Monday, 30 May 2011

Marvelous Marin

Wales, Bank Holiday weekend; It's wet and it's windy. I'm camped in one of my favorite campsites, it's nestled below Tryfan that great Stegosaurus of a hill and I'ts got quite a hardcore feel to it.  You know when on average peoples tents are worth more than their cars your with folk who have their priorities right! Half the tents are Quasars, there is even another Quasar ETC and that never happens; useful though it gusted 50 last night.

What I'm here for is the Marin Trail a 25km mountain biking route in the woods above Betws Y Coed. UK Trail centres and man made trails pretty much started in North Wales (I think) with arguably their spiritual home at  Coed Y Brennin a few miles further south. I have ridden there a number of time but never explored the other trails in the area. The Marin comes highly recommended from a number of friends. 

The wet weather had made the roots and rocks of the trail a bit slippy and there are a couple of disconcerting wheel slides in the first Km until I get the hang of it and back off the agression a bit. The climbs are almost all on fire roads and at a reassonable gradient that a reasonably fit rider should be able to get up them all without need for a rest. 

Single track sections are mixed and varied somtimes in woodland, sometimes cutting down open hill sides or along ridges, they are never too steep and technical and there are no big drop offs and very few really sharp turns. There is a single section up out a ravine that is un-ride-able  however good you are (it's (up) stairs). 

MTB trails are graded as for ski runs green (easy), blue, red, and black (very hard). The Marin is a red or difficult; probably true but I think it's an excellent entry level red at no point asking too much of someone stepping up for the first time. Importantly it never really surprises you by suddenly throwing you a hard section without warning. I rode the whole thing only needing two dabs from my feet to stabilise myself and these were mainly from carelessness. I can't say that about any of the other of reds I've ridden.

The trail is well marked with blue way-markers and frequent maps telling you where on the circuit you are. The forest is littered with old mine workings from early last century, gaunt ruins of buildings, adits and fenced off shafts. One hundred years later the hills resound not to the blow of the pick-axe and the blast of dynamite but the screech of tires and the wail of brakes.

My legs really feel the last few km, even on downhill sections. You forget how much energy you can expend on decent, sections of power riding, the constant adjustment of weight about the bike, adrenaline does a good job of keeping fatigue at bay. Another corner, another call for power; protesting my legs respond, but they let me know their not happy about it. 

Then I'm down and into the car park; drenched, coated in mud, knackered, but happy. Now did I remember a change of clothes?


Summary: Excellent half day trail, well made and well signposted. Much shorter and slightly less technical than my usually haunt at Dalby. Less technical and more natural feeling than the classics at Coed Y Brennin.

Trail length: 25 Km
Grade: Red (Difficult; for proficient mountain bikers and quality mountain bikes)
Climb: 450m
Time 2-4hours (I did it in 2.5 but did not really stop much)
Parking: Free, Nr. Lanwurst
PDF Guide: Here

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Road Trip!

Two years ago six men bought a van for £1000 and drove it to the Alps. The van, newly christened Firehorse burned almost as much oil as petrol  and was overtaken by HGVs on the slightest gradient, adding to the fun my ear exploded when some bacteria had their own private party, and two mates had a close call on the Third Spur of the Midi only surviving by hugging each other all night on a ledge the size of a small chair; apart from that it was an amazing trip.

The Firehorse at its watering hole, and the Chamonix Palace, about to be destroyed by a slight breeze.

It's time for round two unfortunately without the Firehorse. I find Alps trips exciting and somewhat scary. The scale of the mountains is so much bigger than in the UK, and their profile so much more aggressive. Angular and jagged the Alps are a mounting range under construction, young and full of life, our mountains are older, smaller and with the exuberance of youth worn off.

There are also the small issues of altitude, rockfall, avalanche, thunderstorms, and huge temperature gradients. Simple things become complicated, planning becomes crucial, and I become scared. An amazing adventure though.

Departure is scheduled for August, can't wait!  Hopefully the trip will include.

Target 1: Fontainbleau, because it's amazing.

Target 2; The Frendo

I've been inspired by the Frendo ever since I saw the view down the snow arete to the valley. The next pictures are taken by my friend and probable climbing partner George who has been on the route before. I'll say more about this closer to the time. 

High on the snow arete

The route weaves its way up the spur avoiding the giant seracs of death as helpful pointed out by George's DIY version of a Rockfax. The spur to the left is the Third (central) Spur of the Midi which according to my friend Dom is "Great if you like climbing a huge pile of choss".

The Triangle du Tacul

Target 3: Morzine, mountain biking heaven.

In summer the Morzine area convert all their lift to carry bikes. It's 80 Euros for a six day lift pass which gives you access to 100's of km of trails with almost no uphill. Hedonistic downhill heven!
The hard work of sitting on a chair lift over, now it's just 12Km of downhill back to the campsite!

I'll have some more of that.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Skye; Of Time Immemorial

Just thought I would post a few more pictures of Skye the last ones for a while. On the Sunday the plans had been to get on arrow route (VD) and integrity (possible the finest HS in Scotland)  but unfortunately John had done his knees in descending off the Cuillin the day before. Instead we decided to walk along the south site of Loch Brittle and explore the Rubha an Dunain peninsular. 

There's lots of history on Skye hidden from casual glance but not hard to find if you look, most of it's marked on the map for all to see! Within about  1 square km we managed to stumble across a neolithic chambered cairn, a fort, Viking harbour and a number of old shelings.  A history streching back over 2000 years with each culture leaving it's mark in the landscape.

John with the practiced eye of the geologist was a little suspicious of some of the cliffs and channels thinking the looked man made. Turns out he was right we had stumbled a cross a Viking harbour.

 Looking back to the Cuillin from towards the peninsular

 The Cuillin and the remains of a Dun (fort) possibly Viking possibly Celtic?

 The best bivi spot ever???

Looking toward the peninsular

 The remains of a sheiling, We argued what this building was. It was by far the largest and best build building on the site, possibly a hall or church?

 A chambered cairn, one chamber had collapsed but there looked to be others still intact, not bad for 2000 year old engineering.

 The top of the Dun wall, looking down to the viking harbour and possibly a quarry.

The Dun wall, beautifully made.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Skye; The Cuillin Ridge!

I pull the draw cord of my bivi-bag tighter snuggling deep into my warm sleeping bag leaving only a small hole for my breath to escape out of or for rain to come in to. Next to me Steve's tent snaps and bucks in the wind; one moment crushed, then twisted and stretched as the gusts swirll round the coire. The wind had appeared with nightfall, and we found what shelter we could  pitched in the lee of a small escarpment. The stars had blazed overhead until cloud carried in on the wind drove them from view bringing with it the rain, fortunately only a few spots.

We had left Glenbrittle late that evening having carb-loaded for the day to come, finally after  years of dreaming looking at pictures getting a chance to experience the Cuillin. John an I were going to have a go at a section of the ridge, Steve, Neil, and Michelle were going to drop off the far side of the coll and descend down to Loch Coruisk before walking out through the wild wilderness between the main ridge and  Bla' Bheinn.

 John the geologist is quite excited by the spectacular Coir' a Ghrunnda

Dykes (vertical), and sills (horizontal) bands formed by minerals under enormous pressure intruding into weaknesses in the older gabbro rock.

It's quite an easy walk up for the first hour and a bit, a good path climbs steadily then traverses round towards the sea. You then turn into Coir' a Ghrunnda;... stop, gawk, check you've not accidently been teleported to the Alps, and get very excited. It's like walking into Mordor, mountains and desipte there diminutive size they are mountains soar up left and right, ahead great waves of rock block the route up the corie looking like a rock glasier tumbling down from the peaks.

The coire is filled with vast boiler plate slabs of volcanic gabbro riven with sills and dykes telling the tale of these mountains fiery past, this history suits the feel of the mountains; wrought in a furnace there is a sharp aggressive quality too them. The slabs are steep but the friction is amazing and only a few moves need recourse to use our hands. As we climb we weave left and right seeking the easiest way through the massive rock architecture. I've never been anywhere like this in the British mountains, it's a spectacular place worth the drive already, awesome, spectacular, but not beautiful there is to much menace in the peaks that tower over you.

Neil enjoying the easy scrambling towards the top of the coire

After a difficult night being battered by the wind dawn treats us to a clear blue sky as a strong sun fills the coire with light turning the lochan in its base to a deep blue green. The peaks of the ridge tower left, right and ahead on the headwall. Steep loose scree, cliffs and fields of jagged boulders testify to the fact that were somewhere committing where not much life chooses to make it's home.  Climbing up towards the ridge we weave through the obstacles, looking back the sea is a dark blue; the islands of Soay, Rum, and Eigg easily visible but already hiding in a strong heat haze.

Then we reach the ridge and I wish I had not been so generous with my superlative because I've the left myself with nowhere to go, the coire was spectacular but this is better! The ridge is rocky and narrow falling off steeply, mostly precipitously on both sides. Looking east the wild hinterland of the Black Cuillin stretches out steep craggy falling away towards Loch Coruisk hidden somewhere far below before rising again to Bla Bheinn the solitary munro of the Black Cuillin estranged from her eleven sisters on the main ridge.

Looking at the ridge from last nights campsite.

Soay (forground), Rum (Rum), and Eigg (left) from high up in the coire.

We harness up and both opt to put on helmets. Not sure of what to expect we've brought a full set of nuts, a couple of hexes, ditto friends, and plenty of slings plus one 50m rope. In fact this is over egging the pudding a bit the friends and hexes will probably stay at home next time. We want to solo most of the ridge but will look to pitch the Inn Pin, Kings Chimney and the crux of the entire ridge the TD gap, lurking somewhere not too far ahead.

Pretty soon were confronted with an illustration of just how serious and committing the ridge is; the route comes to the foot of a towering impasse of rock blocking the way, the only line of weakness a traverse out left then up some fractured slabs. The route is terrifically exposed as the ground drops away and within two to three moves your above a drop of 30m to the rocks below. Discretion is the better part of valor we decide to get the rope out and pitch this section the with the added security of a couple of runners. 

 In to the hinterland, Marsco in the distance.

Are you sure were not in the Alps?

Me looking out along the rest of the ridge from the top of Sgurr Alasdair  Copyright J. Sergeant

The climbing is barley moderate in standard but far from it in situation and exhilaration, we've only gone a few hundred meters but this is obviously another level from any other ridge in the UK. At the top John and I look at each other smiling, if its all like this its going to be fun; hard work but fun.  Rope off, and on we go, then within about a hundred meters we realise that last section was a mere aperitif for what's to come. As I go to scramble over some rocks suddenly the ridge falls vertically away cut clean in two by a deep gash about ten meters deep and five wide; the TD Gap!

Into the maw. There are some good solid threads fitted with a mallion to abseil off and plenty of room at the base of the gap for a couple of parties in reasonable comfort. More importantly the climb up the other side looked nails, some deep off-width horror, a crack that looks polished to hell. "That can't be right it's only supposed to be graded severe" a check of the route description confirms the bad news it's the line alright. "Maybe it's easier that it looks",  but I have the feeling we are about to get sandbagged*.

 Not my photo but too good to not use. An unusual view of the gap Copyright Dan Arkle

Committed. Abbing in to the TD Gap. Copyright J. Sergeant

 The Gap the hard bit. TD Gap. Not my photo, copyright Steven UKC

John offers to lead I don't demur secretly pleased. The off width is obviously the crux, and the sharp breathing and worried sounds that filter down to the belay are not encouraging we are in brown trouser territory here.  Then he's through and above the difficulties sounding very relieved.  Really good lead, John's encouragement me "I've climbed easier E2's" and it's a nightmare with a bag". Oh joy. 

I get involved with the easier lower section and manage to wriggle and work my way up the off-width with considerable loss of body fluid. With both hands in a good horizontal brake and on good holds I resort to standard climbing technique No. 1, turn on the power.... unfortunately nothing happens! Welcome to the world of alpine climbing, just because you can do 12 pull ups in the gym does not mean you will be able to do one when wearing a heavy pack and boots having got in a bit of a sweaty mess half way up a route. What happened next was not pretty although the language was particularly colourfull, I got my leg stuck in the crack causing me to almost invert, cursed, pulled on gear, cursed, pushed, pulled, twisted, cursed some more, before collapsing in a heap on the rope exhausted.

Having thoroughly disgraced my self by dogging** a severe, I realise I may actually have to try and use a bit of technique, and by hook and by crook with a bit of bridging and some crazy egyptian*** move I manage to struggle to the top of by far the most awkward severe (now thought by most to be HS) I have ever climbed. Don't underestimate it! (Apparently some parties opt to sack hall on this pitch, this can lead to interesting situations if  your unlucky enough to get your rucksack wedged in the crack.).

Sgurr Dearg and the Inn Pin from the top of the Great Stone Chute

Sgurr Dearg, An Stac, and the Inaccessible Pinnacle from Sgurr Alasdair

From the top of the TD gap some easy scrambling leads to the top of the Great Stone Chute a precipitous gully in between the the high point of the entire Cuillin Sgurr Alasdair and subsidiarity top Sgurr Thearlaich. The chute, a ball busting climb up scree and boulders is the only way onto Sgurr Alasdair which does not involve at lease a couple of climbing moves, they make you work for your summits out here. The twin peaks either side of the chute brilliantly frame the Sgurr Dearg and the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the distance. It looks miles away!

Dropping off Sgurr Thearlaich the route weaves up and down switching from side to side of the  ridge and includes a bit of very spicy down climbing over some eye-watering drops. There is even a short section for broad easy almost normal ridge before the terrain reverts to type for the big pull up An Stac the bastion of rock which dominates the southern face of Sgurr Dearg like some enormous citadel which appearers to go on forever. We don't storm the battlements directly thinking it looks impossible only to see a party behind us shoot over it with ease.

 Looking back to Sgurr Alasdair (right), Sgurr Thearlaich (left) and the Great Stone Chute.

The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the only Munro that requires rock climbing skills

The Inn Pin is an amazing feature, a thin blade of rock soaring out of the mountain at the top of An Stac, bizarre and spectacular in a landscape of bizarre and spectacular rock architecture. It's the last and greatest of the geological oddities that make Syke so special. It out-tops Sgurr Dearg from which it thrusts like some deranged spiky quiff by only a few meters and in doing so sets itself apart as the only Munro needing rock climbing skills. Its also massive, much bigger than I had expected from the many photos I've seen. Arrogant assumptions that climbers should be able to solo up and abseil off in minutes because technically its about as easy as climbing gets are instantly discounted when you see it. This demands more respect.

For reasons of poor planning and a complete failure to catch any fish the day before we have no food for tonight and thus need to be down in the campsite shop by closing time at six. To do this we had agreed to miss the Inaccessible Pinnacle and head immediately down the west ridge of Sgurr Dearg. Now though stood at the base of the Pin I'm torn; to come this far and not climb it seems a terrible waste of effort. The thought of no food tonight is however more traumatic, and looking at the time and the fact we have two parties in line ahead of us I fall on the sword of reason and we reluctantly crack on.

 The Inn Pin, with climber about to abb back down.

Decent down the west ridge is scrambley at first then more rounded and open but covered in loose scree which is a nightmare to decent. Constantly shifting beneath our feet we end up riding a wave of rock down the hillside and are both dumped on our arse more than once.  We make the campsite just before the shop closes and put the beers on ice. What a day!

So the Cuillin Ridge? Do it, it's superb; go direct and even in short sections it's a brilliantly committing, varied, challenging and physically demanding route. I can't wait to go back and have a bash at trying for the whole thing in one push. To complete the entire 12km of the ridge including 4000m of ascent and decent you need to be fit, you also need to be comfortable soloing grades 1 to 3 scrambling both up and down over massively exposed terrain. Go and have a ball.

A word of praise for the Glenbrittle campsite. It's in an amazing location below the Cuillin and just of the beach. The facilities are basic but good with warm showers included in a very reasonable 6.40pppn if your camping. But one word of warning, bring a strong tent the wind gets up a bit.

Non climber dictionary of strange terms:

 * Sandbag: A climb that is undergraded.
** Dogging: Failing to climb a route cleanly, ie. falling/resting on the rope, pulling on the rope, and or gear etc (bad form).
*** A move where you sort of twist and drop a knee to get a high foot placement behind you. Named as you end up looking like an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Coming To You In HD?

My blog is now HD enabled! My feeble eight ear old desk to can't play these videos properly never mind edit them. so nothing flashy at the moment.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Wales Wild Camping

As part of building up my logbook for my Mountain Leader assessment I need to record a number of wild camping trips; no great chore as waking up on top of a hill is one of the great joys of being in the mountains. I'm spending three days and two nights walking and wild camping in Snowdonia. Subscribing to the moto light is right I go for the bivi-delux option Terra Nova's ridiculously flimsy and light weight Moonlight Bivi coupled with the flysheet of my one man tent. 

After that effort to cut the weight down I somewhat go and blow it by backing a big heavy SLR and an 800 page tome about the Anglo-German Naval race in prior to WW1 which weighs almost as much as all my food. I need to have a book, it's my first and only luxury when camping reading in the morning and evening in a tent is always a joy.

The hills around Blaenau Festiniog have forever been scared by man, piles of shattered slate tower above the town a landscape where mountains have literally been ripped apart; disemboweled, their guts left to spill from the high fells cascading down onto the valley floor. The collapsing remains of towers, inclines, and track-ways hint at the spectacular sight the mines would have made in their prime; noise, and dust, as thousands of men wrought wealth from the mountain. A century later nature struggles to establish herself in the scars left behind, it's beautiful in it's own way buy also incredibly bleak.

A brooding volcano amid the debris of slate mining.

A mountain of slate shards, testament to the inefficiency of slate mining

From Blaenau it's easy to follow the old access tracks up onto the hills past the crumbling ruins of mining infrastructure; a chapel it's roof collapsed, the beams sticking up like a crown of thorns, tiny cottages reduced to four walls and open to the sky as time and the weather reclaim for nature what man took for himself. The path leads up onto the Moewlems a range I've never visited before, they run from Porthmadog in the south to Moel Siabod above Plas Y Brenin in the north and have a reputation for being wet, the first to catch any precipitation coming in off the Irish Sea.

 The old miners chapel

The housing for a long gone water wheel.

The bank holiday weather is gorgeous, warm, bright sun, with very little wind, a persistent haze fills the horizon hampering the views out to the big hills in the north and the high moorland of central Snowdonia to the south. Although mostly hovering between 500 and 650m the terrain is tough, often pathless, very hummocky, with crag-lets everywhere, and even in the bone dry weather we have been having recently the amount of spongy ground suggests it will be a complete bog slog in the wet. Micro navigation here would be a challenge.

On top of Carnedd Cribau I find a perfect bivi platform perched next to a small summit tarn on which to spend the night. The views over onto the vast Western Corie of Snowdon are spectacular; the great ridges of Crib Goch and Y Lliwedd embracing like great arms Llyn Llydaw.  Now for my favourtite wild camping activity making, and drinking lots or tea whilst reading surrounded by the view.

Snowdon from Fridays bivi

Saturday and I have the crazy notion of doing the Showdon Horseshoe. I daft idea perhaps, I can almost see many of you reading this and rolling your eyes, why would anyone want to go near Snowdon and Crib Goch on a Bank Holiday its a mecca for the incompetent, the overambitious and the ill prepared. Actually it was not that bad, yes there was chaos at Pen Y Pas, a fair amount of inappropriate clothing, and  the summit resembled a bear pit, but Y Lliwedd was almost deserted. 

Crib Goch on a damper day some years ago

Dropping off Y Lliwedd I begin to feel really weak, and fatigued not used to big day carrying a full camping pack. Cyclists have a term called the bonk, which basically is a complete collapse in glycogen (sugar) levels. Your body exhausted of glycogen can't feed itself as it can't strip and convert fats to energy quickly enough to sustain you, and therefore pretty much shuts down. Desperate times calls for desperate actions and there is only one possible course of action; I eat an entire pack of Haribo Tanfast!. A thousand calories later and riding the wave of a massive sugar rush I go shooting down the mountain.

Camp number two

Just above Pen Y Pass and it's deserted as I set up camp beside Lyn Cwmffynnon just above above Pen Y Pass. Legs tired from the day I sit at watch the birds on the lake and the colour changes on the hills as the sun sets behind the hills. the star are out in force during the night giving a wonderful display.

Sunday morning is glorious and soon turns into a scorcher. I climb up Moel Berfedd a small hill above my camp, it's a glorious spot giving fantastic views south to Beddgelert, east to Plas Y Brenin, and of Snowdon itself. After about half an hour on the summit it's on with the work of the day the treck back to Betws Y Coed and the car. Its hot work ascending to old miners track onto the Glyders before turning east allong the broad ridge to Y Foel Goch which gives an excellent view back to Tryfan and Glyder Fach. Following this eastern ridge, an out post of the Glyders massif down to Capel Curig i'm again almost alone, I see three parties all morning despite the brilliant weather and the Bank Holiday.

The Carneddau

Tryfan and Glyder Fach

From Capel Curig to Betws Y Coed runs through a open hillside dotted with gorse and forests smelling of pine in the sun. By the time I arrive back at my car I feel pretty spent but satisfied, three really good days in the hills, no dramas kit worked well and carried just the right amount of food, may go for a smaller book next time though.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Skye; The Journey is Part of the Adventure

Skye; of all the islands of Scotland it holds a special aura. A land of striking, startling beauty, where quirks of geology have created a landscape which coupled with a history wrapped in mythology exerts a magnetic force on the visitor. I've wanted to go ever since I first saw pictures of the Cuillin, The Old Man of Storr, the Trottenish escarpment running high above the sea, places you feel you know even though you've never visited.

Leaving Leeds at six we got to Fort William a little before twelve, pulling off the road by Loch Linnhe we roll out our bivi bags to sleep below a sky full of stars alongside a group of sea kayakers tucked up in their tent. Morning dawns with a cloudless blue sky above a dark blue loch a brew goes on, time feels unimportant on mornings like this.

Simple shelter

The thrill of the journey is underrated, travelling should be a joy in itself. The world is easily appreciated whilst on the move, it's a dynamic thing full of movement and change. To really feel a landscape you need to move through it, be it fast in a car or slow from a kayak, bike, or on foot. Whichever you choose you appreciate different things; It's easy to feel how hills and valleys relate to each other driving through them fast, you loose the fine detail but the grand topography reveals itself easily. The reverse is true as you slow down, the fine detail emerges as individual trees, streams, and crags take their position in the landscape as you lose the bigger picture.

Loch Garry

Our drive north is interrupted by many necessary stops to whiled the camera. North of Fort William we enter a land of brilliant azure blue lochs; forests a patchwork of greens, light and dark roll over the valley floors. Open hillsides of brown and yellow add to the mix covered in grass and shrub struggling to life with the new years growth. Towering above it all the peaks their brown grey summits reaching towards a turquoise sky some still flecked with the white of winter snow. 

Patches of snow cling to the Summits of Ben Nevis (right), Carn Dearg (centre), and Anoach Mor (left)

Onto sky itself and first into view come the Red Cuillin, barren cones of red grey scree soaring up and leg destroying angles. Then the first gimps of the Black Cuillin a geological masterpiece. It appears out of place in a landscape until now dominated by steep but smooth sided hills. A complex towering mass of ridges pinnacles, precipitous flanks crashing down into the valley. The Black Cuillin are not actually particularly big by Scottish standards, they are dwarfed by the Cairngorms for example but there is something about the brutal outline and the way the erupt from out of the landscape that gives them a presence the defies there size. They let you know up front there are not here to take prisoners.

Sgurr Alister, Sgurr Mich Coinniach, and Sgurr Dearg like teeth in the giant maw of some buried giant.

We meet up with Steve, Neil, and Michelle who have driven up from Leicester and discuss ideas. The plan is to eat then head up to bivi just below the ridge to get a good start in the morning. We had planned to catch our dinner, John who had spent six weeks mapping on sky whilst studying geology assured me that this would not be a problem.

Never having fished before and with John's stated assurances that the fish would be dying to jump on the end of the line I was thinking that within thirty minutes I would have sufficient food to not only feed the fabled five thousand but enter into contract negotionions to open the Glen Brittle franchise of "Nice 'n' Greezy" fish and chips co. 

Loch Brittle, and Canna

Consider my disappointment therefore when three hours later we had succeeded in catching little more then seaweed, and a suntan leaving us facing resorting to our reserve plan of cooking tuna skillfully caught from the shelves of Morrison's. Hunger sedated and bag packed and with the sun beginning to fall from the heavens we start the walk in to tonights bed. That story will appear here soon!

A lost cause!