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Friday, 30 January 2009


you stone

by stone un-cairned
the cairn, grappled
the guts of the rock (as it were)
from the never-still body, somewhere
you'd find, deep in the heart of the rubble,
the keystone, cornerstone, call it the thing you like
the first intention
beating. Cover it then, and add to the mound
a stone for the pinnacle. Ear to the ground,
it has marked the ghosts of the lost
and given them road. The bossed
stones of Egypt remember
the dead. The cairn,
a hill in the hills,

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Here we blow again!

Putting last weeks dismal performance behind me i was keen to get 'back on it' and try another iv/5. So i headed out with Stuart Kennedy up in to Corie an t-Sneachda to have a wee look at what was offer. The weather was wild and it became clear that it was going to be hard walking in to the Corie, never mind climbing there! But we made our way up anyway and after passing a couple of slower parties, i was surprised to be the first up there at such a late hour. I suggested we climb Fluted Buttress( iv/4***) but it looked plastered. So we headed to the Mess of Pottage to give Hidden Chimney Direct( iv/5**) a go.

A good pitch leads to easier ground above to join hidden chimney(ii/iii**). I won the quick game of scissor-paper-stone and thus won the crux (the only fair way to do these things). The corner is steep and slabby with good hooks and torques all the way. This leads to a short transverse over some snow covered slabs to a belay. The next two pitches consisted of easy climbing though on deep powder to a chimney that leads to the top. I stole both good pitches and owe Stuart the crux of the next route we do together!

But the main thing is that i didn't drop my axe!

No blue skies and run before darkness

First, our sincere condolences to all those that lost their life in the avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor. Second, be careful: After our climb today I spoke to one guy who said they tried to climb the Vent today, an avalanche hotspot in Corrie an Lochain.

Today Brian Duthie and I tried to stay away from all the avalanches by climbing a VI,7** climb in Coire an't Sneachda, called no blue skies. The name of the climb was fitting because there were no blue skies and we had plenty of spindrift and wind. It starts up a grade III looking ramp which, however, is 4c in summer and there are few good hooks and footholds. The first picture shows me on the first pitch.
The first pitch goes up the left slanting slab just left of the middle of the picture. Looks easy, doesn't it?
There was plenty of spindrift coming down but I was wearing the right clothing and was focussing on other things...
I got rewarded with a nice wee semi-cave and Brian did good work on the hard bit of the second pitch just above before some broken ground followed.
Again, Brian firing away on thin hooks and all the gear placements were buried. All that took time.
We regretted our partner-friendly late state by now as we saw some roofs and surely some more hard and very time consuming climbing above. It was 3 pm and error number 2 was that we did not know when it got dark (actually later than expected). Brian had left his headtorch in his rucksack and we agreed to bail. We were not keen on nocturnal abseil artistry and decided to try to walk off which was surprisingly easy.
On the way out the gusts of spindrift came from the back so didn't disturb too much.
Should we have continued? Well, if it was a climb high on the hitlist then we would have probably gone into epic mode but so we were happy to be early back in the car and we were in Aberdeen before 19 h, ready to cook up some Burns supper! Happy Burns night everyone!

Friday, 23 January 2009

Conditioning for Scottish mixed winter climbing

This blog entry is work in progress. Harder Scottish mixed winter climbing (especially from approximately technical grade of 6 and above) requires some specific conditioning. I work at the University of Aberdeen as a lecturer in Molecular Exercise Physiology and my specific interest are the molecular mechanisms that mediate the adaptation to exercise especially in skeletal muscle. However, as an active mountaineer I am also interested in the practical aspects especially of conditioning. This year I have decided to offer a Honours project on conditioning for Scottish mixed climbing. Stuart Leslie has decided to do this project.

The photos below show some training methods that we currently use.

1 Running

2 Hillwalking

3 Bachar ladder

5 Steep bouldering on big holds

6 Indoor drytooling

8 Drytooling on lead

9 Drytooling on top rope

Back to Stuart's Honours project thesis. The chapters of his thesis are likely to be: 1) Introduction to Scottish mixed winter climbing (history, style, North America & Europe versus Scotland, grading system, aims of the study). 2) Methods (systematic literature review, qualitative research, rating of the quality of evidence; identification of research needs) 3) Development of the conditioning programme (needs analysis, identification of training methods and interventions, production of an example of a training programme) 4) Discussion 5) References The first step is the development of a needs analysis from an anatomic (what muscles and organ systems need to be trained?), physiological/metabolic (what are the strength/metabolic requirements?). Ideally this should be based on sound scientific evidence but it is likely that much of this relies on subjective opinions. The second step is to produce a toolbox of training methods and other interventions that can be used to modify the factors identified in a needs analysis. For general training methods there is an abundance of descriptive and mechanistic scientific evidence but there will again be mostly subjective opinion when it comes to training methods. All these training methods may well be good but that is not proven. The final bit is to use the tools within the toolbox to produce an example training plan.

Monday, 5 January 2009

A lean Scorpion V,5*** bites at the bottom but stings less at the top

After our holidays Ryan and I were keen on a climb which was longer and more memorable that the usual Norries affair. The reports said that ice was building and in the back of my mind I remembered that Scorpion was a 240 m V,5 ice route on Carn Etchachan that had a sting in the tail. Everything suggested that this is a classic: Tom Patey’s first winter route on Carn Etchachan (joined by J.M. Taylor, A.G. Nicol and K.A. Grassick in December 1952), it is in Cold Climbs and the ‘sting in the tail’ sentence sticks in the mind. It is maybe because of the sting of the tail that probably few people attempt it even although there are many climbers that can climb V,5 without much of a problem.

On the 3rd of January we left Aberdeen at 6 am, which is late for such a big route, but had a speedy walk in and arrived at 10.30 at the bottom of Carn Etchachan. The first picture shows Ryan when Carn Etchachan and the Shelterstone appeared.

It all looked relatively lean but the turf was well frozen and there was a reasonable snow cover after an overnight snowfall. Here is a topo based on a photo when Adam and I did Route Major two years ago as I didn't get a good photo of the route this time round (we were initially unsure about the line).

Tricky mixed climbing started almost immediately and we found that when there is little ice then there is a lot of hard mixed climbing including some tech 6 moves.

Another Aberdonian team (Mark Mosgrove and Kevin Neal) was on Red Guard. This photo shows one of them eaten by the large chimney.

After the first pitch the subterranean crack follows which requires Caingorms style full body contact climbing. It will be tricky in any condition.

Ryan hooking for glory...

... and happy after a good struggle!

The following short overhanging wall on good holds is pumpy but the hooks and turf are helpful. We were looking forward to easier climbing but a very hard slab followed which probably has ice in good condition. It involved tenuous, delicate climbing with not so good hooks and very poor footholds on the slab plus not really trustworthy gear. Pumped, searching for a good hook and not much left in the tank I only found a Steinpull at the top which allowed a good reach for a less than perfect placement on turf and after a delicate pull up the hardest bit was over. This bit was for both of us harder than anything on Deep Throat which is given V,6. There was now a stretch of easier climbing on good frozen turf.

After that we reached the Scorpion gully which led to the 'sting in the tail'.

The guidebook says it is ‘either a hard ice pitch in lean conditions, but more commonly it is a problematical cornice’. Today it was the ice pitch but the gear was good and although the ice was brittle there were good footholds on the right wall. It was not too bad but still deserved tech 5. Some more climbing on sometimes good and sometimes sugary neve remained to the cul de sac at the end of the gully. Some tat was hanging from the vertical left wall as a reminder of the entertainment that can be had if the cornice is big (the guidebook says an escape on the left can be pegged; bring 10 pegs if you fancy that) but tonight the Scorpion finally showed some mercy and offered a balancy traverse to the right. Exposed, wobbly tiptoeing on sugary neve in the fading light got me to the steep right hand neve slope and I was much relieved when I found a so so runner behind a flake. After some more shuffling I bridged over to a bit of neve that was less steep and reached a tower at the top. Ryan had to climb with his headtorch and managed as a last effort to do this pitch quickly.

It is the route of the season so far for both of us and we compared it to a heavy weight 12 round boxing fight. If there was no history and we had to give it a grade in relation to other climbs then it would deserve in our opinion a VI,6 in these conditions. The difficulty is tech6 when compared to Belhaven, Deep Throat, Savage Slit, Guillotine, Honeypot, Sticil face (i.e. the tech 6 routes we have done). Also a VI because it is long and the difficulties in the lower bit are sustained plus the sting can be hard at the end. Certainly altogether more than point five or Sticil face where the difficulties are relatively short.

But it is a classic V,5 Patey route and will be that in good conditions (climable neve and snow ice most of the time and the cornice is not too much of a monster). However a guidebook sentence such as ‘aspirants might find that the Scorpion bites more at the bottom but stings less at the top in lean conditions’ might be good to add.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Germany, Chachlaig, Buachaille Etive Beag & 2009

After an intense semester especially for the Aberdeen MSc students (MSc in Molecular Exercise Physiology) and me the Christmas and Hogmanay break finally arrived on the 20th of December. It seemed that the rest of Aberdeen was also ready for the holiday (see the garden of one particularly keen Aberdonian below).
As in the previous year I turned my time in the flattest part of Germany into a training camp and managed to clock 140 km in 10 days. With that mileage the weight does not increase and the Christmas meal - we had duck - tastes twice as good!
On the 30th I flew back to Aberdeen via icy Paris and Ana and I drove to a hotel in Ballachulish to celebrate Hogmanay. After a great dinner by the Czech cook we met with Ryan and Forest in the Chachlaig Inn. Both had been drinking since 16.30 h (there is nothing else to do if you camp in winter!) and so we were unfortunately a bit too sober. Among the boozy fun talk I heard Ryan mention 'Smith's route' on the Ben. I thought he had done it and after conveying my most sincere congratulation to the 'Whillans of Aberdeen' and John it turned out that they just had a look at the route and actually climbed an easier gully line.
We left the Chlachlaig not long after midnight and woke up to a sunny, crisp first day of 2009. It was past 10 h when we left the hotel. We decided to do Buachaille Etive Beag, the smaller brother of the large shepherd of Etive Mor. The normally boggy ground was well frozen and there was little snow around. The ascent to the saddle was a bit tedious but there was hardly any wind and we caught the sun on the upper slopes where it was warm enough for me to walk just in my baselayer. We reached the top at 15.00 h and the evening sun shone through the clouds (see the photo below with a view towards Loch Etive).
Ana and I hurried down the icy hillside in order not to walk too much in the dark. The photo below shows Ana starting the descent.

Tomorrow Ryan and I will search for some ice and then I am also ready for some work. The MSc students are doing well and it seems that one or two of them might end up in one of the Oxbridge Universities. Keep fingers crossed for them!
And at the end of course a good 2009 to everyone who comes across our blog. I hope that we all have some unique mountaineering adventures in the Scottish hills. There is just so much to do.

Winter Break 2008

After over indulgence through Christmas and not much activates in the climbing department, i put the the makeshift plan that John Forrester and myself made in to action and packed for a short break in the hills. Current conditions weren't looking too good for mixed climbing, with much of the snow stripped from the buttresses leaving only the gully's in good nick. With this in mind we headed for the Cairngorms to have a closer inspection of brimstone grooves iv/4** on hells lum.

Spending a cold night in the sugar bowl car park we set off hours before dawn, much of the walk-in done in the dark, it brought back memories of the Alps. As we reached the crag it became apparent that brimstone grooves wasn't complete, so we went and had a look at hells lum ii/iv**** hoping it would be in good lean condition to give some interesting climbing.

The lum, a massive gash on the south end of the crag, an impressive gully in a magnificent location, a route i'd wanted to climb for some time. I drew the short piece of grass and thus it's was me who got the first pitch. A short steep snow/ice pitch led up to easy slopes were i made a belay form the icicle of the chancer v/6***.

The next pitch looked interesting, a steep ice corner bounded by rock on one side, a cracking little pitch, though with no good rock protection, which john led in fine style. Above the corner again led to easier slopes were john brought me
up to the stance.

With the main difficulties out of the way the gully is now easy ground with a short icy step. With no cornice it contend with, we were both on the plateau sorti
ng out gear in no time. With much time to kill we decided to go and see if aladdins mirror direct iv/4 is on.

A short walk brought us in to the very busy Coire an t-Sneachda. There was a party on aladdins morror, a fine ice pitch on the center of the Co
ire. After waiting half an hour the route was free for John to tackle and show his ice climbing skill. Climbing a short slope leads to the main pitch and it steepens up for 30m or so of good ice climbing. John led the pitch well, found a good belay were he brought me up. My first time on steep ice, the climbing was alien to me and much different to mixed. Once the first pitch is climbed it's all easy grade one to the top, so we abseiled form the first pitch.

With two good routes under our belts we headed west to see if there was any good ice high on the Ben.

We travelled over to fort bill and camped in the north face car park. With the temperature dropping to around minus 7 not much sleep was to be had and leaving the sleeping bag was a real chore.

The walk-in was done again in the dark, in hope of being first up to the cic hut and then on green gully iv/4***. On arrival at the hut there was a couple of groups waiting for daylight who also informed us that the too were going to go for green gully! This would mean 5 climbers on the route ahead of us, not
desirable for gully climbing. So we changed or plan and decided to climb glovers chimney a fine iii/4* that exits on the tower gap of tower ridge.

Some scrambling over broken ground then much walking on steep snow sl
opes brought us to the foot of glovers chimney. It was my turn to lead and the first pitch consisted of a fine steep ice pitch, possibly grade iv, that didn't let up for 30m. Than a short traverse over a rock rib and in to the gully proper.

The climbing from here to the chimney at the top was easy, about grade one, with a couple of short ice
steps here and there to spice things up.

After about 5
pitches John found a good belay at the foot of the chimney, a good looking pitch. It was my lead but since i had the ice pitch at the bottom i only thought it was fair to pass the lead to John.

A fine ste
ep chimney with good mixed climbing was encountered and John tackled this in true form up to the infamous tower gap were he was surprised in the climbing needed to climb out of the gap. A belay was found and i seconded the pitch and reveled in the fine climbing involved and quickly joined Mr. Forrester on the ridge.

From here to the plateau is all easy but exposed ground so we moved roped together and topped out to a beautiful day on the Ben.