Monday, December 22, 2008

Stone Country Top Ten 2008

Adventure Bouldering - pic Lee Robinson

As the festive season kicks in and the year ends, we all turn to lists for next year, but what of the year that's gone? What were the top ten Scottish boulder problems? I'm not elitist, but I do like a strong line and a good story to a problem, so here's my attempt at the most exciting top Scottish bouldering problems of the year! Apologies to those not included or those classics excluded - this is just a wee list trying to represent a geographical whistle-stop tour of Bonny Blocland! Counting down as is traditional:

10. The perfect example of the 'community' nature of bouldering is this particualr problem - a hybrid of two hard previous problems by Tim Rankin, linked into the natural 'hardest line' ideal which leads all us boulderers astray! Seeking the boundaries of the climbable is what it's all about, it wouldn't be as much fun if no-one had gone before and we had nothing to 'stretch'. This continuum was exampled by a strong Luke Fairweather when he climbed Twilight Princess at Portlethen - a link of Kayle (8a) and The Pit Left Hand (7b+). It weighs in at a mighty 8a+ and sets the bar for the north east, well done Luke on a powerful addition to Scottish bouldering!

9. Apologies for putting one of my own problems in, but I did discover one delight in the Trossachs, an area with a boggy but exciting potential. I've discovered possible 8c's for those who can climb to this level and plenty of projects up to 8a which will keep me busy for a few years! It was a poor year phyically for me what with too much work and various injuries, but my favourite of the year was an immaculate 6c roof and lip I found off the beaten track to Ben A'an. A perfect little problem in a fantastic location: Hocus Pocus.

8. Lee Robinson is my favourite advocate of remote and adventurous bouldering, his appetite for going the extra mile is legendary. Lee has discovered some of Scotland's furthest but most exciting venues and this year he tapped the boulder field of Beinn Alligin in the North West, which he describes as 'a giant amphitheatre of boulders sitting under the jewelled mountain, consisting of dense clusters and scattered free-standing boulders, good clean rock. Easily found traversing deer paths below the horns of Alligin. Listen to the underground streams and beware of the frogs!' A classic of the field is the excellent dyno of Utterly Preposterous - a superb 6b+.

Lee Robinson on Utterly Preposterous, Beinn Alligin

7. Inverness has been the centre of a bouldering renaissance, with the hub boulder of The Ruthven Stane seeing a few new problems such as The Dude and its variations from 7a to 7b+, but nearby Brin Rock was steadily being cleaned and developed. The North-West's busiest boulderer - Richie Betts - discovered a line here in January which was revealed from the mossy forest like a shiny new penny. This overhanging and technical prow requires a confident approach and a few mats, but is one of the new classics at Brin Rock - The Scientist 7b.

6. Another strong lad who has an abnormal appetite for the reachy and crimpy (but who is also unfairly smooth through the roofs) is Mike Lee. Mike has been repeating a lot of Scottish problems and producing some of his own belters along the way. Extending the radius of bouldering at Brin, Ruthven and Duntelchaig, he did such lines as Wooden Nickles 7b, Farr Side Facet 7c , The Stabber 7b, The Settler 7c ... but the highlight I thought was his tremendous traverse through Alchemy at Craigmaddie: an absorbing and complex solution to the obvious low traverse of the Sheep Pen: Allakazaam! 7c+. Nice one Mike!

Allakazaam - pic Mike Lee

5. A strong young Glasgow team has been cleaning up the repeats of older classics and starting to write their own rock documents. One strong lad in particular is Ben Litster, who has travelled around Scotland seeking the overhanging and the hard. His efforts have produced some fine lines such as Grass is Greener 7c and Diesel Canary Sit 7b in the Lost Valley, but we thought his best problem of the year was a magical and technical 7c on the gritty sandstone at Craigmaddie - Alchemy.

4. The North West has so many good lines that it's hard to pick out one that really stands out, the quality is so good in general it's rather like the Peak District's big momma... so many Torridonian Sandstone classics lie out there! Anyway, I thought the 'red gritstone' produced one particular classic line this year, by its nature quite bold and more of a traditional 'gird your loins' grit solo. Richie Betts was the man in form and he committed to the big arete right of Frantic at the Torridon Celtic Jumble. This huge line was physically not too hard at around 6b+, but it was throat-gulpingly described as 'fluffable' by Richie. Anway, he didn't fall off and we have the first of possibly many Torridonian highball aretes: Vapour Trail.

Richie Betts on Vapour Trail

3. Having moved to Fortwilliam, Dave MacLeod turned his considerable strengths to the 'project-land' of Glen Nevis. Thousands of boulders litter the craggy hills here and there were some massive roofs awaiting a stout-hearted talent such as Dave to unleash. In a cold February I found him at the top of the Gorge working the obvious crack-line that became 'Saturn Crack', an amazing but rather awkward and dangerous 7b+. I thought this might be the highlight of the Glen for the year, but I should not have been presumptuous. Dave knocked off a string of 8th grade giants: Frontal System, Bear Trap Prow, the Sky Pilot 'Sloper Ramp', but the most astonishing feat was the full traverse of the Sky-Pilot Crag which became Big Long Now at a an ungradeable Font 8b (ish!). On photographing him on this extended 'metaclimb', it became obvious Dave was breaking the boundaries between our sports, turning it into a kind of super-fit gladiatorial contest against gravity and physics. It may be a long time before it gets repeated due to its demanding convolutions, but this traverse was the most astonishing stamina problem of the year.

2. Dumby seemed to have been 'worked out' when Dave MacLeod left for his ancestral home in the Highlands, leaving the 'Rock' for someone else to step in and mine for the new and the hard. I thought maybe one of our stong 'young pretenders' may have have stepped up to the plate as they were breenging through the repeats of In Bloom, Sabotage, King Kong etc but like a Ninja Guru in the night, Malcolm Smith moved to Glasgow... He was regularly to be found on quiet cool summer mornings working strange sequences in the BNI cave until in September I got a text from him saying that it was 'done' - the natural link of Serum of Sisyphus and Sanction: 8a+ onto an 8b giving Gutbuster 8b+. Malc had just reset the bar again...

1. My contender for the best problem of the year actually occurred in the bitter northeasterlies and brown-foamed seabays of an Aberdonian winter, during a very productive and strong period of climbing by Tim Rankin - Aberdeen's most devoted and consistent powerhouse. Tim knows the seacliffs inside out and had cleaned up at Portlethen, Clashfarquhar and now Cammachmore. I had seen this line years before and dismissed it as 'futuristic', mentioning it to Tim who shrugged and admitted nothing (!). But we both knew it was a distinctive challenge and hard to ignore for a local: a giant highball prow like the broken edge of an axe, blank on each side. It would require massive clamping strength and strong fingers to hold the slopiest of holds and tiniest of crimps. Having despatched the stand-up at 7b+ in February, Tim promptly added the sick sit start to give us the almighty Optimus Prime 7c+ at Cammachmore. It speaks for itself as a bouldering line: striking, challenging, direct and elegant . Well done Tim, we knew it really had your name on it!

Roll on 2009!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Bouldering Special

I'll be uploading some new topos to Stone Country soon, but as a Christmas Scottish bouldering offer, we are selling Bouldering in Scotland, Stone Play and Elelments the DVD at only £40.00, check the sidebar on the right if you want to take advantage.

It's been a good autumn and early winter season for folks out bouldering, I'll put a report up soon of what's been done, in the meantime I'll get on with going square-eyed over fonts and upload those topos.

Santa Claus goes bouldering (aka Bernd Zangerl)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dumbarton Guide & Clean Up

Due to technical issues the website has been taken down and will not be up till next year, so anyone wanting to get hold of the new Dumbarton Bloc guide, can do so here through the blog (on the sidebar) or on the Stone Country main site. It's a nominal price of £2.50 for a download, which allows you to print the 12 page booklet at will and leave in the rain or tear up in frustration!

Also of interest to you greener boulderers, we will be having a Stone Country Dumbarton clean-up, provisionally Saturday 14th February. Put the day in your diaries and come along, we'll provide gloves and bin-bags, you'll be alotted a corner of a boulder and by the end of the day we should have a cleaner playground. I'll try and organise a little competition as well maybe, might be good fun. Get back to me if you want to help out on the day with the clean-up and I'll be in touch:

We'll be doing a round-up of autumn bouldering so please send any repeats, new problems or video links to us and we'll add you to the 'growing problems' database of Scottish bouldering for the next edition of Stone Country.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

'Voices in the Forest'

I thought I knew the forest and decided to produce a guidebook. Now, there are a few infinite numbers in maths, such as the Golden Ratio, or the elegant vanishing point of Pi, which suggest we cannot map the world without a formula that summarises our human limitations. My formula was to be that guidebook, the key to a forest's secrets. The forest of Fontainebleau is to me one such infinity, and my brief years of wandering the forest and bouldering on its rocks has only brought me closer to a love of the infinite and the endless adventure of climbing, whereas when I started out I thought there might be a revelatory summit to all this climbing - some, well, point to it all. There wasn't and there isn't, but something of the code was understood.

I had grand ambitions when I first came to Fontainebleau, but it decided to rain on us for a week, so we walked around a lot, boggling at the maze of boulders and trying to find famous problems such as Carnage, Sur-prises, Le Toit du Cul de Chien, The Joker... when it did dry out I remember struggling up a 6b groove thinking it was a famous 7b, then walking round the corner and gulping at the reality of my mistake. I couldn't even step off the ground on the real 7b!

My natural desire to map and notate everything led me to a long-term idea of producing an overview guidebook to the forest. At the time there was only the 1986 circuit guide 'Escalades et Randonnées' by Les Editions Artaud. I was charmed by this guide as it was entirely in French and was produced for none other than the French and had some blurry photographs of nonchalent PA-shod old-schoolers on some terrifying highballs. I had studied French at school to A-Level standard, but in a fit of Gallic pride and pique, I did not sit the exam, I thought I knew it all and wittered on cockily with my pen-pals on trips to the Massif Central or the sun-baked Loire coastline. When I eventually picked up the Arthaud Fontainebleau guide, I knew not a jot of what they were talking about- what was a surplomb, a sour plum? Grattons? Eh? What were these bizarre circuit maps and the strange codes of TD+ or AD-? Who was Jacky Godoffe? Jo Montchaussé? What was the COSIROC, a Mafia organization?

So I figured I had to climb all the classics, go to all the areas, learn the technique of bouldering that the 'bleausards' were so famous for. I learnt more than I achieved, I fell off far more problems than I got up and I quickly learnt I was not and never really would be a 'bleausard'. But over the years something else happened, the forest got into my blood, and slowly I began to discover the 'secrets' of some of the classic bouldering problems. I began to get a glimmer as to what Fontainebleau really meant, even to the top-level climbers. Everyone finds their grade in the forest and for everyone there is always the impossible, so what charms us so much about Fontainebleau and makes us want to return so much, despite so much failure?

As climbers, we are not the first to feel kinship with the forest. What was the forest before that, and how were the rocks viewed, were they noted as at all significant? In 1882, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote an essay about Fontainebleau. Read this excerpt and imagine he is talking about bouldering rather than painting, which was his intended topic:

There is something... in the very air of France that communicates the love of style. Precision, clarity, the cleanly and crafty employment of materials, a grace in the handling, apart from any value in the thought, seem to be acquired by the mere residence; or if not acquired, become at least the more appreciated.

The message is not that different - while the forest was the home of Impressionist painters in the 1900's, the 20th century shifted the forest's focus onto the physical art of climbing. The forest as we know it (as climbers) became just such a proving ground and educational laboratory as it once was for the painters.

Millet's The Sheperdess

Stevenson had first arrived in the forest as a young writer keen on landscape, foreign climes and romantic philosophy. He was instantly taken with Fontainebleau, and the artist villages such as Grez, Bourron-Marlotte and Barbizon, from where artists would daily pack up their easels, paints and lunch-pack to sit in a glade or by a jumble of rocks and learn the hues of light on stone and through leaf. Painters who caught the quality of light were rewarded with some posterity in our landscape galleries: Millet, Corot, Rousseau, Cezanne. From these villages, they started a whole philosophy of painting and landscape 'impressionism'. Barbizon is today a single street of expensive hotels and art galleries leading to the Gorges d' Apremont, which is now laid with the bouldering mats of climbers rather than the paint boxes of artists, so I guess the forest has simply chosen a different canvas for a while!

The most striking subjects of the forest are the rocks, the trees and the vast fields surrounding the plain on which Fontainebleau sits, which when you cross them give the impression you have stumbled onto the great plains of America - it seems impossible there should be hidden gorges and lush forests anywhere! This habitat was a rich source of human emotion for the painters' eye, Millet especially loved the people who worked the fields of 'Bière' (from the Latin for 'plain', not 'beer'!). They walked through the ancient chemins and boulevards, maybe following some of the Sentiers Denecourts (recent in the late 1800's) that wandered through the more esoteric corners of the block-ridden forest.

One thing that is striking about the 19th Century paintings and early photographs is the relative lack of forest cover compared to the reserved lushness of the 21st Century, or indeed the dense wooded darkness of Royal hunting grounds before the forest became gradually more republican after Napoleon. Wood gathering was controlled, but perhaps became less policed, and many old postcards show the high Gorges plateaux, such as at Apremont, Franchard and Belle Croix (Cuvier) as remarkably desert-like, rocky and barren.

Corot's Le Rageur - guess where?

The rocks in Corot's Le Rageur remind me of the rounded, streaked boulders at Cuvier, with possibly the Rempart in the background. Maybe they were always so, but certainly trees have been allowed to grow and mature through the 20th century so that now areas such as Franchard, Cuvier and Apremont are deeply shaded and wooded except on the very highest viewpoints.

Tourism was the newest industry in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. In Fontainebleau, it was a retired soldier who took up the mantle of giving the rocks and the forest significance. Of course, as we know these days, this can lead quickly to a tacky overindulgence, but the retired Napoleonic soldier Claude Françoise Denecourt saw both a business opportunity and a means of expressing his love for the forest. That it would be taken over by walkers, cyclists and hooting boulderers in the 20th century he could not have foreseen and maybe his maps, which we use today as the main navigation pointers to the climbing areas, did not originally intend to despoil the forest's mysteries. In their original context, they were as valid reflections of the forest's magic as any of the artist's brush strokes. Denecourt took a small pot of coloured paint and discreetly marked out his favourite walks and diversions, highlighting gnarled old trees and unusually shaped rocks. His first major map appeared in 1839, showing the network of colour-coded walks starting out from the Gare de Fontainebleau, where he would set up stall to sell his early guides, independently published by a local patron. Trains arrived hourly and the wonders of the forest were soon mythologized. Later, they would simply be figmented and embellished, so that the famous Caverne des Brigandes at Apremont, which is nothing more than another common hole in the rocks, maybe once used by hunters, was reputed as the house of notorious thieves and brigands. In the height of 19th century tourism, it even had a stall selling beer and cheese. Denecourt's maps were forest's first 'topos' and when the climbers came along, they naturally saw the featured and lettered boulders as immediate challenges to friction and domination.

Denecourt's first map of Font

It is likely children scrambled over the rocks ever since Stone Age humans carved petroglyphs in the softer caves of sandstone while they waited out storms or simply rested after hunts. They are natural challenges to anyone wishing to prove their boldness, or maybe a natural soap-box for proclaiming and rallying, or simply for viewpoints and quiet reflection. However, the first attempt at any serious climbing began in 1874 when Ernest Cézanne created the French Alpine Club in Paris. They took trains to the nearby forest of Fontainebleau, climbing some of the easier and taller pinnacles, no doubt using them to 'keep their hand in' until the summer holidays. The shadow of the Alps still loomed over the boulders until something odd happened in 1908. A small group of climbers explored the forest and formed the Groupe Rochassier which actively sought out unique short climbs in Fontainebleau that did not necessarily need ropework. Jacques Wehrlin climbed one such route in 1908 which is the large crack left of the modern classic of Duroxmanie at Cuvier East. It might not appeal to the present-day boulderer (fashions change!), but it was certainly seen as a problematic climb that required focussed technique and employed the key elements of good climbing. Wehrlin himself noted in an essay that at Fontainebleau 'the sandstone is quite smooth and the holds are rare' which suggests he was looking for something more than just the summit experience - he was after the absence of holds and the idea of impossibility, long before the likes of Philip le Denmat, Jacky Godoffe, Fred Nicole and other such modern luminaries. After the withering decimation of WW1, the Groupe de Haute Montagne, led by Jacques de Lépiney and friends, opened the delights of Cuvier with such classic problems like La Fissure de la Prestat, which still hankers after alpinism in its highball nature, but was deemed sufficiently absorbing in its own right to be given a name - the sign that bouldering was marking out its own territory.

Probably the single most active individual in the pursuit of bouldering 'problems' was the wiry, muscled machine that was Pierre Allain. As a young man in the 1930's, he broke technical boundaries with ascents of such testpieces as L' Angle Allain and the Fissure des Alpinistes. These are high fifth grade problems that are still technical and hard even by today's standards and should not be sneezed at... I have seen 8a climbers fall repeatedly off his famous Angle at Cuvier Rempart! Pierre Allain spent so much time in the forest that he even developed the first true rock-climbing shoe: a rubber-soled and edged boot that could keep friction on small rugosities and edges as well as smooth scoops. The plethora of technical rock shoes we see today all spring from this one boot... Allain recognised very early on the precision and variety of footwork required for high-end bouldering. No doubt he rolled his eyes at the damaging hordes of hob-nailed amateurs as they tried to scrape and thrutch their way up delicate slabs. He went into commercial production with these ergonomic shoes in 1948 and the bouldering world had its first technical pioneer! His book Alpinisme et Competition, which was first published in 1949, stood up for Fontainebleau bouldering as an art in itself:

Here the numerous routes - perhaps five hundred at Cuvier alone, a third of which are genuinely difficult - aren't measured by dozens or hundreds of meters. Our stones, only good for scrubbing cooking pans, as a certain Chamonix guide described them, are only a few meters tall... but that's what pleases us and makes for the excellence of this school of climbing. No need to deploy ropes, no need for long waits... we move rapidly from one to the other... here it is only a question of pure climbing...

After the second World War WWII, the Cuvier Academic Club, (formed by René Ferlet and Pierre Allain) and the Club Olympique de Billancourt became the most active climbing clubs promoting bouldering in the forest, with some early topos appearing. 'Circuits' began to be marked out in painted trails echoing Denecourt's paths (the first was the red circuit at Cuvier Rempart, created by Fred Bernik in 1947). Circuits were still seen as alpine training ideas, but they were a natural selection of varied and individual problems that mixed unique technical abilities, such as slabs, roofs, arêtes ('angles') and crimpy walls, testing the full gamut of a climber's strengths (or indeed weaknesses!).

Pierre Allain

In the 50's and 60's a natural strength and familiarity allowed climbers such as Michel Libert to climb testpieces such as Abattoir (Font 7a) at Bas Cuvier (1960) and problems began to creep into the magical and technical world of the seventh grades. However, it was not until the 1970's that an athletic approach to climbing took over (probably inherited from gymnast boulderers John Gill and Pat Ament in the USA) and specific training was applied to specific problems. This led to the first true 'power' problem of Carnage in 1977, by Jerome Jean Charles, followed six years later by the first 7c right beside it (La Bérèzina by Pierre Richard). These required custom training, siege tactics and building engrammatic technique on the problem itself, so often months would go by before the climber succeeded in developing his body enough to levitate through the complex positions of the problem. In 1984, a younger generation began to ignore the idea of impossibility and Jacky Godoffe climbed the first 8a of C' Était Demain at Cuvier Rempart. Since then, Fontainebleau has been the 'salon' of high-end bouldering art.

Carnage at night

Around the second Millenium, the forest was becoming a kind of international bouldering safari-park and guidebooks were in demand, if only to give a sense of responsibility and community to the forest's bouldering. The first British guide was Stephen Gough's 'Bleau' which opened the complex bouldering areas to a UK crowd, but this was soon followed by local French guides from Jo Montchaussé and Jacky Godoffe: the 'pink' Fontainebleau Climbs circuit guide and the Fontainebleau Off-Piste guide being the classics. Young climbers fed on a diet of Youtube videos and indoor training walls jumped to buy the remarkable 7+8 guide in 2002, designed by Bart van Raaij, which revealed the elusive locations of all the high-end testpieces of the forest. Dave Atchison Jones brought out a colourful guide to climbing in the easier grades with his Fontainebleau Magique in 2005. Now, in 2008, Stone Country has produced the pocket-book Essential Fontainebleau, which maps and features the top 350 problems in the forest. All guidebooks are naturally limited in such a vast playground of rocks, but all spring from the same desire to communicate a love of the forest and foster the understanding that it is a privilege to climb in such a wondrous place.

Bivouac, editor Colin Lambton

The forest is hardly mysterious any more, but as boulderers we naturally love the endless colonisation of gravity's challenges, and each new boulder is seen as a hub of unreleased movement and mystery. However, it it is worth taking time to absorb the spirit of the forest, as it is not hard to still lose yourself as the painters once did. Wander off-piste a little, leave your guidebook in its pocket, sit quietly on a high rock for a while, and the natural world will appear out of a glassy and over-focussed gaze. You will see what the painters saw: the whispering birch leaves, the light dappling on the rocks, the world of colour shimmering in shades of green, ochre, grey and tan. You might be moved to dig out your digital camera, to try and capture it, but resist just a while - think of the likes of Rousseau, of Millet and Stevenson, unwrapping their lunch, or of Wehrlin, Lépiney and Allain pausing in mid-climb, looking up, breathing the same forest air...

And the key to the forest's bouldering secrets? Do they lie in a guidebook? No, most certainly not, but what does? Brief reflections and colourings, sketches and snapshots of a bigger picture, starting points, arrows and numbers... your own adventure will be the memories and invisibility of experience, the depth of the forest and the crazy geometry that is Fontainebleau bouldering!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Committed Review

The Hotaches Committed series of films are now a raptly anticipated event in the climbing calendar year, and this new film, featuring five 'incredible climbing stories' is the best yet. The quality of production is superb and the film stories are future treasures of climbing documentary. They followed some high level traditional UK climbers throughout the year and the viewer is treated to an armchair sauna of the fear, trauma and elusive elation of high-end climbing.

The choice of stories is apt and varied. The first story begins with the thoughtful James Pearson attempting the 'last great problem' of The Groove at Cratcliffe Tor. This blank groove between two gritstone breaks was always deemed unclimbable but this did not deter James, he is filmed clutching a pebble the size of a peanut, rapt and intent... so this first film leads us gently into the microscopic obsession and invisible geometry of a climbing magician. The bizarre sequence of moves that James finally pulls out in a dangerous situation is a taster for what is to come in the movie.

Film 2, The Allrounder, follows the year of Dave MacLeod, who needs no introduction. The film captures the olympian levels of commitment and training that Dave must go through to operate at the highest level in each climbing discipline. It focuses on Dave's methodical and scientific breakdown approach, how he whittles a route's danger movement into a shape that is manageable for him both mentally and physically. Some of the footage is incredible indeed, especially the stomach churning insecurity of an attempt on the hard mixed climb of The Hurting, where Dave takes a sudden fall into the abyss and we are left wondering about the outcome until a rather relieved post-credits sequence! Dicing with death is an essential part of a climber's make-up and Dave explains how he travels the world preparing for portentous trad routes: training in Spain, repeating other hard routes with apparent ease, such as If 6 Was 9, a notorious Birkett route from the Lakes. This film is enlightening and shows the hard work and sacrifices of a climber attempting to maintain the highest levels in a largely unrecognised 'sporting' event.

Film 3 - Grit Kids - is the new generation of trad climbing, showing the natural and unfettered enthusiasm of youth on 'God's Own Rock' (grit). The 'kids' are the Whittaker siblings, whose flexibility and maturity on rock allows them to pull off some of the most incredible new grit ascents. Pete Whittaker turns his flexible mind and body to the contortionist's nightmare that is his own new route Dynamics of Change, a long-sought solution to the Braille Trail direct start. It was inspiring to see the kids approaching hard and dangerous extremes with an understanding rather than bravado and recklessness. Katy Whittaker's ascent of Kaluza Klein is just as eye-popping and thrilling!

Film 4 is a shorter one, following Steve McClure on his cool and quick repeat of Rhapsody at Dumbarton. This we may have seen before on E11, but the fall from the top moves is still a real gasper! Steve made this route look so doable and the moves so fluid, I went to the cupboard to get my sports ropes out. An inspiring sequence on the benefit of pure fitness in climbing, not to disrespect Steve's sheer talent on rock.

Film 5 is the highlight of the lot, returning to the remarkable James Perason and his 'silly obsession' (as he calls it) with the vertiginous blank wall of Hartland Point in Devon. This blank wall is unpegged by James ('given a facelift') and he attempts a clean ascent of the wall. The danger inherent in this route is superbly captured and its atmosphere of lonely leading above crashing waves is dark and very close to mortality. The fall he takes on this climb is simply terrifying and I could hardly watch as he returned to try and complete the route...

All in all, this is a an essential DVD for any climber's collection and one to return to when you are needing some inspiration for pushing your own limits! Well done to the Hotaches team, you can buy the DVD from their website HERE.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Essential Fontainebleau Out Now!!

At last! The Stone Country Guidebook to ESSENTIAL FONTAINEBLEAU is now available!

The main issue with publishing a guide to the best 350 problems in the forest was actually identifying them. They had to be varied, they had to exhibit character and they had to be good! I enlisted Colin Lambton as editor... with over 20 years of experience, he knew precisely what to put in and what to leave out, though we did have some mighty editorial arguments. J A Martin was the venue that caused us to come to verbal blows again and again, and Rocher Guichot was finally given a page as I caved to the blackmail of a free pint of beer. Colin I think has done a super job in selecting and balancing the guide and deserves all my thanks for trying to keep the guide on the straight and narrow.

Colin Lampton on an early ascent of 'Bivouac' at Cuvier

The point was to create a guide mainly for the first-timer which did not confuse and offered a n entry-level to the complexity of Font bouldering, both the technical climbing aspects and the sheer logistical problem of finding some of the boulders! On one trip we had two people on one day approach us with old guidebooks, lost and confused, so we thought there must be room for a pocket book which helped the climber get about better. The maps we endeavoured to make clear and to keep to one page. Only the main boulders and obvious well-marked circuit problems were added, and each topo map is orientated as to the direction the climber approaches the area on foot. Orientating to the compass or GPS is in my experience no use as I have yet to see someone with a compass or GPS in hand in the forest, just a lot of folk with guidebooks turned upside-down!

The approach notes are extensive as we wanted to get people to the areas as quickly and accurately as possible. Each venue has a detailed approach map and description. On the last research trip I wanted to check a venue deep in the woods and wandered for two miles along the ridges of the red Sentier des 25 Bosses. On jumping off onto an innocuous slab of rock, I slipped on treacherous birch leaves, slid down the rock and tore the ligaments in my left foot. I had to hobble out of the forest with a forked stick for crutch - it was over two miles back to a very welcome pack of Ibuprofen. Bouldering's very own Joe Simpson!

So after all that time, it's good to see the guide out and I hope people find it useful. It's designed just to help you have a good time and go at some problems you maybe don't know about, so it's very much a ticklist for the dedicated Font boulderer as well as the first-time visitor. Many thanks to all those who contributed photography and knowledge to the guide.

We hope you enjoy your next visit to the world's best bouldering venue!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fontainebleau Interlude

Having sprained a foot on the second day of a trip to Fontainebleau, it was time to be philosophical and sit atop a few viewpoint boulders. Sometimes this is not a bad thing and allows you to absorb the spirit of the forest and let a little serendipity creep in when otherwise you would be obsessed with brushing the excess chalk off the microscopic fantasia that is bouldering!

Atop a boulder at Gorges aux Chats, I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of two hot-air balloons rising over the sunset canopy like contented thought bubbles. They drifted off over the woodsmoke inversion of the dusky sunset and vanished into a distant field. With the multi-coloured autumn leaves raining down over the grey rocks, it was simply the best place to be and the right moment. Just like the first morning setting out under a cool blue sky and crisp air to the ochre rocks of Potala... 'it doesn't get better than this' as Colin said. Fontainebleau is always generous in the long run.

The rest of the week was a relaxing and companionable interlude from the stress of the new Font guide having been 'signed off' into that terrifying limbo of preprint. I hope it turns out okay and gives everyone a few moments like this in the forest in return.

The new Stone Country 'Essential Fontainebleau' should be available early November... it is now available to pre-order on the main site.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Echo Wall Review

This is an exceptional film about the bizarre relationship between mountains, humans and risk. No matter that it features probably the most serious high-end route on the planet, Dave and Claire MacLeod have created a unique vision of obsession, determination and stress. 'Echo Wall' captures all the emotional trauma of climbing at the limit in a situation where failure is unacceptable. As an independent team, Claire and Dave have obviously worked really hard to bring this film together and they succeed in showing some of the sacrifice and pain of climbing what is effectively E12 on the most inhospitable mountain in Britain.

'The Ben' is not always inhospitable and the film opens with some fine time-lapse images of clouds clearing and alpen-glow washing down the peppered eminence of The Comb high in Coire na Ciste. Some helicopter shots give us the right impression that the north face of this mountain is something truly alpine and alien to the lush land 4000 feet below.

Dave is introduced training for the route in Glen Nevis, with some toe-quivering, arm-popping bouldering on the hardest lines in the glen. This helps explain the level of physical fitness Dave needs to achieve to stand a chance on Echo Wall, as well as the sheer element of luck in catching a weather window... maintaining fitness and confidence while the Ben is shrouded in cloud and rain becomes the dominant theme as the summer wears on.

A welcome interlude is the interview with Jimmy Marshall, who was pushing his own climbing boundaries on the Ben in its heyday. He warns us of the treacherous nature of the mountain as he relates a story of rescuing friends from sudden storms and of what he learnt from the mountain: the importance of climbing in the purest style and accepting that the mountain has more to teach in humility than in bravado.

Suitably chastened, Dave sets out to Spain to work on his mental resolve by soloing an 8c called Darwin Dixit. This piece of footage is astonishing. A birdsong early morning at Margalef, Dave is seen struggling in silent internalisation before he jumps onto the route without ropes and pulls through its horrific mono-crux with cool style and strength to spare.

May comes and snow still lies melting over the route. A humorous interlude ensues as he digs away the snow in manic bare-topped craziness, with Claire questioning his sanity. An E8 is despatched as preparation, then 'working' the route on a shunt as the mists boil round and the weather threatens to scupper the whole project. Dave returns to the lower glen to climb the Sky Pilot 9a traverse in atrocious weather, attempting to hang on to his hard won fitness and mental fortitude. All this poor weather and constant mental struggle leads to an acceleration of doubt and despair before a weather window in late July...

then he steps on to the route for real...

This is where all that preparation matters, but it is still a terrifying prospect as Dave leans backwards into the hands-off rest before the lonely and desperate climbing of the headwall above. The accompanying voice-over thoughts of Claire and Dave as he is about to set out on the crux is the most poignant moment in the film and for me the whole crux of the game as Dave sets out alone on a very exposed sequence of climbing. The irreversible nature of risk-taking in climbing is here perfectly captured in a few highly charged sequences - thereafter it is all relief as Dave unties at the top of the route and solos off the easier section.

This is a film that educates us in how to approach traditional climbing. The thoughtfully narrated surgery on his inner self shows Dave as a fiercely analytical climber in tune with his physical abilities, but human enough to show the endless struggle with doubt and nadirs of confidence that beset us all when climbing. The music, largely by the late and lamented Martyn Bennett, gives the whole film a high-voltage, swash-buckling energy and I must admit to some 'Braveheart emotions' as Dave runs the Tower Ridge as a warm-up before working the route!

I'd recommend everyone buys a copy. This is a remarkable achievement by Claire and Dave and a great piece of film-making in the most difficult of emotional and physical conditions.

Pre-orders are available from Dave's blog site.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Gutbuster Video

Here's a sample video from Pete Murray's upcoming film on Scottish bouldering, as Malc Smith talks us through 'Gutbuster' Font 8b+ at Dumbarton Rock:

There will be a HI Res version on the Stone Country downloads page in the next few days, as well as samples from the forthcoming Dumby guide.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Essential Fontainebleau - Pre Publication offer!

The new pocket guide to Fontainebleau is almost here!

The pocket book is full colour with maps, approach notes, photo-topos of over 350 problems and key secrets to solving the problems. It has been designed to give new visitors to the forest an introduction to the art of bouldering in Fontainebleau, or it can be used by the experienced as a lifetime ticklist of the most-wanted!

The chosen problems (it was a difficult editing process!) range from 2+ problems through to 8a, but most are in the 6a-7b range and accessible to the on-sighting boulderer (if you are lucky and talented, being plain strong doesn't always help!).

The guide will be available late October or early November and as a special offer to those who check into this blog, I'm selling two copies of the new guide with a free copy of Pete Murray's Elements DVD for only 20.00. As the guide retails for 9.99, that's a saving of 15 quid! Plus you get a spare copy of the new Font guide or a DVD to give as a Christmas gift to someone! Those of you who helped contribute photographs will receive a free copy in due course, but this offer is open to everyone.

All pre-orders can be done securely through Paypal - simple, quick, you don't need a Paypal account. Just a credit card or Switch! Click on the Buy Now button on the right.

I'll email you as soon as the guide arrives and is posted, ready for that winter trip!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

New Scottish Bouldering 8b+ 'Gutbuster' at Dumbarton

Gut Buster 8b+ (note protection!)

Malc Smith has just climbed the hardest problem in Scotland to date, aptly named Gutbuster and more akin to hard power-yoga without the ground as support! It's a truly sapping excursion through the upside-down caves at Dumbarton Rock and the first problem to break into Font 8b+ territory. It anticipates the imminent arrival of the magical 8c grade as Malc already has spied another link-up that may not survive much longer. After a long time sitting in the dank BNI through-cave in mild autumn weather, Malc took advantage of a cold and breezy day on 27th September to bite into the angular basalt and complete the problem.

It is an inspiring natural challenge to any highend boulderer, logically linking his own Serum of Sisypus 8a+ through the crux cave sequences of Perfect Crime and up the 8b of Sanction which Dave MacLeod did in 2007. With MacLeod beavering on a possible contender for hardest Scottish problem in Glen Nevis, it was left to Malc to rejuvenate this project, a video of which will be posted by XtraLarge Recordings on this blog, so check back soon!

Malc is actually on the 8b+ for about five minutes, 3 of which are an ab-busting upside down rest on a painful kneebar, before committing to the desperate and tenuous hooking and slapping of Sanction, which leads to the mantel onto the BNI slab - the easy bit! - where he fell off several times on the redpoint before succeeding early on Saturday morning.

On the cave section crux 1

Congratulations to Malcolm on his continued enthusiasm and success in breaking our bouldering boundaries and bringing them closer to the global benchmarks of the high eighth grades.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Scottish Bouldering Autumn 2008

The far northwest coast north of Aberdeen was always a bit of a blind spot when we did the guide, not much had been developed or found there at all. However, things appear to be changing and after a tip-off from Chris Fryer, Russell Birkett developed the steep wall at the Buchan Ness lighthouse, a full topo is available here. Neptune's Kiss looks like a local classic!

Buchan Ness - Neptune's Kiss Font 6c

For stamina freaks and sport climbers looking for training problems, look no further than the classic traverse at Boltsheugh, Newtonhill, Aberdeen. Guy Robertson managed to eliminate as many jugs as he could and ended up with the Newtonhill Powerband, a staggering F8a+ traverse.

Newtonhill Powerband, F8a+, Guy Robertson

Guy reports:

Wilson’s (Moir) low level traverse without any of the jugs / resting holdz. Probably F8a+, whatever that translates to in bouldering money (don’t ask me!). It’s a pretty cool prob, and to my mind cleans up all the many variations on variations that have emerged over the years. The basic rule of thumb is “if you’re wondering if a particular hold is in, then assume it isn’t”! The only exception to this might be the big left-facing side-pull that forms the bottom left edge of the half-way block.

You'll need a guide if you go, but the rule of thumb is good, very similar to the classic traverses at Dumby such as Consolidated and the 'new-Dumby-classic' Shattered F7b+ on the everdry wall (repeated recently by Peter Roy, Jeremy Love and Malc Smith).

Steve Richardson on a 2007 repeat of Shattered Traverse, Dumby, F7b+

Just left of this in the through-cave, Malc Smith is currently working an extended traverse from the Serum of Sisyphus start through Perfect Crime and into Sanction... he's been close but not quite, falling off trying to get onto the slab. I doubt anyone will steal this immense problem from under his nose. He recently repeated Sanction (Dumby 8b by Dave MacLeod) after gluing back on a crucial block that had shattered off from a fire some one lit under the basalt roof. He also repeated the desperate dynamic sit start to Chahala which he reckons is hard 8a+ and not 8a.

Mal Smith, Scarpa powerhouse, on an early ascent of BNI Direct... pic Tim Morozzo 2005

The 'outer circuit' at Duntelchaig has been seeing some great development on some fine-looking steep walls. Richie Betts informed me that 'local youth' Mike Lee had succeeded on a nightmarish crimp move on the Knifewound Wall, to give the area another classic 7c... The Settler might even be harder. Richie will be doing us a topo for this soon and it looks like some good clean classics are beginning to appear outside of Ruthven and Brin.

Mike Lee on The Settler Font 7c Duntelchaig Pic Richie Betts

More news to follow as I receive it... just in! MacLeod sends the ridiculously long traverse at Sky Pilot!! Big Long Now (I can't believe it's only 8b!) traverses almost the whole length of Sky Pilot Crag from left to right (go and have a look!), which Dave used as stamina training for Echo Wall. The whole story is on his blog but suffice to say, it is an almost ungradeable and boundary-smashing climb in which Dave specialises, creating his own unique approach to high-end climbing. He really is dissolving all boundaries within our sport, creating a new discipline of meta-climbing (okay, that's one for the philosophers). Grades seem to be useless abstractions in cases such as Dave and Malc's recent superlinks... where numbers fail and commitment takes over...

Friday, August 29, 2008

'Big Stone Country' epic Scottish climbing book!

Ajare E6 Niall McNair

We are currently seeking photography for the next exciting project from Stone Country Press – Big Stone Country – A Selection of Scottish Mountain Climbs (draft title). Unlike the previous (bouldering) guides, this book is intended for much wider consumption; it will be structured around the great Scottish mountain crags, featuring both summer and winter climbs. Guy Robertson will be the editor in chief.

The core purpose of the book is to profile Scotland's best mountain crags and inspire people to climb in the hills, keeping the focus primarily (but not exclusively) on more recent historical developments and routes. We’re aiming for the ‘contemporary traditionalist’, and hope to both challenge and inspire.

If you would like to contribute photography, or you have a photograph of a classic Scottish modern extreme or winter route over Grade 5, please submit a jpeg or two to Guy or myself. All photography will be remunerated, or if you would like a commission to take a particular shot, please get in touch!

A list of routes is still in the making, but the criteria would be:

  • Long - i.e. typically multi-pitch, and approaching a full rope for any single pitch inclusions;
  • High - i.e. on what is generally accepted as a mountain crag, with a bit of a walk-in etc;
  • Wild - i.e. within an inspiring setting of wilderness and mountain grandeur;
  • Quality - i.e. only routes most folk agree are the best;
  • Trad - i.e. climbed by at least one party from the ground-up using natural pro;
  • Modern - i.e. at a reasonably high standard (>E2 or grade IV) and put up in the last 20 or so years;
  • Aesthetic - i.e. following a good, strong line.

Cheers and happy cranking!

John Watson & Guy Robertson

Stone Country Press Ltd.
61 Sinclair Drive
G42 9PU
Contact: John Watson 07901 767 532

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Adventures in Gneissland

Kite Flying at Sheigra

The older I get the more the 'things to do' list gets bigger, not smaller. When you're a young climber, you think you have all the time in the world, every route will get done and this list will just get smaller, but in the end there will just be more climbing out there than when you began this vertical game. It sounds contradictory but it's true, and with too much work on my hands and too many sacrifices made to bouldering, I felt I needed to attend to this list and get back into the 'management game' that is trad climbing.

Conscious of ticking time and this withering rule of climbing physics that routes are only done in the present, I phoned the ever-reliable and super-keen 'Crofton' who had a week off between doctoring jobs. We trawled the forecast online and on Tuesday night it looked like Sutherland and Wester Ross were escaping the bands of August flood rains approaching from the Atlantic. We bolted up early on the Wednesday morning and drove past Garve and Wyvis up onto the Inchbae plateau, past the Altguish to an astonishing sight - the parched and barren desert of stones that was the Glascarnoch reservoir. Even the old Ullapool road had appeared out of the drained depths, a lonely segment of hard-tack like the sunken page of an old map. The weather parted into blue skies and a cool north-easterly breeze killed off the 'midgery' . The weather has been ominously dry all year in the North West, so we were acutely aware of making the best of the weather. Advice from Ian in Ullapool shunted us further north west to the 'end of the road' at Sheigra in the far north west, where geology ends in the frozen time-swirls of Lewisian Gneiss.

The 'Second Geo' at Sheigra is possibly the most geologically artistic piece of rock architecture in Scotland. Turning the corner of the bitten machair onto the glaciated slabs of the approach leads you to the giant sandstone erratic from where the crag can be viewed in its glory. A 'geo' is effectively a wave-cut slash into the coast, like a wedge out of the coastal cake. It tends to leave steep walls over roiling channels of angry sea. Today the sea was calm and lucent, kelp waving in the turquoise fringes and seals treading water with white 'hand-claps' and sniffing us curiously with whiskery wet noses. This particular wall of rock is remarkable for its generous pocketed red and tan gneiss walls rearing out above a deep and gloomy cave, with lines tip-toeing out from hanging corners above the intimidated dots of two keen climbers! We checked the guide for the four-star routes that the SMC had recently introduced - as Sheigra's second geo has nothing but three star-routes, something had to be special for the fourth star! The names of the routes-to-do are a long litany of delight... Bloodlust Direct (the four-star route), May Tripper, Wanderings, Geriatrics, Persuasion, Dolphins & Whales... we geared up eagerly and Adrian set off straight up Bloodlust direct which breaks through ridiculously steep ground on deep-set pockets . The trucking headwalls are a delight and we enjoyed the black basalt Zorro slash that is Maytripper just as much. Possibly the most stunning route here, which should get four stars simply for its exposure and situation (the actual climbing is remarkably friendly for E2) is the awesome cave traverse and headwall of Geriatrics. A fantastic abseil belay on a cosy black ledge on the right of the booming cave allows the leader to step off left into a bottomless groove with wide eyes and nervous songs of distraction. He need not worry however, as the gear keeps coming and the holds appear at will along the cave lip. The final red headwall in a spectacular position leads through a few steep pulls to easier ground. It is a pitch to delight in for both leader and second, you simply have to look down to take in your position at times, the rule is to spend as long as you can on the wall and do it in the evening sunshine to catch its full flush of glory.
Bloodlust Direct

The next day we cracked off a few steeper lines in the shady first geo, highlights being Blind Faith E2 and the excellent crack-line of Monkey Man E3, a pumpastic route requiring quick gear placement and a confident approach monkeying between distant good holds. This route was where I came to relearn the art of management in rock climbing - composure under stress, constant committee-meetings in your head at each point, the green-lighting of decisions, the red-lighting of caution, the terrible amber indecision of whether you have made the right choice... all these things are what rock-climbing is really all about at your own personal limit. You assume a certain competency of skills, you have the techniques, the gear, now all you have is the route and the management of that route. You break it down into constituent parts, for the whole is too big and terrifying, you micro-manage these sections with gear placements and sequence decisions, then you go into the 'blank space of action' for a bit, then you are back at a hold managing your position, delegating shake-outs, administering to your body's taxes... often the whole thing collapses in panic and stress and over-work and you bin off, your shares plummet and you're left at the bottom of a rope kicking rock. Such is the art of management in climbing.

The Swirl

The evening saw a fresh breeze keeping the midges at bay so we meandered along to the wonderfully textured wall of Creag an Fithich at Achriesgill. Gearing up, we are passed by a dog-walker returning from the pub at such a walking pace his wee dog was panting in the heat. 'Trying to break my record back from the pub', he says with a well-oiled smile. 'The wee dug's knackered tho', cannae stop, seeya lads...' Everyone in the north west has this slightly glazed and weathered visage, I can't tell if they're drunk or just ecstatic.

We were ecstatic to be standing under 'The Swirl' - another four-star gneiss E3, striking up the direct feature of the 'swirl' itself and taking a high crux headwall in a bold position. It binned Adrian off just below the top at a creaky flake and a hasty retreat was made to recover the gear the next morning! A spectacular line but hard for the grade and one we will have to consign to the ever-expanding future of 'routes-to-go-back-to'.

Goat Crag - Ian Taylor a spec on Mactala 7a+

Friday dawned glorious again and we headed south to collect Ian from Ullapool for a day at the Gruinard crags. These have seen furious recent development, both trad and sport, from locals Paul Tatersall and others. Possibly the leakiest secret in the north-west is the sports climbing at Goat Crag and Am Fasgadh near Mungasdale. These sunny crags look out over the Anthrax island of Gruinard and the beautiful 'stone valleys' towards the Fisherfield twin hills of Beinn a Chaisgein and A Mhaighdean. The River Gruinard winds silvery down through the glen and the crags dominate the hillsides with tan, black and red walls of delightful steep climbing. Goat Crag was a real surprise, the sports routes as good and long as Cave Crag in Dunkeld, long and pumpy and sequency, especially the classic four-star 7a+ that is Mactala. Ian Taylor led a new E5/6 called Eightsome Reel on the spectacular arete and headwall of the left crag, before we eased off the pedal on the freindly Jetty Crag, with ascents of the classic Prizefighter (named for a fisty reason!), the delicate North West Arete E1 5b and the steep Right Charlie E2 5c.

Eightsome Reel - Ian Taylor on the first ascent

Friday had come all too soon and we had to motor back down the road, our brief adventures in Gneissland over for another year.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Billions of Boulders

Dominic Ward and Lee Robinson have been busy exploring the remoter possibilities of bouldering in Applecross & Torridon and they sent me some topos of new bouldering for the Stone Country Bloc-Sport Guide for the NW. There seems to be no shortage of potential and the recent good weather allowed bikini-clad walk-ins (for Lee and Lisa anyway), who found billions of boulders under the Horns of Alligin it seems... an impressive field, makes me think of that scene in the Matrix when Neo is shown the billions of cloned humans!

Nic Ward followed the attractive siren calls of the boulder field visible below the Bealach na Ba mast in Coire nan Cuileag and found the gem that is the 'Sanctuary' boulder, a good looking roof offering a little shade for tired and thirsty dogs as well as boulderers!

GR - 777 428 The boulder is NW facing, and is visible from the Applecross side of the Bealach, on the way up to the mast car park. It lies below the mast in the field of vision marking the SW end of a rock terrace and has a large white streak of lichen distinguishing it from the surrounding rock. To access either walk direct from the car park, approximately 300m across broken terrain, or walk up the mast track for 200m and cut off left down a shallow valley following one or two rock steps. The boulder marks the south western end of the largest terrace in the vicinity.