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.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Barren and Beautiful

Sgor an Lochain Ungain (Angels Peak) and Cairn Toul (seen behind), the fourth and fifth highest summits in the UK from the flanks of Braeriach the third. The weather and viz had been awful all day then suddenly I was treated to this for about a minute before the landscape was enveloped in cloud again.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A Sales Pitch

Just back from a weeks outdoor training. First off was a mountain first aid course at Plas Y Brennin then mountain bike leadership training at Glenmore Lodge. I thoroughly enjoyed both courses and was once again struck by the quality of the experience both these institutions offer.

Plas Y Brennin is the National Outdoor Center for England and is run by a charity; Sport England to promote climbing, walking, paddling, and other mountain sports. Due the the vagaries of geology however the English countryside is generally a little too soft and naff for mountain sports;  therefore the center as hinted at by the name is situated in Wales and has a great deal of Welsh blood in it's heritage. Glenmore Lodge fulfills the same roll for Scotland.

The centers offer a huge range of courses, introductory taster sessions, personal skills courses from beginner to advanced, and mountain qualifications to allow you to pass on skills to others. I wholeheartedly recommend you have a look at what they offer and give a course a go. The instruction is enthusiastic, engaging and challenging and set within some of the best mountain landscapes we have in the UK.

Get involved.

Glenmore Lodge with the Cairngorms beyond

So which is best? England and Wales Vs. Scotland

Accomodation: Glenmore Lodge, brand new rooms, amazing showers
Food: PYB would probably win for their flapjack alone!
Facilities: Both centres have pools, climbing wall, bar, and ski slope, the Lodge also has a MTB course sauna, and rifle range.
Location: A bit like being asked to choose between your children really!
Staff: I don't have a bad word to say about either, the instruction was top notch not only in content but in the delivery.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Best Laid Plans

This is the synoptic chart for midday tomorrow when I had planned to be well into the classic 65km MTB cycle route round Beinn a' Ghlo. That spiral of hate sat off the west coast is supposed to bring winds "80mph gusting 110mph".  Walking never mind cycling in those winds would be a bit daft and likely to put me in my own little world of pian; rapid replanning in order.

Friday, 9 September 2011

What is the Morzine Experience?

What is the Morzine experience? Morzine is adrenaline and concentration; Morzine is peace and relaxation; Morzine is chilling on the lift; Morzine is breaking bumps and berms; Morzine is cooked brakes, and tired legs; Morzine is croissant and coffee for breakfast; Morzine is a remote lunch on a summit; Morzine is f**k I can't ride that; Morzine is f**k I rode that :-); Morzine is go big or go home, Morzine is stepping up. Oh and Morzine is steep!

About ten years ago someone had a brainwave; the bright idea that ski lifts need not chocolate teapots throughout the summer months; a short welding job later and uplifted mountain biking was born. It's simple really, put bike on lift... lift goes up.... cycle down.... repeat. Biking made easy roadies will say; biking for the lazy thrill-seeker; they are wrong I was there four days and was shattered every evening.

Spot the riders
Morzine was the first place to buy into this in a big way converting pretty much the entire Portes du Soiel ski area into a huge summer bike park. One waymarked route an 80 km tour of the entire area, is comprised of 80% downhill, 10% level and 5% uphill. That’s 65km of downhill in a day, EPIC!

The first thing you notice when you rock up at the bottom of the lift on day one all full of excitement to get involved with the trails is quite how meaty everyone else's bikes look. Some of them have suspension that would not look out of place on a car; massive amounts of travel front and rear; the kind of think that looks like you could probably cycle over rocks, animals, badly place hikers, cars and not really notice.

Now I don't own one of these behemoths, and had arrived armed with my new hardtail, brilliant in the UK; here??? The awful feeling of being under prepared multiplied when I noticed what everyone else is wearing. Did I have a full face helmet? No. Did I have body armor? No; knee pads? No; elbow pads? I think you get the picture.

Berm, baby, berm

Feeling slightly under prepared, rather like a man who has turned up to play Rugby in a pair of speedos I decide to spend the first day getting used to the riding on some easy runs. Helpfully the trails (shown on a free map) are graded green = easy; blue = intermediate; red = difficult; black = very difficult. In my experience what this actually translates to is:

Green = Need a sit down at the bottom;
Blue = Need a stiff drink at the bottom;
Red = Need clean pants at the bottom;
Black = Need miracle to get to the bottom (whilst still attached to bike);

The trails can be rutted with breaking bumps and littered with kickers and doubles, tabletops and huge berms. Usually there are chicken runs round the really hard stuff but really all the lines are steep and they are committing. Confident and aggressive (not reckless) riding pays dividends smoothing out the bumps a bit and building confidence that you can do this. The longer runs down the ski access roads are less steep and very fast but they be loose and the corners unexpectedly tight. Basically there are no free lunches here.

Double: Avoided these!

I had a great time, it was a step up and a challenge to ride these trails. It’s also amazing value 65 euros for a four day lift pass for the entire area. So go to Morzine it’s brilliant. A recommendation: buy a proper full face helmet. In the end the feeling of nakedness got to me, the normal cycle helmet just felt so flimsy on my head. This coupled with the fact that I was only mid way down the queue when looks were being handed out meant I felt I really could not afford to land on my chin and make the whole situation worse. Shopping ensued.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Morzine: La Roue Libre

Putting together a post about Morzine, but going a little slowly. This was my favorite run out there,  fast varied and ride-able on a hardtail, Just! This excellent video I found on the net does not quite get across the steepness in places. I will point out now I was a little slower than this guy!