Monday, 25 June 2007


This was my fifth visit to the Southern Hebrides Isles of Pabbay and Mingulay since 2002 so it's fair to say that I am an addict. There is something very unique about the islands that is hard to pin down, other than the sheer quality of the climbing: big steep lines on hard, sculpted, funky, crystalline gneiss that feels incomparable to any other rock type in the UK. But there is also the soothing ambiance of these islands: from waking up in the tent next to a white sandy beach; to the walk over the moors to the cliff; to racking up above a glittering sea. Above all though, is the inescapable feeling of isolation: there are no cars and roads to battle with; no Tescos or Morrisons to endure whilst grabbing some crag food; no parking tickets or petrol to pay for. Just you, your mates, the climbing and your beer at the end of a great day.

Racking up above the Sea, Pabbay (Hot Aches)

On the first day on Pabbay, Ali and me made a beeline for Banded Geo. I've had something of an affair with this Geo since my very first visit to the island, the Ship of Fools wall leers out like a galleon in full sail. Long and steep at 45m and 5m in the respective planes it offers fantastic climbing on incuts and scallop-sculpted walls. My attempt at repeating Ship of Fools E6 6b (first put up by the original pioneers of E5+ routes in the Isles, Paul "Stork" Thorburn and Rick Campbell) in 2002 proved problematic as I went horribly off route, cutting through the lower roof with an extremely difficult sequence and then rejoining the original route ten metres below the top. Tim Rankin, a few days later repeated it via the correct line at E5. The following year I returned and added an independent start and finish to my variation, naming it Geomancer E7 6b which turned out to be an optimistically high grade, more on that later...

Ali set off up SoF after I had pinpointed exactly where to climb through the roof dispatching this with ease and then forging into the sea of jugs on the headwall. My intention was to climb a line to the right of SoF, so when I seconded Ali, I was dismayed to see chalk highlighting the holds on this line: someone had beaten me to it! However, the chalk had suddenly veered into SoF at half height, at least I could finish it off with an independent finish. An hour later I sat on the top of this wall, pleasantly surprised at the amenability of the line, a three star E5 6a. The Hot Aches boys who were out filming for their new project, Committed, however were disappointed, they wanted something hard and dramatic, not this stroll in the park. My investigative work since getting back has revealed it was Jonny Clark who had climbed this line thinking it was SoF, thus Jonny Scuttlebutt was born .

Banded Geo, Ali (orange speck) seconding Jonny Scuttlebutt (Hot Aches)

A few days later I stood under the Ship of Fools roof again, waving my arms about and describing to Dan McManus where to go on Geomancer. Dan seemed nervous, muttering about hard boulder problems through the roof but then discovering a slightly easier and more natural solution by traversing left on the lip before cruising the next thirty metres to the top. I followed, surprised and embarrassed at how easy the climbing felt: oops, definitely not E7 then. I had to agree with Dan on a reassessment at E6 but thankfully retaining all of it's three stars.

Dan climbing Geomancer with ease (Hot Aches)

Eyeing up a line at the back of the Geo where there were no existing routes, a dark and gothic cave that severely undercuts at the base, only touching down in a few places for sixty metres. From one of those places, sprang an impressive stepped corner on good rock that led to an obvious rising traverse across the cave and into a choice of corner systems. I had pointed the line out to Ali a few days before who immediately baulked at the thought of doing the rising traverse on the admittedly awful looking rock. Luckily (and with Machiavellian timing), I had persuaded Dan to do Geomancer earlier that day: he was now indebted to me belay-wise...

Stepping off the boulder, the pristine texture of the rock, the sea crashing and roiling, the sun disappearing behind the overhangs; nothing but an inconsequential pinprick on the skin of this cliff. A microbe that has flickered,fleetingly, into it's geological existence. Suddenly, I am bought back to my own time, fighting on matchstick edges, heel hooked high and pulling into the bottom of the corner. The crack is wet! I throw in some gear, rest briefly and continue up the corner which is now leaning out alarmingly. After some hard, piston-like bridging, better gear is reached and then a vertical wall with a thin but positive crack-sheer bliss...The last of the sun hits me on the belay and Dan follows, confirming the difficulties of the first pitch.

Grooving up the first Pitch of Redemption Ark (Hot Aches)

Tentatively Dan starts out the next pitch, we both know it's going to be loose but seem to be choosing not to acknowledge that fact verbally. Dan's body language reveals his anxiety on this pitch: creeping, inching, testing, checking, doubling back, sussing and faltering he made his way along the blocky traverse. A hold rips and I am pulled forward from my hanging belay, Dan is now level with me swinging on the end of the ropes, a clattering below that will become a familiar sound over the next two hours. Curiously, the fall seems to have relaxed Dan and after he climbs back to the ledge, he completes the thirty metre traverse. I contribute further to accelerating the erosion process on the part of the cliff as more lumps rattle down to the back of the Geo.

Dan on the second pitch of Redemption Ark (Hot Aches)

The final pitch. A choice of three loose looking corners. Dan begs me not to take the one above the belay, I note for the first time that we are not wearing helmets, stupid...Stepping to the left and away from Dan, I find lots of gear but I don't trust any of it, the rock is wet and I keep pulling half of it off. Contrasting with the powerful and positive first pitch, this final pitch is draining me with the nervous tension. I keep my hands and feet tautly in position, stretched tight and responsive as another hold crumbles away. Cramp is creeping into my legs. Many options present themselves and then immediately discarded: the flake with my left, nope it moved; the jam with my right, the side of the crack falls off; move my foot onto that edge, it snaps. Really hating this now, why can't I do something nice and safe like watch football on the sofa (no, better make that golf, not as exciting as football) and drink beer and then go to the pub and then watch crap t.v? Finally, better rock is reached, relief washes over at the top. Dan comes up smiling, escaping into the amber light of the sunset.

Redemption Ark E6 6b XS, and where did the name come from? My favourite science fiction book of the same name, suitably dark and gothic: a very well thumbed book on my shelf.

Next Post: Mingulay

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Prelude to the Islands

In Profundum Lacu E5 6a, Pink Walls Pabbay (C. Adam 2005)

Today, I and about ten other like minded souls head out to Pabbay and Mingulay for a week. This is my most favourite climbing area in Britain, I usualy always have a good time here and some of the routes are big and long, hmmmnnnn. The weather's looking a bit squiffy at the moment but hopefully I'll have loads to report when I get back...

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Reflections on the Road

The long drive up from Edinburgh to Sheigra on the far NW corner of Scotland. Five and a half hours behind the wheel. Ali's asleep in the passenger seat, having had a busy night shift as a fireman. The mind starts ticking over. Mine starts grinding over with the sound of rusty cogs...

In 2001, I onsighted my first E6; back then, I had only onsighted one french 7b+ and could occasionally onsight 7b ; redpointed 7c+ and bouldered font 7b "straight up" (7c if you count traverses: i.e. Consolidated). Now, six years later I have onsighted french 8a; redpointed 8b and bouldered font 8a. And in all that time, I have continued to onsight E6es up and down the country, with the occasional failed foray into E7 territory.

The Herbaloner E6 6b, Pabbay. Steve Crowe climbing in the background. (Photo: C. Adams)

So why? Oh why, have I not managed to push my trad onsight grade in a similar manner? Going by the improvements in my sport and bouldering grades, surely I should be onsighting E8 by now?! Well, no. Not really. If we examine the nature in which I climbed those first E6es and analyse my improvements in sport and bouldering then it will be seen that the apparent physical progress in sport and bouldering does not correspond linearly with an increase in trad grades...

Take my first E6, a scruffy little wall by the name of Helmut Schmitt at Stoney Middleton in the Peak. I remember a sketchy blur of slapping hands on the crux and of poorly placed gear, too pumped to place it any better. Not so much throwing caution to the wind as chucking it into a hurricane. This approach pretty much summarised my style at the time and on subsequent E6es over the next year. I was in my early 20s, felt invincible and that I had something to prove. A bad combination for my belayers I am sure. At Gogarth recently, (see earlier post: Scotland vs North Wales), I did a wide variety of E6es: pumpy ones, technical and scary ones, cruxy and run-out ones. And on each of them, I remember placing the gear really well, hunting out the elusive rps; taking a considered, calculating approach; locking off every hold statically and in full control.

The above descriptions sound like two completely different climbers, and they are in a sense. I have definitely changed over the last six years, from the young tyke to a more mature climber (I hate using that word, I sound old!): one who doesn't want to take unnecessary risks; one who wants to climb again next week; one who knows that it isn't worth risking everything just for one route; one who has had an accident but gotten away lightly and one who has settled down with their partner, realising that they don't have the right to put their own lives in such jeopardy again. While my trad grade has stayed the same, I have actually improved and consolidated the skills and fitness required at this level but I am no longer prepared to take the same approach to onsight E7 as I did when I first started onsighting E6es.

Bouldering at Ben Ledi, experimenting with body positions

Looking at my sport and bouldering abilities, at face value they seem to indicate a huge improvement in physical strength and fitness. But on examination, these have only played a small part, the main contribution that influenced my progress was that of skill acquisition in each discipline. For sport onsighting my biggest jump ever came from learning about pacing on routes: learning how to "sprint" up overhanging routes and climbing in a slick, economical manner. For redpointing, it was about remembering all the sequences and in particular the foot sequences on cruxes. In bouldering, I learnt how to experiment with subtles nuances in body positions and to persevere at a given sequence until success.

Rosanna 8a, Ceuse, learning how to sprint

In saying all that, I know that I am stronger and fitter than six years ago, but this is really only a fraction of the overall climbing equation. With over 40 E6es onsighted at this point, I feel I have created a huge base to move forward from, but this is tempered by a more considered and conservative approach than in the past. I hope that I can move into E7 territory without the precariousness that characterised my first E6es.


Sheigra Beach and Campsite. The climbing is just over the hillock.

Ali wakes up as we pass by the convoy coming home from the Rock Ness festival. We talk about Sheigra which we've never been to before and our forthcoming trip out to Pabbay and Mingulay next week. We arrive and set up camp at the beach, the landscape and the location makes us feel like we are on Lewis and when we start climbing on the gneiss later, it further cements that impression of being on a hebridean island.

Gneiss has been absent from my climbing diet for two years but now I remember why I love it so much: solid rock (mostly...), great gear, good friction, steep walls and an abundance of crimps, pockets and incuts. Ali easily dispenses Monkey Man E3 5c and What the Pool said On Midsummer's Day E5 6a. I battle with the now greasy conditions on the classic Here and Now E6 6b, feeling a bit more pumped than usual at the top, so much for having consolidated this level. Steep for Five Minutes E6 6c then succumbs to an easier sequence found one metre to the right of the original crux at E5 6a.

We wait for it to get dark, but even at 11pm it remains light enough to read outside, it's summer Solstice next week and we are very far North. At 12pm it gets a smidgeon darker and we turn in for the night. Ali seems tired in the morning, a cold coming on? But he spends the day leading some amazing E4s including Dolphins and Whales which seems reminiscent of Ceuse, except it was on trad. And above the sea. And in the North West of Scotland. Oh, and without the hour long walk in too.
Ali and me waiting for it to get dark (photo taken at 10.30pm!)

Something Worth Fighting For E6/7 6b doesn't really put up much of a fight for me; maybe I am climbing well today so I turn my attention to Maybe Later E7 6c. A MacLeod creation from last year, it takes a blank but pristine looking wall up a dark streak to undercuts (gotta be good cams in there...) before turning a gentle overhang. The 6c technical grade unsettles me, if Dave has given something 6c, then it will be hard. But could this be the breakthrough that I have been dreaming about? To finally, cleanly onsight an E7? Ten meters up, I get good cams in, move up and gain a shake out at the start of the dark streak.
The Inner and Outer Walls of the 1st Geo at Sheigra

Suddenly my world inverts and my hip violently smacks into the lower wall, the remnants of the hold clattering off the boulders below. The hold had snapped off and I had plummeted head first with the good cams holding my fall easily, leaving Ali and myself, upside down on the ropes, with the bug-eyes.
Why? Oh Why do things like this keep happening to me? I sit down feeling a bit shaken. Two years ago, in Ardnamurchan a foothold snapped on me as I was rocking over onto it. Down I had gone, ripping all the gear out of the bendy flake and fracturing my ankle. The resulting crawl back to the car took an hour and a bit. Emma had taken full control of the situation and spurned me from my weepy episodes of shock with the lure of the bouldering mat as a rest (Joe Simpson, I was not). Five weeks later and I was out of my cast, but the process of getting my head back together took longer and I had vowed not to climb on bad rock and bad gear again. So here on an otherwise solid cliff, a hold had decided to rip off: ambition and caution collide within.

The Inner Walls of Sheigra, the dark streak of Maybe Later is directly above me

I remember then, that on Dave's ascent a hold had also ripped off, funny how and when the conscious mind chooses to acknowledge such things...I climb back up, ostensibly, "to have another look", but I feel heavy this time. When I reach the gear I decide to take it out and climb back down to the ground, feeling like a big jessie. A quick rest later and a flick through the guidebook reveals an E5 6b that had used a high side runner in a neighbouring route: Ape Escape, better take the opportunity to clear up that little indiscretion then.

Twenty minutes later a small part of me is regretting that decision. The fatigue of the five and a half hours driving, the lack of sleep from the twilight night and the previous routes seem to be counteracting with the need to turn the flared crack and reach an incut flake in a very runout position. The ledge below me seems to get bigger even though I am not looking at it. The sanctuary is reached with difficulty however and much gear thrown in after some saturday-night-fever goes through my legs... The top is reached; harder than Here and Now and Something Worth Fighting For? A small consolation after wimping out of the main challenge of the wall.
A quick stop-over at Ardmair the following day and I meet my Nemesis. The (apparently) uber-classic Burning Desire E5 6b. At the initial crux, jamming crack and after much huffing and puffing and hands jabbing in and out like an epileptic raver (and about twenty falls later), I give in and aid up the damn thing. Ali then floats up the crux without too much bother... As I write this, my hands are just starting to scab over in little patches. Mental note: avoid "classic" jamming cracks!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Bored at Dunkeld

Ali Robb starting up Morbidezza
Plans for a day on the Cobbler yesterday were thwarted when driving up to Stirling to take the A811 west, a murky grey wall of water appeared in the direction of our destination and rain started hitting the windscreen. We panicked (well me and Ali, Tom was fast asleep by that point) and decided to head for Upper Cave, Dunkeld. Ho, hum. Although I'd not been there for nearly two years, I've definitely spent far too much time at this crag in the past: I knew exactly where all the loose rocks on the path were whilst walking up.

Racking up, I didn't have that feeling of excitement that usually accompanies a day out at a new crag or going for the on-sight of a route. So I was bored; partly because I've done everything worth doing and have even added some new routes to this crag (if you don't believe me then check these out), but also because when I go climbing I want to get psyched up to do something new and challenging not treading the same old ground. Yes, the routes are fantastic and the long and pumpy (if getting a bit trashed) sport routes are unique in Scotland, but for me here, there is no longer that invigorating sense of exploration at a new crag or the intense novelty of problem solving an unknown sequence on a crux.

Ali on the Arete of Morbidezza

Some lobbing practice was had by Ali and myself on Morbidezza and Lady Charlotte Direct (both E5) respectively, Tom got stuck into High Performance (E3/4) and I managed a link up from Morbidezza into In Loving Memory (E6) which I would recommend over the original arboreal start up the tree.

Lastly,I attempted to flash Gordon Lennox's new 8a on the sport wall, squeezed in between Marlina and Silk Purse. In fact it's so squeezed in, that it requires vast amounts of exotic matter to unfold it out out of the 4th dimension and into our space. Crimping and snatching, I followed the new line of bolts into the finish of Silk Purse. Upon being lowered to the ground, Ali (who witnessed big Lenny's ascent last year) helpfully informed me that I had used about 47 "illegal" holds. Ho, hum. I think it would help to wear blinkers and not move your hands past the width of your shoulders, definitely a local's eliminate.

Tom Charles Edward on High Performance

However, starting up this blog has forced me to dig out my camera (which I hauled up to the crag with a team of Sherpas), so I entertained myself by pretending to be a photographer in between routes, on this are the best that I managed.

Next Week: Fresh Pastures...

Monday, 4 June 2007

Glammin' It Up

Glammin' (or should that be Hammin'?) it up on Saturday night
No climbing this weekend I am afraid as Emma my gorgeous, long standing/suffering partner and myself got glammed up for a night out in town for a friend's birthday. The club we went to is called Vegas!- a kind of retro, swinging, rat-packing, go-go dancing, 50's theme nightclub for which you can see, we got suitably attired. Now, most of my friends know that I like my House and Techno, but hot-damn, the place was jumping, man! If you want a different night out with a bit of old school glamour then go here and guys, there was a one-to-ten:men/women ratio going on, so ditch your trainers and practise your best Dean Martin moves ...
I'd like to think that we've both gone upmarket in our choice of evening leisure destination since the old days when we used to get dressed up to go to the bus stop in Leith*:

Getting ready for a night out in Leith (Aye, I know, I look scarily realistic!)

(*Actually the Alien Rock 10th Birthday Party 2004, fancy dress theme: Bad Taste!)