Saturday, 24 April 2010

Spectrum Magazine 25th April 2010

Photo by John Trudgill

6.Creaking in the Sun

In the old days, when I was trying to climb hard all the time, we were always bouldering in Northumberland and trying to climb in Spain or in a Winter Sun destination. The hope was that when the cliffs of Scotland dried off, in the spring, we would come out of the winter in tune with the rock and moving well.

These days I am not chasing the hard grade train anymore. My sporting activity is more in tune with the seasons. Climbing in the spring, mountain biking on wet days, Road biking some days where there is time pressure, mountaineering on long routes in the mid to late summer, Rock Climbing in the Autumn cool, drinking and eating whilst waiting for the ice, ice climbing and snowboarding in the cold winter and ski-touring in the warm winter days. It has its own rhythm dictated by the turning of the earth. We maybe the last couple of generations able to enjoy this cycle. The treat of warmer winters and wetter summers may mean that soon we will have to become kayakers.

But today the sun is working its magic, the leaves are still not on the trees and the earth still smells dormant. Life just below the surface is still wary of getting zapped by a late frost. The venue for today’s climb is Weem forest near Aberfeldy. There is a small group of cliffs here, some steep, some slabby. It’s a great early and late season area. With routes of many standards and reasonable quality, it’s well worth a visit.

But firstly I need to find all of the bits, buried in the Garage. Sport Climbing, where you free climb on the rock using the rock features for you hands and feet and a rope clipped into pre-placed bolts in the rock, is the goal today. Apart from the obvious rope and gear, I need to find some extras that can help the day go smoothly; zinc tape to protect tendons and finger joints, superglue to stick down torn skin flaps, and nail clippers to trim the digits so the blackboard scrape on the rock is avoided.

As the days are short, there is a bit of hurry up on once the decision has been made to go. As the motorway rudely runs out at Perth, it’s time to suffer the pain of the A9, but today its quiet. Even the traditional pre climb cafĂ© stop is sacrificed, as crag hunger is stronger. A short walk up to the crag feels longer; the memories of last spring conveniently compressed. When we reach the crag it seems very small and some of the lines are seeping with water, the ground water pressure still out of balance for the climber. There are many familiar routines, laying out the gear so it does not roll down the hill; apples especially are prone to trying to escape their snack fate at the cliffs. I really feel at home at the cliff, the smells, the noise of the gear, the feel of the rope, it’s a process and routine which is a subconscious precursor to the challenge ahead.

We are essentially horizontal world dwellers, we live in a world of flatness, 99% of our human existence is spent in shopping centre’s, offices, concrete, carpet and tiles. It’s a cruel fate, a modern life devoid of variation. So stepping from the flat to the vertical is even, after 35 years of climbing is a wonderful step into the unusual. Before I leave the familiar, and the take the step onto the extraordinary, I check my knot, a simple set of twists in a 10mm thick piece of nylon, not much really between fun and disaster, safety and not. I put climbers chalk on my hands to dry the sweat and to aid the grip. I rub them together to get rid of the excess; they sound dry and feel cool. A cloud of white dust slowly drifts away from my hands. I check my knot again, an early season tick, and I step onto the rock. The rubber on the shoes bites into the gneiss crystals, I step into the 3rd dimension.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Spectrum Magazine 17th April 2010

Function over Fashion

Winter sports in Scotland can be a revelation. The hills in full winter garb, under a blue sky can rival any landscape I have seen. In bad weather, even the simplest of winter days can be an arctic test of endurance. I have long been a fan of the Cairngorms, their rugged beauty both majestic and intimidating. To the ill equipped, they are a place of tragic encounters. Today was a test day for an expedition to Kashmir. Neil Baxter, infamous Kayaker and recent on-screen torturer of Fred MacAulay and Dougie Vipond and I were heading off to the Himalayas to join a bunch of hardened big mountain ski-tourers. The scene was set for 3 weeks of digs about “slowboarders” and “gays on trays”, so in order to deflect as much of this verbage as possible, we thought we had better work though our gear and systems on a Scottish winter hill. It was a foul day with a pretty high wind. We parked in the Coire Ciste car park. The lifts were shut. We were promised a people free morning.

We opted to try short approach skis and to carry the snowboards. Just the simple act of putting on and lacing boots was a test of endurance. It was about -8 oC at the car park with a healthy 30-40 mile an hour wind, dropping the temperature to about -30oc. Our exposed hands felt the bite within just a few seconds of gear fumbling. Note to self: “buy Black Diamond ski touring gloves”.

With the wind blowing horizontal snow at our backs we took it in turns to break trail up into the Coire. As we zigzagged our way up it became obvious to me that even though Neil is a magician on the water, and had a good few years of Canadian snowboarding under his belt, this was altogether a new experience for him. Dressed in some trendy snowboard gear he quickly overheated and stripped off to thermals and micro fleece, which within minutes became encrusted in rime ice. He was walking too fast and sweating too much. Having learnt the hard way, I have long since dumped snowboard and ski clothing and opted for mountaineering kit, so I was pretty comfortable, apart from a cold ear and a freezing pinkie.

Soon the wind picked up again and our ridiculous snowboards began to act as unwanted sails on our backs. Layers of wind-slab began forming in patches on the hard snow underneath our test approach skis. The combination of being blown about like some snowboard weather vain and the snow breaking away under our feet meant it was physical, be we were having a ball, or at least I was, This is what I wanted to feel; alive, in a wild place, working out problems, feeling in control in difficult conditions. With visibility down to 50 meters we reached the top of the ski lifts just below the summit of Cairngorm. Neil had been making all the right noises, but as soon as we stopped to check the map, things changed. His skin looked in patches like white putty, and without a decent shell layer he chilled fast. 400m from the Ptarmigan restaurant we bagged it.

Making the transition from climbing to boarding, the wind threatened to blow our gloves away, rip our jackets from our hands and send our boards skidding off down the hill, Neil’s hands were stiff and cold. The ski/ride back to the car took ten minutes. It had taken over and hour and a half to climb to the high point. It was short day on the hill but we learnt a lot. I learnt to look at the big picture and make decisions not just based on how I felt; Neil that it was time to shop for some serious hill gear.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Spectrum Magazine April 11th, 2010

3.Skye was the limit

With any sport there is a period of learning, consolidating and performing. Chuck in a few more variables like a flexible, organic medium like ice, (and people), the learning never stops. The Skye ridge in full winter conditions is a site to behold. The jagged peaks of black basalt crisscrossed with snow gullies and ice runnels, is truly magnificent. I have always loved the concept of first ascents; it’s like creating a little piece of history; to be first, unique and unrepeatable.

We got up far to late, Dave and I, and struggled into Coire Lagan under heavy winter packs. It was perfect. Almost no winter routes in the Coire, and conditions were great. It was truly magnificent, rocky and completely iced up; a very rare occurrence. Standing underneath the Cioch, famous for the “Highlander” cliff fight scene I waited for a rather unfit partner to catch up. I scanned the cliff above for new route potential.

Dave eventually dumped his pack in the snow and asked me what the plan was. Not knowing much about the crag, I opted for a line of unclimbed ice that ran just right of the main buttress. I set off leading, the ice was only a couple of inches thick, so by the time the rope ran out at 50m, I had placed no protection. Wedged behind a boulder I brought Dave up, with each swing of his ice axe he looked shakier, as his fear and panic took over. At the belay he refused to take his turn at the front.

So the day paned out. Every crack I found was chocked with ice and protection sparse, and the climbing got harder and harder. With no concept of time I got stuck into a pitch of pure, hard mixed rock and ice climbing. I was now fully committed on a steep wall. I tried to place a metal piton and dropped it. Now in a position I could not retreat from, and at my limit, I clicked into another zone, calm and clear. The move appeared. Pulling onto a ledge in the sun I sat down shattered. Using all my strength, Dave now had to be hauled up the wall. He flopped onto the ledge beside me. Above us, a beautiful crack lay just out of reach. Even though I tried 10 or so times I could not make the next moves. We were 50 feet from the end of the route and I was spent. Suddenly I noticed the sun, well the last rays of the sun. We were buggered. 500 feet off the Coire floor on big cliff with limited gear, shattered, with a freaked out partner.

Dave gave up and started gibbering. The stars came out, and the head torch went on. I did not want to spend all night out, so I pushed, lowered and cajoled Dave down the cliff in the dark. I lowered him down taking the weight off the gear to stop it puling out and sending us to our deaths. Then gingerly I down climbed. Half using the rope for support, I inched down the rock. Lights appeared in the corrie basin below. It was 10pm. Then they disappeared.

I climbed down the first ice pitch; every time I swung my axe I could see sparks under the ice where my crampons and axes punched though to the rock. The mountains were majesty; starlit and covered in snow, the moonlight reflected off the sea. What an amazing country, place and experience. We got back to the hut on Sunday morning 1am. On Monday morning the papers read, “ two experienced climbers failed to return in daylight prompting the Mountain Rescue to go on alert, ” and I went back to school. I was 16.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Spectrum Magazine 4th April 2010

Turning the wheels

In Scotland we are lucky, yep the weather can be a bit wet, the wind a bit strong and the snow and midges frustrating. However we have mountain biking. We have the best cross-country mountain biking in the world. It’s a fact that France and Australia have the biggest down hill trails, and the USA has Moab and the Colorado trails but for sheer quality and design we have the best.

The centrepiece of these developments has to be Glen Tress, just south of Edinburgh. It is arguably the most successful mountain bike “resort” in the UK. I started riding seriously in 1996 after I bought my first bike with suspension in Canada during a filming trip with Chris Bonington. This was the start of a new obsession. The nice thing about biking in Scotland especially when time is at a premium (Kids, Job, etc) is that you can get the fix of exercise and adrenaline in a relatively short space of time. I am not sure how many times I have ridden the “red route” in Glen Tress but I have a mental picture of every tree root, every rock and every corner. Knowing the line so well allows it to become a friend for an hour and a bit.

Travelling in a favourite place regularly allows me to gage every mood, fibre and rhythm of my system. By the time I have reached the first car park, I know if I am bike fit. By the time I have finished the first descent I can gage if my riding will flow and be smooth or if I am tense and tentative. Climbing to the top of the route, riding up hill hair-pins at relative speed will either be a lung busting painful push or a power push. Oddly enough in the very dry, the riding is often sketchy, the loose gravel breaks out of the surface causing a hopefully predicable speed drift on the corners. In the full rain it can be grippy too, the oily sheen found on humid days cleansed from the rocks. Dropping into the descent, is a decision of commitment. Am I going to blast this? Go fast and try and rail every corner or drift and enjoy the breeze.

Like many things that are familiar, it has the ability to transcend into a metaphysical experience, focus and concentration merge into performance. In fast action, time seems to slow a little, awareness of every tree, pebble, root becomes heightened, vision is clear and distant. Here you can be riding very close to the limit, but if you are in the “zone” the flow is addictive. It brings you to the moment; harmony of action, body and mind, and for brief moments meditative. Then there are moments where there is a surprise. A rock in the trail, a new exposed tree route, the rouge thought, penetrating the mind. They come at you quickly, precipitating immediate and instinctive action. At their worst, its like an on coming car crash, they shoot a spasm of painful energy from your hands in to your shoulders, precipitating action or complete control. But I am simply riding a bike, on a trail, in a forest, one that thousands of others have done. For me, Glen Tress is all of these things, humiliating, exciting, testing and wonderful. Surly the essence of an Adventure sport is all of these things, mixing skill, excitement and a risk in a great place. Count your self-lucky that you live close by.