Monday 5 December 2011

CBT on the CB 500 Honda

The CBT seemed to initially to be have been designed to allow kids or those wanting to ride a small CC bike easy access to riding and learning on the go. Whilst 25 years ago this may have been a good idea and back in the day when a bike test was a quick ride around the block whilst your examiner stood and watched you ride buy, now its seems out-dated and ridiculous.

Kevin my great trainer from KDM training met me on the small square that pretends to be Nairn’s CBT training area and we walk towards two bikes, a rather beaten up 125 and Honda CB 500. Having asked me some questions; what do the brakes do? where is the oil filler? tire (tyre) tread questions, Kevin decides that starting me on the 125 is nonsense, and plonks me on the 500 cc bike.

Immediately the thing that surprises me is the weight of the bike, it’s unbelievably heavy and I almost drop it as I take it of the stand. My only experience of sitting on a Honda 500cc machine before was travelling though Edinburgh on the back of Judy Dean’s (I fancied her rotten) bike on the way from the grounds of Napier’s Photographic department, where we both studied, to my flat, where she refused to come “up for coffee”. So brief and frustrating it was and also a situation where the weight of the bike did not feature, as I was much too interested in experimenting with other unrequited things. Waist or Grab bars? Too late to decide now, I think.

Wobbling around doing figures of 8’s and mini cone slaloms soon saw me riding in the abandoned business park next to the CBT area. Quickly the mirror-signal-lifesave check routine was learnt and couple of emergency stops later, we headed off into the steamy metropolis that is Nairn. Having never ridden anything bigger than a 125cc Trails Gas Gas before, the sensation of speed even at 40mph was great, if not a little frightening and to start with but the oddest thing was changing gear whilst sitting down. The No-Seat trials bikes involve a mini-balancing act to be executed in order o change gear and the luxury of changing gear whilst sitting down was a pure pleasure. Having stalled the bike in traffic once, the afternoon settled down into a series of roundabout walk throughs and practise manoeuvres in the light town traffic. It was easy, the sun was out and the bike forgiving, but after a couple of hours I decided to call it a day, the old synapsis were just were beginning to fry. Back under a veil of screaming shite hawks (seagulls) Kevin sat me down in the back of his van and wrote out the CBT pass. Odd, I did not even know I was being assessed, "but hay", stage two completed.

The point is now I can legally ride a bike on the street, and I in no way did I feel ready or am capable of taking charge of myself in traffic on a bike of any size, this I imagine is the start of a very dangerous period…

New Challenges

I am surrounded by a pile of books and DVLA DVD,s and in the presence of these official publications, I feel guilty. A bit like a small boy in a classroom full of kids, where the pickpocket is asked to come forward and even though your totally innocent, you feel the pang of some deep seated culpability. It’s the humiliation of the L Plate and I have not felt this for over 30 years, it’s a rare meeting between state and confirmed individualist. I find myself here more by accident than design. A few years ago, I moved to the French Alps to a village where every third person seems to own a Trials bike. The hills in the off-season echo to the sounds of two stoke growling and gunfire, where the hills and trails and sheared between the wild boar hunters and the riders of the single cylinder blue smoke thumpers.

Opting to join the Gas Gas culture rather than the gun culture, the dividing line between an early morning Pastis or a petit café, is an exiting revelation for a once confirmed mountain biker rider and downhiller. But six months into this journey, the 125cc I have been riding is beginning to die under my weight, its high pitching whining, a sound often ignored in other aspects of my life, has to be respected. The owner of local bar, having chucked himself down a ravine attached to his 300cc machine has decided discretion "is the better part". His pride and joy, so easily given up, now sits in my shed. It waits for me to be able to (legally) ride across the short stretch of hardtop that annoyingly stand between my house and the mountain trails. Little did I know that this simple 200m stretch of frost cracked tar, was going to lead me into a world of GS’s and GPS, and a brave new world of Adventure bike riding.

Monday 14 November 2011

So to the tests.

I made the decision to sit my full licence in May 2011 and immediately set about trying to find a motorcycle school that could give me the easiest passage through the tests. Ok... so the criteria: not much traffic, in an area I know, and close to the "lady/partner/girl friend's house" (what do you call the person you share a bed with when you have reached a certain age?!!)

As ever, taking what seemed to be the path of least resistance proved to have many hidden and overlooked challenges.

I really honestly thought this would be a piece of cake. That was until I tried my online mock theory tests. . On my first attempt I scored 35 out of 50, a fail. I then spent the next two weeks sporadically working out what to do when approaching Toucan Crossing roads, old ladies on Zebras and what lights a Pelican waves at you when you scream up to them in a cloud of rubber smoke.

Ignoring the fact that some UK road makers have an exotic animal fetish, in turns out that the test is now less about road safety knowledge and actually more like a reading test. I now also understand the constant complaints from the oldies on why A-Levels are now easy. This test is not about driving but about how well you can pass it; it's simply 'exam technique'.

This is especially true of the “hazard perception test” which is a new addition to the whole process. So in a room full of spotty teenagers none of whom you would let near mummy’s “Beemer” or third hand Fiesta, I exercised my new-found knowledge on how to pass a modern test. Stepping out of the theoretical test centre and into the sun drenched Georgian Edinburgh streets, the score was, Me-1, EU test motorcycle test- 0.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Bafta Scotland for the Great Climb

A slight diversion from bikes for the moment. A BBC program I worked on as a commentator and sport expert has just won a BAFTA Scotland. We done to the team.

In the beginning there was a 125 a mountain and a trail

I am surrounded by a pile of books and DVLA DVDs and in the presence of these official publications, I feel guilty. It's a bit like when you're little and you're sitting in a classroom full of kids and the pickpocket is asked to come forward. Even though you're totally innocent you feel the pang of some deep seated culpability. It’s the humiliation of the L Plate and I have not felt this for over 30 years. It’s a rare meeting between state and confirmed individualist. I'm not sure I truly belong as I have to admit that I find myself here more by accident than design. A few years ago, I moved to the French Alps to a village where every third person seems to own a Trials bike. The hills in the off-season echo to the sounds of two stoke growling and gunfire and are shared between the wild boar hunters and the riders of the single cylinder blue smoke thumpers.

Opting to join the Gas Gas culture rather than the gun culture, the dividing line between an early morning Pastis or a petit café, is an exciting revelation for a once confirmed mountain bike rider and downhiller. But six months into this journey, the 125cc I have been riding is beginning to die under my weight, its high pitching whining (a sound often ignored in other aspects of my life) has to be respected. The owner of a local bar, having chucked himself down a ravine attached to his 300cc machine has decided discretion "is the better part" of something...... His pride and joy, so easily given up, now sits in my shed. It waits for me to be able to (legally) ride across the short stretch of hardtop that annoyingly stands between my house and the mountain trails. Basically anything over 125cc requires me to hold a full motorcycle licence. What started as a simple fulfilment of legal requirements to cross a 200m stretch of frost cracked tar has ended up leading me into the realm of GS’s and GPS's, and onwards into the brave new world of Adventure bike riding.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Ben Wyvis

Action Man 53

Throughout my school life in Dingwall Ben Wyvis loomed over me, its mass serving to act as a barrier between the known and civilised world to the south and the wild lands to the north. To the south the farms were green and lush then heavy with barley. To the North wild rolling moor land filled with small crofts and red nosed deerstalker tooting men with hands as craggy and hard as the countryside. Its cap of winter snow often lasts until mid June white gully shaded patches an ever present reminder of harsh winters a ahead and behind.

I had never thought of walking up it, its mass to imposing, too significant, too grey, a dominant feature of my childhood, kind of a spell which many excuses in early adulthood had kept me compressed in the valley under its shadow and unable to embrace its challenge. When I did find myself with time to play in the mountains when staying in Dingwall, I always escaped to the glorious west where sparkling sea, meets rocky coasts cliffs and mountains. To me the west coast represented a crossing of a physical and emotional watershed, to the east a childhood in a small northern town, restricted familiar and dull, a place where I was never fully comfortable, too many eyes and tongues. The west was freedom. It is the place where I discovered pubs, folk music, and love; Sheildaig, Applecross, and Skye, magnificent and shoulder widening. Bolstered by the youthful arrogance of the climber, Ben Wyvis seemed featureless, a lump of heather with no mountaineering value, almost an east coast disappointment. I used to bemoan the fact that the best of Scottish climbing was in the northwest. What a shame it was not nearer home, the hunger for rock and ice inexorably pulling me west, leaving the brooding mass of the east sitting in the clouds.

But I think the time has come. My car stops, almost of its own accord in the pull out where the main path starts from. The board walk floats over the soggy peat and leads to the huge rounded shoulder, where the mountain path begins to toil to the twin summits of the hill.

To walk on Ben Wyvis is a very monochromatic experience, there are no huge cliffs, gullies or towering peaks to animate and amuse your senses. Its just you on the mass of the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The details, of the walk are in the crunch of the snow under foot, or the grinding of a quartz crystal on an gneiss pebble. What strikes me is how ancient it seems, how ground down the landscape is, the movement of history, glaciers, frozen lochs and tree felled and cleared crofts. To walk on this mountain is not to celebrate the picture perfect beauty of Scotland, but it is a walk, which is about appreciating its solidity its ancient mass, it’s a subtle enjoyment. One foot in front of the other moving over history into the present. For me I am walking out of the shadows and the veils of youth, judgement of place, people and home, school memories and feelings of being somehow restricted. On the summit ridge I breathe in the air of the mountains of our magnificent land, the view is clear and vast, acceptance of what has been and what will be.

Ice Temp

Action Man 52

One degrees centigrade, 1700m in elevation facing North West. I pick up my Black Diamond Raptor and swing, instead of the imagined arrow tight thud, the head of my ice axe on contact with the ice makes a plastic shattering sound followed by a sound like tearing polystyrene, a slow ripping sound that last for what seems like seconds. Its an audible reminder to take care, choose my ice axe placements well and realise that concentration and guile is required for success. The second axe finds a small dimple on the surface of the frozen waterfall and twangs into the ice with a satisfying thunk. “A Luke, seek out the weakness in your foe” calling on my imagined internal climbing yoda I move my cramponed boots from the snow onto the glass smooth translucence. Its been a while ( 18 months ) since I ventured onto a large ice fall weighing more than 400 tonnes.

Despite being a very simple technique to climb ice, place the axes high, more than 30cm apart, hang on them whilst bringing you feet into a crouch, repeat, it full of subtleties. With a rope above your head, top roped climbing wall style its simple and fun and you can hack away to you hearts content smashing your way up a climb. To lead, to tie into your figure of 8 knots with 60meter of rope coiled on the snow at you feet with an uncharted path towering above you, its a different matter. They say that a well placed ice screw, in good ice will hold a 2000kg force and the steel will shear before the ice will give up. All well and good in theory, but what is good ice? It’s a plastic evolving medium, never consistent, and ever changing.

That is why falling off is unthinkable. I have fallen off hundreds of rock climbs and a couple of winter Mixed rock ones in my time, but never off a pure ice climb. The idea of loosing contact with the ice, having an ice tool pull out followed by another and then being sucked downwards heading towards 120mph terminal velocity, whilst wearing 24 razor share teeth attached to your feet and holding two ice picks that would have easily done for poor old Trotsky, (ok its was not that kind of ice pic) scares the living shit out of me. If it were ever to happen, it may will be the, straw, camels back thingy; the end

Other axe blow higher up, an area the size of a huge Hester Blomintal soup plate centred on the point of the axe turns from deep grey blue to flawed, layered air filled white, the axe point is now in broken and unstable ice. The technique is to take the axe out gently and break it in to small pieces so it does not come off in a 3kg lump and land on you foot dislodging you crampon placement, leaving you with only two icy points off contact. As I ease the pick upwards, this is what happens, the entire dinner plate slips off and hits my toe with a sold crash; Its sits there resting on my feet, before I take a foot off and send it into spinning to the snow below.

And so the entertainment continues upwards for 60m then another 60m above that, it’s a game of cat and mouse, the most Zen of climbing. Try to use almost no energy both nervous and physical in the most demanding of climbing disciplines. A good rock climb well done deserves a pat on the back, but they are Ten-a-penny. A good ice climb deserves a fine ale, or a well-earned bottle of claret. It’s a fine line between fear and loathing and fun, between perverse enjoyment and sheer vertical hell.

So then why do it?

well when all you senses are working in harmony, when you face something not only physically challenging in a difficult and hostile environment when your urban soft self is saying no, but the hunter gatherer say yes go hunt, in todays hermitically sealed and banal “toys r u”, “strictly come prancing”, X Factor entertainment on a plate, Redbull fuelled stupidness, you will never feel so alive.

Wyoming 1

Action Man 51

Jackson Hole is the place of legends, the late Doug Combs and the Jackson Hole bad ass skiers who called themselves the “Airforce”. The inbounds skiing is a legendary as the skiers who shred it, but to me the real white gold is in the Back Country. Back Coutry is what the new worlders call ski mountaineering and in the Tetons there are literally mountains of the stuff. We expected to breeze into the Tetons buy a guide book talk to a few guides and good skiers and head off into the wilderness “tout seul” , but not. The guidebook that did exist is a 30-page picture book, no directions, no elevations, no face aspect, and no timings and danger information. The most helpful information we gleaned form a local on a lift was , “just head up the pass and follow the boot track” err sorry which pass, which mountain and where do the foot prints go?

Hence our now fortuitous and entirely necessary hook up with Mike Poborsky partner in the world famous Exum Guides company. Mike an unassuming quiet spoken mountain guide. “How fit are you guys” is Mikes first question, “I wish I was fitter, but we are up for a hike if we can find some fresh snow”. With the eye of experience he scans our gear and how we handle it, Are they familiar with it?, how do the carry their kit?, is it part of them or it an uncomfortable showy fit ?. A few expert loaded questions later Mike has made up his mind. Ok were going to do 25 Short if you’re up for some work. What’s that I ask ( not the work bit, but maybe that is a good question to), “oh its 25 feet short of 10,000 and it’s a 3 and a half hour hike to the drop in point off the summit”.

After a longish flat section to the base of the mountain the climb starts almost with out a warm up. The skinning up ( climbing with skis using artificial seal skins to stop you sliding back) is steep 25-30 degrees and in the trees. My experience of skinning on steep ground is ok but in the Alps I have never climbing anything at this angle for big distances. After the first 1000 feet I am feeling it and call of the customary 5 min break. It odd having to translate feet into meters to gauge our pace, but 1000 per hour is not bad going but Mike is obviously coasting. The Teton National Park is not a spit away from Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton its gem mountain, it looms above us to the right. During our refuel stop Mike points our some outrageous off-piste, couloirs and gullies that have been skied. It an amazing and beautiful place, with endless ski-touring possibilities. Even though the mountains seem more benign than the European Alps, the snow-pack is always a concern, but today the avalanche forecast is low danger and it’s a great opportunity to get high with relative impunity. After three and a half hours of uphill we are sitting on the summit drinking sweet chi tea and munching on a semi frozen bagel with alfalfa sprouts, mayo and a multitude of other “only in the USA” ingredients. Mike produces a bag of self hunted elk jerky and nuts, this cultural combo indicates how close the people in Wyoming are to the country, they hunt, fish, ski and play on the land with seemingly seamless integration. It’s a wonderful blend of cowboy and adventure sport, which in Europe seems hard to find. Before we chill of too much our attention turns to the descent, I clip my split snowboard together, converting it from climbing skis to 173cm powder gun and point it towards 3500 feet powder snow nirvana. God bless America

Ice Thinking

Action Man 50

Ice Decisions

It’s been unusually dry with temperatures positively balmy in the valley and freezer like on North facing slopes. I am in Samoens, France during one of the worst months for snow that most people can remember. A 2-week trip to the USA has meant I have missed the best of the ice climbing conditions but some waterfalls are still frozen and today I am walking up to Le Lignon to see if we can climb some “cascade de glace”. The frost on the car in the early morning suggests that it has frozen at 800m but the icefalls sit at 1700m so things may be different. I am still learning about pure waterfall ice climbing. In Scotland on the Ben or in the Cairngorms long pure ice routes are quite rarely in condition but in France they almost never climb snow on rock or neve’ snow as we do. We manage to drive a good 3km up the closed winter road as there is almost no snow but even my Japanese 4x4 cant cope with the old road polished ice after a while, so we stop in a pull out having saved ourselves nearly half of the 1.45min walk in. Oddly at the car it is 2 degrees warmer than in the valley. Normally the temperature goes down with altitude but now at 1300m it has risen to zero degrees. I attach my watch with temperature guage to the out side of my rucksack away from my warming skin and make a mental note to myself that if the tempo is above 4 degrees at the base of the route we will probably not start the route. The hour walking passes quickly with glimpses of chamois and tales of daring do and did not. Most of the really big free standing ice falls have long since collapsed. The lack of surface water has dried them out, made the ice brittle and without new water to feed them they basically rot and fall down under their own weight during the extended drought and freeze thaw. We cross a massive debris path, a clearing in the trees caused by hundreds of tonnes of falling ice crashing down each spring. It’s like stepping in front a fan heater and a wall of warm air hits us as we plod up the snowshoe tracks. It’s a temperature inversion with a definite edge between warm and cold. The snow on the path turns from hard pack to sugar granules. It’s not been cold enough to bond the old crystals together. At the base of the route I put my pack down and look at the thermometer. 4.6 degrees, 0.6 degrees beyond my cut off. However this is not about an arbitrary, artificial cut off. It’s been a walk about reading signs, smelling the air and feeling the snow. The snow tells me that it barely froze at 1700m during the night whilst 300m below it’s bullet hard. The feel of the air tells me it’s going to stay warm and with the sun heating up the surrounding air and 1000m more of the mountain above our heads, things could well start falling on us. I kick the ice with my boot. It’s smooth and hard and there is a tinkle of running water behind the fall which tells me in colder weather its mass is being replenished and this is good, but I have a nagging doubt. Small icicles fall off the fringes of the cascade, and I decide to wait for another day. Ice climbing is a marginal art. It requires experience and motivation and it requires judgement and determination. 20 years ago I would have set off and it would probably have been fine. Today with all my experience I know I don’t know enough about the conditions or this environment to make a positive call to climb it. This maybe the last time I get a chance to climb ice this year but it does not feel right for me. I would love someone to tell me I am doing the right thing, or to not be so stupid, do it and it will be fine. But as with some tough decisions it’s a lonely place to stand. We shoulder our packs and head for the café’

Wandering With Mal

Action Man 49

We prised open the car door that had frosted shut overnight and tried to open our stiff jack knifed bodies into something resembling a fully open upright state. Whilst sleeping in the car is always an option, it’s never really preferable to a tent never mind a B&B. It was six in the morning and still very dark. A particularly luke warm flask of sweet coffee and some day-old bread with half a squished brown banana constituted what Mal called breakfast. At 11.30 pm the night before he had guided, or more like scraped his old car up the frost track to the deer gates that blocked our progress any further into Ben Nevis’s North Face.

As ever Mal had a plan to do another new route in winter on the “Ben” and I, as a willing accomplice to the randomness, had no clue to the destination and methodology required. After our hearty breakfast, we shouldered our winter packs and hiked into the CIC hut which rests below some of the most famous routes in Scotland. By the time we had decided, or Mal had decoded our target, a pair of famous French mountain guides were already half way up point five gully. We walked up to our target and as instructed I took the lead up a narrow, but not too difficult ice chocked gully which marked the start of an existing route. I stopped after 100 feet and brought Mal up to the stance. He then decided that instead of continuing up the gully he would head out left on to the sidewall of the gully and after 30 feet progress came to a halt. Much cursing and scraping of metal then followed as Mal teetered and muscled his way over a small, difficult rock bulge onto the easier angled snow and ice above. This was a man propelled more by desire than pure technical ability. Not altogether a pretty site and slightly worrying to be at the other end of a potential fall whilst on a poorish belay, but highly effective nonetheless. Finding a slightly different line over the bulge we soon stood side by side on the wall in the middle of the vastness of Ben Nevis rock and ice. Three easier pitches later and we were standing on the summit plateau.

Winter climbing sometimes feels gladiatorial, armed with metal in hand and on feet, helmeted, shrouded in Gore-Tex, and slightly removed from the world. But today walking back to the car in the pink light of an oncoming Scottish winter sunset, we were truly alive. Stories of daring do, Himalayan exploits and dodgy days surviving by wits and scams in Chamonix brought us with laughter back to the deer fence which divided our mountain life from the process of rejoining the rest of the sedentary Scottish Saturday winter world. New route or not I will never know, but I do know that to have shared this day with one of life’s true characters is more valuable than any tick in a guide book. Those of us who new Mal Duff well will always cherish his energy, love of life, and ability to tread a very different path,. Mal died tragically at Everest base camp some years ago and is sorely missed by many. Thinking of him always makes me smile. It’s a pity in life that we do not always appreciate those who truly march to a different drum a bit more deeply.

Monday 21 February 2011

Action Man 48

The Strahpuffer is an extraordinary event, if fact its quite nuts, really, honestly its one of the maddest events in Scotland. Imagine its January the nights are long, the xmas excesses are still hanging on your belly and its dark at 4 o’clock and light again if your lucky about 8 in the morning.

Add to this camping in a forest near Dingwall in conditions that might range from extreme minus cold to winter midnight rain and or all of these and ice and snow on the ground. Ok you’ve go the picture, add to this a mountain bike a looped course through a forest and over a windswept moor and 500 hundred riders all determined to ride continuously for 24 hours through day and night with 15 hours of darkness, and you have one of the top 10 toughest mountain bike events in the world.

The Puffer as its affectionately known, is as far as I know the longest night stage mountain bike event in the world. I have for my sins tried to compete in the madness, In the early days of my presenting Job for the Adventure Show we entered a team of 4, Dougie Vipond has fatefully tried it solo, only to have to forcibly withdraw, having head butted the frozen ground leaving more addled then he normally seems. It’s an extraordinary challenge, for almost all the participants winning is out of the question as at the elite end you have to produce almost incomprehensible performances. For a mortal, last years coerce was taking 2 hours to complete one circuit and riding more than 4 circuits is a pretty good day out; The best were riding the circuit in well under an hour and doing this every hour for 24 hours solid. It’s a testament to ultra endurance determinations and fitness, truly amazing.

For my part, my naive performance is nothing to write home about, I remember the day circuits the twilight and night circuits at 11-12 midnight. I also remember lying in my soaking wet sleeping bag with cramps running up my hamstrings. But most of all I remember failing physiologically to be able to bully myself into getting on the bike again. I do regret this and every year we film the event brings me to the same question, why did I stop when I did, why when many others continued did I bale out, maybe, working and riding is a weird mixed headspace to be in, maybe, I really was finished and not fit enough, or maybe for this sort ultra endurance activity I do not have the mental toughness to keep going. If it’s the latter I should try and rectify this, as I do think of myself as having endurance and stamina, after all I have proved this many times over to myself in other adventure situations.

Why put yourself through something like this you may ask, well the answer is quite simple. if you have to ask you will never know. The 2011 event is now past but there is always next year and the year after, and the one after that.


Action Man 47

We all abdicate responsibility for our welfare and safety in our daily lives, we happily let the bus driver navigate busy streets for us, the doctor peddling us medicines and restaurants selling us food for our health and well being. Some abdications however sit less well with us. Some of us are bad car passengers and would be a happier driving our own car into a brick wall. Worse still when flying off to you holiday in the sun, you “hope” the engineers have done their maintenance job well, the pilot has not got a hangover and the air will hold you up. These journeys we undertake knowing that our fate is in someone else’s hands. Statically we are well removed from air and car accidents, but sometimes we really feel anxious as a passenger when we are know longer in control of our lives.

I think this is why I don’t like my limited paraponting experiences, being strapped to some bloke who it trying to show you a “good time” is bad enough but being lifted into thin air on a sheet of kite material, to me is one step of abdication to much, I don’t like the physics and it’s a sport like scuba diving, where you are utterly reliant on material “stuff” not human power. So why given this obvious need in me to understand the systems that keep me safe, are we climbers so lax when it comes to our rope holding belay partners. It’s not the dangerous rock or ice climb I am talking about, but it’s when we are engaged in arguably our most social of the winters training activities, in the climbing wall.

Climbing walls are social fun and familiar, and this familiarity, as I know to my great cost brings contempt. When belaying (rope holding) we talk, laugh, drink from our water bottles, listen to the music and check out the fit bodies we fancy performing at the other side of the climbing wall. We happily tolerate our baleyers, who hold the thin rope that prevents us being hospitalised engaging in all of these activities and we do it our ourselves.

1 in 18,000 visits to a climbing wall results in a visit to the hospital, although death is very rare, when accidents do happen in climbing walls its usually as the result of partner/ belayer failure. I know this to my cost, I remember slipping off the route at the top of Alien Rocks lead wall, I remember falling and wondering why the rope did not slow me down. I remember rushing groundwards, face first, turning only at the last moment to slam into the floor from 12m up, being thrown backwards off the safety matting onto the unforgiving cold concrete floor. I remember my scream and seeing the distraught face of my ex-girl friend-climbing partner. I thank Peta, the now paramedic, for holding my head not allowing me to look at my arm and move my body at all. I remember the back splint, the slow worrying drive to the hospital and the fear of maybe, never being able to walk. Luckily, the body has long since healed, however the innate trust in belayers is not. I am a demanding climbing partner, and I now hate busy climbing walls and inattentive belayers and climbing partners. Never again will I abdicate such responsibility in such a relaxed manner when climbing. I urge you all to do the same, not only should you check your knot, but make sure you check you partner as well. At least in this life activity you do have a choice, train them or dump them, there are plenty more climbing partners out there.

Action Man 46

“There is no force on earth more powerful than the will to live” 127 Hours

There are few experiences any of us will ever have to go through unless we are in combat or unfortunate enough to be caught up in a cataclysmic event where we will ever be pushed beyond our comfort zones or be compelled to choose between giving up on life or struggling to live.

I luckily don’t think I have had to live though such an experience. However two stories in the climbing or adventure world stand out as glimpses into the souls of men who have gone beyond the norm and have lived to tell and sell there tales to a huge global audience. Touching the Void which tells the tale of Joe Simpson’s epic story of determined survival in the Peruvian Andes and the current 127 Hours which relates Aron Ralston’s enforced self amputation of his arm after becoming stuck under a boulder in the Canyonlands can be viewed in two ways; as vicarious entertainment or as a self probing tool. In the latter case, all those who engage in difficult endeavours will undoubtedly be asking questions of themselves: would I? could I?

Interestingly prior to their grand epics, both Joe Simpson and Aron Ralston had faced a series of “accidents” and incidents of lesser proportion in climbing lives which almost provided them with the skills they needed to employ in order to survive their ultimate tests when they came.

It seems to come down to this; if under stress your tendency is to become rigid or fixed upon one solution, this decreases your chances of survival. If, however, under extreme stress you can access information and are sufficiently flexible to seek alternative solutions obviously you will have a greater chance of living. Survivors know how to improvise: they try multiple strategies. If one action fails, they try another. They are optimistic and unflappable, can tolerate bizarre circumstances and do not freak out.

Whilst in normal circumstances self belief or ego are perceived to be unattractive traits to possess, in extreme situations may very well be those which become your saving grace. Fortunately these skills can be gained and/or trained for. Flexibility not pigheadedness, action over passivity; you can learn these by putting yourself in many varied and challenging circumstances and by playing outside in any weather, not just on the easy sunny days. Linear thinking also does not help and it helps to be an abstract thinker. According to some US military research into combat survival rates people who have had soft lives will also give up first and women, in certain circumstances will be better survivors. So if you’re a single mother of 5 living off your wits in a tent full of holes you’re quids in. If however like me, you’re not, we may not last so long. It’s an amusing concept whilst sitting in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, but in a white out at minus 25 degrees C it rapidly becomes more of a pertinent question.

Action Man 45

My snowboard was flapping behind my head, acting like great big heavy black sail. Each gust of wind forced me to admit that John Falkner, mountain guide, guru, ski man and my wife’s cousin, was right. Carrying a snowboard up a mountain was stupid and I should abandon being a “gay on a tray” and take up skiing. This feeling of being from “another tribe” was compounded by the fact that as I passed under the trees on the trail my 168cm Winterstick would catch on the branches inviting the entire tree to unload its snow load in a mini avalanche down the back of my neck.

We were hiking up Point De Marcilly just above the ski resorts of Praz de Lys looking for some untracked powder in the early part of the ski season. Just above the tree line at 1600m the tree branch challenge was replaced by the wind balance one. The ridge we were climbing was too steep and narrow to skin up and a bit too exposed to the wind for my liking. As we neared the ubiquitous summit cross found on many a French mountain, things were beginning to look good. However a bit of care was required as there was some wind slab avalanche prone snow just below the ridge crest where we wanted to cross.

Gustav my Swedish boarding mate and I removed our snow shoes in an effort to puncture the weak layer and penetrate into the solid snow below and avoid the potential of starting a slide that might take us over a small cliff below. I crossed the weaker snow layer whilst Gustav stayed back by a rock to watch and avoid loading the snow with too much weight. In a few moments the snow became consistent again and we took stock. 50m above us stood the cross but the snow getting to the true summit looked a bit wind blown and grey so we decided to stay on the ridge and start the descent from a safe distance away from any avalanche area.

The entrance to the face looked steep and a bit unsighted which meant that once Gustav had dropped in I would not be able to see him and if it slid (avalanched) I would have no chance of seeing him at all. We decided that I would watch him from a rock outcrop where I could see as much of the run as I could and not come on to the face until he had boarded down and had stopped in a nice safe spot. It all sounds a bit dramatic but this is defensive skiing and as such it is imperative to look after one another. Envious of the virgin tracks he would carve but also glad he was the slope guinea pig, I watched him fly off down the 40 degree entrance slope and float down the North Face in plumes of sky lifted powder. A little shout of Swedish joy the only audible indication of pleasure from an otherwise impassive Scandinavian. Gustav stopped just under a boulder and shouted the all clear. I stepped into my bindings, took a deep breath and popped over the small cornice onto the steep wall of snow. The first few turns of a run like this are always a little scary and heightened. You need to measure the angle, feel the snow, listen for strange bumps cracks and swooshes, and also make sure that it is only you that is moving downhill and not the entire slope you are carving through. It is by far and away the most dangerous moment. I boarded in a series of left trending turns allowing the sluffs from each turn to run to my side. After five or six small turns I was happy that the slope was safe and took the brakes off, concentrating on relaxing and flying fast down the hill. The plumes of super cold powder flew over my head, their crystals dancing in the air momentarily before rejoining there cloud mates lying on the mountain. I learnt two things that day: to enjoy good things some effort must always be made, and that Swedes do actually make a lot of noise if the time is right.

Action Man 44

John’s old Renault rolled up to the front door held to gather by rust and orange paint, it was a bright herald of freedom. God, Sundays were dull, all snoring and greyness. Especially in the winter, when playing outside was a muddy damp experience.

It was 7am and bitterly cold as I closed the door leaving behind me a house locked in Calvinistic guilt, and the perception of fun-less oppression. With the car heater as max and still totally ineffective, through the frost haze John guided the rusting freedom rain towards the locked stalkers gate near Garve.

In those days the chain and its many padlocks was often open, so the early morning visit to the stalkers house was avoided. The resistance to a Sunday morning disturbance for something as frivolous as climbing was always palpable as the key was reluctantly passed from gnarled wooden hands in to my excited youthful grasp. The private road to the lodge is 7 miles of ice pushing and bottoming out on snowdrifts. But every precious meter was two less steps in the icy wind. Parking in a drift off the main track we gazed at the huge cliff as the sun eked its way up through he leaden winter sky. It was plastered in snow and ice, the obvious recent thaw line cutting across the heather just below the crag. John had been spying a huge line with good potential for a new route and today conditions looked perfect.. We got to the cliff base cut out a ledge in the snow and had a quick flask coffee before strapping on our crampons and arming ourselves with our ice axes.

John took the lead weaving an intricate and completely unprotected line up the centre of the huge buttress. After 120feet of chopping, scraping and frozen turf, John stopped, hammered in a warthog ice dagger and belayed me up to the stance. My lead now, I moved out right on to a an ice covered slab, the crampon points were useless on the ice, as its cosmetic layering was just to thin to provide a solid enough base to stand on. I brushed off, as much of the surplus snow as I could to reveal the rock slab below, balancing on the steel points attached to my boots, progress was balance, luck and faith. Totally absorbed and completely engrossed in the task ahead, I inched up the slab, 20 feet out from the belay I found an ice choked crack and tapped in a metal protection nut, more use physiologically than providing any real protection my faith in this piece of rope and steel was enough for me to keep foraging up the cliff. A large lump of frozen turf received my axe blow with a welcome dull thud; this for me signified the end of the difficulties on the route. John and I traded another two leads to the summit ridge. Back at the car we looked in self-congratulatory awe at the huge wall we had climbed, a new route, at piece of history that we made, a first ascent. For 35 years this has been my religion, it has its own stories its own dogmas, martyrs and saints, its own preachers and sinners. However for me, instead of oppression, and limitation, instead of rules and godly guilt, climbing has brought me closer to the heavens and the earth, and offered me magical freedom, at best it’s a deeply meditative absorbing worship, at worst a chance to put you hands on the rocks that our world is built on. May your god go with you?

Action Man 43

The car lead us on towards Torridon, I had spied a new winter route of Ben Damph and the snow was low enough, so the line should be in “in”. Unfortunately we left my parents house in Dingwall just a bit too late and even after some judicious non-stop driving past Garve and Achnasheen we would be lucky to get to the base of the route by just before midday, and for an early winters foray, just too late. As we popped over the hill leading down to Kinlochewe a beautiful sight meet out eyes, full sun on the loch and the hills sparkling under their winters garb. For some time I had been spying some of the streams and small waterfalls that line these roads and as well passed the car park at the tourist lookout, I noticed a splash of blue-white in one of the stream-beds above the road. We parked at the viewpoint and traversed the hill side until we could look into the gully. There it was, a 150m or 200m long stream, completely frozen with rocks, steps of water ice and some mixed climbing. The other two did not fancy the lead so I strapped on the crampons and tackled the first pitch. The first, then became the second and then the third, steep short and very entertaining.

As the day wore on my compatriots not once volunteered to take the lead so by the four pitch I was slightly peeved at being the only one sticking my neck out. The final ice fall was by far the longest, but also the best formed, wide solid and about 70 degrees in angle and maybe 10m long . Using the excuse of needing to take photographs of this historic first ascent I cajoled Dave into taking the lead. I passed him the lead (sharp) end of the rope and then scuttled up the grassy hillside on the right of the ice fall to watch the show.

Dave set off slowly, and seemed to be having some difficulty getting his crampons to bite. Buy mid pitch the slow progress dropped to a painful scrape. I shouted across that he should put in an ice screw, no answer except another small step upwards. Higher and higher he went, protection-less, the ropes hung straight down to Robin who was belaying. There was nothing between him and Dave to slow a fall down. This now became very unpleasant viewing.

Dave still in compete silence had stopped breathing and every swing of his axes became less effective, they bounced of the ice, sending plates of frozen water crashing into the gully base, but still he pushed on with silent resignation and an increasing scene of doom. Far too high to climb down and obviously reaching the limit of his strength he reached the rounding at the top of the ice fall 5 feet from the end and safety. He swung his axe one more time, but as it struck the ice, the rest of the three points of contact failed instantaneously.

With a strangled wail, he disappeared from my cameras view finder and dropped like a stone, 10meters later there was a ice shattering explosion as Dave’s upright body connected with the base of the gully. On contract with terra firma he shot, back into the air and landed on his back, only to come sliding to a gentle stop and Robin feet.

Holly shit, if he's not dead, then he at least he has two broken legs. I scrambled down to the base of the gully fearing the worst. He was sitting up and talking and completely soaked up to the waist in ice cold water.

As he hit the base of the ice fall with such force, he crashed straight through the ice and into the deep pool below the waterfall. The collapsing ice had completely cushioned his fall. A quick examination revealed a very scared, exhausted and borderline hypothermic, but otherwise intact Dave. Having seen the rather rapid decent of the ice fall, Robin refused think about leading. Knowing that if we did not get out soon Dave was going to be unable to function due to the potential onset of shock and hypothermia, I tied into the rope to lead the fateful pitch. I think I enjoyed the lead, its funny and human, the ability to go on after disaster. Maybe it’s a key skill to surviving any challenge

The climb is called Helter Skelter.

Action Man 42

Its cold, warm, cold then warm again, it can turn Cairngorm powder snow into bullet hard snow and ice, or a raked brown hillside in a matter of hours. Streams that run freely in the Autumn rains become locked up in ice, then break free from their frosty shackles only to be slowed down again to a viscous crawl. This is the pattern of a Scottish winter. It’s unpredictable and at times frustrating. Planning a winter’s expedition to ice climb or ski, is not a certain thing, it requires a degree of spontaneity and readiness. Waiting for a climb or hill to come into condition, is a bit like being on constant fighter pilot scramble alert. The rucksack has to remain packed ready to go, head torch working, energy bars stuffed into zipped pockets and piles of maps at hand to aid any white-out escape if necessary.

It’s been cold for few days now and after a round of phone calls on Thursday evening, a plan is made. Its Friday evening in Edinburgh and a light cold rain is falling in the city and my enthusiasm is waning. The prospect of a warm evening in front the box seems at this moment a nicer prospect than a late drive into the winter conditions of the north.

Kenny’s car predictably draws up to the tenement door. The buzzer rings and its time to man up. After a quick discussion about the onset of a mild thaw, we head north with the blind optimism of the Scottish winter climber. By Perth we have decided to head east not west, as the predicated thaw is lightly to strip out Glencoe and the Ben before the “Gorms”. The stars are bright and the moon is clear and high, it is still cold. Kenny has been doing this for 30 years, tacking a calculated risk on the conditions and weather, driving hundreds of miles weekend after weekend, hunting for new unclimbed routes and notable ascents. New routing, looking for first ascents requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cliffs and mountain of the country, a comprehension of wind direction freezing levels and a deal of luck and timing, Spence is a master. The car grinds to a halt in the Cairngorm car park at the ski lift. Is 11.30pm on Friday night and is cold and still, it looks good for tomorrow. The plan is persuade ourselves out of our sleeping bags just before sunrise and walk into Shelterstone crag giving the maximum amount of daylight on the route. At an undisclosed location I find a public toilet door open. The floor is clean and the place is warm. I rig the hand dryer so it pumps out hot air and lay down the thermarest sleeping mat. The prospect of sleeping in the car as a six-footer, is defiantly the worst of the two evils. Here I have heat, light and the mild smell of cleaning solvents, I ignore the other perfumed undertones. In the car, lays twisted in a ball, a gnarly old climber and a dry cough. Once the “room” reaches a toasty 6 degrees, I stop the hand dryer and crawl into my sleeping bag. Needs must…

Sleep is fitful, but sufficient. The sound of a reversing vehicle serves as my alarm, the sun is already up… well its not up, its just a bit lighter than the night time, I quickly dress and force on my winter climbing boots and step out into the day ready for the long cold walk in, instead of milky morning sun I find a grey mirk, its pissing down and very warm, blowing hard and quite frankly crap. We have a resigned sense of relief and disappointment but with a sense of righteous resignation. Today will be spent in the Red Squirrel café with the other winter warriors, in that famous tea and cake ritual, know to all Scottish Climbers.

Action Man 41

For a few years now I have been working in a cross over world between corporate property developers, big brands and adventure sports. I spend much of my life advising companies how to work with adventure sports from the outside. The trick is essentially understanding your market, what do they like, what are there elegancies, what works within the sports language and what looks bad and ultimately turns off the core sports participant. A total classic was a well know shaving brand using images of clean shaven snowboarders rubbing there smooth chins, whilst performing inverted 360 spins, just too god dam clean and what was worse they dressed the poor models up in ski gear.

The overall affect is to make the brand look ill informed, too try hard and the laughing stock of every snowboarder in the western world. However if the same company then decided to sponsor a big air comp or a DVD with some top riders, i.e. actually invested in the sports they were nicking the imagery from, the snowboard community would cut them a bit of slack.

Essentially what I am saying is these sports are tribal and loyal to there own first and foremost, and do not like being told what to do, wear, eat or how to behave from beyond there sports. Understanding that market is key. It’s interesting also how quickly a company or brand that was seen to being linked positively with an activity can so quickly fall from grace.

In the marketing and sponsorship world, you do expect many investments to only last 3-5 years at the most and then the car, cosmetics or drinks company moves on, but if done well, the heritage of their investment lives on. Especially if they leave some thing positive at the grass roots level.

This I suppose brings me to the HUB of the story. For years (6 to be exact) Glen Tress near Peebles has been the centre of Scottish Mountain biking, hundreds of thousands of people have ridden there, making it the most successful cross country MTB venue in Europe. This is in no small part is due to the fact that the people running the facilities were bikers them selves. They are part of the tribe; in fact they are centre of that particular universe. Every regular rider at Glen Tress knows Emma and Tracy and has seen them work there butts off to build what is now to be taken from them and the mountain bike community they have build, served and educated. The rub is that the founders of the biggest mountain bike venue in the UK have not managed to win the tender to continue the lease at the HUB. The outcry amongst riders across the UK has been huge, the loyalty of the sport to its own heartening. The backlash towards the Forestry Commission is visceral and heartfelt, if they are evicted, of course people will continue to ride there, after all the trails are good. But the damage will be done; the Forestry Commission in one fell swoop will have gone from soft fluffy benevolent benefactor to an insensitive government quango. It’s a major PR blunder and it will do irreparable harm to their brand and development aspirations. Their desire to develop leisure facilities will be seen buy the MTB community to be flawed and ultimately to be not about health, and fun but money. I also would not fancy being the new café managers for the first few months of the lease; it might be just a little colder in the café on a winter’s morn.

Action Man 39

I am in the extraordinary lucky position to be able to work with mountaineering and snow sports clothing companies giving feedback and performing PR duties. It give me the chances to use the best gear year round. Moreover it gives me the ability to be in a position of knowing what works on the mountain and what does not. You find out pretty quickly which sleeping bag is most suited to an Alpine environment or which hard shell holds up to the dampness of a Scottish winters day, which innovations are practical and real and which are quite frankly, nothing more than gimmicks. At this time of year when many people are about to spend their hard earned cash on a new ski outfit or some climbing kit, an ice axe or a snowboard just exactly how do you go about avoiding the dud?

There have been some absolutely stupid ideas in the last few years as many gadgets have been added to kit purely for manufacturers to shout about and not really to enhance functionality. One of the most laughable in recent years has been the use of mini magnets to replace zips or poppers on the pockets of ski and snowboard clothing. To add to the idiocy of this “improvement” was the inclusion of a compass sewn into the sleeve of the self same garment. Imagine telling the rescue team that your compass would not work because magnetic north was actually in your jacket and not in Canada.

Another classic is the idea of cloth or leather covered ski or snowboard helmets. Absolutely ideal of course for soaking wet snow days in Scotland when just the sheer fact of increasing elevation can turn the head sponge into a helmet sealed in ice. Why?

When money is tight it is always going to be a temptation to buy cheap kit and for the occasional spring sun soaked ski holiday quite frankly pretty much anything will do, cowboy hats and jeans included. It’s a good look if you live in Durango, but not if you live in Dundee. I am the co-owner of The La Source Chalet in the Alps and week after week I find myself lending out rucksacks, helmets, gloves and clothes, and if the clients are big enough and not squeamish, in some cases thermals. People are often suckered into buying fashion and not function. It’s not their fault rather more the result of poor advice given in the shop and a lack of real knowledge about mountain conditions.

The adage amongst mountaineers and serious hill people that cotton kills just doesn’t seem to get through. It kills because it soaks in sweat and does not transport it away from your body and then cools down faster than a streaker in a police van. It’s not just a matter of personal comfort or safety. If you are properly dressed and your idiot hill partner has a crotch lower than his knees, a huge t-shirt hanging over his arse, and a set of earphones the colour of a green beetle, leave him in the half pipe and don’t go hiking into the hills in search of a few clean turns. I say this because when he inevitably gets cold, it’s not just going to be your day that may be shortened, it also could be your life. This principle holds true for any winter sport. So how do you make the choice between a nice looking piece of equipment and something that actually works? Well, my basic advice is to use equipment that is made by mountaineering brands, and the plus is that nowadays it often looks pretty nice too. There is no doubt that some more mainstream snowboard and ski companies are getting there, but keep your eyes open. If it looks fussy, has pockets on the knees, and does not have sealing tape on the seams, just forget it. Function is now fashion, keep the cotton tee-shirt clean for the pub, go hug a merino sheep, leave the studs in the nightclubs, and go buy something that will work in Nepal or on Ben Nevis instead.