6 02 2015
Approaching the cliff

Approaching the cliff with the great roof-capped groove up left of the two climbers

It was in large part a wonderfully diverse, vibrant and inspiring rainbow of characters that really appealed to me when I started out winter climbing. Images of the ‘old man’ Marshall holding court over a simmering Dixie, amongst a gaggle of muscle-bound shipyard workers in some draughty cave in Arrochar; of the old fox MacInnes stumbling into the CIC Hut from a blizzard, his trousers all torn, brandishing some home-made ice weaponry for his next vertical battle; or of Dr Tom, replete with tricounis, tartain shirt and woolly jumper, fighting ice-clad granite rocks and hypothermia on Lochnagar. These guys were like Centurions or Gladiators to me, and their heroic tales, well polished by the passing of time, were a tremendous source of inspiration.

My own climbing partner during those formative years – Fred Brown – was himself a character very much of this gnarly howff-dwelling ilk. This was a man who laid caches of food, whisky and other nefarious substances in strategic locations across the length and breadth of the Cairngorms – all in the name of “geographical research”. And who famously climbed Douglas Gibson Gully in winter wearing a pair of floppy Hi-Tech trainers. I recall another particularly grisly episode – also on Lochnagar – where we climbed Parallel Gully B together on a wild winter’s day. Fred had decided to field-test a pair of leather, studded-knuckle Hummel Doddies believing they might provide greater protection for hands bashed repeatedly against the ice, whilst allowing greater dexterity when fiddling with gear. But alas, his concept was failed from the outset, and on returning to our rucksacks after our successful ascent we marvelled at the continuous streak of red snow running up the lower chimney.

Fred gave up climbing shortly after we both left University, and sadly I’ve seen him rarely since then, but there was an inherent wildness and sense of liberty about him that inspires me to this day.

Just as the tales, heroics and misdemeanours of the great characters are passed on down the years, so of course is the legacy of their climbs. Well, most of them at any rate. There are certain idiosyncratic qualities, for example, in any Smith route or Patey route or Fowler route one might care to repeat. I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch of the imagination to suggest that something of the characters themselves lives on in their greatest climbs. But occasionally, just occasionally, something and someone great gets missed, overlooked. Or maybe they were just too near or even beyond the fringe to become captive to the mainstream.

A few years ago, on hearing I’d been exploring new routes on the Giant’s Wall in the back of Beinn Bhan, Norrie Muir sent me a topo. I don’t know the man at all, but I sensed we had an affinity of spirit. I remember laughing at a photograph hanging on the walls of the bar in the Kingshouse Hotel – John Maclean I think it was, leading something up on Slime Wall in the 1950’s, with Norrie at the belay below, quite literally taking the piss. He was a young man on a hard climb in an old photograph, and here he was now an old man in real life, sending me pictures of routes I’d never known.

Traversing left to gain the great groove - easy but wild

Traversing left to gain the great groove – easy but wild

Interestingly enough, the topo he sent was of one of my most prized unclimbed lines – the great soaring roof-capped groove that dominates the view of the steepest section of Beinn Bhan’s Giant’s Wall. This was a genuine “line to die for” (though not literally I was quietly hoping) and here was I staring at an old photograph with a route marked straight up it. It has been climbed before by one of Norrie’s mates. Coming from anyone else I might have been dubious, but it was quite clear that this was no joke. And, in any case, whatever humour may have anointed our brief email exchange was for my part quickly eliminated when it dawned that not only had this line been climbed before – it had been climbed free and in summer. My jaw may well have hit the floor.

Anyone that knows this cliff will appreciate its tottering, Jenga-like qualities. Believe me this is not an affectionate colloquialism – it’s a statement of fact. For my part, this fact was borne out by a particularly terrifying experience whilst first attempting what was to become The God Delusion (IX,9) when both my axes, all my protection and half the cliff underneath me suddenly departed.

In fact the whole of the vast, triangular right hand side of Giant’s Wall is quite literally an assemblage of giant sandstone blocks, shards and monoliths, precariously held in place by moss, soil and various breeds of vegetation. In places one can peer down into great cavernous shafts behind gigantic loose flakes, seemingly leading onwards and downwards to the very bowels of the Earth. The Entrance to Hades perhaps? In winter, of course, a plentiful supply of water oozing from the abundant greenery soon freezes to provide glue in the form of ice. Not so in summer, however, when the crag must surely present nothing more to the approaching climber than an enormous and singularly repugnant fecalith.

And as if all this wasn’t off-putting enough, this part of the cliff is also arguably the steepest chunk of rock to be found anywhere on the British mainland. Drop a stone from its top and it may well miss the halfway terrace – if it does it won’t be stopping until it comes to rest on the coire floor two hundred odd metres below. This is no place for the faint of heart.

The originator of the line on Norrie’s topo – one George Shields of the infamous Creag Dubh Mountaineering Club – was clearly not faint of heart. Having now climbed said line in winter I can also confirm that neither was he faint of finger! On the contrary, in fact, I would go so far as to stick my neck out and suggest that this was perhaps a contender for the hardest rock climb in Britain at the time. (The word “hardest” in this context should of course be interpreted in its richest sense). We had been led to believe, prior to our winter ascent earlier this week, that the summer version of the climb – pioneered over 40 years ago, in 1972 – might provide climbing which would merit a modern grade of “anything up to E3”. There are only three words I can think of in response to this statement – AND THE REST!

Soon after gaining the great groove by a cunning horizontal traverse in from the right, we abandoned any ideas of following Norrie and George’s topo. Even with the added benefit of slim picks to slot in the occasional hair line cracks afforded by the smooth, overhanging rock, the line up the right wall of the groove was just too hard to even contemplate. It looked at least E4 in modern money. In any case, the back of the groove, despite containing a large and ominous roof ten metres up, was adorned with ice and turf. It was rich for the winter picking.

Greg commits himself to the lower roof - this pitch was the crux, as it was poorly protected above this point

Greg commits himself to the lower roof – this pitch was the overall crux, as it was poorly protected above this point

The intense battle that ensued stretched both Greg and I to our limits, in my case perhaps even a little beyond. In failing light, I struggled repeatedly to seat the tip of a blind pick away up right and over the lip of the great roof, only to have it suddenly rip twice when cutting loose and trying to pull over. On the belay below, Greg was totally spent. I was now rapidly following suit. I imagined the ghost of Mr Shields himself leaning over the edge of the roof above me and shouting something gallous and demeaning in a coarse Glasgow accent – “Come on ye wee Aberdonian shite, where’s yer mixed climbing skills now then!” Young Uisdean Hawthorn, the third man on our team who had “come along for the ride” must have wondered if this was what our adventures were always like; dynos and power screams from Greg, and now whooping great flyers from me. All very dramatic, but Uisdean did a great job of keeping a (mostly) straight face.

Myself following over the lower roof

Myself following over the lower roof

But we couldn’t leave this empty handed. I’d been into the cliff for a look so many times before. I’d never seen conditions like this. Long before The Legend of George Shields was born I’d been attracted to this wonderful feature – such steep and powerful lines are very few and far between. So with long sucks of oxygen (and a front lever to maintain enough torque) a rush of blood and adrenaline saw my feet up over the lip. A hurried nut stuffed into a mossy, parallel crack. A precarious pull on some stringy, frothy turf. My chin was now on a ledge some five metres or so above the lip. A smile erupted across my face as I let out a great yowl across the coire.

Engaging the great upper roof, where a hidden hanging groove provided the key

Engaging the great upper roof, where a hidden hanging groove provided the key

Big George wasn’t up there, of course, in ghostly form or otherwise, but through perhaps his greatest of routes – The Messiah – he had in some way been given a new breath of life.

The Icing on the Cake

28 01 2015

The great Northeast cliff of Lochnagar was famously hailed as “the crucible of modern mixed climbing” in Scotland. This accolade may still hold true, but there can be no doubt that the sprawling hulk of Creag an Dubh Loch is now giving the ‘Gar a serious run for its money.


The remoteness and magnificence of the Dubh Loch cliffs; the unparalleled grandeur and quality of the climbing; the pace of recent developments and the remaining scope for the future – it’s an intoxicating and addictive place for even the most seasoned of winter climbing palates. What’s most interesting to me, however, is the one feature that defines all the great Dubh Loch routes – ice.

Labyrinth Direct. Vertigo Wall. Goliath. The Giant. Vapouriser. King Rat. Culloden. Sword of Damocles. Range War – from grade VI to grade X, this truly is a role call of the very finest icy mixed climbs that Scotland has to offer. Yet the Dubh Loch certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on hard icy mixed – the “Ice Tool” style is rapidly becoming the favoured tipple of the thirsty Scottish winter climber. The very best of the hard routes on Beinn Eighe, for example, all sport substantial sections on ice. Recent additions to Mainreachan Buttress continue this trend. There seems little doubt that these climbs place Scotland on a par with any other country for high quality traditionally-protected, icy mixed climbing. With an emphasis on quality.

Pulling onto thick ice high on Range War, X,10

Pulling onto thick ice high on Range War, X,10

There’s a common misunderstanding amongst those that don’t actually do any winter climbing that modern mixed – its origins and its future – is about nothing more than tooling (some would say aiding?) up partially snow-covered or even just cold, dry rock. If you’re quietly nodding away to yourself while you’re reading this, then think again you fool! The future of traditional mixed climbing in Scotland looks decidedly icy. Indeed, it may almost be self-apparent that development of the ability to tool up sections of steep rock is merely a precursor to unlock the next generation of wickedly steep icy mixed routes! Who would honestly have thought that a route like Spray On would represent the next level, even as little as ten or fifteen years ago?

Pete Mac aiming for thin ice on the second pitch of One Step Beyond, IX,9

Pete Mac aiming for thin ice on the second pitch of One Step Beyond, IX,9

Winter climbers are just like any other species that inhabits the slippery verticals; they look for newer, better, harder and more interesting challenges. If we were just interested in climbing rock with ice axes then that is precisely what we would do. Why bother questing for hours through deep snow, sleeping in cold damp bivies and bothies, getting benighted, and generally strapping it on, if we could get the same satisfaction down at our local dry tool crag? Simple answer – we couldn’t.

I remember back in the day when mixed climbing legend Stevie Haston baulked at the site of the early dry tool routes (though in those days they may have conceded at least to a short stump of easy ice at the end of a long, dry pitch). “It’s fucking perverse!” he rightly ejaculated. I mean, what’s the point in waiting for winter to arrive if you’re going to intentionally climb solely on dry rock? And the subsequent blossoming of the “DT style” into a popular sub-genre of summer and indoor climbing may have suggested the hills would soon be bursting with first ‘winter ascents’ on steep dry rock. Climbers in the Lake District certainly seemed to have foreseen this future – a threat to all their great summer classics. Dave Macleod also dipped his toe into potentially hot waters with his ascent of “White Noise”. The waters, however, remained largely calm.

Uisdean Hawthorn enjoys legendary conditions on the first ascent of The Giant, VII,7

Uisdean Fraser enjoys legendary conditions on the first ascent of The Giant, VII,7

The majority of winter climbers just continue to go climbing – taking their knowledge of our great cliffs and their thirst for winter adventure to logical but evermore audacious extremes. In winter, logic means ice. I’m not saying that a route with no ice or no “logic” is necessarily bad; rather, that a really great mixed line which also has ice will nearly always be better. And ultimately better is surely what we’re after?

Now, I’ve never been one to shy away from climbing a route in winter simply because it’s a great route in summer. After all, a truly great line is a truly great line, irrespective of the season. Curved Ridge. Eagle Ridge. Centurion. Steeple. They’re all equally brilliant as either summer or winter routes. And for me, personally, when I look at the physical legacy left on these climbs by the repeated passage of climbers, I would argue that on balance it’s the intensity of so many summer ascents that leaves the greater impact (have you seen the amount of in-situ gear on the summer crux of Steeple these days? It’s a bloody disgrace…).

The Dubh Loch can get busy when the icing is on the cake!

The Dubh Loch can get busy when the icing is on the cake!

But all this is to digress. The point of this blog is to celebrate the undeniable greatness, beauty and quality in contemporary Scottish mixed climbing. And to fanfare the mighty Dubh Loch as proudly heading up the vanguard…



20 01 2015

Yesterday was for sure a genuine “one in a million day” on Cul Mor. Any day up in the far Northwest in winter is special. This one was unsurpassed. A combination of the necessary freedom from family and work, the right choice of venue, conditions, partner and psyche levels all combined to produce the perfect product. All complemented perfectly by that little sprinkle of magic so important to all the best ground-up multi-pitch adventures.


Everyone is pulling pretty hard on their axes these days, so it was obvious to me there had to be an at least technically-feasible way through that great roof. But having not studied the feature in any detail previously there was a huge air of uncertainty as we made our approach. You can’t see properly into Coire Gorm until you’re right inside it, but the sight that met us as the crag first came into view certainly bode well – a continuous curtain of ice hung all the way along the underside of the roof. Major uncertainties remained though; could we find the right line, and quickly? Would there be enough gear? And – equally important- would our chosen option through the roof lead us on up through the headwall? The crag is about 120m high and the same across, with no established routes in summer or winter; breaching the great roof itself would not guarantee our success.

As it turned out we hit the jackpot. Conditions were like nothing I’ve seen in the area before, with good snow on the approach and on the cliff, all the moss and turf like toffee, and lot’s….and lots….and lots of sticky ice.

The first pitch was straightforward enough. Steep but perfect ice (no screws was a mistake though) lead to a traverse left on good tufts to the base of an ice hose splurging temptingly from the underside of the roof. We were now positioned on a narrow ledge about 30m up, just right of the centre of the cliff, below a 10m overhang stretching as far as our eyes could see in both directions.


The second pitch was anything but straightforward. The ice hose lead delicately to a series of long and strenuous reaches – 60 degrees the wrong side of vertical – with no placement deeper than two or maybe three teeth of an axe pick. The ferocity of movement was only grudgingly compensated by the presence of the occasional ice smear for sketching feet.

I could maybe have coped with all of this had the gear been good. Fortuitously, however, I didn’t have to. I knew my young friend and partner had been doing nothing but training for this moment for some months, and I knew his chances of success were higher than mine. I’ve seen success and failure on a hard climb be defined by a play of egos; this was clearly a time to set mine to one side.

Up and down, up and down. Up and down, up and down. Each time he probed further, steady, static and determined, but still no fail-safe gear. I could tell his time was running out. I steeled myself for action. I reassured myself quietly that the belay was perfect, and that if need be I could jump off my little ledge in the event that he should fall. But he didn’t.

Get ready!

Get ready!

Pulling over the lip on a wafer hook in an icy seam it immediately became obvious that straight up wouldn’t work. Nothing but smooth, blank and unforgiving Torridonian sandstone. So a lightning decision was made to shift weight back under the lip of the steepness, inverting a tool in an undercut crack in a wild and powerful Stein-pull. It was at about this point that a sudden bizarre jet of spindrift appeared out of the otherwise empty blue sky above us, filling his face with icy shards, into his hood and down his back. I tried desperately to keep a straight face under my hood. Was this the little sprinkle of magic we so desperately now needed? It seemed to be so, as a final long stretch away right found the smallest licks of ice in the tiniest of tiny ramps. Everything stuck, and we were on our way over.



The rest, as they say, is history. A beautiful, natural winter line of dripping turf and ice unfolded above us, welcoming us steeply and directly, yet warmly straight into the heart of this vast blank canvas. Rarely had I savoured new-routing as much as this; although by no means easy, experience made it clear that our fate was now sealed, and with time to spare we could strap in and enjoy the ride. After three pitches of ‘desert island’ grade 6 mixed we were coiling the ropes as the sun’s smouldering embers died out.

We were safely home the right side of midnight, curled up in our warm nests. More still, the weather is set fair and good people and fair fortune will have us back out for another adventure before the week ends. The stars, it seems, haven’t just aligned – they intend to stay that way for a wee while yet. If that’s not magic then I don’t know what is.

Back to the Future

12 04 2013

IMG_0328 - Copy

Making the first ascent, on-sight, of a grade X climb has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for the current generation of Scottish winter climbers.  It’s a desprately tall order given the fickle and precarious nature of your typical Scottish route, but at the end of the day an on-sight is what our grading system is supposed to describe, and for most of us, at least, it is what we aspire to.  It makes sense, after all, when days are short, walk-ins lengthy, and conditions so variable, and it just seems to align with the ephemeral nature of so many winter routes.

More often than not , however, opportunities to explore new ground on-sight at our limits are extremely limited.  Limited by the ability to identify suitable routes – i.e. harder, but not so hard you’re going to fall repeatedly – and limited by the ability to strike effectively when the conditions, partners and life in general all align at the right moment.   When these opportunities do arise you only get the one chance – strike a match and it all burns down.

The long and runout main pitch of Crazy Sorrow on the Tough Brown Face  most definitely a 'genuine' grade IX!

The long and runout main pitch of Crazy Sorrow on the Tough Brown Face – for me, a rare opportunity to push my limits exploring on-sight in winter

When I found myself racking up beneath the fifth pitch of Nevermore on Lochnagar’s Tough Brown Face on Monday past, I knew it was just one such opportunity.  I’d previously spent something like 15+ hours belaying Pete Benson and others on the very difficult second pitch, but nonetheless I’d still only once had the chance (a few weeks previously) to explore this pitch – my pitch, as it were.  On that occasion it had been late, I had been borderline hyperthermic, and I had been unable to commit.  I had climbed down and offered Nick Bullock the reigns, but after a half-heatered probe he had also backed away.  This time though, things were different – I was fresh and with daylight to spare.  But the steep, rounded rock and lack of obvious protection had grade X written all over it.  If it didn’t happen then, it possibly never would.

Nick Bullock, after four and half taxing pitches, braces himself for the big runout on the first ascent of Nevermore.

Nick Bullock, after four and half taxing pitches, braces himself for the big runout on the first ascent of Nevermore.

After several ups and downs – none of them yielding much new hope – the roof was reluctantly turned leaving protection below, a most marginal hook pressed away down to knee height, the other tool desparately stretching, battering away at the large snow-ice mushroom topping the groove above. Then a stick, in almost nothing..elongate, reach up, then another – the only meaningful bodily contact now a single monopoint on a sloping match box.  Just one more step up though and there will surely be some gear; my opportunity thn extended. but then it strikes, a flame, and the opportunity burns out – I’m falling backwards, flipping upside down, one of my axes jettisoned out into white space, I’m squalking like the Ravens who’ve made this route their home.

And that’s it, for me at least – over you to you Nick, old man.  If I’m going to have anyone here with me to salvage an opportunity it might as well be your good self.  Internally, I questioned whether I had fallen simply because I fell, or was it in fact down to shaky concentration, a lack of gaurantees.  Of course this is precisely why we were there – to shun any degree of certainty, any knowledge of what lay ahead, either in terms of difficulty or indeed safety.  But at this level, for me personally, the white noise was becoming deafening.  I felt sure the climbing was within my physical capabilities, but the  risk?  I wasn’t sure.  This was new ground in every sense.

The next hour passed in slow motion, watching Nick slowly adsorb to the cliff.  No noises, no wobbles, indeed no external signs of the cranking hypertension searing through his every muscle.  Grade 10 to clear the roof, then sustained 9 for fully 15m.  One little clutch of protection at halfway.  Nothing else.  As the rope etched out an increasingly long, loose arc from this island of safety I traced his potential trajectory down for 10m, then the big swing sideways, rope castrating against a perfect knife edge of granite.  But still he moved on, feet popping occasionally from slight diagonal breaks, then at once tucked away up by his axes desparately trying to clear a final bulge.  I felt faint at the thought it could have been me.  Then, out of this harrowing silence came his strangely reluctant droll, “Raat then Robbow, I think we’ve got theess bastad now”.  Nevermore – five piches, solid X,10.

Strictly speaking, I can’t say that Nick’s ascent of both hard pitches on Nevermore was the first on-sight of a new grade X winter route, but I can say that in my view it was probably about as close as anyone’s got to it.  It isn’t a particularly ‘new wave’ line, and it certainly wouldn’t be  graded M-ridiculous if you stuck a load of bolts in it and climbed it without the snow and ice.  But it clearly demonstrates we’ve got a way to go in terms of questing new realms of difficulty in the psychological battleground of traditional winter climbing.

It also puts this most exquistive and beguiling of cliffs most firmly back on the cutting edge winter climbing map :-)


18 03 2013

Origin: Celtic

Sex: Female

Meaning: Dweller of the sea.

Soul Urge: People with the name Morgane have a deep inner desire to create and express themselves, often in public speaking, acting, writing or singing. They also yearn to have beauty around them in their home and work environment.

Expression: People with the name Morgane tend to initiate events, to be leaders rather than followers, with powerful personalities. They tend to be focused on specific goals, experience a wealth of creative new ideas, and have the ability to implement these ideas with efficiency and determination. They tend to be courageous and sometimes aggressive. As unique, creative individuals, they tend to resent authority, and are sometimes stubborn, proud, and impatient.

An interesting thing, going winter climbing with someone you’ve never met, only argued with voraciously.  All the more so when you’re bound for a new line on one of the most remote big cliffs in the UK.  But such is the grist of friendship’s mill.  I liked the way Roger didn’t ever seem to back down, how he was always seemingly pre-armed with some well constructed and rational reposte. I pictured him of short, squat and bullbog-like build and wondered if his actions on the hill would reflect his robust and thoughtful approach to ethical confrontation.  I had a strong hunch that it would (and it did) but my mental imagery was soon smashed by his huge frame.  I hoped he wasn’t dragging me off to dispose of the enemy.

A very big cliff in a very remote place - the impeccable Atlantic Wall

A very big cliff in a very remote place – the impeccable Atlantic Wall

As we skipped along the snow-laden ledge, dwarfed below 200m of exceedingly steep Torridonian sandstone, I wondered why he’d suddenly stopped.

“I think that first line we looked at back there’s probably our best bet Guy!”.

I wasn’t convinced.  With every step leftwards across the base of the great rampart, two important things were happening.  First, the rock above was getting steeper – which is of course always a great attraction.  And second, despite the rapidly increasing angle, the cliff was gradually becoming more wintry.  Left is best is what I was thinking.

“I don’t know Roger, I really want to take a look at the obvious corner mentioned in the guidebook – if you weren’t here that’s where I’d be headed!”.  In any case, I’ve just walked for four bloody hours to get here and I’ll be buggered if I’m walking out without clocking the full length of this wall.  It is, after all, rather broad as well as tall.

“Right. OK.” – I sensed the man had made a decision – “Let’s go and get the sacks and go across further down – there’s a tricky step here.  You know, Simon has always talked about trying this line – how well do you get on with him?”.  Pretty well I thought, staring up at 200m of continuous grooves and corners splitting the overhanging rock.  This was no time for questions.

Two long and sustained pitches of impeccable North West mixed lead to our probable crux of the day – a gently impending smooth corner with precious little turf save from the great beards overhanging its exit.  My lead.  It could have felt tricky but for the previous five outings back on the East Coast granite – day after day of virgin technical 9, zero foot holds and “marginal sticks”.  Protection a big question mark floating around, difficult to grasp.  No such quarry here tough – just perfect cracks, steep and deep, with ancient folds in the Grit-hard rock as poise for feet.  It was pure joy from start to finish. A vast sweep of deep blue Atlantic space spilled out behind us – the Torridon hills with Skye beyond, and Baosbheinn, A’Mhaigdean and An Teallach.  And to think I thought I’d climbed out all the best views in Scotland!

Roger heaving up the top section of the crux pitch

Roger heaving up the top section of the crux pitch

Some hours later, as we reached Tier No. 7, the wind went Schizo and our perfect scene was soon obliterated by thick snow.  Frigid blasts were delivered one upon the other.  It was time to skedaddle.  So Roger nips right then back left before I grab the rack and hop a few final walls to the flat top of Atlantic Wall.  Only 150 metres or so of grade II scrambling to the summit, a bonus Munro, then four hours of descent.  To ponder the latter was heavy baggage on tired shoulders in the face of what seemed to be gathering menace.

But then, coiling ropes, just as quick as the storm had gathered, she emerged from the steely grey waters  below; a strange ethereal ember finger at first, but soon pouring gently out across the broad floor of the glen and crawling up to blush and caress the lower slopes of all those great hills. I swear I heard her sigh just then, and felt the tinge of her warmth inside me, casting off the terrible drudgery that had lay ahead.  And then in the snap of a krab she vanished, leaving just cold calm night.

A few snowflakes and Roger’s very expensive gadget guided us along the ridge and on down through snow fields, great hanging corries, slippery burns and porridgy bogs, eventually winding back along the confusion of paths by the lochside and back to the car.  I’ve made a few good new friends the day I thought to myself smugly.  Roger himself, of course – the great lowping raconteur, and Slioch – Sliabhach – our mountain of spears.  And away off over the slopes behind us, settling back down under the waves, Morgane, our Dweller of the Sea.

Tough Times

13 03 2013

I haven’t felt this tired in quite a long while.  Not the strangely reassuring tired of worked fingers and pumped forearms – the kind that you know after a couple of days rest will make you bounce back feeling fitter and stronger.  Nope.  I’m talking about the deep, lasting, forehead-tightening combination of sustained mild exhaustion and severe mental stress.  Winter trad climbing is like that sometimes – kind of like the big ‘make or break’ day of a long Alpine route, but over and over again, week in, week out, as opposed to a few times a year.  When the conditions are good and partners are available I seem to be constantly questing in extremis into unchartered territory, moving precariously, not knowing what’s above, finding the climbing difficult and the easy option more and more tempting.  Just give up and go down.  Once you’re used to hanging on for hours the physical aspect isn’t too bad (let’s face it most Scottish winter routes would be quite easy with bolts and no winter coat) it’s more the on-going necessity to bury your demons with a sharp mental hatchet, and batten the hatches and pull on through when the outcome’s so uncertain.

Lochnagar - a great place for not knowing

Lochnagar – a great place for not knowing

It can be a stressful business, for sure, but this intense psychological challenge is really what ground-up leader-protected climbing is all about – how far are you willing to push it?  A little further, but just how much?  What exactly does it mean to you, and what on earth will you get out of it?

I’ve had two big failed attempts this year, and in so many ways rather than leaving me bitter these ‘failures’ have told me more about why I love this stupid activity and why I keep immersing myself in it so vehemently than the many more ‘successes’ either side of them.  For one, the richness of experience, inspiration and self-questioning a failed attempt on a great route provides is every bit as rewarding and significant as the warm satisfaction gained in getting to the top – much more so in fact.  Being inspired to go further and try harder, and challenging myself and those around me are some of the closest and dearest connections have between climbing and other areas of life.

And secondly, the climbs themselves (or at least the concepts of them) are still there – unclimbed, same as before.  I still don’t know if I’ll climb them.  I’ll try them again but the world will be different, I’ll be different, the conditions will be different. The only contstant will be the underlying rock and the reek of uncertainty.  I could go to the top, abseil down, brush away the snow and ice and get a quick answer, but to me, ultimately, this would shatter a very fragile and precious beauty.  The phrase “heart of beyond” seems fitting to describe this particular ethic.

Nick Bullock fighting impending darkness and dwindling supplies of brain juice

Nick Bullock fighting impending darkness and dwindling supplies of brain juice

But there’s a certain brain juice that’s needed in large quantities to go there with conviction, and for the time being my supplies appear to be dwindling.  Hopefully lots of sleep, whisky and a trip into the wilderness will re-charge the uncertainty gland before the season’s out.  It’s all relative, of course, so maybe the next trip out should just be a little less ambitious!

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous – Ethical Heresy

7 03 2013

I don’t normally get dragged into ethical debates these days, but on this occasion, it seems, I can’t avoid it, in light of the fact that even those with whom I’ve climbed and shared adventures with in the past appear to be somehow doubting the ‘validity’ of my ascents.  I’m amazed it’s come to this, and that these individuals apparently believe that their position within the climbing community places them above everyone else; including not only the climbing masses, but also those at the forefront of the sport.  I wouldn’t be so phased if their ideas made any sense.

The debate, as it were, started around Dave Macleod’s recent activities on Ben Nevis.  One route – the provocatively titled White Noise (D10+) – was a pure dry tool route, and as far as I can make out Dave has never suggested otherwise.  The other, however – The Snotter (VIII,8) follows iced grooves, rock and ice – and whatever your take on it is most definitely a ‘mixed’ climb.  Ironically (in my view) it is the latter route that appears to have had the greater impact in stirring the loins of the winter climbing cogniscenti, despite tackling an obvious mixed climbing problem in what appears to me to be perfectly good style.

A variety of concerns have been raised variously by those who’ve objected to Dave’s ascent of The Snotter, which are summarised briefly as follows:

  • As the prominent icicle feature on the line is known to have touched down, or at least nearly touched down, on a number of previous occasions, climbing the route in an only ‘partially-formed’ state has been interpreted as cheating, robbing others of the chance to climb the line in its more fully-formed state;
  • The fact that the hardest / crux section of the route was climbed on dry rock and – even worse – in the sunshine, has led some to believe it is not a Scottish winter route and should therefore be given a more appropriate ‘M’ style continental grade;
  • The fact that Dave chose to climb the route in partially-formed, dry and sunny conditions has been perceived in some way as a threat to the traditional Scottish winter ethic – i.e. waiting for pure rock climbs, or longer sections of rock on otherwise mixed (rock/ice/turf) routes, to become well plastered in hoar frost making them “white” before attempting an ascent.

In short, my perspective on these concerns is that they are entirely and grossly misplaced.  Had they been levelled at White Noise, then fair enough, I’d have largely concured.  But in the case of The Snotter I can’t for the life of me see the problem.  Look at the picture of the route below.  How much of the route is dry rock?  Is this an acceptable winter route?  And ask yourself, honestly, if you’ve ever made what you felt at the time was a perfectly acceptable ascent of a Scottish winter route that involved climbing ice either from and / or onto sections of dry or largely dry rock?  If you haven’t, then I would hand on heart say you’ve missed out on some of the most enjoyable climbing Scotland has to offer.

Looks like a winter route to me - and it's in Scotland!

Looks like a winter route to me – and it’s in Scotland!

Now, below are two good examples of my own first ascents of new routes that I believe fall into a very similar bracket to The Snotter.  Remember these at least in part follow unclimbed territory, and would be either impossible or at least significantly harder without the presence of the ice.  This is the key factor for me here – that the ice DEFINES the routes, and it’s presence makes them easier (that isn’t to say that the ice is necessarily the crux).  So there’s both an aesthetic and a certain logic that to me makes these rutes particulrly attractive – more so than, say, a completely snowed-up piece of ice (and turf) free rock.

Pete Macpherson on Super Rat IX,10 - is this really bending the Scottish rules?!

Pete Macpherson getting scared in the sun on Super Rat IX,10 – is this really bending the Scottish rules?!

Anther evil sinner - Greg Boswell - high and dry on the first ascent of Vapouriser VIII,8.  Spot the final slot hih up - as black as the night (but with useful blobs of ice).

Anther evil sinner – Greg Boswell – high and dry on the first ascent of Vapouriser VIII,8. Spot the final slot high up – as black as the night (but with useful blobs of ice).

So tell me then, are these not valid Scottish winter ascents?  Was I cheating? Should they be considered as M-style rather than Scottish winter routes?  I don’t bloody well think so!  They were climbed in Scotland, in winter, in once-in-a-lifetime conditions.  Sometimes in Scotland, just occasionally, we don’t need to battle our way through 8 inches of frost to get at the rock, and such conditions certainly aren’t desirable on the hardest winter ground.  The style of climbing may not be quite the usual full-on plastered white get-your-sticky-beard-out gnarl we’re more used to, but I tell you what the climbing experience was none the worse for it – far from it in fact.

Unfortunately in Scotland we just don’t often get blessed with these ‘perfect’ conditions of quality ice and dry rock.  When it does happen, and you’re lucky enough to catch it, it’s a wonderful thing – please don’t whip out some imaginary rule book and tell us it’s cheating, because it isn’t. It’s simply being in the right place at the right time.  I can’t believe any individual climber would be so pious as to imagine they possess some kind of omnipresence that allows them to profess their ethical due diligence over other people’s adventures.   What a total bag of shit.  At least Dave (unlike some others) is consistently honest enough to show us pictures of his hard ascents, and describe them openly fr what they were on the day.

So what are the “rules” if we feel we should have them?  (I personally don’t – I think honestly and transparency is much more important).  If it’s a route based largely on ice, then to me the state of the rock is irrelevant – I’m sure any winter climber with half a brain cell would agree.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that ice needs to thaw in order to get fatter, so it’s kind of logical to expect that as the ice on a route grows the rock will often as not dry out.  This situation is exacerbted on routes based on very thin ice.  The Tough Brown Face is a great example – when the routes there are at there very best (on inch thick ice runels) the rock will typically be black.  Would Dave’s ascent of The Snotter have been any more acceptable if the icicle had almost touched down but the “dry, sunny wall” used to gain it been so steep that this didn’t make any difference, and he’d still tooled up dry rock?   Same route, potentially with more ice, but exactly the same climbing. This is just completely and utterly ridiculous.

To me, the only place where th requirement for a wintry appearance becomes an issue is on routes DEFINED by long sections or whole pitches without ice.  In this case, the whole point of attempting the route is to meet the challenge of winter head on.  If routes like this didn’t need to apear “white” there would quite simply be no logic in waitng until winter to climb them – much more sensible and enjoyable to go climb them on a warm summers evening.  There is also something aesthetically distasteful about tooling up largely dry rock with no ice in sight (sorry dry toolers!).

So why am I getting so excited you may ask?  Maybe it’s because I don’t like rules, and even less when people try to impose them in the mountains.  But more importantly I firmly believe that what makes a good winter route is that degree of logic and aesthetic.  To me it’s both logical and aesthetically satisfying when sections of rock link sections of ice.  As I said earlier – on routes such as this the state of the rock as irrelevant – it’s the ice that defines the route. It might not provide the hardest climbing, but it’s what brings the route into existence in the first place.  Do we think Dave would have attempted The Snotter if there was no ice at all?

But what really stirred me was when someone I know well and have climbed with often before extended their objection to The Snotter to a recent new route of my own (see the photo below).  In this case the new line in question (Parallel Grooves – VII,9) involved negotiating a 3m section of dry rock to gain more thin ice, within the context of a route that  was 250m long and otherwise climbed entirely on snow and thin ice.  Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.  At least it wasn’t sunny – God forbid!

The offending article - at this point two points of contact are in ice, and the crux moves ensue...

The offending article – at this point two points of contact are in ice, and the crux moves ensue…

This kind of misplaced ethical policing is exactly what Scottish winter climbing DOESN’T need.  I believe we need vision, logic and aesthetics.  There are loads of very exciting new route possibilities across the Highlands at grade IX and above that might involve climbing dry or at least black rock to gain difficult and often thin sections of ice.  For me these are some of the most exciting prospects for the future – more so than any piece of snowed-up pure rok.  Sure, there are lots of other possibilities that don’t form ice, and in these more ‘common’ cases the state of the rock becomes much more important; a wintry coat is what brings the route into condition; it’s what defines the route.  But to suggest there is only one style of route and that’s completely hoarded up and continuously white from bottom to top is not so much narrow-minded as completely ridiculous.  This is ethical bloody heresy.

And what of the provocatively-named White Noise?  To me this is the real aberration – a pointless distraction, nothing more – misguidedly established in precisely the wrong place.  There’s certainly a place for pure dry-tooling – I do a bit of it myself – but it certainly isn’t on Ben Nevis in the middle of winter. I think I can take from Dave’s notes on his blog (?) that he’s kind of seen this now, as reflected in the climbing community’s total disinterest in the route (UKC armchair pundits excepted, of course).  Winter climbing without any of the winter – now where’s the logic or aesthetic in that?


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