Climbing in January

That’s right. It is warm enough and dry enough to climb in January! Amazing.

One weekend we headed out with Ryan and Piotr for some climbing on the Red Wall in the Longhaven Quarries area. It’s about an hour north of the city on the coast. We arrived early and while the winter sun was up, it felt damp and quite cool, especially with the 20mph winds! Big swells were rolling in and some sea spray was coming quite high up the cliff. I admit I was a bit skeptical, but since our intended route was “easy” I was keen to go down and have a look anyway.

We rigged the abseil and headed over the side to assess conditions. On first inspection, it felt quite greasy. There was lingering damp from a previous rain, or perhaps just winter runoff. Our objective was Phaff, a three pitch rising traverse right above the sea. Abseil in and climb out.

Ryan and Pete went first out to a large ledge known as the Dias. Ryan was enthusiastic about the conditions of our line which only he could see. Pete followed and then I led over with Meme on belay. We were moving as two parties of two. Initially, I thought Meme and I might do one of the other classic traverses on the wall which take lines higher up, but upon reaching the Dias, I could clearly see that Phaff was in pristine condition while the others looked green and slimy.

From the Dias the second pitch climbs up a short ramp to a large friendly horizontal crack that stretches out on a gentle rise across the almost vertical granite wall. We’re about 15 meters from the huge seas that are pounding the cliff and about 20 meters from the top of the cliff itself. The wind is hammering the Dias so fiercely that I’m happy for the anchor so as to not blow away! Thankfully the climbing was not as exposed to the winds and the climbing was superb. The pitch is over quickly as the climbing is quite easy. I rigged the belay and Amelia came up after and then led through the final several easy meters to the top.

The following weekend we got lucky with the weather again. Even more so as the winds and the seas were calm as could be. We stole away around 11am just down to our local cliff South Cove. The sun was shining and it was warm with our down jackets and packs on. There were three other parties there that day, one of whom allowed us to use their abseil line to go over the side. We wanted to do a couple of the easier lines on the middle of the main wall which can be hard to see since it rises straight out of the sea with few places to view the wall. This part of the cliff is characterized by ramps, buttresses, grooves and ledges. It was quite hard to see our route based on the description in the book so I just went up and started climbing.

I got some gear in and climbed up into an overhanging groove whose handholds were loose chock stones. I found myself sweating in the sun and uncertain if I was going the right way. The rock looked quite loose so I down climbed and tried the groove to the right with better results. Above this however, was more rotten rock so I zigged left and around into yet another groove with better rock and nicer climbing. The top of this line was grassy and loose so I had to zig left yet again onto firmer territory. I think I must have crossed three different lines in that climb. The climbing felt quite adventurous.

Our second climb of the day was harder but far more straightforward. Another abseil down to the water’s edge and we racked up for Insect Flake (E1 5b). Easy bulges lead to the flake which was really fun overhanging climbing on large holds and bomber gear. A quick hop up onto a ramp puts one beneath the crux groove. It was quite steep without good holds and barely enough good gear. I spent a fair amount of time scrunched awkwardly at the base of that groove working up my nerve. If only my legs would stop cramping! I placed a high cam in a deep crack and pulled through the hard moves with only a little grunt. The easy top out into the sunshine was a sweet victory. I thought it was quite hard for the grade. I’d say it was excellent value. Meme topped out just as we lost our sunshine behind the cliffs to the south so we packed up and headed home. It was 4pm. Fantastic!

Lucky again! Johannes and I went out to scope a route on a particularly adventurous coastal feature known as the Hawk’s Nest. It’s a big arch that sticks out into the sea off a tall promontory. It’s difficult to access and very adventurous to say the least. We scrambled our way into position to get a better view across the inlet. With binoculars we spotted the line and a few others, but felt they looked green and damp and combined with the swells it may not be climbable so we headed over to the neighboring Red Wall. Having just been there a couple weeks prior, I knew the approach and quickly abseiled down direct to the Dias cutting out a bit of Phaff. Johannes led the sweet middle pitch and by the time we were on top again the sun was shining. We knew we had to go to the lower wall to see what conditions were like for some harder climbing.

Everything was surprisingly clean and dry. The architecture of the place was inspiring and we got on the three star Red Cloud (HVS 5a). The pitch begins with some steep climbing in a corner flake and then surmounts a bulge to a big ledge (crux). From there it’s easy climbing on big holds for the next 30 meters to the top of the cliff. So fun! Can’t wait to get back there.

Recipe Wednesday: Salad rolls on the move

Salad rolls are an under-appreciated portable lunch alternative to sandwiches. They are just as versatile and easy to put together as a sandwich, but much nicer because nothing gets soggy, thanks to the double-layer technique below. I usually make three of these when I take them to work for lunch.


  • 2 spring roll wrappers for each roll you want to make (AKA rice flour paper, rice pancakes)*
  • 1 large lettuce leaf for each roll – washed and patted dry.
  • whatever stuff you want for the inside. My standard combo is sliced avocado, grated carrot, and sliced scallions. Also good are thinly sliced peppers, cucumber (cored and cut into thin strips), sprouts, fried tofu, ground peanuts, and rice vermicelli. Avoid stuff that is too wet, like tomato – you want the inside of your wrap to be dry so it all stays nice and crisp.
  • Whatever sauces you want – I usually use hoi-sin sauce and a bit of sriracha sauce, but peanut butter and hot sauce are another good combination. Nothing watery or oily though.


Prep all the veggies you plan to put in your wrap. Dip a wrapper in cold water and lay it down on a flat surface. At first it will be a bit stiff but it will soften up. While it is softening, lay a leaf of lettuce down on it. The leaf should be smaller than the wrap, but big enough to loosely fold around your other fillings. Put 1/3 of your veggies down on top of the lettuce leaf. Fold the lettuce over the veggies and then roll up your rice wrap like a burrito – i.e. fold the left and right sides of the wrapper down to overlap the edge of the lettuce leaf, and then roll it up tightly from the bottom up. This is the “inner” roll.

Now, step two. Dunk a second spring roll wrapper in water and lay it down. Spread your sauces along the center of the wrap. Then, set your inner roll down on top of the sauce. Roll your inner roll up inside the second wrap just like before – tuck in the left and right sides and roll it up tight from bottom to top (you might need to wait a minute or two to let it soften up).

Now you have your crisp fresh veggies in an inner sanctum, protected from getting soggy from sauces, and it’s all in one hand-held package. When you put them in a container to take along to work or some other adventure, separate the rolls from each other with a leaf of lettuce (they can stick and tear otherwise).

* Matthew’s Foods on Causewayend in Aberdeen is a great place to stock up on spring roll wrappers, srirachi, hoi-sin, puffy tofu, and fresh herbs and spices. ¬†The Spice Shop on King street and Grampian Health on Market street also have a lot of great stuff.

Recipe Wednesday: Mushroom and Leek Risotto

Mushroom and leek is one of our favorite pairings. It goes really well with fresh thyme and gruyere. We use on pizza, we use it in fritatta and we use it in risotto. It’s oh-so-good. I think risotto has the reputation of being fussy. I seem to have the hang of it, and there’s really no secret trick. It’s one of those meals that seems tricky and special so why not surprise someone tonight with a fancy risotto dish that’s really quite easy.


  • butter or olive oil for frying
  • 8 or more large mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large leek or 2 small ones, white parts only halved and chopped
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • fresh thyme
  • 1 cup arborio rice (risotto rice)
  • 4 cups stock (I just use a vegetable bouillon cube in water)
  • white wine
  • salt and pepper
  • arugula (rocket) and a couple of sliced cherry tomatoes for garnish


  1. Put 4 cups of water on to boil. When boiled, add the bullion cube and simmer.
  2. Heat some butter or oil in a saucepan or skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add the mushrooms and saute. (I like to saute the vegetables separately and remove them to a bowl when finished, but you could saute them all together.) When the mushrooms are close to done add the garlic and a bit of white wine if the pan is getting dry. When finished remove to a side bowl.
  4. Add the leeks to the pan with a bit more oil if the pan is dry. Saute until they soften up, then remove to the bowl with the mushrooms.
  5. Add the cup of rice to the saucepan and fry for a minute or two (if you’ve used a skillet, you’ll need a saucepan now). Be careful not to burn it! Add about 1/4 cup of white wine and cook on medium heat until the rice has absorbed the wine.
  6. Add 1/4 cup of the stock to the rice, stirring constantly until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Add the rest of the stock 1/4 cup at a time until each one is absorbed. This takes about 15 minutes. The rice magically absorbs the liquid and fills out nicely. The goal is to get a creamy texture with a subtle amount of firmness to the rice. Not crunchy, not mushy.
  7. Add the mushrooms, garlic and leek mixture to the rice and simmer long enough to warm it up. You can also add the fresh thyme at this point. Thyme is major pain to get off the stalks, so I suggest you do it first, or have someone else do it whilst your stirring. ūüėČ
  8. Serve in bowls adding a few slices of tomato and rocket on top and enjoy with a glass of white wine. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mushroom and Leek Risotto

recipe wednesday: puy lentils with fennel and kale

According to HuffPo, 2011 is “the year of the vegetable”. Between that, the China Study, and various other food critics and celebrity chefs talking about “plant-based foods” I’m getting that rare and uneasy feeling that one of those brief epochs is coming on where some mindless trend will result in vast numbers of people suddenly doing something we do anyway as a matter of course. Kind of like how a stopped clock is right twice a day. Who knows what next year will be. A gelatin-based diet maybe. At that point we can go back to being contentedly un-trendy.

For now,¬†like it or not, plants are the new cupcake,¬†and suffice it to say we eat a lot of plants at our house. So, in honor of the Year of the Vegetable, we’re going to attempt to post a recipe every wednesday this year.¬†These recipes are just suggestions for things we like that you might like too, and not especially precise or exact.¬†Unless otherwise stated, portion sizes are for two moderately active adults. Scale up or down as your situation requires. Amounts and times are approximate.

Without further adieu, recipe the first: Puy lentils with fennel, kale, and walnuts. This is a quick and easy one for a weekday night, and holds up well as lunch leftovers.


  • 1/2 to 1 cup of puy lentils (depending how hungry you are)
  • olive oil
  • a head of fennel (or similar amount of celery)
  • a few pinches of ground fennel
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • a few cups of fresh kale (or other green)
  • 1/4 cup of walnuts
  • 1/2 lemon

Rinse the lentils and put them in a small pot with a couple cups of water. Put a wedge of lemon in the water, and any other stuff you’d like to season the lentils with (bay leaf, thyme sprigs, garlic cloves are all nice). No salt though! It makes their little lentil skins fall off. Bring to a gentle boil then lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes or so.

While they simmer, core the fennel and remove any tough outer leaves or green stuff. Quarter lengthwise, then thinly slice. Mince the garlic. Saute the garlic and fennel in olive oil with some ground fennel and salt and pepper for five minutes or so.

While they are sauteing, spread the walnut pieces on a baking pan and lightly toast them for a few minutes in the oven. Then rinse and roughly chop the kale and add it to the fennel and garlic and saute for another 5 minutes or so, until the kale is cooked through but still green.

By now your lentils are probably done. If so, drain off the water and fish out the lemon and any other leaves or bits that need fishing out. Add them to the pan with the fennel and kale and cook/stir for another minute or two.

Serve, garnished with toasty walnuts and lemon wedges. Fresh thyme and/or parsley is nice too.

Hogmanay in the Lake District

Our cancelled christmas meant we were unexpectedly here for Hogmanay (that’s scottish for new year’s eve). It’s a very popular holiday here and things tend to book up quickly, so we weren’t sure what to do. We’d tentatively decided to drive to Stonehaven, which is a town a few miles south, to see folks march to the harbor swinging enormous fireballs around and then pitch them into the sea (what else can you do with enormous fireballs?). It was going to involve some struggling with parking and traffic, which is never much fun on New Year’s, so we weren’t as psyched as we wanted to be. But Lo! At the last moment we got a call from Johannes and Jane, who had booked a hostel in the Lake District and had two spare bunks. They were leaving at 4pm so we quickly threw some food together and packed.

We arrived that evening at the house that the family of one of Jane’s friends had rented for the holiday. They had a great spread of yummy food out and we spent the evening in chatting and eating until midnight, and then we drank champagne and sang auld lang syne, followed by a little walk down to the shores of Lake Windermere to watch fireworks and floating paper lanterns drifting over the town. We don’t put much stock in this particular date, but if we did have lofty expectations for New Year’s eve, the pleasant evening spent with these warm and lovely people would certainly have exceeded them.

In the morning we got our first glimpse of the Lake District. We’ve passed it on the M6 a few times now and I’ve watched the exits go by a little wistfully because I’ve heard it’s very nice – and you can even see the pretty hills and lakes off in the distance from the motorway. It was easy to see what all the fuss is about when we breakfasted looking out the windows of the hostel onto Lake Windermere at the little sail boats floating in reflections of snow-dusted hills.

We’d never stayed in hostels until we moved to Scotland. I don’t know if it’s just us or if north americans in general just aren’t on the hostel wavelength. My prior conception was that they were just for young hippy backpackers, usually in big cities — and maybe in Canada and the US they are. But over here anyway they are often in really beautiful remote settings, and they¬†are full of people of all ages, including families with small children, from lots of different backgrounds and countries but with a general outdoorsy-ness in common. They’re a great inexpensive option for a group of people who want to stay close to outdoor activities and cook and eat meals together, especially in the winter or during midge season, when being outside in the evenings can be uncomfortable. We are hostel converts. This particular hostel in Ambleside definitely ticked the “great location” box, but was a little more crowded and unfriendly than the others we’ve stayed in.

On New Year’s Day we went for a walk for a few hours up a hill called Red Scree. It took about an hour or so to reach the summit, and it was cold and very windy! But we hunkered down in a rudimentary shelter and had a quick chilly break and bite to eat before descending the far side and followed a pretty valley back to the village. After another couple of hours we were enjoying teas/ales in a pub.

Back in the crowded kitchen at the hostel, we conquered adversity and put together an epic feast. Soba noodles with veggies and puffed tofu accompanied by sushi buns comprised the first course; second course was delicious veggie chilli and rice, with strudel a la mode for dessert, topped off with whiskey over a game of black-out bridge.

The next day Johannes — in his infinite enthusiasm — ¬†had us up bright and early to go check out some local bouldering. We started out in nearby Brant Fells, which was a short outcrop on top of a hill near Ambleside. The bouldering was well-suited to climbing without a crash pad, since it was quite low and the landings were grassy. It was pretty muddy around the base though, and the climbing required thoughtful feet, so keeping our shoes clean enough to stick was challenging. Brad and Johannes quickly become absorbed in the traverse of the outcrop, which was a puzzle of delicate moves on small holds. I got shut down quite quickly on a little reachy bit. I probably could have worked something else out eventually, but I confess to being a bit of a weenie when it comes to climbing in cold conditions, and it was quite cold, so I contended myself with taking pictures and walking around the hill to stay warm. The views were great so I didn’t mind.

Later in the afternoon, after some lunch at a little cafe in Ambleside, we moved on to the Langdale boulders, which were challenging in a different way – steeper, more committing. They are in a really lovely setting and I’d love to go back sometime with a pad. It was getting dark so we didn’t stay long – just long enough to fire off a few of the “easier” problems and to admire the subtle ancient carvings in the side of one of the boulders (those are off limits for climbing of course).

Then it was just a matter of saying our goodbyes and heading back to Aberdeen. A fine Hogmanay!

An Unexpected Christmas

Christmas this year didn’t go according to plan, but we made the best of it really. We had planned to visit family and friends in Canada. It was a good plan and we were psyched. Then unprecedented amounts of snow fell on the UK, first shutting down trains, then schools and finally airports. Everything closed five days before Christmas. We checked our flights online the night before and sure enough our flight from Aberdeen to London was canceled and also the main flight from London to Halifax. Canceled. They canceled Christmas. They obviously have no idea. Better send in the clowns.

So there we were, we had no flights, no lights, no tree, no food, no plan. We were both also horribly sick with head colds. We spent that day following twitter posts, airline website updates, searching vainly for customer service phone numbers and the fine print of the terms and conditions. All very hard to find and vague. The numbers we called didn’t connect to anything other than a dial tone. We got excited when we got into the voice menu only to be transferred back to the dial tone. We ate frozen pizza, watched a movie and then went to bed early.

We awoke to frozen water pipes. The landlord suggested we locate the water main in case we need to shut it all off in the event of a burst pipe. He also suggested that we stuff blankets in next to the frozen pipes, if we can find them. We dissected the house and became experts on its crawl spaces and we turned up the heat. Our water came back on around 4pm.

There was a flurry of condolences from local friends and offers to get out and do stuff. It was very touching. We have some seriously great friends here. We were still horribly sick.

We were also on the hunt for a snow shovel. Snow was coming down steadily. I shoveled the drive three times already and there was another foot down again. According to the sales person at the B&Q the truck with the shovels was stuck in the snow somewhere south of the city.

The cat sitter dropped off our key to the house with a festive note explaining we wouldn’t get our money back but that she was happy to provide a receipt for adding to our insurance claim. We called her but there was no answer.

We picked up some Christmas lights and new decorations. Amelia found the box of old decorations and decorated the conservatory. We blew the dust off the Christmas CDs. We have about six of them.

I decided to make almond croissants. Almond croissants require croissants that are two to three days old,  so there was the small matter of making the croissants first. The day before Christmas Eve was spent working the pastry dough and finally baking the croissants. That took pretty much all day. They turned out amazing.

We spent Christmas cooking and eating and drinking as it should be. Our friend Dan dropped by in the early afternoon and we ate Meme’s awesome salad rolls with my “sushi” buns, complete with ginger, soy and wasabi and a few small glasses of sake. We went for a walk.

Dinner consisted of more traditional “fayre.” Vegetarian haggis, purple mashed potatoes and green beans sauteed in butter and garlic. Dan made a tasty apple crisp for dessert. Ok, so it wasn’t that traditional, but somehow it all worked. Even the purple mashed potatoes. We thought they just had purple skins, but no, they were purple all the way through.

In the evening we enjoyed mulled wine and whiskey. We listened to our Christmas CDs and played mountaineering Monopoly. I lost because the rent for staying in the base camp on Trango Tower was extortionate. I had to mortgage K2 and Everest and it just went downhill from there.

On boxing day we went climbing! Or tried to. The day was cold and overcast. We’d heard a crag near to place was in good condition so we went over for a look see. It was fun walking into the place in the deep snow. We carefully picked our way down the snowy clifftops to the coastal climbing areas below. No one else was around of course. Ice and snow covered everything. There were a few small but impressive walls of ice that formed from seepage in the cliff. The rock was mostly dry and in fine condition except for the deep snow on top. We managed one climb. It wasn’t much fun due to the cold winds blowing off the North Sea and lack of sunlight so we packed it in and headed home again. At least we got out!

Back at home I followed through on the almond croissant plan. I cut the remaining croissants in half and basted them in sugar water. I made almond paste and spread it inside and on top. I shook some slivered almonds onto the tops and popped them in the oven for ten minutes. They were so good I almost died.

All in all it was a fine Christmas despite the unlucky turn with our flights being canceled. We enjoyed some excellent snowy weather, each others company and the company of a good friend. We made and ate some new amazing foods and managed an outdoor climb on boxing day. We relaxed and read books with tea close to hand and cats purring on our laps.

winterly walking

We’ve been here for two years and so far both winters have broken records for snowfall amounts and low temperatures. December was the coldest in the UK since 1910. Although the consequences have not all been positive (airports closing, pipes freezing, etc.) it does make us new canadian residents feel at home. With snow comes the kind of calm and crisp wintery days that are perfect for trudging around the countryside. All the familiar old places look new and fresh and the sun is magnified by fresh white powder.

I took the camera for a wander to Clashrodney after fresh snow one sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. The fields in this spot are usually mucky and unpleasant to walk in. A little snow changes everything.

A week or so later – snow still down – we grabbed the snowshoes and headed up to Scolty Hill, a nice park near Banchory. We got the car stuck trying to get into the parking lot but a nice australian guy helped push us out. We opted to park down the road a ways and walk in past the cute houses buried in snow and fenceposts with fresh snow hats.

The signage in this park isn’t the greatest, but the nice thing about snowshoes is that it doesn’t really matter where the trail is. You can go wherever you want.

There’s a tower to memorialize a napoleonic war general on top of Scolty hill. You can climb to the top and enjoy great views down to Banchory, east to the sea, and west and south into the hills.

A week or so later, with our friend Joe, we drove a little further up the Dee valley to Cambus O’ May to walk through the forestry reserve and on to a geographical feature called Burn O’ Vat. (What is with all the cutesy “O’s”?) The forest was in lovely deep snow with big fat flakes still coming down.

We were aware that one of the many climbing venues we haven’t had a chance to visit yet was nearby somewhere, so it was a nice surprise when we got off route and followed a trail that led us into an abandoned quarry full of bolted sport routes. The climbing looked hard and a little uninspiring – featureless and dead vertical – but was sheltered and would probably warm quickly given a little sunshine, so we may go back on a sunny winter day and give it a go. This day, though, was a bit too chilly. Ice climbers were toproping the frozen waterfall ice at the back of the quarry.

We got lost a few more times, but eventually found Burn O’ Vat, which is a big glacial pothole with a stream running through it. You enter by hopping along a series of flat rocks in the stream, through a narrow chink in the rocks, and into the Vat, which is aptly named – standing inside is very much like being in a large, smooth-sided vat.

The only downside to winter walking is the short short days. At the winter solstice the sun down at 3:30pm, so you need to plan your route accordingly and take a headlamp just in case. On this particularly day we failed to do either one and as you can see from the gallery, it was dusk when we reached the Vat, and our car was parked many miles away. So the high of a lovely walk was somewhat dampened by a long, dark trudge along a busy road in the snow. But dinner tasted all the better for it.