Friday, December 30, 2005

Scottish Gobstoppers from 2005

This year has seen a continued exploration of Scotland's vast bouldering potential, with many new venues and ascents from a growing critical mass of boulderers. The sheer remoteness of some venues has meant repeats will be slow in coming, but these are some of the most impressive confirmed bouldering ascents of the year.

February at Dumby and Dave MacLeod has been busy on the rocks, with the first major ascent of the year: 'Smokescreen' V12. He describes it thus: “The second big project to go in the Firestarter cave. Start just left of the flat lip jug with both hands in a good slot. Levitate up and slightly left on atrocious glassy slopers until it is possible to make a technical slap right to a tiny ripple on a smooth ramp. Go again for the High Flyer jug and finish up this. devious and technical with a backbreaking landing. Hardest bloc at Dumby in Feb 2005.�

Dave MacLeod on The Perfect Crime V13

March 2005, Dumbarton. An invigorated Dave Macleod climbs the link-up into his previous year's highlight of 'Sabotage' to give 'The Perfect Crime' - a tortuous adventure out of the depths of the BNI cave onto the lip of the BNI slab. Dumby's first V13, but not his last this year!

Chris Graham on the underbelly of The Sword V10,
which appears to have lopped off his head...

In the same month Chris Graham added one of the finest lines to the NW Highlands… the stunning dramatic line of 'The Sword' V10 Font 7c+ at Craig Mhor Bhrinicoire on Loch Morar. He finally succeeded in between rain showers. He describes it: 'The superb and outrageously steep prow below the main crag from a sit start right at its base. Dynamic and powerful moves up the blade lead to a difficult slap between two slopers either side of a chockstone (not used!) and then to the top. Brilliant!'

Not a traditional month for bouldering, June in Scotland can be cool and perfect for hanging slopers when other areas in the UK are too soapy. At Dumbarton, Malcolm Smith took advantage of his strength and reasonable conditions to link up the two lines of 'Pongo Sit-start' and the reverse of 'In Bloom' to give the bicep-mashing combination that is 'Supersize Me' V13, laying down the guantlet to MacLeod once more!

Mal Smith on 'Supersize me' V13
Pic courtesy of

Again in June, on the east shores of Loch Lomond, Chris Graham revisited the Spinach boulder and climbed its impressive roof to give 'Out of the Blue' at a grade of V9.

Chris Graham on his own 'Out of The Blue' V9, Loch Lomond

Not to forget about the Aberdeen crew, Tim Rankin reported further development south of Portlethen in the bouldery bays of Clashfarquhar. With others, he added scores of new problems, with the highlight being the excellently named Central Belt Mafia:

Sweet Cheeks 7c Climb the impressive overhanging arete on the landward side of the biggest boulder from a sitting start off the obvious break. Excellent moves slapping up Sweet Cheeks!

Central Belt Mafia 7c+/8a From the sitting start of Sweet Cheeks take the right side of the arete up to the hanging blind crack, slap up crimps and slopers either side of this to a hard rockover onto the slab (the problem Candy Man 7b) the scoop on the left is out.

Tim Rankin

December 2005. back to the black heart of Dumbarton and Dave MacLeod pulls another out of the bag - the long-desired project of the Gorilla cave falls at last! Dave enthused:

This time I found a bit more toe hook trickery that made the crux flow much better and immediately I started getting to the last couple of moves. I fell off 11 times from the last move then had 5 days off and did it first try December 12. I hit the jug but my feet came off (which normally means game over) but had a weird cut loose moment where time slows down and you cant tell if you've done it till the legs finally swing in again.

A great way to end the year with possibly the most demanding of the V13's at Dumby!

Pressure V13 - Scotland's hardest Dumby problem to date...

There were notable repeats: Tim Rankin climbed Craig's Wall and the sit start to Shrinking Violet at the Thirstane - confirming it to be hard and worth V11.

Tim Rankin on Shrinking Violet V11, Thirlstane.
Pic courtesy of Tim Rankin.

Rob Sutton cleaned up at Dumby, making short work of 'In Bloom' & 'Pongo Sit-Start'

Gary Vincent mashed 'King Kong' in a fight and in December the route-maestro Alan Cassidy repeated the awesome 'Sabotage' (nice one Alan!)... the list goes one, but lots of people made great progress this year and expanded the range of venues... I'll cover that in another post.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Muchalls Shore

Thanks to Stuart Stronach for pics of an exciting new venue: Muchalls Shore, south of Portlethen. Stuart reports:

Thankyou Mister Limpet V1

"It’s a few miles south of Portlethen – a broad pebbly beach with assorted boulders, craglets and pinnacles that now offers nearly 100 problems, mostly very easy but with a few up to V5. As such, it will hopefully attract those who find the Portlethen circuit a little too intense, and/or those new to bouldering. The mostly friendly landings also make a pleasant change from the boulders and rocks on other coastal spots. That said, there are a few problems which require a ‘shallow water soloing’ mentality, including Chris Fryer’s Smile Around the Face.

Smile Around the Face V2

Downsides? Well, it’s more tidal than Portlethen, so barnacles can be a problem when the tide is out, and the problems are spread out over a larger area.

Potential for more problems? The area immediately north of the current developments is a complex arrangement of through-caves and arches which provide some very steep rock. Some of it is crumbly, some of it is greasy, but there are areas which could yield some much harder problems than have currently been climbed. There is also potential for some sport routes to be done on the landward face of the massive stack/headland out to sea from the descent path.

The main developers have been myself, Amanda Lyons, Chris Fryer and Rowie Beaton, with the odd contribution from Ben Tye, Andy Inglis, Matthew Bernstein and Dave Bruce.

I’ve put together a wee guide to the areas which Tisos are selling for me – full colour topos plus text descriptions of every problem plus photo illustrations throughout."
903916 - 903913

Solstice Rock

Port Nis - pic by Helen Suzanne

The winter solstice, 6 hours of daylight, the sun skimming low over a watery horizon, driven by a Hebridean wind. The rain lashes the window like sand and the wind hokes in the chimneys looking for something lost... it was only to be expected on a winter bouldering trip to Lewis. The land here is romantically bleak and skirted with a coastal fringe of hardbitten gneiss: veins of ancient colour run through it and everything has shape in it, like frozen creatures in the midst of some weird metamorphosis. The old myths of being turned to stone if you look back are evident everywhere on this howling coastline. A museum of rock where the pinnacles, the waves of rock, the faces in stone, the tortured headlands, exhibit the faces of a previous life beyond all memory. This is where the old Gaelic stories are born out of the exposed stones and given the cloth of meaning. Good people live here, with television and internet and wellies in the hall, but it is as if when we come here we all move like beings caught in the amber of ancient myth.

The Sea Peanut - pic courtesy of Helen Suzanne

The climbing was disappointing, mainly due to the inclement seepage on the best lines, very frustrating for a short visit, but it's easier to be patient here in this old land and there are other things to be learnt from the rock and nature when you can't climb. I was shown around and explored some of the steeper lines, hoping they would be dry and maybe I'd get some stunning footage on film, but it was not to be. The only line we found climbable were the lines on the Sea Peanut at Port Nis and the nearby Atlantic Bridge cave, which John Watson despatched with more obvious holds for a less giddy proposal than the first ascensionist! John pronounced it a three-star classic, if only the nearby primeval power of wind and sea didn't make it all seem so embarrassing to proclaim such a thing! Certainly one to seek out if you're in the area.

Yarding it out along Atlantic Bridge - pic by Helen Suzanne

A walk to the Aird beaches at Dell, scoured by storms and down to stoney winter bones, revealed the scope of bouldering here - it is an endless affair with rock, reluctant to be placed in history, where everything moves on, on to the next bay, relentlesss waves of exploration...

The Semaphore Stac at Aird

A flying visit to Clisham and Tarbert led to the discovery of some more fine rock and hopefully some forthcoming film on one of the finest pieces of rock in this corner of the world. Superb hospitality awaits you here, and some excellent rock: take a pinch of salt, do not be terrified by the myths and leave your hubris behind - it's a land of generous movement and wild dreams.

The Clisham Boulder fields...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Clashfarquhar - Yukon Afternoon

Some winter afternoons in Scotland repay persistence. Driving around lost in a warren of roads and dead-end villages. A rumour of fine new rock , good landings, perfect sea-swirl schist, veins of gold movement...

Tim Rankin has been extending the Aberdeen bouldering scene south along the sea cliffs of Portlethen, adding about 40 problems and his hardest to date at about V11.

Gold Rush V5

Unsure of the precise location, I kept bashing along the coves and platforms until it became obvious where the bouldering was to be had - sun-drenched walls of gold-quartzed schist, solitude and a breathing ocean. With the sun sinking like a slow flare, I pitched the mats and got cranking on a big boulder. The rest was a blur of movement and failure and occasionally success.

Yukon Afternoon V3

Monday, November 28, 2005


The first snows on the southern highlands now have a wider vista behind the the slow dismantling of the old distillery, like time being reversed. All the bricks being removed, taken away, turned back into dust and clay, buried back in the earth... and still we return to Dumbarton, dismantling the old, forging the new.

Winter has come early this November... it's bouldering weather - time to get on the slopers you couldn't hang in summer, time to enjoy the brief thrill of rubber biting into smooth basalt, sticking and allowing the torque to be applied... letting the power surge smoothly without the clutch slipping. Dave MacLeod is very close to the roof link-up under Gorilla, saying he feels way stronger than last year (!) - the body tension in him is locked taut as an Erskine bridge cable, which is the least required to maintain the rigid architecture between fingers and heels.

Dave MacLeod working 'Pressure'

Someone took a chainsaw to the old 2HB sycamore, a rather radical prune, but no doubt it will sprout back, stumpier but perennial (maybe best to get rid of the evidence, boys?). One benefit of this is that it has revealed A Ford Flash - Cubby's testpiece on the front wall of Eagle Boulder. It also allows an unobstructed sit-start to an excellent reverse problem to Dressed for Success, which is well-chalked at the minute and maybe a grade easier than the left to right version (Font 7b for the money). Consolidated is getting the attention of Richard McGhee - see his ridiulously huge span in the photo sequence, though what he makes up for in reach he loses in body tension, possibly making it all harder and a F8a proposition.

Richard McGhee on Consolidated V9

There's a good new eliminate traverse that stays dry even in atrocious weather - Shattered - which follows the lowest line of holds from the Desperado corner to a step-off under the Fever Pitch arete. The rule is simple- use the lowest holds and no high jugs for rests. It gets hard about Longbow, where a drop-down move leads to a hard cruxy sequence past the cave and under the bulge through to the arete. Dave MacLeod thought it a worthy F7c, before John Watson cheekily downgraded it to F7b+ (because he doesn't get that opportunity too often!).

Steve Richardson on 'Shattered'

In this weather, you should be getting on the slopey classics: Gorilla, Slap Happy, Consolidated, Mugsy... it all feels like a bargain at the minute! If you are down at the Rock this winter, bring a binbag or two so that when you're boosted you can collect some cans and rubbish and throw it in the skip by the stadium - there is a party culture in the Gorilla Cave at the minute and discarded Tennent's cans seem to be appearing spontaneously, as though they leave spores. It's your local world-class bouldering venue and needs a little help sometimes, you'll not see a fluorescent council jacket down here, that's for sure...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

'The Inchbae Intrusion'

Sounds like a bad thriller, jets screaming overhead, somewhere in Scotland, someone on the run across the heather, pursued by guns and dogs, hiding behind boulders...

Ian Taylor had seen them as well, glacial drift and erratics all over the place, in dumpy moraine hillocks and drumlins. Once or twice I almost ended up in Black Bridge craning my neck out the side-window. Then one day I stopped, put the wellies on and went to satisfy the rock-thirst again.

Situated between Garve and Ullapool, these boulders are mostly hidden from view, but a litter of small ones by 'Lubfearn' (the alder loop), under the choked throat of Altguish, were recently attended to by myself and Ian Taylor. Here's what Ian found as description for the area:

'originally a porphyritic granite with abundant orthoclase phenocrysts, but is now a coarse biotite-granite gneiss in which the phenocrysts are largely deformed to augen wrapped round by a steaked out matrix of quartz, biotite, potash felspar and plagioclase'

A code by the sounds of it! The rock is indeed a heady mixture of crystals and codes, teasing body positions and curious resolutions.

A circuit of about twenty good problems now exists, with more chapters to be written...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Border Raid

Shape and movement moulded into one! Okay, it's not Scotland, but while storms rattled chimneys in the far North West, a late autumn sun skidded low over the post-harvest Cheviots and if the Tweed had deigned to meander further south, we'd have a mini-Fontainebleau in Scotland. But the Dovehole boulders rightly remain part of 'the coonty'. Just past Coldstream, the road bends sharply through Milfield and a forest break on the east flanks of these gentle hills reveals a nest of sandstone sculptures... a perfect haven for an autumn afternoon, my only company a few pheasants ratcheting off over the stubble like clockwork-sprung toys.

Some spots are perfect microcosms of movement. The wind-imagined shapes of these sandstone stumps rise like remembered dunes from an ancient land, their original domes and rope-twists smoothed out into half-seen shapes and mythical softness. The movement is quick like half-remembered dreams, you flow through the easy meditations on generous pockets, the feet rasp on rough slopers and it's easy to skip over the brow of awareness.

The wind-smooth belly of a boulder. I layback up the crack, feet on a black ramp, arcing my neck to eye the big chalky jugs out right. I stretch, but they're too far, I come back to the crack, eye two span-shortening crimps at my eyes, a twist of the body allows the right hand to press, the left comes to the better crimp, the span is allowed and then the cut-loose... feet mow the short grass and top a few toadstools, the toes skitter to find solution pockets, the lunge is jacked up and then the shoulder-twisting pinch sets up a right heel-hook instinctively. I think I hear the sound of sand grains biting on rubber, but a neurone fires and an inverted hand snap allows a mantle on the flat jug... the neck crooks up to eye the finishing jug, like a short dream closing it is gained too soon...

I putter back down to the mat. The sun stops on its glide and beats without time and then accelerates and dims as I sit panting, hands tingling and clamped round knees. A bouldering border raid - a raid on time's restless gravity, my consciousness briefly having balanced a ballbearing on a pin...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Glen Etive Bouldering

Storm Boulder

Cubby has reported his problems on the Etive boulders at and I paid a visit on a squally day in the mid-autumn westerlies. I stuck the wellies on and stomped along the boggy path in driving rain until it became obvious the shoreline was the better approach. The rain passed and the sun came out, the first two boulders nestling like gleaming dinosaur eggs on the brink of the loch. The problems require sit starts, with the traverses being the classic lines.

Micron 2000 Boulder - Jo George, courtesy of

Between Heaven and Hell is a desperate traverse clockwise from the west slab lip round the boulder, I was glad it was soaked in a way, but a fresh wind and sun dried it off instantly, so I decided to come back to it... Cubby rates it as an absolute cracker, and a hard Font 7b, that's about V8 in modern currency. Silver Surfer is an excellent rockover problem on this boulder. For more info, see Cubby's site.

A further 10 minutes along the shore and a large Alder tree hides the overhangs of the Storm Boulder. The eastern ramp, without feet on the jammed boulder, leads to a slopey arete and a desperate snatch to a pink quartz vein, then an even harder snap to good holds at the top of the arete. it's well worth Font 7a V5 from the sit start and Font 6b V3 from standing. The sit start to the other arete is a tough Brit 6c, about Font 6c, as it is short but fingery powerful.

West Lip of the Storm Boulder

A nice west wall lip traverse is Font 6b V2 and there is an uu-named sit start to the west wall which looks desperate... it rained before I could fail on it!

Numpty's Day Oot
- pic courtesy of Allan Wallace

Allan Wallace has also climbed here - the crack in the Numpty boulder (seen easily from the parking spot) is a good problem on the way up to the slabs. Cubby mentioned he had played on the jumble of boulders beneath the slabs, but found them a little wanting. However, scout them if you're up there on the Coffin Stone at lunch, there may be a few hidden problems worth the hunt!

A great place for a stomp with a boulder mat - there are hidden secrets to be found here - watch this space!

Monday, September 19, 2005


Guy Robertson on 'The Aberdonian' V8 ss


On the main area, Tim Rankin added a hard sit start called The Aberdonian, which he says is an unmissable problem if you’re climbing to that level and in the area. The stand-up is easier, but also classic status amongst the problems here. John Watson added a link-up on the Bad Buoy - start up the Bad Buoy sit start to the break, traverse right to a crux cut-loose and desperate little nubbin sloper to rock up the flake problem above the mezzanine. Glasgow Bhoy V6 pic...

Tim Rankin has further devloped the harbour area, mainly round the big stone of the Bad Buoy Boulder and Dave’s Roof across the wee bay. Hopefully we’ll see a complete topo for Portlethen in the near future, as it now has hundreds of excellent gems. The best problems are Pete’S Lip - the full lip traverse of the boulder skipping over to the smaller boulder to finish along that; the seaward arete of Moon Lightning and the steep central wall from a sit start (Bad Ass Buoy/Glasgow Bhoy).Thanks to Tim for all the development here! He describes the access to Portlethen thus:

This is the collective name given to the boulders and small walls situated either side of the beautiful picturesque fishing harbour on the north side of Portlethen village. There are three main areas of interest all with there own charter and a trip can easily combine a visit to all 3. Also they have contrasting features and aspects making them a good choice in unpredictable weather when it would usually be possible to find something to climb. The three areas are; The boulders and walls on the right side of the harbour as you look south dubbed Rankin’s World. The long low roof of Dave’s Roof on the opposite side of the harbour (the left side as you look south) and the scattering of boulders on the foreshore, north east of the harbour. All three areas are very easily accessible and Rankin’s World can boast the shortest approach in the area being 30 sec from the car! Drive to Portlethen village, take the first left down past the play park, continue down the steep narrow road through the village until a private road leads right down beside a deep inlet. Park in the lay-by on the right not the turning area further on, if there is no space drive back into the village and park sensibly. For Rankin’s World walk down the road to the bend and cross the barrier in the south east corner and head down the steep grass slope with care, at the bottom cut back left below a steep brown wall (“Dusk till Dawn�). It is also possible to gain this area from the harbour at low tide by skirting it on the right. For Dave’s roof continue down the road and take the steps down to the harbour, skirt its left edge to the roof, 3mins. For the foreshore boulders follow the road to the white cottage, continue east on a grass path until a large undercut boulder is found (The Clam) 5mins.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Acapulco Zawn - Dawros Head, Donegal

Acapulco E3 5c Acapulco Zawn - a wild traipse over a storm-smoothed wall, moving boldly between thin breaks until forced out over the sea... this photo was taken in 1999, I believe. A perfect sea-cliff route.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Temperance V5 Dawros Head Donegal

Bouldering out of a blow-hole on a wave-cut platform, up stepped overhangs, the crux of this was maintaining body tension and hanging the slopers long enough to reach a three-finger crimp and wind-eroded jugs in the seams of schist above... I spent a good hour trying to find the balance and still my body enough to keep the hand on that left sloper... too much momentum meant falling over, too little power meant a slip back into your own gravity: a bit like the balance in surfing a wave - rock is a static wave that has to be surfed upwards with the same attention to balance and control.

The Famine Road

Meta Bouldering

Metadolerite. what the hell was that? I flicked through the South Donegal appendix to discover it is an igneous intrusion, but very, very old. An original intrusion into very old schist, this itself had been metamorphosed several times into a dense smooth gabbro of sorts, with rough faces and unbreakable holds, even the wee edges were like diamond. There was sea-washed schist as well, smooth and faceted, or rippled into finger jugs where baby periwinkles lodged under the fingernails... sea-bouldering in Donegal is elemental. Traipsing out over zawns, heel-hooking out along wave-cut platforms, hanging to a nugget-hard residue of the earth's previous thoughts. Seals raised curious buoy-like heads, sniffed the air for human sweat, curious at the odd struggles. A russet mink sniffed along the ledges, oblivious and upwind, then vanished into the rocks somewhere. The machair is bitten down by late summer winds, the heather dessicated, mushrooms shrivelled in dry cow pats, asphodel like a small stellar explosion... everything is shaped by the wind and the salt, hardened honeycombs of life hanging on to the fringes. Bouldering hangs on to the fringes of the climbing world, a rare machair of short-bitten movement and evolution to a dessicated habitat - skin peels with salt and chalk. It has its own season, its own eye needed to spy out the movement in those overhangs, the hidden aretes of sea cliffs, the deep-water solos that thicken the phlegm, everywhere following the random lines of geology and erosion. Surfing the hard edge of erosion, the slow wave of rock collapsing into beetling overhangs, if you watched long enough. Like the late summer flowers on the machair, we are spits of colour in a relentless surge not of our own.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Monday, June 06, 2005

Engram 1

I have touched a lot of rock in the last couple of decades and wanted to try and retrieve the emotions of it a little bit better, rather than just saying, oh yes, I've done that... and that...that too. If you took this attitude to climbing, there'd be no point moving at all, you'd have just gone through physical motions like going to work and it would all have no context at all. A climbing friend once said he felt strange that he might just be remembered for 'being able to hang on small bits of rock for ages" and this is the fear we have, that it is all meaningless.

I don't believe it is - most of us understand our climbing intuitively and it is a spiritual thing that just happens as you climb and is contiguous... no need to talk about it. I would feel the same, but also think it is worthwhile bringing something to the mountain or the stone other than just more desire... an echoing ear at least, or an engram eye. It is good when moving on new rock and old memories play out, or experience kicks in with some learnt trick of composure and technique... but the memories, which ones inform my climbing?

I came late to climbing, eventually finding a physical meaning in an environment I’d always known but never befriended. Rock was always part of my landscape on the coasts and hills of Ireland: tilting over rocky shores as a child like some dwarf drunk, daring each other up small basalt pinnacles and quarries, then later scaring myself witless on the chalk cliffs of County Antrim. I suppose that's where its meaning really worked its veins into me, like some ancient geological graft into my weak flesh and bird-thin bone.

We lived for a while on one of those porchlit houses perched on a basalt cliff, like something out of a Hitchcock movie. Lighthouses blinked in a glittering arc westwards from Ailsa Craig past Kintyre and Islay to Malin Head. I would sit with my father for hours on the concrete plinth above the porch, watching these flickering sequences until just occasionally they flashed all at once. Constellations jacked slowly through the night and the moon, a slow-motion lob of light, turned the chalk cliffs a deep and thoughtful blue.

During the long summers I would escape down secret fishermen paths on the chalk cliffs, exploring the echoing shoreline beneath the fulmar-ridden heights above me. I climbed over knee-prickly solution-pocketed limestone, rubbed my hand on the smoother sea-washed chalk in the great ears of sea caves, and sank into a dreamtime of stone. Climbing was then just a natural movement in my curious travels: traversing round tidal headlands, pulling up over sudden walls, grasping great clumps of grass and treacherous bluebell tongues as I climbed back up the steep vegetated cliffs...

The chalk cliffs are made of living things, long-dead and pasted together in a kind of communal freeze-frame of drift and chance. Belemnites, ammonites, billions of microscopic animules which under a microscope appear as some alien space opera; it was a stunning thought that these creatures had made a cliff-face out of something as simple as death. God did not echo here, something grander did...

I heard the first echoes of my own tiny human thoughts, I learnt consciousness and humility, I learned to understand rock could whisper the boggling random design of life - this was my church: an unmediated wonder, full of hidden jeweled anemones in the pocketed rock, scuttling life under seawet boulders, kittiwakes wheeling and and screeching along the guano-scented cliffs.

This was the 'John Muir' time for me when stone and nature grew irrevocably in me and I found I could not live without my window open and the sound of the sea slapping its belly against the cliffs all night.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Phosphorous Fur

Deep in the cave something... like a light when you crack your head on an overhang, but in a green tinge, the stuff you can't focus on...

The problem above me lay still, the magnetised relationship of holds divorcing into just being rock, and I remembered where I'd seen this before... on Arran, twenty years ago as a youth, during a midnight swim opposite the Holy Island. The water bloomed around me in billions of phosphorescent living things. Either the sea was hallucinating, or I'd got over-excited and pee'd in the great swimming pool of life... it races through twenty years to paste in the celluloid...amazing how memory covers ground so fast.

Boulderers find themselves in odd places, like an Indiana Jones extra lost in the wrong canyon, eyed by the beasts, suddenly nowhere near the cameras and action. I sit on the mat for a while and absorb the green gold glowing away happily beside me. Perfect time to be swallowed whole by the only sabre-toothed tiger in Scotland.

That was what I wanted, after all. I'm alone with nature, and I can feel my senses bloom with primeval latency. I squint and stare, blood beats in my ears, where I squat under the short wall - arrowed with chalk petroglyphs, poffed with carbonate blooms, black rubber smears where my feet have licked rock time and again. The boulderer's rubric; another animal's markings. There is a mossy wooded silence that presages something, I'm suddenly stopped from my fast-camera repetition of cling, fall, brush, poff, dip; cling, fall...

...a tree root bores into the moss like some stilled tornado, the young spring leaves put their hands over their lips and I'm being told something. I'm sure those were wings beating silently over my head - everything is the shadow of some hidden revelation. The cave glows as the sun suddenly fades, the dark holds on to the light, enviously as it were, and a green gold fills the belly of dank rock - a bloom of phosphorescence.

Suddenly tempted, I stretch into the cave - a dribbling prospector - and pull out a small glowing coal of the stuff. I bring it outside and it vanishes, reclaimed by the sun, as if darkness hadn't been insured.

I like this serendipity, achieved by surrounding oneself with simple rock and nature. It is partly rejoining it all again, partly the personal privilege of it all, but also the knowledge that these things happen precariously, you must stop everything... climbing becomes a dead still activity, as if you might overbalance the moment.

I know when I pull on again, the stillness will cover me like a phosphorous fur, lit up by the movement and blur, briefly stealing light from its source.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Originally uploaded by jsw2004.
Rope-A-Dope V4

How Bouldering Turned Me Blind

A weekend of untouched boulders and hero stones, fine rewards in lost places, I pay thanks to the golden ratio: for every good day we must suffer so many bad... the necessary trade-off of awry days, bad weather, midgies and plain stupidity...

‘I could see them from Glen Etive, one eye on the road, the other chameleon eye scouring the hillside above. The car kept lurching into roadside ruts on the single track so I stopped and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Shakily, I held them against my spectacles and briefly granite came into gleaming focus - sun beamed off clean white prows and my heart leapt with bouldery anticipation.

But I could be wrong: I had been fooled before – stone giants had become lichenous dwarfs when I arrived. I tried to judge their size by the shrubs and trees around – they seemed to belittle the shrubs and respectably diminish the proportions of a stand of Scots Pine high on the hill. I resolved to climb them.
The only problem was a Great Barrier Reef of Rhododendron: a notorious garden escapologist whose only purpose seemed to be to spread its progeny and hide boulders. I stomped up to this barrier and found it impenetrable: great curlicue snakes ready to snarl me and my blue sail of a boulder mat as soon as I waded in.
I came back down to the road and sat on the mat, and contemplated another approach. To the left, a plantation of equally notorious wayfaring stoppers: a spruce plantation. However, it was bordered by the more open and brighter fringe of a larch stand, along a small stream, itself engulfed with the dreaded ‘rhodies’. If I gained enough height through the larch, I reasoned, I might make it to a bracken break into the high sierra where the boulders stood uncluttered.

It all went swimmingly through the larch until the ground steepened and I was slipping into the vortex of rhododendron creepers. I bashed on, figuring a little more height was all I needed. I had to get on my knees now and push my boulder mat ahead of me along a litter of autumn leaves. The canopy was thickening into that dark primeval green of evil rhododendron and suddenly all the larch openness had vanished and there was nothing but a jungle all around and I was committed. I reasoned I should keep gaining height. I pushed through tight vine networks and came to an old deer fence, rusting and leaning with the weight of the accursed rhodies. I tumbled ungraciously over this, then was forced back again, hitting a totally impenetrable impasse by the stream, which trickled deeply and unseen somewhere to my right. I saw what looked like granite through a small chink in the vines and aimed for it.

Then it happened: a rogue elastic vine hooked itself under the right arm of my spectacles and as I lunged forward through this woody digestive track, the glasses were sprung from my eyes as though by a playground bully. I thought I heard them land somewhere in the leaf litter. I stopped; sweating, blind, breathing hard. I had no sense of direction now – suddenly bat-blind without my glasses – and I could feel panic begin to bubble up. I sat on my knees and resolved to grid search with my hands. Twigs felt like spectacle arms and leaves had conspired to turn the precise mottled shades of tortoise-shell. I was blinded; the boulders had sucked me in. I was lost and I howled at the vines and darkness.

It took me an hour to find the glasses, folded neatly in the forest litter. I only recognized them as articulated twigs with glossy leaves.

Right, I was angry now, and determined. I put my ‘eyes’ back on, wary now of finger-flicking vines, and pushed on, the boulder mat scudding ahead. I came across a total tangle of branches and vines and barged them with the boulder mat. I broke through suddenly into a clearing, with an old gate in the deer fence leading to the bracken break and the tip of a granite boulder gleaming in the blue. Then I looked down at my boulder mat, which had mysteriously unclipped itself – Scarpa rock-shoes and chalk-bag nowhere to be seen.
I stomped back into the jungle seething with mad fury and frustration. “Bastards!� I screamed at the vines and thrashed and kicked. My arms and neck were Zorro-ed with branch cuts and my hair was sweaty and thick with twigs. Another half-hour of making small arrows with twigs to denote my path back to the clearing and I found the shoes resting neatly on a bit of moss with the chalk-bag trailing a few metres behind. I scooped them angrily and turned back to the maze.

By the time I bashed through into the high sierra, the boulders were indeed big and totem-like and inviting, only they were almost entirely devoid of holds: great sounding bells of smooth stone lines, bear-hug prows and crimp-less walls. I sat down on my boulder mat, too exhausted to try, sweating in the late autumn sun, sucking the life out of an orange carton, like some blinded Cyclops sucking the juice out of a Greek…’

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Stronachlachlar dynamics

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

'The Menin Road'

Give Me the Strength to Let Go!

We wind up the A82 looking for fully-formed icefalls. This winter has had a late cold snap lasting weeks, but little snow-cover in the west, so the icefalls tend to form brittle chandeliers and crash off in the blazing sun like wind-chimes from rotten string. We stop at Orchy and binocular into the Coire... Fahrenheit 451 hasn't quite touched down and looks like the afternoon sun will strip it, but 'Salamander Gully' has a thin rake of snow leading to a fat icefall, so we bash in before the strengthening March sun creeps round Dorainn and gets its superman eyes on the ice. Climbing in Scotland is so often to do with opportunism... I'm reminded of five years ago, on a day up here with Murray Dale...

"Oh My God, give me the strength to let go!"

I never really understood this statement. It was uttered by a friend on the crux of a new and rather unexpected HVS on a Donegal sea-cliff. Then, it was a plea in extremis, later it was the humorous route-name with the story attached. It was only recently I returned to the original utterance and felt it expand in me like an emotional blush of the utmost severity as I found myself on the crux of a Scottish winter VII, lacking the obvious strength to let go: hanging on for dear life, in other words.

The route is a classic of the Southern Highlands and is named Messiah: first on-sighted by Graham Little and Bob Reid in January 1988. On the neglected dark cliffs of Creag an Sogach, where climbers pass on their way to lap up the dripping ice tongues of Fahrenheit 451, it is easily overlooked and usually regarded as thin, technical and, thankfully, never in condition. Murray and I saw it from the corrie, in obviously good condition. As we were looking for a challenge, this somewhat forced our hand. We veered up the steep approach slopes to the right.

For some inexplicable reason to do with the weird patterns of confidence in climbing, I felt up for it, neglecting entirely to mention to Murray I hadn’t even led a VI. I had no idea what VII,7 felt like. The bottom groove looked steep, sure, but it had stacks of turf, and if that was frozen… I tried to keep my eyes from the blank traverse left at the top of the groove. Funny how we ignore those big spaces, those blanks inside us, consigning them to the unknowable. But as has been cited on exploration of the unknown: it requires no particular understanding of the topic.

Murray banged in a Scrube for belay and handed me the ropes. What the hell was I doing? I felt like I was back in Cub Scouts, diligently tying knots around my waist, trying to remember the rhyme about the rabbit round the tree. I spent a while tightening the leashes on my axes, gathering and sorting gear, then I was off up the easy steps to the big corner. I found a forbidding cap-stone blocking my way: a little cave to hunker under and slip a wire into. I clipped in, almost giving in to a belay and bringing Murray up with a hang-dog, sorry-mate look.

I managed to commit myself to the groove and front-pointed up on ridiculously slim coverings of frozen sphagnum moss. ‘Fucking sphagnum!’ my brain was screaming. At least there were some nice clumps of frozen grass and cress (mmm, cress…) to sink the axes into. I was on an awkward step: suddenly I couldn’t really climb down without jumping. Oh Lord... I whacked in two dodgy pegs, committed them to some easily fooled psychology and pressed on. More good clumps of vegetation and a better rest. This time I found a micro and a number six tucked behind a wee lateral spike. Oh dear. I looked down at Murray, who had his head buried in his hood, chin tucked in, trying to keep warm and patient. The next couple of steps found me desperately groping with a glove for a rock flake and I scuttled into a small cave, wedged my body awkwardly and wrapped a sling round a chock-stone. At last, some gear I could count on! My calves did an Elvis with the sudden release of tension. Then I looked up and left.
Oh Lord, give me…

It was about forty minutes into the pitch and I dropped the axes onto their leashes and reached up with Neoprene hands for those typical weathered wafers of mica-schist. Not bad, so I scrabbled on crampons to step up and reached further left, found another good hold, prayed it wouldn’t snap and scuttled further left. Now I was leaning back, axes swinging in space, crampons being touched gently on that frozen sphagnum scurf stuff. I could see a good turfy foot-hold way left and stretched for it. I was beginning to pump with the exposure and stupidity of the whole bloody thing as my brain rallied to come up with calming diversionary tactics. Lord knows what went through my head but I wanted for all my life just to let go, just to be able to have the faith to let go. It didn’t happen. I found another hand-hold and pulled onto the turf, got my axes in again and whooped with the thrill of it all. I rattled up to the belay like a mynah-bird shaken in its cage.

“Bloody hell, Murray! Whoo! Awesome, man! Whoo!�

Murray took me off and began warming up to the hot-aches and the Second. I ate all my wine gums and left an orange one on a ledge for the next leader. Murray coped fine and found it all steady, slowing at the traverse to be precise and take it in a little more than I managed. He quickly led through the bold wee second pitch to the side of the big icy snot of the top ice pitch. It was Murray’s big lead now and my turn to feel relieved and relax on the belay, look around a bit. Jesus, was this in the bag already? Murray hacked away at the poor ice at the bottom until he found a good hex to take the fear out of the belay, then he tapped in the axes high up on the first overhung bulge of ice and pulled up strongly. The crampons broke away more ice and he had to scrape up to get established, banged in a screw and, though I couldn’t see him anymore, I felt the slack pause on the rope as he looked up.

That awful testing silence of observation, as fear bloomed once again.

Murray proceeded upwards in starts, great hunks of ice whistling out of the corner to my right and thumping on the snow below. I tensed each time, thinking he was off, but it was only ice. Spindrift rained down occasionally, like hundreds and thousands - pin-pricking bits of cold round my wrists. Murray occasionally spoke to himself. After another age, the rope came tight and I rushed curiously over to the hanging groove. Bloody hell, it was steep! I followed up, my glasses incomprehensible with melted spindrift, blood marks everywhere, the occasional tied-off screw, awkward body-positions, hunting pecks with the axes, and the constant rubric of ‘Jesus, bold!’ in my head. When I pulled through the tiny snow cornice at the top, I slapped Murray on the back and we shook hands with nervous laughter, as though we’d just been let off with a misdemeanour, or played with a brother’s special toy while he was out.

It was only while slurping peppery soup in a bergschrund below the cliffs when we realised we’d caught the mountain unawares and stolen something rather special: something we didn’t know we were allowed to steal, or able to steal, or if we had ever really conceived of stealing.

But there it was. Somehow, we had found the strength to let go.

That was a time of limits, today is a time of gathering strengths learnt, exercising composure and breathing the whole day in with one breath rather than a thousand fear-filled arpeggios of life. Sean follows up the icefall, hacking with animal enthusiasm and whoops of joy, staining the ice with bloody knuckles. We smile all the way up the Salamander, the cliff is silent bar the odd tinkle of sun-melt ice, we lie on the summit in the snow and are thankful for such days, melding into each other in the memory, there is almost a silent utterance of disbelief in the sky. Like a pause between synapses before they fire again. They do and we are off back down the Coire for a pint in the Invervey, Sean inspecting his knuckles, I eating Pea and Ham Soup noisily. We are not thinking about anything in particluar, each day in the mountains finds its own cadence, each its own timbre, each day lets go in its own way... I recall Murray and wonder what he is up to now, what millions of decision trails have led him to... I know, somehow deeply, memory upon memory is layered down entirely by accident and we can only will it so.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Soul Traffic

The traffic conspires with the balance of mind and inertia chokes the city, but the sky is blue high above. By the time I'm at the Erskine Bridge, I'm opening the window and pitying the Tollbooth guy. The rest is freedom up the A82 to Arrochar, bar the odd Citylink bus... but we're all headed north, that's fine. I check the Brack, too lean, the Cobbler is stripped.

I bank on Miseach and head up to the Tharsuinn corrie, looking for big stones on the way. The north groove that is Philosopher's Gully is lean but icy. I wind up some Grade 3 icy drapes to cut across to the gully as a snow-storm beats in behind. The sun is just behind the crags now and there is that curious Godlight and all these millions of snowflakes driven up towards the light like millions of little manic souls all jostling to get there first... soul traffic...

I disappear like a sinner into the black-walled gully. It goes fine and has good icy diversions, especially at the top slab, where I commit to a technical iced traverse to a snotter of ice and frozen turf. My chest thumps with the move, as the airiness howls in the wind, then the rest goes easy to the ridge. It's sunny again and I turn my thoughts to that gorge and maybe the prospect of finding a bouldering bloc.

At the top of Philosophers' Gully, two old fellas, who might or might not be the actual philosophers, trudge past on the ridge as I'm taking the crampons off... I notice one of them, whose eyes are watering heavily, has no boots but a pair of salty old Clarks shoes, turned up at the toes. The other has one of those coloured beanies made with extra thick wool. They are on the way to Narnain they say, it sounds like 'Narnia'. I have a sudden vision of them stepping through into the cupboard in the morning rather than the bathroom. 'WIFE DISTRAUGHT AS HUSBAND VANISHES IN BEDROOM...' I wish them luck and follow the shoe prints in the snow back down. Not once, I notice, do they have slip trails - they have a steady but narrow gap between heel and toe...

Back down in Coire Feorline I find what I'm looking for: the Miseag Stone. I thank the old men internally - they were magic men, shamens, and sat up on the ridge dreaming stones that they roll into the corrie for laughs... that's why they were up there! The stone is bellied with compact rock and has a flying arete, a groove, a slab, lipped overhang - all over deer-flattened grass. I touch the holds, pull on the pockets with the weight of winter boots, sit in the sun and regard it, this hidden Philosopher's stone. It is a beauty, no doubt about that, a stone for boulderers, dreamed into place, isolated, perfect, alone. I peer back up at the spindrift ridges of Narnain, looking for two dreaming shamen, one in a beanie, the other in Clarks shoes, but they have vanished, back through the cupboard door to: Where the hell have you been...?!

Monday, February 28, 2005

'Gift Egg' V3 Kilta - Skye
Photo courtesy of

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Gift Eggs

Like gift eggs, boulders can be given, presented to each other, it is almost our duty to reserve stones for others, like putting the first fish back, to witness second hand the freedom gained, movement by proxy, slipping away in someone else's timestream... Si had left these stones, silent and untouched, overlooking the Raasay currents, his back rooked, maybe enjoying the gifting, the curiosity of others' movements, the establishment of different rhythms and limits...

The gulls wheeling over like screaming heads, the Sound whipped up into quiffs and the chill blue of winter sun in the water... one of those days when the wind blows through the very minute construction of the body, through the chemistry of flesh, you're transparent and part of the landscape, as malleable as vapour and just as fluid, moving over the rocks like wind, sifting, drifting, merging...

The currents of other climbers move in and out of each other, their company like speeded winds clash and merge in strange brief shapes, laughter is wind, the rocks are but shapers and cleavers of movement... the Coire receives us like natural beasts, inheritors of stone, our hands touch them lightly, the whole day a clear blue flickering of light and flesh, our small bleedings gathered into the heather and washed off in the burns, to become part of the unseen river which moves through all our interstices.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why do I climb?

'An Garradh', or 'the Copse' - the Stronachlachlar boulders
‘An Garradh’

‘She is a curious ghost following me through the boulders in the copse. I don’t see her until I gain the height and see the shadowed grass of her family’s run-rigs, the melted rubble of her shieling. It is the late spring sun which brings her out to play, to join me on the boulders. Everyone gains vision on top of a boulder, it makes you stall the moment, swathe into the current of time, opening vistas from their channel, voices echo like birds startled in the woods.

You can see for miles here. She clutches her skinny raw legs and bites her knees, soaking up the glory of her Highland home, tranquil in the sun, a lookout at the junction of these perpendicular lochs, watching the smoke of her house rise into the still air of a clear Scottish day. She is curious why I climb, what are you doing? She clutches and frowns, am I here to harm? No, of course not, I reassure. Why do you touch the rocks?

I clutch my own knees and gaze into the past, the shieling rebuilds itself like the internal magic of salt crystals, the run-rigs sprout with crops, the detail sharpens and there she is, running over the tufted grass, through the sucking sphagnum up to the boulders where her favourite spot is, where she gains reflection, where she comes to claim this land as her own. This is her view, these are her shielings. Her father will call her down, but for the moment she is queen of the rocks in this hardened place. I am a curious visitor, like a coloured bird from the woods, or a strange beetle she might poke with a snapped reed.

For a late winter afternoon, we share this small kingdom, we hear the same buzzard crying, we see the same pencil of wood-smoke rising, the loch is beaten into copper gold by the sun and all vanishes before us…’