Monday, 18 March 2013

Point Five Gully, staying focused in the fast lane

After such a cracking weekend on the Ben last weekend, and my motivation for winter climbing at an all time high, I've been buzzing all week, another trip up north was swiftly planned to make the most of the conditions in the mountains.

Following tracks low in Observatory Gully
Similarly to last week, Piers and I had planned to camp up at the CIC hut, to cut out the slog from the North Face car park. Arriving late on Thursday night, driving straight after work, we were greeted by rain in Fort William, and opted to sleep in the car and get an early start the following morning. Walking up to the hut through drizzle, sleet and finally snow, meant we were pretty damp and a North Easterly wind didn't help as we got the tent up and had a quick brew. The snow level was down to just below the hut but the winds meant a lot of new snow collected across the mountain. We battled through powder up the approach gully, planning to get onto Tower Ridge. Time was going to be tight anyway, but a lot of powder along the early sections of the ridge slowed progress. Not being able to see what you're actually standing on always makes things pretty interesting, as does part of the corniced edge collapsing as you've just passed along. Things just didn't feel right and the fact it had just started snowing didn't help matters. So we bailed back to the tent and sat out the snow, caught up on some sleep and rested.

A snowy night at the CIC
I awoke in the night to the sound of more tent pegs being hammered in, we had neighbours. Opening the door in the morning to no wind, blue skies and the North face of Ben Nevis in top condition is quite something. Our little patch of snow covered grass had become like a festival field as another six tents had squeezed on the small area. Teams were already walking up from the hut approaching their objectives, we had only one, Point Five Gully.
Approaching Point Five Gully in great condition
We could see the route from the tent, it looked in brilliant condition. On the approach, we turned the bottom of the Douglas Boulder to spot another team already heading towards the base of the route. To be fair, they made life a lot easier breaking trail through the powder up to the route. We crossed patches of graupel, a type of snow that almost looks like balls of polystyrene. These areas of snow are usually pretty unstable and are an indicator of poor snow conditions. We discussed our options, the route being quite steep shouldn't have collected much snow and it had a hold on me, I had wanted to climb it for so long, so we continued. The team ahead were taking their time and ended setting off at the same time as myself, with two other parties behind getting impatient.

Despite the route being busy, ropes and people everywhere, the climbing was brilliant. I'm not a fan of people watching me climb, other than my belayer of course, I normally get distracted and worry about what people think of me. This time I was totally focused on the task at hand, enjoying this awesome route. Once I had swung that first axe, I was oblivious to all of the other people watching me up that first pitch. The ice was top notch, sinker placements and readily took screws as I headed to the first belay.
The first two pitches went really quickly, smooth climbing with great placements, the route was becoming quite stepped. Two other teams were climbing close to us becoming pretty bunched, which wasn't good news as the ice was becoming more brittle, big chunks breaking off unexpectedly. One second came up with a bloody nose, I think he'd caught himself with his adze, and the leader of the third team had pushed through and had been hit badly with a large chunk out his nose, blood down his face, he looked a bit of a mess. He approached the belay all guns blazing, looking for someone to blame, to which I replied, "blame us all." Climbing one of the most popular routes on the mountain on a Saturday, I guess it was to be expected. Even a 5:30am start from the hut couldn't escape the queues.

I wanted out, and headed off up the Rogue pitch not to be put down by all this negativity. I was here to enjoy the climbing on a quality route. The pitch was great, bulging at the top, I could definitely feel the steepness but solid placements and good bridging saw me pull onto the snow slope above.

I headed up the snow slope for maybe 25m, clipping one suspect peg in the side wall along the way, eyes on a good ice bulge ahead for a solid belay. 5 metres short, the rope went tight, I couldn't move, out of rope. Absolutely gutted, and following a bit of bad language about never buying 50m ropes ever again, a bit of slack,   Piers had started climbing. I quickly sorted two screws before he reached the steepening wall and got him on belay.
Piers pulling onto the easier upper slopes
We swung leads and moved together through these top sections as the slopes steepened again towards the imposing cornice. The seemed to get bigger to closer I got, and I picked my spot. There was two foot of fresh powder deposited atop of the existing cornice, as I struggled to cut a hole through it before climbing through and crawling across the plateau to take in the rope for Piers.

Back down and in the tent for 3pm just as the snow began, it didn't stop. The wind picked up as the front passed through, it continued to snow as we watched it build up the side of the tent. Awaking the Sunday morning to find a foot of new snow surrounding the tent, meaning laden slopes and huge cornices higher up the mountain. The avalanche forecast was considerable anyway so we called it quits and headed down, pleased with an ascent of such a classic route.

Chilly face on the summit plateau
Every climber must have objectives and aspirations for their climbing to keep them motivated. Whether it be a route for that day, or a list of climbs to do before you die. Sometimes the blinkers come on, and people become impatient, ignore the weather and take unnecessary risks to climb their desired route. Every now and then this gun hoe attitude is required to pull out the stops to climb the route. I am guilty of it myself, climbing routes that are maybe out of my depth when I have been in a troubled mindset. I think of myself as cautious climber especially in the mountains, and have never rushed to push myself through the winter grades, allowing myself to gain plenty of experience first. And I hope everyone that was in the mountains this weekend are safe.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Chasing goals in the mountains, great ice on Ben Nevis

Having a climbing trip planned in advance in the UK never quite goes to plan and with the weather looking rubbish for the weekend,  Jack and my trip to Tremadog looked a mess.
However, one phone call from Ben, saying John and himself were heading to Scotland, the weekend had some very different aims. One goal in our heads; Point Five Gully.

We had a late one, arriving at the North Face car park just after midnight. We donned our heavy rucksacks and headed off towards the CIC hut, pitching our tent close to the hut for shelter. After a wild few hours sleep with the tent sounding like it was about to take off, the 5am alarm came far too early. It was blowing a hooley outside with snow in the air as we headed up Observatory gully towards Point Five. The wide top snow slopes of Point Five funnel spindrift straight down the gully, we watched and timed how long between each dump, 3-5mins. The route would have been a nightmare, but we wanted it so bad; "an outstanding climb, probably the most famous ice gully in the world." 

Jack on the first pitch of Italian Right-hand with the main pitch on the right in the background.
By now our early start was no longer an advantage as we headed round to Coire an Ciste, and up towards Italian Right-hand. Recommended by Ben, I had never heard of this route,
or even noticed it in the guide before. I don't know how I'd managed to miss seeing it before as the main ice pitch looked immense. The route definitely gave us a flavour for the ice, after a predominately mixed season for myself and only Jack's second winter route. The route was quite stepped out, but that did not withdraw from the quality of the ice, with top placements and good screws being the order of the day.

Italian Right-hand takes the ice smear just left of centre.
We descended Broad Gully back into the top end of the Coire, we traversed round to Central Gully Right-hand, which gave a quality gully line, good ice and neve. We descended Number 4 gully en route towards the tent.

Jack approaching the belay at end of pitch 2 of Central Gully Right-hand
The ice route of Vanishing Gully caught our eye on the way down, we'd covered a lot of ground and were pretty tired, but only being two pitches, we couldn't resist. Jack lead
a sterling pitch, with steep bulges followed by a narrow strip of ice heading to the ice cave belay. Chatting to some fella at bottom, they commented, "so you've got the meaty top pitch then?" "I guess I have" I replied. I hadn't thought about that yet, I'd never climbed this grade before, it looked ok from the bottom I thought. I joined Jack at belay and prepared for steep wall above, I felt pretty shaky and nervous to begin with and placed a couple of screws. I made good progress, it was definitely steeper than it looked from below. After a brief respite after several metres, another screw in, I was getting pumped as I started to place another, it just wouldn't bite! I had to move on, fumbled the screw back onto my harness, the climbing wasn't too bad, good placements and a slightly easing angle. I tried again to place a screw, and the same thing; pumping out, a shake of the arms, few deep breaths,  I had to continue. Another few metres lead me to a snow slope and the end of the difficulties, with another 20 metres to finish the pitch. What a quality route, my first venture into grade V ice, to which I had always felt a bit intimidated by, perhaps it was because of the reputations of the classic routes at this grade combined with my fear of failure on them. This was to be a new chapter in my climbing.

Vanishing Gully - Ben and John on the route after we descended the gully to the left.
Jack nearing the steepening ice on Pitch 1
 3 routes in the day, we'd nailed it, but pretty shattered, cooked some food and a nap in the tent, woken by John saying there was room in the CIC for us! Sweet. 

Following a quality nights sleep, another early start had us thinking we were going to be the first team on Point Five. Still strong winds and blue skies, we turned the corner into the approach gully to see a team on the final slope to the base of gully, the goal was smashed. They moved off really slowly, and there was no way I was queuing for over an hour with so many quality routes in condition. We continued up Tower Gully towards Indicator Wall. An intimidating line following ice a wall of rock rather than a gully line. The route was in top condition, and not as stepped out a routes from the day before. Again Jack lead a top 40m pitch, following a steep groove and thinner ice to a screw belay, bomber.
Jack throwing some shapes on Pitch 1 of Indicator Wall
 I continued in a brilliant position, stepping out from recessed belay looking up at the steep wall of ice that lay ahead. The pitch was beauty, sustained but never desperate, I was in a amazing position on a quality route. The route was top class, leading me to the highest belay in the UK around the trig point of Ben Nevis.

Looking across to two climbers on the Eastern Traverse, Tower Ridge. Another sterling day in Scotland.
Having specific goals can sometimes distract from appreciating the other quality climbs, crags and mountains that are right in front of you. We had climbed 4 top class routes over the weekend, none of which were planned. I had thought my winter season over, I was so wrong after this top weekend and with another potential trip planned for next weekend, could that be the finale.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Some not so scary trad limestone at Pot Scar

For 2013 one of my goals is to climb at five limestone crags that I haven't visited before. Having ticked routes at the more popular crags of Malham, Kilnsey, Giggleswick and a few others, this goal was to lead me to explore new parts of Yorkshire limestone. So after a flick through the guidebook, I settled on Pot Scar, which had a wide range of grades and a number of starred routes. I had however missed the paragraph which mentioned "short ground falls can have serious consequences" and "bad accidents in the past" with the following sentence being; "you have been warned!" Sounds good to me!
Hopefully all the loose stuff has fallen off with that amount of scree at the bottom
I haven't always been a fan of limestone trad climbing, and I'm only just coming around to the idea. I've found it to be insecure, with poor protection, and suspect rock, with the combination of all 3 providing a pretty terrifying experience. So visiting a new limestone crag with only traditional routes, i was feeling a bit nervous on the way over. However on arrival, the main area of Pot Scar looked a solid, clean wall of limestone. 

In the past I've struggled to read limestone, and end up feeling my way up the wall searching for holds and then better ones. So as I started up the first route, Piers said to me; "this is the most scarred I've ever seen you whilst climbing." I didn't find the route bad at all, it flowed really well, there was good gear, solid rock. Pot Scar was the exact opposite of my stereotype of a trad limestone crag. 

A brilliant days climbing followed this rather shaky start. Every route continued to surprise me, good gear and great climbing in the winter sun. We climbed several of the clear grooves and walls, which gave quality obvious lines. I finished up the day climbing Sunspot, which is the only 3 starred route in the guide, although I believe some of the others are of similar quality for their grade. Sunspot followed a thin groove that was on a steeper wall than the rest of the crag. Using thin flakes barely big enough to fit your fingers into, that were really square making protection a nightmare, I worked my way slowly up the groove. After a couple of shaky moments where wires and imps just pulled through when trying to set them, a lot of relaxation breathing was required at these points. I reached the overlap two thirds up the route, and a solid thread and wire, I now felt at ease. The overlap was turned, by a big rock over to reach another thin flake leading to larger holds above. It was the hardest traditional route I'd climbed on limestone, and the whole experience was exhilarating and definitely showed I've still got a good head for bold moves heading into this season.

I've learnt to take what you read in the guidebook with a huge pinch of salt as there are such quality crags and routes within such a small area. After visiting Pot Scar, I am now looking forward to visiting the next 4 new limestone crags to complete my goal, and maybe more, if we get the weather. After just climbing at one new crag, I think this goal is definitely going to take me on a journey to explore and discover some more hidden, less traveled gems of Yorkshire limestone, and will probably mean more to me than climbing harder routes.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Great Roova Moorland Grit

At last, a day off work during this good weather. I've been watching the forecast all week, counting down the days till Friday. The weather was looking uncertain with lots of cloud and drizzle on the way. The skies looked threatening all morning and dark clouds loomed above with a bitterly north eastern wind whipping along the moor. I had been inspired by the new Yorkshire Gritstone guide, and slogged a couple mats up the hillside and onto the moor with the goal, Great Roova crag, in sight most of the way. On the opposite side of the moor to Slipstones, this north facing crag shared the same top quality grit. The compact edge provides a selection of buttresses with stunning aretes and blank looking walls offering clean lines of a highball nature.

I had a scout around the crag working out where things were and eyeing up problems that stood out to me! The friction was great thanks to the cold wind, as I warmed up on a few different lines, concentrating on my movement up these easier lines. This gave me the time to appreciate my surroundings as I looked down on the length of Coverdale and the rolling green hills, it was a stark contrast to where I was, alone on the edge of the barren, darkly coloured moor. The crag has quite a wild feel to it and I would guess that you are likely to be the only people there on a visit.

A problem called Aurora had caught my eye, with the higher aretes being the cleanest lines, there was still a lot of lichen and green on many cracks and corners. The first time I pulled on, the moves felt really good, it flowed really well, a reach out right to a sharp crimp enabled me to reach a slopey hanging flake. Bunched feet on the starting lip lead to a big reach to the top. I seemed to be able to make the beginning moves each time and was getting frustrated at the big move to the top. I find it hard to rest between attempts, and had to really force myself to sit down, have a brew and chill out for a bit. I studied film footage of my efforts, and thought about how I could adjusted my body position to give myself even more height to latch the top before I lost too much precious skin. My next attempt went really smoothly, I turned my hips into the wall and managed to catch the top with a typical slopey Yorkshire mantle finish.

It was a cracking day, cut a bit short by going through the skin of two tips making a bit of a bloody mess. I was stoked with the selection of problems I'd got done, and it was great to explore another of Yorkshires hidden gems. It has definitely got me psyched to check out some more of the esoteric crags that are out there.