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)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Hoy - A Lifetime Tick

There are many routes that i'd like to climb, inspired by pictures in magazines and guidebooks, or compelling reviews from online blogs. These routes are perhaps famed for their adventurous nature, stunning position or quality of climbing, where an experience is so good its likely to linger on the taste buds for days following an ascent. There are a few routes though that are supposedly so incredible that they become defining, generating memories that will never leave you and ever since I started climbing, these routes have completely captivated my imagination. The Original (East Face) Route on the Old Man of Hoy is one of those routes.

With the forecast for most of the Scotland looking pretty grim, Orkney offered an unlikely salvation from a lingering low pressure system which was fabled to be well and truly grounded a few hundred miles off the west coast. Climbing Hoy had been in the back of my mind this year, but I didn't actually think it was going to happen. The weather forced our hand, so we took a risk, and booked a ferry. 

Orkney is a fascinating place, green, flat, with cows sheep and crops in every field. It's a very stark contrast to the landscape of Caithness in the far north, which you drive through to get to the ferry port. As we wound our way ever closer to the end of the A9, it appeared that outside of the fertile strip around the coast, the landscape was dominated by moor and bog as far as the eye can see. Orkney offered a comparatively lush haven, that is if you discount the island of Hoy. Sat just south of the Orkney 'mainland', Hoy is a hilly, heather clad giant, which is now days in-part famed for its sea stack, but also for its sandstone sea cliffs such as St Johns Head, which is the third highest sea cliff in the UK (after St Kilda and Foula) and is a staggering 375m high. A truly unique place.    

With only a small weather window we got the first morning ferry over to Hoy and made a beeline for Rackwick Bay, the start of the walk-in. 3 miles, a big hill and a few showers later we arrived at the top of the cliff, getting our first glimpse of what lay ahead. Curiously the headland which faces the old man, isn't actually as high as the stack itself, which definitely adds to the intimidation.

It definitely didn't look that big from the ferry to Orkney!

Our first glimpse of the stack. The original route climbs the centre crack line then the rightwards trending fault line to a final corner crack just right of the summit. The route is 135m long and is graded E1 5b. 

A photo taken by Tim Simmons a few hours after we started climbing
We climbed the route in 5 pitches, with the 2nd pitch and the final 5th pitch being the most notable. There are plenty of blogs and reviews out there that critique the climbing and break the route down hold by hold, which I will not be doing. The only thing to note is that there is a lot of fixed gear, and before you ask, yes most of it is in a hell of a state and we did back up the abseils (of which we did 3 in total). The rain started just as we reached the top, and didn't stop until we reached the bothy in Rackwick. Luckily the climbing was mostly dry! Phew! 

The first pitch leading to the Galley
Rafe stepping out just below the overhanging chimney crack

A photo of Rafe just pulling through the roof crack on pitch 2. Photo kindly provided by Tim Simmons.

The final steep corner crack, just before the bulge. At this point you can see all the way through the crack out the other side of the stack!

Rafe just finishing the tricky section of the huge corner on the last pitch

Signing the book just as showers move in from the south
The smile is for finishing or for reaching our lunch? 

Rackwick drying room bothy! 
This climb is one of the best adventures I've ever had. If this route is not on your list. It should be.  Special thanks to Rafe for driving from London to Orkney in less than 24 hours and also to Tim Simmons and his wife, who happened to take some photos of us on the second pitch whilst out on a walk the day we climbed it and approached us on the ferry. 

On a final note we also visited a few Caithness sea cliffs whilst making our way North. We visited Mid Clyth and Latheronwheel, both of which were absolutely superb and well worth a visit. 

Getting in some extra drying time in waiting for the ferry at Lyness

Stealing some climbing between showers at Ysnaby on Orkney

Not a bad car park for the walk-in at Mid Clyth. Dream House?

Off-width chimney climbing down at Mid Clyth

Typical last-day-of-trip weather at Mid Clyth


Monday, 24 July 2017

Skeleton Ridge - The Needles Isle of Wight

The reasons why people climb are many and varied. Some people climb for the joy of movement. Some people climb for the adrenaline rush. Others for the adventure. What reason did we chose to climb a crumbling chalk cliff then? Well I guess adventure was definitely our reason, as it couldn’t have been either of the other ones...

Although it is generally a little know route, Skeleton Ridge is probably the most well televised rock climb in the country (it’s just all those people watching the BBC One program introductory image of the Needles and the light house didn’t know what they were looking at). The line climbs out of the sea up and along the knife edge arĂȘte along nearly 200m of climbing back to the cliff top. Its famed in part for its poor rock and lack of any meaningful protection but mainly for its mind blowing exposure. How could we say no? We booked our ferry and grabbed our bikes and off we went on one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.

Reading about the details of a route can be a bit tedious and uninspiring and for those intending to scale its heights, may spoil the thrill of your adventure. So instead of describing everything in detail I’ve posted below a load of photos plus few tips if you are thinking of giving it a go.. I hope you enjoy!

1) Buy Pat Littlejohn’s West Country Climbs V2 – It’s got loads of tactical advice and most importantly numbers for the Battery and the Coastguard, who both need informing before an attempt is made.
2) Check the tide – If you can’t be at the base of the cliff within an hour of low tide don’t bother. The last 100m of walking is most definitely tidal. The tide came in too much to walk out by the time we’d done the first pitch.
2) Call the Battery – The National Trust manage all of the land at the top of the cliff at the Needles. The abseil stake to descend the cliff is within the fence boundary and you’ll probably need the staff to help you find it (its location is at the head of the ‘moat’ on the right and requires you to down climb a section of collapsing wall above the cliff). A chap called Cameron came in early to meet us so we could make the tide.
3) It’s not a winter route – you don’t need an axe, so don’t bring one. True the rock is truly awful in places, but the idea of smacking a peg in for us was too incomprehendable. The hardest parts have already got pegs (for now..) so probably don’t bother. We had a set of DMM wallnuts and a load of slings and that suited us fine, although how well they’d hold a fall is a different matter.
4) Use 60m ropes – the last pitch is only about 20m of (shit-yourself exposure) climbing but you need to walk about 30-40m to the lookout fence for a belay. We only just reached it with 60s!

5) Do it soon! – It’s not a route to wait for, as its certainly not waiting for you!     

The Needles. Skeleton Ridge is obscured by the cliff you abseil down

Rob on the abseil into Scratchells Bay. We used a 60m static plus a 50 dynamic from the stake and had about 20m spare

Nearing the base of the abseil. The amount of chalk that was kicked loose during our descent was unnerving to say the least! 

Looking along the deserted beach of Scrachells Bay

The tidal bit of the approach to the base of Skeleton Ridge. The first pitch climbs up the slab just to the right of the first tower

Rob seconding the first pitch. Some imaginative runners using flint 'chickenheads'

Rob starting the second pitch on the ridge proper

Me clipping the pegs on the first 4c pitch. Wind was getting quite strong at this point! (Photo Credit Rob Steer)

Moving through some pretty exposed terrain on the upper pitches (Photo Credit Rob Steer)

(Photo Credit Rob Steer)

The wind was so strong by this point it was blowing our slings off..

Rob straddling the mind blowingly exposed ridge on the final 4c pitch

Looking back down the ridge. Perhaps a view that won't look like that for much longer?

Looking along to the belay at the Battery after the last pitch