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...?!