So It Begins

Finally arrived in Zurich after an early start from Glasgow and several trains, planes and buses I met up with Robbie in his van to head up to the Swiss Ratikon. We stopped on the way to grab some supplies (Cherry harribo…obviously) for the next few days and headed up the sketchiest road I’ve ever been on up into the valley.

We set up camp by a lovely waterfall, it’s the perfect shower when your roasting from waking up in the tent, it’s been up to 38C here, mad!! There’s a local hut nearby where some other climbers are staying and on our first night we also met some awesome Germans that are here hiking who offered us some German beer and sausages, just to be the perfect stereotype. It’s also a reminder of how cool it is to be travelling and meeting so many new people that are all so friendly.

My first day on the wall

My first day on the wall

We started climbing yesterday on Robbie’s project route ‘silbergeir’. It’s this awesome multi-pitch route that’s goes straight up the headwall of the massive cliff. The wall is all limestone that varies in every direction with jagged blue streaks cascading down through the yellow rock faces. The routes max difficulty is 8b+ which of course, Is down to Robbie to climb but I’m really enjoying climbing the grade 7 pitches and starting to work on the 8a+ pitch. It’s all very technical moves on small holds where one little lack of balance and your off…there’s been a lot of that.

Robbie made some huge links on the hardest pitches yesterday it was awesome to watch him crushing out some crazy hard moves and I don’t doubt that after another session working the route today it could be time to get a well earn rest day before going for the red-point ascent later in the week.

Robbie working the top pitch

Robbie working the top pitch

Just being up there on that wall is amazing though, belaying from your little wooden swing, suspended hundreds of meters above the valleys grass fields with the high snow capped mountains as your backdrop and the cowbells from below as your soundtrack.

I’ll try to keep writing to update our progress but the signal strength out here is marginal at the bet of times!

Psyche!!

Alpine Adventures

Just a quick post to share my last-minute plans for the summer.

I’ve just booked my flights for a six week trip traveling and climbing in the Alps. This will be my second trip to the Alps but this time will be a more focused and specific project climbing some of the hardest big-wall routes around rather than a leisurely holiday.

I was invited on this trip by Robbie Phillips a really strong and well known climber from Edinburgh who’s recently made the transition from crushing really hard sport grades to hard trad and big wall alpine climbs. It’s all rather last-minute as he’d had a few partners fall through on plans for this summer and after working with Finalcrux Films on other projects Robbie heard about my willingness to drop everything to go and climb gnarly big-walls and invited me along.

Our plan is to head to the Italian Dolomites for the first two weeks to climb on the north face of Cima Ovest, one of the three 3000m peaks of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. There are a few projects that we have looked into on the face with ‘project fear’ being the main goal  for Robbie being even harder than the classic line ‘Bellavista’ 8b+ that he made an ascent of last year. From Italy we plan to travel over to Switzerland where I will meet with the rest of the team that are involved in the ‘Eiger Paraclimb Project’ who will be flying over mid July. This project is separate from mine and Robbie’s trip and he’s made other plans for the time with which ill be preoccupied filming the paraclimbing team attempt to climb the west flank route of the Eiger. We have allocated roughly two weeks for this project which leaves us with plenty of time for a good weather window, something crucial for success to a slow moving team. If luck is on our side, the accent might be over and done within the first week so with the ‘spare’ time left over there’s hope that me and Euan might find a chance to dash over to the Matterhorn and possibly attempt a route, only time will tell I guess.

With the para-climbers planning to head home at the beginning of August it’ll be time for me to meet back up with Robbie to head for the main goal of the entire trip. An attempt at ‘Paciencia’ 8a on the north face of the Eiger, the hardest route on the face. I have a lot of apprehension about this route but also a lot of excitement. I’ve wanted to climb the north face of the Eiger since I was a wee boy, since before I even got into climbing, it’s an iconic face that has so much history behind it, along with a serious reputation for being the biggest and baddest. Then to be invited on a trip to climb the hardest route on it… how could I not want to get involved!! We’ve set ourselves two weeks to work on the route and get it ticked meaning my entire trip will consist of six weeks away, I don’t think I can think of anything better.

Anyway, there are plans and then there’s reality and I have no doubt the latter will strike hard with many mistakes being made, unexpected challenges every day with several steep learning curves but we are going, the flights are booked and I’ve never been so psyched!

If you’d like to follow me and Robbie on our trip, follow my twitter where I plan to keep it updated with daily info and pictures.

If you’d like to know more about the Eiger paraclimb project or even donate towards it have a look by following this link.

Training pays off

With the days counting down until I go away to the Alps I’ve been trying to rack up as many hours as possible at work leaving with hardly any free days until I go away. Working chaotic hours almost everyday might sound like a restriction to my climbing but I often find at times like these it motivates me to train more. Finishing shifts in the centre before closing time leaves me with no excuse not to have a session afterwards as I’m already there with little else to do and its easy to be motivated when you’ve been watching others climb all day so even squeezing in an hours fingerboard session between shifts doesn’t feel like a chore when your blowing off steam from the previous shift. With the dramatic change in the weather over the last few days I’ve been jumping at any opportunity to take my training from the fingerboard onto real rock (It is Scotland, it could be raining again tomorrow!)

Today we woke early to try and get the most out of a morning session in the sun before starting work at midday so we headed to the local sport crag Dumbuck. Being notorious For its short, yet aggressively steep routes I was interested to see how my recent level of training would pay off here.

Finding the crag was nothing short of a total mission. The guidebooks approach description say something along the lines of ‘though some fields and up to the crag through the trees’. When in reality it it should say, cross the tick infested fields down the hill to where you will have to battle your way through the overgrown jungle, up the steep mud and scree slope where you will randomly stumble upon some ropes that climb up to the crag…..In other words, we got lost because of Euans fantastic guiding skills!!

Neither of us having been to the crag before we spent the day attempting the ‘must do’ route of ‘Awaken’ 7c+. We both struggled to work out the final few moves through the crux on our first few goes and as time (and skin) started to run out there was some frustration when we finally cracked the crux later in the day only to not have enough energy for a serious redpoint after all the previous attempts. After some serious moaning about skin condition and dehydration We pulled the rope and agreed to come back for the tick another day.

Satisfied with a good session I agreed to go up to get the draws back before leaving, I tied in again and before I knew it I was topping out the route. Clean. No falls…talk about a last minute effort! The psyche was high from the tick after all the demoralising efforts earlier and it was great to walk away with such a high grade having only had just one session working at it, I guess it proves this training malarkey does pay off eh!?

Surface Tension (E5,6b)

With my winter season being called to an early and unexpected end due to an injured ankle I’ve spent the last few weeks of ‘good’ weather getting out to local crags and pulling on some dry rock,getting ready for the upcoming trad season. Last year I’d been convinced to give ‘Surface Tension’ at Auchinstarry Quarry a go on a top-rope to try out the moves. The routes an awesome line that takes the blank wall above the water at the back of the quarry. On my first attempt I quickly realised the route was extremely sequence-y and decided to leave it for another day when I could try all the moves over on a shunt on my own.

My recent attempts have been solo trips to the crag running the tricky sequence and balance-y moves of the route over and over until eventually on my last trip I’d managed it clean (no falling from bottom to top) and started to feel confident with my chances on the lead.

The tricky part about the test pieces at Auchinstarry is not just that they are technically difficult but also that they tend to present a serious aspect of danger due to the lack of protection, most featuring marginal, next to nothing placements or none at all. Like ‘Nijinski’ (E5, 6a) That I’d climbed previously last year, ‘Surface Tension’ has serious moves that are well above the doubtful gear, that most probably come under the category of ‘bodyweight placements’, However it comes with the added bonus of falling into water rather than decking out onto hard ground…

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My serious, deep seas diving goggles… (many thanks to Zuzu for the last-minute ‘save’)

Today The weather was cracking and I’d decided to take my wetsuit down to have a go at clearing away some of the debris and objects that have been thrown over the cliff edge and sit under the surface of the water, waiting to impale a falling climber that has been ejected from one of the routes above. With the water being freezing and only have a comically small pair of pink goggles that were borrowed from a friend last-minute, we rushed through the job clearing out deck chairs, “danger, rock fall” signs, wheelbarrows and logs.There was no excuses now, the lead was inevitable.

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pulling hard on small crimps

I could write a long paragraph here to take you through terrifying lead but I fear I’d do it no justice. Here’s a short video from Finalcrux Films that shows the day in full.

Many thanks to both Euan and David for their support and for convincing me to go for it!

When Morons Do Moronic Things!

23:45pm Sunday evening.

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No quite El Cap

No explanation except boredom has taken its toll. When there’s really nothing else to do, why not get the portaledge up on the home wall?

On the up side, having a play about has really upped my psyche to start planning a trip to somewhere I can justify taking this beast…somewhere with slightly bigger walls than ours.

A Distant Memory

I took Stevie up Beinn An Dothaidh for his first winter climbing day out on Monday. Having had plenty of trad experience and being a strong climber already we headed for Taxus ice fall variation (iv,4), something hard enough to get a good feel for the climbing but not so hard to scare him away from returning again!

We started the walk-in moaning that it didn’t feel very cold and with the crag being hidden from sight from the car park we had no idea if the recent thaw would have stripped the route of the needed ice and frozen turf and if we were walking in to be disappointed. Five minutes into the walk the rain started, quickly turning to hailstones as we gained altitude and by the time we’d reached the base of the route we were soaked through from being consistently battered by the falling heavy snow. Last weeks sunshine and blue skies now just a distant memory.

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Heading up the easy first pitch

After kitting up, putting on some much-needed layers and suffering through the dreaded hot aches we started kicking steps up the approach slopes, finding harder more compacted snow than we thought would be about. Getting the ropes out and tying in at the first belay we realised the temperature drop after having climbed through the freezing fog, noticing all the rime on all the surrounding cliffs beginning to grow. It’s amazing the difference one or two degrees can make, the difference between a days climbing and day of returning empty-handed.

I started up the first pitch and started to get to grips with ‘swimming’ rather than climbing through the deep powder snow on the route. As I climbed up through the narrow gully between the two rock buttresses I was right in the firing line for the prevailing spindrift avalanches (powder snow blown over the cliff edge that flows like water over the more compacted snow, creating rivers of snow down the route) that would submerge me in their ten second torrents, covering me head to toe, filling my hood and jacket full of snow only stopping for enough time to make a few feet of progress before once again being hit by another cascade. Only a Scottish winter climber will know the misery of such an experience.

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Me on ‘death belay’ before the steeper section

We got another purely Scottish winter climbing experience further up the route when I had run out of rope before finding an appropriate position to belay from, forcing me to dig away to find protection to secure myself to the wall. Resorting to two wobbly stoppers crammed into a flaring crack, backed up by clipping myself directly into my axes that were buried into the snow above me. Not ideal. I convinced myself it was adequate and after shouting down to Stevie, explaining falling off probably wasn’t a good idea he started up his first winter pitch, only truly understanding what I’d meant about the debatable security of the belay after seeing it first hand.

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Stevie getting to grips with the term ‘caked’

After a few pitches of more enjoyable ice climbing and a decent belay, I headed up the last pitch towards the monster cornice (The accumulation of snow where the top of a route meets the ridge that can overhang, creating a false cliff edge purely made of snow) and prepared for the inevitable struggle to break out of the gully and onto the top of the mountain. With nothing but a tied off ice-screw 20m below me I had no option but to start cutting my way through. By repeatedly filling cut steps with more snow I was able to raise myself a little higher every time and I finally mantled onto the ridge with the grace of a beached whale, the mountain congratulating my success not with a spectacular view but with a barrage of 70mph gusts and a white out, Typical!

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Sunshine and blue skies a distant memory

All in all the day was truly miserable but brilliant at the same time. We’d had every season in one day but still pushed through to get a route done in what can only be classed as classic Scottish winter conditions. Stevie had got a harsh induction into winter climbing but we’d managed to complete his first route. Although leaving battered and cold we returned to the car with a smile on our faces knowing we’d prevailed when many others would have turned back, the sign of a good day.

‘The Cathedral’ (X,11)

Last night me and Euan were checking out some photos that Kev Shields had put online from his and Dave MacLeod’s day out on the Cobbler. As we flicked through them we tried not to get jealous of them being out in the mountains when we were restricted to Glasgow for the next few days due to work and Euan being called for jury duty. Noticing that the crags were looking really well hoared-up in his pictures we jumped straight to it and messaged Kev to see if he’d happened to get a look at the condition of ‘The Cathedral’. With it being a line I’ve wanted to try for a while and a real test-piece of Scottish winter climbing, I was always keeping an eye out for the right conditions to appear. To our amazement we were told it was in condition, with the whole crag being covered in rime, perfect for mixed climbing. The perfect conditions being so rare we instantly raced to social media to bribe people to cover our shifts and find out if the court was going to cancel last-minute, like it had the previous day.

With our planners swept clean with the haste of an emergency we woke at 6a.m today, rushing out the door within the hour after stuffing our packs with gear and scoffing down a bowl of porridge.

The walk-in was dismissed with little trouble with the path having been smoothed out with snow and well compacted the whole way. We chose to take the tourist path round the back and drop into the basin from the rear rather than our usual route that cuts up the front of the crag to avoid the knee-high powder that had accumulated there over the last few days. The crag was in the best nick I’d ever seen it with almost every route hoared-up and with good ice and bomber turf everywhere. We made our way across to the centre peak and started scrambling up the initial snow ramp to the belay stance, every step taking us further under the colossal and intimidating roof shadowing over us, serving as the visual representation of the nerves and fear that also shadowed over me.

As Euan flaked out the ropes and set up his anchors to belay from, I went through my usual racking up procedure. Working the gear piece by piece onto my harness to their pre-specified places. This familiar and well-practised routine, identical in structure, brought some familiarity to the situation and help calmed my nerves, allowing me to focus on the task ahead.

‘The Cathedral’ is the route that takes the large overhanging arch (hence its name) that lies on the centre peak of The Cobbler. It follows the steep and technical right hand corner of the archway until you begin to traverse left into the centre on the underside of the roof. The fun begins as you climb horizontally out from the wall in front of you and out onto the 5 metre wide roof, feet level with your axes until you burst out over the lip of the arch and into easier ground to the top. From where we had set up I could follow the entire route with my eyes, no guidebook needed, no picture required, it all stood there, right in front of me.

With a few words of motivation from Euan, all that was left to do now was start climbing.

I started up the corner through some steep névé and turf getting my axes high in the crack and moving up to a thin layer of ice sat upon a slopping ledge whilst bridging out and smearing my crampons for purchase on any of the tiny fractures in the wall. With the crack narrowing and filled with ice, the torque I so desperately needed to make the large move up to the choss above just wouldn’t stick, ripping every time any real weight was applied to it. 10 minutes of failed attempts passed and placing a wobbly hex to protect the belay, I found the confidence to match a small blown pocket further right with the very tip of my picks. Stepping high on my front points I reached for the turf, still coming short. My right foot came higher almost level with my handles, to a matchstick edge and I exploded to full extension. Out of view my pick bites as it catches a small chockstone frozen in place and my feet scrape the walls, using my monopoints on any minuscule ripple in the rock to push me up and under the far right of the roof.

With less difficulty than the lower section I climbed left and up and under the centre of the roof into a world of large icicles and overhanging white ceilings. Their only weakness the thin cracks that shot out horizontally away from me, lined with gloss-like ice. I composed myself away from the spectical of where I was and focused on the priority at hand, finding gear to protect the likely event of a fall from the inevitable battle on the roof. I found a good sideways ‘tin opener’ placement for my axe, allowing me to lean away from the vertical wall and reach out under the roof to place gear. Several core-tensing minutes later and a lot of chipping away at the ice within a crack I’d managed to find a bomber tri-cam (my favourite and personally the most valuable piece of winter gear available) and a small nut to back it up in the roof. With this protection in, my courage grew and with the lactic acid beginning to build in my arms and the strength being used by one arm starting to outweigh the recovery of the resting one, I knew I’d have to start the siege on the roof soon.

I leant back on my axe and dropped into a press out right allowing me to be able to reach into a thin crack that I’d eyed-up from below the roof. I slotted in my pick to find it slide straight through. Rising the axe again, this time really twisting in on my handle to torque the pick as much as possible. The movement stopped and I weighted it, swinging my legs out over the void below me and digging my front points into the turfy crack to my right to counter the involuntary swing from my feet leaving my safe haven under the roof. I tried to move quickly to find the next hook. I pulled high on my axe, searching ferociously to find a good placement and finding nothing but a small sloping edge that only stuck at the very lip. I decided it would have to do as I was fighting a loosing battle against the rising pump in my forearms. Matching the non-existent hold, I moved my feet further right, trying to position myself for the next move. My grip was becoming weak, I didn’t have the energy to shake out and as I went to make the next placement, that was it. Energy reserves gone. Arms emptied of strength. I was off.

Pulling out into the abyss

The roof falls away from me as I tumble through the air. Natural instinct trying to keep me as upright as possible, I feel the rope come tight to my harness. Brace for impact. Bang! I’d hit the wall but swung back out into clear space dissipating most of the fall onto the rope thanks to Euan’s dynamic belay. I righted myself and let out a big WOOHOO!! My onsight attempt had failed but I had taken the burn as a great success. I’d managed three-quarters of the route on my on-sight, I hadn’t bottled it and bailed off when I got scared and I’d proved to myself that it was within my capability. I was over the moon!

Me getting boxed searching for hooks on the roof.

We spent the rest of the day refuelling with lunch and giving it several other attemps, each one slowly increasing my highpoint throughout the day but the route wasn’t going to give in that easily. I had given it my all today but it just wasn’t quite enough. After my fourth attempt we called it a day and I retrieved the gear and we packed up to head back down the hill. Although disappointed to leave without the ‘tick’ when I’d been so close, I’ve come away from the experience feeling really motivated to push my limit on other hard routes this season and I’m super psyched to up my training and return to claim victory on ‘The Cathedral’ one day soon.

A BIG thank you to Euan for coming up the hill with me and bearing the cold just to belay. Also thanks for your motivation. Without it I probably would have bailed well before pushing myself to my full potential.

You can check out a short video by Finalcrux Films here: http://vimeo.com/117591016