Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Fourth Quarry

I can’t believe it’s taken me 6 months to discover the delights of Cambussbarron Quarry. Situated a 20 minute walk from where I’m living in Stirling, I almost feel a bit ashamed that I’ve been ranting and raving about other places and totally neglected this Central Belt gem! ‘Fourth Quarry’ as it’s known locally, is a large flat quarry with a sunny outlook that boast over 50 routes ranging from Severe to E4. The Quarry was worked until about 20 years ago until it was left redundant before being landscaped by Stirling Council. If you’ve ever been to Fairy Cave Quarry in the West Country, it’s very similar to that, but is stepper and without that awkward access fence guarding the entrance. Because the quarry isn't fenced off, and is easily accessed it consequently contains significantly more graffiti and broken beer bottles that its Bristolian counterpart (shout out to the local NEDs) but that just adds to the character of the place I guess.

Autumnal colours surrounding the quarry
The main areas of climbing are focussed on the broken walls of the Quarry’s northern side, which at its highest is just over 20m. Although some of the rock is very compact, split by cracks ranging from hairline to full body width, a lot of the rock is very loose with giant blocks the size of cars perched precariously on the edge, barely resisting gravity's terminal attraction. Climbing at the crag was first developed in the early 90s, with most of the obvious lines climbed then. These include the Ninety-Five (E1 5b) and Cross in Oz (E1 5b) area, Cha Buttress and the ‘Contracts’ wall. 

Placing some gear just after the crux of Not Easy Contract (E1 5b). Photo Credit - Nicholas Hill

James finishing the top part of the steep jamming crack on Doobie Brothers (E1 5b). 
The climbs I’ve done in there have been really good, definitely on the steeper side, but since they all generally follow vertical cracks they are strenuous, but safe. As with most quarries, a lot of the top outs are a bit loose, with dirt and large blocks guarding a safe exit. From what I can tell most of the really huge blocks have already been trundled as the routes seem to be climbed fairly regularly. For anybody planning a visit, the crag seems to dry pretty quickly, and even in winter picks up the afternoon and early evening sun. 

Starting up the lower technical wall of Pipistrelle (HVS 5a)

The upper head wall section of Pipistrelle (HVS 5a). Thin face climbing lower down opens up into some steep vertical cracks giving some really amazing jamming. Luckily they're all sinkers!

James seconding Pipistrelle (HVS 5a)
After the disappointment of the weekend before on the West Wall of Mitre Ridge, coming to Fourth Quarry has definitely renewed some diminishing psyche. With winter just around the corner I was feeling like my last chance to get out on rock and do what I love doing so much had slipped through my fingers. Thankfully a productive day in Fourth Quarry has worked someway towards subduing those feelings. Perhaps the itch is scratched for now, but for how long?  

Apart from where otherwise stated, all the photos were taken by Emma Smith. Thanks Emma! 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Fruitless Endevour - Garbh Choire

As the leaves turn brown and the nights draw in, I am consumed with this feeling of urgency and unrest. Months have passed since the cold crispness of spring loosened winters grip, when lighter evenings and warmer weather were eagerly awaited, like staring into an oven watching a freshly baked pie turn from pale to golden brown. It only feels like yesterday that summer started and now its all over, its packed its bags and headed south leaving nothing but grey. There is still so much I want need to do.

Cycling through the stunning Invercauld Estate near Deeside on our way back from Garbh Choire
The pattern is the same every year though. I seem to go through these cycles of creeping up grades, as early ambition is gradually equaled by confidence and ability until when I feel like I'm starting to make real progress, the weather turns its back on me. Letting me drown in a swathe of low pressure systems which que out in the Atlantic, one by one stalling my ambition until motivation fails.

With a series of commitments occupying most of my weekends in September, a boiling point was reached last weekend. Motivation, ambition and optimism had been gently simmering for a weeks until they were unleashed upon a particularly inclement Saturday.

The forecast was for heavy rain in the west, but much brighter in the east with no rain 'expected east of the A9'. Surely then, eastern Cairngorms, more specifically Garbh Choire of Beinn a'Bhuird would be an ideal choice for a last minute big mountain adventure? Being high on the side of one of Scotland's wildest Munros, over 17km from the nearest road end it was definitely an ambitious choice but it had a reputation for being clean and quick drying..

After a 4am start we drove, we biked and we walked and eventually reached the lip of  Garbh Choire. We approached from the south, cycling up Gleann an-t Slugain (The Fairy Glen) in the early morning gloom, walking the empty glens up past the Taylor Stone. The problem we were met with was thick cloud, a biting freezing wind and heavy rain, which didn't appear until the last 2km of the approach. Wild optimism and the need for some shelter led us down into the upper choire, where we both needed to see with our eyes that the face was soaking so as to settle any rouge doubts that climbing in these conditions was anything other than a fools errand. 

An early start was required. Mainly as we had one of the longest approaches in the UK to combat
The west wall of Mitre Buttress, one of the biggest faces in this part of Scotland and it was indeed running with water. The air was so cold and the wind so biting I think the difference of only a few degrees might have made this a winter day. The huge compact granite face towered up into the cloud, disappearing out of view in the heavens above. Although the crushing sense of disappointment was overwhelming, it was soothed by being stood under such an amazing piece of rock architecture. Seeing the ridge rise up into the storm and hearing the wind roar against its walls,  you can't help but feel in awe and humbled with this mountain. I felt the spell of that place locking onto me, like a ball and chain. I know it will be the first place I go to in spring next year.

Stood under the freezing and sopping west wall of Mitre Ridge, Garbh Choire

The wall looms below in the gloom. We'd traveled 17km to get there, so we were definitely going to have a look...
It wasn't for another 2 hours that eventually the rain stopped. We had walked pretty much all the way back to the bikes before the cloud broke and the promised fine day started to materialize. Too little, too late. From a climbing perspective the outing was a fruitless endevour and its certainly the furthest I've walked with climbing gear and not climbed. None the less, we saved the day slightly by findings the Cairngorms Secret Bothy (and before you ask no I'm not telling where it is!) and also enjoying some sunny climbing over on the cliffs of Ballater. For now, the urgent itch remains unscratched. 

Sods Law says when you call-off a day, the weather improves. If it wasn't for the fact the crag is beyond the horizon we might have gone back...

The days consolation prize was some craggin' at Ballater. This is Caelen seconding Little Cenotaph (HVS 5b)

The Cairngorms Secret Bothy. 


Thursday, 7 September 2017

Engineer's Slab

Walking along paths in the Lake District can sometimes feel like a docile endeavour. Armored with countless laboriously laid stone blocks, the edges worn smooth by the actions of hundreds of feet every year, its hardly an outing that will enthuses the intrepid explorer. But then again, the Lakes is one of the most frequented National Parks in the UK (if not the world), so you can be pretty confident that wherever you tread, you're following in somebodies footsteps.

It was this very train of thought that occupied my mind on the walk along Moses' Trod below Brandreth on the way to Gable Crag. A trail which over hundreds of years was scarred into the side of the fell by man and beast alike, hauling highly prized green Honister slate from the quarries to the coast for export. Rumor has it these horses would then return with smuggled cargoes of whiskey and tobacco. Unfortunately for us there was no sign of those horses bearing such gifts today, just ramblers and runners out enjoying a sunny Saturday. Their reasons for travelling along that path was nothing new, and neither was ours (if not perhaps slightly more obscure). However in June 1934, a party of three climbers walked along that path, and attempted something completely new.

Moss, slime, lichen and looseness. These attributes combined with several gargantuan chimneys and of course a north facing aspect ensured that Gable Crag was 'in vogue' in the early 1900s and by 1934 climbing at that place wasn't all that out of the ordinary. However Cooper, Balcome and Sheppard had a different objective to those early tweed donning pioneers. It was the central groove splitting the main 100 foot high 'slab' set high within the north face that was their objective. After an early mishap with some loose rock, the leader of the party, Astley Cooper was left "hors-de-combat". Not wanting to waste a day Balcome stepped up and took the ropes, leading and cleaning the line up the face in three pitches with Sheppard and an injured Cooper in support. After the ascent Balcome reported that at the end of the first pitch in the sentry box crack that 'there is no belay here at present' which was later rectified with a large rock apparently.. This only confirms the remarkable feat these climbers pulled off, with little to no protection available on the pitches and nothing to secure the seconds at the belay, the consequence of a fall for anyone would have been unthinkable. It was not an easy climb either, with the difficulty of the moves being cutting edge and as hard as anything else being put up by the well known elite of the day. As Paul Nunn wrote in Ken Wilson's Hard Rock "it was a feat of considerable boldness, lost in the obscurity of the twenty years which elapsed before a repetition". It is for this reason perhaps that the crag and the climb itself has ascertained classic status amongst mountaineers.

Walking along the path and gazing up at the climb, concealed by shade, moss and damp alike, it was reassuring to know that we were following in the footsteps of somebody else.  

Looking across at the north facing Gable Crag from Brandreth

The somewhat dank and slimey approach to the base of the 'slab' situated high in the centre of the north face

Looking up the wall with the exit chimney looming high overhead

Matt approaching steeper ground just below the sentry box

Moving through the 'awkward layback' just below the final chimney
Finishing up the hanging arete




Monday, 4 September 2017

Sun, Snow and Saucisson

Weekend Warrior’ (Noun) ‘A person/persons who has a boring rat race job, and compensates by being irresponsible during the weekend’ Urban Dictionary.

I can definitely  be accused of having one of the traits mentioned in the above quote, all I’ll say is I enjoy my job!


Four days probably isn’t enough time for a holiday in the Alps, the highest and most demanding playpark in western Europe. Decades of ill prepared but ambitious folk have embarked upon adventures there with such vigour and determination, only to be thwarted by weather, loose rock or an inebriating hangover from an overzealous night slamming shots of genepi. Equally, many of these people are struck by a combination of luck and more luck, and pull of amazing feats of mountaineering skill and persistence. Circumstantially, our trip to the Alps this year was neither of these; it was a lot of hard work, we didn’t get to the top of everything we set out to do but we did eat our own body weight in delicious saucisson and learned how to open a bottle of wine with a tent peg and rock. Every cloud has a silver lining then clearly! 

Some photos from our adventure are posted below. Enjoy!

Ed enjoying some unexpected sunshine crossing beyond the Col des Flambeaux

High on the Aiguille d'Entreves traverse

Climbing up to the belay just before the crux crack on the Aiguille d'Entreves traverse

Alpine cuisine preparation at its most sophisticated 
Taking a breather on the approach to the Dent du Geant


Sunrise hitting the summit of Mont Blanc

Think light thoughts..

Descending from the Midi

"The weather is better than they foretasted!"

"Oh Wait.." This photo was taken 10 minutes after the one above

Bad weather = crevasse rescue training! Until the lightening that is..
Looks like a great crack right, just don't push the top bit! 

Topping out on the Cosmiques Arete after the storm

Sunshine sport climbing!


Thanks to Ed and Laurine for an ace trip. Perhaps we'll go for more than a weekend next year!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Auchinstarry Again

This week saw another post-work climbing session at Auchinstarry Quarry near Kilsyth. We warmed up on Spirogyra which is an un-starred VS 5a on the right side of the Promontory. Although much of the line is shared with the far superior route of Promontory Direct (HVS 5a), Spirogyra is definitely a good route in its own right with some steep and interesting moves on big holds around on the more obscure side of the Promontory. Having done the direct a few months earlier I knew the off-width at the base was going to be a fight but I’d forgotten just how awkward it is! I was definitely warm after battling with it that’s for sure!

Nicolas moving round onto the awkward ledges before the steep head wall on Spirogyra VS 5a
We then nipped round the corner and Nic lead a Severe called Tar. Although it had some good moves, it was quite sparse on gear and actually quite loose, which is a surprise given the volume of polish it had on it…

With time for only one more climb we headed round to the little amphitheatre, a more esoteric and quieter section of the quarry adjacent to Mascaraed Buttress. The line was Orange Flash, a seemingly little traveled HVS situated in an open corner. Looking down from the top the route was full of cobwebs and plants and the holds full of soil, so I opted to abseil the line and give it a clean before our ascent. Once unearthed the route turned out to be a real gem, with an easier lower half and a much tougher top section with steep and compact side walls with only a thin finger-tip crack running to the top. Its perhaps one of the best routes I’ve done at the quarry and definitely deserves more traffic.

Nicolas bridging the corner on the brilliant Orange Flash (HVS 5a)
A photo of Nicolas from a few months ago on Red Lead (VS 5a) on Mascaraed Buttress just round the corner from Orange Flash

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Auchin' on the Wild Side

Auchinstarry Quarry is quickly becoming one of my most favourite crags in the central belt. This trip I managed to do a route I’ve been eyeing for a while now. Walk on the Wild Side (HVS 5a) climbs straight up the middle of a large slab hidden in a more quiet part of the quarry. The line itself starts just right of Trundle (which is a wicked VS 4c) and aims for a faint crack at about 10m then follows it to the top. The gear is small and so are the holds, so it’s surprisingly absorbing for route only 20(ish) meters long. Perhaps one of the best slab climbs I’ve done and if it were at a nicer crag would almost certainly be a well-known regional classic. 

Looking down onto the top of the slab with the pond just beyond (Taken by a passer by)

Fran floating up the final crackline


Monday, 21 August 2017

Loudoun Hill

Managed a quick morning session in between showers at Loudoun Hill in South Lanarkshire this weekend. After warming up on Pulpit Arete (Severe) I then managed to get Pulpit Crack ticked. Both routes are totally great, with the former being surprisingly balancy for a S and the latter being totally the opposite. Pulpit Crack is a totally overhanging HVS fist crack / corner that joins the arete near the top. The crag itself is a weird igneous alkaline sill that forms this amazing conical hill that towers over the surrounding bog. The crag is most famous for a route called The Edge (VS 4c) which climbs this amazing looking partially detached tower.. One to go back for..

On the upper arete after the lower thrutchy section of Pulpit Crack (HVS 5a)