Friday, 5 December 2014

Long Terms Goals

Sports climbing in Spain is quite pleasant really. Jack from London redpoints his 7c+ project at Margalef  while I enjoy the sunshine and cast (even if I do say so myself) a rather fine shadow onto the crag.

This autumn I have been on a couple of sports climbing trips to Spain. I enjoy autumnal sports climbing trips, it gives me the opportunity to relax, do some good climbing and enjoy some sunshine before the not-so-sunny Lochaber winter.

This year I visited some great crags in areas such as Rodellar, Margalef and Chulilla. I won't go into the details of exactly which routes I did where, as I think I would struggle to make it very interesting. It would turn into a bit of a list; I went to this crag, tried this route, got up it or fell off, blah, blah, blah. To me, the most memorable articles I have read about sports climbing, are not really about sports climbing, they are about personal experiences which happen to involve sports climbing. I am going to write briefly about my experiences with a certain type of sports route, one that is given grade 8a.

Rest days are the best days. Tea, pancakes, a good book (or four) and some sunshine made for some very pleasant rest days. 

A wise friend of mine once said "Sports climbing only becomes fun when you have to try really hard". This is something I agree with. In other aspects of climbing I am often happy to do easier routes, to relax and enjoy the situation and the movement over rock. However, with sports climbing I tend to be pretty keen to chose routes that I have to try a bit harder on. Sports climbing, by it's very nature, tends to focus on technical difficulty rather than the seriousness aspect which can be a significant in other areas of climbing. In fact it is often safer to fall off hard sports routes than easier ones, as harder routes tend to be steeper and thus the fall cleaner. Due to this focus on difficulty, I find the emphasis on grades to be larger in sports climbing than in other forms of climbing.  Notice that 8a.nu, a sort of ranking system based on the grades, exists for sports climbing and bouldering, but thankfully not for traditional climbing or mountaineering.

Louisa, my climbing partner in Chulilla, on-sighting Plan Z. This route definitely stretched her comfort zone, but she pushed on, clipped that chains, and was satisfied afterwards. 

I remember a long time ago (about ten years ago at a guess) my friend Es asked me about my aims in sports climbing when we were walking out from the Tunnel Wall in Glen Coe. I answered that one day I would like to on-sight 8a. At the time, this seemed pretty unlikely, I think the hardest sports route I had climbed on-sighted at that time was around 7a+, 8a's felt ridiculously hard. I felt a bit nervous saying this aim out aloud, it seemed unlikely I could ever be that good. Now, I am not naturally strong or technically gifted, but I can work hard, be tenacious and stick with things. For the past ten years I have worked hard on my climbing, pushed through various plateaus, and slowly but steady got better.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to try to on-sight my first 8a. I tied in and nervously pulled on to a route called La Boca de la Voz, in Chulilla, Spain. Through the easier bottom section I got in the flow, climbing almost without conscience thought, a good place to be for a hard route. The first crux involved some large moves between okay holds, but with very poor foot holds. It felt like my feet should have popped off, but they didn't, so I kept on slapping. I sort of surprised myself by reaching some good hold above and an okay rest above. The second crux section was above, although not as powerful, it was much longer and very sustained and tenuous. Every move was a battle to stay on, but somehow I did, inching my way higher. Eventually I got a good pocket, and the chain was there within reach. Reaching up to clip the chain felt like quite a profound moment in my climbing career.
A Spaniard on the lower section of  La Boca de la Voz.

Whether or not La Boca de la Voz would get the same grade in this country I don't know. It certainly felt like it as a significant step up from all the other 7c+'s I had done in the area, so am happy to take the tick.  It certainly left me feeling pretty drained, I spent most the rest of the day starring blankly into the middle distance.

Now am I trying to imply I am particularly good at sports climbing. In Spain there are thousands of men, women and children on-sighting 8a and harder all the time. In fact Dmitry, a Russian who was staying in the same refugio as us, climbed this route (probably on-sight) in the dark with his head torch to get the clips backs. Nor I am not trying to say anything deep or profound. I went to Spain, tried hard, climbed well (for me), did some great routes and by on-sighting this particular route achieved a long held goal of mine.  I found this very satisfying, and something that everybody whose has climbed any route that has every really stretched them can relate to.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Snow Patch Prodding

Near the top of Einich Cairn back in early October. Feels almost like winter, anyone remember how to navigate?

My first taste of winter this year was back in early October. Myself and Iain Cameron decided to see how the patches in the remote Garbh Choire Mor were doing. This is where Britain's most permanent snow patches are to be found. Snow has been absent from the coire just five times during the last century (1933, 1959, 1996, 2003 and 2006).  The coire is not an easy place to get to, we cycled up Glen Einich, and then headed over the top of Einich Cairn, to drop down the steep slopes to the East and traverse back into the coire. Low cloud and snow showers added to the wintery atmosphere on the summit. 

Iain Cameron (Britain's most dedicated snowpatcher) next to Britain's most permanent snow patch, the Sphinx patch in Garbh Choire Mor.  

Guy Steven beside the zero gully patch. This is likely to be the first year since I think 1994 that snow has survived in this location. 

The coire itself had an impressive wild and remote feel to it. However, compared to the big snow patches on Ben Nevis, I was a little underwhelmed by the patches here. Closer study however, revealed why they hang on so tenaciously and are always the last to melt. They sit on soil rather than on scree. This means that the air can not get in underneath them, so they don't tend to melt out from the bottom like the ones on Ben Nevis do. Although smaller in size than the Ben Nevis ones, the sit in deep hollows, so their small width and length hide a significant depth. I have no doubt at least two of the patches we looked at will survive into this winter. 

Guy on Ben Nevis's steepest ice route (on the Point Five Gully patch). Look at that sloppy footwork, no wonder he did not manage to top out. 

Yesterday (5th of November) myself and flatmate Guy went up to Ben Nevis to have a look at the patches there. I had been up the Ben in early November last year (see http://blairfyffe.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/winter-has-arrived.html). On that occasion the lasting snow had arrived. Although cold and frosty with a dusting of fresh snow, this years lasting snow had not yet arrived. However, large patches of last year's snow still remain. Although I had been dubious of it's chances of survival a few months ago, there still seemed to be a decent patch at the base of Zero Gully. If this survives, which looks very likely, then (I think) this will be the first winter since 1994 that it has survived in this location. The Point Five patch was massive with some impressive snow architecture, there is no way this will melt. Although I did not have time to visit the Observatory Gully patch (I was over an hour late for a meeting back in Fort William as it was), I am sure it would be huge, and will provided a good icy heart to the next summers snow patch. Assuming the lasting snow arrives sometime soon (very likely), all in all it has been a pretty successful snow patch year, mainly due to the large volumes of snow that fell last winter. 

P.S. Don't worry! I have not yet given up climbing to become a full time snow prodder, I have already had one trip to Spain this year, and off there again tomorrow.

 The Point Five Gully patch looking pretty substantial.


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Snowpatch survey time


The patch at the base of zero gully. In the past few years it has melted around late August/early September. Looking pretty substantial at the moment, will it make it to next winter?
Each year at the end August the annual Scottish snowpatch survey takes place. I have been involved in on and off for a number of years, and something I have written about on my blog in the past. Unfortunately I missed the survey this year as I was climbing in Pembroke at the time (which was not a bad alternative). However, when I got back to Scotland I did feel like it was time to go and prod some snow. Therefore the next free day I had (Sunday the 8th) I had a wee wander up the Ben Nevis to have a look about.
During the winter a series of persistent storms were driven on by an unusually strong Atlantic Jet Stream which resulted in it being the wettest winter for England, Wales and Scotland, and the second wettest winter for Northern Ireland, in a series from 1910. It was also the wettest winter in the much longer running England and Wales Precipitation series which goes back to 1766. There were more days of rain during the winter than any other in a series from 1961 The UK overall recorded 154% of December average rainfall and 151% of the January average rainfall. The wet theme continued through February, which was the 4th wettest in the series. For winter overall the UK received 161 % of average rainfall. 


The roof of the zero gully patch was beginning to look pretty thin and unstable.

Data more specific to the Lochaber area comes from the Nevis Range Ski Area who have a record of rainfall at the base station going back to January 1999. The precipitation values for the winter of 2013/14 were 471mm for December, 394mm for January and 368 mm for February. These correspond to the 1st, 8th and 10th wettest months in the whole 183 month series. They are also the wettest December and February on record, and the second wettest January, only beaten by Jan 2005. Most of the precipitation in December, and almost all of it during the next two months would have fallen as snow on the tops.

 A impressive tunnel through the patch at the base of Point Five Gully. This patch is pretty much guaranteed to survive into next winter. 

After around the 20th of December the summits stayed almost totally sub-zero for nearly three months, and so all the precipitation during this period would have fallen as snow. There was not a major thaw on the tops until around the 13th of March after which the winter fizzled out with a series of thaws and generally mild conditions with no further significant snow falls.

The results of all this was the ski areas had trouble with ski lifts and huts being buried by the vast amounts of snow. On the West coast the Cliff-Hanger Chairlift and the Main Basin T-bar at Glen Coe ski area, and the Goose T-Bar and Summit Button at Nevis Range regularly had to be dug out. Further East, Glen Shee and Cairngorm ski areas also had problem with tows being buried.

 A reminder of just how snowy it was last winter, skinning up the hill in Glen Coe as the tow is pretty much buried.

The remaining snow patches were very substantial with the Tower Scoop and Point Five Gully patches pretty much guaranteed to survive. It will be interesting to see whether the patch at the base of Zero Gully survives, something which probably has not happened sine 1994.  With only a month or two before the first surviving snows of next winter are to be expected it will be something that I will be watching.


Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Constant Gardner

A few weeks ago myself and Iain did another new route just to the right of Romantic Reality on the Tunnel Wall. Unusually Iain already had a route name in mind beforehand; The Constant Gardner, to reflect the amount of time he had spent cleaning routes recently. It went at about E6 6b, 6b, 5a and is worth a couple of stars at least. Iain led both the hard pitches, this was particularly impressive given it started drizzling when he was on the second one. One of us will get round to writing a route description at some point, but the line can be seen on the topo below. 
The line of The Constant Gardner.

Iain leading the first pitch. Good climbing, but hard with not very much gear. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Wall of the Evening Light

Over the past few years I have not had much luck with Church Door Buttress. Whenever I go up there is seems to be wet. However, a couple of weeks ago I finally manged to get it right. The secret is to climb there in the evening. When we arrived at the crag things were looking quite damp. However, as soon as the sun hit the wall at about 4 or 5pm the wet streaks quickly disappeared. When dry, the rock up there is fantastic. 

Yet again Iain had been out cleaning and abseiling. He had a new line in mind. I was to get the first pitch. After a bit of faffing due to dampness I climbed the crux of the classic E3 Kingpin to the first poor belay of that route. The grooves split at this point, and Kingpin heads up the right hand one. I headed up the left hand groove and, where that faded, the wall above. This provided some fantastic climbing. I step backed right to the belay at the top of the second pitch of Kingpin.

Iain headed up the groove on the left and disappeared from sight. The black wall above provided some bold wall climbing to a bit of a rest before the final roof where he reappeared. Hard and exposed moves through the roof above provided the crux of the route. These moves were quite blind, and when I came to seconded I was glad that Iain was belayed not too far above to tell me where they were hiding. 

Wall of the Evening Light    90 m    E6 **
1. 40m 6a. Climb Kingpin to the groove junction. Climb the left hand groove and wall above to step right to the belay at the top of the second pitch of Kingpin.
2. 50m 6b. Climb the groove on the left to step back right to a slopey ledge (possible belay). Climb directly up the black wall above (bold) to below the centre of the capping roof. Pull through this with difficulty and up a short wall into a small niche. Belay on the ledge above.  


 The line of Wall of the Evening Light with the belay marked. Iain on the snow patch about to get some fresh tracks. 

 Myself on the first pitch about to step up and right to the belay which is hard to make out in this picture. 

 Iain starting up the second pitch.

 Pulling through the roof at the top of the second pitch was the crux. Iain looking casual as he does this.

Heading home, not a bad spot to have spent the evening. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The End of Innocence

The line, with belays marked as circles. Iain can be made out cleaning the crux pitch.

On the 28th of June 1914 there was a mistake, a change of itinerary. A line of cars had gone the wrong way, and were turning round in a side street. One of them stalled.  A 19 year old lad, seeing his opportunity, walked across the street and shot the occupants, the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. 


It is funny the way things work out. After that once incident events started spiraling out of control, and eventually led to the first world war. Over 4 years of mechanical warfare, 9 million dead, the map of western Europe re-drawn, and the world changed forever. The world was a more violent place in those days with wars being  a common thing. However technological ability to supply huge armies in a trench warfare setting, and the refinement of various methods of mechanical slaughter such as gas, high explosive, and machine guns meant this war was unlike anything ever seen before. It could be said that the an age of innocence had ended.


Myself on the first pitch, an existing route call Celtic Dawn E5 6a. Good climbing, but not super well protected.

A hundred years to the day after that fateful event I found myself at the bottom of the Creag a'Bhancair with Iain Small. Again it felt funny how things had turned out, but this time in a more positive manner. The story had started rain, dampness and sports climbing on the Tunnel Wall, then had progressed through an ascent of Romantic Reality described in my last blog post, and came to this, an attempt at a new line. 


When cleaning Romantic Reality, Iain had seen a flake line to the left.  He had returned and spent a good couple of days cleaning it. The first pitch was an existing E5 6a called Celtic Dawn, which is now cleaned and worth doing as a single pitch (there is an in-situ lower off at the top of this pitch). This looked really bold from the ground, so I have to admit I did have a wee play on it on a shunt while Iain giving the crux pitch a final brush. It turned out to be okay once the holds had been located with the weight mostly on the feet. After my sneeky peak I was soon at the belay on the Carnivore ledge. 


Iain leading the crux pitch. He is past the bold bit, has got some good cams in and just about to the first of the three really technical sections.

Iain's pitch loomed above. After a few easier move above the belay, the holds and runners started to run out. A sky hook on the left was placed, a long move, some more strenuous climbing, led up to an overlap. Numerous cams were shoved in, The scary bit complete, it now became hard but safe. 
The next section involved a strenuous and technical traverse right along some undercuts with little for the feet. Iain stopped, started muttering, starting shaking, the snatched for the flake, just catching it. Some easier moves and good gear, the flake line proved a good place to enjoy the position. 


 Iain at the shake out before the last hard move. 

More hard and technical moves up and right, again I through Iain might be off, but he held it together, and made it to the next roof and some more good cams.  Above lay the crux, or what we had assumed would be the crux from the abseil. I was quite nervous by now, having put all that effort in would Iain fall now. He moved left on to the small hold, and grabbed the jug in a surprisingly casual manner. The angle eased, and the belay was soon reached.
I managed to second the pitch cleanly, but only just. Above the belay, another pleasant 5b pitch lead to the top of the crag. Although I did not lead the crux pitch, it felt like the hardest and one of the best new rock route that I have been involved in. The next weekend Niall MacNair came up and repeated the route, **** he thought. Pretty high praise. Funny the way things turn out. 

The view from the belay, not too bad. Those are crepuscular rays apparently, crepuscular being the favourite word of the second ascensionist I am told. 

 The End of Innocence   90m    E7  ****. 
 This route climbs Celtic Dawn then takes the steep grey wall to the left of Romantic reality. 

1. 20m 6a. Climb Celtic Dawn (E5).
2. 35m 6b/c. Climb the grey wall above the belay (small wires), trending leftwards to a good jug, good sky-hook on another jug 1m up and left of this jug. Step right and make a dynamic move up to a good hold and move R to a crimpy break (small cam) then up to a long thin roof Make a strenuous and technical traverse right on undercuts to gain a flake line. Climbing this for a few metres, before more hard moves up and right gain another small roof (more moderate to large cams). Make more hard moves left and up to gain better holds and a slight easing of the angle. Continue up and left to belay on a grassy ledge.
3. 35m 5b. Continue up easier ground to the top. 


The next day we went to Yosemite walls. Iain on a new link up of Sweet disregard for the truth and Battle my Glorious Youth. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Romantic Reality

 Iain putting the hours in cleaning the first pitch of Romantic Reality

Glen Coe; a romantic landscape steep glens, towering peaks, cascading streams and majestic stags, or a wet mossy midge infested landscape of choss. I have to say the reality of watched the heavy Glen Coe drizzle beat against the windscreen of the car did not feel overly romantic. Things were not going to plan. The forecast had been for sunshine, I had taken the afternoon off work to do a mountain E7 this evening, but I could not even see the mountain. I thought about taking a photo, but the camera was in the boot, it I would have got soaked getting it. So instead I stuffed the last of my sandwich in my mouth, wound the drivers seat down and went to sleep.

It had all started at the weekend, again the weather had not been as good as planned, so myself, Gaz and Iain headed down to the Tunnel Wall for a bit of a work out on the sports routes. However, while Gaz and I climbed, Iain had headed off on a bit of a cleaning mission. Four hours later, Gaz and I were finished, unable to pull hard any more. Iain finally reached the ground, his wire brush well used and his nut key worn away. The extreme rock route Romantic Reality was now clean. Iain and I made a plan to return on Tuesday evening to do it.
Myself leading the first pitch, not overly well protected at this point. 

I woke up, the drizzle had stopped, so thought I would wander up to the crag. I could at least get a session on the bolts. Arriving at the crag I met Iain in full waterproofs looking pretty damp. However, there was a breeze, the sun came out, everything was looking a bit more promising. It felt like our fortunes were changing, we decided to give the route a go.

Iain starting up the crux pitch.

A few hours later we were back done on the ground. I had lead a good E4 first pitch, and then Iain had dispatched the crux pitch, but not without a wee wobble and a bit of a slap. We packed up as the sun disappeared and the mist rolled back up the glen. Perhaps there is a bit more to the glen than just rain, midges and choss.

Climbing in this are the routes tend to get a bit dirty due to lack of traffic. Some routes which have been cleaned in the last year include;
Romantic Reality(E7) on Creag a Bhancair, cleaned by Iain Small.
In Seine (E3) and The Roaring Silence (E4) on the Bendy cleaned by myself and Tony Stone last year.
Quality Street (E3), Cruiseability (E5) in Glen Nevis were cleaned last year by Guy Steven and Tony Stone respectively. Also in Glen Nevis, On the Beach (E5) is very clean, and Aquarian rebels (E4) is not too bad at the moment.
Delayed Attacked (E3) on Binnein Shuas cleaned this year by Iain.