SVG 2012 and Dubh Loch Climbing

The past few months Amelia has been quite busy organizing her first conference. The Scottish Vision Group chose her and a colleague to co-organize the 2012 meeting. Amelia was in charge of selecting the venue among other things and this year’s meeting was held at the historic Douneside House in Tarland.

The house is beautiful. 14 bedrooms, huge conservatory, dining hall, lounges, studies and full bar all interconnected by a warren like maze of hallways adorned with period furniture and art, Douneside House was a delight to stay at. The grounds of the house are extensive as well. There’s a small burn trickling past on the east side around which beautiful trees, flowers and shrubbery are lovingly maintained. A small path leads visitors through passing small benches to sit and over tiny bridges. Many wild birds call this place home. It’s quite magical.

The crown jewel of the grounds is possibly the “Infinity Lawn” which seems to stretch on forever into the distant hills of Lochnagar. As conference organizer, Amelia scored us the #2 bedroom so we had quite the amazing view in the morning. If I’d known it would be this good, I might have stayed both nights!

The weather in the mountains was too good to pass up however, even for a night in Douneside House. My friend Ben and I spent Friday night climbing and camping at the nearby Dubh Loch. Friday we walked in at a fast 2 hrs and climbed the superb three pitch route A Likely Story (HVS 5a ***) on the Eagle Slabs. I led pitch one and three while Ben led the delicate traverse of pitch two. Really good climbing on perfect mountain granite.

Saturday we climbed the 5 pitch classic Mousetrap (VS 4c ***) up the right side of the Dubh Loch. Long pitches of sustained difficulty took us the full height of the crag (200+ meters). We made it to the top in good time despite a later start only to discover our descent gully was still covered in snow. A moment’s consideration of that terrifying descent compelled us off the north side of the mountain at an easy run as we were now hard pressed to get back in time for me to make it to Douneside House for dinner at 6pm.

Climbing Trips: Isle of Skye

Back in August we took a weekend trip to the Isle of Skye to do some climbing and hillwalking with some friends. Our good friends Johannes and Jane organized food, drink and accommodations so all we had to do was show up and all would be looked after. They did a super job too. Our bunkhouse was just up the road from Talisker and quite central to any and all mountain-related activities we wished to pursue.

The first day Amelia and I went for our big mountain goal of the season — something on Sron na Ciche capped by Integrity. A big day out, with 11 pitches spanning 3 separate routes from bottom to top. We got quite an early start and did the enjoyable route Cioch West (V Diff*) which placed us at the bottom of Cioch Nose (V Diff ***).  Amelia and I swapped leads all the way up. It was a superb day on the mountain with great weather, rock and magnificent positions. Topping out on Cioch Nose was definitely one of the highlights. It was a bit surreal watching the mountain rescue helicopter fly maneuvers in the valley below our position. From this position climbers have the option of escaping off the mountain or continuing up a final 2 pitch wall.

Our friends Dan and Marianne were also in the area with another friend to do some scrambling, but the lure of Integrity was too great and we met them at the base of the route. The first pitch of Integrity (HS 4b ***) is one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. It is an amazing bit of climbing. Not hard, and extremely fun. The second pitch is merely ok, which is a shame, but the thrill of being so high above the valley saves it a bit.

We topped out around 5pm and you know that getting to the top is only halfway. The way down was a bit epic in that we missed the proper descent gulley so ended up in a scree gulley of doom. To say this was a bit harrowing is an understatement, but suffice to say we made it without any real harm done. We made it back to the car, just as it was getting fully dark — probably around 10pm — and then back to the bunkhouse by 10:30 to some very relieved friends. It was high summer on Skye, we used every last ounce of day we could get I guess they got a bit worried when we didn’t show up for dinner. Luckily they saved us some! We have some seriously great friends.

The next day, the weather deteriorated a bit so we all decided to go on a hillwalk up in the Cullins. Johannes engineered it so we would just happen to be walking past the tooth-like formation of Am Basteir/Bastier Tooth home to the famous Naismith’s Route (V Diff**). It took us a few hours of walking uphill past streams, boulders and sheep, up into the clouds and the rain. We only got a bit lost, but we were all having a good time. I honestly didn’t mind at all, the previous day was just so great.

It was bitterly cold up on the hill and Am Bastier was barely visible in the swirling mists. We did bring ropes and harness and helmet, but not climbing shoes. We figured the climbing would be quite easy and manageable due to the easy grade, even in the rain! Ha, were we wrong.

Danimal went up first to check it out. He climbed up about 15 m before reaching an impasse of loose vertical rock. His one piece of protection at 7m had long since fallen out. The wind and rain continued to howl.

We yelled up to him. “Dan, how does it look up there?”

“Not good,” he calls back.

“What’s your plan?”

“Run away!”

So down he comes. Fair play and good sense to you buddy. Johannes decides he wants to go “have a look anyway.” Dan and a couple of our group decide to carry on and do so more hillwalking while Johannes and I have a closer look at the tooth. Amelia and Jane decide to stay and make sure we don’t get into trouble. Johannes gets to Dan’s high point and builds a belay to bring me up, and before I clue into what’s happening, I’m at the belay and he’s handing me the rack. Swell. Now I get to lead up the loose vertical section and our anchor is not exactly confidence inspiring. I try to ignore the fear and launch on up the wall. In rock shoes and fine weather it would have been easy, but in the rain with big bendy boots the climbing was quite gripping. I managed to not fall off and die which was good, so I brought Johannes up and we scrambled easily to the top from there.

Here is where I should mention the conversation that happened before we set off. Amelia asked Johannes how long his rope was, and if it was in fact long enough to abseil off the top of the tooth, which is 30m, requiring a 60m rope. To which Johannes replies, “48m, we’ll be fine.” Somehow I missed this, or just failed to process the implications, but now here I was at the top of the tooth an hour or two later with frost forming on my trousers. Johannes is dangling in the mists some 24m below me having an epic because his 48m rope will not in fact get us to the bottom.

The solution of course was to build a hanging belay to which I abseiled down to. We then pulled the rope and willed our freezing hands to not drop the rope. That would be disastrous. We rigged another abseil which then took us to the ground. Lesson learned eh buddy? Hehehe.

Ah, I didn’t think it was so bad. He had a rope and some gear. It was a shame he had to leave his gear behind on the wall but hey, it’s all part of the mountain experience sometimes. Not too bad all things considered.

We hoofed it down the mountain and headed straight for the pub. We met up with our other friends there and recounted the story, much to Johannes’ shagrin. It is a good story, and a fine ending to a crackin’ weekend. Thanks guys!

Cioch Nose

Last weekend the weather was good on the west coast, and despite a moderate midge forecast of 3, we packed up the car and headed to Applecross on Friday night. Our plan was to stay at the Wee Bunkhouse Friday night in Shiel Bridge, then press on to the Applecross area and climb the famous Cioch Nose (VDiff ***). We would then drive to Shieldaig in Torridon and do “some cragging.”

The drive up to Shiel Bridge took us about 4 hours. I think it took us 3.5 hours to get out of Aberdeen alone. For such a small city, rush hour traffic is horrible, especially on Friday. Upon arriving at the Kintail Lodge Hotel, we immediately saw the Wee Bunkhouse. It was right in the middle of the car park! The website says it sleeps 6. It is very wee. Whatever, for £15 a night and the pub right there it was perfect. We grabbed the guidebook and headed into the pub which, at 10 p.m. was already in full swing. I’m always amazed at rural Scotland’s ability to party on the weekend. The town population is probably 10, they’re all here and they brought some friends. It’s great. We had us a pint or two, fleshed out the plan and went to find our bunks.

It was dark in the bunkhouse, and the other 3 occupants had already gone to bed. We tried to be as quiet as we could. I had a fine nights’ sleep, despite everyone getting up once to go to the toilet. Amelia didn’t sleep as well I think. She complained the other occupants were quite flatulent. Ah well. Early start for us!

Skipping the £11 breakfast we drove on towards our goal for the day. The Cioch Nose is approached from the historic Bealach na Ba which is a high mountain pass. We packed up in the morning chill eating what little food we brought with us. The day was looking very fine and we were rewarded with an amazing view of the Isle of Skye.

There was a young family hiking in just ahead of us. The man asked if we were going to do the Nose today. We said yes. I think he was a little jealous. We navigated to the base of the route easily enough. It took about an hour and involved a steep descent into a glen and a pleasant walk to the end in the now very warm sunshine!

There was just enough of a breeze to keep any midges away which was a bonus. Towards the end of the valley, we needed to start looking for a way to get up to the “halfway” ledge from which the climb begins. The route itself is 125m done in five pitches. VDiff is not a hard technical grade as far as the climbing is concerned, but it is a big wall in a remote setting so a good foundation of mountaineering skills is essential. This route is near the top of a list Amelia has. The list was designed to progress her steadily up to the grade of Severe (Diff, Very Diff, Severe…). The main goal being that we could swing leads on long “easy” routes like this in the mountains. We did skip ahead quite far on the list and once we were standing at the base of the route, Amelia decided against taking the first lead. No problem. I was quite happy to get the ball rolling.

I found the first pitch to be quite tricky actually. It starts with off-width jamming up a huge flake! Not what you expect from a non-technical climb. The climbing is excellent. After the flake a few easy moves lead to a steep groove. Again, I was quite surprised by the difficulty of the moves. I think another guidebook gives it a grade of Severe 4a, which I would agree with. Amelia followed the pitch no problem, but decided she was happy to not lead it.

Pitch two was equally challenging. Amelia racked up for the lead and headed up a steep groove only to encounter loose rock and dodgy gear. After some fiddling about, she came down disappointed and relinquished the lead. I went up and sure enough, the climbing was awkward, the protection not abundant and there was the occasional bit of loose rock. Adventure climbing in the mountains – what’s not to love? The third pitch was exposed climbing on a steep wall with amazing holds. The exposure was good, but the climbing quite a bit easier than the first half. I linked the third and fourth pitches together because I could and then Amelia tied in for the final pitch which she led with ease.

As it turns out, the climbing is nowhere near over! The Cioch Nose is over, and one can scramble back down a gully to climb something else on the wall, or one can keep going to the top. To the top we went. There is still another 500m of cliff that goes at mostly Moderate but there are a few bits of VDiff climbing that we roped up for as well. Amelia was quite good at finding the route up the imposing wall above. We soloed 100 m of exposed terrain to a wide ledge. From here we roped up again to surmount a short steep wall. I led up 15m, brought Amelia up, then she led through another 15m and brought me up, and we covered the rest of the way like that quite quickly placing minimal gear. The climbing was quite easy, but fast and really fun. It would be great to be able to do that on harder and harder climbs.

The mountain just kept on going. We would surmount a big step only find another big step in front of us. We only got lost once which was a little tense. We lost the “path” and were high up on a grassy slope with loose blocks all around us, and the wind died off and the midges came out. We kept on going and I was sure we would have to down climb, but we topped out, found a path and headed off towards the car. Fantastic day out!

Weird Sister

Just had a fantastic morning out with my friend Johannes. We did a 3 pitch E3 5c which would be about 5.11 a. I got the first 5a pitch which felt a lot more like 5b above poor gear but I’m not going to quibble. Johannes kindly led out the crux second pitch placing all the gear and testing the peg by falling onto it four times before handing the lead over to me. I was able to climb through smoothly and before I knew it I was up above the peg and climbing the last airy 5 meter runout. Yikes! Thankfully I didn’t fluff the final 5b moves but made it safely to the belay. Johannes took over and led out the final 5c crack without difficulty. Top day!!

Climbing Trips: Garbh Coire

Recently, Amelia and I headed into the remote Garbh Coire to climb the incredible Squareface Buttress (VD ***). This is all part of our (my?) mission to get Amelia leading regularly on rock and up to a point where we can swing leads on long mountain routes. She’s taking to it with a new found passion and I’m delighted that she’s enjoying it so much. She led the first pitch and the last pitch of this three pitch mountain classic. She almost backed out of leading the last one. Thankfully it didn’t take much encouragement to get her up there. Hearing her woop! after the last of the difficulties on the flake made the long trip in worthwhile. Oh, yeah, and the route is quite excellent too.

The next day we hiked back into the coire and met our friend Johannes at 10:00 on the dot. Quite a feat. We racked up and all three of us climbed the Cumming-Crofton Route (S***) in glorious sunshine and bitter winds. Johannes led pitch 1, the crux 4b pitch. I led pitches 2 and 3 together. Johannes got the rotten pitch 4 while I took the mega-exposed pitch 5. Johannes brought us to the top on the final pitch. Amelia didn’t want to lead any of these and I don’t blame her. Maybe it was just me having not been on a big mountain route in awhile but I found it wild with sustained 4a climbing and tricky route-finding.

Johannes was quite keen to have a go at the neighboring Slochd Wall (HVS 5a**) so we dropped back down into the coire and kicked steps across the 30 degree snow slope that guarded the base of the route. That snow slope was big and scary. The steps I kicked into it were shallow and icy and without gloves my hands became quite cold. There was really no alternative but to grab fistfuls of snow as handholds and not think about falling. A slip would’ve sent me to the bottom of the 200 meter slope in a hurry.

Once we reached the safety of the rock, we had to cut back up the gap between the cliff and snow. The first “pitch” had us scrambling out of the frozen gap in trainers onto the wall proper. From our tiny ledge we got a good look at the vertical wall above. It looked hard and intimidating. Thankfully Johannes was up to the challenge of the first real pitch of climbing, which also happened to be the crux pitch. I was happy to let him go first. It was his idea after all.

He pulled it off without much difficulty. The climbing was quite good actually, and the position was amazing. From the hanging belay I led out pitch two — a scrappy traverse, a pull up a corner and a large belay ledge that was quite small. I was not pleased with the quality of rock here. It was all quite hollow and we were standing next to a completely detached pillar. Johannes just shook his head at the shitty belay I had constructed, put some big gear in (brought up from the previous belay) and we eyed up the next bit.

I got to climb the next pitch as well which just happened to go straight up the detached pillar (excellent exposed climbing!) to a roof which was avoided on the left to some easy ground, another roof was avoided and I belayed on the slab above. Johannes led out the final easy slab. We were both quite pleased with the effort. I was in quite a good mood by that point and it left me wanting to do more mountain routes.

Spring Update

It’s been a great spring here in Scotland this year. Like last year, the nice weather started with tiny bursts of warm days by the end of February and got more frequent around the middle of March. April I think, was a fantastic month weather-wise. Here it is almost the middle of May! The sun is now miraculously rising at 04:52 and setting at 21:19. Here is Atlas enjoying the moonrise.

Scottish Winter Climbing

As great as the summer climbing is in Scotland, I’m sure many would say that the winter climbing is where it’s at. I’m not a winter climber at all, so I really don’t know what it is that makes it so special. Many of my friends do some winter climbing and often talk about the quality of the climbing in winter. I was invited by Ryan to get out and try it and Dan was on board as well, so we had a keen party of three. Ryan is an experienced winter climber and all-around hard man, Dan is a solid rock climber and is on the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team. Good guys to have around for my first winter foray.

The plan was to meet at 05:00.  In order to maximize daylight it’s best to be situated at the base of the route as day breaks. Climbing in the mountains in any season often means long days because the approaches are longer and routes are multiple pitches. Add winter conditions and fewer daylight hours and suddenly the seriousness of a winter route is compounded.

We drove two hours in pouring rain to Aviemore and arrived at the Cairngorm car park in gently falling snow. We were relieved that our elevation was above the freezing level. We geared up in an almost empty car park and set off. Like the bumbly I am, I had all my clothes on and after about 15 minutes of hiking, I was sweating hard.

There were at least a dozen others on the trail up to the corrie. The world was white. Snow was falling and had covered everything. The ground and the sky were the same shades of winter and the only evidence of a trail was the meandering line of footprints we were following. I don’t recall exactly how long it took to get to the corrie. Maybe an hour and a half? We reached our destination just as they sky started getting brighter. It was cloudy, but it seemed like it might clear which would be good.

We could hear voices of several parties already climbing and could see a few small groups of people waiting in line or deciding on an objective. We put on crampons and readied our axes in a flat area before heading steeply up a snow slope to the base of our intended route. The snow was knee deep and unconsolidated but fairly easy to wade through. The tools helped a bit. We had to claw and wade 50 meters up a 45 degree snow slope before reaching the first bit of rock that could hold our anchor before the serious climbing began.

Our intended route was a jumbled, snow and ice covered ridge known as Fingers Ridge (IV 4). The winter grading scheme eludes me. Unfortunately, there was a couple of guys just beginning the route, and a couple of others in line to go next. This was disappointing. Instead of waiting we opted to go up Red Gully (II). Despite being an obvious couple of grades easier, it was meant to be climbed in icy conditions. Who knows what it would be like full of unconsolidated snow?!

Ryan pounded in a couple of pitons as the first belay. I’d never heard the ping, ping, ping of a solid piton being pounded in before but I’d read about it often enough. As the piton is driven into a solid placement the tone changes in a satisfying way. For some reason, Dan was not as happy about our belay as I was. Something about the falling, and the ripping of gear. Whatever. Ryan wasn’t going to fall. And he didn’t.

He disappeared for a good long while leaving Dan and I on our kicked out frozen ledge. The weather was also getting worse. Every now and again blocks of dislodged snow would come tumbling down the gully. Not much to see or do except get cold. I think it took Ryan almost an hour to lead the first pitch and I can remember our relief to hear him call down that he was on belay and that we could start climbing.

The climbing was pretty easy for the most part. Just walking steeply uphill in the snow really. The difficulties focused on negotiating a three meter vertical step. I found it quite tricky actually. There was no solid snow to sink axes into so we had to rely on hooking edges of rock hidden by the powder. Reach, scrape, hook then pull up and pray it didn’t suddenly pop off. My crampons were scraping around on the rock looking for purchase as well but not finding much in the loose snow. With a fair amount of effort I managed to get up and over the step and that’s when the “hot aches” set in. I got a mild case in my right hand that brought all movement to a stop. Hot aches are a painfully nasty condition where blood goes rushing into cold capillaries causing extreme pain. Like I said, mine were mild and stopped me for only a few minutes while they passed.

I reached the belay to find Ryan in good spirits. He was clearly in his element, and warm in his down jacket. We chatted while Dan climbed up after me. Ryan kindly gave the next lead over to Dan who took the rack and proceeded up the next pitch. More loose snow up to another rock step, this one not so technical as the last. The weather had definitely deteriorated into full on snow. Ryan and I were constantly moving around to keep warm high on the mountain.

I often find time passes strangely when on belay and this was no exception. I don’t know how long we stood there. It seemed like hours, but it was probably only one, maybe less. Dan finally called down and so we headed up. This second pitch was quite easy by comparison and we arrived at Dan’s belay quickly. The last little bit of our route looked really easy so decided to just carry on and “solo” out. There didn’t appear to be any gear anyway so the ropes wouldn’t be much help.

Ryan and I arrived at the top and Ryan promptly sat down to give Dan a body belay up. Whiteout conditions prevailed on the corrie ridge and there was no shelter to be had but we were all in good spirits and fairly warm from the climbing. There’s a perverse sort of satisfaction from doing something hard in bad weather and we all felt like it had been a good experience. We took a photo, gathered the ropes and rack and set off in search of a descent slope to get us back down to the corrie floor and the path back down to the car.

We bumped into some friends along the way and exchanged news of the day. We decided to meet up in Aviemore for some coffee and food. Apparently there’s an all-day breakfast that is part of the winter climbing ritual. I can appreciate that. We hiked out and I was feeling quite tired upon arriving back at the now full car park. Cairngorm is a big ski area and there were many people taking advantage of what little snow there was at the time.

After our food, and long drive home I figured that during that 16 hour day I maybe climbed for two hours of them. Winter climbing is a lot of work and hardly any of it is actual climbing! At least at that level. I’ve seen photos of friends who do some seriously outrageous climbing in winter conditions. Climbing in the winter requires a high level of fitness, mental toughness, the ability to block out harsh weather conditions and some all around savvy. Personally, I enjoyed it. I thought it was a great day out with friends and a unique adventure that I would likely try again but it doesn’t compel me as much as summer climbing does. Most of the enjoyment seems to come after the fact. I guess I have yet to experience that nugget of in-the-moment awesomeness that compels winter climbers.

Hopefully I get out again this winter. Fingers Ridge did look pretty awesome!

West Coast Summer Finale: Multi-pitch on Stac Pollaidh

The first weekend of September proved to be one of the best weekends of the summer. We made plans to go climbing with our friend Dan the previous Wednesday. For some reason Scotland had been enjoying a few days of consistently excellent weather and for once the long range forecast promised more of the same. We looked at the forecast for Ullapool and lo-and-behold, wall to wall sun and warm temps.

The basic plan was to do some climbing at Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Stack Polly, which means Stack of the Bog/Pools) and Reiff. Stac Pollaidh is multi-pitch climbing while Reiff is coastal cragging which would make for quite a good contrast and both have an excellent assortment of routes to have a go at. Not only that, but the area is reported to be quite beautiful. Reports confirmed!

The only real trouble we had was looking for accommodations. The area is also notoriously midge-y so we were reluctant to camp for fear of being eaten alive. I hunted around for some hostel action but there wasn’t much choice and reviews were a bit conflicted. There are campsites we could stay at no problem, but then Dan mentioned something about a caving group hut in Elphin that he’d stayed at before.

The hut had two large bedrooms with enough bunk space for ten to twelve people. The kitchen was large and well appointed, there was a cozy living room with stone fireplace and a large conservatory for a dining area. The walls were adorned with cave schematics, caving photos and road signs. It was perfect.  There were only three other people staying at the hut that weekend. A really nice couple who were over from Ireland doing some hillwalking and a student up from Edinburgh University doing some kind of surveying. Turns out none of them were there for the caving, but all were involved with geology in some way or another.

We drove out Friday night after work in about 4 hours and amazingly we found the hut in the dark. Saturday morning was surprisingly dreary with very low cloud and cool temps. Not at all like what was forecast! As soon as we left Elphin the weather cleared right up and by the time we got to the car park it was bright and there was a slight warm breeze blowing which was just enough to keep the midges away. It felt like the start to a great day!

It was a 45 minute hike up a steep slope getting up to the base of the rock. Our first objective was the popular 3 pitch, 3 star Jack the Ripper (E1 5b). I won the crux pitch, which is also the last, so Dan led up the first two pitches, Meme went second and I brought up the rear. The first pitch went easy, the second a little harder with a tricky high step move not far off the belay. The third pitch was the hard one, and the best one. Some easy moves lead to the base of a short steep groove with a finger crack. With feet smearing and fingers in the crack, climb up above good gear to a small roof, find more good gear and then up and over into another groove following this to an awkward mantel onto a large block. A short wide crack leads to a niche under a roof which is easily passed on the left and then the top. A superb pitch. After belaying Amelia and Dan up we had lunch next to a large colony of flying ants.

We had time to do some more climbing so we chose a shorter route on the next buttress over. A quick scramble down a gully and we were gaping up at the compelling line of Vlad the Impaler (HVS 5a), which is a long and excellent crack and corner that runs the full height of the buttress. Dan made short work of this one despite the ominously large crack in the second half of the climb. Turns out the start which looked easy was hard and the finish which looked hard was easy! We topped out and walked a short distance to the second pitch which was easier (VS 4b?) and shorter but very enjoyable just the same. The line followed a crack to a horizontal break and then another crack to the top.

We thought we might want to scramble to the summit and walk down via the path but it turned out to be much more difficult than expected. We somehow got split up on the way down and when we got to the car, Dan was nowhere to be seen. Meme found a couple of ticks on her on the way down so I decided to take my trousers off for a quick inspection. That’s when the midges swarmed in. Now we’re both running around the carpark, me with no trousers on, calling for Dan. Good thing we were the last ones to leave. I got dressed and Dan eventually showed up (he went for a swim) and we got the heck outta there, back to our amazing hut for dinner and chat. Below are a few photos of that day.