Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Boulder Britain - a bolder guide

You know those people who push peanuts up a hill with their nose? Or Sisyphus rolling his rock? Such is the magnitude of the task and the strain on sanity which Niall Grimes was prepared to shoulder millenia ago, it seems, when the idea of a 'British Bouldering Guide' was a cute little puppy of a concept. Of course, it grew into a slavering beast of a project. And this colourful beast - the first and only bouldering guide to Britain (all 488 pages) - is now amongst us, like a bright new boulder that just materialised at your favourite venue. The book is, to quote a word Grimer likes, 'stunning'. Stunning rocks, stunning photos, landscapes to drool over, evening sunlight hitting rock... I could meander amongst its pages for hours, which is precisely what I did, throwing mental shapes and moves over all those lovely boulders.

Scotland is given a page or two per major venue, and this whistle-stop approach is general throughout the book. It is a mammoth task and Niall has performed miracles of editorial concision to give us the best each venue has to offer. The variety of bouldering represented is terrific, you get a real taste of Britain's geological smorgasbord, and the 180 venues have over 3,200 classic problems described with clean, sunny topos and clear approach maps.

Not only does the guide do what a guide is supposed to do, it is perhaps the most entertainingly written climbing guide I have ever picked up. Each page will raise a smile - just reading the history of the Langdale boulders will give you a taste of how refreshingly free from earnest, grade-chasing, navel-gazing is this book...bouldering is meant to be fun and Niall seems to have understood that message. Whether you are a solitary, heather-tramping, mat-hauler or a communal, gritstone Sunday picnicker, the guide covers all tastes and communicates the various characters of our rocks and our strange fascination  with pebble pilates.

The production quality is to die for and Niall has no doubt spent many long nights embedded in the intricacies of Adobe software, or howling at the moon when a lovingly traced map crashes without a save... the sheer bloody-mindedness needed to produce something this good-looking would put creationists to shame: it is a sophisticated, technicolour creature that has evolved fully-formed out of the primordial swamps, magma chambers and silent seabeds of our geological past.

Of course, it is a book produced by the 'community of the realm' of boulderers and woudn't exist but for the obscure passion of multifarious souls who ditch all to huddle sniffling under a damp overhang waiting for a few square inches of rock to dry. Niall rightly sets the book in this context and, as some kind of beneficient overseer or scribe, has diligently pulled it all together into a biblical work of dedication. This 'good book' should really be the one handed out at Sunday schools around the country - go forth and clamber upon rocks, take thee this bible... perform your stations...

Amazing what a little paper, ink and a stony curiosity can produce - well done Niall, this book is all the richer for you taking it on. I am going for a long bath, and I may be some time... three cheers for Ape Index!

Support the poor wretch who went blind and starved and withered to bring you this feast:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Angus Glens bouldering

I think the Angus Glens (Doll and Clova etc) have got some terrific potential beyond the Red Craigs if you get a good breezy summer day and fancy a walk with the mat... which is obviously what these adventurous lads at  Collective Productions have done. The teaser trailer has some terrific looking rock. I especially like 'Vanguard'. Bring on the full film!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stone Country 'Bouldering in Scotland' news

I've been meaning to build a website of Scottish bouldering for ages, but it's a hell of a job and Scottish Climbs has a lot of stuff anyway and many people have their own blogs and sites which prove useful for the wandering boulderer in Scotland.

Nevertheless, I've opened a Google Bouldering in Scotland site where I'm putting draft topos and updates for the forthcoming updated editions of the Bouldering in Scotland printed guides. As time goes by, I'll add more videos, topos, maps and photos to complement the print guides. We're looking for area authors for the three new guides: Central & South/Central Highlands/Northwest Highlands, so please get in touch if you want to feature your hard-earned expertise on the blocs - there are a lot of folk who have put so much time and effort into their bouldering and Stone Country is a community publishing press!

Each area will be based on an accessible 'day-run' radius, including the islands closest to mainland ferry ports (eg. Arran will be in Central & South, Mull in Central Highlands) and the guides will be see a complete design overhaul. They'll feature photos from local photographers and activists, complete problem listings, photo topos, all-new maps and access notes, and of course, hundreds of new stones and venues developed since the gazetteer edition of 2008. Areas which feature new and exciting problems include: Torridon, Sheigra, Reiff, Aberdeen sea-cliffs, Glen Nevis, Galloway, Strathconon, Laggan, Trossachs, Dumbarton (of course), Shelterstone, Arran and a lot more!

The topos on the new site are free to download but are copyright of their authors, so please use them for personal use only. In many cases they require significant updates, so if you want to get in touch to tell us what you've done, please do so!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mapping the forest, or mapping the mind?

In that Empire, the craft of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the empire itself an entire province. In the course of time, these extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a map of the empire that was of the same scale as the empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the study of cartography, succeeding generations came to judge a map of such magnitude cumbersome, and, not without irreverence, they abandoned it to the rigours of sun and rain. In the western deserts, tattered fragments of the map are still to be found, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar; in the whole nation, no other relic is left of the discipline of Geography.
Jorge Luis Borges, "Of Exactitude in Science" from A Universal History of Infamy (Penguin 1984 p.131)

All maps are illusions, tricks of the mind, elaborate tapestries of scale. And they only exist in our head, despite their intricate keys and contours. Look at old political maps of the world, or Ptolemy's map of Scotland, or Timothy Pont's 'reformed' maps of the Scottish Highlands - they hint more at our imagination and preoccupations, rather than any 'physical' reality. Google maps are still just a satellite's myopic squintings, whatever their resolution. Anyway, being exact is impossible, fractals lead us into chaos, and by nature a 1:1 scale would be a ragged reality, as Borges suggests.

 Ptolemy's Map of Scotland, which way is up, what is north?

Mapping for a book, providing a topographical 'bird's eye' overview, is already an imagining and a very personal interpretation. How do you reduce the world to a page? What is the optimum reduction you need? To map Fontainebleau for a guidebook on bouldering, I had to take my mental canary, intrepid little visionary high above my head, directing the wandering biped far below amongst the trees, clutching his sketchbook.

Mapping the chaos of boulders meant long wanderings with the mental canary controlling my scratching pencil from on high . . . I was a human puppet in thrall to shapes of rock, stacked cubes - Jenga-towers of plinths and boulders. I marked on my little numbers, drew my squares and circles, interlocked my rhomboids, laid down my contours and began to grow the imagined map of my Fontainebleau. Just as Denecourt had done with his featured trails in the previous century.

Year after year, with a sketchbook and the trusty canary, I set off into the oak and pines and birch, like so many before, but into my own imagination of the place. I couldn't map every stone and boulder problem, I had to imagine what would be useful for someone visiting the forest for a first time, what would help them navigate through a natural chaos. What was a landmark? What could be erased from relevance? What was remote; what accessible?

Relativity is all, and thankfully Fontainebleau already has an in-situ mapping of colour-coded paths (thankyou, Claude-Francois Denecourt!) and a recent culture of painting numbered circuit problems on the boulders. My IGN map of Fontainebleau is ragged and holed in the creases from constant folding. I grew to love those little aluminium signs nailed to trees, stencilled with the old crossroads and bridleways of the forest - Chemin du Bois Rond, Chemin de la Vallee Close, Carrefour du Bas Breau . . . and so on, they all interconnected and gradually I encircled my empty spaces on the paper.

Road maps I drew with to magnetic north, to avoid confusion between separate maps, but down at the micro-level, amongst the trees, north and south are meaningless, so each map can be orientated whichever way you like, you just need a frame of reference. I stuck to the approach paths as frames of reference, marking the stones as I found them on the direction of approach, keeping the book page in line with the walking climber. Stomping into Potala, for example, the classic orange circuit appears at the base of the page as you suddenly emerge from the woods onto a sandy clearing and glowing, pristine ochre walls.
I know that the blank page becomes the map . . . the blankness feels its way into meaning, this block narrows against this one, round the back should be red 22, follow the corridor, turn left, there it is, the canary wheels high above, re-orientates . . . the small figure far below, under the canopy, moves off again . . . the forest landscapes of Fontainebleau appear like castles in a pop-up book of wizardry.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Italian Lakes interlude

A week of late autumn sunshine and soft alpine breezes made for a perfect walking trip, plus some stunning rock architecture curtain-walling the many well-marked paths of the Italian trail network. Lierna is a superb base for exploring Lake Como and the foothills of the Sondrio alps, underneath the high ridges of the Grigna and the Legnone. The high treeline allows shaded walks to about 1500m, I tripped over myself several times as 300m faces of rock reared through the gaps in the oak and beech.

It was also a trip to unwind, watch sunsets with a beer or two and swan about the jigsaw harbour villages of Varenna, Bellagio, Menaggio. I even thought I might catch a glimpse of George Clooney on his Vespa - 'Ciao, George!' - but his name was banned on the holiday, just referred to as Voldemort...  

Lake Como is a leggy lake with two branches reaching down to old Etruscan/Roman towns of Lecco and Como, the hidden bays more accessible by boat than land, usually punctuated with peninsular castles and echoing the longue duree of history and struggle for the control of the high alpine passes. Etruscans, Celts, Gauls, Romans and then Longobardi fed the distinctive mixed-blood of these mountain lakes before the Italians just seemed to give in to a flashier culture of style, cars and football. You'd certainly be hard pushed to discover a sense of  cultural and financial nervousness currrent in other European countries, there's a lot of brash money on display here. Some of the cars aren't quite so flashy, though...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chasing the right weather . . .

Not as odd a concept as you may think . . . with the amount of forecasting sites available on the web, 'chasing the weather' has become a black art.

All of us who love the outdoors have different priorities when it comes to weather: rock climbers, winter mountaineers, canoeists, surfers, walkers, paragliders. However, we all have one thing in common: the perfect forecast! For a surfer, this may be a settled period after a storm, with huge swells and little wind. For walkers and climbers, it is the eternal hunt for the 'blue day', usually a high pressure forecast with light winds and dry conditions underfoot. For canoeists, rain-swollen, low pressure systems whet the appetite, as the rivers boil into bursting arteries of peaty water. For paragliders, only the stillest, 'thermal' days will do.

Many old-timers will smell it in the wind, or have developed an instinct for it, such as 'mixed' winter mountaineers. This rare breed of snow-scrapers seek out hoared up rock in the Highlands, with each hill-range cursed with particular micro-climates and eccentric thermal behaviours influenced by a largely maritime situation - only perfect combinations of temperature, moisture and wind direction will see the cliff face come into 'perfect nick'. Nothing is more disappointing after a 2am alpine start, a 4 hour drive, a powder-snowed 3 hour walk-in, than to find the cliff  'black' and dripping, rather than frozen into a turfy, dandruffed playground.

For boulderers, only a dry, cold spell in autumn or winter, when the leaves wither into Barbecue crisps and the rock squeaks with chalk, will do. For trad climbers, long summer high pressures are the stuff of dreams, it seems more so these days.

 And so we all have our favourite forecasting sites, trawling through our list of Favourites to find the forecast that's 'just right', knowing fine well the weather will do just what it's going to do. It doesn't stop us picking our forecasts, though. Here are a few of my most visited sites for chasing weather in Scotland - my favourite is the Norway site. The Scandinavians are obviously used to Atlantic weather fronts and YR.NO is a great weather channel providing a time-slide animation which features wind direction, temperature and precipitation at once. It also offers pretty accurate long-term forecasts for those of us stuck at the coalface of dirty, jet-streamed low pressure queues...

The BBC also offers a reasonable time-slide satellite animation and good break-downs of  daily local conditions:

The best mountain sites for Scotland are the MWIS page, a PDF-based system, and the Met Office Mountain Forecasts 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Craigmore Crag

A few dedicated Craigmore 'believers' have been busy tidying up the bouldering for this crag (as well as the litter and the last of the chanterelles!). Stone Country is working on the new guide for Southern Scotland (Stone Country Bouldering in Scotland Volume 1), which will mean a lot of problem checking, grade arguments and very sore skin if my tendons and back hold out long enough - otherwise I'll need an army of guinea pigs.

Craigmore comes into magical conditions only occasionally, autumn dry spells being my favourite. Before the rain swept in today, I had a fresh, leaf-whispering morning on Jamie's Overhang repeating all the variations (apart from 'Surprise Attack', which I've done once and doubt I'll get done again for a while!). Look at the disdain here as I kick away my own boulder mat on the excellent wee Font 6c dyno 'The Art of War':

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Climbing Academy -new bouldering centre for Glasgow

It was kind of Rob Sutton, operations manager, to show me round the nearly complete 'Climbing Academy' bouldering centre at the old News International warehouses in Portman Street, Glasgow (just below the M8 flyovers on the south exit of the Kingston bridge, off Paisley Road West). These premises are huge - thousands upon thousands of square feet of wood-panelled walls, at all angles, stretching down long corridors, circling into hidden spaces and tunnels. It is destined to become Scotland's largest and most ambitious bouldering centre and will bring bouldering to the masses as much as to the dedicated but jaded Scottish boulderer!

Based on the popular 'TCA' ('The Climbing Academy') in Bristol, I was impressed as much with the holistic and rounded philosophy for development of bouldering as a mainstream health and fitness activity (both mental and physical!), as with the plans for a dedicated, world-class training centre and international competition space. The space itself is cavernous and tall, labyrinthine, with a cave-like insulation guaranteed to keep things at a steady cool temperature in both winter and summer.

The facilities will be impressive and ergonomic: childrens' play areas; chill-out spaces; a good-food cafe; matted yoga and stretching spaces; rooms for professional treatments and therapists; showers; and a dedicated bouldering shop! The idea, I was told, was to create an uncrowded, explorative space, replicating the circuit feel of a compact outdoor venue. Walls of all angles link into each other, showcasing colour-coded 'natural' lines in graded circuits like Fontainebleau. Downloadable topos and circuit maps will be available for visitors to challenge themselves and benchmark their progress in the art of bouldering.

This philosophy of inclusivity cannot be underestimated and it seems the directors have got the 'vision' spot-on: bouldering should be accessible to all  and athletic climbing 'play' is the name of the game, no matter what circuit or grade you are chasing. Wandering under the painted, bolt-holed boards, I was in full visualisation mode,  imagining 'classic' problems up prows, over lips, through roofs, round aretes . . .  it truly will be a blessing to have such a venue for those long winter nights and those rainy summer days in Scotland.

The centre is planning to open in late autumn, with a super-flexible pricing policy. Keep up to date with their blog and join up as soon as they open - as a climbing art in itself, this is what bouldering has deserved all along.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Powmill Blocs

SpectaclesPowmill topoBeccy traverseGoliathL-r traverseSpectacles back prow
Jaws bloc areteBack wallDavidGoliath wallPowmill blocs (2)Razorback 1
Prow slab MondoJaws blocPowmill quarryPowmill blocsPowmill quarry pool and car

Powmill Blocs, a set on Flickr.

I'd appreciate any topos, grades, problems, names etc of the bouldering at Powmill that hasn't appeared on UKC for the A-Z of Scottish bouldering. Fine little venue for a dry sunny day in Autumn. I almost felt I was in a small corner of Font...

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Reiff & Cnoc Breac

Moonjelly 1Mid reiffTess gabbing away on Mid ReiffSandra topping out on Mid ReiffPine Marten wall Niegl aiming for the jugMoonjelly descent success
Moonjelly 6Moonjelly 5Moonjelly 4 Sandra climbingMoonjelly 3Moonjelly 2Cnoc Breac Ann at the Pine Marten Walls on the undercut problem
Cnoc Breac Ann's slabCnoc Breac Anns slab 4Cnoc Breac Anns slab 3Cnoc Breac Anns slab 2Ann soloing Moonjelly leftAnn solo Moonjelly Left
Nigel on the Pine Marten undercut problemWave traverse JWEarthshaker topCnoc  Breac LeftCnoc Breac rightBouldering at reiff

Reiff & Cnoc Breac, a set on Flickr.

The last of the summer? What a scorcher at Reiff. Cnoc Breac was pretty good as well as a bouldering venue.