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.

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!

‘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

A Miserable Day

Me cold and wet on the summit

I headed up to my parents’ house in Drymen with the hope of an early start for a lone trip up The Cobbler to scout out some new routes and take a look at some future projects.

I got up early and arrived at around 8a.m. Leaving the car in full hard-shells due to the torrential rain below 500m, I took my time walking in as I knew I had all day and wasn’t rushing to the base of a route. Ditching my hardshell into my pack I changed over to soft shell as the rain turned to snow and The temperature dropped. The whole path was flooded with all the melt water from yesterday’s thaw and only the hard compacted snow within the basin remained. Luckily The basin was sheltered from the freezing northerly wind as it pelted the back side of the crags.

me getting to grips with the roof og ‘The Cathedral’

I spent the day roaming around looking at a few unclimbed routes and things that I plan to become future projects later in the season when the winter conditions really kick in. I also managed to abseil inspect a few routes such as Dave Macleod’s ‘The Cathedral’ (X,11).      I know that abseil inspection is not ‘usual ethics’ for winter climbs but the route wasn’t in winter condition and it’s the standard of route that I think it would be foolish to no inspect it before even considering it as a future project for myself. It seems out of my reach at the moment but perhaps with some more training and getting a few hard routes under my belt this season, it might make its way onto the                                                                            ‘give it a try’ list someday…who knows!?

If anything, today was a good ‘reccy’ day, that may have got me soaked but it all helps top up the hill fitness and keeps me true to my promise to myself that I will try and get out on the hill at least once every week this season.

only hard compacted snow remains up high

Only hard compacted snow remains up high

Why on earth do we do this!?

Hello again People!

So firstly, I’d like to say sorry for not keeping my page up to date, I’m entirely useless and extremely forgetful!

As I haven’t written anything recently I thought I’d give you some food for thought. As the winter season has started to properly kick in I thought I would start with this.

Winter climbers, why is it that we all share the common attribute of being forgetful? Now this may sound stupid but I say this because what other excuse can we possible have for continuing to return to dark and frozen lay-by’s, at unearthly hours of the morning, just to kit up for another torturous walk-in, that only a few days before, we swore we would never put our bodies through again!? Now either this is the proof that we are all entirely forgetful, or we are all just bloody mad! either way, this ability for us to just forgive and forget everything we put ourselves through at that very second we reach the summit of that chosen route, has always astonished me and has got me thinking about the weird ways in which our sport affects all of us climbers.

When you start to look into the odd relationship us climbers have with our sport its funny what you see. From winter climbers being able to forget the perils they go through to get to climbs, to the trad climber that pleads with fear for respite. It seems like it’s possible that we actually create some sort of ‘bond’ with our routes. One minute its the climb that you hate as you struggle up the moves. The next minute you are blessing the same route, that very same climb, all just for revealing that placement for that ‘bomber’ piece. We begin to create ‘attitudes’ towards climbs and these change depending on how the route affects us.

Our sport can cause us to be happy, scared, relaxed, tired, nervous and in some cases even obsessed. Climbers travel thousand of miles, put their body through hell and back, push themselves close to a mental breakdown and all whilst putting themselves in life risking situations all for the chance to complete a certain climb. Now when you take a step back and break it down as simply as it can be put, the definition of a ‘climb’ is just a specific path up some specific rock. It seems crazy how something as simple as that can take a hold of us so easily and have such a power over us.

Ultimately this all ties in (see what I did there!) and leads (there too!) to the question that I don’t think any one of us will ever be able to give the specific answer to.

“Why do we climb?”.

Now some people dislike that we have no pinpointed explanation for this, some people I know just don’t care. On the other hand, I personally  love that we can’t explain our obsession, it leaves a sense of the unknown within us. Why do we risk everything for that chance of success? Are we climbing to see what we can achieve? Or is it as basic as we climb because we can? You might be the indoor enthusiast who questions why you’ve been training on the fingerboard for the last 3 weeks just to gain that extra strength you need for that route you just can’t quite do at the centre. The bouldering fanatic who wonders why you stayed and shredded the remaining skin from your tips when you should have left an hour ago with everyone else, just for the chance to get the top out of that long-term project. The Trad climber who questions why you risks it all as the crux approaches, 40 meters up, one RP placed forever ago, and sever ground fall potential, all for the success of your hardest tick to date. Finally The mountaineer. Who questions why you put yourself in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, risk horrific conditions, consistent pain, cold and danger, all to stand upon that faraway summit.

No matter what type of climber you are, or the answer to why you climb, it’s a question that will continue to arise in every climbers head at some point, and one that can drive you mad looking for answers to.  If you’ve managed to work it out, you’re a smarter man (or woman) than me, and if this is the case, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’re like me and stand clueless then try not to fret about why we do it, just be happy to be part of a sport that pushes us in so many more ways than just physically and forces us to break the boundaries of our limits, even if it is in the name of madness!

*I take no responsibility for any mental breakdown cause from over thinking this question,