Sunday, 11 January 2015

Maybe it was peace at last, who knew?

… time to feel alive. Braced by the left axe behind the pillar of blue ice, with my left foot high on the back wall, crampon smearing on a smooth ramp of rock, I reached high with my right hand and swung my axe into the softer ice on the front of the pillar. Not trusting in the first time placement I swung again, this time it had to be good - I had to move, I couldn’t hang around. The climbing was feeling steep already, I was committed before I let myself realise it. My left shoulder was fatigued from the 6 attempts to place the left axe in the brittle ice in the rear of the pillar. I wiggled and twisted the axe to remove it from the ice. Pulling round, my right foot now committed to the ice as well, my left foot came away from the rock smear and hooked around the back of the pillar to pull me in, to hold me on. What? What is this? I’m heel hooking, but I’m ice climbing, and I’m heel hooking, and it’s working! The plastic quick-release lever on the back of my crampon was hooked round a rib of ice. What a cool position. Bumping my right foot up the edge of the pillar, breathe, keep focussed, keep moving. The drips of water, my saving grace, they made the recently formed ice soft enough to climb, but also my adversary; my gloves and arms were getting soaked. I pull up, still hooking my left foot and swing my right axe higher, not wanting to risk the first placement I swing again, this time the reassuring feel and noise of a good placement ease my heart rate slightly. Extricating my hooked crampon and stabbing it into the front of the pillar instantly made the climbing feel a lot steeper. A couple more strenuous, balancy pulls up the steep ice and the angle eased. Thankfully finding some reasonable névé above allowed me to pause for a moment at the top of the steepness and compose myself. A glorious sprint up the final iced slabs and round the small cornice lead to the windless plateau, the horizontal world was welcomed with a euphoric feeling and a long needed celebratory sandwich. I sat on a flat rock atop Hell’s Lum Crag looking across at the Loch Avon basin, taking in my surroundings feeling content to have soloed such a cool wee route.

I was late to arrive at the Cairngorm carpark that morning, my first objective was get up onto the Cairngorm plateau, via a route in Coire an t’Sneachda. I would then head across to Hell’s Lum Crag and see how I was feeling and what I fancied the look of. I was optimistic that I would be able to set a good pace into the corrie thanks to my purchase earlier that morning.  There were other teams still making their way into the winter wonderland. I glided past a couple, we exchanged hello’s, the women commented on my pace, I smiled, wished them a good day and cruised on. Now almost in the corrie it felt like I was flying along, the purchase of my new walking poles had shown their worth already. I was now wondering why it had taken me so long to get a pair!?

Sneachda was a hubbub of activity with parties all over the crags. This wasn’t what I was psyched for, I was keen to make a swift escape to the solitude of the plateau. So I opted for a direct and easy route that I would be able to climb quickly. The Runnel went without issue, although I felt slightly guilty overtaking a team that were hidden out of sight from below, but they seemed to be enjoying the route and weather. Emerging onto the plateau, into the sun, sans wind, I was psyched. I packed away my crampons, axes, extended the new poles and started trotting across to the Loch Avon Basin. A friendly Ptarmigan gargled and cheered me on, I smiled, wished him a good day and cruised on.

Hells Lum Crag was pleasantly quiet with only one other team on the crag, on the classic Deep Cut Chimney. The whole crag was attractively covered in smears of ice, psyche was high. I moved round to the base of my ambitious objective, the snow slope gradually steepening and changing character into crunchy, difficult névé mess. An ease in angle allowed a pause to consider the pillars of ice looming above. The first pillar held some steep moves, some cruddy snow/ice and some helpful bridging opportunities. The steep moves were a good warm up for the main event. I moved steadily up the steep snow/ névé between the first and second ice pillars, keeping composure and keeping an eye on the way ahead.

I tentatively moved round to the left hand side of the upper pillar of blue ice, the crux, kicking a step in a slight easing in the angle of the slope I gazed up at the pillar, contemplation. I checked below me, all clear, I then knocked off a few brittle icicles, crash, crunch, they tumbled down, down, down, well past the base of the crag. I gulped, and didn’t think about the exposure or the potential of taking the same tumble as the icicle, unthinkable. Time to focus, I moved across to the edge of the pillar, time to breathe, I reached high and placed an axe high on the back of the pillar, time to live…

On Boxing Day 2014 I onsight soloed The Chancer (V, 6) on Hell’s Lum Crag, amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland, on a day of some of the best weather I’ve ever experienced in winter. It is some of the most physically and mentally hardest ice climbing I’ve ever done.

Finishing the day off with a jaunt over the Cairn Gorm summit with the crystal clear views and no wind was peaceful, and allowed a moment to reflect on such a rare and perfect day. Love for the mountains is off the scale!

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Quick Look Back: 2014


Oh no, not another blog reminiscing about last year… Sorry!

I’ll admit I'm pretty rubbish at writing a regular blog, or more accurately; I'm rubbish at finishing writing and publishing a blog post! I've had inspiration for this reflection from a few blogs/forum threads/articles/funny Christmas letters I've read over the last few weeks and I thought I’d jump on the band wagon.

So the format is almost a complete rip off of a few blogs and forums, keep it simple, I like it. A climb, a highlight, from each month of the year, a picture to go with it, and probably too much rambling words, good luck..


Take the Throne VI 6 ***, Creagan Dubh Loch.

Without wanting to be too predictable the highlight from January was climbing the first ascent of Take the Throne with Uisdean, what a great start to the year. The Dubh Loch was in once in a lifetime condition and I ended up in the right place at the right time (often the hardest thing to do winter climbing in Scotland!), managing a whole weekend climbing on a very icey broad terrace wall – a really memorable couple of days.

Post script: I’ve just purchased the 2014 SMC Journal and I’m quite psyched to see a photo of me on the route in there! Quite cool I thought!


The Sting VI 6 **, Creagan Dubh Loch.

Cashing in again on an in-nick Dubh Loch, ice climbing in the sun to make the second ascent of The Sting with Sam and Uisdean, a brilliant day out!

In February I also managed to get back on the rock both locally and a quick afternoon at Burbage and day at Back Bowden were the highlights.


Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears VIII 8 ***, Beinn Eighe.

Somehow still managing to align days off with good conditions Uisdean and myself had a big day out on Beinn Eighe. BSaFT was not our original plan for the Saturday or as our first route on the mountain; we had planned on a “warm-up” route on the Saturday which would allow us to figure out the ab-point and do BSaFT on the Sunday. That all changed when there were people on all of the other routes we were keen for, so we soloed up West Central Gully to the base of the route and got the full onsight tick! ;)

March was a good month for getting out on rock as well with another trip to Northumberland and an ascent of Merlin E5 6a*** at Back Bowden being one of the highlights.


Covenant E4 6a***, Erraid.

The timing of a long weekend and brilliant weather made this an incredible trip, wild camping on Erraid and climbing loads of superb granite was sublime. Covenant was a route that I’d had my eyes on for a wee while so it was great to climb it in the sun and in good style. Erraid is a truly magical place that I have been inspired to visit for some time, Jules describes it perfectly; “and there I saw it, in the distance, beneath the greyness – a slither of bright, mango-hued light shining – the fading sunset of a far away Avalon.” Just perfect, a true Scottish paradise!


Aquarian Rebels E4 6a***, Glen Nevis Gorge.

May started well with a good day in Pass of Ballater where I was happy to onsight my first E5. After my final uni exams the month culminated with a brilliant few days climbing lots of classics in Glen Nevis. There were three really stand-out routes from the two-and-a-half days; one was On The Beach E5 6a*** on Wave Buttress, the other was Land Ahoy E3 5b*** on Black’s Buttress, Pulldubh, which is an outstanding solo. But beating them too it has to be Aquarian Rebels. The whole experience was great; starting off the big boulder above the roaring stream, the exquisite slab and crack climbing, all made a bit more exciting by a proper aquatic experience of a shower of rain mid route!


April Fools 7b***, Cat Wall, Tonsai, Thailand.

Dayni and myself had a great month in Thailand in June, one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on. Great culture, great climbing, amazing food and good company! The whole experience is stand-out but if I have to pick one route it would be April Fools, my first 7b onsight (a long time coming, but probably only through not having done much sport climbing up to this point), a brilliantly steep climb taking great limestone features on one of the best cliffs at Tonsai set up above the rainforest overlooking the whole bay. The thunderstorm and rainbow mid-route are unforgettable!

We also had a brilliant few days bouldering (and diving) on the island of Koh Tao. A brilliant trip!


Hole in the Wall E5 6b, 7a+ S2***, The Escarpment.

Back in Scotland and being able to climb full time before my Graduation, July was a good month with lots of great short trips, Reiff, Arran, Moray coast and lots of local things. Having to choose one route is very hard! But in the end Hole in the Wall stands out, a brilliant committing solo on perfect granite, I had top-roped the route in poor conditions but was able to catch some good conditions on the rock (despite the sea state) and climb the route, thanks must be made to Dayni for coming along to cheer me on and take photos.

The end of the month saw the start of the Europe trip with Uisdean, stopping in Wales for a few days of brilliant weather and great climbing some of the Llanberis classics.


Ctuluh 6c+++***, Gorges du Verdon

August was again a hard month to choose just one climb! We ended up doing a lot of really good sport climbing in the south of France, with time in The Verdon, Ceuse and Gorges du Tarn, I climbed some of my hardest routes onsight and definitely got stronger on two finger pockets! We also managed a great few days climbing Granite cracks in the alpine sun on the Aiguille d’Envers right at the end of the trip.

That said one route that stands out is Ctuluh which is a two pitch route right at the top of the Pichenibule wall. Climbing on the incredible pocketed technical limestone with hundreds of meters of exposure below is breath-taking. In keeping with all the other routes in Verdon Ctuluh felt hard for the grade so I was happy to hang on and climb it onsight.


Freak Out E4 6a***, Aonach Dubh East Face

My first time rock climbing in Glencoe came in the form of a short trip early in the month with some good weather and good company. Spacewalk E5 6b** was good (happy to onsight) but Freak Out was better and deserves its Extreme Rock status! (The photo is me setting off on the first pitch of Crocodile, Freak Out takes the obvious vertical crack line to the left).

Solo-tember was a good month for getting some considerable local rock mileage on the Aberdeen and Moray coast, visiting new crags and searching out some esoteria was good fun. It felt like my head was in a good place for soloing after a summer of rock. I onsight soloed loads of routes and definitely learnt a lot about climbing head games of executing hard moves in dangerous situations. Although I think the amount of sunshine definitely helped the psyche levels.


Lunatic Fringe E7 6c***, South Cove

I had been very keen to get on Lunatic Fringe for quite a while, so it was brilliant to get it done. Thanks have to go to Dayni for holding my ropes and apologies for making you end up seconding Akimbo Crack in the dark! Otherwise a good evening climbing one of the best routes on the Aberdeen coast!

I didn't manage to get any photos of me on Lunatic Fringe, so here's another one from October of Shrinking Violet at Red Wall on the North Coast.


Drambo Direct E6 6a/b***, Pass of Ballater.

Another route I’d been thinking about for a while ever since Jules had mentioned it to me in summer. I had abseiled the line before but it was too hot to pull on the granite crimps, but what I had figured out was that it would be too strenuous (for me) to place the crucial RPs on lead so I’d rather solo it. Darren and myself both top-roped then soloed the route, I made the 2nd ascent and Darren made the 3rd. Another good day at the Pass! I even got our ascents on video, which I might finally get round to uploading sometime this year…

As for the grade, I initially thought E6 6a, but it is more sustained than the original and without the good rest and high side runners, so having spoken to a few people it could well be worth 6b, especially to lead it, someone even touted possible E7, but I’m not sure about that.


Super G VI 6***, Ben Nevis.

Climbing the first ice routes of the season before Christmas was a promising sign of what was to come, making the most of the spell of good weather and the time off over the festive period I managed to get out in the mountains quite a lot! I had an incredible day on Boxing Day without a breath of wind on the Cairn Gorm plateau I made my way across to Hell’s Lum Crag and soloed The Chancer – an exhilarating steep-ice-totally-committed-just-keep-pulling experience, unforgettable.

Again, it’s hard to pick a highlight of the month, but it has to be the other route featuring a steep ice pillar – Super G, situated high up on the Little Brenva Face on Ben Nevis this route was probably unrepeated until Uisdean and myself climbed it on the 28th of December. Setting off having no idea if it was going to be possible or not undoubtedly added to the whole experience, we could see the curtain of icicles on the second pitch from below – but were they big enough to climb? Thankfully I was able to pull up behind the icicles and find some good rock gear before picking a way through and climbing the largest icicle that just touched down in the centre of the curtain. Some funky moves lead to the front of the pillar and set you up for a few steep pulls on quality ice. The consensus at the top was “I LOVE ICE CLIMBING!”

Well, if you’ve managed to read all that waffle you’ve done well and might be scared to know I might try and write another blog before the end of the month taking a look forward to some of my ambitions for this year. Hopefully an opportunity to get psyched!

I must add, thanks to all those people whose photo's I've stolen; Richard Bentley, Sam Williams, Uisdean Hawthorn, Chris Chan, Ron Kenyon, Dayni McConnell, Murdoch Jamieson, and Donna Ryan.