked just about warmed up, while I was a panting, dribbling mess, dragging my arms weakly along the ground as we walked back to the car park.

Good old Boulder Ruckle, I fucking hate you.