JLS and Clach na Beinn

The outdoor climbing season opened for me on Saturday March 17. Danimal and I headed to Longhaven quarries for the classic sea cliff climb Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (E1 5c**). I had led this route last year with another friend, Johannes and this year Dan was keen for it, so offered to hold his ropes. It’s an excellent climb in a dramatic situation and one that requires a fair degree of adventuring just to get to. Below is a photo of another climber on the route. The climb starts a few meters above the sea under the big arch.

The next day, Amelia and I headed up to the high crag of Clach na Beinn. We had been there before a few years ago. It’s a great crag perched high on a hilltop. The walk in is long but lovely and we felt like stretching our legs. Walking in the hills is fine, but it’s always better if there’s climbing to be had at the end of it.

We packed a nice lunch and ticked off a couple of climbs, one new and one we’d done before but kind of got wrong. The last time we did Bogendreip Buttress was when Amelia’s sister Kate visited. I led it the hard way and she followed the proper way. I was keen to do it the proper way, but it still felt hard.

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!

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!

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.