Sunday, 10 June 2018

A big whipper on Ben Nevis

Drinking a mug of tea in the CIC hut on Ben Nevis at the end of the day was a pleasure.  Normally after a day on the Ben, Iain by habit needs to go in the hut, relax and enjoy a pot of tea.  Easy for him I think.  Normally I am chomping to get back due to my slight impatience.  Mainly due to the fact I’ll have some arrangement or work at the other side of the country the next day.  But this day was different.  I took time to enjoy the company and reflect on our day…. 

Ben Nevis
Over the years, I have managed to work my way through the climbs in the guidebook for Carn Dearg Buttress on Ben Nevis.  A bit annoying really as I love that badass cliff.  Iain of course has opened up a few more but the details have only ever been discreetly published.  A few years ago I repeated a route of his and Tony Stones up the right wall of Sassenach.  A nice steady E6 wall climb.  Highly recommended for anyone operating at that grade.  Recently we have had a great spell of weather.  For the first time ‘Life’ has caught up with me and so I haven’t managed to capitalise on it.  I had a day booked with Iain and so we opted for Carn Dearg.  He was happy to hold my ropes.  His suggestion was the left arĂȘte of Banana Groove.  It’s an E6  called ‘Calgucus’ he and Rick Campbell established in 2009.  I was easily sold.

Leaving the belay at the base of Banana Groove, I clipped the top wire of the belay, placed a cam, unclipped the wire, placed another 2 wires higher… then reversed, faffed.  Then clipped the belay wire.  Thin moves left, you gain the arĂȘte.  It’s sharp but satisfying.  Airy moves up I gained more wire placements.  They seemed solid (Size 5 DMM offset and a big BD micro).  More tricky moves and the right wall overhangs.  I gained a strenuous undercut and manged to place 2 small C3’s and 1 micro. 

The sequence above was unobvious.  Strenuous and technical was my initial thoughts.  I probed up and down many times trying to unlock something.  Iain had no knowledge so I was on my own.  I felt a bit of fear so placed another DMM small peanut. Now, I am a pretty calculated climber I like to think… sometimes over cautious.  No one wants to die or hurt themselves.  So basing it on that, I committed to a sequence.  Yes, I was pumped and my sequence was not working out so I went for the lob.  The gear at my waist, nothing new I thought.  Fuck me, I went for the ride of my life.
That cluster ripped clean out, spinning upside down, the next cluster ripped, I’m still having flashing images of the ledges of Sassenach off to my left.  I braced my body having time to think.  The next minutes I was on the biggest swing of my life under the big roofs of Sassenach with a pile of gear upside down.  ‘Oh bugger I thought’.  Correcting my orientation my ribs ached along with 2 rope burns across the inside of my right forearm.  Keeping the swing, I got into the wall and pulled my way onto the left rib.  Glancing up, Iain was pinned upside down glaring down with the rope pinning him down. I thought I had had the rough ride.  No! 

On the Arete (Photo:Iain Small)

Poor Iain was groaning in pain.  He never said too much apart from telling me he smacked his head (he was wearing a helmet), was feeling sick and sweating.  He informed me he tied the rope off and to just give him a minute.  I was clamped to the rib and placed 2 wires to secure myself to give myself a minute to just take in what had happened.  I had a growing concern for Iain.  How long do I wait till I climb back up?  He seemed adamant to give him a moment… Eventually he partially recovered and I climbed back up with him belaying me fine.

A nervous laughter was exchanged.  It was agreed pretty quickly that a pot of tea in the CIC hut was needed.  I knew something was wrong.  It was 1.30pm, there was still light and Iain wanted to go home! 

By the time we had left the hut, Iain was fine, chatting away and felt back to normal.  It was good to see the human side of him.  He felt content at the fact he has happy to leave, go home and enjoy the weather rather than feel the need to be out.  I felt sick to be honest.  I was the one who took the 30 meter whipper, but I came away relatively un marked.  Iain however took the impact.  Hats off to him.  He doesn’t remember much.  Obviously he was checked out in A&E and was deemed fine.  A stitch was required to his chin.  His poor knuckles have no skin left and he has a lump on his head.

Rope Burn

Clearly a lot of analysis has been happening in my head.  Cubby has taken great interest and has turned into Sherlock Holmes carrying out an enquiry.   Jules too has given it his interest.  I do feel a bit daft but it’s been reassuring speaking with those two as we all know from the history books, they have taken their fair share of rides down the cliff.  A few days have passed and I’m pretty keen to get back out (its good to see I am frustrated about the humidity, thunderstorms and midges rather than the fear of climbing).  I guess that’s the joy of harder climbing;  I sign up for it .  Having done lots of hard trad over the years, it’s good to have a gentle reminder that things can be pretty dangerous.  We walked away and I have my own thoughts on how to deal with stressful trad in the future.  We all get lazy about placing that initial bomber runner.  But from this experience, I’m sure you can see its importance.  Iain had actually placed a wire at his waist which stopped the upward pull too much.  Without, that would it have been much worse?  Do we all place wires at belays to take upward pulls?  Unusually we were using a single rope that day.  That was out of the norm for me.  Why do I have rope burn on the inside of my right arm?  A lot of things to think about.  So take what you want from that.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Winter. The Middle Part of the Season

The last time John Orr and I climbed together was a Sunday back in Feburary 2014.  We made the first winter ascent of route called ‘Root of All Evil’ IX,8 on Beinn Eighe.  I don’t know what happened but the last 4 years have slipped away and all we have managed was a quick social evening whenever I was in North Wales.  Anyway, John has been busy with the guides scheme which means his personal climbing has taken a back seat for parts of the year.  At the start of the winter, he sent me some dates of when he would be in Scotland and was keen to hook up.  He obviously pointed out that he has only been skiing and had done no climbing of any form recently. 

Ben Nevis
The season rolled on by and many crags came into good condition.  John and my date was fast approaching and there was that little reminder each time that he has only been skiing.  Centurian VIII,8 seemed to keep popping its head up in our discussions.  Naturally John had his reservations.  A long hard and sustained winter route.  However, the forecast was perfect and its rarely in such good winter condition John agreed it was a good opportunity.  I must admit, I did have new route psyche on Beinn Eighe burning at the back of my mind.  I disguised this by suggesting a nice short easy day, but John never bought that one as he had been there before.  The deal was, he would have a go at the first pitch then I would lead the next 3 hard pitch’s then take it from there.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Pitch 2 was the most time consuming as its long and sustained.  Higher up the route, I feared the route 2 traverse would be a nightmare due to the volume of snow on the slabs.  But as I started the traverse, it became almost a walk due to the snow being fairly useful with a slight but of consolidation.  The trench formed in the snow down Ledge Route at 9 pm was a welcome sight. 

Me following pitch 1 of Centurian (Photo: Johm Orr)

John following pitch 2 of Centurian (Photo: John Orr)

Me on the thin traverse on pitch 3 of Centurian (Photo: John Orr)

John following pitch 4? I think of Centurian

The Steeple IX,9, that would be another long winter affair I often thought.  Iain Small has often voiced his reservations about climbing it in winter.  He is a proper winter climber preferring the winter only ground.  In saying that, he has an impressive CV of winter ascents of hard rock routes!  Living now in the modern era, I couldn’t help but notice several reports of the Shelterstone crag been in good condition.  I tentatively suggested The Steeple to Iain and to my surprise he agreed out right.  The route had already had 3 ascents, with various means of gaining the upper pitches which include the stunning corner pitch.  Martin Moran and Pete Macpherson climbed a much more pure line of the route back in 2012.  Taking in the entry summer 5a pitch’s but swapping the slabby summer 5c pitch for the needle 5b pitch, this seemed a good option for Iain and myself. 

The Shelterstone

Iain got the ball rolling on the awkward groove first pitch.  Pitch 2, the continuation of the groove has a superbly fractured left wall.  Littered with perfect pick placements, this pitch in its own right would have a que of climbers back to Aviemore if it was located in the Northern Corries.  The summer 5b pitch of The Needle, gave Iain a good workout.  Following him, I forgot how strenuous it was and the seconding fear started to rise exponentially.  Busting my gut pulling into the finishing groove of the pitch knocked my confidence, but I never voiced my concern.  ‘Aye, that was quite tricky, nice one Iain’. 

Me following pitch 1 of The Steeple (Photo: Iain Small)

Iain on the Needle pitch

Leading the ramp and layback groove sharpened my focus again.  Pick eating cracks are always welcome, but sometimes are hungry resulting in a stuck tool.  Some jiggery pokery, I managed to free the tool with a raging hot temper.  Arriving at the belay below the corner, I thought ‘Oh, that looks tricky’.  At least the belay platform was nice below which offered me some comfort.  

Me on the ramp pitch (Photo: Iain Small)
It was still light, which was a bonus, but glancing at my watch, and knowing the rate I would be climbing at, I knew the head torch better be strapped on.  Questing up, the initial part is beautifully strenuous and positive.  Forgetting what this pitch was like as a summer route, I hoped the pitch continued in a similar positive fashion.  Then I was ground to a halt.  Baggy cracks, little feet and strenuous positions, my body was cramping up.  Laybaying on tools, feet pasted on nothing, hand jams, matching tools a thank god chalkstone was reached.  Here I could just chill out and hang on.  That has its advantages and disadvantages.  The rest of the pitch was still hard and awkward to climb.  With it being winter, of course everything was covered in snow and clearing was a pain in the ass.  But climbing snowed up rock is the stupid game we play so I’m not complaining.  Of course it was dark, and topping out of the corner with little gear left on my harness, everything was buried, there was several times I wished it all to be over.  Finally I got myself strapped in onto the airy and lonely perch below the final wall which guarded the easier exit ground above.  

Me on the Steeple Corner pitch (Photo:Iain Small)
I recalled Pete Macpherson saying that this pitch just sucked the energy out of you.  I can confirm it does.  Thankfully for Iain, the cracks were taking cams so it was safe.  Purple camalot size.  Great, but not great for picks.  So, some seriously strenuous pulls from him and an snowy mantel the ropes began to feed out quicker.  A pleasant sight for any tired belayer.  A faint‘Safe’ was heard, this was music to my ears.  Following this pitch with cramping hands, biceps and abdominal s was a joy in the rain.   The warm weather was pushing in and our lovely crisp winters day was over.  Standing at the base of the Sheltersone at 10pm on a Sunday night in February pissing is not my favourite thing at that time of night.  Add in the fact we had the painful walk out of Corie Domhain through a deep thawing snowpack with bags twice as heavy.  That again, is not my favourite thing.  However, the deep satisfaction of The Steeple coursing through my body and an unforced grin, the walkout was easy.  Some cold broccoli, a tin of mackerel and some oat cakes was a welcome dinner back at the car park.

Iain on the final top wall pitch

I cant quite remember the weather pattern but I think it thawed for a few days, then a re freeze with high pressure saw the ice begin build and pump out from everywhere.  Nick Bullock and I had arranged to go out.  Going to Ben Nevis on a stellar forecast was neither of our ideas of fun.  We took the risk and wondered about the icy routes on Giants Wall on Beinn Bhan.  Neither of us had climbed the outrageous line of Gully of the Gods VI,6.  Hoping that would hold the ice we chanced it.  I must admit, walking in, I had my reservations.  But, it was such a gorgeous day and we both agreed even taking the bag for a walk and looking at stuff was going to be satisfactory.  Giants Wall looked lean and my heart sank a little.  But peeking into Gully of the Gods, it was sufficiently smeared in ice.  Boom!  This route is by far one of the best winter climbs I have done.  3D fun is the best way to describe it. We were on top by 12.50pm.  With the sun splitting the sky and not a breath of wind, we just hung around lapping it up.  Cheating really, it was too easy.  The idea of doing a second route was quickly put in the bin.  How often do you get to sit about in the warm sun in winter after a route?  It was as opposite to hard mixed climbing as you can get. 

Beinn Bhan

Nick on pitch 1 of Gully of the Gods

Me on the 3D pitch 2 (Photo: Nick Bullock)

We agreed that Der Risenwand VII,6 looked icy enough so stashed the kit.  The following day we walked in with light bags and trainers over the frozen bog.  A novelty for this wall.  My previous visits have always been wallowing around in deep snow, in the dark falling into bogs, sliding on wet vegetation.  The usual grinding approach in the North West.  We roped up for the first 3 pitchs then just soloed along the terrace and up the ramp until a narrowing that neither of us fancied without a rope.  The original line makes an airy step left at the top of the ramp.  Nick reached a belay just before the step.  As I approached he was like ‘Oh, look at that over hanging ice above you Murdoch.  That looks rather good and tasty doesn’t it?’  I looked up, and thought, for fuck sake!  But, it did look rather attractive.  However, it did look like you had to utilise a wedged block which looked rather too exciting for me.  Anyway, away I went.  A steep strenuous mixed traverse right gained the ice, followed by some cruddy ice, it wasn’t a place to fall.  But thankfully I didn’t.  Nick followed then did what he is good at and just ploughed on doing one very long dynamic pitch to the top dragging me up behind.  Another, fine day.  Great company and good chat putting the world to right, it has to be my best weekend of the winter!

The magnificent Giants wall of Corie Nan Fhamhair

Nick on pitch 1 of Der Risenwand

Looking up at the wrong moment. (Photo: Nick Bullock)

Nick on the traverse on pitch 3

Me following pitch 3 (Photo:Nick Bullock)

Nick on the middle terrace.

Me following the ramp (Photo: Nick Bullock)

Me on the new Icicle variation  finish (Photo: Nick Bullock)


Friday, 16 February 2018

Winter is here

Well, it is fair to say, that this winter is panning out to be quite good.  In saying that, last winter was not bad.  The weather was brilliant, there was just no snow and so you had to shift your focus and go with the conditions.  Bouldering.  This year, I must admit I have only had one days bouldering and have concluded that my energy is better spent hooking my way up frozen cliffs. 

The Ben on 30th November 2017.. my 31st Birthday.

Guy loving crap weather on 'Pot of Gold'.  A shock to the system after being in the desert.

This season, I have spent a few days in Glencoe.  I guess this is a happy middle ground between myself and Iain Small who I have been out climbing with regularly.  At the same time The Coe is not shit so, that’s handy.  On a nice weekend before Christmas saw us both standing in Stob Corie Nan Lochan.  For me, I had only done 2 routes there, so I had full pick of the corie.  Iain on the other hand only has 2 or 3 desperate routes to do before the crag is ticked.  Opting for ‘Satyr’ IX,9/10?, I nominated Iain for the first pitch.  Neither of us new anything about this route apart from the first pitch was bold and there was some history about Andy Nelson and Donald king going back 2 or 3 times to complete it.  Despite knowing that tiny bit of knowledge, the alarm bells never rang.  They must have been faulty that day… 

Iain on pitch 1 of 'Satyr'

Anyway, Iain set off up pitch one.  Bold start, its handy to know Iain likes (?) that stuff.  Maybe not, but I think he does.  A good hex was reached then steady away with another hard few moves up a compact wall, slopey ledge.  Not my favourite winter ground, but an excellent pitch.  I quickly wallowed my way up the easier middle pitch.  Then there was the top.  We new nothing apart from the summer description.  Up the wide chimney crack (another favourite feature of mine) then a mantelshelf move.  Off I went…. I got up the crack.  Looking left I saw the lovely top pitch of Central Grooves.  Oh how appealing it looked.  However, I was bound for this slabby wall above guarded by this horrendous mantel move.  A thin crack on my left had an insitu DMM Terrier.  I managed to back this up with a good rock 2 and a crappy size 1 peanut.  Up and down, I realised, this was not quite a straight forward as I hoped.  Hmm, Central Grooves out left looked even more appealing.  More faffing, I committed and the inevitable, I fell off.  Giving Iain the option of me bailing left or passing him the lead I prayed he would say just go left.  No.  He wanted to give it a shot.  Bugger.  Of course its dark…  So down I came.  Iain grovelled his way up the crack regretting his decision.  I was glad to see he gave the mantel a token look and said ‘fuck that’ and did the decent thing and bail left into the groove.

A few days later, I did my re search on Satyr and realised that the top pitch was problematic on the first ascent.  Both Andy and Donald were on the phone giving me their stories.  Then when out with Nick Bullock a few weeks ago, he mentioned that that pitch never went smoothly on their ascent.  The moral of the story, Andy and Donald are winter weapons…. Which we already know.  But this re enforced that knowledge.  Be careful if repeating their routes.

Summit Buttress

The following day, The Duel IX,9 was on the cards.  However, I’m sure most of you who follow Facebook and Simon Richardsons blog will be aware that I am useless and I ended up climbing a very long and taxing pitch of En Garde.  Here is my account which I submitted to Simon.  Please visit his blog as he of course has added in some interesting and important history.

Me on 'The Wall Pitch' (Photo: Iain Small)

Iain led the introductory pitch to below 'The Wall' pitch of 'The Duel'.  Then I led 'The Wall' pitch of the duel, crossing the overlap and into the groove.  From there I just followed my nose, totally unaware that 'The Duel' traversed out right.  There was an old peg on the left wall which had seen better day so I backed that up with a cam and just assumed the route continued up the obvious line above!  Tricky, thin committing moves above the peg gained a belay ledge.  I was aware that this was meant to be a long pitch of 40m...Iain shouted up that I had only done 30m or there abouts so I just continued up the corner.  This was pretty steep with only a crappy peg and cam to protect it so it felt rather exciting for me. Above this, you reach a turfy ramp and can belay below the overhanging chimney (again this all fitted in with my thoughts we were on 'The Duel').  Iain followed and led the chimney.  We had taken a big cam especially for this.  However despite the steep chimney being strenuous it was positive placements.

Red line is En Garde, Green is The Duel
Chatting with Cubby the next day then reading the route description for 'The Duel' in then Cicerone guide, the doubts began to creep into my mind in what we had actually climbed.  I mentioned this to Iain and with the help of a photo from James Richardson of us on the route, it became clear we were on the higher ramp of ‘En Garde’.  Grade wise, we both thought it was IX,9.  Above that peg, is still pretty sustained climbing with not an abundance of gear.  But i'm sure one of these modern dry toolers will have it down at VII 8 soon.  

In terms of a description, it basically follows the summer description in the guide.  However the pitch 2, I belayed on a big ledge below the overhanging chimney.  (maybe 45m).”

Iain on the top pitch of En Garde

I am pleased to see it has had a second ascent from Nick Bullock and Tim Neil (Nick has a very funny account of his day on his blog.  They both seemed to enjoy it which was good.  Again, I can’t re enforce the fact, Cubby, what a beast.  Very impressive climbing even by today's standards.

Next came a warm Christmas then a snowy New Year.  This saw Iain and myself walking around the Cairngorms.  Despite having done a few hard routes this year it’s good to know that the hardest I have pulled on tools was the VI’s in Lochan!

Iain on 'The crack'

Liathach, a great day out.

Bullock arrived in Scotland at the start of January.  Last time we climbed together was on The Ben in 2013 when the ice was good.  Several year’s worth of story exchange passed the brutal walk up in to Stob Corie Nan Lochan.  Neither of us had done Unicorn VIII,8 so this fitted the bill for us.  I had always believed that the first pitch was for your mate.  But knowing that I find seconding in winter the living end and basically can't, ask any of my partners, I felt better suited to at least lead the awkward flare.  Weird psychology I know!  At least that way it would be marginally more pleasurable.  I had built this initial pitch up to be hell on earth, but in actual fact, I thought it was fine.  Then I was a bit greedy and took more than my fair share of pitch 2, leaving Nick the top part of the corner.  I couldn’t resist, the climbing is first class.  However, I paid for my cheeky behaviour when placing my tool literally in the top of the crag on the 4th pitch.  My other tool ripped which saw me lob.  Bugger.  I sent Nick up to finish the job. 

Me on pitch 1 of Unicorn.  (Photo: Nick Bullock)

Nick following pitch 1 of Unicorn

Nick on pitch 2 of Unicorn

Glencoe provided another happy medium for Iain and myself during the very snowy weekend of the 20th January.  He of course has a black book full of new route options so making best use of the copious amounts of fresh snow saw us on the very low E Buttress in Glencoe.  Starting up the corner pitch of the summer E1, Trapeze, we broke off left up some rather interesting and rather shattered winter ground.  He is yet to write an account for Simon, but I’ll leave you with a few photos.  All in all a new VIII,8.

Iain following pitch 3 of our new route.

Iain on a tricky traverse on pitch 4.

Me on the final pitch.  Loose and rattly.  (Photo: Iain Small)

Another new line on the buttress left of Italian climb saw us floundering around in the dark.  Another one of these ‘Short Big days’.  A good lead from Iain on the initial pitch.  Straight off the deck he was pulling hard going over a steep overlap trying to gain a steep icy groove.  Iced cracks, very strenuous position with a body breaking landing, hats off to him for digging the gear placements out.  It was a joy to follow.  Questing off up left, I felt rather intimidated.  New routing in on new ground can be worrying.  Iain pointed me in the direction of these big roofs.  Thankfully these big roofs were well fractured so were very accommodating for an intimidated Murdoch.  Grade wise, VIII,9 or IX,8... Not sure.  Take your pick.

Iain on pitch 1 of the new line.

Me on pitch 2 (Photo: Iain Small)

‘The Crack’ VIII,8 on Ben Nevis.  Now, there’s a route I was sort of aware about, but not really.  I guess it’s not on many peoples radar.  It’s ‘round the corner’ on Ben Nevis.  No crowds there and low on the hill so rarely in acceptable condition.  With all this snow and persistently cold temperatures it was a good choice.  Walking up the base of it, it winks at you, teasing you inside.  When I was in the states last year, I managed to avoid offwidths.  Ha ha, I thought.  Well, it was payback time for that cheeky manoeuvre.  I was inside this thing.  Floundering around, gear way below, there were certainly naughty comments coming from my mouth.  Something about how 'I hate winter climbing' and 'this is a complete waste of time' and 'I should have gone for a walk instead…' the list goes on.  Anyway, again not knowing anything I grovelled up the first part to a welcome rest.  Then quested off up the continuation.  Suddenly you’re on the outside but the crack is too baggy for the tools.  It’s bulging.  What the Fuck?!  An old peg below my feet, I was feeling rather taxed again.  Thankfully I managed to through a hex in and batter it with my tool.  At least that was something, but then it was in the way!  Anyway, it took me some time to psyche myself up and deal with these pumpy strenuous moves to reach some thank god chalk stones.  Flipping hec.  Good job Simon Richardson and Chris Cartright.  Iain dealt with the next off width above.  I think on the first ascent, they went right but we stayed in the crack as we were enjoying it that much.  Easy ground was reach, thank god.

Iain on the awkward initial pitch of 'The Crack'

Me on pitch 2 of 'The Crack' (Photo: Iain Small) was more like this... grovelling.

Iain on pitch 3 of 'The Crack'

Centurion VIII,8, now there’s a route…  John Orr and i do like a lengthy day out, but that deserves its own write up.

Peter Herd on Vapour Trail.... Torridon will need to wait to March :-(

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Moonlight Buttress

One of many crags at Indian Creek.  
Day 1 in Indian Creek.  Having just warmed up on the classic ‘Dr Karl’ 5.10, I glanced at the route next door.  It was graded 5.11.  Looked piss.  "Aye, I’ll just give this a burn Pete.  See where we are at". 

Pete on Dr Karl

I couldn’t get off the ground.  This stellar crack was guarded by this body width off width, about 15ft high.  I had my new big green size 6 camalot in.  It was in the way.  I kept re positioning it.  Then I was laybacking up the thing, then slumping onto the cam.  Meanwhile Pete is buried in my big duvet jacket pissing himself with laughter.  Upping and downing, jamming and laybacking, every shot was just one more go.  Eventually I turned the simple grade converted E2 offwidth into a desperate E8 layback and I gained the hand crack.  Easy, I’ll just nip on up.  3 meters higher I was burnt.  Aiding on red cams (which I later found out was a desperate crack size for me) I eventually I reached the wider crack above of gold cams (later which I found were piss but satisfying to climb).  Then a roof was reached.  I had no cams left despite taking the guidebook recommenced number.  There was a variation finger crack out left.  It wasn’t so much the finger crack was appealing, more the fact the chains were at 30m rather than the 40m hand crack above me.  I made a little belay and lowered a loop of rope to haul the small cams up.  Aiding out, I managed to get established.  5.12, the same grade as Moonlight Buttress, I’ll just give it a cheeky go.  Finger crack, that might be more my style.  Eh no!  More aiding took me to a widening in the crack.  A blue cam in then the chains.  Thank god.  Annoyingly the blue cam was over cammed.  Totally jammed.  Day one, we cant loose a big blue.  Dave Cowan gave me some advice, pour water over the cam and work it out.  Essentially you are softening the rock.  After a painfully long time the cam came out.  This whole process from tying on, then me reaching the ground must have taken around 2hrs.  Oooops.  Well that was Moonlight Buttress off the list.  I walked away from the crag that evening with my tail between my legs.  For months I had been talking all about Moonlight Buttress.  Basically I had built it into my head that it was ‘ok’.  But this first day just shut me down.  Ok, I was choked with the cold, sleep deprived and jet lagged, but even still, that was a comedy for anyone watching. 

You just can't appreciate how cool this is...  I want back now!


Indian Creek.  The world famous destination for sandstone crack climbing.  I had my personal reservations about visiting there.  But in retrospect, it’s probably the best investment of time I and the others have made in our climbing so far.  Yes, we got spanked.  But during that process, you develop a new skill set which not only paid dividends for the rest of the trip but for life.  One thing I did struggle to get my head round was top roping some routes.  I’m a very British climber and hold the onsight/flash attempt at high value.  Not that we did much TRing, but Pete got me into doing a few routes, particularly 5.12 finger cracks.  They are basically desperate.  But, the process of stringing 3 or 4 moves together and learning the body positioning was priceless.  One does feel like a complete punter, but its just part of the process. 

Shade (Photo: Rory Brown)
Me, Pete, Emma and Rory on top of Castleton Tower (Photo: Peter Herd)
5.11+ lay backing, easy. (Photo: Peter Herd)
Anyway, in the Creek we sampled what we could.  5.10 hand cracks became easy along with 5.11 finger laybacks.  We dispatched some lots of classic routes some of which you may have heard of, 'The Incredible hand crack’ and ‘Supercrack of the Desert’ (which team Scotland thought was shit despite its world famous must do status)..  One thing I found with the cracks was, they are very physical, fairly satisfying, but can get a bit monotonous.  Same move after another.  Don’t get me wrong, its good fun, but I suspect we are use to more face climbing in the UK with varied moves on a pitch.  After 2 days, we were all broken.  I think Rorys hand is still swollen 5 weeks later!  Living in the creek was cool.  No phone signal, no towns or cities or major roads.  Just a mellow relaxed feel with a few climbers dossing about.  A pretty good place to be for resetting the social media button.  I could keep ranting about the Creek.  But I won’t.  As far as I’m concerned it got 10 out of 10 and I will certainly be back.  Thanks to Emma for her drive to go there.   

The Incredible Hand Crack

A full day's climbing was never enough.  So some evening bouldering was needed (Photo: Rory Brown)

Every route we did, every crag we visited, it always got compared to Scotland.  Every night in the RV,  team Scotland went into serious discussion on how things compared to the 'Ruthven traverse', 'Ashie Fort', 'Am Fasgadh'.  Obviously Far East Wall on Beinn Eighe top trumped it all ;-).  The skye lines were compared with the Cullin ridge and the 3 sisters of Glencoe was spotted in the Creek.  Why did we even bother leaving?

Pete Clarckson loving the scottish summer.  Why would you leave?

Zion, excuse my language, but fuck me!  What a place.  I basically wet myself as we drove into the national park.  After a total ass kicking at Indian Creek, I had to admit to the team I had my concerns about attempting Moonlight Buttress 5.12+.  Pete said himself, it had slipped down on his priority list.  We gleaned tiny bits of information from other climbers regarding it, but it was all very mixed.  Some said it was tough and as hard as the cracks in the Creek.  Others, said it was more friendly and positive for the fingers with pods and some features on the wall.  However, I realised that we were in America, the other side of the world.  Zion was nearby.  I had been banging on about it all year.  What’s the worst that could happen?  You end up doing one of the finest 5.9 C1 Aid routes in North America.  I have limited aid climbing skills so this could be an opportunity to practice….


A switch was flicked, bags were packed that night, confidence appeared out of nowhere.  Pete and I jumped on the 8.00 am shuttle bus in search of Moonlight Buttress.  We had 4 days in Zion.  It was a tough decision on how to spend our time.  Not feeling confident on free climbing Moonlight Buttress in a day, we thought to give ourselves the best chance of doing it would be at least to pre inspect it, and try various sections over the next 2 days.  The plan was, we could do the first half to the top of the crux, then the next day, rap in and check it out.  From that, we could decide is it worth an attempt in a day.  We had no portaledge or bivi kit so were limited to a day ascent. 

Moonlight Buttress
Day 1, we arrived to find 2 teams already on the entry pitch's.  Paul Tattersall warned me that could be an issue.  The first team were French wads who disappeared in a blink.  The next team were 2 young aid climbers from Colorado or California.  In fact I’m not sure, not that it matters.  Meeting them at the top of pitch 1, they too felt out their depth and kindly let us past.  The first 4 pitches of moonlight buttress are good, but basically entry pitches to get onto the main pillar of rock.  The first hard pitch was the boulder problem off the rocker block.  Right, first things first.  Alex Honnald soloed this.  Flipping hec.  I was hanging off the bolts, brushing holds and trying to work out which feet worked best for me in the maze of ticked smears.  All were shit.  A few attempts, I eventually dispatched the problem.  Above lay the initial part of the corner.  My mouth was dry from a mix of dehydration and intimidation.  But as I got established, the climbing was very amenable.  Positive finger locks with occasional footholds which provided a welcome rest.  Arriving at the belay, I felt like a hero.  Pete flashed the boulder problem and soon got absorbed into the stellar layback.  This pitch in its own right would be 4 star, 3 star whatever starring system you use.  Above lay the crux pitch, the upper part of the corner.  Racking up again, I quested on up.  The guide mentions that this pitch is all about endurance.  Somehow I managed to get up and into the flare.  Boxed out ma face, I managed to fiddle in some kit (wires of course.  None of the cams I carried!).  Making a poor job of trying to de pump and relax, I persevered.  At the back of the flare is a line of awkward finger locks.  The walls were smooth and devoid of footholds.  I attempted to jam my way up the flare but kept sliding down.  So I eventually resorted to lay backing up the thing.  The left edge was rounded, but at least it felt like a hold.  I got level with some random bolts on the left.  Eyeballing them, desperate to clip them, I couldn’t move.  I was practically horizontal.  The body tension in me snapped and I was flying sides ways.  My left testicle got squeezed in my leg loop which was rather sore.  After some petty grumbling, I was hawling my way back up the rope.  Sitting on the kit, I took a moment then got up to the bolt.  Clipped that then worked the flare out.  Meanwhile, 4 folk gathered at the hanging belay above.  Team France and the US/ Solvenian team, Kirk and Peter Juvan.  My plan was to get to the belay then have a look at this pitch.  It all became a bit of a cluster fuck.  The French team moved on but that left us with Kirk and Peter.  These guys had tried Moonlight Buttress a few times and were checking it out for a free ascent in the next day or so.  It was good to get some more information regarding the upper pitch's.  These guys were honed crack climbers, so it was hard to gauge the real difficulty.  Basically it came down to looking at Pete and my hands/fingers.  I was fine they said.  Poor Pete with his skinny fingers may struggle.  I think that was one thing that really stuck out on the trip was grades became irrelevant.  It seemed to be more about hand size.  I struggled on red cams, whilst Pete slotted his hands in and got purchase….  Anyway, to avoid more faffing we binned the day.

Pete following Pitch 5

 Day 2, we rapped in from the top.  The aim was to just suss out the upper pitches.  The top hard pitch is known as the ‘Nutting Pitch’5.12b.  We both had a play on that and it seemed fine.  Sport climbing as Peter Juvan (the Slovenian) described it as.  That was music to my ears.  Just another F7b to finish the day off.  That’s how I lodged that in my head.   Easy.  The pitch below, now that’s not so easy.  Its described as ‘splitter rattley fingers'.  Its purple cams for about the first 10 meters.  Then a ledge is reached.  Above that is some technical balancey climbing to get into an easier lay back.  Basically I couldn’t string any of the splitter together.  I was a bit like 2 moves up then I fell and sagged onto the rope.  Pete had a play and just said ‘pfffft’.  It was a bit frustrating as I knew that this section would need to be aided.  Oh well, we are two face climbers after all….

On top on Moonlight Buttress

Rapping down 'The Nutting Pitch'
The next pitch below, eh pitch 8 I think, is a lovely splitter but much more friendly.  The crack was slightly podded and there was one or two foot holds on the wall.  We both top roped this with ease and felt much better.  Then there was the flare below…the pitch above the crux. This starts off as a smooth chimney, that narrows. You need to get into the crack and turned, into a desperate jamming lay back on green cams.  As the topo said, much harder than the grade suggests.  Well we both flailed on this. My heart sank again.  Maybe we just need more miles on the cracks?  Anyway, what the hec, whats the worst that can happen, It would be a nice route to French free! 

That night we discussed a plan.  I was keen to try it in a day the next day.  Mainly due to that fact it was a Friday, we could get an early lift up with Kirk and Peter.  Plus if we had a rest day, then it meant a day push would be on a Saturday… there could be other teams in the way.  We have put a bit of work in and wanted to give ourselves the best chance possible.  For 2 useless pastey white Scots, we needed all the time in the world.  But Pete being very open (and sensible) said he was not psyched and needed a rest.  To be fair he does talk sense unlike me who is full of shit.  So we agreed on that.  To give ourselves the best chance in doing the route in a day we opted for climbing the first 4 entry pitch's on day 3 and fix our rope.  This meant on the Saturday, we could get a head start.  Combined with the offer of an early lift up the canyon from Peter Juvan who had a permit for his car (Basically we were relying on the shuttle bus service which is excellent but, not ideal for early starts.), that seemed a fair deal.

Wading the Virgin River. 
Day 4.  Jugging our dynamic fixed ropes was a total ballache.  I had one jumar and a gri gri.  Pete had a Jumar and a crawl.  Dick!  Hauling our bag was also another ballache.  It got caught in a v groove near the start so I had to rap down, free it, faff, re jug up… I am not cut out for aid climbing jugging, hard labour ballocks (Well I love it really ;-), just like Scottish winter).  We both arrived at the Rocker Blocker pissed off and wasted from messing around.  In retrospect, climbing the first few pitch's would have been quicker.  You live and learn.  Anyway, the main thing was, we had a head start and were at the front with no one on front.  Pete, dispatched the Rocker Boulder problem and made light work of the first part of the corner.  I came to second this.  The boulder problem went fine… the corner I just got the seconding fear really badly.  Cold, not trusting myself, I was a shambles.  I climbed the pitch fine but only just.  Admittedly I was pretty nervous about the whole thing.  Racking up for the crux, the sun began to try and push out from the clouds.  Great.  So off I went, a jibbering mess.  I reached the flare totally boxed and flash pumped.  A brutal warm up.  Arranging the kit, I got into my layback sequence then transferred into the top of the flare.  I became a bit stuck.  I was sliding out of the locks, finger tape peeling, it was like a sinking ship.  Bugger.  I tried hard, but nothing worked.  Eventually I fell.  “Bugger!” I said.  Pete lowered me and I stripped some gear as they would block the finger locks.  His wise words of wisdom calmed me down.  The next bank of clouds rolled in and I was off.  This time, my nerves had been shot and I was significantly more relaxed.  The pitch felt piss.  However, a cheeky face hold I crimped on, crumbled from my raw power.  This sent me into a barn door swing, I stopped myself... the chains were reached, thank god!  Pete followed cleanly and was well psyched.  This was a full on very airy hanging belay.  So after a bit of faff, we swapped the ropes etc and I was back on the lead.  Then some rain drops started to fall.... FFS

Pete leading up the initial part of the corner above the boulder problem.

Pete following pitch 6 with Kirk and Peter Juvan below.

Above was the desperate chimney flare.  I’m not sure what happened but I felt totally solid on it and the pitch went without any hassle.  Maybe having no expectations was enough to relax me.  Above this was a nice ledge we could walk about on.  We stashed some food and water here so it was nice to take a moment, enjoy the situation and re fuel a bit.  Pete was up next.  He racked up and off he went.  I felt sorry for him as his fingers and hands were much slimmer than mine, Kirk and Peter (Juvan).  He gave it all he had and got most of the way up the pitch before sliding out of a lock.  He looked down and kindly passed the lead to me.  He knew I may have a better chance of climbing it clean.  For me, the locks were solid bar 3 at two thirds of the pitch. 
Pete following Pitch 7 above the chimney flare

Pete leading off up pitch 8.  

Pete following pitch 8
However, looking up at the next pitch that 'splitter rattley fingers' 5.12b/c crack wiped the smile off my face.  By this point, I was beginning to tire a bit with cramping hands and biceps.  I racked up and started jamming up muttering something about French freeing if need be.  Anyway, similar to the flare, I was psyched and with no expectations.  Yes, I was trying hard, but somehow I found myself eyeballing the tapered jams at the top of the splitter.  But you cant have it all and I slipped out with excitement.  Shit!  After giving it that effort, I wasn’t sure I had it in me for another go, but I had to try.  Back the belay, ropes pulled, another piss down the route, I was back on it.  This time, I gained the halfway ledge, just!  For me, that section of climbing was one of the best leads I've done.  There was still the technical section above but at least that was more ‘normal’ followed by some easy lay backing.  Pete followed again.  Blooming hec, I owe him for this.  One last hard pitch; ‘The Nutting Pitch’.  What did I say earlier, just like sport climbing?  Sort of.  The weight of the rack, cramping hands, abs and back, I was in my element.  A pure test of endurance.  This went with no hassle.  To save time, I combined this with the top 10c pitch which the guide recommends.  That was awkward enough but satisfying.  We topped out at 17.20.  Heaps of time for the last bus down the canyon.  Jogging down amongst the tourist, one girl asked, ‘have you just done Moonlight Buttess in a day?’.  Needless to say a blunt Scottish ‘Aye’ came out of me.  Then an excited ‘Ride on!!!!’ was her response.  Very good.
Jeepers, we weren’t even down at the road and we were discussing going big walling in Norway next summer.  But firstly we had to deal with ‘The Original Route’ on the Rainbow wall.
As a British climber, we are all very aware of Alex Honnald soling these big routes in America and around the world.  From the armchair, its all very impressive but hard to comprehend.  Every pitch, both Pete and I were glad of a rope clipped through a cam above our head.  Honnald is on a different planet with another level of fitness. 
For 2 Scots who had limited crack climbing experience, I think we did ok.  As Pete pointed out, what a route to learn the art.  I owe it to Pete.  He saw that I maybe had a more of a chance of freeing the route so gave me the opportunity to fulfil a dream.  Thanks Pete for been a solid partner and keeping me safe with your new found MIA techniques.  He is off to North Wales next year to do the Assistant Imstructor scheme.  The whole trip I pushed in into sending an application form off.  Of course I knew he was suitable and so was offered an interview.  He doubted his suitably but I gave him the encouragement knowing the Brenin would love this genuine bloke.  Annoyingly the bugger got the job!  Nice one, but that’s one less good climber in the North of Scotland.  Meanwhile, North Wales has the privilege of having this young fresh faced beast!  Please take a moment and enjoy his photo's on his Flickr page.

Anyway, the next day we both felt a tad broken.  Sad to wave good bye to Zion, the 4 of us headed for the bright lights of Red Rocks.  But that’s another story in part 2 along with more stories from RV life ;-) 

Refueling before the drive to Red Rocks (Photo: Peter Herd)