Tuesday, 27 December 2011

What's the Story

Last year I posted a series of beautifully shot and brilliantly paced films from a film maker called Jordan Manley. Under a broad heading of A Skiers Journey they followed the film maker over a season telling a story of the places visited.

This year sees another three films released and the second, a story of skiing on the north west coast of Baffin Island is perhaps the most beautifully shot ski film I have ever seen. I recently raved about The Art of Flight a spectacular snowboard movie from the Red Bull Media House. Comparing these two films illustrates the different emotional responses filmmakers can achieve, both films are brilliant but are as different as chalk and cheese.

The story of The Art of Flight to me is about the boarding, the tricks, the lines, the lifestyle and the adrenaline, producing a wish to go out there and ride. The Baffin Island story along with last years short on the Freshfield Icefiled are in my opinion are not really about skiing at all, they are about exploration and adventure within the landscape. The joy comes from being within such an amazing places and experiencing a connection to them. 

Watching the wide angle shots of granite towers almost beyond imagination one feels a sense of awe, and for me at least excitement at the fact that such places can exist with the possibility that one day we can go there and enjoy them. 


Last years highlight....

The Art of Flight...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Climbing At Hodge Close

Second attempt at a climbing video, not as successful as the Aviemore effort. Lessons learned you always need more footage than you think and climbing filmed from the ground is boring.

More video ideas in the works.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ironing Out The Kinks a New Seasons Wintering

The modern world is jammed with entertainment possibilities; I'm the Sheffield Metropoint Arena, on stage Kasabian are smashing it in a brilliant live performance full of booming bass and blinding lightshows. Six hours ago I was perched half way up Gable Crag in the Lakes enveloped in cloud enjoying banging bits of metal into frozen turf. Ok so the number of people who have combined winter climbing and a rock gig into a 12 hr period are probably few and far between but really life is good.

Hints midweek that conditions might be good at the weekend had lead to sketch plans for a day wintering raid to be drawn up. Gable Crag being high had looked both a good bet, and had the added benefit of being a new destination for both me and climbing partner Dom. Leaving late on Friday we got involved with the ice a little earlier than expected when Dom's car ran out of traction half way up the Honister Pass. Rather worryingly the handbrake also appeared to have succumbed to the cold meaning all that was stopping an abrupt slide backwards into to House Gill was Dom's right boot.

Fortunately having sort of planned ahead we did have snow chains buried somewhere in the boot. Exiting the car to discover the road a sheet of ice I almost slide off down the hill only saving myself by desperately hanging onto bits of bodywork for dear life. Five spicy minutes later I manage to get some rocks behind the back wheels and the chains out of the boot. 

If you own snow chains it is a good idea to practice how to put them on in warm dry conditions preferably in daylight. Then when you have to do it for real in the dark at about minus five you won't spend the first twenty minutes staring blankly at the chains, the tyres and your frozen hands muttering "are you sure these are the right ones" in an ever more desperate voice. Finally after a bit of a battle the chains or "car-pons" as we renamed them were attached and the car crept forward up to the top of the pass and our camping spot for the night.

Gable Crag on a nicer day than we experienced Pinnacle Ridge lies below the con train. (UKC image)

The downside of winter climbing is the early starts, forcing yourself to crawl out of the warm cocoon of your sleeping bag at 05.30 is never fun. Walking in it was bitterly cold the wind biting at any exposed skin whipping away warmth into the dark. The fence we handrailed was coated in delicate blades of hoarfrost and unconsolidated mad the walk in a slog with a big pack. Every year Dom and I say the same thing to each other on these early trips; that next year we will get on big mountain routes through the summer to make these walk in's less tiring.

Arriving at the crag we fail to locate the "obvious corner" which our chosen route Pinnacle Ridge is said to start from so instead work our way up a series of steep steps interspersed with easier angled frozen turf. The terrain is easy so we move together alpine style just short roping here and there when needed. About a third of the way up I manage to get us on the route proper and the climbing suddenly improves in quality and difficulty.

Pinnacle Ridge is very much a mixed route, frozen turf, bits of ice, rock, but very little neve this early in the season. I'm not hugely experienced at mixed climbing; unlike on neve or ice where you can pretty much create placements where you want them here moves need to be precise and thought through. I enjoy working my way up a thinly iced slab noting the footholds and working out how I am going to move between them. The climbing is about mid III to top end III in places and quite good and unfortunately over too soon.

Climbers at the  guidebook crux, we felt in was lower down (UKC image)

Walking out early afternoon with our minds on tonights gig things were considerably warmer, the wind had lost it's bite and the hoarfrost was fast disappearing from the fence line. The fickle conditions of the Lakes in winter had allowed us a few hours of fun but was now closing the curtain until the next splash of winter. Having grabbed this brief opportunity to demonstrate the poor planning, lack of fitness, and bad route finding synonymous with forgetting quite how much more involved the basics are in winter are it's going to be great to iron out these kinks in the coming months. Open season!

Monday, 28 November 2011

In Lieu Of Real Snow To Play In

I know it's lazy blogging but as the first falls of snow dust the highlands and I stare at my ice axes with ever increasing frustration at waiting its probably a good time to look at my favourite winter Blogs.

1. The Orion Face: Or a tale of fear, terror, and brown trousers.

2. Ski Mountaineering In The Cairngorms: The only way to winter.

3. Ice Climbing on Helvellyn: A tale of hot aches, nausea, and amazing views.

4. Ice Climbing on Great End

Us on the final fall. Image Scott Muir 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

We Love The Winter

First The Pain

Then The Gain

As the last days of a gloriously colourful autumn slide slowly towards the long dark nights of winter most people zip their coats up against the wind and rain, snuggle deeper into the warmth sofa or the arms of a partner, and grit their teeth with a steely determination to wait it out for the joys of spring.

For for a small few however the encroaching long nights and hard frosts herald the arrival of perhaps the best season of the year. Like the squirrel who has spent the autumn months carefully burying food for the winter these creatures have been hidden away in garages and cellars from which the smell of freshly waxed skis and the sound of newly sharpened crampons has been emanating.

Better late than never it appears that winter is just around the corner with snow predicted to fall across the highlands and a series of freeze thaws forecast to get everything nicely into nick. I'm one of those few who look forward to every winter a season, overtaken by an air of expectation from mid September.

Our mountains in their gowns of snow and ice are at there most beautiful, delicate, fragile and pure. The snow and ice smooth hard lines and produce a simple colour palette often stark against a brilliant blue sky lit by the soft light of a low winter sun. 

It's a shame so many discount winter as a season for staying indoors because really it's so easy to have an adventure in winter. For me just walking up a hill and feeling the crunch of snow under my books make the mountain experience so much more enjoyable and exciting.

This year I'm really excited about learning to ski tour, snowhole, and becoming completely solid at Scottish III/IV and pushing it a bit on V. Achievements and epics will be reported here in lurid detail but really you should get out and experience this season of hidden joys for yourself.

This rather verbose post is also summed up pictorially here.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Winter is Coming!

I shot this footage last winter just after I had bought my camera, it's really nice to now finally be able to put it together and enjoy it. I'm amazed how easy it is to edit in iMovie, really good software and simple to use. Now I can finally start to plan some shoots for the coming season.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Project Pitt

A significant rise in computing power over the last week has finally allowed me to do something useful with the HD video that has been cluttering up my hard drive for the last year. I shot this footage in February at the same time as this photo set of my mates Matt and Dom having a first working session on Brad Pitt a celebrated boulder problem in the Peak.

Below is my first attempt at putting a video together; to edit the footage I used iVideo the standard software available on a Mac and was really surprised how easy it was to use.  As the boys did not get very far on the first look I did not have that much footage to work with plus when I was shooting I did not really think about continuity hence the few errors in that department.

I've lots to learn with this, how to put sound in for starters; but I'm really enthusiastic at going out and shooting stuff, so expect to see more.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Lifestyle or Product; and do I Really Care?

Their getting good at these; "The Art of Flight" is an amazingly good snowboarding video; the camera work is stunning, the locations amazing, and boarding frankly off the scale. It also reeks of money, lots and lots of money clearly no expense spared shooting, will it make its money back on iTunes? I doubt it. Why then has it been made?

We watch these videos yet it's not like we can't see what they are? All these videos are adverts, adverts for sports, adverts for places, adverts for lifestyles. Watching it fills you with excitement to go places, see things, hang on to the coat tails of the ridiculously talented/brave. For many of us they offer a window into a world we scratch the surface of a few times a year.

This video is also a massive advert for something that has very little to do with snowbording Red Bull. Red Bull use outdoor sports especially those the media and general public dub as "extreme" as a key part of their marketing stratergy. Sell the lifestyle, sell the product synonymous with the lifestyle, clearly it must work as they keep doing it. Actually I don't really care that this is an integral part of a huge marketing strategy because for me it's selling something else; inspiration.

Inspiration or entertainment. I guess it's how you see the film (and I do recommend you see the film); do you go out boarding, or skiing, climbing, biking whatever; or do you live your dreams through the lens and the experiences of others. I may never carve my way down a stunning fluted peak in Alaska but I will ski Central Gully on Ben Lui and Aladdin's Couloir in the Cairngorms, and I will climb in the Alaskan ranges.

Whilst I'm doing it perhaps I will feel the need for a shot of suggar and caffeine in some deep routed Pavlovian response. You too? Fancy that. If you do, don't feel too bad lets keep Red Bull in business then they can act as location scouts for our lives.

Gold in Them Their Hills; Tyndrum Mining and the Environment

The UK has designated more of it's landscape as national parks than almost any other nation on Earth with 8.2% classified as such, the figure for England and Wales is even higher at 12.5%. Within Europe only in Iceland (12.1%) do national parks cover a greater land area; for comparison the figures for the US and Canada are 2.2 and 3.8% respectively. The corresponding population densities (people per square km) are: UK = 259 (England 395), US 32, Canada 3.4, and Iceland 3.1. 

The corollary of these two figures is that in the UK people have an almost unrivaled ease of access to our protected landscapes, although this is less true in Scotland where there are only two national parks.

Living in Leeds and given good traffic I live within about two hours drive of six national parks. In trying to illustrate just how popular NP's are in the UK I tried to get some info on visitor numbers. However working out worldwide national park popularity is difficult and Google is of very little help, it is also unclear if figures refer to visitors or visitor days. By some counts The Lake District is thought to be the second most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji in Japan (this stat is also claimed by the Peak). Twenty three million visitor days and 15 million visitors flock to the Lakes each year, arguably more than visit the top four national parks in the US combined (Great Smokey Mountains 9.4 million, Grand Canyon 4.4 million, Yosemite 3.5 million and Yellowstone 3.2 million). Whatever the true figures the data shows as a nation we value and use our national parks.

People + landscape = conflict, and a difficult challenge for our parks.  In many countries parks are owned by the government and comprise truly wild natural landscape protected from almost any development. In the UK this just isn't possible, firstly our landscapes have been shaped by man over millennia and no "natural" landscape still exists in the UK. Secondly our national parks are home to tens of thousands of people; people who have the right to live and work is a society with all the convenience and services of those living outside the park. As such UK parks are not static but have sustainable development and a socio-ecconomic responsibility written into their constitutions alongside protection of the environment. 

The recently approved planning application to re-open a gold mine at Cononish near Tyndrum at the northern end of the Loch Lomond National Park saw these two responsibilities cast is sharp contrast.  Speaking broadly the mine was supported by almost the entire village which has very little local employment, but was opposed by many outdoor enthusiasts from Scotland and the wider UK as a desecration of the landscape.

I have every sympathy for the villagers; I spent a week in Tyndrum in Febuary 2010 and was struck by the lack of facilities in the area. I had gone up for some winter walking and easy climbing. Villagers complained that tourists tended to pass straight through making any business relying on them a struggle. The mine hopefully offers good quality jobs for the locals enabling them to stay in the village and not be forced out turning the village into a collection of second homes with no community.  With the lack of alternative employment there is a clear socio-ecconomic need for the mine (although there are arguments about how long the mine will opperate and how many jobs it will create.)

Stob Ban and Ben More from just east of Tyndrum

The issue at Tyndrum was not so much the mine as the tailings facility that results from processing the extracted material; this facility could eventually contain up to 400,000 tonnes of material. The structure will comprise a slurry lagoon contained within earth works and it was the visual impact of this that lead to the rejection of earlier planning applications. The company involved  undertook a re-design the facility so that it blends in to the landscape as much as possible and it was these changes that eventually got the project approval. I don't actually see the visual effect as a long term issue and am reasonably confident that the facility can be constructed and shielded with native woodland to create a minimal effect on the landscape.

Beinn Dorain

My worries are different, and I have a bit of inside knowledge as I work in contaminated land remediation (although these are my personal views); tailings can be quite difficult to manage and can contain heavy metals and elevated pH values all capable of leaching to the surrounding environment via groundwater. I also know that companies are never as good at not contaminating land as they say they are going to be, that contaminated land is very difficult and costly to remediate and that it is never remediated back to pristine conditions. It is actually quite hard to get land designated as contaminated as you need to demonstrate "significant possibility of significant harm (SPOSH)" which is actually quite a high hurdle to clear especially once the lawyers get their teeth into the word significant.

The planning conditions include monitoring the groundwater down gradient of the facility befoure during and after the operation of the mine, but the after care project only lasts for 20  years. The tailings facility or landfill because that is what it actually is must be stable for hundreds if not thousands of years after the mine closes. The metals are not a risk to the environment whilst contained within the structure but I'm concerned how durable the structure will be over time given the environment it is in. Then there is the possibility of catastrophic failures of the tailings facility, these are not unknown there was one last year and it will cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up. Do we really even want the chance of this happening in a national park.

A catastrophic failure of the dam wall lead to 1 million cubic meters of mud spilling into the environment.

The sad thing is there really should be an alternative to the mine; Tyndrum is a brilliant location to explore a huge number of brilliant hills, Ben Lui, Beinn Dorian to name just two.   It really should be a great base for tourists to explore the area, a much better alternative would be for those of us who spend time in the outdoors to support local economies a bit better. If people stopped in Tyndrum and it had a thriving local tourist economy I do not think the mine would have got planning permission as there would be no socio-ecconomic driver and possibly no local desire for it anyway.

I'm guilty as anyone, many days I've been out in the hills and not spent a penny in the village where I started my walk or I've stocked up at the supermarket on the way rather than use local shops. We can all put together arguments about levels of cost and choice about why we behave in this way but the result is this, communities dying and turning away from tourism. The national parks decision to grant the planning permission for the mine was probably the right one within the framework of the legislation and the national parks remit, it's just a shame we could not help create a vibrent community without it.

Monday, 31 October 2011

One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back

Last week I got deferred on my ML (Mountain Leader) assessment; basically this means I'm not quite good enough to pass but not crap enough to fail. The way ML's are assessed can be quite compartmentalised with a number of key levels of competence you need to display before they let you loose on the world. This method of breaking the course down into a number of skill sets means if you fail to reach the standard in just one area you don't need to repeat the entire course.

I was actually deferred on my rope work, a delicious irony for someone who does lots of climbing and I'm sure an event which is going to provide plenty of amusement for my friends. Specifically I did not manage to set up a satisfactory belay to bring a nervous group member up an awkward step.

I'm pretty furious with myself; the deferral has thrown a major spanner in the works of my plans for the next few years. I had planned to attend winter ML training in February and the assessment the year after. That can't now happen as you need to be signed off on the summer ML before you can start the winter course. It's now extremely unlikely with consolidation periods and weather that I can get my rope work signed off before the end of this winter which knocks my whole schedule off by an entire year.

No ML Winter training for my in February

In looking for excuses there are none, I messed it up, knew I had messed it up and have nobody to blame but myself. The mistake I made was not really practicing the rope work till the last minute assuming that as a climber I should be able to do it in my sleep. I practiced what I thought I needed to; wandering around darkened moors until I could do night navigation in my sleep and hit the smallest terrain feature pretty much bang on every time. 

In they week before I got the rope out and had a quick check that I could do a tradition abseil but crucially did not go out and set up belays. In summer ML all you have to work with is the rope, no nuts, slings etc to rig up a nice equalised belay. I knew this beforehand, but I only really realised this stood on top of the escarpment rope in hand, suddenly I task I had assumed would be trivial was  turned round and bit me.

I cobbled something together and started to bring the person up; the assessor had seen my set up and told the climber to weight the rope. The load came on and suddenly without the friction of a belay device the 8stone man on the other end of the rope felt much heavier that my 6ft 5 mate Nick who is affectionately known as the human bouldering mat. Rope stretched, legs gave a little, and I was dragged forward; not much, about a foot but it was enough to drag me off my perch and in a real situation with a potentially frightened client at the other end of the rope would have left me incapacitated with the rope under load.
Don't assume because you can do this you can do ML rope work. That said George's belay a'la sunbathing technique would appear in many guides either.

I knew then I was in trouble, I'd dug myself a hole that I did not manage to climb out of for the rest of the week, result; deferral. Recriminations? No; it's happened, I know why it happened, It won't happen again, I've given my self a bit of a mental kicking for my mistakes but I will just have to deal with it. On the plus side the assessors signed off on my navigation which was strong and said that I had a really good relaxed guiding style. 

That's what I have to take from this, at ML rope work is only used in emergencies, if it comes out of your bag you have already messed things up, having a good guiding style is what earns you your bread and butter day in day out. 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

M62 Night Photography

Junction 22 on the M62 is the highest point on the motorway network in England, at this point the Pennine Way long distance path crosses the road perched high on a foot bridge. I have long thought the bridge would make an excellent viewpoint for night photography as really all that is up here is the road and dark open moor.

Last night I actually got round to walking up to have a look, the view of a stream of traffic pouring the 7 or so miles across the blackness of Saddleworth Moor was not actually as clear from here as I thought it would be as there was not quite enough elevation (there is another bridge the other side of the moor which may offer a better view). The bridge itself did however make quite an interesting study lit by the glow of the traffic and road lighting.

 Junction 22 (ISO400, 30sec, f9.0)

 Chasm of Light, The Pennine Way Bridge (ISO 400, F9.0, 4min)

 The Pennine Way Bridge (ISO 200,  f9.0, 3min)

Looking east towards Huddersfield and Halifax the M62 cross Saddleworth Moor

Edit 31/10/11 

Visited the other bridge tonight, a much better viewpoint on a lonely moor high (40m or so) above the motorway. Great view of the road east and westbound but slightly depressing as the bridge is covered in signs from the Samaritans and is obviously a "popular" suicide spot. Indeed I was slightly worried that someone may see my wandering arround on it, get the wrong idea, and call the police.

I was only scoping the location tonight, it was cold overcast and windy, plus I was hungry so the photos were quick and for future reference only and are not good enough to put up here. Plus it was actually too dark. It does appear I'm not the first to spot the potential of the place a quick google search turned this up. Very impressive!

Copyright http://www.flickr.com/photos/v4idas/4417568891/

Friday, 21 October 2011

Movie Night

I first saw Samsara about two years ago at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, it's a cracking short film about the joys of the expedition. Currently planning a couple of my own albeit much smaller is scale and objective. More soon.

Samsara from renan ozturk on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Simple Sleeps

There is something really fulfilling and relaxing about sleeping out under the stars; no tent, just a sleeping bag, mat and bivi bag, maybe a tarp if the weather looks a bit dodgy. I don’t do it enough, walk up a hill with just my sleeping kit, a stove and perhaps book to pass the time. I love the simplicity of letting your body match the rhythms of the Earth, sleeping with the Sun's exit and wakening with the return of the light. Or maybe it’s deeper than that, some hidden psychological memory from our evolutionary past before we had evolved to regard walls and a roof as essential for living

With no roof or tent to shield you from the heavens bivying leaves you exposed to the elements and with a front row seat as Sun, Moon and stars dance overhead. The Sun has long been a linchpin of human thought, in many ancient cultures regarded a God which brought life and fertility, banishing the dark each morning and through it's inexorable rise above the horizon during Spring and Summer brought forth the bounty from the earth.

Bivying on the way to Skye last May

Sunrise and sunset; the Sun in all its glory, bathing the world in a light that extenuates the beauty of the landscape. Bivying is sitting snug in a sleeping bag, a cocoon of warmth against the oncoming cold as the sun leaves the stage it's encore a sky alive with colour. Then drifting to sleep with the feeling of with fresh air moving across your face, staring up at stars bright in the black sky or clouds drifting slowly across the havens.

I also like the way bivying makes use of the terrain, extracting positions of comfort almost anywhere (some mountaineers may disagree with this!). With so little protection from the elements you learn to use the shape and contour of the land to shelter you from the elements. Granted wild camping also teaches these skills but bivying sharpens them. Picking a great bivi spot is a art.

Moonrise (30 sec, f. 5.6, ISO800)

Then there is when it goes wrong, epic bivi stories are a favourite reminiscence amongst climbers and mountaineers. Badges we ware with pride even if deep down we still shiver at the memory. Climbing biographies are littered with stories of frantic searches for places to sleep in the mountains when with increasing desperation that chair sized ledge you spotted a while back goes from "unacceptable", to "a last resort", to "quite roomy", to "a 5* hotel" depending on your desperation. My favourite bivi tale is from Mick Fowler who spend the night wedged with his partner in what can only be described as a 2ft diameter ice tunnel half way up a mountain. I don't think they slept much.

I remember a particularly unpleasant bivi on top of Snowdon the night before I had a shot at walking the Welsh 3000’s (failed). To maximise our chances of success we had picked a particularly grotty weekend in November with bad weather forecast, and little daylight; we then compounded the error taking lightweight bivi gear. We had a cunning plan though; we would shelter in the doorway porch of the summit cafe out of the worst of the elements.

A first attempt at a long exposure night shot from a bivi in the Howgills, eight minutes at f. 5.6, ISO400. Still underexposed with some artifacts from the relatively high ISO setting. The lights at the left are the M6 motorway which colours the cloud considerably.

Somewhere in my head I thought I remembered reading they were rebuilding the summit cafe, however mentioning this to my friends I received assurances that they probably hadn't started yet. They had; arriving at the summit we were greeted not by a sheltered porch but by a site cabin, a portaloo, and a small excavator. 

I spent the night wedged between the site cabin and the portaloo in an attempt to get out of the wind and the snow which arrived to greet us. My friends George and Stuart the most experienced in our party who at the time I looked up to as experienced alpinists had arrive equipped with summer sleeping bags. They spent the night wedged between the tracks of a small excavator engaged in the kind of platonic heterosexual spooning action non climbers just don’t seem to understand.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


I've just uploaded the 150th post to the site which has also just ticked past 6000 visitors. I hope those who follow what I say on here enjoy it, I've certainly enjoyed writing the last 18 months. Below is post no. 1 where it all started and still one of my favorites, and it deserves another chance to be read.

Originally Published 23 April 2010...

“Why did I agree to this?”. This is my overriding thought as I stare up at the neve plastered slabs of the Ben. Black rock and white snow and ice contrast below a brilliant blue winter sky. “This is a daft idea, it’s hard, much harder than anything you’ve ever climbed, it’s bold and the belays are shit. It would have been very easy to say no and then you would not have to spend the next six hours in pure terror”.

I think this is what they call a "Quality Mountain Day" Sun up by the CIC Hut.

The “this” in question is Orion Face Direct a classic ice route that winds its way 300m up the Orion Face almost to the summit of the Ben. Being a climber who is a little geekishly obsessed I know from Cold Climbs and the SMC guide that the route is “Serious as runners and belays can be hard to find”.

It had been Dom’s idea; a late winter trip to the Ben; the good weather, lots of daylight, and reading too many blogs had convinced him that we had to have a crack at either Orion or the even more serious Zero Gully. So in the end after much badgering including the classic "were only young once and will only get more scared as we get older" (Note to Dom I get scared enough now!) I had said yes but only on the proviso that Dom do all the leading and I get to do Tower ridge the next day.

Amazingly despite sleeping in we are first on the route and the first pitch calms the nerves, it’s quite easy and my borrowed axes bite deep into the nevé and feel really solid (there is no way on earth I would want to be up here with my Hornets) . Reaching the belay however the seriousness of our route is suddenly brought home to me. Two ice screws, half in and tied off (note: the next team up managed to find a bomber hex placement a fact I pointed out to Dom at the next belay!)

Dom sets off up the second pitch a shallow chimney moving out onto the face moving slowly and steadily making sure each axe and crampon placement is solid before committing. Ice and snow cascade down as the ropes sneak slowly upwards I try not to think of the monster 40 meter fall which will result from an error.

Then a shout. My turn. I begin to move up the chimney and then out on to the face as the terrain gradually gets steeper and steeper. The exposure is massive, a yawning gulf down Observatory Gully. I now begin to suffer a sense of humour failure and at this point Dom helpfully shouts down to say that the belay isn’t great.

My day on Orion summarised in an easy to follow graphic!

From this point on I’m incapable of coherent speech at all and all that comes out is groans of fear mixed with exertion. The face gets steeper and steeper and my body gets more and more tired as I try not to imaging the void below me and concentrate on making the top of the bulge. I remove and promptly drop an ice screw now convinced this is going to end badly. With a cacophony of noises more suited to mating elephants, I do one last pull and I’m up and on to easy angled nevé and able to stagger up to the belay.

Two pitches through the snowfields allow us to recover a bit before arrive at the crux a rightwards traverse up steep nevé; it looks good but hard. The view is spectacular, a huge drop down the face to the CIC hut in the valley bottom and across to Carn Mor Derag. By now my brain has managed to accept and enjoy the exposure although neither of us can be bothered to fiddle about trying to get the camera out (a poor decision).

The crux proves a bit of a pager tiger, it’s technically hard but physically much easier than the nightmare of the second pitch and I really enjoy the delicate moves up to the belay. Once there I’m rewarded by finding our camelback frozen and the 3l of water I’m carrying is now just acting as a DIY weight west.

The next pitches through to the top of the upper snowfield are a bit of a blur although a particularly awkward belay on an ice ledge about the size of a small paper back sticks in my mind. By this point we are both completely ball bagged physically and Dom is mentally shattered from so much run out leading. The last proper pitch feels really long and hard as we climb slabs and traverse into a hanging corner through which we gain the easy slopes of the summit ridge and an end to the difficulties.

Sitting on the summit ridge we don’t say much just stuff our faces with food and water, and make very yellow snow. The weather has changed, cloud is coming in so we GUFO (gear up; fuck off) up over the summit and down No. 4 Gully the exhaustion turning into a retrospective warmth of achievement.

Dom looking a little tired and strained on the summit.

To celebrate our achievement we destroy a £500 four season Quasar by pitching it in the most exposed place possible and then deciding to take it down a 5am whilst buffeted by 70 mph winds and driving snow (we know what were doing honestly!).

Looking back now over the space of a couple of weeks the experience has morphed into one of those great winter epics that you actually enjoyed. Cant wait for next year to do Point Five and Zero!

Do you Remember the First Time?

Climbers are at the same time the most friendly and intolerant people. I say this in the light of the inevitable circular arguments currently underway on climbing forums up and down the land. The issue exercising the community is a classic annual scrap, as predictable and reliable as the sun in the morning sky. University clubs and freshers meets.

I have a very fixed position on this argument colored by my experiences and the debt I feel I owe to an organisation that has shaped the person I have become. I joined the University of Leicester Mountaineering Club (ULMC) in September 2001. I regard that decision as one of the best decisions I have ever made. My days in ULMC kindled a spark that had resided smoldering in my soul and let it burst into a passion for mountain sports that pretty much  defines me as a person. Friends, memories of extraordinary places, a torrent of ideas for the future all germinate from this decision.

ULMC Fresher meet 2007

I guess from the above you know which side of the fence I'm going to sit on with this one, but I will start with the case for the prosecution. A coachload of students turn up at crag X top-rope all the three-star routes preventing other climbers doing them properly and generally ruin everybody else's day. Put the words students, top-rope, and three star classic in any post title on UKC is almost guaranteed to get you a thread of at least one hundred responses. Various suggestions will be made: groups should split up, have their first meets in an indoor wall, climb as leader and second, not go to popular crags etc, etc.

Now I will admit that a freshers meet is going to be disruptive, a group of forty or fifty people turning up at a crag will have a knock on effect on the other users, however is this any different to the big meets that all of our national climbing clubs hold? 

What is often overlooked in the argument is that the freshers meet is the most important meet of the year, it's where you replenish the lifeblood of your club. With most members only staying at uni for three years a poor years recruitment can really cripple a club. As an organising committee member a lot rests on those few hours to kindle that interest that made them sign up, you have to get it right. Cock it up and that initial enthusiasm of someone to try something new may be extinguished forever.

A great way to turn everybody off would be to introduce new members to climbing at an indoor wall, an idea that I personally think pretty ridiculous.  For the vast majority of climbers climbing is about being outside; the rock, all colours and texture; the environment, greens browns yellows and purples of the Peak in Autumn, and the weather are all crucial to the experience. 

Then there is the top-roping argument. I have never really understood the suggestion that beginners should not top-rope things. To me the idea that freshers meets should get beginners seconding straight away has a number of flaws. Climbing can be daunting, some of us take to it naturally (these could get involved in seconding) others not so. If someone is struggling with  movement and learning how to use hand and foot holds or is really nervous at the exposure why complicate the issue by introducing the complication of removing gear. Beasting them up a climb is likely to put them off.

Leading by its nature also takes much more time that top-roping, so beginners sit around and get bored, climb fewer routes and in my opinion have a poorer first experience of climbing. It is hard enough to get everyone involved anyway at meets without introducing unnecessary delays. Discussions of style and ethics can come later, you do not introduce someone to football by explaining the finer points of the off side rule.

ULMC Fresher meet 2007

The idea that you should split your group up amongst a number of crags misses the point of what a freshers meet is about, it's a social event. They're not learning to climb today but getting a taste for climbing at a social event. To take a group that have bonded on the coach and then scatter them about the Peak is a great way to ruin the atmosphere. Keeping the group together allows those not climbing to mix and get to know each other. Most clubs have great social aspects and this is where it starts.

Most uni groups will be considerate and not sling top ropes on three star classics, a beginner scratching about in trainers will not really be able to appreciate a brilliant climb. That said they will not enjoy being dragged up some dirty, grotty, forgotten horror tucked away in a poor corner of the crag. For beginners route selection is still important, climbs need to be enjoyable with a good level of challenge and set  across a range of difficulties to appeal to the range of natural abilities any group on new climbers show. 

So yes I'm sorry that for a few weekends a year your climbing may be disrupted by the soap shy, tax dodging, drunken hords but if that trip awakens the fire in those students that we all feel for the outdoors then its a price worth paying.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Braeriach Bike

The Cairngorms are the perfect range to explore on bike, the great mountains are split by  deep glacial valleys which have acted as natural passes and trade routes for centuries. Over the years good estate tracks have been pushed into the wilderness to support deer stalking and grouse shoots and provide a brilliant way to get a jump start on the mountain with your bike.

Bracken in it's late autumn flowering lines the track, a sea of purple flowers covering the slowly rolling landscape like waves on some frozen sea. Old Caledonian pines their branches and boughs twisting to the the sky stand silent sentinels along the trail which runs first through the beautiful thick woodland of the Rothiemurchus Forest and then out onto the sparser higher slopes where the trees become stunted and sculpted by the prevailing winds and harsher conditions. The slopes below the northern corries contain some of the last native woodland in Scotland. It's a fantastic place to walk, ride, and sleep amongst the trees.

The forest.

The track I'm following leads up Glen Eanaich to the loch at the valley head where I plan to dump the bike and climb Braeriach the third highest peak in the UK a great whale-back of a mountain on it's western side. East it's a different beast, it's broad plateau of a summit seemingly cleaved by the great trench of the Lairig Ghru. Loch Eanaich is quite a forbidding place sat below the grey the crags of Sgor Gaoith which fall almost sheer 600m to the west. Ribbons of silver tumble down the steep headwall of Corie Odhar full of vigor from the recent rains.

After a fresh brew (another benefit of cycling; ample storage space) I leave the bike and follow a path slanting upwards into the bowl of Coire Dhondail. Twin waterfalls cascade down from the col at it's head, and the path skirts up the left of these and squeezes itself on to the plateau.

Looking back down Glen Eanaich

From here Braeriach should just be an easy walk away but nature has other ideas; shortly  the the wind picks up and I turn round to see cloud racing over Loch Eanaich; leaving me enveloped in a grey mist that limits visibility to about fifty meters. Following a stream (a navigational technique known as handrailing) is an easy way to get up onto the low broad col between Carn na Criche and Einich Cairn and I soon come a cross the Wells of Dee the highest spring in the land where the River Dee bursts out of the granite and runs bubbling away over the plateau.

Unfortunately the spectacular eastern side of Braeriach carved with mosterous steep corries where the plateau plunges up to 600m into the Lairig Ghru is hidden in cloud; the cliffs fall away into nothing and only occasionally can one catch a glimpse of a sliver of silver hinting at water far below. The summit perches right on the edge of the void, but today feels non-descript it's spectacular views hidden for another day.

The plateau in the mist, handrailing the Well of Dee springs

As I begin to make my way back I get a little greedy, I've made good time so far and feel loath to waste all that height gain. Handrailing the edge of the plateau for about four kilometers would enable me to climb Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Angels Peak) and Cairn Toul the fifth and fourth highest peaks in the UK. The bike, my guarantee of a swift ride out rather than a long plod on foot means I can spend more time up here exploring and make the most of my day.

The route between Breariach and Cairn Toul is apparently one of the finest ridge walks in the country; I can't comment as I didn't really see very much. It was wet and windy, really windy; the upper slopes of both Angels Peak and Cairn Toul are littered with granite boulders covered in moss and slick with water, treacherous terrain at the best of times to walk over but buffeted by the wind a really challenge not to accidentally turn an ankle.

Both summits only sit about 150m above the cols on the ridge but in the conditions they feel hard meters, won in a struggle against the elements.  The Cairngorms feel vast and remote, stood on the summit of Cairn Toul I'm probably further from a road than I have ever been in the UK. In these conditions they have a savage beauty, as wild a landscape as we have; I'll be back to explore further.

I'm concious of the fact that getting back to the top of the stalkers path in this weather could be a little tricky as decending across slopes it's easy to drop too far; do that here and I will put myself on the geat boggy mess at the top of Corie Odhar and into a world of pain with no easy way to descend. The best option is to retrace my steps and make my way to the top of Great Gully on Carn na Criche; from here a bearing of 270 drops me smack onto the cairn which marks the start of the path.

An unexpected view and a unexpectedly good photo Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Angels peak)

I once heard Ian Parnell one of our best mountaineer photographers claim the most important part of photography was getting the camera out, now I understand why. Climbing back up toward Great Gully the cloud cleared for a few seconds, no more than three minutes and suddenly Angels Peak emerged from the mist it's eastern face falling down into the Lairig Ghru. I did not really have time to think, and I just quickly shot off a few frames. I amazed how well the picture came out, the light looks amazing and the greens and browns almost pastel. Not a realistic representation of the day but one of my best pictures and on an outing where I had all but given up hope of getting anything decent. 

The ride out is a blur of speed and adrenalin, over in a flash as the14km is disposed of in 30 min. This is what I bought my 29er for, wild days on rough but not horrendously technical surface. The bike just eats the distance, crushes the roughness in the trail, and throws great rooster tails of spray up my back. Now all I need to do is look for somewhere to bivi tonight.


My route:

Now the inevitable caveats, you need a map, compass and the knowledge to use them. Watch out for the fording of the Beanaidh Beag, there are a few stepping stones but these were covered when I was there and the crossing could be nasty or impossible in spate. The plateau is no place to be lost in bad weather. It can be ferocious up here almost any time of the year, snow often remains in the sheltered corries till June. Take care and enjoy.