Friday, 26 April 2013

Motivation at a high on moorland grit.

After an unbelievable winter, climbing routes I couldn't have imagined back in November. Everything just seemed to fall into place allowing me to spend nearly six weeks exploring the Scottish Highlands. Winter is well and truly over now, and my attention has turned to spending as much time on rock as I can fit in.

One man and his pads

My motivation is soaring after a confidence boosting winter realising what I can achieve in climbing. It all started with writing a list of goals, routes that I aspire to climb this year and this blog. The increase in my motivation has meant I am trying to structure specific training for climbing, something I have attempted in the past but never followed through with over a period of time. I have nailing the fingerboard over the past few weeks and putting the time in is already showing in my climbing.
Healaugh Crag, Swaledale
I've managed to fit in several bouldering sessions around work over the past week, rekindling the love of subtle movement required with gritstone bouldering where even slight changes in body position can be the difference between success and failure on a problem.

Matt on Extremities, Slipstones
I headed out in the sunshine to Healaugh Crag in Swaledale and back over to Slipstones. Similar crags with square shaped buttresses running along the edge of the moor. Two quality evenings in the sunshine, aided by a cool breeze which provided good friction once the sun began to set.

Matt on Agra Direct, Slipstones

Agra Buttress, Slipstones
Then next couple days were a complete contrast, whilst visiting Kyle in Burnley, we took a punt with the weather and headed to the Bridestones, a top the moors. The heavy grey clouds threatened above, the winds grew, blowing bouldering mats away and making delicate problems hard going. Spots of rain were clear on our chalked up hands as we watched the rain approaching. It blew over and we were in the clear, as the winds kept the rock dry and we ticked classic problems.

Chink in the Armour, Bridestones
The rock is quite fragile and sandy in places as we battled to keep contact with the rock on slopey aretes, comforted by the flat grassy landings and pads below. The problems were quality, though care was needed to prevent any further erosion or damage to the gritstone.

My training appeared to already be paying off, climbing a number of problems in quick succession that would have normally taken a whole session to complete one. If only there was a way to train my skin to be tougher, as three split tips are repairing ready for a five day trip to Wales next week.

Monday, 8 April 2013

A relection on a Winter Cuillin Ridge Traverse

Now a few days have passed since completing the ridge, writing my blog and working for a few days. I’m sure I’m still recovering mentally and physically, although I managed to fit in a fingerboard session this morning. I have had the chance for it to all sink in, realise what I have achieved and reflect on the whole experience.

I had never even thought about the Cuillins in winter, even spending around 30 days in the mountains this winter, Skye had never even crossed my mind. Why not? The early season was spent in the Northern Corries and later on the fine ice of Ben Nevis. I was so unsure about a ridge traverse making the drive from Torridon to Skye, nervous but exciting chat about even the possibility of a traverse, could it be done? After a little research and reading Mike Lates of Skye Guides top tips, I thought it was definitely too much and unachievable for us. There was no reason why though, we’d spent a lot of time in the mountains, were feeling fit and had climbed harder routes this winter; it must have been an underpinning intimidation of the challenge. The many variables that had to fall into place were huge compared to a regular Scottish winter day. The weather, the snow, our speed, route finding and bivi spots, all had to come together to even give us a chance at an attempt

It was my first trip to Skye, first time on the Cuillins, the unfamiliarity of these complex mountains. The variables all came together for our traverse, the stable weather and good snow being the main aspects. The snow was patchy, with areas of soft windslab, dispersed between good nee, which definitely settled nerves. Once on the ridge we moved quickly, but having nothing to compare this too kept a doubt in the back of my mind. Throughout the second day, I definitely had a feeling that we were going to do it, going to complete a winter traverse. This was after completing the TD gap, the final difficulty on the ridge. The final ridge and climb to the summit of Gars-bheinn was a mixture of elation and relief. This route and ridge had been the greatest challenge mentally and physically that I have faced in the mountains. It is understandable why such settled conditions are required, the weather is the last thing to be worrying about when negotiating the complex terrain, problem solving of abseils and route finding, piece by piece fitting the sections of ridge together like a thousand piece jigsaw, the challenge seems huge to begin with. The constant concentration required mentally drained me, and walking towards Glen Brittle I was like a robot. On the ridge there could be no slips, no trips and 100% concentrating on every step, looking out for each other, roped and moving together, no margin for error. 

I have learnt a lot about myself, to be more positive in light of big routes and plans, breaking these challenges down into sections and pieces without focusing on the overall picture. I cannot wait to head back to Skye this summer for another ridge traverse and to climb on the huge buttresses of pristine gabbro and basalt. 

I believe Geoff Cohen sums it up as he describes his first view of the ridge in Cold Climbs as ‘breath-taking, impossible to describe save by likening it to the perfection of dreams.’ To anybody considering a trip to Skye, plan it, you won’t regret it.  

Friday, 5 April 2013

Skye high in the Cuillins

Having spent the last couple days exploring the fine mountains around Torridon, we were due to head back down to Fort William for two days climbing on Ben Nevis. To take advantage of the continuing weather,the plan changing once more, and our destination was now the Isle of Skye.Neither Piers nor I had ever been to Skye before, and I know I was feeling quite apprehensive about it. I had longed to go to Skye, and was hoping to go throughout this summer season to explore the famous Cuillins, never mind makingmy first trip to the isle in winter conditions; however these conditions were to good to miss. I was adamant that I was not going to make a ridge attempt,and was going to take the more cautious approach of day walks on sections of the ridge. After a little research into the ridge traverse, regarded as the finest mountaineering expedition in the UK, it sounded far too much for us with numerous abseils, hard route finding, 3000m of ascent and descent over the 12km ridge. I ruled it out, but planned several day excursions to take in sections of the ridge.

Our first was to be Pinnacle Ridge, a grade 3 ridge on Northside of Sgurr nan Gillean visible from the van, looked hard enough anyway. Weset of with reasonably early start unsure how long it was going to take, no guidebook, just the ridge to follow to the summit. Once we reached the first patches of snow, things were clicking in my brain; the snow was the best I hadseen all winter, bullet hard neve. It was time to get crampons on, but for me it was decision time, I’d spent the last 10 minutes crossing patches of perfect neve, weighing things up in my head, could we actually go for a ridge traverse.Could I afford to miss out on this opportunity; when was I next going to be onSkye in winter, in these conditions? I knew it was going to involve an overnight but we had no bivi kit. Several quick phone calls swiftly followed, getting information on the ridge, and finding an outdoor shop open on Easter Monday. We needed survival bags, abseil tat and factor 50 for my already sunburnt face. Shop open, decision made; we were going for a winter Cuillin ridge traverse the following morning.
I had a restless night’s sleep, unsure of the challenges Iwas about to face over the next few days. The bags were frantically packed at 5am just after a big pan of porridge to fuel us, I was pretty sure I’d packed everything, or I hope I had. The bags didn’t feel too heavy; the approach was fast, crampons on and straight onto the East Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, revealed what lay ahead of us. For the first time, I could see the Cuillin ridge in its entirety, as the snow covered ridge snaked its way along joiningthe summits and huge buttresses of rock creating this alpine environment. I hadto stand and just absorb what I was looking at for a couple of minutes. I was totally in awe of what was about to come, I was still unsure as to what to expect.
We were making good progress, several peaks down, the stable weather of sunshine and a light breeze keeping the temperatures bearable whilst working hard on the ups. The route was quite well trodden which worked in our favour, as I was quite worried about route finding amongst the complex terrain. Not any more though, as we swiftly continued. The day was going quick, in thefirst few hours, we had completed four abseils, moving North to South along the ridge, to overcome difficulties early in each day.
The sun didn’t bear up and with the snow becoming softer, it was becoming very sugary and despite it still being early in the day, we started looking for a bivi spot. We had already passed a couple and a several suitable spots. We had been on the go for 10 hours now, and the snow was becoming quite unstable and soft, we were slowing reached a small col, big enough to cut out little trench big enough to sleep in and shelter. Everything just took time, melting water to drink, for bottles, to cook with. It was the clearest sky I had ever seen, looking across the sea to the sun setting behind the Outer Hebrides. All my layers on, hat, mittens and into my sleeping bag, not looking forward to my night in the orange bag. The night passed quickly butI do remember waking up and seeing a ridiculous number of stars, the sky almostlooking whiter than it was black. The alarm beeping at 5.30am caused a stir and a lot of motivation was required to move and get sorted in our small area without anything sliding off down the slopes.

A steep snow slope got the blood flowing to the legs, and our first difficulty of the day approached after a long slog up, the top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle came into view. It was a cold climb up the East Ridge,which had very little snow left on it other than the ledges and summit,followed by a swift abseil and getting the gloves back on. The rock was cold due to the lack of sun, with grey clouds in an overcast sky. I was getting paranoid now, and kept thinking I could feel droplets of rain, it may have been nerves as an imposing climb and committing section of ridge lay ahead. The closer we got to the next climb, the easier angled and achievable it became, with ramps of snow weaving up the climb with steps between the ledge systems of rock.
Abseiling of the Inaccessable Pinnacle
 I upped the ante along the next section, unsure of the weather and not wanting to get caught out now we were committed. The section passed smoothly, and descending into the TD gap proved to be the last of the difficulties. The ridge continued with pleasant scrambling and snow slopes tofinish on the summit of Gars-bheinn at 3pm. We had spent 16 1/2 hours on theridge.
This definitely was the finale to an amazing winter. I don’t think it has really sunk in what we have achieved. I found it amazing how such a series of peaks and ridges appears almost from the sea, and throws up so many challenges along its length. To climb this ridge in winter really has been anopportunity that I couldn’t afford to have missed and I feel privileged to have had the chance to complete early in my mountaineering career. I have come across this quote, which happens to come from Skye mountain rescue sums them up: ‘Do not come to the Cuillin Ridge without cutting your teeth elsewhere in Scotland. Do not rush the Cuillin. Although eroding they will still be there tomorrow. Fear them, maybe doubly respect them and you will have many great mountain days within their aura.’

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Changing winter plans in the Scottish Highlands

After a couple of weeks off from my last trip up to Scotland, I was keen to squeeze in one more and take advantage of the extended season and this settled weather, probably my last for the season. A plan was hatched, 7 days, Torridon, Ben Nevis then Glen Coe. I should have learnt by now that my plans never quite fall into place.

The original plan was to head straight to Torridon through Friday, but on hearing the classic low level ice route Raven Crag Gully was ‘in nick’, plans changed. To the Lakes Thursday night, quick route in the morning then to Torridon. I changed my mind again; the ice didn’t look too thick in places. So straight to Glen Coe Thursday night for another Cold Climbs classic, No 6 Gully on Aonach Dubh and an early start to beat the queues.

Piers leading the main pitch of No 6 Gully
The popularity of this route is justified by the fact it doesn’t form very often due to its low altitude and short walk in. Being up at 5am with an hour walk in didn’t beat the first team who had just started climbing as we arrived at the base of the route. The route was quite stepped and we made quick progress, alternating leads, up several short steep bulges each followed by a snow slope. The ice was good with solid hooks up all the ice; I hardly had to swing my axes. Piers had the main pitch, 30m up a groove of water ice towards the left side of the gully. A top lead as he has only started winter climbing this season. We arrived at the top of the gully just after 10am, there is so much more time in the day when you have the motivation to get up early, hard I know. After a leisurely descent to the van, we had a steady drive up North, onwards to Torridon.
On the Horns of Beinn Alligin
Horns of Beinn Alligin
I have been to Torridon once before on a university trip and remember how wild it is up there, the peaks rising straight from the flat glens and nearby sea providing an almost unrivalled landscape. We had three days planned to explore and climb some of the stunning ridges and mountains in the area. First up was Beinn Alligin, a mountain I had never heard of before, in the shadow of its larger, grander neighbours. The ridge along Beinn Alligin followed its iconic horns, three rising summits close together leading onto the summit Munro. Good snow and blue skies made the going pretty quick and it was nice not to have the faff of ropes. I think the mountain is definitely underrated and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. The views from the top were cracking, looking back along the stunning ridge, with Liathach, our next objective in the background.
Piers heading down to the Pinnacles of Liathach
 Me on Liathach
We were greeted to the same stunning weather the following morning as we set off up the steep South slopes at the Eastern end of the Liathach ridge. Looking upwards from the glen, you could mistake winter to be over when looking from the south, but arriving on the ridge, there was no doubt Liathach definitely still had its winter coat on and looked positively alpine. The ridge was knife-edge in places and provided great exposure and continued interest. The ridge is pretty committing with few escape points, however this never even crossed my mind as I was taking in the situation, enjoying the sunshine coupled with the Scottish winter. Despite planning to spend a third day in Torridon, we changed our plans and journeyed to the Isle of Skye for one big adventure.
Finishing the pinnacle section of Liathach