Ice Climbing in Rjukan

I never expected to love ice climbing. I also never expected to climb for 5 out of 6 days in Norway. I expected to find myself sight seeing and looking for a spa.

When I got the invite to go ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway from the Karabiner MC I genuinely though they were joking. To start with I’m not a full member yet. Then there’s the fact that any time I’ve been outdoor climbing with them it’s generally involved a lot of swearing, embarrassment and disco legs. And a few tears.

But I hate to pass up any opportunity – I live with the Fear Of Missing Out. What if I never get the chance again? What if passing on this opportunity prevents me from reaching my Big Goal?

So armed with borrowed climbing axes and an unusual sense of optimism I headed off to Norway with a group of climbers who were either very experience on ice, or really good rock climbers. I am neither. With years of winter mountaineering experience I do however have confidence in crampons so I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by gear and technique.

Rjukan is a fantastic place to go for a first trip water ice climbing – so if you can find some experienced friends willing to teach you, get yourself there. Only 3 hours drive from Oslo its really accessible and also a great venue for skiing, (which I can’t do either).

Krokan

The first day was at Krokan, the ice equivalent of Stanage – loads of short waterfalls of varying grades and a short walk from the road. Its a reliable venue for climbing in the valley due to its elevation. It is also as busy as Stanage so get there early, especially at the weekend.

I managed to top rope and second 4 routes at Krokan – with my first being a WI4 – Kjøkkentrappa. Steep sections but at no point did I feel terrified in the way I do on rock. In fact after a day climbing here I was really excited about the rest of the week.

I had such a good time at Krokan and I was feeling really confident seconding some of the lower grades and so I was keen to led by the end of the week.

Ozzimosis

The following day we headed to Ozzimosis – a series of waterfalls hidden in the woods. Again another good spot with easy grades and more classic routes. I seconded another 4 routes and I even perfected my abseil techniques.

I hate abseiling but it’s an essential skill for water ice climbing as most waterfalls require an abseil off the top. By perfected I mean after 20 minutes of dangling on my own with Andy laughing from the bottom I managed to get the jammed prussik knot to move so I could descend.

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Stuart climbing Anakje, WI3

Ozzimosis itself is a beast of a waterfall graded WI4 that I never got around to trying. Andy was leading the route, Steve was belaying to second it and I was going to top rope.

But as Andy was climbing he brought ice down on Steve’s arm, resulting in a lot of loud swearing a panicked rush from me to grab the rope from him while Andy made himself safe and a later trip to A&E to Steve – expensive but at least he was ok and back climbing later in the week.

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Andy leading Ozzimosis, WI4

It wasn’t the only injury of the day as Stuart bashed himself in the face trying to get his axe out of the ice and Jared twisted his ankle coming off a route. At this point I was keeping a mental list of injury free climbers in our group.

Upper Gorge

After a day off from climbing to hiked up Gaustatoppen in gale force winds and sub arctic cold (that’s another story!) I headed to Upper Gorge with Elliott, Alex and James to climb Lettvann, my first multi pitch water ice route.

Upper Gorge is the next series of waterfalls down the valley from Krokan and has some fantastic multi pitch routes.

Lettvann is only graded WI2 and 3 pitches, which after two days climbing harder grades I felt confident was well within my ability.

I learnt an important point on Lettvann. Whilst it is graded WI2 and well within my comfort zone, being a slabby route it was much more punishing on my calves than some of the short steeper routes I’d been doing, due to the need to keep your front points in and your heels down.

It took most of the day to climb the 3 pitches of Lettvann, with us eventually topping out in the sunshine in the woods.

James was our injury of the climb as he was hit by falling ice, though he was ok. (So thats 4 out of 8 of us….)

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Lettvann WI2

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Selfie at first belay!

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James passing by my belay

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Alex and James from second belay

Central Rjukan

The following day Elliot, Alex and I headed out early to do Fabrikfossen a 7 pitch route within walking distance from Rjukan town centre. The walk in to the waterfall isn’t fun; bashing through woodland to reach the bottom of the waterfall and it takes about a hour.

We started early to beat other teams but despite this we were climbing as a three and so were quickly overtaken by pairs climbing.

Fabrikfossen is a classic route to do but being in the shade all day it was really cold and being slow as a group of three I spent much of the time dancing on the belays in order to keep warm – despite having 5 layers of clothing on.

Due to the temperature dropping and the ice ‘dinner plating’ as it was being hit with axes we were also being pelted by frozen ice from the climbers above. Somewhere between being hit in the cheek and then on either wrist and then freezing while hanging about on belays I lost the love for climbing and we bailed out at pitch 3. Alex also got hit by a large ice block, hard enough to dent his helmet badly enough to finally make me realise ice climbing is actually pretty dangerous. (finally injury/ice smash tally  = 6 out of 8 of us)

Whilst disappointed with not completing the route, the abseiling back down  through the trees and then the walk back to the road took nearly 2 hours so we were glad not have finished the route in the dark.

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Rjukan as seen from belay 1 on Fabrikfossen

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Rjukan from above – Alex coming up to the belay

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Fabrikfossen above the houses of Rjukan at the end of the day

Back to Krokan

We finished the week with another day climbing at Krokan.

I had started the week wanting to lead a route. But after a week climbing I was pretty knackered and mentally drained so opted for pushing my grade on a top rope instead. So I was quite pleased to climb my first WI5 as my last route of the trip. Much more arm pumps by kinder to the calf muscles that the last 2 days.

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#summeroftrad and learning to lead

I didn’t think back in January when climbing outdoors made it on to my year’s ‘to try’ list, that I would become addicted to it. So much so that it seems to have replaced hillwalking as this year’s outdoor activity – I’ve had only 2 days trudging over mountains since the end of the winter season (2?!) and 16 so far out trad climbing.  This might have something to do with the ever decreasing list of hills left to bag, and most of these being boring slogs over moors to featureless tops. It might also have something to do with a whole world of route lists on crags suddenly open to me – the tick list addict.

When I started trad climbing at the start of the season, it was to build my confidence and skills on more exposed routes, so that the big mountain routes of the world are more achievable, and Project Tink isn’t just a dream. Little did I know that I would actually grow to love climbing just for the sake of it, and love spending the day climbing up various routes on short crags.

I also didn’t think I would end up leading routes this year either.

I’m not going to pretend moving into trad lead climbing has been easy. Without friends willing to show me how to place gear and give me the confidence to have a go I’m not sure I would have ever tried. Trad climbing is a strange esoteric activity and the grades of routes are completely incomparable to indoor climbing grades. Trad climbing is hard to learn unless you pay a lot of money for a course at a mountaineering centre, or have friends patient enough to show you and crucially friends you trust.

I’ve learnt loads from climbing with Emily Pitts from Womenclimb this summer, most of all I’ve gained a massive amount of confidence, both in my climbing and my ability to laugh at myself when I dangle instead! Here’s Emily climbing a route at Birchen’s Edge.

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Here’s a great shot Emily took of me climbing Trafalgar Wall (Severe 4b) at Birchen’s Edge.

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Here’s Emily leading her first route after knee surgery, hence why its only an easy Diff called Cornette at Cow’s Mouth Quarry. This was the first route this year that I looked at and thought I could have lead it, as it was only 10m high and an easy break about half way. The clouds of midges put me off though!

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Here’s Dave belaying Seazy, Seasier and Sard. Dave is great to climb with as he climbs for fun not ego so the routes are never too knee-trembling-ly hard.

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My first lead was Summer bank holiday weekend with the Karabiner Mountaineering Club on Holyhead mountain in Wales. The route was called Plimsole graded Hard Difficult (HD) in UK trad climbing grades, so supposedly easy. I’d like to pretend that after a morning of climbing much harder routes and having loads of type 2 fun (the kind where you get scared but its still fun), that I enjoyed the experience of leading my first route. But does that ever really happen? Even the gungho guys I know probably didn’t enjoy their first experience leading trad, though I don’t think they’d admit it.

Plimsole well and truly destroyed me mentally. I don’t think it matters how well you climb, having to overcome the fear of falling and having confidence in your new skills of placing gear is much more of a mind game than seconding a route. I’ve managed to haul myself up routes as a second this year that I would never be able to lead.

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From the bottom Plimsole looked like an easy scramble up a gully of large boulders.

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Half way up I found myself trembling on the top of a boulder, trying to place a nut that I was confident would hold me at the same time uncontrollably sobbing through fear. Its the mind game I hadn’t mastered.

I found myself lacking the confidence to step onto a block with no footholds and the handholds a long stretch away. Of course I managed it eventually and got myself to the top of the pitch where I had to pull myself together to sort out the belay anchors and bring up my two seconds, Emily and Dave. After the ordeal of the first pitch I was proud of myself for still wanting to lead the second pitch, despite both Emily and Dave saying some of my nut placements weren’t ideal. Luckily the second pitch was loads easier and shorter.

On reflection it wasn’t really the technical skills I had issues with; most of the anchors where easy to sort out it, and I understood climbing on twin ropes. My issues were the fear of falling. Somewhere in the back of my mind that January winter accident 6 years ago in Scotland has tainted all of my adventures.

After crying so much on Plimsole I really didn’t think I’d lead a route again for a long time, but just like Scottish winters after my accident, its best to have another go quickly or risk never doing it again.

So, one Sunday afternoon with a group of friends we headed to Wharncliffe crags near Sheffield. We climbed 3 routes of varying difficulties – with me finding the traverse on Hamlet’s Climb graded HVD, way harder than Remus graded Severe.

Here’s Jess and Owen on Cheese Cut Crack (a VDiff route). I’ve learned a lot from these two since they first took me outdoors in Wales, and out of everyone I know they are two people I would trust to take me anywhere.

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I hadn’t planned to try to lead another route that day as I was happy just being out climbing with friends. But I managed to lead Alpha Crack – only a Diff, which is the easiest climbing grade – but I don’t care about that. It was important for me to give it a go and get over my fear and manage the route without freezing.

I also managed to avoid any tears despite feeling a bit stuck at one point. So whilst it might be a technically easy route it was a big deal for me as only my second lead route. I’m also pleased Owen got a shot of me looking awesome (that rarely happens!)

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Via ferratas and a difference of opinion about the grades

Since the weather had become cloudy and threatened rain we couldn’t head back up on to the snow so a few of us headed down the valley to Passy to do the Via Ferrata called Curalla.

Graded in our Cicerone guide as VF2B and on UKclimbing as VF1B I was very confident about being able to manage this. I’d done harder grades in the Dolomites last year – or so I thought. However it seems the French have a different opinion about grades.

The route starts just outside Passy village and involves a 20 minute walk through the woodland to reach the crag.

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Its a great route, but unlike in the Dolomites where the via ferratas are rock climbs which are protected by a cable and with the occasional metal step to use, this is entirely on metalwear – steps, ladders and rope bridges.

Which ultimately means you can get some great exposure and disco legs! I mean why would you choose  to have a join in the middle of a wire bridge so you have to let go to move your karabiners along?! 

Why would you put a pin in preventing you from moving without reclipping, just at the point of a traverse when you’re holding your breath hoping there’s a metal step just left that you can’t quite see, somewhere below a handhold you can’t see either. 

Exposure and the fear of falling is the one reason I don’t climb harder than I do currently, and you can imagine there was a fair bit of swearing from me all the way along. Some of the pins were in very awkward places to re-clip!

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I don’t know how I didn’t drop my camera! We were all very grateful to get to the top and head back down for ice cream and beers. A fantastic route, but I think its at least a 2B grade!

Bivvying and the art of knowing when to change plans

I’ll admit to a great deal of procrastinating about heading out for an over night expedition. I love sleeping wild and love big adventures, but I also don’t like to put myself in situations where I can’t be self reliant and get myself out of a fix.

I don’t like having to rely on others and not to be in charge of my own decisions. I’ve been in situations before with gung-ho individuals who won’t admit their lack of knowledge or skills, which is a nightmare when you are far from safety.

So the thought of being out with two eager friends (though they do know what they are doing) felt like it had all the hallmarks of me being led up a mountain and having no say in decision making, easily done when you’re all roped together – you can hardly have an argument and stomp off to do your own thing.

As it was, that proved not to be the case and whilst I might have started out feeling like a tag along, in the end I was just as involved in navigation decisions.

We took the cable car from Le Tour at the end of the Chamonix valley to head up to the Refuge Albert 1er, knowing full well that it was already booked up and we would have to bivvy out. The walk is a two hour route that winds around the hillside from the Col de Balme and then ascends steeply to the refuge. It was a very hot day and it’s been a while since I’ve carried a full pack so I was definitely pleased to arrive and be able to get a cold drink and sit in the shade.

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We originally found a great platform to camp out on just above the hut, amidst other bivvying on the rocks and snow. But after scoping out the route for the following day, we changed our bivvy spot to be closer to the glacier and past all the rocks which would be hard work in the dark.

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Below you can see the route we will take in the early morning – diagonally across the snow below the peak of Aguille de Tour.

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So after much debate we settled for sleeping on the snow. It was a fantastic spot to bivvy, with impressive views of Aguille de Tour and Chardonnet but it was impossible to sleep. First the sun blinding off the snow and then later the full moon. It was also incredibly uncomfortable as I kept sliding down to ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag.

So with my sleeping bag pulled over my eyes I got a few hours sleep – although I did stick my head out for a few photos of the setting sun on Chardonnet.
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It was 2.30am when we set off across the glacier, with the intention of ascending Aguille de Tour, heading past it to cross a col and climb from the other side. After the decisions over route choice became a discussion, I had to admit my anxiety about not being in charge of my own destiny resurfaced. Thankfully I channelled it to problem solving and navigation – things that give me inner calm.

So after ensuring we were all confident we were heading the right way and just had to keep walking, we found the right col to go over.

Unfortunately we chose a gully too far left to try to climb which turned out to be full of loose rock; it was going to be slow progress. As it was, so much rock debris came down as our rope leader was ascending that it was clearly not a safe place to cross and we had chosen the wrong line. I had a near miss with a football sized rock, and so was grateful we chose to retreat.

This is the route we should have gone up, although by the time we’d retraced our step and worked this out the crack in the ice didn’t fill me with confidence. That said I was annoyed at a lost opportunity to have a go at a proper alpine peak.

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So after a debate we decided to head to nearby Tete Blanche, nowhere near technically difficult as it was merely a snow plod up to a scree summit. But, we did make it for sunrise over Switzerland and it was an amazing view and it is still 3429m high so worth the effort.

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The route was also a valuable learning experience. I learnt a valuable lesson to always trust my own decision making and navigation.I also learnt I need to get better at alpine climbing so I can lead.

I am also even more committed to my project and despite it being summer still, I have already got myself signed up for the Winter ML. A tangent from my project perhaps, but one which will at least commit me to a winter of fun in the snow. I love snow!

The Mer de Glace and the Vallee Blanche

It’s easy to dream big when you arrive in Chamonix. Everyone wants climb Mont Blanc – and plenty do without really being alpinists.

Whilst it was in the back of some minds for the end of the week, to start with we were all happy refreshing winter skills and teaching crevasse rescue techniques as we played on the Mer de Glacé. Important lesson of the day – ice screws are sharp and go through fingers as quick as ice. Ouch!

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The following day we headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel to take the cable car up to Hellbronner- it’s changed so much since I was last there 4 years ago, but then so have I.

Back then I looked in awe at the alpinists heading out across the glacier, roped up for their adventures. Now I am one of them.

Despite the warning signs to be properly equipped there was plenty of people heading out from the cable car station across the snow in no more than regular summer hiking gear. Some even in trainers. I have to question the logic of people who would do that when they see lines of climbers heading out with harnesses, helmets, crampons and axes and roped together for safety. For as beautiful the Vallee Blanche plateau is, it is still a glacier with dangerous crevasses.

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We wanted a short but reasonably challenging route to start with and so we picked Petit Flambeau, a rocky pinnacle in the middle of the plateau with a snowy arete to ascend.

The ascent was from the North east side so we had to descend the glacier to ascend the steep but not technical route onto the ridge. The view was worth it. Having committed to my project I know I love the snow and love the physical exertion it requires, and despite by recent calf troubles I was pleased to get to the top with little aching.

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It’s a fantastic view to look back along the ridge with truely awesome mountains behind.

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First trad climbs of the season

I’ve actually had two false attempts before this week when the rain ruined any attempt to get out with friends. Thankfully it was dry at the weekend and I headed up to my closest crag at Pule Hill for a spot of abseil practice and climbing, ahead of a trip to the Alps this summer.

What do you think of this rope combo for self rescue?

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Pule Hill is a fantastic outcrop of gritstone with a quarried area. As my first climb of the season I was a bit unnerved by the exposure of Amen, a VDiff which requires managing your height under an overhang and stepping across a void onto a flat wall. Honestly, it induced a lot of swearing for a VDiff!

The route starts heading into a crack, I always feel comforted in a chimney, despite the slime. But when I realise I need to step out,  I have to challenge the feeling to panic. I headed up the face onto the platform below the overhang and then had to work out how to balance, step across the void, grip and haul my way up the flat face across the other side of the chimney, and then bridge my way up onto the top. A lot of swearing indeed!

I wish I’d just followed Kevin and his 5 year old son William who took a scrambling route adjacent to Amen.

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Jess and Owen were climbing on the HVS that runs over the impressive arch of rock, and so Kevin, Steve and I headed over to Pilot Crack next to it, a severe which started with a relatively easy set of steps onto the platform which runs under the arch of a pillar of rock, (to the right of the photo of Jess climbing).

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Unfortunately I’d realised at this point I could bail out as I could walk off under the arch, so when I felt off balance doing the last bit I gave up too easily. Followed by the comment from William that I was a scaredy-cat!

So I’ve found my Achilles heel in trad climbing – if I can bail out for an easy option, I will.

So the only solution is to multi pitch so I can’t bottle it and bail out. Better than that, to head out with a club of amazing and supportive climbers who won’t let my over rationalising take over, encouraging me to bail out.

So I head out Wednesday evening with the Karabiner Mountaineering Club to Alderman Rocks near Dovestones Reservoir. High up on the hillside, Alderman Rocks are an amazing outcrop of gritstone which has an amazing view across the Chew valley.

Despite my protests of wanting to start on an easy climb Andy had me heading up Pigmy Wall a severe, and whilst it tested my nerve due to the lack of handholds it was a nice short route for the start to the evening. We finished the route by climbing the last pitch of Rib and Face (a nice VDiff), here climbed by Giry who went before me.

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It was the third climb up Great Slab Arete (severe) when I truly questioned myself. A third of the way up the first pitch I couldn’t see the foothold round the other side of the Arete and so I did have a moment of panic. Thankfully I made it and managed to smear and haul myself up the rest of the route without too much swearing.

The final climb of the night was Great Slab (VS 4c), by then I was feeling a bit more confident and also happy to admit defeat since I assumed it was above my grade. Despite the tiny holds for feet and hands I did manage to get myself up it without too much swearing. Just look at the view Andy had from his belay spot!

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I’m guessing I have a lot to thank gritstone for, expect perhaps the grazes on my hands!

Finding my project

Mountains are like an addiction. The more you climb them the more you want. The need to feel the cold biting wind on your skin or the sun on your face. The desire to walk until you’ve reached the top and to just keep going.

But there comes a point when the thrill of a bimble up a mountain (however hot and sweaty you get) isn’t enough anymore and routes have to be harder and higher.
I’ve had a lifetime of climbing mountains and long distance walks and now I find ticking mountains off lists isn’t enough. (Though that is an addiction that’s ingrained in me now!)

Climbing Kilimanjaro in 2013 was something I’d wanted to do since I was 15 (also the year I decided I wanted to walk the Pennine Way).  Having achieved it, the combination of realising I could deal with altitude and a desire to be out in the snow pushed me to the Himalayas last year. And while my first 6000er didn’t go according to plan, with strong winds at high camp and feeling wiped out, it hasn’t deterred me from wanting more. And let’s face it Mera Peak is awesome but it’s a long walk in to do 3 days of mountaineering, winding through crevasses, sleeping high on the glacier. I’ve done technically more challenging stuff in Scotland though the altitude takes some beating!

How can I keep stretching myself?

And then I finally understood the meaning of the term that I hear climbers use a lot – project.

I have a project.

Not one I’m willing to commit in writing for fear of failure, or my idea being stolen.

There’s a good chance I’ll never be good enough, or time, cash, skills and fear will hold me back. But it’s nice to have a long term goal to reach for. Something to work towards. Something to frame everything I do.

A bit like a jigsaw, I need to learn all the pieces and fit them together in the complexity of life for it to come off, and even if I fail I’ll have had a blast trying. It was after all, the goal of my ML which turned me into a summit addict, constantly seeking out new places to go.

So in reaching my goal:

I need to be fitter – so running harder and longer should sort that. I have three races booked for May and June. Considering that this time last year I didn’t run at all I think I’m doing well to commit to two fell races and a half marathon already. And there’s the rest of the year yet too. And how much further could I go?

I need to climb harder – I climb weekly indoors and my goal this year is to get outside regularly not just a couple of times a year and to lead, even if it’s only easy routes. Overcoming my fear is important. Eventually I might set myself a grade to push for, right now just leading outdoors will be good.

I need to winter climb – I missed two winters through life getting in the way so it was good to get out a lot this winter, but I need to get vertical! I’m not going to attempt to aim for anything ludicrously difficult, I just want to be able to reach Scottish grade 3 happily eventually, and Alpine D. (That one will take longer to achieve.)

Be good to my boss and save up – the project will require a fair amount of time off work over the years it might take to achieve. (No it’s not Everest, I work for a charity I’ll never afford that!)

So that’s a bit of a late New Year’s resolution, that’s more like a life resolution. Along with me already committing to doing my winter ML at some point. Blimey, I’m going to be busy!! If nothing else it’s bound to generate a lot of funny stories.

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Sun and Nothing

I’ve recently been chatting to Alex from boxmonkey.tv about climbing experiences and he’s kindly written this piece about his most memorable climb.

“We are what we do”. I’m not sure who I can credit with saying that but I don’t think it’s entirely true. I consider myself a trad climber, first and foremost, but I boulder far more than I trad climb. In fact I boulder indoors. So if ‘we are what we do’ then I’m an indoor boulderer who believes they’re a trad climber. However, time spent does not equate to the extent to which something that defines us. For example, I rarely remember any of the boulder problems or sport climbs I’ve done, yet I remember every trad climb. In fact, some of my keenest memories narrow down to a single gear placement. So forget the philosophy of ‘we are what we do’. I say we are our most powerful memories.This is a story about one of those memories.

Far away across the sea is a mountain range deep in the desert. A climber is on the second pitch of a route. The air is still and the sky is cloudless blue. The rock is yellow and the air is warm. The route seems to be easing. Curling into a slab and then leading into a small roof turning left to an arête. All of life’s happy moments seems to be collecting into this one. Life couldn’t be better. I’m happy; at ease; I’m careless.

Scrambling up the slab I decide to run out the rope. The vast empty plains spread out below. The air is warm and the rock is yellow. The sky is blue. My belayer can no longer see me. I’m alone. I work my way up into the roof and prepare to place some protection, but there’s nothing. Under the roof all I find is scoop of yellow rock in dark shadow. I work through my rack, shifting my weight from my left to my right foot. I can feel the heat of the sun on the black soles of my shoes. I start to become aware of scraps of flesh that missed the suntan cream. The sting of burning skin drying and shrinking on bare legs. I now feel very present in the moment, no longer drifting in the warm sun.

I’m anxious. Panicked. Disbelieving I could have been so absent minded. So confident on alien rock. I’ve climbed past the point of down climbing. I can’t protect the crux move of this pitch. If I fell I’d fall a huge distance. Probably ripping out my last gear placement and from there I’d be lucky not to hit the ground. I manage to place a micro. I’d placed it several times that day, more for amusement that protection as I knew it annoyed my girlfriend. It didn’t seem very funny now. It was better than nothing, but barely even that.

The sequence is in classic bouldering style. Fully committing and delicate. A series of underclings with toes slowly edging up the wall as your body finds a 45 degree angle. Then to a powerful reach up and around onto the face of the roof. Find a positive hold and the let your toes fall from the wall, like a pendulum weight below you, your body in thin air, then in that same motion using that pendulum swing to bring one foot onto a foot hold at the same level as your hands. Rock your weight to the foot, power up, up, up, on a sequence of right hand holds. With each upward movement contact is lost and regained on the rock. A hand opening and closing like boy waving goodbye.

That sequence, at the time, felt like a free solo. A climb without ropes where the consequences of a simple mistake could be severe injury or death. I continued, from the roof and stepped across onto a slopping arête. I stand very still. My face pressed against the rock, the warmth of my breath on my cheeks. My hands lay gently on each side of the arête as my feet hold my body weight on the wall. I settle into the position and gradually lean back to look for gear placements. I place a cam and climb on.
The shortest of moments can be the life experiences that define us. That make us.

Inexperience, confidence, a warm sunny day. Very nearly, very different.

This is a memory from a trad climb I led in Morocco. I won’t forget it.

The author is owner and founder of BoxMonkey.tv – home to the world’s most inspiring climbing videos.

Mera Peak – day 11 – High winds at high camp

Best laid plans….

Not only did we not leave for the summit at 2.45am as planned but we spent all evening trying our hardest to weigh down the tents to prevent us sliding off the ledges. Around 8pm the wind picked up and was gusting at around 70-80mph, it was scary to hear it coming towards us like a steam train as it headed up the valley and across the glacier. I’ve been in tents in high wind before and even had them collapse on me, but never in such an isolated and precarious spot.

Our three team tents had been secured to the ledges by rocks pinning down the corners and the guy lines. During the night our tent had come unpinned at one corner and we had slide about a foot towards the edge of the ledge. Sharing a tent with our leader Natalie sounds like a good idea initially, to not have to be on my own and share body warmth in the cold and have conversation too. But Natalie as leader felt obliged to go and check the other team tents throughout the night, so at certain points I went from being cuddled in my sleeping bag to keep warm, to doing my best star-shaped ballast impression as I tried to prevent the tent from blowing away Wizard of Oz style.

I don’t scare easily, but I was genuinely worried about sliding off the ledge to the abyss below.

Spending the night trying not to be blown away in the wind it was clear that we were not going to be able to try to head for the summit as planned. And frankly, none of us really wanted to die in the attempt, it wasn’t worth the risk of being blown away.

When the sun arrived at 8am the wind started to ease, by that I mean it dropped to 60mph and just safe enough to leave the tent. Adam and Nick has been told by Phenden to pack up and wait in the tent until they were ready to pack it away behind them, to prevent the tent being lost. But as their fly sheet came un-attached, they decided it wasn’t worth the risk to stay and bailed out. Poor Andy had been in a tent on his own for the night since April had left at the previous camp, so he had a unnerving night trying to pin the tent down alone. His tent suffered damage to the poles.

So at 9am we were kitted up and heading back down to Khare, roped together. The decision had been made to leave some of the team kit at high camp and try to retrieve it the next day. It was more important we got down as quick as possible, and that our porters didn’t have to come up unnecessarily.

You’d never tell from the photos how cold and windy it was!

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(those boots make the rest of me look tiny!)

The descent wasn’t without drama as several severe gusts continued to blow across the exposed glacier crest, though thankfully it wasn’t continuous wind. So in between bracing ourselves in the wind I managed to get a few pictures. You can see Everest in the distance – with the high winds blowing from the summit. DSC00706

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Back down at Khare in the safety of base camp its possible to process our adventure. Yes I’m disappointed that I’ve not been able to summit Mera Peak, but I’m happier than we all survived the night, and frankly we got an amazing view of the Himalayas as we descended so I still got to see Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse, Cho-Oyu and more importantly Everest in the distance.

It was certainly hard to descend though in the gusts – the wind in the winter blows all of the snow from the glacier, exposing old ice like glass – beautiful to walk across but impossible to drive an axe end into to brace in the wind. I’m hardly light but I did have visions of being blown away!

We abseiled our way back down the roped line to the lower section of the glacier and then headed back to the safety of the rocks for our slow descent back to Khare.

DSC00712DSC00713DSC00715 Scarily one of our porters had a very close brush with death today as he slipped on the lower part of the glacier and only just managed to grab the fixed line. If it hadn’t been there he would have gone, with no way of stopping himself on the ice – he is ok thankfully, just bruised and shook up. It does make you realise they should have proper crampons on and not the little spider crampons.

When we arrived back at Khare it was clear that the strong winds weren’t just across the mountain top, as the remaining team had spent the evening battening down the roof of the lodge. The long drop loo didn’t survive the night though, having not only blow down but completely blown away!

I can’t really believe its Boxing day – despite all the trouble the team have decked out the dining area with balloons and made us a Christmas chocolate cake which after this morning is about the best thing I could get for Christmas. DSC00716

We’re having a rest day here at Khare to allow the team to go back up to high camp and retrieve kit and the lodge down at Tagnag is also closed now. Its going to be surreal to actually have a day doing nothing after the last few days.

Mera Peak – day 10 – up to high camp

Happy Christmas from High Camp!!

I’m so excited to be at 5900m and sleeping here for the night. Although I’m also wrecked and my appetite has finally left me.

We woke to gorgeous sunshine at our camp on the Mera La, a fantastic start to Christmas day.

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We had a slow start to the day to give our team chance to come up to the Mera La and pack up and head off before us. It seems a lot of effort that they didn’t all stay here the night with us, but then it would have meant more equipment and ultimately more porters. And frankly they’re so fit that I can see why they would want to head down to Khare where there’s a (relatively) real bed, a stove for warmth and a supply of whiskey and Raskshi.

Unfortunately as we put on our crampons to continue up the glacier, April decided she had done all she could and decided to descent to Khare. It was sad to lose a team member but she made the right decision for herself, and while we’ve not really walked very far today it has certainly been tough going in the wind and at this altitude.

We also couldn’t head directly up as we had to wind our way around the crevasses and so it took us all day to walk about 5km and climb 580m. Really slow going.

It’s hard to describe the effect of altitude to someone who hasn’t experienced it – the best I can say is that any normal movements such as walking, become a big deal. Walking and stamping crampons into concrete hard glass ice makes my leg muscles ache and my lungs scream from the lack of oxygen. Here there is only 50% as what there is at sea level. My heart races like I’ve run a race and I’m only shuffling along.

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I certainly felt drained when we arrived on the rocky ledges of high camp. It took me a while to recover before I could really appreciate where I am. It is truly amazing to be here looking at the Mera La so close to the summit. However the ledges we are camped on are ridiculously small and its a REALLY long drop below! Not that you can tell from these photos.

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We’ve had soup and stew in bed and the plan is to head to the summit at 2.45am – which will give us enough time to get up there and back down all the way to Khare. Its going to be a long day.