Beasts of Burden

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‘Jeez Christ. Crease Bunningtone hud a leeter beg then this wen he deed the ole mun of hoy’; so said the animated Scots taxi driver as he tried to lift the rucksack from the boot of his car.

Mountaineering: Multi pitch routes; Long day’s adventures. Scottish mountaineering: long walk-ins. We’d put an adventure together – South Ridge Direct (VS) on Cir Mhor, a perfect pinnacle in the middle of the beautiful Isle of Arran. 1000ft of classic route. Two and a half hour walk in? No problem. We’d wild camp; spend a couple of days there playing on the ancient volcanic rock. A voice in my head said: ‘but you hate camping’. I countered with: ‘it’s only one night’.

We unpacked and packed our rucksacks, casting aside anything superfluous …and unpacked again, but it made not a bit of difference to the weight. I grunted as I attempted to swing the rucksack on my back in one swift move to avoid future back problems. I had a full rack, two ropes and all the other climbing paraphernalia while Chris carried the camping comforts of oversized tent and sleeping bag, over-heavy food and clothing. I was envious of those who could afford rush out and buy the latest teeny tiny lightweight equipment  but also in awe of those pioneers who had had no choice but to become beasts of burden.

As we walked up Glen Rosa, our knees creaking and hips bowing, it drizzled, and then it rained. The shifting thick cloud on the summits was a slight distraction from the exquisite pain in my shoulders. As we neared Cir Mhor the amenably level path steepened – and we realised we’d missed a turning. So off we went across bog and heather where there was no sign of a sheltered flat dry camping pitch. My boots had taken in enough water to soak my socks by the time the perfect spot decided to reveal itself: an emerald green croquet pitch behind a Cromlech-type boulder.


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The rain relaxed long enough for us to put up the tent and then throw the gear and ourselves inside to wait for the rain to find another place to stay. We accepted the fate of so many Scottish plans- we’d only be climbing for one day and that wouldn’t be until tomorrow.

At 5pm it went quiet and I peered out. The world had completely changed. The sun shone on the jagged summits of Goatfell , Cir Mohr  and Bheinn Tarsuinn which surrounded the small speck of our blue tent. Just above us was a folded  and creased tower of smooth grey rock- the Rosa Pinnacle – and  the ‘s’ and ‘y’ cracks were grinning  at us. No route finding problems tomorrow then.

There followed a night of intermittent sleep while we fought with slippery sleeping bags on slippery mats and creeping mountain chill, but kept the faith for the expected forecast. And it came good: under a bright blue sky a multitude of merging alpine -esque ridges filled most of the horizon, while beyond the smoothly curved sides of the Glen, I could make out the white speck of the Androssan ferry on the azure sea.

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After  breakfast of tea and biscuits we repacked a rucksack for the day’s work, went to the foot of the huge hunk of gritty grey slab and found our way to the first of the VS pitches – the S crack – by which time other climbers had scampered up the Glen and were nibbling at our toes.

‘How do fat people climb?’  I grunted like a Yak up the crack with the bag on my back bulging with wet boots, layers and sustenance for two. We hauled it up the thrutchy and slightly overhanging ‘Y’ crack making the climbing experience so much more enjoyable.

In that manner of multi-pitch routes time shrunk as we set belays, flaked rope, handed over gear and climbed the meandering  14 or so pitches. Towards the top, where the climbing is easier but the exposure more difficult, I had to be reminded by the party behind us that I’d conveniently left the rucksack behind. I retraced my footholds. ‘Wishful thinking’ I muttered. And, as is the manner of mountains, cloud gathered and sunk down to cover the summits and a wind blew in from the artic.

I was glad to see the distinct tip of the summit but was fully aware that the day hadn’t ended yet. After the long descent down to the tent, we had to de-camp and  become beasts of burden again. The walk out  only took 2 hours but it was gruelling  – but all bad things come to an end and by 10pm we were sipping an Arran malt listening to some fine live  Blue-Grass music with full bellies … and  with very, very tired bodies.

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On The Road

CIMG2037We’re having a summer: A summer where the days seem longer and lighter, where the temperature is just right and the sun shines at the right time- well almost. You just need to travel to the right places. I’ve been on the road, chasing the sun.
First there were the sea cliffs of North Pembrokeshire where the sun shone through a cruel wind at Craig y Crisial setting my teeth chattering and making me long for shelter, while the sea roared at me. Aside from the cold I vaguely remember it took two routes of two pitches to climb out of it. Not a remarkable day but an ‘adventure day’ we decided. I decided the next day we‘d seek shelter- and we found it at Carreg-Y-Barcud. The sea did a millpond thing to show us how beautiful the Pembrokeshire coast can be while I did a sweaty second up the steep wall of Sinecure (E1) and tremulously led Yellow edge – an HS-feels-like-its-a-VS.
The following week it rained and shone and rained and shone and rained and I went to North wales to the foot of Snowdon to meet with the lovely Pinnacle Club members. We arrived on a wet Friday evening with a rain forecast which was so chronically misleading that on Saturday I did a tick list item (a short but perfect list): an enchainment on Idwal Slabs. Admittedly our routes were chosen on the basis that they were the only dry ones but it was a perfect summer mountain day. There was The Ordinary Route (Diff) and then the delightfully exposed Lazarus (Severe), and the day finished under blue summer afternoon skies on The Arete, an airy V Diff. Mountain valley rain chased us away to Tremadog the following day which wasn’t as exciting but the sun shone again.

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And then it was back on the A5 again 8 days later with a definite window of weather opportunity to do another tick list item – the seriously mad traverse at Gogarth that can only be faced on a nice blue calm summer day, and with a nice blue calm sea (unlike the conditions for the first ascensionists of a Dream of White Horses). Beautiful. Mad. Job done.
To Pembroke again a week later as it dried out after a thunder storm that had hung on over the rest of the UK. The sound of the enraged sea swell entered my head on the first day and wouldn’t leave, making it difficult to relish Sarsparilla Sunset, an HVS up a dark corner followed by a thin traverse over the snapping sea – a dream revisited. The heat cranked up and the air was balmy as we sauntered up the 3 star Blue Sky – ‘HS climbing in an E1 position’ was how it was appropriately described by Chris.

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The next day on our way to Mowing Word, Barafundel Bay looked Mediterranean and I had a passing thought about a lazy beach day but then forgot about it as we played in the sun on sea cliffs above a benign sea on SealHunt ( E1) and The Curver (VS). But while I hung from a belay at the foot of the curiously named Snozwanger (E1) in the fierce sun with screaming toes and watched the cool green water lapping below me, I re-visited that thought. The route could be described as classically ‘sustained’ so as soon as I’d grunted my way up it I snatched off my shoes and made for the beach. My toes sizzled.

It’s now too hot to climb so there’ll be more toe balm instead.

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Leap-Frog

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I led an E1 yesterday: The first pitch of Wurlitzer in the Wye Valley. A classic Wintours Leap route: steep and not entirely embellished with gear shaped cracks and crevices. I seem to have leap-frogged the grades over the last 2 years – from Severe to Very severe and now up and over to the E numbers.
It had 2 stars and my name on it. No it didn’t. I definitely didn’t set out from sunny Bristol that afternoon and grind through commuter and weekend traffic over the bridge with the idea of pushing my grade. In fact my head was almost totally full with unrelated climbing junk- maybe that’s why. Or maybe it was the beauty of the afternoon or maybe it was just a funny turn.
‘I was thinking of doing Wurlitzer’, said Chris. ‘It’s 2 pitches. You might like to do the first. Have look and see what you think’
My climbing season so far has been in fits and starts and all a bit timidly. I seem to have lost a slice of bravado from last year’s model- the bit that pushed me to VS. And this year so far I’ve only done one or two VS routes, and one of those was a re-run. So this proposal was shocking …but somehow the shockwaves didn’t register.
So I walked up to the route and peered up through the trees and daisies and grass. Not too steep and not too blank. Route finding – always a problem in the Wye and especially for someone like me with an inability to translate the words into the thing before me- could be facilitated by bellows from the belayer below , book in hand (or by feet in a safe way).
‘Can I do this?’ I asked. ‘I think you’ll be fine,’ came the reply. I wasn’t quite sure I liked the word ‘think’ but I moved on quickly and started to gear up with a different part of my brain.
So with Chris shouting the obscure route instructions to me I started the 30m pitch. The descriptions had to be shouted to me throughout the route and I’d like to apologise to the other 2 climbers in the area for the disturbance.
The first half reminded me of the lower pitches of route on Suspension Bridge Buttress in the Avon Gorge – balancy and edgy but not too steep. So not too uncomfortable. There were awkward moves but fingers and toes could always find something (in the end). I did some gardening and found gear placements both good and not so good (But not enough of them I was advised later). ‘Breaks’ appeared regularly but they never seemed to be able to hold a cam like a cork in a bottle. Overhangs appeared regularly too: more reason for more gear. And then…it got very very steep and all a bit thin and I started to make a noise like a strangled cat (entertainment for the belayer) and announce that ‘I’m not sure about this’. A bit late for indecision really. The language then became very multi coloured. ‘That’s not a f****** 4c move’ was declared to the birds and daisies at one point. But the funny turn continued and I managed to trust in my abilities and arrived at the top without too many bouts of disco leg, sweaty palms and that question ‘when is this going to end?’
Type 2 fun. Out of my comfort zone, but apparently this is occasionally needed if you’re intending to push your grade – which I wasn’t and which would explain the surprise I felt at the end of the day. A nice surprise though.
Not sure what route to do next.

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Mountain Days

 

CIMG4469I concentrated all my powers of weather goddess and conjured up a May Bank Holiday in Snowdonia with no rain, no standstill motorway and no crowded crags – honestly.
My ambition was …to be in the mountains… a trip up Main Wall would be nice, but choices are determined by the mountains not the climber. On Saturday Simon and I played on the local Llanberis crags sheltered from a sharp wind. Nice rock.
We woke on Sunday to cruel northerly which made it an easy decision not to hang around on belays on a northerly crag. It’s that time of year when my body has had enough of the cold and wants to be warm – and not by being wrapped in 4 layers of clothing. I emerged from the tent with 4 layers of clothing. A plan quickly took shape for a day moving in the mountains. We hopped into Dave’s car and slipped over to the Ogwen Valley to do a slab climb. Not the overrun Idwal but Atlantic slab: ‘Left Edge’- a 5 pitch (sort of) V Diff we could quickly swop leads on.
It wasn’t a long walk in but it was painfully uphill. The 4 layers became 2… and then 4 again as soon as I reached the wind-blasted start. Simon sauntered up the first pitch throwing in gear as I watched a group of 3 elderly men approach. They stopped and we had an exchange of pleasantries and then the climbing talk began. The small bright-eyed bearded man said he was there to show his friends a fine climb on a fine piece of rock. They were all in their 70s. ‘Look’ ,said the bright-eyed man as he put his feet into a pair of ankle high climbing shoes . ‘These boots are older than you’. He intended to solo it while the others were going to get their ropes out. They’d been there and done it, and were now clearly thoroughly enjoying a time when they could play gently and make the most of their surroundings. They were in it for beauty and quality. Not a bad ambition.
I followed Simon up, enjoying great friction, and while on the first belay overlooking the weird ‘waved slab’ I had a short lesson from him on ‘tension gash’ . No, not the name of a heavy metal band but an arabesque quartz formation. It’s interesting climbing with a geologist.
The soloist caught me up at the second belay and perched on the arête for further climbing talk. ‘Years ago I did the route on Grey slab at Idwal that’s now a VS. Guess what it was graded at then?’ ‘HS?’ ‘No. V Diff. And when it was originally put up they wouldn’t even have had boots like this to climb in; not even a harness’. Looking at him I saw his passion and his brightness and  I thought: I want to be doing what you’re doing when I’m your age. Forget a staid retirement of comfort and ease.
Simon and I swopped leads for another 4 pitches, stopping where we could. Available placements came and went like buses- all at once and none at all. The slab was fairly sheltered so fingers still retained some feeling by the time we got to the top – where the bearded one was waiting for his friends like a dog waiting for his owners to catch up before he can start running around again.
We moved on up past him and then scrambled up to the top pausing for a bite to eat in the warm lee of  jumbled rocks with a wide view of Anglesey, the Carnedds and Tryfan. The clouds drifted up and down the tops and the sun occasionally waved a hand at us.
We continued up and up across the windswept Glyders to summit Y Garn and then swept on down again back to the camp site in Nant Peris. A good way to spend a Sunday: a day in the mountains in beauty and enjoying quality. May it continue.

 

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Thirty. Silence

 

I’ll go to the mountains
and tell them by my footsteps
how much it hurts

I’ll go to the mountains
and show them by my words
how much I wanted it to be different

I’ll go to the mountains
and throw the heavy black ball
of everything ugly at them

I’ll go to the mountains
and scream my disappointment
but I’ll only hear the echo of emotion

I’ll go to the mountains
to eat their silence
and I’ll let it fill me up

 

Pokhara top of sarankot

 

 

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Twentynine.

Twenty nine

For 29 days
I uncurl and unfurl from sleep
slowly
and reach out in my half-lit brain
for picture, shapes and emotions
to string together.
Sometimes I’ve made necklaces,
sometimes bright rings,
sometimes bracelets.
Some are made of dull metal,
some of silver,
some of plastic and
some contain randomly placed jewels or charms.
Creative possibility spins me out
into the new day to plunder
for new treasure,
for discarded bling,
dropped pieces of eight.
And there’s always some sweepings left
on the floor
so the next day when I uncurl and unfurl
I can knit something new from the leftovers.

Pokhara boat trip

 

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Twentyeight. Breacon Beacons II

 

Valley sheep complain.
Black clouds over brown hills. Bright
fallen daffodils.

 

flower

 

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twentyseven. Beneath my feet.

 

I believed as a kid that if you dig deep enough
you’ll get to the other side of the world.
I now know I don’t need to dig deep,
I can feel you beneath my feet.
The hiccup call tone erupts and I’m next to you.
You words come as quick and colourful
as my imaginings
I catch them in my hand to savour later,
long after the connection has ended and
before they fade.
I can feel you beneath my feet.

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twentysix. Well-being

 

Four hugs a day is good for you

said the bright man with the bright eyes
so I went in search of well-being

I was given a hug by the bright eyed man
and it was dark brown sugar with a hint of ginger

I took a hug from weary Stephen
and it was mascarpone, halloumi and brie

I gave a hug to carefree Fred
and it was chocolate with strawberries and cream

I had a hug with reluctant Trish
but it was sour milk and burnt toast

So I shared a hug with blissful Chris
and it was knickerbocker glory

 

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twentyfive. Falling

 

On the Wall again
following the colours again
gecko hopes in my head again
steady fight with gravity again
taut tense focused again
winning again

Losing
letting go is the hardest thing
fingers release
while mind shouts no
like unpeeling a plaster
I curl away and drop

drop
drop
deep into space

Feeling the drop run through me
feeling the air run over me
feeling the slow swing of the rope above me
feeling free
smiling
I reach out to grapple gravity again.

 

 

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