Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Ariege

I've always thought I was crap at sport climbing. And my first ever sport climbing trip has done absolutely nothing to change my mind.

A massive group of us headed out to the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees to get boozed up, eat lots of interesting cheese, and maybe do a bit of climbing as well. I was keen to get on some big multipitches seeing as I can get my arse kicked on single pitch routes at Portland if I want. My partner in crime for the trip, Rich, had similar plans, so we trawled the guidebooks for the biggest stuff we could find. We also said many foolish things, like 'we won't need a headtorch', and 'there's a couple of 6a pitches but I'm sure we'll be fine'.

Oh how wrong we were.

Day One saw us all pile into the hire cars and head for a crag called Calames. Rich and I warmed up on a jolly nice, untaxing 3 pitch 5+, which rather lulled us into a false sense of security. So we decided to get on the classic of the crag next, a big 6a+ jobby called Piler des Cathares. It all went fine until about a third of the way up pitch 2, when some bastard pushed a button and all hell broke loose. Suddenly the holds rotated on unseen mechanisms, became horrible sloping undercuts, with all the friction of one of those soaking wet spinning pole things you get on TV shows like Total Wipeout. We'd been warned about the area's sandbag reputation but nothing prepared me for this. I made a series of frenzied moves up a groove, taunted by dozens of bolts all cruelly out of reach to the right. Slip went my feet, slap went my hands, until I finally reached the respite of a belay and struggled to contain a nervous breakdown. The stance was perched beneath two massive, ominous overhangs, and it was clear things were only going to get worse. Consoled by the thought it would be Rich's problem, I brought him up into the unfolding nightmare.

The only bolt visible without NASA scale magnification was some meters up and right, in a narrow and grotty looking break between the two overhangs. Rich gamely struck out towards it on rubbish slopers. He placed a 'slow you down a bit' nut before finally reaching the bolt, and celebrating by slumping onto it. Moves of ever increasing difficulty eventually forced him to aid his way onto the slab above on trad gear. I found it desperate to follow, and it was only when we checked the guide at the belay that we realised good old Rich had strayed onto a 6b by accident. God knows where the 5 went. Probably direct through one of the huge unprotected overhangs.

Regardless, we toiled upwards, finally reached the summit in pissing rain, and slunk back down the ankle destroying path to find the others. Good start, then.

Having learnt nothing, the next day we thought it a great idea to attempt an 11 pitch 6b called L'Integrale d'Anais on a big crag called Sinsat. This was essentially a link up of several routes up three disconnected tiers; two triangular slabs and a magnificent tooth shaped buttress of golden rock to reach the top. I'll split it into the three sections...

Horror Show 1 - I led the crux 6a first pitch and to no one's surprise had to aid most of it, spending long periods of time hanging from the bolts and quietly gibbering to myself. The subsequent 5+ pitches were absolutely fine. I'm buggered if I know how Ariege grading works.

Horror Show 2 - Undergraded at 6a+, it was in fact at least 9c++++++++++. Rich backed off the lead, the bastard, leaving me to grovel up in a fashion that could be best described as 'desperation aid'. Alas, you couldn't always reach the next bolt while standing in a sling attached to the one below. And there were literally no holds. Not one. Just a merciless sweep of featureless limestone smirking at my feeble attempts to find purchase. Rich led through on what was probably the second hardest pitch in the world, after the one I'd just done, of course. A completely piss 5+ bit led us to the next section of bushwhacking, and the summit tower.

Horror Show 3 - Fantastic climbing up a Swanage-esque corner at last brought us to what we'd been dreading; the final, hardest pitch. Well, we both gave it a somewhat pathetic go, but daylight was fading fast, we'd no headtorches, and the route had to be abseiled even if we did get up the fucking thing. Not forgetting the fact we were both shit at climbing as well. So we courageously threw in the towel and began the first of 10 abseils to get back to the bottom of the crag.

By this point it was dark, and no doubt the others were getting annoying with waiting for us in the car park. We grabbed our bags and started legging it back down the track. How I wish it could've ended there. But in our haste we overshot a turn and hurtled off the path and into the most dense forest in the known universe. Jagged brambles hung from the canopy, ensnaring our limbs, threatening to drag us wriggling into the treetops to be devoured by whatever slavering creatures dwelt there. Rich battled a way through to the edge of the woods, where we made a precarious step over an electric fence, and tip-toed alongside it in the fading hope of finding civilisation.

Then the dreaded moment happened; Rich reached an impasse and said 'We have to cross back over again'.


The fence was higher at this point, and hummed menacingly in the still twilight. I balanced on a fallen log to gain the necessary extra clearance to swing my leg over. Halfway through this manoeuvre the log disintegrated. I plummeted downwards, legs wide open, straight onto the buzzing wires. An explosion of blue light, about 18 trillion volts of electricity cascaded through my knackers. I shrieked in agony, skeleton flashing beneath my skin like a cartoon character, hands fusing to the metal as I tried to lever myself off. After suffering enough electrocution to wipe out an entire death row I pitched sideways off the fence and lay entwined and sobbing in thorns and nettles; a blackened, smoking ruin, lamenting the Gainor dynasty that would now never be.

I spent the rest of the trip pissing sparks.

After such misadventures the next few days were something of an anti-climax. We did another big route on Calames in baking heat, then explored an awesome granite crag called Auzat. After mincing around on polished bloody limestone, the friction was a revelation. Sadly, our plans to finish on the 1000-odd meter Dent d'Orlu were scuppered by illness and bad weather. Rich and 3 others made a valiant attempt on the 26 pitch monster le Piler Sud, but retreated due to soaking wet conditions. Happily another team managed to reach the summit via a route on the east face. I spent the last 2 days in the foetal position with stomach cramps, but there you go. At least we have an excuse to go back again, because the Ariege is an awesome place to climb.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Grit Trip

After coming back from a frustrating and ultimately disappointing trip to the Alps, I decided I wanted to focus on pure rock climbing for a while. Not only trad, but sport as well, something I'd neglected to the probable detriment of my overall ability and fitness. I was fed up with fannying around on routes whenever they got steep, placing too much gear and always getting pumped to buggery. It felt like I'd been stuck on a plateau for too long, it was time to sort myself out and get better. Maybe get steady leading E1 if I could.

So with a really positive attitude I went out and climbed a shitload. First time out since the Alps I went to Boulder Ruckle and cruised up a couple of routes I would've struggled on before. Then I did a few sport sessions at Winspit and Portland, building strength and confidence. Suddenly everything was feeling easy. I tested this on a couple of 'Hard Very Swanage' routes, normally the stuff of my nightmares, and was almost offended by how straightforward they were. Jug after jug after jug.

Then I got the chance to spend a couple of days climbing in the Peak District with a guy called Adam from UKC. I'd shamefully never done anything on grit before, and couldn't wait to get up there and have a go.

Day 1 saw us ticking off tons of classics at Stanage Popular. The friction was amazing, even the slopers felt like jugs. After getting started on some easy stuff, I had a go at a HVS called Queersville. Some thin and balancy moves up an arête then across to a ledge led me to the crux; a steep wall with a long reach around an overlap to a flat block. It flowed perfectly. Match hands on flat edge, high foot smears, layaway on pocket, step up, drop knee to pull into wall, and at the same time reach through to just grab the top of the block. An incredible, effortless 5a sequence. The mantelshelf wasn't quite so elegant but there you go. I couldn't remember ever doing moves so good on limestone.

We did a few more classics, the best of which was Manchester Buttress, with the most hilarious being Verandah Buttress. The latter route was given the insane grade of HVD 5b so of course I had to have a go. It was exactly what you might expect; an insanely hard move to get off the ground followed by an easy plod to the top. Adam showed me his method, a kind of hand jam layback to finger crack thing, but it wasn't for me. Instead I cranked on a sloper out right and slapped up an even more sloping arete before sort of falling onto the ledge like a sack of wet shit. Utter madness.

The next day we wandered across the top to High Neb and did a few routes there. I started out on the classic 'High Neb Buttress', a fairly steady romp up sloping breaks, then Adam led a fantastic route called Inaccessible Crack. After that I was psyched to get on something harder, and decided to try Kelly's Overhang (HVS 5b or E1 5c, take your pick...).

My god it was nails.

It followed an easy corner to a mid height break, before traversing steeply rightwards to an undercut pedestal block. From here you had to pull up and right onto the wall above, and follow easier ground to finish. At the top of the corner there was a flat hand rail between me and the block, but the wall beneath it overhung and was completely smooth. Rather than do some idiotic dyno lunge, I cut loose onto the rail, heel hooked, and traversed to the block with some degree of style. It was one of those irritating places where you're sure you can engineer a rest but can't quite manage it. Hanging off my arms, I slung the block and moved rightwards around it, into a reasonable knee bar that just about stopped me getting more pumped.

The next bit was ridiculous. I somehow had to make a rockover onto a foot ledge way out right with my only handhold level with my feet, the rock pushing me outwards. There was a tiny sloping layaway on the wall above and nothing else. Gibbering away, I managed to establish myself on the ledge, all my weight on my completely bent right leg. Cheek flush to the steep wall I palmed nothing and smeared my left toes against whatever the fuck. Feeling like even breathing would send me into space I inched myself upwards, weight shifting gram by gram, until somehow I was stood up on the foothold and gasping for breath. Then I hurried up the unprotected groove to the top before I could think too much about it. I was elated to get the route onsight, and I'll stick my neck out and say easy E1 but definitely 5c, and a really hard move to read from a pumpy position.

I could've happily left it at that, but the weather held, so we did a cool slab called Tango Buttress and then ambled over to Stanage Plantation. Here I found the amazing line of Goliath's Groove, and couldn't resist getting on it. The start was brutal; a horrible thrutch up a flared off-width, and I slithered out of a knee jam on my first attempt and didn't have the energy to prevent a slide onto the gear. So I lowered off, punched the rock a few times, and got back on it. This time, a bit more focused, I made it to the top of the off-width and pulled through a bulge on bomber fingerlocks to a resting ledge. After the desperate struggle below, the upper section felt easy, and I laybacked stylishly on brilliant holds up the steep groove to the top. Adam then rounded off an awesome couple of days with his first HVS lead, up a tricky route called Lancashire Wall. A well deserved reward after patiently belaying me on Kelly's and Goliath's and giving me the perfect intro to the magic of grit.

So now, when anyone asks the typical question 'what have you done on grit?', I'll be able to answer, with pride, 'some routes'.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Alps Part 2 - Zermatt

I had three options. I could go home with Pat there and then, stay in Cham and wait for another partner (I'd been in touch with someone from UKC but this would mean hanging around for nearly 2 weeks), or move on to another area. It came down to what I was happy soloing. Everything that interested me in Cham was either too hard or required glacier travel. In the end I decided to go to Zermatt and try one of the peaks there. The obvious one was the Matterhorn, of which the Hornli Ridge route featured no glaciers at all. Before long the idea was fixed in my mind. I said bye to Pat and got on a train to Switzerland.

However, the recent bad weather had plastered all the high peaks with snow, and it would take a few days to clear. In the meantime I lazed around in the sun, read lots, and hiked up a 3000-odd m peak called the Wisshorn as fast as possible to gauge my fitness. The office in town said when the local guides were going for the mountain, and I decided to make my attempt then. The morning before I took the cable car up to Schwarzee and walked up to the Hornli hut. After pitching my tent and resting awhile, I made a quick recce of the ridge, climbing the first 300m or so to memorise the route. Not only that, I wanted to get an idea what it would feel like to be soloing on the Matterhorn; it was OK. As long as the rock was clear of ice I reckoned I'd be alright.

The next morning I left my tent just after 3am and was the first person on the ridge. There was a team of 3 just behind me. I pushed on in front but soon reached a confusing section negotiating a couloir. It turned out there was another group already out, somewhere up the loose couloir, completely off route. The team of 3 pointed me in the right direction and I didn't see anyone for a couple of hours after that. Easy climbing on or just next to the crest led me to somewhere near where the route traverses onto the east face. I spent a few minutes assessing my options, unsure of what to do and not wanting to commit myself to bad terrain. Then suddenly a load of lights appeared behind me and I was swept up in the long chain of guides and clients from the hut.

We shot up a few hundred meters in this ghastly human centipede fashion. The moment my foot left a hold the guy behind me would grab it. Guides tugged their charges on very short ropes, dragging them up the mountain. At one point the person in front of me halted, forcing me to stop as well.

I don't know the name of the guide who was behind me, but I'll take an educated guess and assume it was 'Stupid Cunt'. The moment I paused Stupid Cunt started punching me in the back and saying "go go go". By this point the person who'd stopped was just getting moving again, fumbling for handholds. Stupid Cunt kept hitting me. I turned and said "I can only move at the pace of the line", something I thought very obvious and reasonable. But Stupid Cunt just didn't understand. "Go go go or go away" he shrieked like a petulant child. I found myself wishing he'd 'go go go' the quick way back down to the bottom.

We were moving freely again but my heart wasn't in it anymore. After a couple minutes I waited on a ledge and let them all by, the Stupid Cunts leading the Ignorant Cunts; all fixed together with their heads jammed up the arse of the one in front, a Cuntish line of utter Cuntishness.

This is a disgrace to mountaineering in my opinion. In fact, to even call it such is an insult to mountaineering. And it isn't really the guides' fault, either. It's a very dangerous job, they have to rope up on a difficult mountain with any old Ignorant Cunt who comes along waving fistfuls of Swiss Francs and begging to be taken to the summit. No, the fault lies entirely with those who create the demand; the clients.

Here's a thought. Why not actually earn the right to climb the Matterhorn? Go out climbing, work your way up, gain experience and confidence on lesser peaks before attempting the big one. This process will be far more enjoyable than just being dragged up by some irate Swiss in a huge conga line. If you are not good enough to do it under your own steam then you should not be doing it at all. Mountaineering is nothing if not an exercise in competence and responsibility.

Thoughts such as these were swirling round my mind as I worked my way up the East face. The climbing was very straightforward but I was noticing more and more ice on the rock. Often I was climbing over it, following lines of shallow boot marks where my feet skidded unnervingly. These were just about OK to climb up, but going down? Without a rope? It just seemed too risky for my liking. And it was only going to get worse higher up as well. At around 4000m, with the Solvay Hut in sight, I turned around and started back down. As I'd suspected, the icy sections were extremely awkward to descend, and I often had to make detours onto steeper, looser rock to avoid them. Eventually I regained the crest of the ridge and was back at my tent in less than an hour. All told I was 4 hours tent to tent, having covered some 800m of the 1200m route.

My enthusiasm was gone now. There were no other peaks I was interested in climbing that didn't have glacier approaches. I had no desire to wait a few more days and see if the Matterhorn would get any better, and in any case my money was running out faster than I thought. So I hiked back down into Zermatt, and then headed home, left to wonder what might've been.

The Alps Part 1 - Chamonix

Pat and I arrived in Cham, dumped the car, and headed straight up to the Tour Glacier. Once again the target was the Aiguille du Chardonnet. We'd wanted to do it for a few years now but conditions were never right. However this time the guardian at the Albert Premier hut said everything was all good; not only that but we had a perfect 3 day weather window that allowed for acclimatisation and the best forecast for our projected summit day. It seemed we'd never get a chance like this again.

The Aiguille du Chardonnet from our bivy. We climbed the hanging glacier left of the north face, and reached the top via the pinnacled ridge on the skyline.

We got up early the next morning to have a nose about on the glacier, acclimatise, and maybe look at a route on Aiguille du Tour if we could be bothered. A couple hours in we realised we were still knackered from the overnight drive, so we just plodded about a bit (taking our gear for a walk) then descended. After sleeping the rest of the day we both felt pretty fired up for an early start on the Chardonnet. It started badly, when for some reason we couldn't find the path down to the glacier and I had a bit of a 'teddy out the pram' moment. But we got there in the end. The approach took around 2 hours, traversing around the left bank of the glacier and underneath the north face of the mountain.

The Forbes Arête route climbed straight up a steep hanging glacier, via a ridge of ice, to reach the long, pinnacle-ridden summit ridge. The first section was pretty easy with 2 axes but crossed over several worrying snow bridges. A couple of them partially disintegrated while we stood on them. After negotiating the glacier, the steeper but sound ice was a relief, and we soon reached the security of rock on the ridge. Keeping crampons on we moved together through the pinnacles, sometimes climbing them directly, sometimes traversing below them on the north face. There was nothing too hard, and the snow was just about OK but declining fast as the day went on. We avoided a particularly bad looking and unprotected traverse by climbing a steep pinnacle then abseiling off the other side. It cost us a few minutes but was definitely the safer option.

A 3 year alpine obsession fulfilled; on the summit of the Chardonnet.

Eventually the ridge ended and we scaled the left-hand side of a final tower to reach the summit. It was awesome finally getting there but we didn't hang around long. The descent had a reputation for being tricky and dangerous in bad conditions. We downclimbed a couloir on the mountain's west flank then made a couple of abseils down a steep dry gully. Exiting the gully required moving over a small patch of bad ice. Here Pat had a bit of a slip and almost sent us both tumbling down to the bottom. His crampons skated off and I absolutely have no idea what he arrested himself on. A ripple, some flaw in the ice, god knows. I did the best thing when faced with a person struggling in a stressful situation; I shouted at him. We continued down and gained the glacier without further incident.

After that the weather got a bit rough, but we still managed a day of multipitch sport at Les Gaillands and an ascent of the South East ridge of L'Index in the Aiguilles Rouge. We did the latter in the pissing rain and it felt just like doing some horrible Welsh VDiff.

Perfect British conditions on L'Index.

The forecast was looking good for the next week and I couldn't wait to get one with some more routes. I hoped to do bigger rock routes until the snow conditions improved, then finish off with another big mountain. Then, rather unexpectedly, Pat came to the conclusion that his head wasn't in it this year, and decided to go home. I won't bother with any details. I guess he was right not to push alpine climbs while not feeling right, but I was absolutely gutted. What to do next?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Mount Ventoux

When I'm not fannying around on bits of rock I also like to do a bit of cycling. In fact, I bought my first proper road bike back in February and have since pedalled a few thousand kms and become pretty much obsessed with it. And naturally, what appealed most to me was the idea of doing some of those epic hairpin roads up alpine passes that define pro races like the Tour de France every year. So Dad and I ventured out to the Alps on what was the first non-climbing trip I'd done in god knows how long. Our aim was to tackle as many of the famous mountain routes as possible.

We arrived in the Ecrin massif late in the afternoon and set up camp in Bourg D'Osions; a small town nestling at the base of Alpe D'Huez, one of the most iconic climbs of the region. The road followed a series of tight corners for 13km, the gradient averaging around 8%. Rather than warm up or recover from the long overnight journey we got straight on the bastard. I have to say it was easier than I expected. We maintained a super steady rhythm, making sure we spun the pedals smoothly rather than grinding our way up, sucking down the odd gel every now and again to keep energised. After the first couple of turns I knew we'd get up alright. Some time later we rolled into the ski-town that marks the end of the climb, and shot back down again super fast, overtaking cars all the way.

The Col du Galibier, the highest point of our trip

Over the next couple of days we cruised up some more classic ascents; the Col de Sarenne, and a combined assault of the Col du Lautaret and the epic 2645m Col du Galibier. I felt so good on the Galibier I pushed up from the granny gear and went flat out over the 8 or so km to the summit, despite the steep last section and a cheeky 12% ramp before the very top. All this in stunning alpine scenery, jagged peaks, deep blue skies. It was fucking awesome.

We then transitioned south, slotting in a quick blast through a wild-west style gorge, before heading down to the main objective of the trip; Mount Ventoux, the Giant of Provence.

Standing above many nearby lesser peaks, but completely isolated, Ventoux was the most daunting of the lot. A huge humpbacked crest, steep forested slopes, a summit plateau bare like a lunar crater, with an eerie weather station projecting from the very top; grey clouds clung to the spire despite the otherwise clear skies. It loomed over everything. The numbers were ominous too. 22km of ascent, averaging nearly 8%. However, this was skewed by the easy first section. The final 16km would average nearer 10%.

We rolled out of Bedoin and began climbing. I struggled to find a rhythm on the first bit, spinning too fast, capable of going much harder but not wanting to waste any energy. It was almost a relief when we turned a corner into the woods and the road kicked up sharply to 9%. From that moment it was a relentless 10km of suffering, nowhere to hide, nowhere to rest. My only aim was to get up the thing in one push without stopping. The route climbed interminably through the forest, round corners and along depressing straights that disappeared into the distance. I stayed in the saddle as much as possible, only standing up when my legs really needed a break. It took bloody ages.

Dad on the hard-won summit of Mount Ventoux

Eventually we emerged from the woods and onto the upper plateau. Here the gradient kicked back a notch, enabling me to switch to a higher gear and build up some speed. As I'd noticed on the previous rides, I got stronger and stronger as I went on, overtaking serious looking guys in replica kits who passed us ages ago. However, there was still several kms to go and it was hard going. The landscape became stark and lifeless. Twats in cars crawled past the cyclists, needlessly cluttering up the road. Idiotic pedestrians nearly caused an accident by crossing without looking just as some guys were descending.

In my opinion if you cannot cycle up Ventoux you do not deserve to be up there at all, particularly not in the middle of the day. There's nothing there anyway. The weather station, a few bits of shitty tourist tat. Go up early or late if you just want to see the view. Even worse, some pricks were adding to the congestion by driving up with mountain bikes on their cars so they could just blast down. Lazy fuckers.

Elitist rant over. Almost. The final bit got steeper again but I was too close to ease off. I rounded the final corner, elated to finally reach the summit, only to be stopped dead by a cluster of cars and morons on bikes who'd decided to stop and take in the view on this last ramp.

The weather station of Ventoux

As you may have guessed, I wasn't particularly happy on top, and when Dad joined me just a couple of minutes later we didn't hang around. A quick drink, a rushed photo at the summit sign, and we were speeding back down again; 22km of fantastic downhill racing, easily overtaking all the cars. We were back in Bedoin unbelievably soon. To celebrate we hit a local bar and drank a few beers while watching the day's Tour de France stage.

We did two more rides in the area, both extremely hilly, but by now we were both super fit and cruising up high passes like they were nothing. At one point we crossed the 1400 odd meter col of Ventoux from the other side, and got caught out in an epic hail and thunderstorm. The descent was horrific. You barely move when you go downhill, there's no way to generate heat, no respite; in minutes we were both borderline hypothermic in our t-shirts, tearing through the hairpins with numb fingers clutching at the brakes. Our narrow wheels barely gripped as we skidded round corners. Fortunately the weather cleared lower down and people on their way up stared at us as we shot by, all soaked and grimacing. Perhaps they wondered what the hell they were getting themselves into.

We vanished into the horizon, gunning it straight for the nearest bar, where we drank yet more beer and watched the Tour. Fucking good times.

Friday, 12 July 2013


Summer is usually the time when I start thinking more about mountaineering, and subsequently get shit at harder trad climbing. This year, alas, has been no different. After an awesome week in Wales, Pat and I returned to Swanage and got spanked by mental waves at Boulder Ruckle. Undeterred, I went back in a few days later with Luke, where the pair of us got utterly shafted by some godforsaken E1 roof monstrosity. Seconding, I overcame the crux by dynoing for Luke's aid sling and hauling myself up hand over hand like some blubbering army reserve reject, only too aware of the '15 pieces but they're all terrible' belay I was hanging from. Nice bit of El Cap training then.

The next week I headed back up to Wales with a mate from work, this time with the intention of sticking to big easy mountain routes, hillwalking, and doing manly things like drinking whisky and quoting Hemingway. The weather was awful but this didn't really change anything. We did a link-up of stuff in Cwm Idwal, hiked over the Carnedd hills, climbed a horrendous slug-filled chimney on Milestone Buttress. Then things cleared up and we got two perfect days, managing routes on Craig yYsfa and the east face of Tryfan. Despite Jake's relative inexperience we moved super quick, which was encouraging for bigger stuff later this year.

After cruising such easy routes I was slightly concerned that getting back onto hard stuff would be a bit of a shock. Nonetheless, Luke and I decided to head over to North Devon for a couple of days and hit the Culm coast; anything to get away from Swanage bloody Swanage was fine by me. First up we abbed down one of the awesome Sharpnose fins and tackled a classic steep crack climb called Lunakhod. Sustained and almost 50m long, it took us a lot longer to get up than expected. By the time we were both on top the tide was coming in fast, and of course you couldn't just top out from where we were, there was a vertical ridge of grass in the way. So we lowered off some tat and paddled back to the ab rope to decide what to do. Another route was out of the question; the lower walls were getting damp, and in any case the belayer would probably end up drowned.

"Let's just swim for it," said Luke.

I looked at the sea, saw waves breaking against the fins, hidden boulders lurking, unpredictable currents...

"Or," I replied, "we could not.

In the end we perched on a high rock, water running over our feet, and jugged up the static. This was sodding knackering.

It was late evening by now but we still wanted to get something else done. In the end we went with a twilight ascent of Wrecker's Slab, a 150m sheet of nightmare choss and vegetation. The descent was down a steep ridge of nettles and scree, fucking horrible. Luke seemed to regret his choice to stay in shorts. At some point he also realised he'd forgotten his headtorch, the one bit of kit we really couldn't do without. So we agreed the leader would wear mine and the second grovel in darkness.

Luke shimmied up the first pitch just before it got properly dark, racing through massive runouts, trying not to pull on all the dodgy holds. I took pitch 2 and climbed in a tiny circle of light, surrounded by blackness and the sound of crashing waves. Gear was rusty pegs and a couple of wires lower down. I shuffled up, not wanting to weight the cliff lest the whole heap of shite came tumbling down with me in the middle of it. By the time I reached the belay ledge the last peg was miles below. Luke followed, basically cranking on whatever he could feel and smearing his feet. I then seconded him up the final pitch, guessing where holds might be, rattling the rope to hear where the next runner was. It was one of the most atmospheric climbs I've ever done.

The next day we hiked over to Baggy Point in the boiling heat and did some easy stuff. I have to say I was pretty disappointed by the crag, all friable slabs and tufts of grass everywhere. God knows why people rave about the place. After ticking some scrappy Severes we downclimbed some Diff to reach the start of a route called Kinkyboots.

It was absolutely fucking horrific.

Yeah, the first bit was a good laugh. You basically had to stand on the edge of a zawn and fall across the gap, hoping you were tall enough to reach the beckoning jugs. If you weren't you'd plummet into space, it's not the most reversible of moves. Luke led it quickly enough, then pulled across an overlap on the main slab and disappeared from sight. I could hear snatches of what he was saying; things like "fuck me this is nails", "fuck me the gear's shit", "fuck me it's sweaty" and "fuck me we're going to die".

He eventually reached the belay after a somewhat harrowing traverse. The anchors made unnerving noises when tugged. I climbed the steep first section OK, pulled onto the slab with a bit of a struggle, and immediately wished I hadn't.

Luke was miles off to the right, perched on a sloping ledge, looking unhappy. The slab was the chossiest pile of wank I'd ever seen. It made Wrecker's Slab look like a granite tor. I tried to find the line of the second pitch but couldn't see anything obvious. The guidebook said you had to climb up to and around a huge detached flake and improvise from there. Well isn't that fucking great, I thought. There were about 700 flakes that fitted the description, the entire top half of the slab was made out of the buggers, detached flakes as far as the eye could see.

Rather than follow the traverse to the belay only to reverse it again (something else the guide suggested; I was beginning to wonder if some kind of cruel prank was going on), Luke clipped the gear to one of the ropes and zipped it across to me. I started crawling upwards. Fuck knows where to go next. I yelled to a climber standing on top and he said something like "Just climb the really dodgy block the size of a table with no visible attachment". Brilliant.

I fumbled higher, placing crap gear, dehydrated, wishing the route would just get it over with and kill me already. The block loomed above. I teetered on an edge beneath it, gave it a tap, was appalled by the flex, by the noise it made. The guy shouted something about other climbers putting cams behind it. Crazed laughter burst from my ragged lips, as hollow as the rock I clung to. With some ghastly contortion I wormed past the flake, somehow not weighting it, slithering through a gap, prepared to sell my black soul without hesitation for one solid jug, just one. Finally, with a huge runout, I hauled myself up the final sods of grass to the top and lay there gasping and sobbing, bowing before the belay stakes like they were long lost idols. Luke was relieved to get moving again after a long wait in the unmerciful sun.

We shook hands at the top and vowed never to speak of it again.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

June Trip Part 2

After 3 perfect days the Welsh weather reverted back to its usual miserable standards, forcing us to come up with some rain friendly alternatives for the rest of the trip. I'd borrowed a brand new demo jacket from work and promised them a review, so in a way this was a good thing. A very small, very insignificant way, but there you go. With Luke and other Dave, Pat and I hiked up to Idwal slabs and skidded up the big easy trough that runs through the middle. From the top Luke led a random traverse pitch across slimy walls and steep grass to get off the slab and onto the approach to Glyder Fawr. Pat drew the short straw and came over last, facing large slide potential on the downward mud traverse, and also having to wrestle out the wires we'd all aided on.

The Daves at the base of Idwal slab

It took about half an hour to gain the base of 'Central Arête', a long alpine-style ridge leading up to the Glyder summit plateau. Despite the rain getting heavier, Pat and I opted to short rope the whole thing in hiking boots. This was terrifying. The climbing was hard for VDiff, lots of small foot edges that would've been fine in rock shoes; instead I clung white knuckled to the flaky rock and re-evaluated my life choices. Not only was it hard going, there was bugger all gear on the main pitch, absolutely fuck nothing. Pat and I climbed with about 10m of rope flapping uselessly between us, knowing that one mistake would send us both tumbling to the bottom of the mountain. After a rising traverse of a thin slab I finally reached a boot sized ledge and a solid nut placement and brought Pat up hand over hand. We were both a bit shell-shocked, but above the going looked easier so we carried on moving together. Luke and Dave climbed the hard section in one long pitch just behind us.

The 300 odd quid jacket just about managed to deal with my intense "I'm going to die" terror sweats
Upon reaching the summit plateau we skirted round and descended via the first gully we came across, which fortunately wasn't too steep. After a welcome beer in Pete's Eats, we headed back into the slate quarries and bivvied in an old hut, which was surprisingly pleasant. Even Pat's usual nasal symphony couldn't stop me getting a good night's sleep.

As dawn's mist rolls across the quarries, strange creatures emerge from the darkness...
It was pissing it down in the morning so we decided to have a bash at 'Snakes and Ladders (and Tunnels)', a nightmare expedition of caves, treachery, rusted ironmongery, gloomy pits, and the loosest rock I have ever encountered. For hours we thrashed our way around the place, climbing ladders and chains up vertical slate walls, ladders attached by nothing but spit and a prayer. The worst of them was hanging off a knackered old bit of pipe, itself secured by a haphazard pile of rocks.

Aid climbing the chain pitch

From the ladders we made a series of abseils and downclimbs into The Lost World, an aptly named tropical jungle; the rock walls were dotted with obscure flora, bright colours, a stream ran from a clear blue pool, even a neglected old emergency shelter. We ate lunch and wondered if we were about to be attacked by an experiment gone wrong. From this bizarre place there was one last haul up shite ladders to reach Mordor (no, really), and a grassy plateau overlooking a crowd of bemused tourists, pointing at us like we'd just emerged from decade-old aircraft wreckage. The whole thing felt like being in an episode of Lost. Now we had two options; walk around a ravine of slate via a nice path, or cross it over a twisted, derelict train track suspended in space, fixed by comedy bolts at either end and chuff all else. Luke and Dave wanted nothing to do with it, Pat said he'd wait and see if I was killed before deciding. It swayed and moaned in the wind like a thing dying.

Oh god what the HELL AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?

Luke gave me a belay that might at least prevent my corpse from rolling all the way to Llanberis high street, then it was time to get going. I teetered and inched my way across, sort of humping the rails and getting rusty crap all over my trousers. The bridge and I swayed with every blasted gust. My innards oscillated with terror, limbs a-tremble, one abstract voice in my head telling me I would momentarily be receiving a loud and messy death, and didn't I just bloody well deserve it? I clenched my arse cheeks tighter and pulled myself to the nominal haven of a sleeper. But the next gap was even bigger, a chasm, an impossible gulf; I pictured the whole sorry lot come tumbling down, my mangled body bouncing merrily astride it. Squawking with fear I performed an ungainly pirouette and started dragging myself back towards safety, weeping softly as my hands clutched at terra firma.

We took the path instead. 

June Trip Part 1

Pat and I were like kids in a sweet shop when we got to North Wales. Sunny weather, brilliant forecast, dry rock everywhere. Day One say us hiking up towards Dinas Mot to get some multi-pitch cragging done. Up first was a HS called 'The Cracks', a mostly easy ramble up the side of the buttress, but with one hard boulder problem right at the top to gain a ledge, slapping off crimps for an insanely chalked up sloper. Warmed up, we abbed down a manky gully with about 485629 spikes all waiting to snag ropes, and decided to do something a bit more challenging. We chose 'West Rib', a fairly bold HVS. Pat took the initial pitch and placed one bit of gear. The guidebook said of pitch 2; 'there is a good runner at 9m'. Well that's alright then.

I teetered my way up on small edges then handed the lead back over to Pat for the final 4c crack. Bloody hell it was hard. He actually fell off at one point but managed to catch himself with a plummeting death grip. It was a fantastic effort from someone with relatively little trad leading experience. I gracefully lobbed off the start of the crack and smacked my ankles on the waiting ledge, just to make Pat feel better about himself. Obviously. Descending, the ropes got stuck again in the bastard gully. I just about managed to lead the sustained Lorraine Direct in one massive 60m pitch before the light got bad and we couldn't resist the siren call of the pub any longer.

Tip-toeing up Lorraine Direct (HVS)
The next day we parked at the Cromlech lay-by and slogged up past Pen-y-Pass towards the towering cliff of Lliwedd, Wales' biggest mountain crag according to our guidebook. We climbed a combination of several classic routes, 12 pitches in all. It was great fun, easy but fairly serious, with maybe 2 or 3 bits of gear per pitch. Things got a bit harder towards the top with the crux slab coming right at the end in full view of loads of hikers. I hauled myself up like a sack of mouldy spuds, anxious not to fall of and make an arse of myself. From the top of Lliwedd we then walked up to the manically busy Snowdon café. You couldn't get near the actual summit, there were too many people packed on it like sardines eating their sandwiches. Pat and I slunk off down the Miner's Track, wondering why we bothered.

Lliwedd is the obvious crag on the far left
The forecast was less good for the Pass the next day so we drove over to Tremadog and ambled up a few routes in glorious sunshine. I made a misguided attempt on an E1 and fell off a lot before giving up. The highlight was the mega exposed classic 'One Step in the Clouds', which wins the award for the most hidden jugs/gear placements I've ever seen.

Bringing Pat up Christmas Curry (S)

In the evening we headed back to the slate quarries where Luke persuaded us to have a crack at 'Looning the Tube'. This interesting route took a bold traverse from a ledge to a bit of rusty chain fixed in the rock, then finished up a long drainpipe feature to the top. My rack consisted of 2 quickdraws, a cam, and a sling. Despite that, the runouts never felt that bad, and I cruised over the positive edges with ease. I was prepared for a fight at the crux, but it was protected by a bolt and basically a piece of piss.

Pat facing his demons on 'Looning the Tube' (HVS/E1)

Poor old Pat didn't find it so. More a jug-campuser than a slab crawler like me, he struggled on the small holds, but still summoned the will power to drag himself through each runout to the next gear placement. He eventually called it quits at the cam and lowered off, very impressive nonetheless. Now he's got no choice but to get back on it and face those runouts again...

Sunday, 5 May 2013

South West Tripping

Dartmoor was bloody good fun, eh, bruises fading, cuts healing, be good to check out some more south west crags. Avon Gorge then, sounds cool. Steep limestone, polished to buggery, compact rock protected mostly by crap old pegs. Alright then. Warm up VS, fuck me, this is a bit spicy. I’m slapping on glass, shit gear, shitting myself. Reach pull reach pull. Thank god a tree belay. That was interesting. Let’s do a bigger one. Called Gronk or something weird like that. First pitch is nails. I lead the crux, just mantle onto the ledge, wish it was that easy. The holds are terrible. Legs are frantically scissoring in the air, chin used as point of contact. Grovelling is what I do best.

So we jog up the remaining 4 pitches, some pretty funky traverses going on, mega exposure. Great route. Where do we go tomorrow? Fuck it, Fairy Cave Quarry will do, always good for amassing a ton of undeserved E-points.
First climb of the day, why not an E2? That can only end well. I’m a gibbering a mess from the first move. Feet skidding, where are the holds, why are there no fucking holds? Cause it’s an E2 you cretin. Sapling runner growing out of a crack, give it a pull, brilliant, it’s shit. Smearing onwards, rubbish micros, I really don’t want to be here. Sketchy downclimb assisted by the sapling which eventually flies off into the early morning murk. Oh well. Luke has a go, gets higher. Massive calf-pump fiddling with gear, he lowers off too. Ok then.

We stuff the fucking thing with gear and headpoint it. It’s hard. I really shouldn’t try to onsight 5c.
Nevermind, nevermind, we do a load more routes in the sunshine. Good times. Next crag, Chudleigh Rocks with a mate from work. Supposed to be polished but we’ll be OK. How bad can it-


Breathe, relax, it’s not the polish that gets you, it’s bad footwork. That’s a relief. Get climbing. Wait a minute, my footwork sucks...oh god I’m slipping, I’m coming off, jug, give me a jug. How the fuck can a handhold be polished as well? Argh, I hate this place already. Top out with zero elegance, already a gibbering mess. That was only a HS for god’s sake.

Still, may as well do a classic while we’re here. Great Western. 4 pitches, lots of stars, that sounds good. Alt-leading, I get the first pitch, crikey this is a bit full on for 4b. You’ve read the guidebook wrong you idiot says Gary. I monkey swing onto the belay, fighting back tears. His pitch is OK, the bastard, the next one looks horrendous. 5a, up a steep wall, then launch round a roof onto a flat ledge. Niiiiice.

Oh my god it’s pumpy, the holds are crap and coated in WD40. Elvis leg as I place a wire under the roof. Extended so far I’ll still probably break something when I come off...no if, if I come off, pull yourself together you sack of shit. You sure you don’t want this pitch mate? Sure? Positive? Damn it. I fumble at disappointing edges, slippy slappy feet, lurch at the flat ledge, there’s nothing, chuff all, maybe a fingerlock. I stuff digits in. I set off the knee alarm, don’t really give a toss, stand up expecting relief but the rock bulges outwards and I’m still on my arms and getting pumped.

Oh bollocks.

Nest of gear, quickly now, I place half my rack and swing for glory leftwards on the best jug in the world. Awesome moves up a steep wall, this is ace. What a route. We finish on easy stuff and leave satisfied.

Well, the weather looks a bit on-off, where’s best to go. Sod it, Avon Gorge again. I’m with Pat this time, he hasn’t climbed trad in ages, better jump on a big fuck off scary HVS then. Three star classic, one for every time I shit myself maybe. Insecure frog traverse under a roof, pegs for gear. Big crux pulling through the roof, desperate heaving, rest on a footledge. No more gear till the belay and it looks hard. Several years pass until I finally commit to the steep rib. Ah, so this is why Rockfax gave it a sloper symbol...

The belay is awful. I will Pat not to fall.

He racks up for pitch 2, hard 4c, a good effort. We climb on, gaining multipitch mileage before the Alps this summer. Day two sees us thrashing up choss and brambles towards Giant’s Cave Buttress. Loads of people watching from the suspension bridge, I really hope I don’t make a tit of myself. Tough moves, thin and spicy, but I’m doing OK. The crux involves shagging a big polished block on an arête. Getting a bit kinky now. At last, at last, gear that isn't a peg or useless or both. Stylish moves on mega jugs, this rules, why aren’t all climbs like this? We do loads more and it’s awesome.

Finally back to Swanage, back to the Ruckle. I second Luke up a VS and oh my days it feels nails. Barndooring off the crux. That was really hard so I’d better lead a HVS. Spectacular logic fail. The climbing’s alright though, HVS for the run outs. I can deal with that. VS, it’s just a VS, get a move on.
I commit.

Hang on a minute, VS? Swanage VS? Like Tatra? Only with no buggershitfucking gear?

I have made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Dartmoor Trip

Taking advantage of coinciding days off and a brilliant weather forecast, minion Lurch and I spontaneously headed over to Dartmoor to spend a few hours bleeding all over the sharp granite tors. I hadn’t been climbing in ages and was desperate to get some routes done and build up a bit of trad momentum. Since a promising start, where I picked up a few soft E points at Fairy Cave Quarry and even managed some Hard Very Swanage thuggery without being killed, 2013 had sort of fizzled out into a blur of crap weather and endless shifts in the Cotswold deathstar. Time to get going again.

So we slept in the car park and got going ridiculously early in the morning, heading round Haytor to find the wild overhang of Outward Bound. It was a route I’d wanted to do for ages, looked awesome, crazy steep moves on massive jugs. What could possibly go wrong? We shivered as mist and wind blew across the moor and racked up. It would’ve been sensible to warm up first but I just couldn’t resist getting on Outward Bound straight away.
This was a terrible mistake.
With freezing numb fingers I clawed my way up the easy lower wall and gazed out in horror at the succession of overhanging blocks leapfrogging each other into space. Chuffing hell, I thought, it didn’t look this steep from the ground. Climbs never bloody do. I plugged in a cam and a pretty decent nut and swung out onto the beckoning jugs. Totally committed, I lunged for the next block and squawked in terror as my feet pinged off and I cut loose onto my arms. Scrabbling and slapping for footholds, instantly pumped, I grabbed at a promising hold with the wrong hand and hung in utter desperation for long moments wondering what to do.

I nearly fell off. I tried to swap my hands around. I nearly fell off some more.

Finally I managed to do something useful with my feet and gibbered into a position of vague balance. No gear. Sobbing quietly I hauled on clumps of heather and grass towards the mid height ledge, and curled into the foetal position as painful hot aches spasmed through my fingers. Fortunately the rest of the route was straightforward. Warmed up/completely fucked already, I seconded Lurch up a couple of easier routes. He even took a fairly decent lob off an old school thrutching crack, getting straight back on it and leaving a trail of blood and muttered obscenities to the summit.
Next we ambled round the other side to check out a ‘3 star classic’ called Vandal and Ann, basically a couple of separate HVS pitches strung together. The first was a steep, sloper ridden slab, the second a moss covered crack groove thing. Lovely.

 The start was a 5b boulder problem, desperate smearing up to the first break. Here I placed an OK nut and made some more tricky moves to the next break. No obvious gear so I scuttled up to another on distressingly un-positive holds. Here I spent several minutes trying to place wires in a flared horizontal crack, ending up with 3 of the buggers in, none of which I would lower off let alone fall onto. This was all a bit full on. Nevermind, a final hard move, small foot edges and hands palming nothing, I eventually reached the belay.
“Scary biscuits, mate”, I told Lurch. “Nails biscuits”, he said seconding. I thought it very hard for HVS, probably E1 without small cams or offsets for the last break.

The second pitch, Ann, was 5a, completely overgrown. I made a tough pull through a bulge to enter the groove and was horrified by what awaited me. A green off-width crack snaked upwards, no discernible holds, sloping everything, moss everywhere. Thankfully there was some alright gear. I teetered and balanced my way higher, gardening for footholds as I went. Midway up I squirmed into a semi-restful thigh jam and tried to figure out what to do next.

“You alright?” said Lurch, perhaps concerned about my lack of progress.
“Well I’m not getting pumped,” I replied, “You need holds to get pumped on. There are none.”

Moving my feet up would’ve pushed me out the crack and off, I just needed something positive, anything. Then I noticed a tiny footledge on the slab to the left. Another bout of moss pruning and it was good to go. I worked my foot onto it, hands doing sod all, and executed an unnervingly tenuous rockover onto the slab. No going back now. I smeared higher, slipping on more bloody moss, aiming for a rounded knob that was the only feature I could see. I lunged for it, not great but good enough, and managed to pull myself beached whale style onto the easy finishing slabs. For some minutes I lay there and wondered how the hell such a monstrosity got 3 stars in the guidebook.
Lurch actually found the pitch alright, the bastard, probably because his freakish height allowed him to reach holds that I had otherwise been forced to grovel for. At least I told myself that.

We spent the rest of the day messing about on easy stuff in the sun, although I still managed to lose most of the skin off my arms in some godforsaken VDiff jamming crack. Nonetheless, it was two very satisfied red raw husks who staggered off into the sunset, leaving behind a legacy of blood splatters and picnicking children traumatised by gratuitous swearing and unearthly death shrieks.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

How to Winter Climb

The following guide contains everything you need to know to be as good at winter climbing as I am.
1 – Always catch a nasty bug just before leaving for the mountains. Headache, sore throat, runny nose, feverish nightmares; the more the better. Bonus point if your climbing partner gets it as well.
2 – Head up to Ben Nevis overnight with two of you sharing the driving. Make sure that the passenger still remains awake, and that neither of you gets any sleep on the journey.
3 – Get pulled over by the police 10 seconds before the turning off for the car park. Extra points if you are already wearing all your gear and as a result look fucking stupid. “Do you always drive with a balaclava and headtorch, sir?”
4 – Hike up the steep path towards the north face carrying obscenely heavy rucksacks. This is training, and will get you really fit for the days’ climb.
5 – Pitch the tent miles away from the CIC hut. After all, you don’t want it to be in a convenient position to the climbing. Why else do you think you’re enduring the misery of camping?
6 – Despite being ill and exhausted, start straight up for a big scary route like the North East Buttress, that would be near the limit of your capabilities if you were feeling good. This is mountaineering, not a bloody picnic (if you are carrying a picnic get rid of it right away; make do with a handful of unpleasant cheap muesli bars instead, or nothing).
7 – Make sure you are last in line of the big queue of climbers all going for the same route. This means you get to wait for longer at freezing belays, enjoying the stunning views of cloud and spindrift.
8 – If the first section of the route is very easy snow plodding without much gear, don’t whatever you do move together or solo it. Pitch it. This will ensure it takes four times longer than it has to, and is far more sporting.
9 – When you do finally get to the harder climbing, make sure your partner has just led off from the belay before suddenly discovering an overwhelming need to take a shit. More points according to how long it takes to clear up, how numb your arse gets, and whether you actually remembered to bring bog roll or not.
10 – Always check the security of a bit of fixed tat by hooking your axe round it and yanking hard as you can. If this doesn’t break it then nothing will.
11 – Should you find yourself leading a long run out pitch, and running out of rope, make sure you deliberately ignore any massive belay boulders you pass. These are considered cheating. Instead keep going, that way your second can dismantle the anchor and climb up after you.
12 – When moving together up steep snow and ice, NEVER COMMUNICATE.
13 – Upon finding yourself stuck on a stamped out snow ledge on a dodgy belay, waiting for hours for the people in front of you to get a move on, do not, under any circumstances, abseil off the route. It just isn’t cricket, what?
14 – Also, why not develop stage 1 hypothermia? Just lie back and enjoy that sudden sense of warmth you feel!
15 – If you say “one more pitch then we’ll see”, make sure that one pitch both fully commits you to the rest of the route and uses up all the remaining daylight.
16 – When you have finished belaying, it is always better if your screwgate jams when you try to undo it. This way you can spend many long minutes screaming with impotent frustration and smashing the fucking thing with your ice hammer.
17 – (BONUS POINT!) Try to get your phone out to call a helicopter, then realise you can’t because you’re belaying. Even better, spend ages figuring out some hugely complex and dangerous juggling system that allows you to do both, only to then realise you have no signal/phone.
18 – Make sure the pair in front top ropes you up out the last hard pitch. Mountaineering has nothing to do with self reliance or responsibility whatsoever.
19 –When you finally reach the top of the route, more exhausted than you’ve ever been in your life, realise you are on the featureless summit plateau of Ben Nevis, and therefore still have a very, very long way to go.
20 – And to really finish things off, spend the remainder of the trip shivering inside your dank, cramped tent, having developed your cold into a full on chest infection.
Congratulations, you are now a winter climber! Mind you don’t trip over all those frozen corpses.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snowfall and Storm

Pat and I headed up to Scotland in the wake of a heavy thaw, hoping for conditions to improve. There seemed to be a lot of snow around on the drive to Fort William, and everyone we passed on the hike up to Ben Nevis said there had been a huge dump of powder on the mountain, subsequently creating a big avalanche risk. We pitched our tent below the north face, shivered, and wondered what to do. Both getting to and exiting a lot of the routes would be very dangerous indeed.

For our first route we swam up unconsolidated snow towards the Douglas Boulder, a lower pinnacle of Tower Ridge separated by a deep gully. We then soloed up easy mixed terrain into the gully itself, hoping to climb the steep wall of the boulder to South West ridge, which would lead us to the summit. Passing the easiest entry point, we climbed a short mixed ramp to a hanging spike belay underneath what looked like a good pitch, and sorted out the gear.

I led the pitch, up a series of steep walls and cracks broken by narrow ledges of snow. It was the first properly technical mixed climbing I’d ever done. Hooking my axes into seams and edges, torquing on blocks and handholds, crampons balancing, teetering, I clawed my way upwards, not finding as much gear as I wanted. The crux was a committing bridge around a protruding block into a thin crack, and the pitch was sustained until the last pull onto the crest of the South West ridge. There was one nut I thought maybe good enough to hold a fall.

I brought Pat up, and we swung leads to the top of the Boulder. Pat did a great job on the final crux, a desperate, grovelling pull up a corner with no feet to reach the summit. All in all we climbed four pitches, and I’d guess the route with our alternative start was around grade IV. In worsening weather and billowing spindrift we abseiled into the gap formed by the gully and downclimbed steep, rubbish snow to get off the face.

It snowed all evening and all through the night, increasing the avalanche risk even higher, so we waited a day before attempting another route, hoping a cold snap would sort it all out again. We then got up really early to try the classic North East Buttress. However, as we climbed steepening snow and rocks to a ramp leading onto the face of the buttress, the snow conditions just got worse and worse. I broke off mini windslabs with every step, and could see fresh slide scars on the slopes around me. We had a quick discussion then turned back for the tent, packed up, and headed off the mountain with the intention of moving over to the Cairngorms. On the hike down we met another climber who luckily avoided injury falling 30m or so off Point Five Gully when the ice he was climbing sheared off.
We got one day of perfect weather on Coire an t’Sneachda, and set off hoping to climb a classic route called Fingers Ridge. However, we started too far right, and ended up on terrain we couldn’t identify in the guidebook. Pat led a rising traverse up a brittle icefall to a belay in a gully. Ignoring the obvious line, I climbed a steep rib just right of the gully, past a very hard move up a wide crack. I committed, was hanging off one tool and crap feet placements when I realised the leash of my other tool had got tangled in the last bit of gear. Thrashing around, fingers uncurling from the axe handle, I tried to uncoil the mess, and only just freed the tool in time to sink it and avoid falling off. Another hard step led to much easier, turfy ground, and finally a good belay ledge at the end of the difficulties. We have since checked, and believe this pitch could be a new variation to the adjacent route, Goat Track Gully.

Two scrappy pitches up snow and turf, a traverse left onto an exposed ridge to avoid the risky exit slope, and a final tricky tower, led us to the summit plateau of the crag. In blue sky, sunshine, and ferocious wind, we walked back down the ski pistes of Cairngorm Mountain. Then a howling blizzard rolled in, raged throughout the night, and the road to the ski station was closed the following morning. We once again had to beat a retreat off the mountain, aware that the avalanche risk was simply too great. I decided against staying up by myself, due to having no definite partner to climb with and not wanting to solo anything in such dangerous conditions (or alternatively go mad with cold alone in a tent). Hopefully I’ll be able to get back up there in a week or so.
(In the extremely unlikely event that the variation we climbed was a first ascent, we will name it Ringer's Fridge (get it?), grade III 4.)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Alps Photos Part 2

Hiking through spectacular scenery towards the Rimpfischhorn.
The view of the Matterhorn (4478m) from our base camp.
The Rimpfischhorn (4198m). All the main difficulties of the route lie in surmounting the tooth shaped summit buttress.
Our surprisingly comfy bivy at the start of the route. The big peak in the background is the Weisshorn (4506m).
Traversing Point 4001m, all the hard stuff still ahead.
Jordan leading up the final tower to the summit.
The view from the top.
After several attempts in 2010, I finally stand on the summit of the Rimpfischhorn.
Descending the ice couloir, which was in terrible condition, with the Monte Rosa massif in the background.
An atmospheric Matterhorn the evening before our attempt.
Me arsing around on one of the numerous fixed ropes on the Hornli Ridge.
Not this time!
Back down safe as the weather deteriorates. Not exactly sure what I'm doing with my hand...
And finally, me, in my pants, pointing at the Matterhorn.