Friday, 26 December 2014

My Top 10 routes of 2014

The yearly round-up of trad-tastic, vertically inclined enterprise has made a return with my most memorable excursions of 2014. This year has seen another inhibition upon attaining sanity mostly caused by an impromptu emigration above the boarder to the Highlands of 'bonny' Scotland! The routes aren't the hardest routes I've done nor sometimes do they have the most stars, instead they are a list of routes which provided me with my most memorable days.

So without further a due, here follows my top 10 routes of 2014!

10; Obsession VS 4c, Cader Idris (Cyfrwy Buttress)

An aptly named and unsung mountain classic high on the northern flanks of the misty peak of Cader Idris. The route climbs up the huge slabs that dominate the Cyfrwy Buttress in 3 outstanding pitches overlooking the whole of Snowdonia. The route is neither simple nor stable, yet the atmosphere and positions are amongst the finest you'll find in mid Wales. A must-do for any choss loving mountaineering masochist!

Looking up at the mysterious face of Cyfrwy high on the side of Cader Idris
The route is probably best done after a reasonable dry spell as the crag faces north and is quite vegetated. A further thing to note is that the route doesn't finish at the top of the crag due to a massively unstable section with bars progress to the top (it can be negotiated at around Diff but it is unjustifiably loose!). Instead there is an in-situ anchor which can be used in conjunction with other lower belays to get off the face in 2 or 3 abseils. On our trip we found an abandoned severed rope so take car when pulling the ropes in high winds!

The end of the 2nd pitch of Obsession. Taken from

9; The Magic Crack HVS 5a, Coire an t'Schechda

A fingery technical test piece forging a relatively direct line up Aladdin's Buttress with the main attraction of the route being the 3rd pitch crack which must be one of the finest in Cairngorms. With ambition running probably higher than it should have been on a drizzly mist clagged spring day this route presented an ideal opportunity for a great early season tick. After the brief walk up to the crag from the Ski Centre we found that most of the 1st pitch was actually still buried under last winters snow. However with some quick front pointing up the firm neve with the aid of a nut key or two we established belay in the gap between the snow and the rock face and set off.

The sublime 3rd pitch of Magic Crack on a blustery spring day
4 pitches later we reached the top abseil point and starting lowering back down the route. Diaster struck when we found ourself stuck at the end of the first abseil as in the final moments of retrieving the rope a rather strong gust wipped the end of the rope irretrievably around some flakes. Me and Cealan opted to nominate Scott for this rescue mission, who understandably wasn't overly pleased at the prospect of re-ascending ropes in the by-now driving rain with froozen fingers. Some time later we managed to free them and before long we were sat in the Ski Centre with a coffee and our dignity still intact!

8; Eagle Front VS 4c, Birkness Combe

The mighty Eagle Crag sits high in Buttermere's Birkness Combe and is a crag steeped in history and tradition. Eagle Front climbs the buttress in 7 contrasting pitches and sees you through some seriously impressive terrain. Hard to believe the first ascentionist climbed the route in socks in the 60s!

The mighty Eagle Crag located high in Birkness Combe. Eagle Front drives a fabulous line up the largest
part of the face with fantastic exposure the whole way.

Almost there! Sat up in Birkness Combe with Eagle Crag on the left and
Grey Crag on the right 

7; Moonraker HVS 5a, Berry Head

The Old Redout at Berry Head is amongst the finest sea cliff venues you'll find anywhere in the southwest. It’s limestone precipices cascading into the turquoise ocean bar access too all but the most intrepid explorer. Moonraker climbs a devious line up through its overhanging fortifications in 3 absorbing pitches and is well worth the effort required in the approach. 

Making the thrilling traverse out above the sea on the first pitch of Moonraker
Save this one for a good day as its pretty intimidating! More photos and a full write-up can be found here.

6; The Devils Chimney HVS 5b, Lundy

The fact its the highest sea stack in England coupled with its location on a remote island in the Bristol Channel undoubtedly places this in the top 10! This route has more character than Borris Johnson on Red Bull and is one of the most adventurous sea cliff climbs you'll find south of the boarder! The rock is dirty and loose and the approach is quite frankly harrowing yet it is still leaves you wanting more!

The steep second pitch of The Devils Chimney on Lundy
To be honest anything on Lundy is worthy of this list. It really is one of the best trad climbing destination in the UK and I cannot recommend it highly enough! Diamond Solitaire and The Devils Slide are also fantastic! More photos from the trip here.

Ed Tonkin making the airy traverse on the second pitch of Diamond Solitare (VS 4c)

5; Chasm Route VDiff, Glyder Fach

Loads of overhangs and chimneys which never get any sunlight and are permanently pissing water.. What more could you ask for?! The cliff itself is another often mist clagged mountain crag located within the Ogwen valley. Its a route of tremendous character and of which the best training would probably be a lifetime of brick laying!

Jed Jackson balancing precariously on top of the 'The Vice' shortly after
squirming through it!

Exemplary Welsh weather conditions 'The crag is around here somewhere!!'

4; Blaven and Clach Glas traverse, Difficult, Isle of Skye

Not so much a rock climb but maybe more the best alpine day you can have anywhere in the British Isle. Absorbing and sustained scrambling amidst one of Scotland's most dramatic landscape makes this one thing everybody should do before their knees give out!

Blaven and Clach Glas viewed from across Loch Slapin

Clach Glas is often described as 'The Matterhorn' of Skye.. It's easy to see why!

3; Bludgers Revelation HVS 5a, Slime Wall

An outrageous route that climbs an intricate line up Slime Wall on the side of Buachaille Etive Mor. The crag is right at the top of the mountain so you have to literally climb a Munro before you even get to the route! Steep and thrutchy lower pitches provide a perfect contrast with the delicate upper sections of which have a distinct 'space walking' feel to them. The route also appeared in the BBC's climbing production called 'The Edge'. We were hungover as hell when we did this route.. It was a great cure!!

Rafe stood at the top of Slime Wall with the rest of the world far below!
The mighty Slime Wall with some climbers on the upper pitches for scale

2; Centurion HVS 5a, Carn Dearg

It's probably right at the top of everybody's Scotland 'to-do' list. You don't need me to tell you how good it is. Go and do it! Centurion climbs Ben Nevis's most famous buttress; Carn Dearg in 7 outstanding pitches in a perfect marriage of slabs and overhangs. An enduring classic and I can't wait to go and do it again! More photos here.

The mighty Carn Dearg situated on Ben Nevis. Centurion drives a direct line
up through the central crack system to join Ledge Route at the top. 

Nigel Bond leading the last pitch through the final overhangs of Centurion

1; The Needle E1 5b, Shelterstone Crag

A combination of breathtaking exposure, intricate and sometime burly climbing make this route stand out way above the rest! The Needle climbs a momentous line up Shelterstone Crag set in the Cairngorms' Loch 'Arn basin. Forget 2014, this route is quite possibly one of the best routes I've ever done anywhere. The thing that sets this route apart is the crag itself is a 2 hour walk from the road end and you have to practically ascend a Munro to get to the bottom of the face, oh and then you've got the climbing - a full 260m worth in as many has 10 pitches! You can read a full write up here.

Cealan seconding the 5a Chimney pitch of The Needle with a lot of air beneath his feet! And
yes that is a snow patch 200m below!
We were extremely lucky when we awoke to brilliant and calm weather and at that point realised we have no excuses for bottling it. We had to do it! 10 pitches of climbing and 7 hours later we squirmed out of the final chimney to the top of the crag and bathed in the victorious sunshine! The route really is a mega undertaking and by the time we walked out we had been on the go for over 12 hours so if you're thinking of doing this one defiantly save it for a warm summers day. 

Looking up Shelterstone Crag from it's base with Cealan at the top of the 1st and Gregor and Duncan starting out on
the 2nd pitch.
So it's been a pretty good year this year for vertically inclined excursions. An abundance of Saturday sunshine was obviously a major influence however the greatest praise goes to those who were mad enough to tie on a rope with me!

As a final round-up I'm glad that my comfortable grade of climbing has been transferred into the mountains and sea cliffs as these are the places I enjoy the most. The climbing this year has been the best so far with nearly 100 routes climbed and more than treble that in the number of pitches completed. I can't wait for the rain to disappear and 2015 to get started!    

Others that didn't quite meet the bar it but still equally outstanding!
Sword of Gideon VS 4c, Applecross
Dagger HVS 5a, Creagan Coire nan Etchachan
Immaculate Slab HVS 5a, Lundy
Damnation E1 5b, Coire an t'Schechda
Prophet E2 5c, Cummingston
Troutdale Pinnacle Severe, Borrowdale
Unicorn E1 5a, Stob Coire Nan Lochan
Clean Sweep VS 4c, Hell's Lum

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Moonraker, Berry Head

Rob lounging in the sunshine at the base of The Great Cave below Moonraker (HVS 5a), Berry Head

Having just moved down from Scotland I was worried I may not find the same inspiration to go climbing as I did up north with its abundance of mountain crags, so I needed something special to re-knew my excitement to be back in sunny Devon! Luckily we had a cunning plan! The Old Redout at Berry Head is amongst the finest sea cliff venues you'll find anywhere in the Southwest. It’s limestone precipices cascading into the turquoise ocean exclusify access to all but the most intrepid explorer so this seemed like the ideal proposition to re-knew some psyche. The pièce de résistance of the areas lithological architecture is of course the Great Cave, a seemingly impenetrable series of monstrous roofs as overhung as they are high. For some this presents the Southwests ultimate challenge and is the ideal proving ground for skill, stamina and probably considerable lunacy! Merely the names of the routes here can’t help but excite the imagination; Caveman, Dreadnought, The Lip Trip. For the mentally stable there are more conceivable alternatives the most celebrated of which is of course Pat Littlejohn and Pete Biven’s 1967 route; Moonraker (HVS 5a) which provides an excellent vantage point to view the afformented lines however the rout itself is no pushover. It climbs the initial overhanging wall via a long traverse and then drives a central line straight up the cliff for over 100 feet to the top and is more adventurous than Ranulph Fiennes with blank cheque book courtesy of the Government!

Rob making the arduous traverse out of the cave above the sea
over to the starting ledge of Moonraker

I’ve heard you can abseil to the bottom, however you have to remember to kick out and generate some perpetual motion otherwise you’re left dangling above the ocean faced with either a long climb back up or a swim! The more favoured way is round the side where a descent path leads through a gate and down a steep grassy slope until you reach a small rocky bay at the top of the cliff. Rather alarmingly from the off you’re confronted with a particularly steep looking blind step which marks the start of the traverse into the Great Cave. We lowered ourselves gingerly round very conscious of the 30 foot drop into the sea and eventually landed on the slabs below the jaw dropping Great Cave which loomed overhead. We sat and worked the impossible looking lines which dissect it before turning our attention to the equally impossible looking Moonraker. Tracing its line up the through cracks and over guano covered ledges makes for an intimidating exercise but essential none the less!

Making the strenuous traverse out toward the hanging crack
on the first pitch of Moonraker. Photo from Rob

From here we had to scramble to the back of the cave then hand traverse out along its overhanging wall on bucket sized holds. Easy right? Well it would be if it wasn't for the dazzling light as you exit the cave and all the bucket holds being filled with sea water! After some grunting and burling we eventually reached a large ledge clinging desperately to the base of the overhanging cliff and got ready for it all to step up a gear!

The second pitch of Moonraker high over the swishing tide by now! Photo from Rob

I then led the traverse out and up above the calm sea lapping at the cliff. The exposure is incredible as you move up the steepening wall to a tough move past a peg to the base of a crack. Because I had laced the lower section with some much gear I was quite pumped when I got to the overhanging crack but the holds are big and I managed to find a rest. After the crack a quick skip across the sopping hanging slab I reached the belay. Rob then raced up wondering why I was fannying about so much! Rob then led the next small 4c pitch up to a wonderful ledge belay below the final corner pitch. Crux led, I was quite happy to let him have the corner pitch as well which he danced up with no bother. The last pitch is outstanding climbing in a sensational position with a couple of ‘thinky’ moves with great gear . I defiantly regretted letting him have that one but hey I guess I'll have to go back! The route is truly deserving of its legendary status and kudos to anybody that climbed it in big boots and breeches using a hemp rope and wooden wedges!


Monday, 24 November 2014

Cold Climbs

It's properly winter now. The Coca-cola advert is on TV and the first Christmas songs are already starting to make an inappropriate appearance on the radio. Sacrilegious. Anybody that starts buying presents before December 23rd is probably over-prepared in my opinion! Anyway! Winter also means that getting outside to satisfy my obsession is hampered by limited day light and slow drying rock. This usually means dreams of adding sought after Extreme graded routes to this years 'ticked list' slowly fade away into drizzle clad nightmares.

That route will just have to wait for next year...

Making the long trip to the crag and finding your desired line with a big dank stain of icy water dripping down through it is somewhat disheartening. Only the most ambitious masochists will be undeterred and this was especially evident on a recent trip to the Grit which was blighted by freezing fog and heavy overnight rain. After walking over to Froggart through the drizzle and finding seemingly every route totally soaking it looked like the day was going to be a total write off... Until we spotted the chimney! It would be a waste of a nice day to do such an awful route on a sunny one so really this was the ideal opportunity to give it a bash.

Ed Tonkin busting a gut on English Overhang (VS 4c).
 His t-shirt was white before he started! (Photo credit Mike Stewart)

Reaching for the surface! Shortly before this I had to take my harness off
to fit through the final squeeze!

Ian Stevens reconsidering his priorities in life.

The route of choice was called 'English Overhang' and is most defiantly deserving of its VS (very severe) status! After undercutting a rotting flake with numb fingers one had to launch up the constricting chimney of whom's walls were covered with a fine veneer of green slime (as well as an inch of water). Apart from the obvious sacrifice of skin and dignity it was actually quite an interesting route! Day saved!

The other option at this time of year is of course just to go for a lower grade. Frozen fingers and a weak sun are usually enough to convince most to climb below HVS. However thankfully there are a whole host of routes of where their low grade does not dampen their appeal even slightly. Demo Route (HS 4b) located in the far reaches of western Cornwall is possibly one of the best routes on Granite you'll find anywhere and is a great example of this. Its got it all; from steep face climbing to overhangs and even a cheeky chimney! Its always a pleasure and gets better and better every time I climb it!

Pulling through the overhand on the superb Demo Route (HS 4b)

Jed seconding up the preliminary flakes

Getting stuck in on my favourite type of climbing

Finishing in the evening sunshine.. It's bloody freezing!

So there really is no excuse. Rain, snow, cold or just hungover.. get out there and go climbing!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Enigmatic Affection

Joe Simpson once described climbing to be a mixture between gymnastics and ballet. This joy and freedom of movement is usually the tipping factor in the balance between selfish indulgence and unacceptable risk.

Looking down one of the classic of the chimney genre;
the mighty Savage Slit of Coire an Lochain

However, there is a mysterious and foreboding derivative branch of mountaineering which doesn't conform to this pattern. Where freedom is impeded by lithological incarceration and joy is long forgotten commodity. Chimney climbing is undoubtedly the 'dark art' of climbing. If 'type 2 fun' had a definition in the dictionary it would list one of the many classic UK chimneys. Ascending these huge dank clefts really forms the basis of much of the UKs climbing history back in the early 20th Century where breeches and hob-nailed boots were as essential as a stiff upper lip.

Ian Stevens 'getting stuck in' on Just Fits, the a-typical route
dominating the western edge of Carreg y Barcud in Pembrokshire

Such routes are best saved for 'wild conditions' as if you're going to suffer, you may as well not waste a descent day! It would also be a grave injustice to attempt these in anything other than big boots and full waterproofs as rock shoes are not likely to provide any more 'stick' if the walls are covered in an inch of slime!

Many of these routes maintain there fearsome reputations and call for an abandonment of traditional ethics. Monolith Crack of Clogwyn y Tarw for example (see below UKC extract) is often climbed using combined tactics and in exchange for safe passage requires more than a generous donation of blood, sweat and tears. 'Swimming', 'trashing' and 'thrutching' are often endearingly used techniques to enable upwards progress however to describe this as a 'technique' would probably be misleading.. Arm jams, leg jams, chest jams and of course the full body jams all must be employed. Ascension is often a slow process leaving one bruised, battered and drained. The best training for such an outing would probably be several years worth of brick laying!

A captivating extract from the logbook notes of Monolith Crack from UK Climbing

The Vice at Gogarth, once you get inside you become the gear
placements! Perhaps take a car jack?

On the penultimate pitch of The Needle in the fantastically positioned final chimney crack.
Being over 300 feet up It's a one of the most 'out there' sections of chimney you'll find anywhere! 

So considering all of these facts why are people still drawn to such routes? Well the answer is simple - Adventure. These routes present the optimum challenge of strength, determination, flexibility and perseverance! Conquering a classic such as Lochwood's Chimney, Great Gully, Gwynes Chimney or Chasm Route is a monumental achievement and will propel the ascensionist to stardom! However some would sooner see the person sectioned. It's true, chimneys aren't for everyone. Think of them a bit like Marmite; you'll either love 'em or you hate 'em. But to be honest, you've got to love them! Chalk and wires are replaced by overtrousers and hexes, calming and relation replaced with panic and suffering and that pint at the end of the day will have never tasted so sweet. I'm also told they're best enjoyed wearing wellys but I'll let you be the judge of that..

Deep in the slimy bowls of Chasm Route on Glyder Fach on
a wet and wild October day

It would be an understatement to say that climbing has moved on since the first ascents of many of these routes. Yet the draw and allure of tackling something with such a strong natural line will likely continue to enthuse victims for many years to come!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Close of Play

The Track to Binnien Shuas on a blustery autumn Saturday

Alarm goes off. Wake up. Outside its dark.

Turn off Computer. Drive home. Outside its dark.

It's certainly that time of year again. Increasing blackness and storm bound weekends. The confines of winter seem to creep up on you from out of nowhere but its surely still to early to be having day dreams of fresh powder and ice-clad peaks?

This summer has certainly been one of my best. Not necessarily pushing my grade but just the scale of routes attempted both in the mountains and by the sea. A couple of weeks ago me and Dave biked into Binnien Shuas on a windy Saturday and did the classic route Ardverikie Wall. The huge slab is supposedly the best route Tom Patey ever walked past. Good thing it was a slab as the temperature was cold enough to make Ranulph Fiennes think twice about being outside. I spent most of the day with my hands in my pockets trying to thaw out frozen fingers. I can see how that route gets 3 stars (in summer at least!).

One of the steeper pitches of Ardverikie Wall (HS 4b) on a brisk autumn day

Its awkward at this time of year. A good forecast includes the phrase 'unsettled' as then you at least know there is a chance it may be dry. It's true that rain hampers play, but they say there is no such thing is bad weather, just bad clothes. Unfortunately weather isn't the only autumnal issue. More recently an after-work climbing session at Creag Dubh was brought to an abrupt end but the sudden and inconvenient disappearance of the sun. Abseiling off down into the darkness and the gloom is defiantly an experience best reserved for winter climbing (as at least you're likely to have a head torch on you).

Abseiling of the Creag Dubh classic King Bee (VS 5a) in the by now well established darkness

Please don't misconstrue these negative ramblings as a hatred of the winter season. On reflection winter has innumerable benefits such as winter climbing (bit of a given really), fewer people (as many opt to pull on plastic), better friction (unless the rock is wet which is more likely than not in the UK) and of course an absence of the wee beasties. In fact this time of year is probably the most rewarding time to get out. Set deep within the Easter Ross the forgotten valley of Gleann Meinich echoes with the chorus of rutting stags. We were high on the side of Sgurr A'Mhuilinn climbing Salamander, a long and isolated route climbing a large schist outcrop. We didn't see any one on the crag, nor when we were cycling the 3 miles up through forest and to be honest we barely saw a car on the 30 mile drive up Strathconnon. T-shirts and chalk were substituted for thermals and gloves but the blissful isolation and solitude outweighed the suffering!  

Salamander (HVS 5b) climbs the central slab in 6 excellent pitches

Jim with frozen fingers on the crux pitch of Salamander (HVS 5b)

Damp rock and cold weather may well mark the close of play for this year but the sooner it ends, the sooner it starts! So here's to the end of the craggin' seasons. You've been a beaut but now its time for winter!

The promise of winter. We can only hope its one to remember!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Creag a'choire Etchachan

Once again the weather has been torturing the pen pushers of Scotland this week with seemingly un-broken spells of midweek sunshine. Thankfully Saturday adhered to wishful thinking and the high pressure remained dominant.

Jim checking the route on a water streaked Creag a'choire Etchachan 

The plan was to head to one of the most inaccessible mountain crags in the Cairngorms, Creag a'choire Etchachan (yeah!  I know! A total mouthful, but translates roughly as ‘Crag of the Corrie of the Juniper’). This isolated kilometre long bastion of granite is located deep in the central massif at the head of Glen Derry and is over 7km from the nearest road end. Being east facing it takes a while to dry out and is consequently more renowned for its superb ice routes in the winter months. However, the rock is of such impeccable quality that it's also a fantastic summer venue hosting many worthwhile routes such as the classic route tick Talisman (HS 4c).

Will seconding the fantastically exposed second pitch of Scabbard (VS 4c)

The Crimson slabs dominate the right hand sector and provide over 100m of vertical climbing from VS standard to E3. The first route we opted for Scabbard (VS 4c), climbs the arête that bounds the right hand side of the slabs in 4 superb pitches.

Will leading the main corner of Dagger (VS 4c)

The Impressive second pitch of Dagger (VS 4c)

After that we had a go at Dagger (VS 4c) which climbs the water worn corner below Scabbard. The confusing and bold first pitch is soon compensated for by the outstanding second pitch corner which is pretty tough for VS!

Some campers setting up for a still night on the shores of Loch Etchachan

It's an amazing venue and it's defiantly worth the walk in! Something to note is we’ve had an incredibly dry summer in the Cairngorms this year, yet both routes were wet in places and the slabs were streaked with water. Defiantly one for a hot sunny day!

Hunting for bilberries in Loch 'Arn still a long way from the car! 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Clean Sweep

With autumn fast approaching and summers grip rapidly fading into falling leaves and early nights it was time to get in some last minute mountain craggin'. We arrived at the base of the sun-baked Hell's Lum with the sounds of clinking-metal ringing out around the glen - clearly we weren't the only ones to have this brain wave. A quick glance around Loch Avon confirmed this with dozens of tiny coloured specks littering all the major routes; The Needle, Steeple, Afterthought Arete, and of course our route, Clean Sweep. Since there was a few parties ahead of us we opted for a leisurely start. The beating sunshine roasting any midges that were foolish enough to make an appearance. Our route; Clean Sweep (VS 4c) is a classic rock tick and is probably the most popular summer rock route on the crag if not the whole valley.

Looking the water streaked Hell's Lum with on the first pitch of Clean Sweep (VS 4c)

The first pitch climbs the slabby lower section to a groove which bars entry to 'The Whaleback'. Some tough, but well protected moves quickly see you on the top of 'The Whaleback' and the spacious belay. The next pitch climbs across the fault Deep Cut Chimney and then up the cracks and grooves (which was more of a swim in today's conditions!) to below the impressive 3rd pitch corner. The 3rd pitch is an absolutely fantastic test of sustained bridging and subsequent jug pulling. The start is quite delicate but the climbing culminates in a tough pull through an overlap before the easier continuation crack is reached and followed to a belay beneath a gopping overhang.

The superb sustained crux corner of Clean Sweep

Dave finishing the hard section of the crux corner of Clean Sweep

With the slabs of the lower pitches far below the 4th pitch blasts up a steep groove on big holds, although the difficulties are short lived its quite a lively pitch! Hellfire Corner, a classic VS to the left had an actual waterfall running down it meaning when the wind temporarily changed direction you got a wee soaking! At this point the sunshine had long gone, and the absence of any wind only meant one thing - Midges!!! An army that would equal that of Napolian himself seemed to appear out of every grass or mud filled nook and crany and they clearly hadn't eaten so far this year!

Dave leading the surprisingly steep 4th pitch through the overlaps

The guide books seem to contrast as to the best finish on the last 2 pitches; Cairngorms SMC recommends up the trickling corner whilst Gary Latter reckons step down and around the arete and up. Since the corner had an actual waterfall running down it we opted for the 'Latter' of the two options! The traverse was wonderfully airy and all the holds were huge so I would defiantly recommend this way instead of the SMC alternative. A final easy pitch saw us over the top and into the last of the fading sunshine, a great end to a great summer. 

Sunshine in the Cairngorms, it doesn't get much better than this!

Looking down the last pitch with the bottom of the crag far below, an outstanding route!