Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dartmoor Jolly

Staples and I arrived at Haytor just as the sun was going down. In the dying light we ambled up to the crag, soloed a few VDiffs, did a bit of bouldering. Then, seeing as this was most definitely a jolly, and not a serious climbing trip, we went back to the car park and got hammered. Some time and many beers later Pat turned up, and we all staggered off to the tor again to check out some routes for the next day. I had my eye on the classic Aviation. E1 in the book, but from my drunken headtorch perspective it looked 'absolutely piss'.

In the morning, crippled by a stinking hangover, I fumbled my way up Raven Gully, appalled by just how difficult it was. Long moments passed where I could do nothing but stare in confusion at the holds, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with them. Some horrific contortions up a chimney finally saw me to the top, and I peered out across the misty expanse of Dartmoor with bleary eyes, bringing the other now-not-so-jolly-boys up, fighting back vomit and wishing I was dead. Staples then had a go at the neighboring route Honeymoon Corner, climbing the initial wall like an old man whose stairlift has broken. He sighed and groaned with every move.

After spending a while fiddling a hex in ("Put a cam in yer nonce") he celebrated its placement by slumping onto the rope and lowering off. So I had a go, and just about managed to grovel my way up a godawful wide, holdless crack onto a beckoning ledge, where I wanted nothing more than to pass out into merciful, dribbling unconsciousness. Things were not very promising for Aviation, which incidentally, in the cold light of day, was suddenly looking a thousand times harder and scarier than before.

Who knew?

But Staples at least was determined to sort himself out, and he grabbed the rack to lead Levitation; bold, delicate climbing up slabby flakes with a lot less gear than you want. Seconding, I tried the direct start and couldn't get close even with a tight rope. My god it was nails, same tech grade as Aviation, and any lingering trace of last night's pissed-up confidence disappeared altogether. Tail between my legs I lowered off and climbed the standard route, a bloody good lead by Staples under the circumstances. Pat - who hadn't climbed outside since August last year - came up last and avoided the tenuous crux move by dynoing for a jug and smashing his knees into the unyielding granite of Haytor.

Afterwards the three of us were staggering around and moaning like zombies, a likely team indeed to tackle an E1. It was all going so very very well...

Yep, piece of piss, just like I said...

No more excuses. Now it was my lead again and I couldn't bear putting it off any longer, so I tied in and got on Aviation. Up a sort of pillar then the first crux getting into a steep flake-crack. I pulled on some jams, laybacked up the flake, it was amazingly straightforward. The route was never really strenuous after that; more technically sustained. I minced across the traverse, edging crystals, skipped the hanging belay and carrried on. Up to the weird drainpipe feature, eyeing up the following run-out, insecure moves off edges and smears. I found that to be the crux, psychologically at least. A final hard move off a crimp saw me to the top of the runnel and easy slabs beyond.

Staples wrestling with the first crux

Staples made a valiant effort to follow but had to bail at the traverse because of crippling pain in his hands. So it was down to poor old Pat to finish the job, which he managed in fine style; I'd never heard anyone power-scream their way across delicate footwork climbing before. After that we jumped in the car and ended the day with some bouldering and easy soloing at Houndtor, then a welcome pint at the Plume and Feathers.

Approaching Houndtor

Pat had to leave that evening so the next day it was just me and Staples at the Dewerstone. We did a couple of fun multipitch VDiffs then it was time for my other main target of the trip - Climber's Club Direct. Two pitches of steep jamming up cracks and corners, one of those wonderful 'not hard just bloody hard work' classics that you just know is going to kick the shit out of you. And it was with some trepidation that I racked up and set off up the horrendously polished initial wall. This led to a roof that was cleaved by a perfect hand crack. I'd heard it was the toughest part of the route but I found it OK - chuck in some jams, pull hard, feet up and done.

I must've mentally relaxed a bit too much after that because the rest of the route felt absolutely nails. I spent ages getting pumped trying to go directly up the crack to a beckoning sapling, before realising there was an obvious and easy step right onto a slabby flake. Sustained bridging up the continuation corner, past a roof, led me to the belay. I'd planned on doing it in one pitch but I'd used all my big gear and there was an off-width looming above. So Staples struggled his way to my stance and then off I went again. I placed the daddy-cam in the base of the off-width then grovelled up to and over the capping roof on monster jugs - awesome!

Here a widening crack shot straight up to the top, and I ignored the tempting easy traverse off left and got stuck in. Feet scrabbling I locked-off a horizontal jam, tried to wedge myself in, couldn't, almost got spat off instead. I could feel myself slipping away, losing strength, and in desperation I threw in a careless fist and heaved for the top. With a flailing hand I grabbed at a thank god chockstone and gibbered my way to safety, a broken, sobbing mess of a man.

Staples just laybacked it the cheating bastard.

Knackered at the top

After that we did the fantastic Route B; mega steep for VDiff but on huge jugs all the way, incredible exposure snapping beneath my feet. Finally I soloed a fun route called Colonel's Arete, then we called it good and went to the pub. Most likely my last West Country trip for quite a while and it was awesome to achieve two such long-standing ambitions.

Great stuff.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Gritstone Kisses

Day 1, Stanage, where else?

It is calm and still and the midges are rising. Not a breath of wind touches the great frontier of gritstone, crag of the country. Thousands of the little bastards swarm about us, getting in hair, eyes, everywhere. I lead Congo Corner while Ben belays in a nightmare haze. Steep moves up a thin crack, pulling hard, then I follow a devious line around overhangs, delicate steps, to a juggy horn and the top. Into a blur of flying ants I climb, mating season perhaps - the nuptial flight where the males fertilise the queen by exploding their genitalia inside her then die - bringing Ben up while I swat and suffer in this violent insect orgy. We skulk off to Burbage North to boulder but it's no better there.

The legions of midges win, there's always more, always more...

...Day 2, armed with maximum strength Deet and a head-net, we return for battle.

Wading through the buggers to Stanage once more, smashing out classic routes all day. I sprint up The Right Unconquerable, throwing in cams as I layback the huge flake, dragging my feet up smears as I go. Rest below the final roof (what fucking rest?) then I heave over with a face-hook and the tactful abandonment of any remaining dignity. We climb on. I grovel in Ben's wake across Ellis's Eliminate, grope for the jug on Cave Arete wishing I was just one sodding inch taller. Into Robin Hood's Cave, hikers and tourists, 'you know you can get in round the back don't you?', ha ha bloody ha. The day goes on and we earn many guidebook stars. As twilight draws near I jolly up Flying Buttress, knowing that one day I will run out of excuses, I will have to grow a pair, I will have to do the Direct.

I'd do it right now, I really would, it's just I'm tired, and so it goes, on and on, endless spirals...

...Day 3, Millstone Quarry to get the shit kicked out of us on man-made jamming cracks.

Blank faces of red rock, sharpened death arĂȘtes, US style splitters that loom above and seem to say 'what you looking at?' Ben leads Embankment 2, parallel cracks, one's too fucking big, the other's too fucking small. I sort of fall up the crag after him. Grovelling onwards, shedding skin in Bond Street and another godforsaken Embankment route. My eye is ever drawn to the towering corner of Great North Road. Line of the quarry, it beckons me. Easy to start - it lulls you before striking out; footholds disappear, the groove twists, steepens, and I'm laybacking desperately, wondering how the hell I'm going to put gear in. Arms pump, feet edging on polished smears. Sustained to the top, a final pull around a capping roof and I'm clear, I'm free, bursting into light and the moorland panorama that opens before me.

We climb until our arms can take no more...

...Day 4, the morning is dull and murky; a heavy mist has filled the valleys and obscures the each-way horizon.

We chance Froggat and are rewarded with dry rock, gentle slabs, a perfect contrast to yesterday's struggles. Quick solo up Heather Wall, then Tody's Wall, fun moves, it all feels so easy; HVS my arse. Ben is psyched for Three Pebble Slab - I hedge my bets for the lead 'til after he's done. One runner in a pocket. Sometimes it falls out, the guide says, helpfully. He commits, hard rock-over to no man's land, to a rest that gives you too much time to contemplate the nothingness that awaits. Do you trust the friction? Well do ya, punk? Inspired, I pull the rope and lead on after him, smearing, mindgames, standing on fuck all with the word 'groundfall' chattering endlessly in my head. But if you don't trust the friction what the hell are you doing up there?

Climbing is a game of contrasts, from run out slabs to the steep jamming of Valkyrie, a route without compromise. I thrash my way to an awkward belay, Ben leads to the summit, tough moves on sloping holds, I follow by the skin of my teeth. We finish on the classic Chequer's Buttress (how in gods name is it the same grade as Valkyrie?) then Ben must return home.

Nightfall approaches and I solo 10 routes at Stanage, moving serenely from hold to hold, a peace that is so rare, so hard to find...

...Day 5, Rich has come all the way from Essex, from the arsehole of the country, and it's pissing it down.

We drive west. Somehow the Roaches is just about dry, damp but climbable. Rich ambles up Black and Tans, then I do the exact opposite up the Sloth. The roof gets bigger and bigger as you approach it, the angle outrageous; sooner or later you will bump your head on it and the game will be up. Only one way to go - outwards. I place gear, chalk up, shakeout, putting it off as long as I can but the moment comes and I must commit. Swinging on jugs, arms shaking like trees in a storm, fiddling in a hex that has to be good. A gibbering mess I downclimb the roof back to the rest and try to ease forearms of stone. But my mind is focused now, the gear is placed, and I launch out once more and this time I find the glory hold, the jug of jugs, and I burrow onwards to the top, to salvation. Easy once you've done it.

We descend to the Lower Tier, to Valkyrie - perhaps this is the most beautiful of all the gritstone buttresses? A great jutting bastion of orange rock, monolithic, it's upper slabs guarded by overhangs, a huge undercut beak that the route gains with cunning and boldness. I teeter down a flake, foot probing for the hidden hold, got the bastard! Tricky move balancing onto a ledge then I'm running for the summit, fuck gear, who cares, the rock is rough beneath me and it would take a deliberate effort to fall off now. Belaying on mysterious water-worn flutings, held fast by passageways hewn in time beyond my reckoning. The buttress glows in the late-afternoon sun.

These are the moments worth remembering...

...Day 6, we hike steep paths to the frowning battlements of Hen Cloud, a castellated edge jutting from the moors, and I know we won't have an easy time here.

Warm up on Great Chimney, then I cannot resist the call of Bachelor's Left Hand. It looks nails. I climb a crack, past rounded bulges, jamming my way upwards, trying to keep moving. Place gear and go. Perched below the crux, my feet on precarious nothings. Shit this is hard. I fumble, find a pocket, crank now or fall off anyway. High foot, I lunge for the beckoning flake, fingers curl over the edge and I'm hauling myself to easier ground, elated. Every style of climbing in one glorious pitch.

Next we climb the other super-classic HVS, Delstree, a stunning line up a slim corner, rounded exit like an elephant's arse, apparently. The climbing is sustained but I feel at home on this rock now - paradoxically only at the end of the trip, but that's the way it goes. I fight to the top, one last hand jam, palming off slopers, and I'm there, bringing Rich up on an awkward belay of nuts and hexes because I used all my bloody cams on the route...A final jolly up Central Climb and we shake hands, part ways, already planning our return...

After a skin graft.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Bosi Ridge from the main cliff

A quick pint before last orders, and Staples and I were skidding our way down damp choss towards the start of Bosigran Ridge. It's an awesome jagged crest that rises out of the sea like some kind of primeval beast, I'd wanted to do it for ages. By headtorch we clambered onto the ridge and abseiled as far down as the tide would allow us. Waves crashed against the rock, somehow amplified by the darkness; it was clear we wouldn't be able to climb the first pitch without at least getting a bit wet. So we tied into a short rope at the start of pitch 2 and got going.

Abbing into the darkness

Chimney low down on the route

The climbing was great fun. Up a chimney, exposed hand traverse, weaving through spikes and pinnacles on the crest. Over far too soon.

At the top

The next morning we got an early start and ambled over to Bosigran main cliff. First up was Doorpost, a classic HS, and it's one of the best routes I've ever done. Staples led a fun rising traverse to a ledge, then I climbed to the top in one big pitch. There were some tricky moves up a pair of parallel jamming cracks, then monster jug hauling all the way. I barely placed any gear because I didn't want to interupt the wonderful flow of movement over massive holds, perched on edges high above the sea. Great stuff.

Staples leading pitch 1 of Doorpost
Looking up at the awesome second pitch
On the sharp end

It was a bit downhill from there though...

We got lost on a route called Autumn Flakes and I ended up moving onto the adjacent VS, Nameless, because I saw some ancient peg stubs in a crack and assumed it must at least be a way to the top. High above his belay I yelled down to Staples;

"There's pegs mate!"


"No, pegs!"

"OK, take..."

"No, there's pegs here!"



And so it went on...

Staples leading the first pitch of Shit Route I Never Wanted To Do Anyway

Next we had a go at a climb called Little Brown Jug, a tough VS. Staples led up a fun groove, then I traversed a slab to reach a belay below the crux pitch. Up I went, finding it rather hard work, until eventually the crux shut me down altogether. I simply couldn't do anything useful with my feet, couldn't see the move, and the gear wasn't good enough to just wing it and hope. Back down I went, head hung in shame. Stupid route anyway. We finished up by soloing Alison Rib, then drove over to Land's End.

The Start of the Long Climb

Incredible rock architecture
Staples at the base of the route
Not a bad place to climb!

Just beyond the bloody awful tourist shite and the hotel were the cliffs, great lichen encrusted blocks of granite, and the other big classic of the South West, Land's End Long Climb. Descending a gully led us into another world. The rocks dropping down into the sea, end of the country, nothing but the Atlantic Ocean beyond. There were mysterious promontories just off the coast, an unmanned lighthouse way offshore amid small nameless islands of rock. On the horizon, far out west, the sun was setting, shimmering rays cast across the waves. It was a stunning place, I felt privaledged to be climbing there.

Staples leading the Elbow Crack pitch

Me leading another pitch higher up
The final section of the Long Climb
The final pitch, up the corner crack just left of centre. I think you're supposed to climb the face to the right but it looked nails for VDiff!

The route climbed a series of staggered blocks and buttresses, by cracks and chimneys, never hard but always interesting - apart from one section, which I suspect we did wrong, that involved a desperately insecure traverse around a featureless bulge and felt about 5a....but there you go. Gradually the day waned into darkness. We topped out by headtorch and went straight to the First and Last pub to celebrate a magnificent climb.

Top of the route with the Land's End Hotel just behind
Another late finish

Next day, and the target was Chair Ladder. More than anywhere else in the West Country, I wanted to climb a route here. Towering crags and pinnacles of golden granite some 70m high.

Early morning atmosphere at Chair Ladder

The gloomy abseil into the heart of the cliff
The awesome South Face Pinnacle
Me leading the exposed and sustained second pitch
The fun steep crack of pitch 3

The very base of the cliff was tidal so we made an abseil down a gully onto a damp ledge. Here we began the mega-classic South Face Direct, 4 pitches of incredible, sustained crack climbing up a huge buttress. Pitch 2 was the crux, with hard moves up rounded cracks leaving the belay. I was lacking confidence after backing off Little Brown Jug but got there in the end, some kind of smeary-slappy sequence to reach a good hold. After that it was gloriously exposed jug hauling all the way, constantly engaging, pulling through a final overhang on ridiculous bucket holds - and at last finishing at a proper summit, the top of the south face pinnacle.

Looking down from the summit pinnacle
Tired but extremely happy on the top. One of the best trad routes I've ever done, on a such a wild and beautiful crag
Staples on the pinnacle

We debated doing another route but decided not to. It started raining on the walk back to the car, which somewhat justified the decision. To finish off an awesome trip we swung by the Dewerstone on the way back so Staples could lead the brilliant Central Groove.

Staples leading the awesome Central Groove
Staples at the belay. The metal bolt is what holds the huge block in place...!
The tricky final corner below the top

It was great climbing, lots of bridging and shuffling up a perfect open groove. The best bit was stepping right onto a steep wall on super positive flinty holds, edging higher, nothing below but the drop. Finally I soloed up a fun easy route called Mucky Gully (not as bad as it sounds!) before we headed back home.

On top of the Pinnacle Buttress after a quick jolly up Mucky Gully
Good times...

Monday, 25 August 2014

Finishing Up

Cam's injury would not allow him to continue climbing, and it was soon apparent that our plan to remain in Chamonix into September was no longer possible. In the meantime, Staples and I took advantage of a morning's good weather to get into the Aiguilles Rouge and climb the East Face of Le Brevent. From the valley the face looks sheer and incredibly imposing, but up close it's more broken and vegetated than you'd realise. Nonetheless, several routes have been equipped on it, the classic of which, and our target, was the Voie Frison-Roche. Somewhat ambitiously graded TD, it was a fully-equipped 5 pitch sport route. Staples was still feeling a bit sore in his rock shoes so I led the whole thing.

Waiting in line at the incredibly promising looking start of the Frison-Roche 

The first pitch had a briefly tricky slab, I lunged and over-extended through it in a display of dangling incompetence, then easier terrain led to a belay below the crux 6a(+) pitch. Every team I saw in front of us dogged it rather spectacularly, so I was somewhat apprehensive approaching what, from our stance, looked like a blank wall with bolts randomly drilled into it. But imagine my delight when I rounded a rib to find a proper hand-jamming corner crack awaiting me. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck right in.


Still waiting...

It was awesome climbing. Bridging, arm wedging, a fingerlock, laybacking, everything you could possibly want. I climbed quickly and soon found myself at the anchor and bringing Staples up. He led through a pitch of scrambling to the base of a perfect open book corner that led to the summit of the mountain. Once more the climbing was spectacular, delicate and sustained, with a proper foot smearing layback sequence at the crux. A guy in front managed to lob off and there was blood everywhere, but a bit of claret just added to the atmosphere. Visibility had dropped, it was now snowing, and I was panicking we'd wasted so much time queuing we'd miss the last bin. Still, fantastic route. We legged it back to Planpraz with 20mins or so to spare.

Somewhere near the top of Le Brevent

After that we rested and sorted all the gear out, got hammered on Staples' last night, then saw him off in a fog of hungover self pity. For an alpine first-timer he'd done amazingly well. Cam and I didn't expect to stay much longer, but I still wanted to get into the mountains one last time. So on a cloudy but dry morning I got the bin up to the Midi and stomped across the Vallee Blanche towards the three summits of Pointes Lachenal. A route traversed them at about AD standard, one scrambly bit up a chimney to the last peak, and feeling good I jollied across in an hour or so.

Warmed up and confident, I walked over to the start of the Cosmiques Ridge of the Midi. It was harder than Pointes Lachenal and I felt somewhat apprehensive - but I knew I'd be annoyed with myself if I pussied out, so on I went, spinelessly giving in to my own peer pressure...

The Cosmiques Arete is the obvious left-hand ridge

The first half was piss easy, then I got stuck behind a slow guided party on a section that required abseiling. I waited, helped out when I could, then nipped past them at the base of the second abseil. From there on I managed to overtake everyone else no worries. The climbing was straightforward snow and mixed, occasional steps over blocks, but I knew the crux was waiting for me.

It was a steep slab with a flaky crack down the middle, and it might've been quite tough if someone hadn't drilled a series of perfect frontpoint slots all the way up it. I teetered my way up in seconds, vaguely amused by the whole thing. Finally the route swung round onto the north side of the peak, onto more exposed terrain above a disconcerting void, traversing narrow ledges past a short chimney that was the last real obstacle. A quick shimmy onto the crest of the ridge and I reached a wobbly ladder leading up to a viewing platform full of gawking tourists.

Aware of just how awesome I (probably) looked, I gibbered up the rickety bloody thing with all the nonchalance I could muster, saying something witty and understated like 'That was worse than the damn climb!" as I swung over the railing to the platform. Both routes combined had taken me a little over 3 hours. I suddenly saw an unnerving potential in my alpine soloing prospects, but that will be for another time. I made my way back down to Chamonix and told Cam I was happy to leave as soon as we could get ready. His accident aside it had been a fantastic and hugely successful trip.


The Vallee Blanche

The descent ridge from the Midi station

With the Chamonix peaks plastered in snow we forgot about rock climbing and dragged the ice tools out from the bottom of the boot. There was a three day weather window forecasted so we packed bivy kit and extra food and got the bin up to the Aiguille du Midi. From there we made our way towards the Triangle du Tacul.

Chere Couloir climbs the right-hand side of the central rock buttress

Both Cam and I had always wanted to do the Chere Couloir, and it looked in good nick, so we left our bags below the 'schrund and daggered up to the first belay. I led the first proper pitch of straightforward ice, then Cam shot up a quick mixed chimney to get a better belay below the steep bit. This next pitch was the crux of the route and Cam did a great job leading it. Although 85 degrees in places it took screws well and Staples and I both seconded it no worries.

Looking down from the second belay
Cam leading the crux pitch
Staples following the crux
The final hard pitch wasn't quite as sustained but still had a steep wall near the top, 80 degrees or Scottish IV maybe. I'm not amazing (ie I'm shite) at ice climbing, but I gave it a go anyway, and found it completely piss. It's all in the head (probably good conditions help as well...). My frontpoints felt solid wherever I kicked them, first time tool placements, I even started enjoying myself a bit. A final sprint up easy snow led to the belay at the end of the difficulties, and we abbed back down to the Vallee Blanche, very psyched for the next couple of days.

At the top of the hard climbing

A freezing bivy later, in my stripped out tent and three-season sleeping bags (apart from Staples, the bastard), and we were gearing up early to tackle the North Face of Tour Ronde - a relatively modest snow and ice climb up a 3700-odd meter peak on the other side of the glacier.

Our bivy on the Vallee Blanche

The 'schrund was a nightmare. An overhang of unconsolidated snow, footholds crumbling the moment you weighted them. It set the tone.

We moved together for a while but conditions were pretty bad, so we traversed over to a rock rib on the right-side of the snowfield and pitched our way up to the crux narrowing, Cam in front, Staples and I grovelling behind. Here the ice was actually pretty good, and we briefly hoped it would remain until the top of the face. But when we emerged to the final slopes it was into utter powdery toss once more. Moving together again, we thrashed our way upwards, kicking collapsing steps, comedy tool placements sliding in the mush before us. Eventually we gained the base of the summit block, looked at the direct finish, though 'sod that', and skulked round the back to find the easy scramble to the top.

On the summit of Tour Ronde

We were all tired after swimming up the face and just wanted to be down as quick as possible. Unfortunately, Cam suffered a slip during an abseil, and injured his ankle badly enough to require airlifting to hospital. He disappeared into the sky hanging from the mountain rescue helicopter, and Staples and I continued in a very slow fashion down the ridge. We were shaken up, we were exhausted. By the time we regained the glacier it was far too late to think about getting the bin back down, and the shelter had gone with Cam. So instead we trudged down the Vallee Blanche towards Montenvers, finally collapsing and bivying on choss in the region of the Envers Hut.

Looking down at the SE ridge, which Staples and I descended

The next day we descended the Mer de Glace and caught the train back to Cham to find Cam in crutches but still smiling at least. We drank much beer and tried to forget.

What next, then?