Friday, June 29, 2012

Expedition to the Dolerites

Just had a wee expedition to the Dolerites in the company of Jim 'Faither' Hall. It was my first time there in 5 years and it was great to be back.

For those who haven't been, Auchinstarry Quarry is close to Glasgow on the doorstep of Kilsyth. The crags surround a cute loch created by the quarrying, with fishermen dotted round the landscaped shores. At first glance it looks pretty idyllic. From the climbers' point of view the crag features 20- 25m high Dolerite buttresses with some real classic routes from Severe to around E5.

It's very popular- mainly because there aren't many good crags in the Glasgow area. Consequently, it's a bit polished and it can also be a bit sandy in the car park area.

However, the main downside to the venue is its close proximity to Kilsyth. Many Scottish small town crags are magnets for local 'wine connoisseurs' and Auchinstarry is no different. Groups of them can often be seen sampling a cheeky Chateau Buckfast (or three). Regular Auchinstarry devotees develop Zen abilities to zone out on the sound of screaming and smashing bottles. The worst case scenario is if they start throwing objects down the routes- but luckily that's not the norm. It's all a bit like the pub in Star Wars, but the creatures are uglier and they wear tracksuits.

Jim Hall on Spirogyra (VS)
One reason I really like the place is that Spirogyra (VS) was one of my very first leads back in the early '90s. At that time I was desperate to get into lead climbing so I killed two birds with one stone and bought my mate Danny a rack of 8 wires for his birthday. It was a very expensive present but it wasn't really that altruistic- I couldn't afford to buy gear for myself and get him a present. I felt a bit ashamed, but quickly swallowed my guilt and 'borrowed' the wires almost as soon as the gift wrap was off. I led Spirogyra with the 8 wires and 5 screwgates. I remember tackling the crux and finding it quite tricky. Despite carrying a rack that could sink the Titanic it still felt nippy 20 years later.

During the afternoon Jim dispatched the popular routes Slinky Lizard (HS) and Trundle (VS) in good style despite wearing the cheapest, nastiest Decathlon kippers money can buy. 

Leading Walk on the Wild Side (HVS) photo by Jim Hall
Last route of the day was a return for me to the route Walk on the Wild Side (HVS). It's quite a bold slab climb on crimpy edges and I think it's one of the best routes of its grade anywhere.

It has a justified reputation for seriousness. The start is very bold, with the first tiny micro wire placements appearing around the 7-8m mark. The gear improves as you gain height but it's still a route that requires a cool head. All your weight is on your feet, on tiny edges throughout, and if you tense up it's easy for your calf muscles to cramp up and Elvis to enter the building (and stay there!).

I've led it a handful of times and it never feels trivial, even when I'm going well. On this occasion I felt pretty good and moved as quickly as I could between gear placements. However, on this ascent I was wearing very soft smeary shoes. I hit the jugs at the top with my feet in agony while my arms were completely unpumped...

A check of the watch while coiling the ropes up top revealed it was half past beer o'clock, so we decamped to the Kirky Puffer for a nice pint of real ale. A great wee re-union with the Dolerites!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Avoiding Elvis at Glen Nevis

Cavalry Crack Buttress, with Dundee Buttress to its left and Secretaries' Buttress above.
Just back from my first trad climbing trip for years. The last time I climbed a Summer pitch sticking 'they metal hings' in the rock must have been way back in 2008. My mate Andy texted me to say he had obtained a Gold Pass (freedom for an over-nighter) for the June bank holiday weekend. He hadn't been out climbing much recently and his liberation coincided with a good forecast- game on!

The original plan was to go over to Garbh Bheinn and try to get on a few of the classics. However, eagle- eyed Andy noticed that MWIS were forecasting 3 degrees C at 900m, with Northerly winds. The idea of multi-pitch mountain routes started looking a bit masochistic. After some thought we realised both of us hadn't been to Glen Nevis in ages. 10- 15mph winds were forecast, so maybe the midges wouldn't be too bad?

Andy picked me up on Saturday evening driving a courtesy car- a wee Hyundai i10 automatic. Awesome. You can barely get a handbag in the boot of these cars so the seats had to go down to accept our kit laden sacs, tent and midgy repellent. It felt like a pedal car as we buzzed up the A82 and brought back memories of early 90's trips in various tin box Fiat Pandas (the ultimate snow driving car). We arrived outside the Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe and managed to secure one of the last tent spaces near the road. Tent up quick, we proceeded straight to the busy Climbers' Bar to partake in a few ales and some chat with a couple of lads from Yorkshire who were planning to go up Ben Nevis.

Andy at the top of Secretaries' Direct (S
Next morning the 7am alarm felt like a lie in according to Andy (he has 2 young kids). The sun was out and the Buachaille looked superb, as ever.

I was delighted to feel totally fresh after sticking to a self- imposed 3 pint rule the night before. We got to Fort William only to find that Morrisons didn't open until 9am so we were forced to traipse over to McDonalds. It was my first visit to the ginger- permed population poisoner's emporium in donkey's years, and I really hope it will be my last 'unhappy meal'. I don't need any help getting super- sized, thanks Ron.

 Driving up the Glen, hordes of aspirant Ben summiteers were heading for Tourist Track. We snaked our way up the road and got the last parking spot below Cavalry Crack Buttress.
With both of us being rusty we agreed the best idea would be to get plenty of confidence building mileage as opposed to difficulty on this trip.

Second pitch of Vampire (HS)

First up was Vampire (HS)- a weaving three pitch route on Cavalry Crack Buttress.

The start of the first pitch took a wee bit of finding, and we nearly made the mistake a few folk have done (according to UKC)  in climbing a bold looking direct variation at E1.

After orientating ourselves to the correct start the true first pitch turned out to be a bit scrappy, but suitably amenable for our purposes.

The second pitch is a cracker, with an open book corner widening out into a slanting wall climb, parallel to Storm below.

Next were a couple of single pitch routes on the neighbouring Dundee Buttress. The first one we did was Promises (HS). It was Andy's lead and turned out a great wee route.

Breaking my own intention to stick to easier climbs I was tempted into trying Dundee Weaver (HVS). It looked straightforward from below (don't they all?) but the book warned it had a tricky crux moving into a crack at the top.

Sure enough, the hard moves took a bit of thought and effort to overcome. Unfortunately, during my lead the wind dropped and Andy was forced to stick the midgy hood on while I spent a few minutes getting sorted before going for the top out.

Secretaries' Direct Route (S)

The last and best route of the day was Secretaries Direct (S)-  a superb slab climb positioned high above the glen.

The rock quality on this route is impeccable. It must be one of the best Severes in Scotland?

What an enjoyable route. The starting move into the first corner is the nippiest of them all, then it's just brilliant steady climbing above. We did it in two long pitches rather than the 3 in the book which was fine with half ropes.

I reckon that was my first trip to the Glen this century. It's quite a scary thought to realise it's been over 12 years....

It was a great day out, all objectives were achieved. Got plenty of mileage (7 pitches), stuck bits of gear in and Elvis didn't enter the building once!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beating the Pies, and the A'Chir Ridge

Been back in Scotland for 2 months. Unemployment has been good so far. The fact that it hasn't rained much since we got back has been a great way to break us back into life back home.

Since I've not been working there's been plenty of time to dedicate to get a routine of running and training for climbing going. The targets are- drop 2 stone to get back to my fighting weight and get the fitness up big- style for climbing.
I'm running three times a week (25 miles on average) at the moment- which is the most I've ever run in my life. Despite the running schedule and almost complete abstinence from beer the Pies are proving very resistant to eviction. I ran 99 miles in May but I've only lost a measly 2lb!
Beastmaker 1000 with Argos stopwatch

Having spent the last four years in Bermuda climbing short, steep juggy routes I'm struggling with two of my big weaknesses. It's the old troublemakers- finger strength and stamina. I've been going to Ibrox recently with Erick and it's apparent that overhanging F6c is at my limit at the moment. The moves aren't desperate but I'm boxed clipping the lower- off.

I've got a Beastmaker 1000 set up on a plank of wood screwed into the hall cupboard doorway and I've been using it if I'm not going to the wall or bouldering. I've seen the threads on UKBouldering where people post about feats of strength on their boards. Good on them for getting that strong but the 'Beasts' can all relax because there's no danger I'm going to be threatening their achievements any time soon. I'm starting to see some slight improvement using my 'beginner's' 1000 series board. It's a great bit of kit, but I'm taking it very slowly dues to a combination of being too weak to do anything hard and not wanting to get injured. I've never finger boarded until this year and I really don't want it to end in tears.

One thing I am very pleased with is that I am now properly going for it at the wall and taking falls, where before I would have shouted 'take' or down- climbed. Fear of falling off was and is quite a handicap for me, but I'm finding it's less stressful to just take the lob- and I'm wishing I'd started doing it years ago....

Beinn a'Chliabhainn, Brodick and the Holy Isle- from an easy bit on the A'Chir Ridge
Recently, me and my wife went over to Arran and did the A'Chir Ridge  during the heatwave we had in May.
I've done the Ridge a few times over the years. Coming back to it again with a non- climber was a bit of an eye- opener.

On my first traverse around 20 years ago I remember being gripped scrambling up the 'Mauvais Pas' crux- a 'bad step' involving a steep and very exposed wall above the Fionn Choire. The fact I was carrying a 60 litre sac with full camping and climbing gear didn't help much. Mistakes were not an option- thankfully none were made. Once atop the crest I was glad that the difficulty relented a bit after that initial excitement. On a subsequent traverse I had nothing more to carry than a water bottle and a windproof top but the bad step still required my full attention.

My wife had cruised the Aonach Eagach and Curved Ridge before so I expected the A'Chir wouldn't be that much trouble for her either.  However, my memories of only one point of real difficulty at the 'Mauvais Pas' turned out a wee bit rose- tinted. After last week's traverse I'm now convinced that the A'Chir is a big step up from the mainland scrambling magnets mentioned above. It's much harder, the route finding can be tricky, it's very exposed and consequently it's much more serious undertaking.

I had taken the precaution of carrying a short rope and a few bits of gear for occasional belays if needed. Luckily, I did because if we hadn't taken the rope we would have had to abandon the traverse for safety's sake. In the passage of time I'd forgotten how slabby and almost completely lacking in jugs it all was. Wearing road running shoes, Julie was not finding it easy to trust friction on the granite and there were a good few moments of stress before she gained confidence in her feet. Over the course of the Ridge her confidence improved though as she discovered the 'joys' of thrutchy body wedging and bridging that are required for many of the downclimbing sections.

We used the rope a lot overall and it was a good decision to take it. My memories of the 'Mauvais Pas' remained true. The fixed tat and pegs seen at this point are quite welcome sights, reassuring you that you are on route, providing security and also giving the sense that you are not alone in feeling the exposure here.

The Rosa Pinnacle of Cir Mhor
One of our options we'd discussed for the day had been the four star classic Sou' Wester Slabs (V. Diff) on Cir Mhor. Julie hasn't done a lot of rock climbing but the stuff she has done has been of equal difficulty. I offered her the choice and she decided against the V. Diff reasoning that she that hadn't climbed in a long time. Ironically, I reckon she'd have cruised Sou' Wester Slabs in rock shoes! I don't think there's much gap in difficulty between the routes. The fact that there's no thrutchy, exposed down- climbing on Sou' Wester Slabs would probably make it a far more pleasant excursion for someone who isn't a regular climber...

Still, we had a great day out on the A'Chir. You can't beat Arran in sunny conditions like this. The only casualties of the day were Julie's H & M leggings which had not proven thrutch- proof. They were pretty trashed by the end. We were both sunburnt to a crisp (we didn't take suncream because we thought we were used to the sun from Bermuda! Ooops) but no long term damage was sustained. Hill days in Arran tend to be big days in my experience and this one turned out to be around 10 hours long. We were tired from our exertions but thirst and hunger spurred us into a record breaking descent down Glen Rosa- all that jogging paying off at last!

Walking back down Glen Rosa