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Climbing Ice on Ben Nevis

Lou first pitch of point five

The last couple of days have been spent climbing ice on Ben Nevis. The forecast for Thursday was, well, mixed to say the least. The met office said 50mph – 100mph winds. MWIS was more optermistic with only 35mph – 50mph predicted. The avalanche risk was considerable (north through east) I was again without Jen as a partner so had been looking for something to do. Luckily for me at least Lou Beetlestone was also without her partner Karl, who’d gone back to North Wales for some work.

Lou, for those that don’t know is a very capable winter climber and top quality outdoor instructor. To add to this she is also a very nice person so it was great to be going onto the Ben with such a competent person. We had decided we’d just be happy to walk in and ‘have a look’ in case it was good. We could always head back down should the weather be more on the worse end of the forecast than the better.

Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss.

When we reached the CIC hut at the foot of the North Face it was even better than we’d expected. The rain and high freezing level had stripped snow from the rocks but there was still ice in the gulleys and plenty of snow about. In fact you could see where the water had washed over it like tide marks on the beach. To add to this everything was getting more solid and frozen in front of us. We opted for Italian Right Hand route on the west side of Tower Ridge. It was possible to get to the bottom of this without having to expose ourselves to high avalanche risk and two pitches of steep ice would be much nicer than scratching around on dry rock.

Reaching the base of the route involved an exposed traverse and on arriving there we saw a party in front of us just finishing the second pitch (each rope length travelled is referred to as a pitch). Lou was happy to let me have the crux second pitch so she quickly donned the rack and set off. It wasn’t long before I was able to follow. The ice was still solidifying so it was a damp experience. As I arrived at the belay the party in front of us abseiled past, shouting that the route was damp but amazing. Indeed we could see a micro stream running down the first groove and water dripping off the chandelier of icicles above. Feeling a mixture of perturbed and excited I set off as soon as the party in front had gone past. A screw in just after the belay and I was feeling better. I could bridge up the groove in front, avoiding the stream of water, and though sometimes it took a couple of swings the axes were biting nicely into the ice. It wasn’t long before I made it up below a steepening section where you could head left.

Unbeknown to me it had started snowing quite heavily at this point. I was totally absorbed in the climbing and between all my layers and goggles fogging up it’s surprising what you can miss. I moved left into the next groove system that would take us past the steepening. At that point I also moved my goggles off my face as the misting up was getting so bad I found it hard to see the axe and crampon placements I needed to make. Whoosh, a bit of spindrift (collection of loose air blown snow) washes over me. Looking at my feet I avoid the worst of it. A couple more moves and the sound of more tiny particles of snow rushes past, this time it builds. I wait looking down. The pressure of the snow slowly builds up on me. Ten more seconds I think, then I should move to get some of this off me so it doesn’t pluck me from the climb. The seconds pass. I make a blind swing my axe and hear a good placement sink in. I move up and bit then realise water is running down into my arm from my axe. Drat, it must be in a stream. The spin drift passes and I can move again. Quickly I set off up to the belay that’s coming into sight. In situ and with a mallion – fantastic. Pretty soon I’ve attached myself and I try to shout to Lou but no sound utters from my lips however, as I’m having to clench my teeth against the hot-aches spreading through the fingers of my damp hand as it warms. Soon it’s all over almost as quickly as it began. I shout to Lou and before long we’re on our way back down.

Walking down and talking about plans for tomorrow we spot the impressive Hadrian’s Wall Direct looking fat and inviting higher up on the Ben. Back tomorrow for more we decided, assuming Jen was also keen.

jen looking at point five
Jen looks up nervously at Point Five

Jen obviously was obviously keen but slightly nervous about how difficult it would be. These nerves manifested themselves further when at the CIC hut the following day Lou commented “Ollie looks excited but you look terrified”. Between us we decided to head on regardless, after all we could choose another route in the valley if it seemed too difficult once we were at, or nearer, to the bottom. Approaching further I could hear Jen telling herself “it actually doesn’t look that bad” and “I can climb it.” – confidence restored. Unfortunately, as we drew nearer we could also see two teams on the climb and four more people at the bottom of it! Crowds wasn’t something we’d considered. Looking around for another equally historic and uncrowded classic we settled on Point Five.

Point Five is a climb I’d been looking to do for more than a decade. It’s a beautifully slender line of ice that runs straight from the summit of the mountain down the flanks of Observatory Ridge. First climbed over four days and with its first repeat happening during the legendary Smith and Marshall week there’s so much history that can be written about this climb. It starts with three long hard pitches of near vertical ice, then has 240m of still steep snow/ice to the summit. At its narrowest it’s about two meters wide. The climb up this works its way up entertaining grooves and chimney features, as well as the compulsory steep bulges.

Lou first pitch of point five
Lou placing screws on the first pitch of Point Five

Lou set off up the first pitch. Placing screws regularly and outflanking the main steepening on the left. She was soon set up at the belay and gave us the thumbs up. I could hardly contain my excitement. Just waiting long enough that Jen wouldn’t hit me if she fell of on rope stretch. The ice axes were swinging beautifully into the now perfect ice. None of the gushing water from yesterday and not brittle, like ice can be after a sudden freeze. This was the perfect plasticine ice you look for as a climber. A world of first time axe placements and confidence inspiring deeply buried picks.

me second pitch of point five
Setting off up the corner at the start of the second pitch of Point Five – photo Lou Beetlestone

Next it was my turn. My heart was beating deeply – this would be the hardest pure ice pitch I’d been on. It started with a corner, thin ice on the rock wall to the left certainly not deep enough for screws but the ice to the right was deep and bulging. I placed and early screw to protect the belay then committed to the corner. Finding a bridged rest I contemplated placing a screw but opted to continue further on to easier ground. This lasted for a bit, then a second steepening came, this time narrow and chimney like, another screw and I was working my way up this. Inching my feet higher and higher until my axes could reach over onto the easier ground. From there it was just a case of step up, lock my arm, and go again. Before I knew it I was at the belay and it was time to bring Jen and Lou up.

Lou pulls over the bulge on the third pitch of Point Five
Lou pulls over the bulge on the third pitch of Point Five

Lou set off for the final hard pitch with Jen plying me with food – a novel and welcome experience on a winter route belay. Lou again made easy work of the pitch. Disappearing from sight over the final bulge and the ropes becoming tight. We set off. The climbing was again absorbing with the final difficulty before the belay being as hard as anything on the previous two pitches.

From there it got less difficult, but still tiring on the calves as the hard ice was unrelenting. Gear got less reliable as well, with the ice more air-rated, but most rock still buried deeply. We ran long pitches on the 60m ropes we were carrying to get up it as fast as possible aware that it would be nice to be down as far as the bottom of the Red Burn before dark. I lucked out near the top with Lou leading the cornice pitch (luckily this wasn’t too bad as far as cornices go). Pulling over the top was a great feeling. All those years walking past and reading about the history, finally I’d climbed Point Five.

 

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Heigh-Ho Heigh-Ho…

heigh ho
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015
Glencoe Avalanche Report 24/2/2015

Today Jen was taken for a climb by a Mountain Instructor Certificate (MIC) Assessment candidate. This left me with a dilemma of what to do. The avalanche forecast wasn’t good (see right) and a quick hunt round for a climbing partner had turned up a blank. To make matters worse a frontal system is going to turn up sometime this afternoon / evening. Tim had reassured me, “conditions don’t look amazing today, but it’ll be ‘primo’ tomorrow.”

My options seemed to be, go and solo a climb or walk up a mountain wading up to my knees in fresh snow all the way. A third option appealed a bit more; practice the rope work and digging skills I’d need for my Winter Mountain Leader award assessment in a couple weeks. A gander at the map and I settled on Buachaille Etive Beag. This is a popular mountain with instructors and provides quick access to deep snow via a short but steep(ish) walk. Importantly this walk is over up the north western slopes to a col at 750m. I was hoping there’d be a group heading up there to put a track in and that I could get relatively high up without putting myself at risk of being avalanched.

I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

As I pulled into the car park I could see a group getting ready (tick number one). Unfortunately pulling into the car park proved problematic. Attempting to reverse back onto the road proved equally problematic. The van was stuck in about 4 inches of snow. Digging would start early today!

Thirty minutes later I was at a lay-by slightly further up the road. The group just visible on their way up the path. I geared up steadily now I didn’t need to rush as I’d catch them up rapidly on the track they were making. ‘Tactical faff’ I believe is the term. I contemplated coining a new phrase ‘tactical van faff’ for my misdemeanour in the car park.

Just before the col I caught the group up, exchanged pleasantries and set of to a slightly out the way snow drift to begin my excavations.

I’d been taught to draw what you dig on the snow before you start. Once you have done this, start removing small amounts of snow from the bottom of the area you’re digging with your adze or shovel. Work your way upwards and put effort in. That’s all you need to know. Well almost all – practice makes perfect as they say.

First, always dig a seat for your bag. One horizontal strike with the pick, an arch drawn and some strokes with my adze and I was done. Next I set about the rather larger task of building a one person shelter, with enough space to have my lunch in. For this I switched to the light weight shovel I’d been carrying. The short video below shows the results.

After a bite to eat I started on the next set of tasks, firstly with a bucket seat and snow bollard.

To construct a bucket seat, dig in the same manner as you would for your rucksack but make it big. It will need to fit you and your rucksack in it. Anyone who says just take your rucksack off hasn’t been out in winter enough. Half the time when you’ll need to do these it’ll be a gale and you’ve gone wrong somehow, the last thing you’ll want is to loose your rucksack under drifting snow. Be careful not to disturb the snow under the seat. This is where the strength comes from. To make the bollard, measure a full arm’s length plus the length of your axe and make a small mark. Walk up to this about half a meter to either side (not disturbing the snow, as with the bucket seat). Take a big step to leave you astride the mark. Place the spike of your axe on the mark and draw a semi-circle. Dig this out to place your rope in. Follow your footsteps back to the bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in. ‘Simples’.

My structure seemed ample so I tested it with a tied off loop followed by a traditional abseil. It held firm for both tests.

I moved a few paces to the right and started my next construction; a buried axe belay. To do this you construct a bucket seat and mark as with the snow bollard. however instead of making a semi-circle make a line perpendicular to the aspect of the slope (the aspect being the angle a snowball would roll down).  dig this to about a foot deep, depending on the snow conditions. cut a second slot to the middle of this one with one end of the slot at the surface and the other level with the bottom of you’re previous slot. This should follow the aspect of the slope. Clove hitch a sling onto the middle of your axe with an extra twist so it tightens rather than loosens, place your axe in the first slot with the sling running through the second, tight up against the wall. Make your way back to your bucket seat and you’re ready to tie in.

I also tested my buried axe. This would also hold more force than I could muster – not bad for snow.

Having been successful I made my way down to the van in time for an early finish and with enough time to spare to write this.

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Winter Mountain Leader Training And A Month On The West Coast

I’m now back in wales with the sun shining and spring in the air, time for rock climbing. But, before that it would seem appropriate to take stock of what I learnt from my time in scotland and to provide a little reminder for me in future to get ready for the next winter season. This is by no means a definitive list – more some random musings. So without further ado:

A view of Ballachulish
A view of Ballachulish

1. Never Say Never (or always) – the motto of both Spike and Stu on my winter mountain leader (ML) training was to question what you’re doing and consider why your doing it. It’s even more important in winter to understand why decisions are being made and to make them yourself so you’re learning how to adapt to a challenging enviroment. Remember what works for you might not work for others and vis versa.

A look at clothing:

2. Always set out wearing full waterproofs – wither the proviso of the above. 99% of the time I was up there I set out wearing the full battle get up. This involved Goretex salopettes which came up to my chest and a jacket. The only “softshell” days we had were with a blissfully sunny forcast for a couple days and I’d decided not to carry waterproofs then as I wouldn’t the extra weight.

3. Wearing waterproofs and baselayers with two layers in the bag is very versatile; make one of these a thin “active” layer and the other a warm “spend all nights in it” layer. The actual garments I used for these layers vairied quite a lot. Fleece was quite effective either a microfleece when walking or a thicker fleece (e.g. 200gsm). With a good (no more then showery) forcast a thin down jacket worked really well as the active layer when climbing. This seemed to provide a really good level of insulation without much weight or bulk. The do anything layer was a 100gsm Primaloft jacket which could go over everything or just about under my waterproof (when it was really damp).

Approach to Stob Coire Nan Lochan
Approach to Stob Coire Nan Lochan

4. Fleece is still a good active midlayer – As I mentioned above, it breaths really well and is warm for it’s weight though bulky. What is more comforting though is you don’t feel like you’d trash it no matter how long you spent out wearing it.

5. Hoods are great – I found a baselayer with a hood really effective at being able to control my temperature. You could just throw the hood up when cold or drop it down as you warmed up without faffing stuffing it in a pocket or bag.

6. Too many hoods get in the way – it becomes faffy and hard to manage when every layer has a hood so you end up trying to find the correct one to put up while wearing gloves. I think 2 – 3 seemed to work well for me. One of those being weather protection the other providing warmth like a hat would.

Some equipment tweaks:

7. Get a longer axe – 55cm is to short for me when mountaineering. A longer axe (60cm where I’m 5’10 or 178cm tall) allows you to set a better example of stability on slopes by having the point in the snow more often. 55cm is still good for climbing and technical mountaineering where two tools would be used.

9. Get new goggles – A decent pair of low light goggles would have made life much easier on many occations this season.

10. Consider warmer boots – cold toes and wet feet were the norm this season for my now eight year old Scarpa Freney’s. Feels like it might be time to invest in a new pair of boots before undertaking a two day snowholeing expedition.

11. A shovel is really useful for digging, take one rather then just axe; especially when going remote – Having spent some time digging shovel ups and other shelters and finding it to be really hard work. Normally better to just walk.

Alltshellach, my home for the four weeks
Alltshellach, my home for the four weeks

12. Carry a rope for nav near edges – poor vis and lots of snow made this the year for people falling through cornices. I’m not intending to become one so would always have a rope available when in a group.

13. Carry an altimeter/stop watch – crucial for nav in winter, an altermeter watch gives you another tick in the “we’re here” evidence box. When there’s little else but whiteness, guesswork and experience.

Things to think about
14. Nav in winter is simpler (straight lines on a bearing) – in many respects all you need to do is follow straight lines on your map between features or none points. This requires taking a bearing and pacing a distance before the next bearing and distance. repeat until the numbers are just going round in your head.

15. Nav in winter is harder (you often go to “none points” so get more unsure as you go) – Total white out and just endlessly following bearing to areas of snow and all start to look a bit the same. If you end up with many of these none points in a row its very easy to start doubting yourself. On top of this following a bearing for any long distance is hard especially with strong winds and generally bad weather. A small drift can lead to you being a fair distance out by the end of a leg. Keep those legs short to avoid!

Lost Valley with avalanche debries in the background
Lost Valley with avalanche debries in the background

16. Pacing of 70 as basic for snow (still add to this for up hill, deep snow) – over the course of my time in scotland I found that I was adding a significant number to my usual summer passing just because of the snow conditions under foot. As a guide my usual 100m pace for flat tracks would be 63 paces, however in snow I was regularly doing 70 paces.

17. Avalanches are scary – I’ve never seen so many large avalanches in Scotland. Remember to be vigalent and stay away from dangrous slopes.

18. Cornices are scary – if french guides can fall through them so can you. Be very careful near edges and remember to rope up when visisbility is bad.

Make myself a strong winter ML assesse
19. Simple statements help with client care – “follow me” over “lets go”, “place your axe” over explaining technique of get body weight back or forward. As with all coaching giving the right thing to remember at the right time and no more is a good skill and habbit to get into.

20. Spend some time in snow holes; still never done it – this should test out the kit and make sure the morning routine runs smoothly.

21. Consider why; different ways of burying an axe – good to have reasons for all the decisions made so you can provide a good discussion for why you’re doing something and why it’s best practice.

22. Techniques for digging – remember how good at digging Stu is; get that good yourself. Always draw out the item you’re digging. Start small and near yourself before working bigger.

23. Mechanical process for building snow anchors – perfect it.

24. Plan ahead for cornices / journey length; a big part of the winter ML and avalanche hazard avoidance it planning the journey ahead. Remember the knowledge you’ve built up over the weeks of a season and then plan appropriately. Listen to others who have been around if you don’t have first hand experience.

25. Have fun – sometimes with the rush of short winter days and the objective dangors it can be easy to forget that we’re all out there to have some fun. Take time to remember this.

Keeping smiling on the Aonach Eagach
Keeping smiling on the Aonach Eagach
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Let the Sun Shine

The good weather continued and I was on the rota as a Mountain Instructors Award (MIA) mock student. This was the first day of their assessment and is described as a “personal climbing day” where the aspirant instructors need to demonstrate the ability to climb VS 4c multipitch routes. I was Calum Muskett’s mock student; one of the cleaners at the Brenin. He had recently just got back from climbing arguably Wale’s hardest route, one called Indian Face on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, so testing his ability to climb VS 4c was a bit of a forgone conclusion. I guess the question would be how much harder would he want to climb.

We set off on the way to Idwal Slabs and discussed what we’d look at doing in the bus. The first objective would be Rowen Tree Slabs, an e2 on the right hand side of the crag. This was to be followed by Javelin Blade, an e1 that starts above Rowen Tree. After that we’d see what else to get on.

Setting off it was very apparent that Calum was an experience and very good climber. He easily ran up the first route in what must have been less then 10 minutes before it was our turn on the first pitch. We followed up on delicate holds with plenty of fine climbing up the slab. The second pitch was less memorable then the first but still good climbing on clean rock. After this a brief scramble and an abseil later we were at the belay for Javelin Blade. This is an incredible route for when it was first done, featuring run out balancy climbing up a beautiful arete. It’s now on my hit list to go back and lead.

At the top of this we ab’ed down again this time so Calum could do a demo lead with lots of runners on the VS Javelin Buttress. Another classic route and again fun and absorbing climbing. Finally we topped of the day by quickly pottering up the HVS Continuation Crack. Hard at the grade this is another good looking line on the middle of the continuation wall above the main slabs.

The following day was lovely and sunny again but many days of continuous climbing was beginning to take it’s toll on my body so I was looking for something easier to do. Dan and a couple of the others were keen on a slate quarry adventure called Snakes and Ladders. This is a day out climbing the old ladders and sliding through the old mine shafts to wind your way around the slate mines above Llanberis. To start we went down to the “pan pipes” section near Dali’s Hole. This is where drilling in the rock has left holes of different depths that, when hit, play a musical note. We messed around for a bit composing some songs before continuing on into Dahli’s hole.

Skirting around the dry quarry bay, through some tunnels and into the next bay we found “The Chain” a giant metal chain which dangles from a cave above where you hope it’s well attached. Dan was eager to lead up this and dispatched it quickly hand over hand. I opted to go last so I could make sure everyone made it up ok. When it came to my turn I quickly found the rhythm needed to climb it. Mainly this involved using the middle two fingers locked into a chain loop while the rest was pinched with the rest of the hand. A pull up was then made to reach the highest next chain link possible before rinsing and repeating.

The next few sections involved walking in and around the quarry’s passed some deserted huts until our first ladder. This was precariously perched on top of a pile of slate at a jaunty angle. I set of up this first and dropped a sling down over the top so the others had a helping hand on the trickiest section. This started a run of other ladders as we wound in and around the quarries. This was followed by a squeeze through some tunnels and more ladder climbing before we finally abseiled down into The Lost World. This aptly named other worldly venue contains a “mountain” bothy where it would be possible to spend a night. We weren’t doing this though so instead continued up the ever longer ladders until we’d made it to the death bridge. This also looked too aptly named so we skirted around it and finished our day long tour.

Arriving back at the centre, Mike Raine intercepted me at tea and cakes to ask if I’d be ok taking a couple of the OTIS ladies out for a navigation day. Some brief planning ensued and I decided to head up Moel Siabod the following day. Rhys also joined me to get some more consolidation in before his Mountain Leader assessment. It turned out to be another scorcher of a day so it was nice and pleasurable to spend the first part doing a couple legs in the trees before setting a difficult leg for Rhys to try and finally some legs leading us to the top. The view was stunning and a quick look at the watch meant there was time for another round of legs each before making it back to the centre. It was really enjoyable getting the chance to work as an instructor and work a full day.

I was on night porter while Rhys and Niels were both off and the weather was stunning again. Niels also had Henry over so there where four of us looking to climb. With the weather having been so good for the previous week and a bit there was only one real choice of venue to go to – Cloggy.

Quickly packing our rucksacks, and driving to Llanberis we were heading back up the familiar Snowdon tourist trail before breaking right to head to the base of Cloggy itself. There was only one team on it this time and they were on great bow so we’d finally have the chance to get on white slab. The description of the first pitch is somewhat unnerving, “step up and delicately traverse the lip”. From talking to a couple of others who had done the route I new that this would be hard to protect. Particularly to make sure the second was safe.

This turned out to not be as bad as I’d feared. The hardest move was the initial committing step after that the difficulties began to ease. We had decided to run the first two pitches as one as apparently this is commonly done and we had a time limit. The second pitch is a long, technical 30 meter slab and arete climb. I started up the delicate absorbing climbing that remained continuously interesting until a resting place on the arete appeared at a good spike. From this point I couldn’t remember the description however I new I needed to head left to the belay at some point. Looking right a thin seem of chalked holds was visible where as left looked like a steep groove (also looking climbable). Figuring how busy the route had been recently I guessed the key holds would be chalked so left the security of my ledge and started out rightwards. The seem wasn’t as good as I hoped with the only place for gear also the only hand hold. I looked back but by this stage the delicate moves out would be hard to reverse so I was committed. Wrapping my thumb onto a slightly dimple in the rock and crimping my fingers over it I set off shouting watch me to Rhys below. Quickly and precisely stabbing my foot up onto the delicate smeary holds for a deep rockover to the next small edge. More thin climbing followed for two or three moves before I reached a horizontal break in the slab and could head safely around the arete to the belay. I’ve since learned that this variant pitch on the route goes at e4 (a much harder grade than the original) and has historically been done by accident before including a notable solo ascent by Jonny Dawes.

Thankfully the next pitch was easier. Heading back out along the narrow break it’s possible to lasso a spike for some protection before a further sequence leads to easier ground. The Lasso didn’t go to plan but compared to the difficulty and run out moves on the previous pitch this one went without any alarm. That left three more pitches of technical but easier climbing to the top. Time by this point was running tight so we tired to up the pace but unfortunately I had to call in a favour to get someone to cover the early part of the evening shift.

Tired from the previous days exertions and with the air being very hot, almost too hot for climbing on all but the highest mountain crags we decided to come up with an alternative plan. Looking through various guides we came across “The Tubes” a section of the Conwy where the rock walls narrow and form steep rock walls with funky shapes to climb on where if you fall you just land in the pools below. On arrival the area looked severely overgrown however unperturbed by this we soon had a path down to the water and had made our way down. The area itself was like a film set. Clean smooth walls with all sorts of funky shapes and dropping moss hiding holds. Soon we were swinging around and splashing down or relaxing in the dappled sunshine watching dragonfly’s scoot by. A very fun way to spend a hot day “resting”.

The heat wave continued the following day and Becky had popped up to join me in wales so we were looking for a classic to go and get on. What better route to pick than a “usual wet” route called Black Spring which was by now bone dry. This route features really nice pocket pulling on the first pitch with some entertaining but doable moves leading up to the sloping belay. Well worth getting on.

The next day I was in the kitchen from 15:00 so needed to have a short morning climbing. We decided on Clogwyn Bochlwyd in the ogwen. This is a really nice single pitch venue with a variety of interesting climbs. We did Bochlwyd Eliminate and two pitch route. The later lead by Becky in fine style.

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Week two

I can’t believe that we’re already at the end of week two – time is flying by! This week I’ve been short roping up a grade three scramble, climbing single pitch to demo how to lead and doing plenty of multi pitch routes to get the mileage in. All the while we’ve had a couple of induction days to learn how the centre works and picked up our kit from Mountain Equipment, Scarpa and Deuter.

Mountain EquipmentScarpaDeuter

A few of us had a day off on Tuesday but the forecast was for mixed conditions so we decided that it would be a good opportunity for a scramble. We picked “Sharks Fin” on Glydr Fach. This was grade three but on a cliff I’d done some other scrambles on before so I had an idea what we’d be in for. It was a good opportunity to practice the short roping / scrambling techniques I’d been a mock student on with the guides a few days before. Unfortunately group numbers worked out as a four so much of the route ended up being done as short pitches. The route itself is nice a varied with plenty of what I’d consider as good quality top end scrambling. I was certainly glad to have the rope on a couple of the moves given the slightly damp conditions we were out in.

The following two days were planed as induction. The first of which was a lecture room based day where we got to meet a few of the team and learn how the rota and kitchen works. After the day in the lecture room we headed off to Tramadog though it proved a little too showery to get much done.

The second induction day was a day climbing with Cathy (our mentor) watching us to see where we were with it. Again we’d headed to Tramadog – this time the upper tire – It proved really good fun with five routes climbed (one of which was a demo of leading for Cathy). The hardest had the peculiar grade of e1 6a with it being a nice thin finger crack.

Following on from the climbing we pocked up our new kit. There was a sack full of goodies – mine containing:

Waterproof jacket – Mountain Equipment Tupilak Jacket
Waterproof salopettes – Mountain Equipment Changabang Pant
Fleece – Mountain Equipment Dark Day’s Hooded Jacket
Pertex / Microfleece top – Mountain Equipment (not sure which jacket this is)
Baselayer – Mountain Equipment (not sure which baselayer this is)
Softshell trousers – Mountain Equipment Trojan pant
Hat – Mountain Equipment
Cotton Tee’s – Mountain Equipment
Boots – Scarpa Cristallo
Rucksack – Deuter Guide 35+
Daysack – Deuter Speedlite 20

Not a bad set and certain to keep me comfortable in most of the conditions I’ll be likely to encounter. I’ll try and find some time to give reviews of these pieces and the system as a whole at some point.

To finish a great day we then headed to the pass and climbed direct route on Dinus Mot – this route has plenty of character and has a lovely move on the last pitch.

Becky enjoying a belay on the Cromlech
Becky enjoying a belay on the Cromlech

Over the next three days I only had a night porter shift (looking after reception from 17:00 until the morning) so could get out everyday. Becky also came up for the weekend and we got out on plenty of multipitches include Mur y Niwl on the beautiful Craig Yr Ysfa where I forgot to pack my rock shoes (oops) so ended up seconding in my Cristallo’s, luckily these boots are great to climb in so it made a really enjoyable day.

Niels
Niels when I mention I’ve not got rock shoes

All in all another great week, keep feeling I need to pinch myself to check I’m not dreaming.

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First week at the Brenin

What a week!

This week has absolutely flown by. I’d originally intended to write a blog post daily as a bit of a diary of what I’ve been up to but quite literally haven’t had a spare moment to put it together until now. Revised plan is now to make it a weekly diary.

So it all started with arrival on Monday night. As I was pulling into the car park I bumped into my new fellow Centre Assistants (CA’s). They were all heading out to the RAC boulders for a quick hours bouldering before dinner at 19:30. Needless to say I quickly parked up and joined them without even unloading. We started with the warm up slabs and some chatting to get to know each other then got stuck into the classic traverse. That went just before dinner and we then headed back un-packed and settled in to sleep ready for our first full day.

RAC Boulders
RAC Boulders – image from V12 Outdoors

In the morning we found out a bit about our week. We’d be eased into life here gently with the first day shadowing the adventure days instructors on the water. We headed out with a great school group and I got my first experience back in a kayak for many years. This proved really good fun as the weather was kind and we joined in with the games and skills the instructors set for the kids. In the afternoon we were in canoes with the same group and learnt a lot (as did the kids) about moving about the boat in order to effect trim so that it was easier to paddle into/away from the wind. Finally being super keen we headed out to the Cromlech in the evening so that Niels (one of the other new CA’s) could have a go at leading one of my favourite climbs – Cemetery Gates. He dispatched this with aplomb and we rushed back to make it just in time for food. Our psych still not sated we then headed out to the PYB Boulder

Llunnan Mymbyr
Llunnan Mymbyr – a pleasant place for kayaking

Day two was an induction day – in the morning half of us went out driving the Galaxy’s to be assessed as competent to pick people up, the other half had fire safety training. In the afternoon we swapped over. I was in the morning group. It turned out to be a really informative session learning a lot about the functioning of the centre and some tips on how to make the most of our time here / help clients enjoy their time here. This finished up a bit early and the weather was still good so we headed out to Llanberis pass so that Jen (another CA, and a paddler) could take her first steps into multi pitch climbing. We did Wrinkle, a classic climb of the area and really good fun.

By now it was Thursday and this was a mock assessment day for the rock component of the British Mountain Guide scheme. We were to be clients and have an agenda for what we could get out of the day. Myself and Niels teamed up, both having similar goals for the day. The weather had turned a bit worse so we opted to improve our rope skills and keep warmer by practicing short rope techniques. This is a method of moving with a good degree of safety over technical ground while maintaining speed to cover a lot of ground. It was an incredibly fun day with lots of skills learnt. We did four scrambles on Tryfan of grade three; using methods such as pitching, using natural protection with a shorten roped, firm stances and the like. In the evening having heard it was balmy and warm at Tramadog which is near the coast we headed over that direction and did six pitches; two on the VS Grim Wall and four on the Severe Poor Mans Peuterey. The descent was finished in the dark.

Tryfan
Tryfan

Friday, we had a tour of the centre in the morning to meet some people and get more familiar with the place. This also include some playing about on the jump bikes to test out the pump track and skills loop (both are really good). In the afternoon we had to prep an assault course for some filming by the BBC over the weekend. We also got to try out some of the challenges and that definitely meant we’d get to know each other well. In the evening it was my first night porter duty. This proved a busy night with everyone turning up for the weekend.

Today was a day with only night porter to do. The weather was fantastic and with it being a bank holiday we decided to head over to Gogarth, Main Cliff to have a go at some routes. It turned out to be quite busy and an inefficient start with a guidebook to pick up. So people were on the route we intended to do. Instead we did one of the classic E2’s of the crag – Resolution Direct. I lead the second pitch which was my first of an E2 and proved good fun but gripping at the time. After that it was 15:45 so we headed back in time for the night duty.

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Morocco – Lions head

Yesterday we had a rest day after driving to crag s and walking in Mungo was feeling rough (something hadn’t agreed with him) and we were both aching /dehydrated from four consecutive days climbing in the heat. We decided to call it a rest day, head back to Tafraoute and relax so that we’d be ready for doing a big route today.

Looking at the guide we decided the Great Ridge on the Lions Head look like the one to go for. 800 meters of climbing to the top of one of the most impressive peaks in the area. To make matters more complex the guide alluded to having to abseil from a massive pinnacle. And the ridge looked to be quite scrambly in places.

The abseil convinced us that two ropes was a good idea. I carried one flaked in the bag ready for the abseil, the other was shortened with a few coils for us to move together on.

Up at 5:00 we scoffed some bananas and a yoghurt before jumping in the car and setting off. It was still dark outside and the driving directions were a not vague so we did a little faffing finding the correct parking location. (My description would be, “turn left at the main turning after leaving Tafraoute then take the first right to Assgour. Follow the main road up into the village passing the parking for crag h, at the western end of the village. Here then road traverse east until it reaches a dead end. Park at this dead end.”).

We then set off on the track heading east but soon left this to cut up behind the ‘small’ crags above Assgour. By this point it was 6:00 and the sun was casing enough light we didn’t need head torches anymore.

The ridge itself was easy to find and has an obvious chimney between a free standing pinnacle at its end and the main ridge. Traversing through this lead us to some slabs to start the ridge proper. The bottom section continuously varies between slabs and the main arête with only a few harder moves until we reached a short abseil. This was doable using a single rope and also looked down climb-able from below. More scrambling and a short down climb later you reach the foot of the pinnacle.

This is accessed via an exposed chock stone. The climbing on the pinnacle itself is hard then anything we’d encountered to this point. With some loose rock about we follow the buttress to the left of an obvious vegetated gully. This gave way to a groove you can bridge up then more scrambling across and around to the right of the main ridge and a very loose chossy but steep set of grooves. These finally less you to cleaner rock and some wonderful climbing up the arête. Once on top of the pinnacle there’s a long section of spires to be tackled, including a bridge over a very exposed gap. The spires finish and a short down climb on the last spire leads to a fixed abseil point off the pinnacle.

Lions Head
Lions Head – image from Summit Post

We then chose to climb the main central buttress / arête on the top section of the route. First we gained this with a down scramble from our abseil base, then headed up a weakness with easy scrambling to gain an exposed stance on the ridge proper. Here I swapped into rock shoes (I had been climbing in decent approach shoes until this point), dropped the coils and enjoy two fine 50+ meter pitches in an outstanding position before the angle eased back and a gentile scramble lead to the top. Its a fantastic climb and well worth doing if you’re in the area.

The decent was fairly straight forward, walking north for a bit before dropping down to a stream bed to the east and heading back south along it for a a few hundred meters. We then headed off east as it begins to steepen just after a large snake infested pool and a break in the skyline invites you to traverse. This then becomes a track which leads you along an exposed catwalk before easing again to become a ride down a scree filled gully. Once this bottoms out a path leads you back around to the car. On this path we met a very friendly shepherd who was intrigued by our climbing kit still swinging from our harnesses.

Back in Tafroute, there was a classic car rally in town with everyone out to see it, the place was buzzing. Our hotel had messed up the booking so we had to swap into two small single rooms but these looked plenty comfortable enough and were offered to us for free because of the mistake (I’m sure partly our fault for being gone from the room before the sun was even up!). There was also some local singing in the Resturant by what we assume to be local women (heads covered with a giant silk sheet). A fitting end to the day.

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Morocco – Crag H new route

So the change of hotel was a bad plan – I slept fine but had to sleep on my back because of the heat (I’m normally a side sleeper but needed to starfish for maximum cooling) apparently this means I snore loads, between that and the lorry depot near by Mungo didn’t manage much sleep so we paid up and headed off to the crags. We’d head back to the Amandiers later.

View over Tafaroute
View over Tafaroute

This time we’d chosen Crag H on the south side of the Jebel Massif. This means the hour and fifteen minute drive had been swapped for a fifteen minute drive and a forty five minute walk. This made for a nice change.

The walk in was really entertaining in itself. Starting at Assgaour we headed through the village and down a narrow track amongst the ruins. Of the old village. It was the kind of strange juxtaposition I had only sending in Bosnia before. In that case due to war; here I’d guess more to do with the ease of rebuilding on new land (let me know the real reason if you do). After them a faint path headed around the rock band behind the village and into the gorge. This was interspersed with patches of concrete to make progress easier and a water pipe followed it up the valley. On the way up we bumped into a couple friendly Moroccan chaps who wished us well with our climb (well at least I think that’s whats they meant, need to improve my French). At this point the path lost its focus so we scrambled and picked our way up the valley until we reached the scree leading to the base of our climb.

Assgaour
Assgaour

We’d decide to pick our own line up the crag to hopefully top out on the obvious flying arête feature. As yet unclimbed in our guide at least. Our route description is as follows (now written in the new routes book at the hotel):

Crag H – Camel-radary (200m hvs 5a ***)
1) 50m 4b; start 30m right from the base of the flying arête near a small corner. Climb the slabs above to an awkward belay in a corner just around the Arête on the buttress.
2) 30m 4c; traverse back around the arête and follow the obvious weakness in the buttress making a move on the slab to gain a small belay ledge by a thin crack.
3) 45m 4b; climb the crack and buttress on the right for 5m until easy ground is reached. Scramble up this trending right through some vegetated ground until a good belay is reached just to the left of an obvious open book corner.
4) 20m 5a; traverse to the base of the corner and ascend it for a few metres until a diagonal break in the right wall. Follow this weakness and gain the arête (crux). Traverse up and right to an awkward belay in the next corner over.
5) 40m 5a; climb up the corner / slab on its left until the arête can be passed at a large boulder. Follow the slabs above to a wide layback crack between the wall and the large flying arête. Force your way up this to the top of the flying arête.
6) 25m 4a: gain a large ledge by easy climbing and traverse right and step across to an airy wall with easy jug pulling to the top.

As a first new multi pitch route we were both pretty please to get to the to of this so its hard to be objective about its quality but I believe it offers a great day out for competent parties. It has bold slabs, airy walls and arêtes, technical corners, and powerful steep crack climbing. Please give it a go if your in the area and let me know what you think. (I’ll also happily give more guidance on where we went). Pitch 4 may also be of interest to parties trying to gain the edge of the flying arête – it looked possible to climb on to it from below the belay on this pitch at a similar standard to this route.

New Routes Book
New Routes Book

The decent was a fun scramble down into the gorge and back along the path we came in on. Here we bumped into the two friendly locals again. We must have looked as parched as we felt because the offered us drinking water fresh from a spring on the mountain side. Smiles, handshakes and broken conversation followed. I can’t stress enough how nice and genuinely friendly they were.

Back near the car one of the local kids had a mime conversation with us. He was very entertaining and also friendly. Wanting to shake our hands for climbing the hot mountains (entirely done in mime).

All that remains of the day was for us to drive back to the hotel, re-book in, have a swim in the pool and write up our route over a mint tea. 

Top of the flying arete
Top of the flying arete
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Morocco – birthday climbing

Not many people decide to get up at 6:30 on their birthday, for me however it was good to wake up early. We’d packed our bags both for the days climbing and for moving hotel. Mohammed had shown us the location of the bakery and we were there for opening time at 7:00. Before rapidly hitting the road round to the crags of Tizim Waylim. We ate the pastries we’d picked while driving round so we were at the base of our climb for 8:45 ish. It was pleasantly cool in the shade (or maybe I’d just grown used to the heat) and nice to be out of the baking sun. The vistas of the massif in the early morning light where also stunning.

Mungo was up for leading off so we racked up and he set off trying to follow the vague line on the photo of our chosen route (above and beyond hvbs 5a). Pitch one was a bit flakey with the rock having a loose feel to it however this soon changed as the rock cleaned up amend a perfect belay location was reached. This was about 30 metres up. Two pieces of gear had been placed by this point so we gave block leads a go. I quickly re-flaked the rope whole Mungo had a nose at the guide. Within a couple minutes he’d set off again and disappeared out of site over a lip that turned out to be the crux of the route. Some shouting later it transpired he was very run out but on steady slabby ground. A while passed before a woop and a shout of ‘I’ve some gear’ came down. A while longer and another shout this time of ‘safe’. I set off up the pitch, passing the bulge and covering very Avon like ground. It was fun absorbing but thought free climbing. The kind I really enjoy. Mungo’s belay turned out to be two solid cams and a dodgy nut he’d bounce tested over a semi hanging stance.

The line of our climb
The line of our climb

I took over the lead hear and made swift progress over easy ground to reach some solid nuts and built a bomber belay. A few more moves after trading gear again and we’d topped out just as the sun came onto the face. Perfect timing.

We new time was on our side for the rest of the day so played around with coils and moving together techniques on the rocks at the top of the climb (Mungo hadn’t used coils before so it was good to do some learning before it was required on the job.)

A walk through flows and fig trees lead us back to the car for a bite to eat and a plan for the afternoon.

Moroccan flowers
Moroccan flowers

There was still a parallel valley for us to explore. This time though it was unpaved. Thankfully we opted to go down this, completing a loops past the crags. The drive itself was like something out of top gear. Complete with overheating car, rally style cornering to make up some hairpins and rough rutted track all the way. It was an absorbing two and a half hours.

Top Gear Style Drive
Top Gear Style Drive

We then headed back to Tafraoute picking up a hitcher on the way to do our good deed.

Moving into our new hotel it became quickly apparent why it was cheaper. The promised air con was missing and the main facilities were communal not ensuit like we’d been shown. However the proprietor was friendly and it does have WiFi so we can’t really complain.

Another three course Moroccan feast was had for dinner though I’m sure a big bunch of this will be sweated out tonight given how hot it is as I type this. Why did we leave the comfortable hotel with a pool again? – still, up at 6:30 again tomorrow for more climbing. A bit of suffering never did me any halm and teaching my body to sleep anywhere still can only be a good thing.

One year older but still looking to live that dream.

Crags as far as the eye can see
Crags as far as the eye can see
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Morocco – climbing day one, Ksar Rocks

As with all first days on new rock types, and partnerships we new it would take a day or two to get into the feel of it out here. With this in mind we had decided that the venue of Ksar Rocks would be fitting. It features shortish multipitch routes on all aspect. The guide describes it as ‘if you only visit one venue here make this it’. A ringing endorsement for the crag.

Having packed and sorted stuff the night before but being quite tired we got up at the holiday friendly hour of 8:30 and set off around 9:30 (sourcing some food as we left Tafaroute). It’s an hour and a bits drive to the crag passed some stunning unclimbed rocks enroute. Leaving us racking up at the bottom of the first route around 11:00.

Mungo Getting Ready
Mungo Getting Ready

Its hear where lessons start to be learned. The first of which was that the east face doesn’t loose the sun until around 14:30, the second was that a similar looking line shown from a different angle with the same number doesn’t make it the same route.

We’d plumbed for a severe* grade climb to ease us as gently as possible into the rock. Expecting to race up this. We spied what looked like the guidebook line (and was one guidebook line) before setting off. At first the climbing seemed a little alien. The heat was making my palms sweat and the rock was grippy but had a disquieting sheen to it. The route we hard started up was called south eastern unfortunately this wasn’t the intended one that we were reading the description for; so our line strayed from the severe standard. We managed to clock this at the top of pitch two where the ‘climb the right wall to a ledge before stepping right and heading up the crack’ looked more hard very severe then severe**! By this point I’d already lead two exposed and poorly protected traverses out to the arête on our right. We decide the sensible course of action was to change the line we followed to join up with an adjoining route. This proved a sensible decision, with the top pitch of ‘voodoo’ providing the pitch of the day so far and a great lead for Mungo. We decided that this variant should be noted and we’d call it ‘south eastern flogic’ (flogic being ‘failed logic’ or the ruder version ‘f*** logic’, thanks Mike for that one.) Its grade would be something like Very Severe 5a.

Ksar Rock
Ksar Rock

On the route down we resolved to learn our lessons and decided on one of the modern ‘classics’ of the crag – if you can have such a thing for such a recently developed area. The route in question was great eastern and proved a top outing with all the pitches having great character and quality. Well recommended. By this point as well we were climbing in the shade and decided this was much more pleasant at this time of year so resolved to look for shady routes during the rest of our stay.

Lessons well learned we finished the day with more Moroccan cuisine contented. 

Mungo with the view from the top
Mungo with the view from the top

* actually one of the easiest grades of climb.
** Significantly harder and much nearer to the limit of our climbing ability.