Saturday, 18 April 2009

A round up after a non-commital blog period....

I've just noticed that my last blog entry was Upper Cave, with references to the eluding Glen Clova. Which I visited shortly after, but as this was a few months ago now, I'm going to keep this brief and let the photo's do the talking.

I will say however, that leading Wandered (much talked up by Martin) that day was an awesome experience and quite a reminder of why I'm in love with Clova and was tempted by a move to Dundee (I even had a job interview in the name of this, held in a room called Clova, but alas it wasn't to be). At HVS 5a it's towards the peak of my ability, and yet I felt nothing but exhiliration when climbing it, and heaps of anticipation at the bottom. It's just a fantastic combination of fine moves, bomber gear and a touch of exposure.

Then there's spring 2009 to review, with less (if any) photo's to hand.

Outdoors speaking, this has so far included Rosyth Quarry, Dovecotes in Northumberland and Polney. The rustiness is gradually easing off and it feels good to be placing gear again. However, much to be worked on, especially bouldering-type moves. Dovecotes was a really interesting day (firstly both cars nearly never made it) for highlighting that there's certain moves I just don't do, like rock overs and top outs. These need some attention over the next few months.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

A lazy day in Upper Cave…

It was supposed to be a trip to Glen Clova with Barney but Duncan and Dom wanted a later start and somewhere closer. So in the name of petrol economy we agreed upon Upper Cave. Only then did I get a text from Emma telling they’d be heading to Clova, that venue seems to be eluding me just now.

There was the compulsory pie stop in Dunkeld then onto the crag, the weather was a bit dull but dry and warm, almost sweaty conditions. It was about midday and we had the crag to ourselves for a short time before a guy with wife and dog in-tow arrived. After a leisurely lunch and chat we finally considered actually climbing something. I’ve had my sights on Coffin Corner for a while now, but wanted to warm up first. So followed Barney up Corpse. It seemed relatively straight forward until the ledge where a backwards crawl leads to swinging onto holds just positive enough for such a manuvere, then moving over a bulge to finish. Barney had hesitated here and I did as well but it wasn’t so desperate and the moves felt good. I was a little bit dis-heartened when Barney commented that he’d wondered whether make it up there after all. I have been looking for an e2 project…

In the meantime Duncan had headed up Coffin Corner, treating us to a running commentary despite my protests. I felt my nervousness increasing... We had another break during which time a group of young Croatians arrived to boulder, and then I couldn’t put it off anymore. On Thursday evening I’d been at Limekilns with my new CSE colleagues. I led a couple of routes there but found leading DT’s, a few routes along from Red Ensign, really messed with my head, and thus my confidence. Having Barney belay me on this only added to that (him being the one who belayed me when I decked). So in approaching Coffin Corner, a route pretty much at my current trad limit and in view of my distinct lack of climbing of late, I found myself particularly apprehensive. A break from climbing not only affects my physical fitness but probably more importantly my ‘trad head’, much reassurance from myself and others was necessary – I persuaded Duncan and Dom to tell me it was easy-as really.

The beginning of the climb offers an easy-going introduction to the base of the main corner. Here, a thread helped soothe me slightly, that and the great pro potential of the rest of the corner crack. I moved up, placing nuts as I went and finding foot holds sparse. I reached the crux of the climb in an awkward position, jamming myself into the corner and feeling unnerved. This was the point I was really aware of my recent lack of trad and I wasn’t enjoying it. I placed a couple of cams and opted for escaping the corner out right, finding sufficient footholds for this where previously there weren’t any on that side. A few tentative moves and then a jug and much relief, now I could enjoy it! I moved easily over the overhanging bulge to the belay platform to set belay. We walked back down past Dom who’d just reached the top of Hos, it had been an experience for him though not one he particularly recommended. Duncan was just getting under way when we reached the base. For a HVS it looked really tricky, a very bouldery start with minimal gear.

Barney’s next choice was Majorie Razorblade which I was keen on so that I could lead the 2nd pitch and then say I’d led E3…Barney assured me that wouldn’t hold. But after a few attempts on the crack he backed off calling it a day, the drive just wasn’t there. I could then have had a go on Squirm but was still feeling a bit uneasy following the excitement of Coffin Corner (I’m not sure why the 2nd pitch of Majorie Razorblade seemed more doable then that of Squirm??!) so instead we had yet more food, practiced 1-handed bowlines and I learnt a new way to coil the rope. So yeah, that was the day we led one climb each. Afterwards I did feel a bit guilty at not trying Squirm but I guess that’s for another trip, and then maybe Corpse…I certainly need some new additions to my wish-list.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Sports climbing and injuries
Ley Quarry, 31 May 08

I would never describe myself as a sports climber (I am in fact sneaking this entry in hoping no one notices its out of place), I get scared going for the bolts. But every now and again I like to dabble. Saturday was climbing day but we needed to be back by 5ish and the tides were wrong at Aberdour. We felt like some exploration. With Antoine, Niels and Daniel on board we decided to check out one of the Dundee quarries. Antoine had been to Balmashanner before and described it as hard climbing in a hole, it didn’t sound appealing. Legaston quarry seemed to have the most climbs and also some trad but looked to be about a 2 hour drive, as was Kirriemuir of which I’ve heard good things. This left Ley quarry, about 1½ hours drive, which has some very easy leads and some hard ones without much in-between. This is a sandstone quarry located near Coupar Angus with a reputation for stretchy moves. On such a sunny day we were also keen to see the sun. As it turned out Ley quarry was the right choice for this. Apparently Legaston gets the sun from mid afternoon onwards during the summer, whilst Kirriemuir is quite a sunny spot.

We found the quarry without too much trouble, only one wrong turn. We drove up the track which was quite overgrown and rutted, later finding out that most people park at the bottom of this unless they have 4wd. On entering the quarry we first walked past the bouldering wall, which apparently has two excellent traverses, we didn’t investigate. The first bolted wall of the quarry is small (the Small Wall), only 7m or so and also with some of the easiest sports leads in Scotland, grades ranging from 3+ to 6b. However, we all agreed that adding at least half a grade to all the routes we did that day would have been more representative. Just beyond the Small Wall we came upon the pool, which initially seemed like a deep hole, so far quite picturesque. The Pool Wall (~11-12m) looked steep and dry.

We warmed up on the Small Wall, during which time a group from Dundee arrived. Scarred for Life (6a) gave some interesting moves though as the guide said was much easier for those who are tall. Magic pockets (6b*) was also very nice. Then we ventured to the Pool Wall, which involved moving down the banking and edging around the rock at the bottom with the water at your feet. Here if you look behind you, there is a dump site and a layer of beasties on the murky water, not quite so picturesque. Antoine led Five Magics (6b+**) making it look easy. Myself and Niels than top-roped it twice each, with the belayer attached to the lower bolt to prevent any swims. The moves are very nice with some crimping and delicate feet and a big move in the middle which once I got my feet right felt just comfortable. I wondered how shorter people would find this move. Some of the bolts seemed a bit awkward for clipping on the lead. In the meantime Antoine and Daniel were on Nectar (6a+*) where Antoine found clipping the top clip quite bold, the guide describes this as a bit of a stretch for those who are vertically challenged. Otherwise the route is very nice. Antoine then moved onto Nirvana (7a+***) whilst myself and Niels turned our attention to Footfall (6a*). Niels led this than I top-roped it before a lead, feeling pretty pumped by the top.

We also had a peek at the routes on the other side of the pool which have damp beginnings. With a bit of confusion Niels had a go at leading a very green The Magic Thumb (7b) which we thought was Traditional Imperfections (6a*). He retreated. We were on The Waterfront rather than the right side of the Pool Wall. On this side the banking is steeper and the ground pretty loose, a rope rail here wouldn’t go amiss. We did try to investigate further but were confused about which route was which, where they began and the best way to get to the bottom of them. Maybe next time. By now it was time to head back home. I have since learnt that Ley quarry isn’t greatly popular among the locals, though it seemed fine for a days trip. My sources revealed that Kirriemuir (topos can be picked up from Avertical world in Dundee) is a far better choice, perhaps even more so than the popular Legaston.

During Tuesday morning pins and needles moved into my right hand. Thinking nothing of it I tried to shake it out, then stretch it out. Then it occurred to me that this was something more serious than pins and needles. I was distraught that evening. The next day I booked myself in for a sports massage with Briana and a prognosis. It came as a great relief to learn that 6 months on from my last right shoulder injury, this was a different injury. However, the fact remains that my right shoulder is a vulnerable area. I discussed this with Briana who suggested there was a few reasons for this. Firstly, I roll my shoulders forward whilst climbing, effectively putting too much strain on the small muscles of my shoulders rather than using the stronger muscles in my back, thus climbing less efficiently and risking injury. With shoulders rolled forward, my elbows are behind my shoulders when they should be in front. Secondly, being aware of my former injury, I don’t use my shoulders as evenly as I should. My lower left back was also very tight which may be from carrying too much on my left side. Both these issues are quite common.

I later discussed this with Jamie for a shiatsu point of view. In these terms climbing is very yang (think exercises which hunch the shoulders) thus neglecting ying (think chest forward, shoulders back). The result of this is (where posture is correct) the strengthening of the large muscles but the gradual weakening of the small muscles of the shoulders, in other words an imbalance and a vulnerability to injuries. Thus cross-training, though lacking in interest is of great importance. Despite my adversion to the gym, I am now coming round to understanding the benefits of a regime to build up the muscles climbing shouldn’t touch. Other possibilities include swimming (back stroke), exercises with a band and yoga/pilates. I personally now choose to avoid yoga, I have hyper-flexibility (though not double jointed) and even though I can get into some of the positions doesn’t mean I should. With both yoga and pilates, it is very important to find a good instructor who corrects your positions when required, otherwise you could end up with more injuries. Back to climbing I also need to focus more on maintaining the correct posture with my shoulders back. This could be tricky after years of bad habits.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Sou’wester slabs, Cir Mhor, Glen Rosa, 27th April 2008

I have only been to Arran once before but had been captured under its spell. This was a few years ago yet biking between Brodick and Glen Rosa felt so familiar. This time I was staying in Lamlash in a bunk house with a large group of mostly German’s. Most of them had walking plans so viewed the four climbers, myself, Frank, Michi and Kasia, with interest. When we arrived on Friday night we were greeted by Arran’s Elvis in the local where we more than quadrupled the attendance to his pub gig. All a bit random but crooning Elvis felt adored.

The next day we headed to Glen Rosa on our bikes. This included the ascent of quite a large hill just out of Lamlash and with climbing gear, would have been hard work. Also, it was pretty overcast so we’d opted for a scrambling day instead. Still, I made the mental note that on future Arran trips, staying in either Brodick or Glen Rosa was definitely the way to go. By lunch time the clouds had cleared to be replaced by sunshine, our optimism was to be rewarded as the rock dried. So Sunday was the day for our climb and proved to be a bit of an epic. Firstly, we’d left our bikes in Brodick with the intention of getting the first bus there but that wasn’t until 10.30am, it was a bit of a late start. The bike ride to Glen Rosa is an easy going one, we then stashed our bikes and set of up the valley, the aroma of suntan lotion in our wake. At this point I received a text from Jonni, it seemed he wasn’t so impressed at covering my Alien shift anymore.

So the deal was we had to get up the valley, do the climb, and make it back to Brodick in time for the last ferry at 7.20pm. The plan was to beast it. And that we did. It took us just over an hour to reach the base of the climb towards the top of the basin. We had time for a quick lunch then we were on our way, leaving the bags at the bottom. There was only one other climbing pair when we arrived and they were no where in sight. Save a curious stag, we had the place to ourselves. To save a bit of time, I decided to skip the first part of Sou’wester slabs and instead started up South Sou’wester Slabs (VS), a bit trickier but very doable. The rock type here is a coarse-grained granite, not particularly suited to nut placements. I learned this quickly with the loss of a chunk of my thumb as my first nut ripped. So the first pitch was tainted by blood running from my hand. In the end with a solid hex placement, I set an early first belay to bring up my second to provide me with tissues and finger tape. By now, two other climbing pairs had arrived but seeing the traffic, opted for different routes. Bleeding stemmed, I was underway again, continuing up the ramp and soon finding the first belay. ‘It’s up to the right now’ Michi shouted up. ‘Are you sure?’ I replied, gazing at the intimidating flake with interest, it seemed a bit steep for a vdiff. I made my way up the flake, using cams for pro (I was very glad I’d borrowed extra for this trip) and moving quickly.

For a vdiff it did feel quite stiff, more so than Ardverikie Wall. I think this is due to the lack of foot steps, lots of smearing is required on rock with very good friction, it just takes a bit of getting used to. And of course there’s the exposure to consider. At the top of the flake I stepped over the lip and with the roof in sight and considerable drag, began to look for a belay. After a wee wander I had the ultimate reward, a thread. With a lack of cams left, this was particularly sweet. As were the stunning views. I backed up my belay with a no.3 wc cam and Michi made his way up, Frank and Kasia hot on his heels. From here it was a short pitch to beneath the roof where there was plenty of cam placements in cracks for the belay, as well as a rusty old peg.

I then moved round the corner with the instruction ‘down a bit then up a chimney’. At this stage I hesitated. Just round the corner there were two possible chimney routes but both looked harder than vdiff. Further down and round under the roof I peeked round the corner but the gully here didn’t look inviting. I went back to investigate the chimney options more closely. One was beyond me and my heart missed a beat as I slipped. The other was doable, feeling about a vs. We were now on South Ridge Direct. I placed cams and swung up on big holds. I arrived on a small platform beneath an intimidating looking corner and set belay. Michi soon in place, I was apprehensive about the next few moves. I edged my way up and placed a bomber moack. With this, my confidence soared, and clipping the in situ nut, I moved easily out the top of the corner, smiling, the moves had been good. From here it was easy ground to set the next belay by a boulder. Two scrambling pitches later we were at the top. We coiled the ropes quickly, hoping the other two wouldn’t be long, they had been just behind us.

By now it was after 5pm and we still had a way to go to get back to the ferry on time. We made the decision to make a run for it. We headed left and down a gully. It was quite an exciting scrambling desent. At the bottom we grabbed our bags and set off down the path through the basin. The pace down was pretty quick, we knew we were cutting it very fine. All the while I wondered whether rushing down was the right option, in the current conditions the basin was gorgeous and an extra day in Arran was certainly luring. Back at the bike stash, we jumped on and with some energetic peddling, set off, very glad it was downhill most of the way. We pulled into the ferry terminal office pretty much at 7.20 on the dot. ‘It’s not about to leave is it?’ I asked, somewhat frantic. I could have jumped over the counter and kissed the guy when he calmly replied that it wouldn’t be going anywhere till he said it could. Evidently he was in charge. We picked up the rest of our gear which we’d left in storage that morning (£1 per item) and pushed our bikes on board, the ferry doors closing behind us. Upstairs we walked into the lounge to be greeted by a cheer from the German crowd, we collapsed gratefully onto chairs. The curious glances from other passengers continued as we then sorted through our gear but this didn’t take from the therapeutic nature of this. So ended our trip to Arran, a place I am very keen to return too. Well done to Kasia for having faith in us getting back on time and thus winning the bet and a beer. And many thanks to her for letting me use some of her stunning photos.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Hammer, HVS, Etive (Trilleachan) slabs, Sunday 18th May

It was Ruth Campbell (of gear giving fame) who first insisted I should head to the slabs. This was 3 years ago and at the time even the thought gave me cold sweats. So even in feeling eager to at last check them out, I feel that I’ve come a long way. Partly it is the relative ease of accessibility which allows for the justifiable popularity of this crag, the other major component being the collection of immensely high quality routes, with a number of 4 starred routes. The rock type is Starav granite, set at an angle of 40ยบ on the slabs. With a lack of cracks, it has a reputation for run outs and boldness. The level of friction has been described as ‘just sufficient to maintain position’. We were about to put this to the test.

We were in luck with the weather, being treated in our drive up the valley by stunning sunny views. The 30 minute trek across boggy ground was straightforward with our destination ahead of us, glinting in the sunlight. I was mocked for wearing gaiters but was glad of having them both on the muddy ground and in protecting me from the ticks. Our route of the day was chosen by Barney, it was almost The Pause, a supposedly soft touch E1 (I simply nodded at this suggestion, dry-mouthed) but another climbing pair were just about to start this so instead we opted for Hammer. Finding the base of the climb was the first challenge of the day. No actually, the second, the first challenge was getting up a 6am. In the end we added a pitch 0 to get to the beginning, I just wasn’t keen on scrambling what seemed a relatively tough section. We then agreed on pitches, myself with the odd numbers. Then I was underway, a wee traverse to the left and then up to the corner. The first anchor was on a tree and once set, I turned to admire the view down to the loch, it was simply breathtaking.

Barney led the next pitch with ease and set anchor at the base of the scoop, something he felt I should lead. On first inspection I noted the lack of gear, then the lack of handholds, then the lack of footholds. I wasn’t convinced. But with his encouragement, moved forwards, the crack in the corner my aiming point. My language soon became colourful as I edged along precariously, gripping the few small edges with my fingers and searching keenly for footholds. I then noticed miniscule nodules which were a lighter shade than the rest of the section. Suddenly the cursing stopped and with a new feeling of confidence, I tentatively stepped onto these, aware that the grip they gave me was sufficient. By now I was chuckling to myself, with an intense feeling of exhilaration. I was doing what a few moments earlier had seemed impossible with relative ease, all the while aware that my only piece of gear was a few metres back at the anchor Barney had set. But this only added to the magic of the pitch, one which Barney described as being the best in Scotland at this grade. Though limited in my experience, at this point I have to agree. On reaching the corner I turned back and grinned, then set about placing some pro in the crack. I was now aware that having smaller fingers was an advantage on this climb, as I gripped the narrow crack and moved up. This section was definitely the pumpiest bit so far but with footholds and handholds this wasn’t too much of a problem. I arrived at the first step and almost fell into it. I then had a lovely move onto the next belay stance, and went about setting anchor. Barney soon joined me, his apprehension for the next pitch evident.

To begin with the pitch continues to follow the narrow crack up the corner. Then, a good few metres up, there is a traverse section to the right, this being the crux section. At this point Barney’s nerves were evident and it took him a few goes before he got the moves, his relief vocalised as he reached actual handholds on the other side. Then he once again moved swiftly up a flake and then over a roof before setting the next belay. So it was my turn. I cleaned up the belay and set off up the corner, finding this section pumpier than before maybe due to feeling apprehensive.

I arrived at the traverse to appreciate why Barney had hesitated. The footholds were slim, slanted and a bit shiny, the handholds limited tiny crimps, the distance to the decent handholds considerable. Whereas on the scoop section I had felt confidence in the footholds, here this was not the case. Nonetheless, I began to move across using baby steps and trying to remember to breath. With each foot step, I held my breath and hesitated, Barney shouted down encouragement. Then there was another lighter-shade tiny nodule, I stepped onto this gladly. A foot swap was required, I gulped and went for it, very thankful that my foot stuck and that I could now reach the middle section. I felt respect for Barney leading these moves, for an HVS they seemed very stiff, much more E1/E2. I moved up and past Barney, ready to lead the final pitch. This was a lot more straightforward but still with plenty of interest. I moved up and then right underneath a roof. I placed gear where I could in the crack I was gripping with my fingers, but felt my best option was to move quickly. The further along I moved the slimmer the crack and footholds seemed to get and the less gear I could place. I did get a few comments about not protecting my second sufficiently, especially as Barney couldn’t always grip the tiny crack. Zero cams would have been good but the only one we had was on Barney’s harness.

I reached the final anchor and set up, Barney soon joining me. We chose to stay on the ropes until the path improved just past the top off of The Pause where the other climbing pair were just emerging. Then we began a challenging scramble down. We reached the coffin stone to find numerous other climbing pairs comparing stories and fanning off midges. And so we joined in, immediately feeling part of the group despite never having met any of these climbers before. I guess we were united by the common purpose of the day, whether it was a VS or an E2. I was momentarily embarrassed at this point receive a text message, having left my phone on for the camera and not expecting reception. I made a mental note to put it on silent in the future.

Then, on deciding to call it a day we walked back down. I managed to find what I suspect was the muddiest path back and made full use of my gaitors as I sank into the mud. Barney skipped back with barely a speck of mud on his boots let alone his trousers. I always have held magnetic qualitities for mud. Being in the west, the journey back of course included a stop off in Tyndrum at Real foods where they do a great gluten-free fish and chip supper, a satisfying end to an extremely satisfying day. Oh yeah, and I was offered a new job, all good.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Ardverikie Wall, 17th April 2008 with Al

My friend Alec was visiting for a couple of weeks from New Zealand and asked if there was any mountain routes worth doing. “Ardverikie Wall” Martin said as soon as I asked him. This route is located on Binnein Shuas, just past the shores of Loch Laggan on the way to Spean Bridge. It consists of 6 pitches of 186m and has been described as Scotland’s classic slab climb, on microgranite and feldspar rock. Despite the slow start to the summer and the presence of snow not too far away, we decided this was a good choice so I began picking the brains of people who’d climbed it before. We set off on our trip up north on Tuesday and stopped off for a wee warm up at Creag Dudh, climbing the first pitch of King Bee (VS) which was just dry enough to climb round the damp section. Once in Aviemore we took the opportunity to peek at Extreme Dreams which despite looking tichy from the outside, is actually very compact and well designed inside to maximise on the limited space. I ogled at the intimidating roof section. The next day we were skiing in the Gorms in near perfect conditions, listening to the stories of the older crowd themed with ‘back in the day’.

On Thursday morning we set off towards Creag Meagaidh. The weather was sunny with a chill in the air, the views of Loch Laggan stunning from the seat of the car. We arrived, parked strategically (push start necessary) grabbed gear and bikes and were on our way, soon realising we’d forgotten the guidebook. Al went back to retrieve and I pushed on to gain distance, only to miss the correct track. And so began a minor epic just to reach the crag. It seems I am a typical climber, so focused on the pitches that I don’t make enough effort to figure out how to actually get to the crag. With the helpful advice of two ladies out for a hike and some clues from the guidebook (many thanks to Mark for loaning me this), we found our way to Lochan na-h-Earba, faced with the prospect of choosing the correct rockface. After discussion, we hid the bikes before the bridge and made our way over boggy ground, arriving at the bottom of the route on time for lunch. Here I made the happy discovery that my rice cake sandwiches were now a bit soggy, giving then more of a stale bread texture, which sounds bad but was actually quite good.

My time management isn't the best whilst climbing. I’d even made the special effort of wearing a watch only to ignore it, so was unaware that it was 1pm when we began the climb. Al had arranged to go mountain biking that evening in Allness so the plan was to do the route efficiently. I lead the first pitch, a short and sweet introduction with sufficient gear. Al was then onto lead the 2nd. Route finding at this point proved a bit tricky, and it took a few attempts before the correct way was found, Al then set the belay too soon. I pushed onto the 2nd belay, involving an exciting traverse with no gear. In the corner I found gear then traversed back to the right, finding the somewhat hollow anchor flakes easily. Al soon joined me and with the emphasis still on climbing quickly, I pushed on. Despite the easier grade of HS, the climbing was exhilarating, in part due to the run outs. But also with some very fine climbing, great conditions, great exposure, satisfying threads and stunning views. And then there was the challenge of route finding, seeking clues of rock worn from nut placements, belay anchors and stances. The belays were always good and even where hollow flakes were involved, it was possible to back them up.

By the time we’d reached the final pitch, the sun was behind clouds and the temperature had dropped considerably. It was now 6pm and we hastily packed the gear away and I lovingly replaced thick woolly socks on cold feet. The walk down and bike ride weren’t quite the doddle I’d anticipated. It took around 25-30 minutes to walk back down to the bikes then about 15 minutes to the car (2 minutes for Al).

We arrived in Evanton about 9pm (too late for mountain biking) where there was apple crumble to revive Al though I was lost with the bike gear chat. What became apparent though was how much Al’s mountain biking friends respected rock climbing, mountain routes not being something they would consider doing themselves. I was taken aback by this. These guys are hard out mountain bikers, regularly beasting it down the black runs at speeds and technicalities I and many others would never dream of (I'm nervous at the prospect of trying the blue runs). And the risks with mountain biking at this level are much greater than what the majority of trad climbers are exposed to. Al later told me that Ewan’s record on the black run at Golspie is a matter of minutes from the top. I guess it’s a relative thing, people are comfortable in their own sports but intimidated by other pursuits, even if the level of it is relatively less than the level of their own. But it has made me wonder about how trad climbing is viewed in Scotland by other outdoor sports people and whether it is considered an extreme sport? I’m not sure I consider it a sport at all, more just a lifestyle choice. The next day I was also taken aback when Ewan exclaimed “there’s no mud on your gear!” All relative!

An introduction

I began climbing in Alien in spring 2002. It was half a year before I ventured outside for a bouldering trip to Goatfell near Wooler in Northumberland. The experience intimidated me rather than inspired me to do more. I concluded that either I wasn’t a boulderer or an outside climber. For the next few years I continued to climb indoors, convinced I would never trad climb, it just seemed so crazy and unsafe. But I had decided I wanted to climb on proper rock and with limited sports climbing in Scotland (our trip to a damp Weem had been uninspiring) I hatched the cunning plot to spend a year in New Zealand where there seemed to be more better quality sports routes. Many friends speculated that I wouldn’t return.

I arrived in New Zealand in March 2004 for what was to be their wettest winter and summer on record. With a lack of money-earning opportunities and fore-mentioned weather, I didn’t get much climbing done at all during my 11 months there. But I did do my first trad lead. It was borne partly out of rain frustration with Payne’s Ford being subject to torrential rain that new year. But more importantly, because James, my partner in crime had gone to the trouble of buying shiny new gear and like a magpie, I felt irresistibly drawn to it. It seemed rude not to use it. So in Charleston on the west coast of the South island on the last day of 2004, we set about our first trad leads. We were lucky to survive the experience. I returned to Scotland in April 2005 after a short stay in Australia where I sampled some of the sports climbing in the Blue Mountains.

So armed with my new trad ‘skills’ and extremely happy to be home, during the summer of 2005 I began trad climbing in ernest. In the beginning I had a tendency to place gear precariously, it wasn’t unusual for my 2nd to shout up “have you placed your next piece of gear yet? Good, because your last 3 pieces fell out”. Aberdour was our favourite haunt and the train trip at the weekend became a regular feature during my weekend. At the time I was temping at the Scottish Executive in an office with former climber Ruth Campbell. One morning I arrived at my desk to find half ropes and an entire rack in my chair, I was stunned. Ruth had donated me her old gear which had been under her bed for 20 years. I don’t think I have ever been so touched by someone’s kindness. Now with my own rack I felt a bit more like a trad climber. I did my first mountain route this year, Agag’s groove with Duncan. It took us 5 hours to complete so we were glad there was nobody else on the route that day. It was shortly after this at Limekilns that my precarious gear setting became an issue on White Ensign when I misjudged a move and seemingly in slow motion found myself falling. I watched with interest as my 2 hexes popped and wondered if Barney would catch me, I was sure I was falling so slowly. I hit the dirt with a thud. Having fallen around 5 metres my only physical injury was a lump on my right hand – I held this up to Barney wordlessly as he enquired whether I’d like to have another go. This was my 2nd attempt at a VS, following Two Ringer a hour prior round the corner. I concluded that I wasn’t yet ready for VS’s, and maybe never would be.

A few days later I was in Northumberland at Bowden Doors, scaring myself silly on vdiff’s. Falling changed the way I thought about trad climbing. Not only did my gear placement improve dramatically, I now had a lot more respect for the importance of good gear placements, and fear of what could go wrong. I think it was from this point that I appreciated that placing gear wasn’t just something that was done for the hell of it, it was in fact an integral part of a trad climb. Some climbs are made because just when you get to the crux you can place a bomber piece of gear which can be greatly inspiring. So ended my first season in Scotland.

In 2006, I was unable to do as much due to work commitments despite the fantastic summer. This year I climbed with Hanne, which was a good change from all the boys, and she had an edge on me which served to push me more. We visited Aberdour, Polney at Dunkeld, Auchinstarry Quarry at Croy and some Northumberland crags. I continued to lead vdiff’s to HS but nothing beyond, I left this to Hanne. But I was unsatisfied with this cut off. I decided to do SPA training to improve my gear placement skills and confidence. I did this at Ardroy Outdoor centre in July. At the end of this we had exit interviews. Mine consisted of something like this: ‘so what are your plans now?’ ‘urrmm, I guess I’m gonna climb some more’. And do you plan to do any instructing?’ ‘no’. ‘And what about VS’s, when are you going to lead some more of them?’ ‘I’m not sure I will’. So you see working at Alien was unintentional, they just kept bugging me. And then I realised I actually enjoyed working with the kids and the Friday night Cilla routine. And of course the money came in useful now that I was studying again. More importantly my time at Alien served not only to improve my confidence in climbing in general but also to improve my knowledge about what was out there. And in August, following my SPA weekend, I sandbagged myself at Aberdour and accidently flashed Gaucho, the HVS 5a next to Pain Piller (which I intended to do). It was only when I returned to the bags with Hanne that she gleefully told me what I’d done. I’m not sure I can describe what I felt in that moment, but recalled thinking that it was very exciting for a VS. The only reason I didn’t do Pain Piller was because I got nervous at the bottom by the smooth start with no gear. I knew there was a VS on one side and a HVS on the other and was convinced the climb on the right looked the easier of the two.

The season of 2007 arrived and with it rain. Being more flexible with days off I was able to work around this and still made plenty of trips out, now moving on to more serious crags of the likes of Creag Dudh. I have ‘first time crag visit intimidation’ and so was happy to 2nd pitches here though led the 3rd pitch of King Bee and 1st pitch of Brute. I really enjoyed the first pitch of Inbred but with an exciting run out am not sure I’ll be able to tick that one. During this season I became comfortable on VS’s and travelled further afield to Reiff and Duntelcaig. I was also starting to add mountain routes onto my wish list. On the disappointment of a postponed trip to Ardverikie Wall, I instead ventured to Limekilns with Pete, a friend from Cumbria who I’d met in Queenstown, NZ. Here I lead Deadringer, on a redpoint attempt. I nearly bottled it a third from the top and greatly appreciated Pete’s no-nonsense advice of ‘just get on with it!’. I felt not only immensely proud having led an E1, but also that I’d put my VS fears well and truly to bed. Except that is when I’m in Northumberland.

Still on a high from this and perhaps a bit cocky, I decided that a great mountain route to do would be the Needle (E1) on Shelterstone, the Cairngorms. Again with Pete as my partner, and Iain and friends, we set out for the walk in. The experience was not what I expected. I’d taken ‘comfy’ climbing shoes which I don’t like, found the damp conditions a bit oppressive, the back pack heavy, the route finding tricky and the intimidation factor immense. Pete was great and supported me throughout, taking over the lead of all the pitches save the 1st and last. It’s only now that I appreciate what its like when your partner bottles it on a multi-pitch climb. During this climb I found myself questioning whether I did really want to climb after all? Perhaps the urge was gone? At the time I just didn’t enjoy it and was even reluctant to thread the needle on the last pitch. For the next few weeks this reluctance continued, and I felt unworthy of the praise I received for doing this climb. I also lacked the enthusiasm I once had, unsure of whether is would ever return. Thankfully it did up the Beanstalk in Glen Clova on a gorgeous sunny day in October, it must have floated over on the breeze. I fell in love with the beauty and tranquillity of this valley and look forward to my next trip there.

So this just about leads me up to current times, with the summer of 2008 upon us and hopes for dryer conditions than last year. Following years of training and persistence, I feel drawn to mountain routes, though perhaps mileage on easier routes is a definite requirement to get my head used to those heights and route finding. It’s been quite a journey so far, and now things are really starting to get interesting.