Sunday, 7 December 2014

A pile of fresh titles for December

We’ve just added a pile of fresh products to the shop of essential reading and viewing for climbers. First off is Volker Schoffl and Thomas Hochholzer’s climbing injury book One Move Too Many. Reliable information on dealing with climbing injuries is still hard to come by in 2014 and climbers really have to make themselves experts in this field in order to minimise the disruption that injury will inevitably cause them in a life of climbing. As many of you will know, I am just finishing a book on this subject myself. However, climbers really cannot read enough on this subject and advice from such prolific researchers as these authors will reap huge benefits on your climbing. One Move Too Many has been around for a while, but this is a revised second edition, just out.

I was excited to see Steve McClure’s story finally out. Steve is a rare thing in climbing, or in sport in general. He is a brilliant athlete and has shown amazing commitment and vision in how he has achieved his world class routes which are still giving the likes of Adam Ondra something to chew on today. Yet almost everyone can relate to him as he has pursued that tricky balance of trying to make these achievements happen while still leading a ‘normal’ life of family, work and a generally well-rounded perspective on life. In other words, he is one of the best role models we have in climbing, and every climber ought to listen to what he has to say. Since he is also an excellent writer who has an ability to get to the core of why it’s worth talking about all of the themes explored in his book.

Next up is Alastair Lee’s Brit Rock 2014 DVD which is a collection of climbing and other outdoor sports films. As a climber, this DVD is a must have because of the first film on the disc; Stone Free, following the free solo exploits of Julian Lines. Although he is one of the world’s best solo climbers (if it’s a good idea to even say that out loud?!), he is the polar opposite of some of the other famous solo climbers around at the moment. And this is why we should watch it. It’s not just a jaw dropping, nerve tingling scare fest (although there is plenty of that). We get to see a very honest look into Jules mind and way of life. It is a way of life that is largely forgotten even by plenty of climbers these days. Listening to what Jules has to say about what his experiences on the mountain cliffs mean to him is a deeply inspiring watch. The running and biking films were bonuses for me, but they were both fantastic films and ones that I may not have seen unless I’d bought the DVD.

We have also added the Avalanche Pocket Guide to the shop. Now this is something it might be tempting to skip. It’s not the coolest (no pun intended) reading material to part with £7 of your hard earned cash for. However, think for just a moment about the scores of young folk just like you and me who die every winter under tons of snow. They are not different from you, they are not idiots, and they travel on the same terrain as you will be in the coming months. And they are dead. In many cases, their only mistake is ignorance. Having watched with my own eyes three climbers walk straight into an inevitable avalanche on Ben Nevis last winter (they survived, this time) it really reminded me how little we can afford to be ignorant on this subject. It’s up to you - you could either make sure you are fully briefed on the skills and lessons for making sound judgements in avalanche terrain, or you could take the risk and just hope for the best. If you can’t bear to read something so uncool yourself, at least fill your climbing partner’s Christmas stocking with it.

Finally, we have The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland in stock now and in a world where climbing media is increasingly cheap and cheerful, this book is a treat - well written by a who’s who of the activists on the crags, filled with great photography from the likes of Dave Cuthbertson and other talented folk and a wonderful reference to plan your adventures of future seasons in our mountains. Something to treasure.

As ever, we are dispatching daily to worldwide destinations via Royal Mail right up to and over Christmas. The main shop page is here.

Monday, 1 December 2014

West Highland Adventure Trail

West Highland Adventure Trail from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

The School of Adventure Studies at West Highland College asked us to edit together some footage they shot on the West Highland Adventure Trail they ran in the spring. It’s a pretty cool place to study, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The fire

At this time of year, I often get manic. Im not really sure why. I know it’s not related to the season, because I’ve had the effects at other times in the year also. In a gradual process that takes many weeks to build up, I notice a string of quite striking mental and physical changes.

My mind tends to race all day long. When it gets to 2am and I’m still working or training, I’m exhausted and can barely conjure a rational thought. But I don’t want to stop. Going to bed and sleeping is so obviously required, but the other part of my mind resists it to the last. I find that I have amazing daydreams while driving or walking and find that these yield some strong ideas about whatever I’m working on, and all sorts of other things.

Because I’ve noticed this happening to me before in most years over the past decade of my life, I don’t mind it. It’s a kind of polariser of everything. It can cause me some serious problems, chiefly insomnia and being quite unreasonable. But I also find that I have the kind of fire of motivation that can drive a lot of things forward. The challenge is to tame it to harness the great benefits and try not to let it turn me into a sleep deprived zealot.

The first time I really became aware that this was not normal was in 2006. I was living in Dumbarton. I’d just done the first ascent of Rhapsody and after having pulled my climbing up from the odd 8b sport redpoint to 8c+ in a little over a year, I hadn’t done any work and was completely broke. I was counting out 2 pence pieces from a jar in my flat to by tins of beans and realised that I needed to change my life if I wanted to move forward onto new horizons in my climbing. The fire at that time was directed (outside of my climbing of course) onto starting to write this blog and trying to learn how to communicate what I’d learned from my life as a climber and student of sports science to coach other climbers. My accepted cut off for going to bed got later and later and I used to forcefully press the off button on the computer when I saw the sun start to rise out of my window.

My best effort at harnessing it was while I was writing my book 9 out of 10 in 2009. I found that I had so much mental energy that I was able to focus for up to 12 hours a day on writing with only trips to the kettle as breaks. When I don’t have the fire, I find it desperately hard to concentrate for long, uninterrupted periods. After I’d read, thought and written furiously for my shift, I’d attack my board at 10 or 11 at night, for a couple of hours. In less than two months, I got to the end of the book, and left for a sport trip in Spain.

The fire hadn’t gone, but I was physically exhausted. On the first day of the trip, I let my partners climb as a pair while I set up a rope to work on A’ Muerte (9a) by myself. After I’d set up the rope, I sat down at the base, put on my rock-shoes and paused for a moment, realising I felt pretty tired. I sat back against the rock to take a moment’s rest. Four hours later I woke up, and stumbled off to my sleeping bag. Despite being deprived of real rock for the previous two months, I started the trip with three days in bed before I felt recovered enough to begin climbing. But two weeks later I climbed the route for my first 9a, and felt in really great shape.

Right now, every night I feel like I’d need to hit myself over the head with a frying pan to stop my mind racing into the wee small hours. It’s really good being at home for a little while after spending most of this year out of the country on climbing trips. I wonder if it’s that opportunity to focus on climbing, training and work projects for a spell has brought on my current state of agitation. One minute I’m falling asleep over my dinner, the next I feel really good climbing on my board. One thing I have learned is that trying to work against what your mind and body want to do doesn’t really work. Not working, when I want to work, makes me depressed really quickly. Yet a mind that doesn’t have a diurnal ‘off switch’ is trying to square a circle. Like many problems in productivity, it may come down to an issue of habit replacement and self-discipline. I’m not really strict in following the simple rules of overcoming insomnia. I ought to be. An extreme problem requires an extreme intervention. I probably need some formal coaching in the field.

Complaints aside, I don’t really want this period to end. I know that I’m pretty lucky to have the feeling of burning motivation for the work I do, and I do enjoy it.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Drag Race

Drag Race 8A Rannoch Moor from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

On the vast, beautiful expanse of Rannoch Moor, a handful of granite erratics dotted around are kind of distracting for boulderers trying to drive in a straight line on the A82 into Glen Coe. In the low, crisp winter light, you’re always looking to see if you somehow missed a hidden boulder out there somewhere. I knew that the one big boulder close to the road had a few problems on perfect rough granite, but they were all easy.

But last year Alan Cassidy told me that a large flake had broken off the steep side, leaving a smooth sloping shelf and an excellent project he thought might be 8A or 8A+. I had a quick look in May and realised I had to come back as soon as it was cold enough to drag those perfect slopers.

Last week I had a quick try in poor conditions and worked out the moves. On the first day of proper snow in the mountains, I was straight back there and managed it. What a gem of a problem. As good quality as you’ll find anywhere. You can’t miss the boulder, easily seen from the road, five minutes walk from the first layby south of the Rannoch Moor summit.

Boulder season is ON!

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Ben Nevis North Face survey

Ben Nevis - The Hidden Side (TEASER!) from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

In August, we shot a film about a survey. It was the most fascinating fortnight I’ve had in a long time. The newly emerging Nevis Landscape Partnership has numerous impressive projects lined up for the Ben Nevis area, and this was one of them. A large team of climbers, botanists and geologists teamed up to explore the length and breadth of the north face over two weeks and try to get a better understanding of how the mountain was formed and which rare plants were hiding in the depths of the gullies as yet unrecorded.

We were asked to film the project. I’m editing the story that emerged at the moment and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. Generally speaking, I find most aspects of science interesting. But I have never spent any time learning about botany before and have only limited knowledge of geology. One overarching theme I wanted to explore while filming was what made these scientists tick. Climbers wax lyrical about the lines on Ben Nevis, the character of the ice, the weather and all the other ingredients for adventure. I bluntly asked the botanical and geological experts on the survey what the point of their work was.

One of Scotland’s leading botanists, Gordon Rothero’s reply was equally blunt. “Because it’s fun”. As I asked more and more of the scientists why they spent their lives studying the details of mountain environments, the same theme came back. Their studies made them happy. More specifically, It made them feel connected to the places they studied. This is something I felt the whole team, climbers and scientists of various disciplines had absolutely in common. By knowing the details of the mountains, they felt connected, and happy.

As for the survey findings, one story that emerged kind of took everyone by surprise. The geologists Jenny and Roddy had already told me when we shot the film for their FieldMove Clino app on the Ben in June that the available geological mapping that had been done 60 odd years ago was not matching what they had seen on the mountain. After a full two weeks gathering huge amounts of geological readings (using the app meant taking readings ten fold faster that traditional methods) it seemed like the old model of how Ben Nevis was formed was looking all but dead.

Roddy and Donald abseiling down the line of my own route Don't Die of Ignorance on the Comb. This part of the mountain is made of volcanic breccias; the result of violent volcanic eruption. I was kind of strange for me going back here after having climbed hard through this part in winter several years ago.

The traditional model of the formation of the Ben is that it was a ring fault where the centre of the ring collapsed into the earth’s magma below, with violent eruptions around the periphery. It now looks like the real picture may be very different. Their attention focused on the straight line of the Allt a’ Mhuillin itself and it may be that this was the fault in the earth’s crust that let granites come to the surface. It’s still unclear whether the rocks on the Ben Nevis side of the Allt a’ Mhuillin collapsed down, or the rocks on the other side rose up. It will take some time for them to analyse the data and they may need to collect more in order to obtain a clearer picture.

The problem with the traditional caldera subsidence model is space. What happens to the vast quantities of viscous magmas displaced by a sinking lump of the earth’s crust? There are subsequent surveys planned for the next few summers, and it may be that we cannot make a firm conclusion about Ben Nevis until after these have been completed.

Along the way I captured huge amounts of great interviews with interesting folk and footage of the deep dark gullies on the Ben. I also had a great night along with my mum up on Carn Mor Dearg bivvying out and shooting nice timelapses of the stars and sunrise on the north face.

If you want to see the film it’ll be showing at the Fort William Mountain Festival in February, and then released online afterwards. In the meantime, enjoy the teaser above.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Anatomist, Glen Torridon

The Anatomist, Torridon from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

Bouldering in Glen Torridon at this time of year does make me feel pretty lucky. The best rock in the British Isles, amazing scenery, solitude, good conditions, easy approaches and even some superb cafes. It doesn’t get much better. I’m pleased to say I’ve still got most of it to explore as well. I really ought to bend the ears of Ian Taylor, Dan Varian and a few other folk who’ve scouted about a bit more for good projects to try. I know of a couple of great ones, but they might be too hard for me, in the Font 8C region. Not that this will stop me trying.

In the meantime I wanted to just tick off some of the existing stuff. Last week I went to Dan Varians ‘The Anatomist’ (7C+) behind the new house in Annat. After 10.4 inches of rain in a couple of days in the west highalnds, it was dripping. Today I went back, armed with a towel, which was just as well. The landing is a bit on the poor side and I hauled up 5 mats since I was on my own.

I still managed to slip off and somersault backwards down the boulder gully, off my mats and onto some rather nasty rocks which took a fair chunk out of my elbow and added various other good bragging scars. At least I still did it. Check out the video above and see what you think of my falling technique. Classic problem.

This is always a busy time of year for me, finishing writing and filming projects and travelling around doing lectures and coaching events. In between all that, I’ve loved getting a bit of time in my climbing wall and starting on the ladder of finger strength and agility again. After the last two years of ups and downs, I feel I have am starting from half a rung lower. But my motivation is maybe that wee notch higher than ever. Hopefully soon I’ll be back in Torridon when the sun next shines and the slopers are even colder.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland and other new books in the shop

The long awaited book The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland, collated by Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton is about to be released. Our stock is on the way and it’s up in the shop here for pre-order. We are expecting the stock in the next few days.

Having written a section of the book myself, on the Cobbler, I have been able to get a sneak preview of some of the other content. It’s going to be a brilliant book, and of course a must for anyone who climbs, or aspires to climb on the mountain crags. It’s great to see that in the internet age that big, chunky books of climbing inspiration, comparable, if not better than, the old extreme rock books can still come out. In my section I described my earliest days of climbing, jumping on the train after school and soloing some of the mountain's best mixed routes using whatever gear I could find or borrow. I had so much fun there.

With so much content, and so many contributing authors, this has of course been a long time coming. I think climbers will feel it has been worth the wait and will treasure their copy. I was both surprised and honoured to see that I have made the front cover!

We have also just added the new book by Martin Boysen on his life of exploratory and adventurous climbing all over the world from our own mountains to the likes of Cerro Torre and Annapurna. It's in the shop here.

Lectures coming up

Project Fear 8a+, Cima Ovest north face, Dolomites. Something I'll speak about in my talks coming up in the next month. Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective

In the coming weeks I’m speaking in quite a few places around Scotland and England. I’ll be talking about some of the big wall expeditions I’ve been on recently; the big roof on Cima Ovest, The Mermoz in Patagonia and other very big lumps of rock. As always I’ll also try and make sense of the thoughts that run through my head that motivate me for climbing, training and getting back out on the lead after some rather nasty ground falls.

I’m in:

Inverness, Tiso Outdoor Experience on Nov 10th. Tickets here.

Edinburgh, Tiso Outdoor Experience on Nov 11th. Tickets here.

Aberdeen Transition Extreme, Scottish student's climbing festival Nov 12th. Tickets here.

Hathersage, Outside. Dec 6th. Tickets here.

See you there!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bouldering, media and Messner's castle

A damp day in Magic Wood from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

A wee vid of one damp day in Magic Wood (Pirhana 7C and Left hand of Darkness 8a) and a quick hour on the way home at Kyloe in Northumberland (Hitchhiker's Sit Start 7C+). I last visited Kyloe maybe 12 or 13 years ago I think. And couldn't do this problem!

After the rather down few weeks following the no vote, I was fortunate enough to have a trip to look forward to. I’m now on my way home from a Gore-Tex event at the International Mountain Summit in the Dolomites. En route, Claire, Freida and I decided to make three stops of several days each. First we took on Disneyland Paris. Quite an experience.

Then we met up with friends in Fontainbleau. Much of our days here were spent finding things to do while rain poured down. We managed to get two or three sessions in on the boulders. Conditions were awful and so nothing hard was done. The hardest thing I could get to the top of was Salle Gosse (7C). There was a brief window of wind and although conditions were still pretty bad, I almost got the 8a sit start. I’d love to come back here in decent conditions.

The most important thing I did here was climb with Freida. She learned a lot from the brief opportunities for clambering up little boulders. Claire’s face was a picture when Freida started screaming ‘boulders!!!” and sprinted off in the direction of the rocks.

Next, we moved on to Magic Wood. And again, we spent most of the days waiting for it to stop raining. I did get one good session at the start and did the moves on an excellent long problem called ‘From Shallow Water to Riverbed’ (8B+). There’s no way I could do it in bad conditions. I get a bit annoyed with myself for never learning, and accepting how badly I climb it warm/damp conditions. My goal for this trip was simply to learn to pull hard on holds again after a summer of alpine north wall action and general multipitch big hold action. So I shouldn’t be worrying myself about this. But inevitably once presented with a forest full of hard and amazing boulders, I still want to climb them just as much. Bouldering trips teach me over and over again that I’m simply not strong enough to climb hard stuff when it’s greasy. I just have to suss out the sequence, and take my opportunity when the cold breeze finally comes. Easier said than done, for my fiery head anyway.

Freida inspecting the very wet Riverbed boulder, Magic Wood.

I reminded myself of my experience here last time, after over two weeks of failing and failing on Mystic Stylez (8B+), I needed literally one try to do it easily, the one time I turned up and there was a cold breeze. Keep that in mind, MacLeod.

After playing in the sand with Freida under a still soaking Riverbed boulder, I did get two nice problems climbed in semi-dry conditions Piranha (7C) and Left Hand of Darkness (8A/8A+). They are in the wee vid above. I do really like Magic Wood and am still totally inspired to train and come back here for a long trip in good conditions. Hopefully in the spring...

And then it was on to the IMS festival in Brixen. The folks at the IMS and Gore-Tex took great care of us. I was especially impressed on the climbing day to turn up at the crag at 9am to find catering staff already set up with tables spread with cakes, sausages, potatoes, apples and even beer!

On the last day I was due to take part in a panel discussion about climbing and the media at Reinhold Messner’s castle in Bolzano. There was a panel of rather esteemed climbers, journalists from near and far, and me. Generally speaking, there was were quite a few voices feeling that mainstream journalism was going rather downhill. Messner himself seemed worried about both the direction of journalism, and alpinism itself. 

While I totally agree that the newspapers spew out daily rubbish on everything from the usual propaganda to rubbish about climbers and climbing, I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for climbers. Messner and others expressed concern that kudos would be dished out unfairly to pretender alpinists, using their bottled oxygen to rattle out tweets while being dragged up Everest. Meanwhile, the real feats of alpinism go unnoticed. For some, seeking sponsorship to achieve some ‘real’ climbing feats, this must be an issue. But it balanced out in some ways. Sometimes, I feel that it’s convenient that much of the BS in climbing is kept contained within Everest instead of infecting the whole of climbing. In other words, leave them to it. We can still achieve plenty in the media, if not far more these days with social media.

When I say ‘achieve’, I’m not thinking of maximum dissemination of our boasts about our hardcore ascents. In my mind, the primary purpose of dealing with the media at all as climbers is to inspire and inform an audience, sharing our ideas about what climbing gives us and what we learn from our escapades in the mountains. However, some playing the media at it’s own game can help us with this goal.

Just as we love to hate climbers who use things like an oxygen and guide supported ascent of Everest to launch a narcissistic career in anything from motivational speaking to politics, we can use our ascents to spread a different message.

Guys like Tim Emmett and Will Gadd are great exemplars at this. They can both be showmen when it is the right time. This takes the attention. Then once they have the attention, they use it to show their audience some really great ideas and ways of living.

Social media has made this even easier than before. In days gone by, in order to sustain any profile, you had to keep doing things that got you mainstream media attention. Now, you can use just one appearance to gain an audience for your feed and off you go.

Now, I understand that only a very few can achieve the same reach in social media as you can in mainstream media, even today. However, I don’t think that mainstream media attention is always all it’s cracked up to be. It is often consumed at a passive level, and of course, often written up badly by journalists with selling more dead trees or eyeballs in mind, instead of exerting a positive influence on people.

Coming out of the discussion at Messner’s, I was left with the conclusion that complaining about other alpinists and journalists does little to help things. However, there is a lot we can do by focusing on our own responsibilities and resources. Where we do get a chance to speak through a mainstream media outlet, let’s use the opportunity to speak clearly about the good things in climbing. Otherwise, the stories will only ever be about deaths in the mountains and Everest shenanigans. As climbers I feel we are sometimes awkward in presenting our messages to a non-climbing audience. This may be partly or largely out of fear of oversimplifying or dumbing our ideas down. I think we have to get better at communicating to this audience, as well as accepting that we have to speak a little differently to an audience that has yet to learn that climbing is not all about death, risk and who is the fastest or first. Remaining aloof, prickly, or simply opting out of the discussion isn’t a great solution.

The good news is that even if some some profit driven journalist drives our climbing down to a level of ‘world record’ this or ‘adrenaline junkie’ that, as long as he points at our blog or twitter feed, we may have a second chance to speak to that audience and tell them a different story.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

What have we done?

What country voluntarily votes to hand over its own independence? Mine did. Yesterday I felt completely empty and devastated by what happened in Scotland. It was a moment when you suddenly realise how easily the chance for something really special can be obscured by the fear of losing what we already have.

Lots of folk have tried to point out positives in what has happened, and I admire them for that. They’ve said it’s got the Scots engaged in politics and that it’s a wake up call for the UK political system. I’m normally first to look for a positive way to look at things, but in this case I think we have to face up to the size and uniqueness of the opportunity we’ve just wasted. Sure, we got engaged in politics. But despite all the discussion, people somehow didn’t see that this movement towards independence wasn’t about nationalism, wasn’t about isolation of ourselves. Despite all the discussion, people still focused on the character of individuals like Alex Salmond, they thought that big corporates warning us that prices would go up was them speaking for our best interests, not theirs.

And what about that wake up call for the UK’s political system? I don’t think I can bear to watch as month by month, they slowly hit the snooze button and roll over. Just as they have done for the climate change wake up call, the banking crisis wake up call, The ever increasing mountain of debt, the food industry that is making us fat and ill, the slow failure of antibiotics and all these other problems that don’t win votes to address.

For a few weeks, I almost dared to feel that just once in my lifetime, a country could be smart and courageous enough to see past all this, and that country would be my country. It was too good to be true. I tried all day to digest it and in the end, wandered outside into a warm night, sat down in the grass and cried. Not for my own selfish interests, but for what this means for us as people all across the world.

Of course I respect the decision even though I thought it was an awful one. I certainly don’t blame some people for feeling that we don’t need independence. This may turn out to be true, in a way. Sure, we can settle for what we have right now. We are one of the luckiest countries in the world already. However, this only deepens the irony that we should pass up the opportunity for life in the country to have become much more meaningful, exciting and rewarding.

I have to admit that there is not a lot I can take from this experience to improve my own life and contribution. I will remember it for my remaining years as among the most hopeless days of my life. What I will take, is the biggest reminder I think I’ll ever have that our human minds are far too full of fear. Rather than changing for the better, it seems like modern life is making this even worse. So my lesson from this is that life is too short and shit not to be utterly fearless in grabbing the good opportunities that do come your way. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Scottish route on Cima Ovest!

A new route through this roof? Yes, let's do it!!! Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective.

 I wrote the first few paragraphs below about a week ago in the Dolomites, but didn't post it up. Thankfully, I put them right out of date in the days that followed:

Sep 6th. I am in the Dolomites for the second time this summer, trying to do a new route. I’ve spent over three weeks here and had less than ten days on the wall. The locals tell me it’s been the worst summer in decades. Since there’s not much I can do about that, I’m trying to focus on the good stuff I’ve already done.

First, I came out for a week with Karl and started to try and aid climb through the immensely steep line I wanted to climb. That was a lot of fun, most of the time anyway. After a run of body weight placements on one section, I finally got a big bong fully into a pocket and shouted down to Karl that I finally had a good placement to settle my nerves and potentially retreat from. A few minutes later while sitting on a skyhook above the good peg, it came right out in my hand with the slightest touch.

I pressed on but eventually arrived at a blank roof with no holds for free climbing and realised it wasn’t going to happen. I resigned myself that the new route idea was finished and I’d try Alex Huber’s famous route Panaroma instead. On the last day I went up for a look at Panaroma’s top 8c pitch. From the vantage point of the big loops of static rope in space under the roofs, I spotted a potential other way for the new route. This continued to simmer in my mind while I was back home in Scotland for two weeks of film work.

I arrived back in the Dolomites on Aug 24th and got stuck straight into investigating the line on my own, while Alan Cassidy and Rob Sutton worked on Bellavista. I got a great start and managed to get the pegs in across the roofs and get a fixed rope in place in a couple of days. In the following week, we lost time to bad weather, but I still managed to complete the intense process of cleaning the spectacularly loose rock and figuring out which holds were solid enough.

The route looks utterly amazing. And now it’s ready for me to start working it. But it won’t stop raining and we only have 4 days left. Since I have decided to stop putting so much pressure on myself, I have already accepted that I will have to come back next summer to climb it. It’s just not been the summer for getting stuff done in the Dolomites. We saw Jacopo Larcher going through the same process on Panaroma, slipping off the damp crux repeatedly after hanging out here for the summer.

I’m still happy with the way things have gone. The route is well worth a return trip next summer.

4 days later...

Well it didn’t quite work out like that. Two days among an endless stream of thunderstorm days turned out to be ok. I tried my absolute best to make both of them count. On the first day I shunted up the lower pitches (6b+, 6c+, 7a, 6c+) to warm up, then quickly saw off the first roof pitch which was only 7b+. The next pitch, around 8a+ and the best pitch I’ve ever seen in the Dolomites was great fun to work on. First go up I worked out the moves, which were just brilliant. The pitch kicks off with a huge span across the roof to a flake and wild cut loose, followed by powerful, positive climbing in the most mind blowing situation. On my second go, I nearly linked the whole pitch, but had to give in 15 feet from the belay with terminal rope drag (just needed double ropes). At the belay I was so pumped I couldn’t imagine climbing anything else and was desperate to go down. 

At this point the route joins Alex Huber’s Panaroma just before its 8c pitch through the final roofs. I forced myself to go out and try the moves, since I knew there would be only one more day in the trip to try the project.
The next day I felt like I’d been given a good kicking. I belayed Alan while he destroyed an 8b+ in the valley sport crags, saw off yet another amazing pizza in seconds and then hit the sack. The forecast for the next day was good, and everyone knew it would be the last day for climbing on the project. They asked ‘What time are we getting up?’ Since my best effort on the top 8c was still basically a bolt to bolt, albeit while feeling very tired and shivering in the cold, I told them I would have a 5% chance to succeed so there was no point getting up early. An extra few hours of sleep would do more for my chances. So we rose at 8 and drunk a lot of tea.

The awesome big 8a+ pitch leading up into Panaroma. They don't come much more out there than this pitch. Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective. Incidentally, Coldhouse filmed our ascent for Mountain Equipment. I'll post up the footage when it's released.

At 11am I started leading the lower wall pitches with Alan Cassidy, which floated by without any dramas. The roof was its usual damp and slippery self, so the 7b+ around the nose felt like a wake up call and I arrived at the diving board perch belay quite pumped. I shared with Alan that I was unsure even to bother continuing since the rock was so damp. But I was just letting of steam - of course there’s no way I would waste an opportunity to try, especially as I noticed some fitness in my arms from the previous session. So, for my damp 8a+ burn, I did the only thing I could do, took out my brain and went for it at full pelt. Where the fall is scary but basically safe, I find the best mindset is to almost invite the fall by removing all inhibitions and climb with total commitment. And so, after some nervous waits at each shakeout along the way, I arrived at the Panaroma belay with a deep burning pump in my arms and stared across at the 8c. 150 metres climbed, 12 metres between me and 6c+ maximum to the top.

Staring out a wet flake on the Panaroma 8c pitch. Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective.

I knew it would be wet and slippery, and I’d have to engage full on terrier mode to even have a chance. But again, what else would I do? No prizes for not giving it everything. So I shut my mind up, sat for a quiet moment in my harness, and then departed. The next three minutes were not particularly pretty. Feet pinged off wet footholds, brute force kept me on the rock and I don’t think I’ve ever had a higher breathing rate. Then I found myself hanging from a huge jug on the vertical expanse above the final roof, unable to get a word out between gasps for oxygen. After a minute or two, I’d calmed down enough to flop onto the belay ledge and grin.

So. Just two 6c+ pitches and then 400 metres of the Cassin route to go. I looked around at the sky and saw rain showers in all directions. Please don’t rain on us! It didn’t. With fantastic luck, the showers melted away into the evening as we raced higher and higher up the Cassin route, switching rapidly at the belays and speed climbing upwards. at 11pm, we strolled without our headtorches on to the summit of Cima Ovest in glorious full moonlight and a perfectly warm and still night. After taking in the incredible moonlit vista for a while and chatting to Helen and Claire on the phone, we ambled down for beer at 1am.

It was both the hardest and definitely the finest route I've climbed in my 5 or so trips to the Dolomites over the past 13 years. The lower wall free climbs the first 90 metres of the old Baur aid route (don't trust those old drilled pegs, they break!). But the best thing about it is that it climbs more or less straight up through the roof amphitheatre. As I write on September 18th, I'm hoping and waiting eagerly to find out if my country will take it's opportunity to complete it's new route and eclipse this climb as the highlight of my summer so far.

Sept 19th update: I thought of a name. Project Fear 6b+, 6c+, 7a, 6c, 7b+, 8a+, 8c, 6c+, 6c+, 5+, 6a, finish via Cassin.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Now that is a courageous statement

My friend Craig posted this up tonight. I think it‘s brilliant that he had the courage to stand in front of a camera and put his thoughts across so honestly and directly. Well done to him and everyone else who has done similar, no matter how they feel about the decision Scotland makes tomorrow.

Not only do I agree with what Craig says, and the way he looks at the whole argument, but I really felt happy to watch it - that we have people around willing to stand up and put such a clear case for something as uncool as politics. Perhaps it's partly because I know Craig from School and so the conviction of his delivery underlines how smart but weird teenagers can turn into really smart adults. He looked even sillier than me with long hair, but was pretty damn handy at playing Metallica guitar solos. I last bumped into him on his way to a MENSA meeting in Glasgow.

Tomorrow is an opportunity to do something amazing, not just for us, but for the whole world actually. To make a really huge step to change ourselves. And to do it without going to war, which will be a great example for the world. I'll jump for joy if we have the courage to go ahead and do it.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Geological mapping, on your iPhone

Here is the second film we were involved with this summer. Glasgow based geological mapping company Midland Valley asked us to shoot and produce a film on Ben Nevis detailing the new app they have released for geologists to do digital field mapping. We had a great time on the north face of the Ben and learned a lot from the guys.

FieldMove Clino - Digital Field Mapping from Midland Valley on Vimeo.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Scotland - what to decide? A starting place in the decision making process

 Although this blog is primarily about my thoughts on climbing, I’m aware that the huge decision on Scottish independence is getting close, and I need to think about whether to keep my thoughts to myself, or share them with others. It doesn’t seem to make sense for interested parties to make their decision in a bubble of isolation. Why not discuss it openly? Moreover, why not make clear where the gaps in the arguments aired in the media lie, so that we may have more of the information we need to come to the best possible decision.

Unlike the way the decision is presented by politicians, I don’t feel that anyone can truly come to the right or wrong decision, where right or wrong implies prosperity of the country in the future. Either path carries considerable uncertainty. In my mind, the right decision is the one that people are happy to have made, given the information and feelings we have at the time. Even if it did turn out to make us a tiny bit worse off in the pocket, that won’t make it the wrong decision because either path could have led to that outcome.

Because of these uncertainties, I was undecided for a long time, but as I’ve thought it over repeatedly, I have now decided that a Yes vote is definitely the choice I wish to make. Part of the reason it took me a long time to reach a firm conclusion was the the disappointing level of coverage of the issue in the mass media. In the political field, each side is obliged to try to strengthen it’s case. Realistically, what else could we expect? I hoped to hear more from respected intellectuals who were prepared to offer their thoughts. Thankfully, these have appeared on the internet over the past few months.

If ever there was an issue that is not black and white, it is this. Here are some questions and ideas that have come to my mind to guide me through this decision, which I am so happy to have made. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve been truly excited to receive my ballot paper through the letterbox.

These ideas span several different concepts and issues, and all of them seem relevant to me. I hope they are at least interesting to some of you who may be going through the same difficult process.

Part 1: Power

They say that the one lesson from history is that no one learns anything from history. However, right now we have a future in front of us of being able to make decisions for ourselves. I cannot find a good reason to take a huge gamble in handing this power over to a distant government. The idea that power is never given, only taken comes to mind here. Although I do think there are some major problems with politicians, political system, and the way the media handle it in the UK, on the whole I do think that many politicians are trying to do good work under difficult constraints. However, I have a basic worry that the distance breeds complacency. I am unsure about others worries that Scotland may lose influence internationally. If we replace the ability to interfere in the middle east with a focus on the advancement of education of our own people, we will end up being able to exert global influence in much more effective ways (such as in solving many of the problems that cause wars in the first place).

I just mentioned that I felt Westminster politicians are generally speaking trying to do good work. The British political system is a somewhat archaic arrangement, which creates some  undesirable consequences and sometimes appears to reward the wrong behaviour among politicians. There have been repeated opportunities to change it, but these haven’t been taken. I fear that this will simply continue if we vote to hand our power over to a government in London.

Peoples across the ages right up to the present day have given their lives in a struggle to take their power back from distant government. All those people didn’t fight for nothing. In general, it’s because distant government just doesn’t act in their best interests. It is interested in the resources of the territory, rather than taking care of the people living on it. It’s almost unbelievable that we are being given the opportunity to take the decision without a single bullet fired. 

So why are the polls predicting that we will vote to reject home rule? Surely, it must be down to psychology?

Part 2: Psychology

Consider the scenario that we were voting for or against a union with a government in London if we had been an independent country for the past 300 years. Do you think we would vote for it? Surely, the very idea would be laughed at. Therefore, the psychology of the status quo must play a huge part in our decision making.

The current government is in severe danger from UKIP simply because of the very modest effects of European influence on our government. There is an irony that that they argue that the UK union should stay together. I also wonder how the English would vote in a referendum to move the seat of government to Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh.

Is the future status quo not an illusion? Obviously, it’s a leap of faith to vote for setting up a new government (not a country - we are already a country!). But surely it’s also obvious that it’s a huge leap of faith to enter a union with a country which has some frightening looming problems. I’m thinking here about us leaving Europe, spending vast quantities of money and lives on wars that don’t seem to have helped, killing off the NHS, failing to properly address the many issues that contribute to wellbeing of the population.

The status quo in our country is that the leading cause of death among male adults between 21-50 is suicide. I can’t see any reason to vote for a status quo where our children are more likely to wish to end their own lives in their prime than in years gone by. The status quo is not making us happy. I don’t feel that there is much to lose by letting go of risk aversion and voting to take another path.

Part 3: Wealth

Despite the fact that our current wealth (in a world perspective) has not made us happy, the data shows that the short term effects on our financial situation are most likely to swing voters decisions. There are two critical points about this.

Firstly, the predictions about whether we may be slightly better or slightly worse off are totally unreliable. On both sides, they are assumptions, based on assumptions. Economists are famous for being unable to agree on anything. And recent history certainly underlines the lack of ability to predict avoidable economic disasters. To vote based on predicted numbers truly is to take a gamble. 

Secondly, what is wealth? The most exciting piece of discussion I’ve heard in the mass media relating to the independence debate was back in May and wasn’t even being discussed in the context of independence. It’s well known that above a basic level, more money doesn’t mean more happiness and wellbeing. I’m simplifying and recommend some good reading that explores the complex picture. The media constantly encourages us to worry about GDP, despite the ever greater understanding that it doesn’t relate to quality of life. Back in 1968 Bobby Kennedy said GDP “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Although it doesn’t make such an easy headline for mass media, the social progress index has over recent years shed much more light on what is important. It puts GDP in it’s place as one among many factors we should be concerned about. The findings, and the league table of countries makes interesting reading. Note that the UK is a lot lower on the list than some other countries that have much in common with Scotland.

I’m not saying money isn’t important. But since the numbers war averages out at a few hundred quid either side of the recent past and it’s clear that this sort of difference has only limited effects on wellbeing (that may well be countered in other ways), it doesn’t seem right to take the gamble along these lines. Moreover, an Independent Scotland, even in tough times is likely to be more left leaning than the current government and pay closer attention to those with least opportunity. For these reasons, surely the best lines across which to thrash out a decision are cultural.

Part 4: Culture

Niall Ferguson (a conservative) described in 2012’s BBC Reith* lectures why countries prosper first and foremost from their institutions rather than simply their industries. He was referring to legal and educational institutions. In both of these fields, Scotland has institutions which are looked up to around the world. He also pointed out that the accumulation of national debt is now undermining democracy since successive generations inherit the debt without having voted to accumulate it. Whether you choose to love or hate the SNP, they have been clear about their intention and proposed methods to reverse the current direction of the UK of accumulating vast quantities of debt. Although our current austerity programme is reducing our national deficit, the debt is still rising.

Very few Scots seriously question whether we ‘could’ be independent. I would urge the few that do to have more confidence! So to decide whether we should, surely we should think about what would give us a greater sense of being part of a community, greater sense of purpose and a feeling that our voice as individuals or may be heard.

This aspect has been my strongest lever towards voting yes. We are already a country, in all but government. Completing that missing piece by deciding to govern ourselves would allow us to shape our circumstances to better reflect our needs. Sure, we have absorbed so much of culture from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. There is a McDonalds in every town. We eat full Scottish breakfasts, which are basically full English breakfasts plus Irn Bru. Etc. But it seems pretty clear to me that we are different from the rest of the UK. Suitably different to benefit from having a sovereign government. That was also the view of the UK's outgoing permanent representative to NATO, expressed while she was pointing out that NATO would have no reason to interrupt Scotland's membership.

Where England is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, Scotland is one of the least. Rather than worrying about the influx of foreign talent, we realise that we need it. Where England repeatedly votes for a Tory government with a far right chaser, we have always leaned a little more to the left.

I just don’t feel the government represents us. In fact, I don’t think we are even on their radar. The independence referendum neatly illustrates this. So many in England are barely even aware that the UK is a few points away from breaking up.

It ought to go without saying that I have no axe to grind against the UK. None whatsoever. I feel that the situation we are in is just human nature. We are a tiny part of the UK, population wise, with quite different needs and ideals. And so it has come about that we have been given the chance to represent ourselves, but remain connected in the wider European Union. At a very basic level, it makes sense. I still want to do business with, travel to and consume culture from the rest of the UK, just as I do from the the rest of Europe which I regularly spend time in and have friends in. 

I do feel that taking the step to independence will do Scotland a massive amount of good. If there is one piece of Scottish culture that I feel still exists and is not our best asset, it’s lack of confidence. I think that it will make it more focused, more flexible, and especially more confident. 

So I’m voting Yes.

*Footnote: John Reith, of Stonehaven, developed the concept of public service broadcasting for the education of the people and created the modern BBC as its first director general. I doubt he would have any confidence issues with the idea of establishing a Scottish broadcasting service. He admitted that he felt he had the skills to “manage any company”. He put his money where his mouth was.

Lots of films

This summer I have been involved in many films, both in front, and behind the camera. Here is the first of them. Land Rover made this little film about me which I guess focuses on how the decision not to leave any unspent effort on the table tends to help you go home with the route in the bag. It’s a difficult concept to explain in simple soundbites. But ultimately, you need to be in a place where desire to complete the climb simply overwhelms fear of failure, falling, and any other excuses to miss your opportunities.

Bit of a bottleneck

Bit of a bottleneck

“People ask me if I’m busy, I tell them, ‘I’m so busy I had two heart attacks’. They congratulate me on this achievement.”

Ruby Wax

Over the last ten years or so I have been fantastically lucky to have one great opportunity after another. Sometimes, they’ve come all at once and I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve made a real mess of dealing with that. I’ve been awful at choosing between good things, like a toddler in a toy shop. My general approach has just been to try and have it all. Understandable I hope, but still stupid.

I’m even more ashamed to admit that going at full pelt with no off button for so long has, at times, made me unhappy, although I mostly didn’t realise it. This is because life is not black and white. I love virtually all of the activities I do in my life. In fact I can’t get enough of them. So on one hand I’ve had numerous influences helping me to enjoy and make the most of life. However, two things have pulled in the other direction - injury, and over-working myself.

From day to day, doses of things such as training sessions are such a pleasure and a boost, and are enough to counter the negative effects of another night working until 2am. In the short term at least. But sooner or later, the cost of this is evident. And I’ve realised that sometimes this way of working has starved the golden goose. I ought to know better.

I could go into more detail on the problems I’ve created for myself, but they are not unusual to me, so there isn’t any need. The question is what am I going to do about it?

Just because you wake up and see the problem doesn’t make it go away. I don’t write to do lists on paper any more but they are still there in my head and I still want to do them. My first plan is to stop beating myself up about failure to achieve unachievable goals, or goals only achievable at huge costs elsewhere. I have proven to myself that I have the dubious ability to work myself to death for years on end. Sure this approach gets projects sent tomorrow. But I have also proved, as so many others do in the western world, that it soon kills you.

I’m determined to make a better job of focusing on the priorities, saying no, or later to the rest, and deciding not to beat myself up for not managing everything.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

New E7 at Wave Buttress

Starting up what was to become Final Wave E7/8 6b. Photos: Dorota Bankowska

Yesterday, after a rather damp day, a good dry breeze picked up. So I called Kev and half an hour later we were walking in to Wave Buttress. I had my pick of either trying to repeat his E7 Cu Sith, or trying a new one that I’d cleaned last time I was there.

With the breeze strongest on the new route, I chose that and finished cleaning it. I’d forgotten to bring a top with me and I actually got rather chilled as I cleaned the route in a good strong wind. Once I lowered down for a think about leading it, I started a comedy wobbly shivering fit. Right then, two of the world’s best trad mixed climbers, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell came past. I tried not to look freezing cold on a June evening. 

The route started up a gnarly old E5 called Frantic Across the Atlantic, put up in 1987 by Mark McGowan. Mark is a pretty bold trad climber and even with the in-situ nut and peg (long since fallen out), the route is a full value old school E5. Near the top of the big slab it runs into a vertical arrier headwall and escapes left into the famous Crackattack (E3), leaving the obvious finish direct through the headwall unclimbed. I could see why. Where the peg was, there is now a collection of appauling gear I probably wouldn’t even lower off on, followed by a very thin, teetery move right that would be very easy to fall from. I wouldn’t like to think what would happen.

I knew I could do it if I was feeling confident. So my strategy was just to climb up the E5 part and see if everything was good inside my mind on arrival at the headwall and make a decision from there. At the last gear, I sort of laughed to myself. I didn’t feel any less apprehensive about committing to the crux. So the usual process took over - I just don’t like passing the opportunity to get the climb climbed. So without saying anything, I just swallowed hard and did it. What else can you do?

Cu Sith video

Kev came round to my place so I could help him capture the footage from his tape of his recent new E7 at Wave Buttress, Cù Sìth (pronounced Ku Shee, it’s Gaelic). I ended up cutting it into a wee clip which you can see below. Well done to Dot for filming with one hand and taking pictures with the other!

As you can see from the film, the climb has a lot of personal meaning for Kev. You can’t help but feel cheered by his obvious genuine ecstasy on topping out. It’s quite a big moment to realise you can still make good things happen after so much trouble with injury, and several years regaining fitness and confidence. Apart from that, simply completing a hard and dangerous route you’ve put a lot of work into is a fantastic and highly addictive feeling. 

If you’ve never tried projecting something really hard, this is a great advert for it. It has to be properly hard though - if you know it will go, eventually, it probably isn’t hard enough to take you on a real adventure of doubt. This film is about a guy with one hand and a fused ankle taking on an E7 first ascent. What would you have to take on to give an equivalent challenge? That would be quite something!

Going round Ruthven

Last autumn I extended Blair’s traverse of the Ruthven boulder, making a mega 40 metre F8b. But the challenge remained not to go up at the crux to the good line of holds, but to take on the full challenge of the tiny crimps and slopers below. I tried it for a few sessions last October, and two days before my ankle surgery, I got reasonably close to it. It was looking like an F8c or Font 8a+ standard piece of climbing.

I intended to go back this spring, but I built a climbing wall instead. So I just got round to it last weekend with Alicia, reworking the sequence and having a quick burn. I didn’t quite have the flow required to stay nice and fresh for the crux after 30m of F8b climbing.

But after another focused visit of getting it wired and having good training burns, the other night I managed to do it. You can see the video below - It’s a great trip with an intense crux after a lot of climbing. 

It was a little bittersweet leaving the boulder after the successful redpoint, knowing I have no projects here to come back for. I have done all of the problems here now and really enjoyed the location for it’s tranquility. Even the drive through the hills east of Loch Ness is very relaxing, especially on a Sunday listening to Crunluath on the radio after lunch at the caf. It’s also a handy place to dodge the Lochaber monsoon, and the midges.

Thankfully, the world is full of rocks to climb on. Pastures new!

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Wicked

Leading pitch 3 of The Wicked, E6 5b, 6b, 6b, 6b, 6b, Ben Nevis. Photo: Dave Cuthbertson/Cubby Images.

In 2000 and 2001, Gary Latter and Rick Campbell worked on a major new line on Carn Dearg Buttress of Ben Nevis. It took the obvious challenge of stepped grossly overhanging wall pitches, followed by the attractive wall left of the Bat corner pitch high on the buttress.  At the time it was by far the hardest rock climb on Ben Nevis, before much harder routes such as Anubis and then Echo Wall were put up in the years following.

They approached the climb ground up, cleaning the route on aid and then redpointing the pitches. However, they did not climb it in a single push, but rather climbed various pitches on different days (and years) by accessing them from the easier routes, eventually grading the route E6 and calling it The Wicked.

This left the obvious challenge of a first continuous ascent. It was a great challenge too, as the climb has four consecutive hard pitches. I had stood at the foot of it once before with Niall McNair several years ago, but it was wet. In fact, frequent wetness on the first two pitches seems to have helped maintain its unrepeated status for all this time. As far as I know noone else has climbed it.

I went up to the buttress with Donald King the other day with no particular plan. Since a period of fine weather had not long started, I expected to find The Wicked wet and we might go for the other mega E6 on the buttress, Trajan’s Column. But on arrival, the wet streaks didn’t look too bad, so we decided to go up for a look. Donald studiously avoided a few wet holds on the first pitch which was ok. But on closer acquaintance, the slab leading up to the first hard pitch looked pretty wet, and the start of the crux itself even worse.

I went up, expecting to quickly come back. At the overhangs, the holds above looked quite big so I wondered if I could just climb on through the wetness. I knew it would end up in a scrap, but who cares? It’s training. And, who likes starting up a route and not finishing it, ready excuses or not?

 I picked my way through the wet and sharp jugs in the roof and eventually managed to grab a flat jug over the lip. Looking down, there were no dry options for feet whatsoever. Hanging with my feet off, I felt under pressure to make a decision so opted for an overhead toe-hook behind a loose looking flake. This worked nicely to get a runner in and dry wet hands. But with one hand in my chalk bag, the block suddenly flew out, sending me swinging wildly with one point of contact. Instinct kept me on and there was no option but to go up, quickly. Below, Donald tried hard not to laugh. The holds beyond were manky, covered in thick lichen and the odd bit of wet moss. I pressed on trying to clean as I went, but totally pumped, I slid off onto the rope at the last move.

Eyeing up the final pitch of the lovely wall left of the Bat corner.

Why on earth didn’t I put the brush in my bag? A quick clean by rubbing the slopers with my hands sort of worked, and on the next attempt the pitch went down no problem. The next pitch was almost as bad, cleaning thick lichen off most of the holds while pumped, but at least I got up it onsight. The next was even worse and I slid out of licheny jams twice before giving it a good rub with my T-shirt and getting it done next go. The final 6b pitch up the lovely Bat corner wall looked immense. It looked a little less dirty too and I was determined to clean it on lead without resting on the rope. However, as I reached for the crucial crux crimp, my finger tips sank into a fluffy pile of moss which was saturated with water. Damn! Even that one needed a quick garden before releading it from the start.

All in all we got quite a workout. But we got to the top!