Of Watches and Wind

 

 

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It wasn’t that long ago that I thought walking up a mountain was a silly thing to do. Times change. Now I get it: the purist of air, mountain silence, a chance to dance with the elements and views that go on forever… and ever. So I’m in Snowdonia at the stub end of January to immerse myself again.

On the kitchen table at the bunk house lie 2 watches – no ordinary watches. They are as big as muffins only slimmer and less edible. The owners wear smug expressions. They’ve invested in the latest, most important technology tha’s going to make a huge difference to their active adventurous lives.

I’d already spend an afternoon with one of the watch owners. While I lightly skipped up 900m to the summit of Y Garn in the fading light and a wind that was testing out its strength for the next day, she puffed and blew behind me. Occasionally she caught up with me and then had to tell me how much ascent we’d done and what her heart rate was. I’d hoped she tell me the time as the important thing, as far I was concerned, was to make sure we didn’t have to do the gnarly rocky wet descent in the dark. At her frequent stops she’d peered at the watch face and I mistakenly presumed she was checking the time for our pace. No. She was checking her speed, altitude and ascent profile.

Happily we weren’t blown off the top and we got past the slippery bits in the light, but it took a bit of cajoling. We finished the last bit in the moonlight while she told me all the data her watch imparted, including the fact that she now needed 88 hours recovery time. ‘What did we do before such technology?’ I wondered.

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Next day and a different watch owner. Four people and one watch. Can we manage? A big day is planned. There have been great wranglings about the plan. 17km from the west coast up and over the Carnedd summits to the Ogwen valley… or vice versa? The reverse being 900m  of calf-punishing pull up scrambly rocks and scree – straight up, straight after breakfast, and then a slow descent. Less pretty to look at and, most importantly, with the wind behind us. Which do we chose? 16km uphill against a brewing storm-force wind ending with a sharp steep slippery descent, right at the point when thighs want to go to the pub. We’ll be Ok. The mountains will be a slight buffer against the wind’s worse excesses. And anyway, we have the watch don’t we?

So we start nice and early, admiring the pink winter dawn clouds. The wind blows around us, playing with us … until we reach the first peak and then it turns into a ferocious dog and bites us. We turn tail and seek the slight shelter of a wall where we confer. ‘Not sure if I want to go on if it’s going to be as cold and windy as this ’. ‘It’s unlikely to be like this all the way’. I sternly put on another layer of clothing and a second pair of gloves and we continue, up and up against the bastard wind.

The watch owner doesn’t seem as attached to his watch as the previous day’s owner but he does keep stopping to take photos of our route through the shifting lifting cloud. ‘Not a great day for photos’, I think.

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Patches of deep wet snow appear. Fields of slippery rocks appear. Bogs appear. The wind doesn’t disappear, nor does the uphill slog. It becomes like a nightmare in which you’re moving but not going anywhere. Snow hides deep holes that eats us up to our thighs and it clings to our boots to make the slippery rocks ice-like. ‘I prefer the bog’, I think. Every time a punching gust comes, poles are wielded as an aide to me upright – I assume the ‘rigid frog’ position: head down, crouching, poles impaled in the earth/bog/snow while pretending I have eaten a lot of pies.  My poles also work against me, the ends becoming pincered between rocks, making my shoulders wince as I struggle to pull them out while keeping balance. My sense of humour starts to become as eroded as the slippery piles of stones.

At the top of Carnedd LLewelyn I have to walk diagonally into the wind in order to keep a straight course, adopting the elegant Gollum way of walking – semi crawling.  I can see a swirling mass of black malignant cloud smothering the top of the Glyders. ‘That’ll be the rain that’s forecast later. The wind will be even worse then’, says the watch owner dryly, taking another photo of our increasingly furrowed faces. It starts to annoy me.

I’d had the right idea originally: walking up mountains is a stupid idea. Better get a move on and get back to asafe haven. But the wind is having none of it – why hurry when you can play with the silly people who walk the hills? Other walkers have appeared by this time – from the opposite direction. (I mean who would want to walk against this wind?) I have a strong urge to grab them and tell them we’ve been walking for hours in these conditions.

I resist the urge as one passes me. Instead I concentrate on keeping my balance as I pick up my foot to step over large greasy rocks. The wind pushes me forward toward the adjoining snow field at the same time and so I do a giant leap for mankind… and face-plant in the snow, having placed my boot on one of those concealed holes. I flounder like a beached whale, trying to extricate my leg with thigh muscles that don’t want to respond. As I fall I hear the passing walker murmur politely, ‘Morning’. The response she gets is my cry of ‘shit, shit, shit’, as I try to extricate myself from the wet snow. Dancing with the elements? Dancing with wolves more like.

By now we can see the last summit, Pen yr Ole Wen, from where we will make the steep descent. We meet a group at the top who cheerfully tell us that the wind is just as vicious down there. I groan inwardly but I soon have the road where I’ve parked my car in my sights. A very small road – very far away, but my body is very pleased that the end is in sight. Surely it’s just a matter of walking down a steep path?

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No path. Another set of thigh muscles are given a work out down a series of scrambly ledges – for hours and hours. Gradually the wind eases until I can hear myself think again and realise I haven’t eaten for hours and hours, and that food would significantly improve my sense of humour. I cram down hamster food and glug a litre of water, and things start to look so much better. I continue picking my way down like an ungainly goat and heavy rain starts to fall just as I step onto the road.

Later in the safe haven, stomach full with tea and food, and cider, the watch owner tells us how all the photos he took on the walk are part of a watch plan- the camera and watch talk to each other so that he will know precisely where and when each photo was taken. How nice. He also regales us with data: ‘It says we did 7km, 700m of ascent and it will take us 3 days to recover. It’s wrong’. Yes it’s wrong. We did 50km, an Everest profile of 5000m of ascent, took us 14 hours and it will take 3 weeks to recover. I know that, because I feel that.

 

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The Pointlessness of Industry

Arran sunset

Arran sunset

The city sits in a haze of October pearl light. An Indian summer. More of the same is promised tomorrow. I’ve committed to a couple of hours inside playing on a wall with coloured knobs thrown over it. Inside? What was I thinking? At least it will give the fog a chance to melt away.

A familiar face grins at me from social-media-land. ‘Anyone want to climb tomorrow?’ I do. I see a picture of the south facing sheltered Avon Gorge and feel the heat of the rock on Suspension Bridge Buttress. Can I? Should I? Ought I?

I and me argue for a few minutes. Oh the pointlessness of guilt. Yes of course I can put aside all those offensively important things that need to be done. Of course I can go and play in the last gasp of summer, and yes of course I’m up to all that activity. (And I can’t disappoint my morning partner can I?) So I reply with the ‘I do’, and ‘How about an afternoon in the Gorge?’ The deal is done.

A misty morning greets me and I’m at the wall at 9.30am with the ambition of a gentle session followed by a good meal to carry me through. I almost succeed in this but stray into more strenuous territory a couple of times. We emerge 2 hours later into the Indian summer.

In the little time I have between extreme activity I attempt to cover all the nutritional bases while also resting. It doesn’t quite work and I have a belchy bike ride over to Neil’s. Easy digestion is also hampered by the heavy rucksack on my back.

He says: ‘I haven’t climbed much this year’.  I say: ‘Snap, and I want a stress-less climb – so that’s me seconding and you leading.’ We agree that Suspension Bridge Buttress is the place to play and are soon looking at the mud-plastered banks of the River Avon at low tide from the canopy under the Avon Suspension Bridge.

It’s been a while since I was here last. The parsley and marjoram are still curling out of the cracks at the foot of the crag, and a robin eyes us from a nearby tree as if he recognises us from somewhere. I strip down to my sleeveless top and Neil strips down to skin and then is on and up ‘Suspense’ before you can say ‘boo’ to the robin. And then I follow him up this route that I’ve done a few times before but have absolutely no recollection of. Nice HVS. Nice rock. My body seems quite happy after the morning’s extended warm up. No problem.

‘Let’s do that route on the right of the slab’, he says after we’re back under the robin’s gaze. ‘Limbo?’ ‘Yes, but let’s go up the direct line through the pockets. It’s slightly harder and I fancy a bit more of a challenge’. I blench slightly. Limbo is a route I can remember. The first time I struggled. The second time I cheated (via a handy sticky-out bolt) – and that was the easier line. Oh well.

Neil is on and up like a ferret again, only a slightly slower ferret this time. He’s surrounded by a cloud of ladybirds who have decided it’s a good time and place to swarm.  I stand and belay enjoying the heat, ladybirds, robin and Friday afternoon freedom. Neil has made this look easy and I am strangely relaxed as I start the first part of the route, the easy bit up to the pockets. And then it’s steep and crimpy and balancey. But there are no arguments in my head; no complaints; no dismay or chastisement. I’m totally absorbed by the puzzle. Everything has gone except for the search for the solution, and the intricacy and precision of the dance.

‘Not bad for a couple of people who haven’t climbed much’, I say as I greet Neil at the top.

I go home high on endorphins, so very glad I’d won the argument of the ‘ought’ and the ‘should’; so very glad my body can mostly do what it’s told do. YOLO

A'Chir ridge abseil

A’Chir ridge abseil

 

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A Perfect Diet

 

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Lundy September memories… golden grass, glittering grit, glistening sea and lighthouse sunsets. Again please.  2 days before leaving Met office declines the request with a prophecy of hailstorms, force 8 gales and cold. I swallow the bitter pill and move to a mind-set of rest and relaxation. I pack winter clothes and books.

The ferry pitches and rolls out of Ilfracombe and then wallows its way through the troughs and dips while its passengers moan and turn green and white. Becky lies on the deck and asks: ‘When is it all going to end?’, while Peter scampers around saying: ‘The waves are incredible’, to anyone who is able to pay attention.

On the island the sun shines but recovery time is given priority over any strenuous activity so we sit in stripy deck chairs on a green lawn with a view of the north Devon coast and eventually motivation creeps in. We should at least get a rope out.

I heave the heavy rucksack up the hill and down the other side, and back up the same hill, and down another. Steep, very steep.  I had forgotten the Lundy Alpine mountaineering experience: finding the right bit of rock at the right time of day is for the older and wiser and therefore fatter people.

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We arrive at Flying Buttress at the wrong time and watch the waves crash around us and over the way into most of the routes. We are left with a brutal looking VS 5a. We get the ropes out and Peter does a short vertical dance on it for a while, and then it starts to rain, so he retreats and we put the ropes away and walk uphill again.

I’m not disappointed – just glad to be back at the foot of rugged sea cliffs on this wild and beautiful island.

Pinned to the notice board in the pub that evening is a print-out of the forecast: Cloudy, drizzle and more.

I look out of the window the next morning and see a blue distant coastline above a glistening sea. The winter packing was so, so wrong.

The hot sun bakes us as we tentatively try to find our way down a steep grassy slope to where the abseil should begin above Needle Rock. It seems a lot harder than the way down we found before, 5 years ago, but we continue, down past loose rock and a blank wall, down to the big boulders on the shore. We get the ropes out and play at being brave (and sweaty) climbers until the sea starts to be an irritating presence for the belayers. Sitting in the sun on top of the stack after an interesting Severe, among the drying regurgitations of some mythical Lundy bird of prey, I watch the seal watching us and the goats being braver than us, and take in the glittering grit and glistening sea. It is all so good.

The blank wall is too blank to provide a route out so the adventure of getting down to the shore is reversed.  I lead the way up a precarious scramble, trying to find something solid to hold on to and avoiding goat shit, until we meet up with the ab rope. The sun is still baking us as we walk up to the breezy top.

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Last year I ate too much. This year I’ve been discerning and only eaten my favourite food. It’s a diet of adventure, fresh air, sunshine, remoteness, and dramatic scenery. It takes me beyond my comfort zone, but only just. I haven’t been ticking the boxes or pushing my grade – I’ve been discovering my  ideal meal and at the end  of this day I was replete.

And that was it, and it was enough – a storm raged over the island the next day and the last day I couldn’t get motivated to get the rope out for the non-tidal routes on offer so spent a few hours sitting in hot sun on a rock above a cove watching seals sunbathe and sing. Simple pleasures.

Keep it simple.

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Hopeful

 

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Best day of the year and it didn’t involve consolidating new routines to overcome the challenges of a cranky VS, but a mountain day. A day where I hugged the pinnacle and shouted ‘I have nothing to prove.’

Mountaineering – a big day out, travelling through rugged and inspiring landscape in a number of ways to get to the top. And for me, the most satisfying of idle pursuits.

It was third time lucky. I’d been to Scotland with hope of walking, scrambling, climbing but it rained of course so it had to be the Munro bagger’s agenda. After 14 summits in 3 days I looked at her and said: ‘No more’ … and meant it.

Then to North Wales with a similar hope. No rain but others had other hopes and so instead I practiced my new routines on Dinas Mot in shorts and T Shirt and then went to have a nice cup of tea.

A few weeks later I took more hope to North Wales where randomly I found a fellow hopeful. While others scurried away to the dry coast, we played on a 3 star grade 3 scramble, Clogwyn y Person Arête, in non-wetting rain and I had my first encounter with the drifting ridge of the infamous Crib Goch (disappointing after my meeting with the A Chir ridge in Arran in May).

The next day rain threatened but we rose early and undeterred and hopeful we made our way to Idwal Slabs where we chose our first route by an easy method of elimination- routes going through wet rock were out. A diff – Ordinary Route . In boots. Moving together with rucksacks: Interestingly awkward and exertive.

Idwal enchainments on a Saturday are busy, so in our hopeful enthusiasm we chose the free route – a VS 4C: Piton Route. Him in boots (a combination of Alps training and forgetfulness), and he found it hard. Very hard. Technical climbing ensued as I whipped on my stickies and heaved and grunted up the slippery blank groove .At the top he said ‘remind me never to do that again.’ Type 3 fun then.

Not quite there yet, so we made our precipitous way up to a 200m scramble – grade 3 and 3 stars again. The route description had wetted our appetite using words that sounded like it was out there and a steady head was needed. Correct.

In boots. Heavy rucksacks. Huge exposure and teeny tiny holds plus a short traverse that made me sweat even more. Thankfully we were delightfully in the zone. The sun came out and we sweated some more and walked past  Glyder Fawr with grins on our faces, back to Nant Peris – for a pint.CIMG3312

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Magic Numbers

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Bow shaped slab. Pembrokeshire

I have a shiny new harness and fresh new rock shoes. Dave suggested it might be a good idea to replace some of my aging equipment. Dave Talbot was the man hanging from a rope next to me as I made my way up a route at Wintours Leap in the Wye Valley,  and buzzing in my ear with the repeated question: ‘Why are doing you doing  it like that?’ I’d paid him to do that: to give me a climbing MOT-  it felt more like a second driving test and I hated my mouth for its insistent excuses and justifications . Instructing  ‘experienced’ climbers must  be like giving driving lessons to ‘experienced’ drivers –  there will be a wall of resistance to any suggestion that what they are doing is in any way incorrect. And that’s how it was – initially. My wall was well built as evidenced by the amount of pleas and protestations and ‘buts’ that came from my mouth last Friday.  I wished I would shut up.

What he was telling me (‘suggesting’ to me) was everything I’d heard before (mostly) , but somehow it had become lost in the mists of time and bad habits… and it was oh so difficult to get to that place where I could listen and absorb without my wall of pride flinching. But we got there, eventually.

‘Starting routines: Have one. Know exactly where your gear is on your harness. Why do you use a bandolier?  It gets in the way. Get more harness loops. Oh look your harness is so worn away the red bit that shows you should replace it has been worn away. Your shoes have no edge and holes on the toes.  Get a chalk bag on a bit of tat. Don’t put it on your harness. Stop clutter and reduce weight. Be tidy. Be exact. Be ritualised. Look up at the route. Where will the first bit of the gear go?  How are you going to get there? Where are the holds? Break up the route into bite sized pieces. Stop and look. Now off you go…’

So it’s not a matter of feeling scared and not looking at it and just diving in with a vague idea where gear might be on my harness?

I start  with his buzzing filling my head, placing nuts, hexs and cams as I go.

‘Look for the V’s. Look for all the possibilities for placements, not just the first one you see. Where exactly will you be placing the gear? Which gear? Grade it out of 5. Outward/ upward /downward pull? Add gear until it adds to 5. When you can rest, put in 2 bits on both ropes – that will make a 10 which is the strength of a belay and that should fill you with happiness before you make the tricky move. You should get to the stage where you can put it in quickly, first time. And it’s a really bad idea not to hold on with the other hand while you put in the gear.Climb every route the same way, with the same routines.’

‘But. But. But’, I want to protest.  By this time a slight melt-down is going on in my head. The wall is crumbling and I have to deal with its tumble and fall and re-construct it as a positive and beautiful thing quickly. I succeed.  I listen and absorb and the light bulb goes on.

My fear as I have gone up the grades as increased because my confidence in my gear hasn’t. I haven’t been accurately appraising it and been throwing it in more and more randomly in the haste  of fear that comes on steep routes with a quick thought of ‘probably good enough’ , which is a vagueness that only generates more fear. Fear on fear on fear. And less and less good gear. I really need to eat humble pie and go back to basics.

I’m shocked how some bad habits are so engrained . Dave has to repeat: ‘Hang on to the rock while you’re putting that in!’ –  and I’m shocked how casual I have become. We peer intently at a  sexy 3 point belay made up of 10 point graded placements  – ‘ Independent and equalised’  – and I realise I’ve forgotten what the  ‘independent’ bit means… please can I go home now and never go climbing again. How is it I am alive still?

Dave the bee buzzes all day. Yes I feel like an amateur again but I know I have to do this – listen and absorb. So I take this rebuilt stack of information and re-found knowledge and take it to Symonds Yat  a week later, where I do a route I would usually avoid – ‘steep and  polished at the beginning’. I put in lots of lots of good gear ( 9 points) deep in the crack high up above the polished rock and make the moves and enjoy it.

I have rekindled my mojo.  Thanks for the magic numbers Dave.

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A Chir Ridge. Isle of Arran

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Backwards With Eyes Closed

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I touched rock again in March and didn’t come up in a rash so I tried it again… and again. I’m still in the grip of addiction and not prepared to go cold turkey,  so instead  I’m walking backwards towards it with my eyes closed  – like some children’s game in a weird dream. In this way maybe neither of us will notice and it’ll all be alright: sweetness and light, like before.

My approach (backwards) is also to pretend I haven’t climbed much before: to do the easy (and fun) stuff all over again to rediscover the delights and soft fragrant places of the sport ; not to go to the door-slamming-in-the-face place, the desperate arguments and sulks. It’s about establishing a different relationship.

So I closed my eyes and went to:

The Peak District – Northerly wind howling across the moor, Mediterranean sun blazing at the foot of the spines of rock that lie along the brown hills. Gritstone climbing is so totally different  to limestone  vertical play that I was destined to be an amateur there – which should have been just right for the backward approach. But I was affronted by how different and my southern drawl could be heard complaining across the crag: ‘This isn’t climbing, it’s caving.’ How the Sheffielders smirked. The delicacy of the limestone dance on rock is usurped by the inelegant thrust, thrutch and squirm of grit as various body parts are inserted in the many cracks and chimneys.  ‘This is stupid’, I declared, forgetting all about the soft fragrant places.

My indignation grew and then peaked during a V Diff that required me to face away from the cliff  and shift my arse and feet up an unprotected corner. ‘Backwards but not forwards’, I thought ruefully.

And progress wasn’t helped by a serious fall about 20 metres away from where we were climbing, requiring an ambulance helicopter and mountain rescue team. The unsaid thought was unearthed: ‘Why do we do this?’

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Goblin Coombe, Somerset: Among the ticks and biting ants I almost frolicked up a blocky limestone arête – rediscovering the dance in a small way and loving the rock. (So there was a point to grit.) Any other progress was limited by a series of mini epics involving my partner that day including a slip/fall, a dropped belay device and a stuck abseil rope. The best bit of the day was scrambling up and down a dirty, dusty, steep gully twice to relieve the situation. ‘Maybe scrambling is the way forward?’ I wondered.

South Wales. Porthcawl: Box Bay on an almost sunny day, away from the ever persistent cold wind. I felt a slight interest in the awkward starts and simple short routes – but I still found the fear creeping around my blind side to take the pleasure away, like an annoying younger brother hanging around on a teenage first date. Two days later there was a day trip to Caswell Bay where children played on the beach and the tide retreated and advanced extravagantly. The sun shone and it was all just right for  a lazy day on the beach, which we weren’t there for.  4 metres up a Hard V Diff I had to stop and breathe.   It  turned out to be short and sweet, no nasty surprises, so there followed the usual face off – the internal scolding about lack of confidence.  We looked eye to eye, no eyes closed stuff. So back to square one.

I opened my eyes, faced front  and accepted I’d totally forgotten where I put my mojo,  so when I got home I put out an appeal by email for help in finding it…

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Thirty . Cornish Spring

Make way for the light

Throw off the chains of winter’s drag

Celebration and jubilation

Pollock has been given free rein

To spill and fling

 

Wind and rain threaten violence

The season is sticking to its old routine

I escape frost-burnt fields

And the awkward nudity

of roadside hedges passing

fields that sing the slight possibility of yellow

 

Fat fingers of renewing colour

On rain-soaked earth

Here a field shows careless splats of cadmium ink

There Jackson ‘s paint is spilled

Thick Snakes trumpeting

A firework of daffodils

 

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 Phew

 

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Twenty Nine

For twenty nine days

I have

squeezed

poetic possibilities

from the kaleidoscope

of my landscape

like

wringing out washing

until

the colours bleed

Scented words

                 Textured text

                                             Playful articulation

                                                                              Delusions and nightmares

                                                                     Truth and lies

                                                                                           Songs of my life

teasel

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Twenty Eight. Strange Flowers

From monochrome to

rainbow in a month.

Among the blossom, bluebells

and bright new grass

strange flowers are sighted.

Bursts and flashes

of red, blue, orange and green

on lapels, on walls, in windows.

They fall through our letter boxes

like petals in the spring breeze.

They have no fragrance

and are neither

carnation nor forget-me-not,

marigold nor fern.

Nothing to put in a vase

and admire.

Just a bunch of

artificial flowers with a promise

of beauty and scent

but always

ultimately disappointing.

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Twenty Seven. Waves

You come to me

Again

And again you come

As ocean waves

Until you drown me

 

I stand

Solid and am

Refreshed by

Each drenching

You come to me

 

I taste the waves

Each is a new draught

Until you drown me

You come to me

And again you come

Brahk 44

 

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