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)

Sunday, 24 September 2017


Before I say a word... Lets not forget this is a typical Scottish Summers day out.
I don’t know what’s happened, but with one blink, summer has disappeared.  After our visit to ‘Realm of the Senses’ back at the end of May, there was an intense focus on The Shelterstone conditions.  With Realm fresh in the muscle memory, Iain and I were both keen to get back and sort out ‘Athene’.  I’m still waiting, but have come to accept that may need to wait for another year.

As usual, there was the usual psyche and faith that the Scottish hills would be dry for weeks on end accompanied with a steady summer breeze to keep the midgies at bay.  Instead we had a stationary low pressure sat to the North West of Britain which chucked out a lovely mix of sunshine and showers.  Not ideal, but if you played your cards right, there was plenty of options.  And as we know, one good day up here counts for 5 good days in North Wales so it all balances out ;-).

The revival of some local trad routes which have been gathering dust on my ticklist got cleaned and climbed.  Wolfman which has lost its pegs gave a rather testing E5.  I think given its current state, E6 would be fair.  Cyclops E4 6b, gives a great safe athletic outing.  Richie Betts established ‘Transvison Clamp E6 6b’.  A scary onsight he commented.  I replaced the thread and gave it a token look.  Not to bad I thought…  So I returned with Gaz Marshall to give it a Flash/not quite onsight attempt.  Up and down, scared shitless, fiddly C3’s, balancey and bouldering.  “Flipping hec take there Gaz!”  I came down for a rest, had a word with myself, pulled the ropes and went up for a ground up attempt.  Same again, “Take there”  This time, sat on what I thought was a good wire, I checked the holds out.  As I sagged again, the wire blew out.  “Get me down now!”  I had had enough.  A route at a grade I should be onsighting, I went hope feeling rather spanked.  I need to have a look at this one.  Returning, I played the head point game.  Checked it out, practised the moves, sorted the gear and dispatched.  I would have never onsighted it the sequence so for me, the style was acceptable. 

Pete on 'Cyclops E4 6b'

Me on Wolfman E6 6b (Photo: Peter Herd)

An onsight attempt of 'Transvison Clamp E6 6b' (Photo: gaz Marshall)

Both Caithness and The Aberdeen sea cliffs provided a dry sanctuary from the prevailing westerlies.  My friends in Aberdeen have raved about Earnsheugh over the last few years to me.  For some reason, I have always doubted the quality and have just been put off for the fickle conditions they experience over the.  However, Anna and I had a great day climbing the 3 classic E5’s on the crag.  I left Necromancer for the end.  Unknowingly this has a reputation for spanking folk.  It was a rude surprise for tired arms at the end of the day to be faced with the strenuous technical sequence.  But, I managed to dig deep and pull it out the bag. 

Pete loving the sub optimal conditions at Rosehearty

Gaz on 'Banana Republic E1 5b'

Me on 'Escher's Steps E6 6b' (Photo: Gaz Marshall)

Anna starting up the first pitch of 'Prehistoric Monster E5 6a)

Me on 'Thugosaurus E5 6a' (Photo: Peter Herd)

Like last year, Binnein Shuas was the reliable venue to visit, this year was no different.  As always, Iain Small has been out adding several new lines to the crag.  He added Siege Engine E7 6c at the end of last season.  This takes an impressive left to right rising traverse under a big roof.  I gave it a flash attempt with the aid of Iain’s gear knowledge.  In typical Murdoch style I must have been on the route for over and hour before I reached the crux bulge.  Needless to say, the body was fatigued and a simple foot slip from a weakening core spat me off.  Believing I still had the fitness to dispatch that day, I gave it 3 more ground up attempts.  Each go, I inched higher, but by 8.30pm, the arms had finally gone.  Meanwhile that day, Iain added the superb athletic ‘Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c’.  This line starts up the existing ‘Wild Mountain Thyme E5 6b’, then climbing directly up the prominent pink streak. 

I found myself working more and farther away due to the School Summer Holidays.  But Siege Engine was burning at the back of my mind.  Of course the days I worked, the weather was nice.  Then my day off arrived and rain was pushing in from the west.  But my psyche was too much.  So a long day trip from the north saw me down and nabbing a clean ascent before the heavens opened.  Later that week, Cubby, Dave Macleod and I teamed up for a repeat of Iains ‘Braes of Balquither’.  With its runout nature combined with a crucial blind gear placement, we both opted for a cheeky head point of the route.  Dave has also been busy at Binnien Shuas so its cool to see some proper hard routes been climbed.  On his blog, there is a great range of photo's which shows the crag well.

Iain opening his new route, 'Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c'

Me on my first attempt on 'Siege Engine E7 6c' (Photo: Iain Small)

Simon Nadin, one of the 3 ‘The Masters’ of rock climbing, has been silently developing the Caithness Sea Cliffs for many years now.  I suspect the odd glimpse of this has appeared on my Flickr with the odd crag appearing, often called ‘Crag X’.  The only person to react was Andy Nesbit.  But this summer, Caithness saw a wee bit more exposure.  Located in the North East (obviously) it stayed fairly dry this year.  I have this rule that I only visit Caithness once a year (because I thought it was shit).  However, this summer that rule was broken and I must have been up half a dozen times.  One crag in particular at Sgaps became a popular venue…. to the point, it almost looked like a crag in North Wales with many of the lines chalked up.  A totally novelty for these far flung remote places!  On one visit, Simon checked a new line out which we both had seen before.  I felt honoured when Simon Jummered back out and gifted me this quality new line.  On my first attempt, the combination of a crucial wet hold, boxed arms and a highly technical sequence saw me off.  Sitting on the rope, I worked an alternative sequence and topped out.  Later that day I climbed it clean placing the kit on lead.  A route heavily reliant on the smallest micro cams with some stiff moves at half height combined with a much safer but hard sequence at the top, Pete, Simon and I decided to sit on the fence like every other new route in Caithness and give ‘Gods Gift’ the split grade of E6/7 6b.  I would like to link in Ian TaylorsPeter Herds and Simon Nadins Flickr.  The three of them have really captured some brilliant moments up there.  So please take time and have a look and hopefully become inspired to visit.  However, all good things must come to an end.  Simon took myself and Pete to his other ‘new crag’.  Here there was just this amazing new big meaty line.  A failed attempt from Simon in the midday heat saw the 3 of use retreat to the ‘Whaligoe steps Café’.  I know Simon has gone back and established the line.  But the direct finish needs climbed.  Similar to Siege Engine, all our focus went towards watching the weather and conditions for Caithness.  But things deteriorated and its now becoming a distant memory.  Good job Simon. Next summer…

The Master showing Pete his old friends

A good wall

Me on the first ascent of 'Gods Gift E6/7 6b' (Photo: Simon Nadin)

Simon attempting his new line in ridiculously hot conditions (Photo: Peter Herd)

As I have mentioned earlier in this post, Iain Small is constantly operating in the dark opening more new lines up around the country.  I am going to be bold and say he has probably added more new E7's to Scotland this year compared with Wales?  But I'm sure Caff would argue with that?!  Creag A’Bhancair which I have recently learned is a relatively quick drying venue become the latest crag for hard new routes.  This time, Iain’s project was to link the start of ‘Up with the Sun E7 6b’, cut through ‘The Risk Business E5’ cover some new ground and join ‘Gone with the wind E7’.  This was an impressive cleaning effort from him over several days.  Unfortunately the day I joined him, he was wasted from preparing the route and was unsuccessful.  However, he went back another day and climbed it clean.  I’m not sure of the grade, but you do the maths.  I opened my Trad climbing account on the crag with an onsight of ‘Romantic Reality E7 6b’ which I was pretty happy about.  This has been on my list on the wall for several years now.  Cubby was out so I felt quite privileged to have the first ascensionist watching and taking photo’s.  But that was just the introduction.  In 2014, Iain had opened up ‘The End of Innocence E7 6c’ and the ‘Constant Gardner E6/7 6b’.  Niall who had repeated The Constant Gardner said that first pitch should come with a health warning.  I opted out and started up ‘Carnivore Direct E4 6a’ to access the superbly sustained top pitch.  All in all, this created  an nice E6 route.  Meanwhile, Iain was hard at it again.  This time he re climbed ‘Symbioisis E8 6b’ and linked that into the top of ‘Up with the sun’.  I guess I have referred to these routes as link ups, but by no means are they less worthwhile.  I think what Iain has done is just applied a modern approach to straighten things out and created logical lines.  It has been pretty cool having Cubby around to give us an insight into the first ascents of the original lines.  Of course he had the vision of these new lines Iain is doing, but just never got back to sorting them out.  One must remember, those original lines are still meaty leads even by present standards.

Me on the top pitch on 'The Constant Gardener E6 6b' (Photo: Iain Small)

I actually owe Iain a full day of belaying.  I was psyched for ‘The End of Innocence’ Niall had raved to me about it rating it as one of the best E7’s he had ever done.  There was the slight issue that is has a bold start above a sky hook.  The fall would be nasty with small gear far below, I think a ride down the cliff would result in a collision with the Carnivore ledge.  Naill having repeated this with Iain shortly after he had done it had the advantaged of a chalked up line.  I must admit, I was keen to try but just felt rather hesitant.  Iain however kindly offered to faff about, and do multiple raps in from the top to chalk the crucial parts.  I know this is cheating a bit, but when one is about to embark on a route at their onsight trad limit, I’ll take the advantage of chalked holds ;-).  To gain this pitch, you need to climb ‘Celtic Dawn E5 6a’.  Flipping hec, is all I can say about that.  E5 climbing but you need an E6 head on.  Not your casual standard E5.  When I was racking up, Iain did point out that I wouldn’t need much gear…  Obviously I still took it as I wanted to add more weight to give me the full on trad shitting myself experience. 

The crux of ‘The End of Innocence’ is a traverse right across an overlap. The holds get smaller, the foot holds disappear and everything just gets exponentially harder.  I fell off on my first two attempts, then managed to unlock the powerful sequence.  A bit of rest following the cool flake feature before the route kicked in again.  Hard move out right to gain an undercut and decent foot hold proved tricky, but I managed to keep it together.  Now, I could see the finishing holds above.  But between me and them lay another hard fingery sequence.  This is where Niall blew it.  I felt this weigh me down even more.  Every time I left the overlap, my elbows touched the sky.  FFS! On each reversal back to the rest, I was becoming more fatigued.  Obviously this was late in the day, I just wanted it to end, but was actually loving it at the same time.  Then eventually I had a word with myself to just commit and treat it like a sport route.  With that mentality, I found myself lunging for the finishing jugs, body arching back.  I hung poised, gathering myself before I moved higher.  Collapsing at the belay and clipping in, that big wave of trad satisfaction began to wash over me…

Enough of that none sense, the Torridon bouldering season has started.

Gaz ignoring the rapidly deteriorating conditions

Mhairi making a slap for the lip on 'Central Roof'

...But of course, I was tempted back yesterday for another repeat of Iains new direct on 'End of Innocence' which gives something in the region of E7/8 6c.  Flashing the new section of climbing, I thought it was in the bag.  But some damp holds, tired arms, I failed on familiar ground at the top.  But I am still content with doing it ground up, second go.  The whole experience certainly felt like the next level of trad climbing for me...  

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Realm of the Senses

Gazing through the sheets of torrential rain, I gazed up at the impressive rock mass of The Shelterstone crag.  I was a young keen teenager out bagging the Munro Beinn Mheadhoin on a horrible wet Saturday in July. A bit like today.  I can still vividly remember that day.  No visibility, pissing rain and soaked to the skin.  I loved it.  At this point in my life, I had barely started rock climbing. For some reason I owned a copy of 'Highland Outcrops' and ‘The Cairngorms Volume 1’.  In my mind, I knew it all, in reality, I knew nothing.  That picture of Murray Hamilton questing across the second pitch Missing Link was (and still is), one of the most inspiring things I had ever seen.  At the grade of E4, that was way beyond me.  In fact, untouchable.  At the time, I was still lobbing off VS. ‘V Diff’s’ and ‘Severe’ were more my standard.  However, another route known as Realm of the Senses E7 6c was imprinted in my mind.  I don’t know why, it just was.  The thought of a route at E7 standard was even further beyond my mental capacity. 

The Shelterstone. Unfortunately not the best view of the slabs

Time moved on and my hill walking days out declined.  These days were replaced by rock climbing.  As I became a bit more familiar with rock climbing and grading, that fantasy of the Missing Link and Realm of the Senses just seemed even more distant…  This rock climbing malarkey was hard.  I aspired to E1 and realised if I reached that point in my life, I would be content.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with my rock climbing apprenticeship story.  The Central Slabs in the Cairngorms is one of the best crags we have in Scotland.  I think so.  Many would disagree, probably because they have no actual knowledge or experience on them.  I have had the privilege of working my way through the routes in ascending grade order, each with their own story.  The Pin E2 with Robin Thomas, a fine second route after a quick ascent of The Steeple E2. The Harp E3 with Danny Laing.  It was due to rain from late morning, so one Saturday night we walked in, bivied at the base and started the route just after first light.  It was magic.  The wind was howling whilst the  whole crag basked morning sunshine.  A sight rarely seen by the day visitor due to its easterly aspect  We were in the Mountain Café in Aviemore by 11am.  The Missing Link E4 5c with Robin Thomas. This went with no problem.  The danger was I developed a hunger for more.  Then there was Thor E5 6b with Guy Robertosn.  I can still feel the relief of grabbing the belay flake.  My mouth has never been so dry!  Cleaning on lead was new to me.  How I never fell off, I will never know.  That day, Guy awarded me my Cairngorm Granite Technicians Badge.  I woke the next day broken. 

Guy Robertson following pitch 2 on Thor

Cupids Bow E5 6a with Gaz Marshall was a less intense day out.  I then thought, enough was enough.  The routes became a different ball game after that.  Harder with much more serious run outs.  But Run of the Arrow E6 6b burned in my mind.  Julien Lines said to me it was fine.  So Andy Ingils came in for ‘one more outing on the slabs’.  This was hard and the gear was terrible.  The guide mentions a 'large wedge shaped runner'.  For the inexperienced eye, I could not see this. With the blinkers on, I did the crux traverse.  It was a relief to not be testing the gear.  Caff writes a good story.  I’m glad this route slowed the UK s finest trad climber down ;-). 

" The last one on a recent trip to Scotland made me think about the history of the climb and was more testing than I would have expected, no offence to Murdo. Setting off on the main pitch on Run of the Arrow I had my trainers on my harness and was expecting a quick run up a classic e6, not quite as cocky as it sounds as I’ve done a few 100 of this grade and normally get up them first go although I’ve found an easy way of finding fear is to set off on them when very tired or hungover.
 Dinwoodie had onsighted to the high flake on it on a 1st ascent effort and then managed to scrape in a wire somehow and make an epic retreat. Later on Pete Whillance abseiled the climb and then did it. 
  My guidebook said many wires in the cracks on the face, I got 2 ok RPs next to each other which and the sequence above felt E6 leading to easier climbing and the end of the good feet. I did ponder for a few minutes there. I knew Pete Whillance would have had a fag where I was and carry on regardless of facing a fall which I thought you’d be very luck to survive. I was pretty impressed Dinwoodie had got to this point without knowing anything about the level of climbing or gear he faced which must have been one of the pushiest efforts of the time.
I eventually climbed higher to get in an RP and reversed back to make the grim move to get gear in the lower bit of the flake where I didn’t actually get anything useful in. I extended the top RP miles to stop it coming out with rope drag and eventually committed to the 6b moves up left. I spoke with Tony Stone later who said I’d missed some key sideways stopper but either way I didn’t clock it and as a lead without the bashed in wires it felt more dangerous than many E7s I’d done, quite like the routes found on north stack. Dan Vajzovic got off lightly as he was close to getting guided up it the week before but his boots looked a bit too crap." (James McHaffie, September 2016)

Enough was enough.  Realm still burned at the back of my mind…. But 6c on those slabs is nails.  Aphrodite E7 6b began to play havoc with my mind.  Iain Small and I summoned the courage to do this.  A 3 day affair saw us bagging this bad boy in 2014.  I actually wrote an article about this.  It can be found in the SMC journal Vol 2016.  But, if folk were interested, I will publish it here. 

Gaz Following pitch 2 on Cupids Bow

Iain Snapping a peg on Aphrodite

You must be bored by now?

October 2016, I found myself starting up Realm of the Senses E7 6c.  The forecast was for rain to arrive in the afternoon.  Instead it arrived later morning.  That was the end of the mountain trad for summer 2016.

Me starting up Realm of the Senses 2016 (Photo: Iain Small)
Tuesday 23rd May 2017, I receive this from Gaz Marshall “ Just for info, I asked a mate in Aviemore about the Shelterstone Connie.  He said: ‘Hola! Hardly any snow left I think.  I looked over to the Shelterstone today and saw no snow at the top of the crag.  Can’t vouch for seepage situation but with these warm temps forecast, should be lovely’.”  That was enough to send me into a world of pain. I messed up my working pattern and was missing the bone dry conditions.  However, with some careful negotiation, I scored the Friday off.  Iain was obviously committed to the cause 100%.  There was no route name or venue mentioned.  We both knew where we were heading. 

Pitch 1 warms the feet up nicely.  Iain quested off up the main pitch.  It starts easy then ramps itself up with difficulty.  A hands off rest is gained.  Iain unlocked the starting groove and reached the point where the overlap turns horizontal.  He raved about the fact he could actually hang on some crimps and rest his calves!  He eventually committed left, but was quickly ejected.  

Iain following pitch 1 of Realm

Iain working his way up the groove.

Iain at the 'good rest'....still strenuous!

I was up next.  Starting up the groove, I felt rather tense and uneasy.  Not a good start.  So a lot of upping and downing.  Eventually I committed and gained the no hands rest.  The first desperate move of the route (for me anyway) was leaving this rest. Pasting my left foot on slippery granite and lay backing up the blunt overlap using a pinch grip.  I reached the resting crimps and let my calves depump.  Looking left looked desperate.  There was nothing.  Slab and overlap.  The guide even says "Move left on non-existent holds..."  I delicately moved out the rest made a few moves, then was ejected too.  

Me looking left.  (Photo: Iain Small)

Hmm, this was not going to be an easy day!  Iain was up next and took the lob.  (We are falling onto a good cluster of gear off to the right).  But this time he took the time to try again and again.  Eventually he made it across the overlap.  It was good to see Iain try!  Then there was the Missing Link section followed by the most tenuous, heart breaker of a move left to the Thor Belay.  Fixing a belay he rapped the pitch, cleaning the kit out and scrubbing holds.  It was me next.  By this point, I was cold.  Starting up the pitch I was tense again.  That first tricky move spat me off.  I lost it!  I'm sure Gaz and Mhairi on The Steeple heard my tantrum.  Back at the belay I was feeling frustrated and annoyed.  Anyway, maybe that was good.  A bit warmer now, I went again.  Somehow, I managed to get over that move and reach the crimps.  I had no expectation any more.  Glaring left, I could see dabs of chalk… marking nothing.  But in fact marking something.  I guess it depends on ones perception of what is a hold and not a hold.  Anyway, I went for it.  Loving my big hands, I managed to just pinch my way across the overlap left.  Matching feet on nothing, eyeballing a good side pull, I launched.  Fuck!  I caught it, I was still on.

Me on the traverse (Photo: Martin Mackenna)

Oh bugger,  I just got through the crux (Photo: Iain Small) 

That woke me up.  Taking a moment, I worked the sequence out. I had to match it, and press off it, smear on nothing and reach to the good flake out left.  Closing my eyes  (well not literally) and taking a deep breath I made the move.  Blooming heck!  I felt totally committed.  Arranging the gear, I took some time to chill out.  The crux was done.  I just had to keep my head together for the Missing Link crux.  So up I went, treating the 5c moves with as much respect for 6c moves.  Then I arrived at the move out to the Thor Belay.  This looked hard.  Annoyingly hard. Just give me some overhanging crimps to pull on!  Please!  But no, just a committing move left. It basically involves a span left, releasing your right hand smearing just your left foot to reach an out of reach (crap) hold.  Then spanning above me with my right, I pinched a little arête, pasting my right foot up, some more moves, I can’t recall then a reach into the juggy flake of Thor.  Mouth dry, I clipped the belay and sagged back.  Flipping heck, I still can’t believe it.  What a pitch! 

Iain was up next.  For him, it was a bit more stressful.  Traversing the overlap spat him off several times.  I could feel the stress and frustration.  These routes rely on just subtle irregularities in the rock.  You can’t pull harder.  To work the move is impossible without a top rope.  Last attempt, He got it, got to the side pull.  There was still that move to the flake.  Even I was holding my breath and closing my eyes for him.  He did it.  And off he went, cruising like he does.  Walking out that night was unreal.  That pitch of Realm of the Senses was done! 

Iain on the Missing Link part.

Dinner at 12.30am, followed by a crap sleep; I was broken the next day.  My whole body was cramping, especially my calves.  Normally after a route on the slabs, I have no more interest.  However, Athene is burning in me.  However, that would involve the Realm pitch again.  Folk keep asking me about Icon of Lust.  That’s a different ball game.  So I’m afraid the line will be drawn soon.  Well I’ll draw it in pencil ;-)