Three Months Later

Wow. It’s been ages since we’ve done anything with the blog. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get much done other than the basics. Here it is, more than ten months since Russell was born and I’m only getting down to documenting his third to sixth months. It’s amazing really. Going back, looking through all of our photos and videos of him and seeing how much he’s changed, how far he’s come in such a short period of time. At the time, it seems like he’s not learning fast enough, but wow, the stuff that’s happened in ten months! Amazing! I don’t have a lot of time to write about it, so I’m just going to put up a bunch of photos that we took between November 2012 and February 2013.

June visit from my folks

We’re way behind with our posts – reports from an April trip to France and a May trip to Italy are in various states of completion, along with a few climbing adventures and tales of home renovations. But since Mom and Dad just left a few days ago after a great visit, and we have lots of pictures that I’m sure the family will want to see, I’m just going to post a gallery rather than attempt any long descriptions that might end up getting endlessly stuck in the draft folder like the posts above.

Round Tower

The tail-end of a recent two week warm spell brought friend Fiend – fellow climber and Starcraft2 comrade – to the North East from Glasgow. Perhaps the recent alignment of the planets had something to do with such a rare occurrence of good weather before the nesting season fowled up much of the good coastal climbing here. In any case, we were instantly agreed that we would check out the Round Tower.

The Round Tower holds some of the finest extremes on the coast but does unfortunately get quite “birdy,” rendering the easier climbs unclimbable from April-September. Even after the birds leave their nests, their nests remain. The Round Tower is also home to the coveted local E2 test-piece Tyrant Crack which adorns the North East Outcrops guidebook cover.

This route has been on my wish list for a couple years now, but conditions have conveniently kept me away from the attempt. Now we were going and I didn’t feel ready. I decided that I probably wouldn’t try that day, but rather to enjoy the routes I could do and follow Matthew up some routes that were beyond my leading ability. Even as we drove out the rain started spitting down so it seemed like I was going to be granted a reprieve after all. The rain didn’t last and the climb was nicely sheltered from the cold wind so we geared up and started with the easier routes. I started with High Voltage (HVS 5a*)  which begins by surmounting some poop-encrusted ledges that leads to a fun finishing flake on good holds.

Matthew warmed up on Ramadan (E1 5b **) the sensational arete on the right side of the tower shown in the photo above. He abseiled and cleaned his gear so I could lead it on mine. A tricky run out start over some dubious protection gains the arete and a spectacular exposed position on huge holds and perfect gear. It was hard not to linger for awhile. This is now one of my favorite climbs on the coast and really set the tone for me that day. I felt solid pulling the moves above less-than-perfect gear and the climbing above was sheer joy. Suddenly, Tyrant Crack looked not only doable, but fun!

Matthew racked up and led it and then cleaned it. Not a problem for him as he’s quite strong. My turn next. I climbed up and placed some gear and climbed down for a short rest. It’s quite strenuous placing gear in the start of this one. The difficulties are right off the start and go for a few meters, but the protection is excellent and there are many opportunities, you just have to be strong enough to hang on and place it. I was a bit sketchy getting onto the wall proper, but after that it seemed to flow pretty well and I made it to the sanctuary of “the spike” without much trouble. Above the spike, gear is sparse but what there is, is good — and the climbing gets easier. Halfway up, I couldn’t help grinning that I had it in the bag.

It started to get colder after that, but Matthew was keen for Silver Surfer (E3 5c**) a nice looking wall climb to a ledge and crack and corner finish. I was once again impressed with his ability to commit and climb confidently and safely over thin unprotected looking rock. He found good gear and made it look like HVS. I seconded on numb fingers, nearly fell off, couldn’t remove two pieces of gear and had the hot aches by the time I got to the halfway ledge. Good thing I didn’t attempt it on the lead.

We hummed and hawed over the possibility of a very green but cool looking E3 on the corner but decided that it was taking the full brunt of the strengthening north wind so I finished up on the “not well protected” Life of Brian (E1 5a**) which is a big traverse across the back of the crag. With two distinct cruxes and not much gear this climb gently rises up and right to the top of the crag with the final crux a committing series of thin moves on lichen-covered rock well away from the last bits of questionable gear. I climbed out and back several times before committing. There was always the option of escaping up an easy corner, but I was glad that I finished it properly as it was quite the exhilarating finish and overall very satisfying climbing and a fine conclusion to a great day out.


My Folks in Aberdeenshire

My parents were here for almost two weeks in June. The trip to Orkney was terrific, but doing stuff around Aberdeen with them was also fun. By now they know the area almost as well as we do (this was my Mom’s fourth trip and my Dad’s third) but there’s always more. On this visit we went up to the Moray coast to visit the aquarium in MacDuff, which is a terrific facility that demonstrates the ecosystems of the north sea. They may not be as flashy as tropical fish, but there are some pretty interesting critters in the water here. I liked the nursery with the baby sharks emerging from mermaid’s purses, and the baby manta rays (surprisingly cute, for elasmobranchii!). Feeding time in the deep sea tank was also fun to watch. These divers have a fun job.

While on the Moray coast, we stopped in Portsoy for some ice cream (because that’s what you do on a Saturday), and we also went for a walk around Bow Fiddle Rock, which is near Cullen. It’s a stunning quartzite rock formation. (Brad is in the bottom left of the picture below, for scale.)

We also drove up the river Dee to see the Garden of Historic Roses, at Drum Castle. The gardens are divided into four quads to represent the style and roses of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century gardens. They were all really beautiful.We took a quick walk around the castle itself, including climbing up the stairs to the roof of the tower keep to try and get a glimpse of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately it was quite a wet and gloomy day so we couldn’t see far.

We also visited the Burn O’ Vat, which is a glacial pothole near Dinnet. In involves a short forest walk along a stream. The trail leads you to the place where the stream flows out from between two house-sized boulders. There are handy stepping stones and you can walk along the stream, between the boulders, and emerge inside the pothole, which is very much like a large vat with a pretty waterfall at the back.

We continued on, stopping at Tomnaverie stone circle, to Craigievar castle. It’s a very pink castle. We’d never been before because they’ve only just re-opened it after a lengthy renovation. Apparently some time in the 1970’s someone thought it was a good idea to re-harl the castle using concrete, which they thought would insulate and keep out moisture better than the mixture of lime and granite that originally coated the outside of the castle. They assumed modern building materials would better preserve the furnishings and gorgeous plaster ceilings in the castle. Unfortunately had the opposite effect, by trapping all the moisture inside. So they’ve been stripping off the concrete and re-harling it using the original material. The color comes from the local pink granite, and so probably matches its original color.




Orkney Day 3


On Sunday, we wanted to visit one of the other nearby Islands, but it turned out we were pretty limited by what ferries were running to which islands on a Sunday (the woman in the Kirkwall tourist bureau used a word that sounded something like “kirky-bodies” to describe the folk on the outlying islands, which we took to mean church-going types). But Shapinsay was a quick ferry ride, so we went down to the harbor to try and figure out how to get there. As often happens in Scotland, there were no signs, schedules, or posted fares. But we spotted a ship coming in to harbor that said “Shapinsay” on it and we followed it to where it docked and walked on. On board, a man came around and collected fares, and we docked in Shapinsay in about 30 minutes.

It was a very sleepy farm island. There’s a castle to visit, but we felt more like going for a walk. So we chatted with a local and watched the seals for a while, and then wandered along up a country road past lots of cows to an old ruined kirk that the moss and ivy had taken over in beautiful ways. My folks turned back to visit a bird blind and Brad and I continued on down the road a little ways – we’d hoped to get to the other end of the island, but had to turn around before we got there so we wouldn’t miss the ferry. On the way back we were passed by a ragtag group – a young girl on a pony, a man on a bicycle with a horse on a lead, and a woman in a funny metal cart being pulled by a Shetland pony. Just out for some exercise, I guess. We also came across a group of young steers that seemed a bit desperate for something, though we don’t know what. They came running over to the fence as we approached and followed us along the road, mooing desperately. The seemed especially fixated on Brad, and when he broke into a trot they all started trotting along beside him. We felt a bit bad leaving them to moo in their field all alone.

Highland Park

Back in Kirkwall, we stopped in for a tour of the Highland Park whisky distillery. We’ve been on a few of these tours before and they always leave you with the impression that their distillery is the best in the world (because they don’t cut corners or compromise on their malt, water, peat, process, casks etc etc) and this one was similar. But I will say, with the caveat that I’m not really a fan of whisky, I did think their 18-year old tasted better than many other whiskies I’ve tried. Not good enough for me to start drinking it regularly, but I was able to finish the sample anyway! And they had a malting floor on site, unlike other distilleries, and that was an interesting feature.

Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces

Next we visited a couple of interesting ruined palaces in Kirkwall, near the cathedral. The Earl’s palace was built in the 16th century and occupied by the Stewart Earls, who, by all accounts, were jerks, and the palace was built by pure force of brutality. So I guess it’s no wonder the Orcadians let it slip into disrepair and eventually ruin. The bishop’s palace is a bit older (12th century), and has a tower you can climb (albeit on some tricky stairs) to get nice views of Kirkwall and the Cathedral below.

That evening we saw the Scottish Chamber orchestra again (Mozart’s requiem among other things, really good). Afterwards we retired to our hotel in Stenness for a pint to find it much quieter than the night before, when it was overrun by a few dozen drunken superheroes.

Orkney Day 2

Continuing our visit to Orkney, on Day 2 we visited a few more neolithic sights (seemed to be the thing to do) and poked around Kirkwall.

Skara Brae

This was probably the most fascinating of the neolithic sites we visited. It’s a 5000 year old village that was buried in sand dunes, and then uncovered by a storm in the 19th century.  There are about a dozen dwellings interconnected by passages and they all share an outer wall. It’s a bit like a tiny, rudimentary walled city. The interior of the dwellings looks quite cozy, each one with a firepit in the center, ringed by beds and seats and then these amazing clever touches of comfort and creativity, like layered shelving, and a little water-filled hole that would have acted as a kind of refrigerator, and a larger central hut that they believe was the community workshop. Seeing it as we did on a warm sunny day, sitting over a pretty beach in the rolling farmland, it was possible to imagine that they didn’t have such a bad life.


The Ring of Brodgar

We didn’t so much as visit as dash past this standing stone circle on the way to Maes Howe. There are stone circles and single standing stones all over Orkney, and a lot of mystery around what they were for and why there were so many. This one hasn’t been excavated or dated but it’s probably from around 2500 BC. It is within sight of another large standing stone circle (the Stones of Stenness, which I forgot to mention we visited on Day 1). Apparently a lot of these circles had to be rescued from a farmer in 1814 who, fed up with trying to plow around them, decided to knock them over. He did a lot of damage before he was stopped.


Maes Howe

Not many pictures of this – you’re not allowed to take any pictures inside, and from outside it just looks like a mound. It’s a chambered tomb dating from 2700BC. You have to phone ahead to book a time to be taken inside. The tour was good (especially considering that we’d already visited a lot of ancient monuments in the previous 36 hours or so, and you can really only ponder for so long on all these unanswerable questions of who made these, why, how, etc). An interesting feature of this tomb is the graffiti left behind by 12th century Vikings. Most of them say amusingly lame things like “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes”.

Kirkwall Harbor and St Magnus

Kirkwall is the biggest town in Orkney, and while not the most exciting town ever, it does have an interesting old cathedral and a busy harbor. The cathedral is more solid than soaring, but the rough red sandstone fits the landscape well. It was built when Orkney was part of Norway (12th century) and has a norse feel to it, as does most of the town. After visiting the cathedral we got some ice cream (because that’s what you do on a saturday) and walked around the harbor. Lots of action here – mostly working fishing boats, and of course also lots of ferries running to and from the many islands north of Mainland. That evening we scored (or so we thought) some return tickets to see The Tempest in Kirkwall. I will spare you all the gruesome details of that event and suffice it to say that we left at intermission.


Orkney Day 1

A few weeks ago, we spent three very nice days on Orkney with my folks, ostensibly for the St. Magnus music festival, which is a week-long classical music series in Kirkwall. We spent more time sightseeing than we did at the festival (“Festival” seems to have a slightly different connotation here – it was more like a concert series). Here’s some stuff we did on Day 1.


The Italian Chapel

The Mainland is connected to South Ronaldsay by a series of causeways, which were built by Italian prisoners of WWII. The causeways were originally intended to keep U-boats out of Scapa Flow, which was a key strategic harbor for the royal navy during the war. Prior to building the causeway the navy had tried to block the channel by sinking lots of old ships and barges in it – unsuccessfully, since in 1939 a german U-boat snuck through and destroyed a ship (killing 843 people) and then snuck out again. So the Italian POWs were brought to this uninhabited little island between Mainland and South Ronaldsay to build what are now known as the Churchill Barriers, to keep further U-boats out. While laboring in this isolated place far from home, the men managed to cobble together a touchingly ornate little chapel out of a couple of nissen huts and a lot of bits and pieces lovingly salvaged, painted, carved, and arranged. The chapel they created is beautiful and touching.


The Tomb of the Eagles (Into the tomb: The movie)

On the south coast of South Ronaldsay is a tomb and a homestead that are about 5000 years old. The visitor center is owned and operated by the family on whose land they happen to sit, and it is kind of a weird tourist attraction as a result. They hand out various ancient precious artifacts for you to touch and pass around, including a 5000 year old skull. Then they send you off along a mucky path into the remains of an ancient house, and then further along the clifftops to the tomb itself. Leaned up next to the entrance to the tomb, which is under 3 feet high and probably 10 feet deep, is something that looks like a skateboard – you lay down on it, on your back, and pull yourself into the tomb, using a rope fixed to the roof of the tunnel. The tomb itself has been capped with a roof, and has several chambers. When they excavated it they found 85 human skulls and thousands of eagle bones.

Brough of Birsay

The remnant of an ancient village sits on a small island off the northwest corner of Mainland. The approach to the island is tidal, so you can only visit for a few hours each day, and you need to keep your eye on the time. The village was inhabited by Picts from the 6th-8th century and by Vikings from the 9th-13th century. There are quite elaborate foundations left behind, including evidence of baths and rudimentary plumbing. The island has lovely sea cliffs with dramatically layered rock formations – we argued a bit about whether and how much of it was artificial (I am pretty sure it’s natural). We also saw a puffin there.


Scottish Chamber Orchestra

In the evening we went to see the SCO do a few pieces by Mendelssohn and by Peter Maxwell Davies in Kirkwall. We had seats behind the orchestra, which meant the sound was a little unbalanced (too much French horn!) but in exchange we got to watch the extremely animated and engaging conductor, Thierry Fischer, head on. Terrific show.

Not too late to post about the peak

It was nearly a month ago now that we spent three glorious days climbing in the peak district with Laurie, and the mild sunburn I got on my shoulders has long since faded. Brad’s tick list covers the basics but I’ve been wanting to fill in some of the gaps and post a few photos while I still remember it. I’m sure Brad will want to post a few pictures and route descriptions as well, when he can.

I was happy with the quantity and quality of routes we did. I’d gone through the guidebooks and flagged a lot of severes and HS’s I wanted to do, and I was a little disappointed in myself to have to downsize my expectations. But the rock is so nice and all the routes are so fun and plentiful that it was impossible to stay in any semblance of a bad mood.

Looking around the crags, you see families coaxing young kids up routes, groups of teenagers bouldering, and father-son teams on hard routes. There’s a long history of climbing here that has spanned several generations and you can see it in the confidence with which the locals move on grit. Lifelong gritstone climbers must build up an unconscious, reflexive faith in gritty feet and rounded handholds that, to the newcomer, feel very insecure. This also shows, I think, in the grades – the round and textured weirdness of gritstone can be puzzling/scary to the uninitiated even on the easiest of climbs. So you find yourself muttering “VDiff, my ass!” as you mantel over a rounded finish, several meters above your last piece. But in all fairness, the “easy” climbs really aren’t especially strenuous or technical, but just require a modicum of faith that comes from knowing the rock well.

That said, following Brad on the harder routes wasn’t at all easy. He climbed some HVS routes that I found impossible – on two, he had to rappel down to retrieve his gear because I couldn’t get up them (Flying Buttress Direct and Rhodren), and two others (Saul’s Crack and Ackit) I fell on repeatedly. I normally follow him on HVS/E1 without any trouble, so maybe the grades are just harder there overall. Or maybe I was just going through a weak spell.

And Laurie rocked. Having never led trad before, on day two she grabbed the rack and led the second pitch of Inverted Staircase with alacrity. And it was a weird pitch too, up a boulder-choked squeeze chimney. Then, on day 3, she led three more routes: two solid crack climbs, and one wild route with a crazy run-out on the bottom, and weird rounded awkward holds at the top — not for the faint of heart. Nice one, Dr. PLW!

We’d been to Stanage Edge last year, but this was our first time in the Roaches. Really nice spot, although we had our doubts after the first day there. It was hot and crowded and this was exacerbated by failures in basic etiquette among our fellow climbers, to put it mildly. I’ve never seen climbers be so dangerously inconsiderate. But we went back for a second day and avoided climbing near other people as much as possible, and had a much nicer time. But, with that minor complaint aside, two thumbs up for the peak! Fun routes, lovely views, good times. Thanks for a great trip, Laurie and Brad!






A Visit from the Megasar!

It now seems like ages ago that Dan, Linda and their baby Viva visited. Man we had a good time, we sure hope they come back again soon.

They arrived on Halloween, flying into Edinburgh and taking the train to Aberdeen. We met them at the train station and promptly brought them back to Cove for some pumpkin carving, beers, introductions and the beginning of a stellar week of climbing and hangin’ out.

Normally I like handing out candy to the trick or treaters but that night I just put a bowl full of candy bars on the front step and flanked them with our scary pumpkins — Linda’s first carving, thanks Linda!

That first week of November gave us surprisingly excellent weather. Dan and Linda took advantage by walking the 6 mile coastal trail from Cove to Aberdeen. We also managed to get out climbing a few times. We did a bit of trad climbing, sport climbing and a bit of bouldering. The highlight of which was lowering Viva down the side of a 15 foot wall. We took a few wee drives about the countryside to visit a castle (Donottar) and hills (Cairn o Mount). We did a bit of crag spotting as well. That’s where you go out with intentions of climbing but find it either a) in poor condition or b) too cold or dark or both.

All in all it was such a great week. We enjoyed meeting Viva and showing them around Aberdeenshire. We look forward to our next visit. Here are some photos.