OFF THE WALL
In the back garden fat bees come out of their holes and plants put on inches as I watch. I sink into lunchtime sun and my body breathes out after months of wearing chest armour against cold.
And I sweat gently- Just by sitting there: just wearing one layer of clothing. Spring. New season. Time to throw all the climbing gear up in the air and see where it lands.
It’s a short trawl to Porthcawl and by 3.30pm I’m at Box Bay. Lots of blue sky. Sheltered it isn’t. Thick clumps of washing up bubbles are thrown in the air by a nasty on-shore wind. 1, 2, 3 and four: The layers go back on. The body tightens up again and it hurts to do the moves. Fingers are both numb and painful. The sun shines and shines. I don't sweat.
It’s spring so we have to do this. There’s a flurry of 7 short routes. Same same but different. Belays, gear placements and moves all get an airing. In the midst of cold befuddledness I realise it’s all happening without much effort. After 5 years the routines are embedded like a bullet in the brain and the once awkward starts aren’t that awkward any more. The wind settles down and it’s a 2 layer evening in the walk back to the car.
We got something done. It didn’t rain. The sea was beautiful. The sky was huge.
And out again on a sunny Sunday morning - Wintours Leap with a view of a Welsh wood stuck sometime in March. With rain due to spoil play we don’t dawdle- a Central Rib Route mix up. A liquorice allsorts of 4 pitches of V Diff, Severe and V S. Nice and easy. Nice and slick. Cold rock. Cold fingers. But it’s undeniably good to be touching rock, and playing with shiny gear and bright coloured rope.
At the top of Terry’s Wall the wind bites the legs of the over optimistic climber in shorts, who starts to jump around in a slightly mad fashion. I just reach for my hat. Winter again. On the ledge below it’s spring again so we gather there and do some small but perfect routes.
And I lead a VS without a murmur from my head. Like the rituals and routines, it seems entirely natural. The new season has definitely begun.
Posted by fishinwater
Winter weekends: warm Scotland; windy avalanche prone Scotland; Snowdonia with a bit of snow here and there. All a bit like last summer’s season – not quite doing it. Not feeding the rat.
Easter Bank Holiday weekend: enough snow to snow-hole in; enough ice to remind me of the Italian Alps.
Never have expectations. It avoids disappointments and hands out delightful surprises.
I fed the rat. I went to Snowdonia hungry and came back 48 hours later with a full belly.
Work mates just couldn’t understand my childish excitement at the prospect of a spontaneous trip to a land where a jet stream had fought with some cold air, producing a dump of snow and a freeze. It was just cold and grey in Bristol and everyone just wanted winter to move on and for spring to appear. I’d given up with the idea of ever wearing a T shirt again and decided to re- embrace winter. For there it was in perfection just 4 hours away.
I left Bristol wearing snow boots and hoped it wasn’t all a hoax. The snow on the Brecons looked thin; Cadir Idris didn’t seem particularly cake-icing smothered, and at Betws-y-Coed I was worried. But it all changed at Capel Curig - long icicles hung delicately from the roof of the CC hut and the van got stuck in the snow in the car park. All good.
6.15am produced a cherry stained Tryfan and by 8am 5 eager rats were on their way up to Cwm Glas in sunshine and in snow drifts.
What feeds the rat?
To sweat: on the uphill walk plod in deep snow with a rucksack full of tools for the main entertainment (and hot tea).
To feel the cold wind on your face: from the northerly wind that brings the temperatures down to -17°C
To see the sun on snow: melting the layers and then freezing again so the neve squeaks under your feet.
To see blue ice on dark rock: clinging. Water stopped short as it falls.
To get out the ice axes: and remember to put on the harness before the crampons.
To look up the gully: and see thick ice and hard snow.
To hear the sound of water falling behind the ice: demanding immediate precision with sharp blades.
To remain patient: when doing anything dexterous with gloves on, and especially when wearing leashes as well.
To flick the axe: and hear it sink deep into welcoming ice.
To get into the rhythm: monkey climbing. Flicking, kicking, pulling. Flicking, kicking, pulling.
To find a steep slope of neve and dagger up it: without the calves screaming.
To get to the top: and to be able to do it all again but more and better.
To get cold fingers and toes : but know that it’s all going get very hot soon.
To see snow drifts shaped like sand dunes: and ice like the snarling jaw of a sabre toothed tiger.
To do it all : and enjoy every minute of it.
Sergeants Gully and Parsley fern Gully. Powder snow, wind slab and neve. Sunshine and views of Snowdon that I’ll never witness again.
Cwm Idwal- the Ramp. Deeper powder snow. Hot sunshine. Killer wind. Thick thick ice.
‘That’s a good start to the season', I said on the way down past the Devils kitchen. I’m still not sure if it’s an end or a beginning. It’s the first of April tomorrow.
(Thanks to Bald Eagle, Dave Q, Sharky and Neil.)
Posted by fishinwater
Another cold grey February day. 2°C. I pack to run away; to chase the sun. T shirt, sunglasses, new shorts … and thermal leggings – there are mountains over 1000ft. You never know.
We soar through the cloud crust that covers N W Europe and blink in the sunshine that floods the plane. Hello, I’d forgotten what you look like.
2 hours later and through shredded cloud we see blue sea and an island of yellow ochre and green. ‘It’s 3°C in Palma today with showers and a northerly breeze’ says the bright voice of the pilot.’ Enjoy your stay in Mallorca’. I don’t cry; I just moan quietly. At least the sun is here – a bit.
I shiver in the cold wind on the way to pick up the car hire and note the puddles on the pavement. On the way to the Northern town of Alcudia I learn quickly where the windscreen wiper switch is and we both note the white stuff on top of the mountains.
In Alcudia the puddles are even larger and the cloud is winning the battle. The town and hotel are mostly empty except for swathes of German cyclists with tree-trunk thighs. We dump our Brit stuff and head south where there’s a hint of brightness left in the sky. As we get near Cala Magraner the showers stop and the road looks dry. A 10 minute walk takes us to an empty beach where the sea washes Rob’s feet as he belays me up a nice arête. I stop shivering. Oh the joys of Sport climbing abroad – short walk-ins, beautiful surroundings and easy route finding.
The next day is more of the same – running away from the showery north to the southern cove of Tijuana- a bijou village next to a bijou crag overlooking a bijou inlet. It doesn’t rain until lunchtime and by then I’ve even taken my gloves off to do some fiddling around on a route with ‘a difficult start’. Back in Alcuida the puddles are still growing and we sit smugly in the sauna and gloat over our clever sun-chasing abilities.
Our next ambition is to snow-chase. Snow in Mallorca is a surprise for everyone so Tuesday finds us at the 1382m summit of Puig Mercenelles surrounded by 10 cm of rapidly melting snow in blizzard conditions. We’d been hoping for views. I only know it isn’t Scotland because of the reflected heat from the snow and the dismal sun. It’s the warmest I’ve been for months (Leggings added to the glow – never pack in haste).
Despite a forecast of ‘sunny intervals and showers’ we wake on Wednesday to blue sky. No chasing necessary today so we choose a scramble up and along the dinosaur spine of Sierra de Cavall Bernat: A ridge of sea cliffs that lean into the sea at 327 m. A gentle breeze blows the sweat away (leggings are not a good idea today) as, for 3 hours, we grasp razor sharp rock and we pull over towers and knife edges, looking down the edge to the far away sea.
Thursday we rest- as a storm overtakes the island for 24 hours leaving its mark on the rock. Black soaking rock at La Creveta greets us on Friday so we say goodbye and move on optimistically to our local crag: Puig De San Marti. We admire the lack of polish on one route before the showers begin again.
Saturday is the jewel day – as promised all week in the 5-day forecast at the hotel reception. In the west of the island, away from the underwhelming sight of Magaluf, we find Puig De Garrafa. The Solarium sector lives up to its name: Fragrant pine woods, orange and yellow butterflies, swallows, and sunshine that gets into your bones (Shame neither of us had any chalk to mop up the sweat). I finish the day with 5 routes accomplished and a slight tinge of tan about my face... So I can go home now with evidence of successful sun-chasing.
Posted by fishinwater
‘How are you getting on up there?’ read the text from the City Gent. I instantly replied: ‘I’ve seen more sunshine in the last 4 days than I’ve seen in the rest of January. And I’ve enjoyed an ice and snow drenched ridge in 70mph winds –which is more fun than I’ve had for a while’.
I pressed send and then realised he would probably interpret my message as entirely ironic. But no, it’s all true. The sun shone (occasionally), there were blizzards (occasionally), the wind blew (as only a Scottish highland wind knows how), and I had types 1 and 2 fun.
I still believe Scotland is for hard nuts but in an attempt to prevent it from breaking me I’ve been in training – the ‘free phys’ of a tropical visit earlier in the month plus the masochistic sessions at the gym paid off.
Standing in the car park at Aviemore ski centre with wind hurling small hard bits of ice at my face, I was also glad of the quantities of winter kit I’ve accumulated. (Each passing stranger was probably worth £1000 just by what they were wearing). Swathed in a synthetic cocoon from head to foot I felt smugly snug – a walk up to the Fiacaill Ridge? No problem. The ranger in the office mentioned ‘buffeting’. ‘We'll go and have a look’, we said. ‘Well, I’m sure you know your limits’, he said.
Oh the many discomforts of a Scottish winter walk – portable sauna; snot soaked Buff; ice covered boulders; secret pockets of deep snow; a wind that pushes you over as soon as you take a step; and rucksack straps whipping in your eye. But I was sanguine about it all. I crawled Gollum like; the warm damp of the Buff was really quite nice; I ventilated; I put on crampons; I seriously contemplated eating more pies. I’ve moved on from bad tempered and wondering ‘why am I here?’ to ‘uncomfortable but possibly worth it’.
The white ridge loomed and in my head the wind dropped, the spindrift stopped stinging and Bristly Ridge of 3 years ago came flooding back in all its glory. ‘Manky’ wasn’t a word in my vocabulary at that moment. ‘Let’s do it’ I said… and then remembered the Grey Corries - so added: ‘We’ll rope up together’.
As we got out the tools for the job it became apparent I hadn’t been out in snow and ice for a while. Note to self: Don’t put gloves on the snow – they get cold, wet and blown away. Don’t put crampons on before the harness- that way irritation lies. Practice taking in coils at least once a week forever – it’s a basic essential skill. And put the hood up on the jacket and the rucksack on before putting on the coils.
With the rope flowing horizontally between us we did the job. And did it well. No drama. A straightforward winter scramble in buffeting 70mph winds. The wind helpfully wove the rope around the blocks as we moved. I became lost in the focus of dealing with all the elements- cold, wind, ice, snow and rock. I rediscovered the joy of crampon claws on thinly iced rock (this was definitely not Italy) and remembered just how useful a mountain axe can be. I was in that bubble of challenge where I could feel the outer edge of my comfort zone but still remain Zen-like. And then I was stepping across the last icy blocks with a playful wind trying to shove me off and down ‘The Seam’. As I stepped on to some lovely neve, someone switched the sun on and the lost world of the snow covered Cairngorm Plateau was revealed in its remote beauty.
We battled up to the summit of Cairngorm Mountain and the sun drifted off to find somewhere nicer to play leaving the crazy wind to get crazier. It busily redistributed the existing drifts, the clouds came down to join in and added some more snow at high velocity. We descended as gracefully as possible in a white-out, laughing at the snow boarders and skiers as they tried to stay upright.
Yes, Scotland is for hard nuts and has a weather pattern so unpredictable it makes the Italian Alps seem dull in comparison - but unpredictability brings surprises and this one was fun.
Posted by fishinwater
‘Manky’ pronounced my companion.
We looked up to where the summits of Stob Coire Nan Lochan should have been. Thick cloud and an excitable wind crowded them, while the same wind hit us about the head. The damp grey air started to squeeze out large rain drops.
We watched a group of 3 push their way up a snow gully… and we turned around and went back down the mountain. He was right – manky indeed
and we really weren’t that desperate.
Scottish weather is fickle and makes no promises of providing memorable winter conditions to play in. You have to be able to catch it as it comes. Planning ahead is a road to nowhere – or the road to disappointment. An early January weekend can be only be one of two things – great or dire. (Manky) So we had a 50% chance and we hadn’t won the toss.
Snow was melting away down the mountains as we drove into Fort William on the Friday night. 10pm and it was 11°C outside. No point getting excited then.
So what to do on a mild damp windy weekend? Well, as we know, the hopeful mind of the climber’s mind is eternally in sunshine – So up in the dark of a Saturday morning and out of the Ben Nevis North face car park we went, laden with the tools for winter play. ‘At least we’ll get some free phys’ he said. He wasn’t wrong there. Uphill with a hippo on your back after Christmas indulgence really isn’t funny.
At the CIC hut the wind pushed us around making us reach for another layer- about time really. There was snow up on the mountain- a lot of it. So we were obliged to go and inspect it… Deep wet snow is a bitch to cross - sometimes it supported a foot and sometimes one leg disappeared into the wetness up to the thigh. It’s probably like being very drunk on a rolling ship, but more annoying and more tiring.
This form of staggering lopsided travel continued for a while and then, in sight of a snowy Number 4 gully, we took stock. Wind and dark cloud fought over the tops, both thickening steadily. I remembered my Grey Corries adventure and shuddered. ‘Manky’, he said. I agreed, and we both agreed that we had nothing to prove- except that we had the freewill to walk away. There are some who will revel in any sort of adventure – good or bad- but I don’t understand why I need suffer self-flagellation when I’m not even part of a religious order. So we kept the axes, ropes and helmet s in the bags and walked back to the car park.
The next day the weather put on a repeat performance at Stob Coire Nan Lochan – except it involved serious rain and a steeper slog uphill- We put on a repeat appearance, with little ambition except for more ‘free phys’ . We decided that the group of 3 were probably a guide and his clients – because who else would want to go up a gully full of wet snow onto a summit with 60 mph winds and driving rain? We didn’t.
And if we’d followed them we’d have never discovered just how good the fish and chips in the Real Food Café in Tyndrum are .They weren’t manky.
Posted by fishinwater
The climbing novice and steep learning curves
Want to read my old blog entries? Browse through an achive of all my posts below:
- April 2013 (1 post)
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- December 2012 (1 post)
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