Saturday, 25 September 2010

The hobnailed boot

"Imagine what the route must have been like xx years ago, climbed in hobnailed boots..."

It's a phrase heard often enough down the pub, but how often does the person saying it know the difference between 'hobnailed' boots and the 'nailed' boots used to make the first ascents of many classic British climbs? The question is not so pedantic as it seems. The humble nailed boot (main form of mountain footwear until the 1930s/40s) has been through many different generations, and the pinnacle of boot nailing bore little resemblance to the crude boots worn by the earliest pioneers of British climbing in the early to mid 19th century.

As part of my project to learn more about the climbing equipment and techniques of the past, I have been using a pair of nailed boots for the past year. I purchased the basic boots from William Lennon in July 2009. They have triple leather soles and steel toe and heel protectors. I then proceeded to nail them using a mixture of standard and triple hobnails. The design may be seen in the photos above.

These hobnails are an ancient design--the Romans were the first known to use them--and it seems very likely that the earliest mountaineers used boots fitted with hardwear of this kind. The early 'Pillarites' (mountaineers to climb the Lake District's Pillar Rock, starting from the 1820s) used hobnailed boots, as did Coleridge on his descent of Broad Stand.

They were also used by early Alpinists up until the invention of the Alpine Clinker. The era of the Clinker nail--which is specially designed to protect the sole, provide better grip, and resist being pulled out--lasted until the early 1900s when it was superceded by the Tricouni.

I have so far used my hobnailed boots to climb two mountain rock climbs graded Moderate, and to climb steep snow and mixed ground at Grade I.

General observations

Perhaps most importantly, I found these boots to be extremely comfortable to wear on the hill, thanks to an excellent fit. The leather sole is somewhat unforgiving, however, and two pairs of socks are a necessity.

In terms of walking, the soft steel nails do wear down quickly and this is a significant disadvantage. In addition, the nails cannot be easily replaced, as the leather sole hardens up after a few uses. The nails also conduct heat away from the foot when walking in snow, making them very cold boots to wear in winter!

The most important difference to modern Vibram boots is the reduced friction on smooth rock. Soft steel nails grip rough rock and edgy holds well, and excel in damp and vegetated conditions, but their main failing is the polished, sloping hold. I found the crux pitch on Pinnacle Ridge (Garbh Bheinn) to be quite difficult in this footwear, although certain other sections with holds of a different character were easy. There is no doubt in my mind that hobnailed boots are quite simply less suitable for rock climbing than any other form of footwear designed for the task.

However, for winter mountaineering and basic climbing (when combined with a step-cutting ice axe) I found these boots to be very good. They are stiff enough to kick steps and grippy enough to dispense with crampons. On the very hardest of ice care had to be taken, but otherwise I found them far better in full winter conditions than my modern boots, while on non-graded ground.

One interesting problem I found was that, under certain conditions, ice was observed to 'ball up' between some of the nails; I believe this can be solved by nailing pattern design.

It cannot be denied that the modern combination of B3 mountain boot and 12-point crampons is more efficient for graded winter climbing. However, my interest is in learning about the techniques of the past, and I hugely enjoyed my climb of Stob Coire nan Lochan using traditional equipment, including a descent of Broad Gully.

In conclusion

While hobnailed boots have a few advantages, in general the problems presented by this design have been progressively solved by future types of sole hardwear. The Tricouni solved the problem of fast-wearing nails and poor grip on some types of sloping hold, but ultimately the Vibram sole has emerged as the best all-round compromise for mountain use, which is why it enjoys almost universal support today.

Want to learn more? Alex Roddie runs a new website devoted to the history of mountaineering, to be found here. He has written a novel based on the exploits of the late Victorian mountaineers, entitled The Only Genuine Jones; check it out on Kindle now!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Early "winter" conditions on Creag Meagaidh! (posted by James)

Alex and I have made no secret over the fact that we are both drooling at the prospect of the coming winter. No doubt it won't live up to the now legendary 2009/10 season, but for us the winter is endlessly more fun than the summer months.

I made a visit to two of the Munros on the Craig Meagaidh range this morning, for two reasons. Firstly they were both Munros I hadn't done before, and secondly Meagaidh is one of the prime ice climbing venues in Scotland, and I was interested to take a look for future reference.

It was unseasonably cold when I stepped out of my Bothy this morning, with a real bite to the wind. To my delight, I was snowed upon fairly heavily above 900m, albeit quite wet snow. But with rising altitude, signs of that wonderful transformation that the hills undergo with the start of the cold weather.

Rime ice on all the grass stems, thick ice on many rocks, and even frozen turf for the top 100m or so to the summit.

On the drive back, I could see snow also settled on the Grey Corries, the Aonachs and Ben Nevis.

Not winter yet by any means, it's only september. But it won't be long now. That's it folks, the game is on!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

An autumnal scramble on Gearr Aonach

With a marginal forecast for the day, I decided on a 'safe' option and wombled down to the Lost Valley to have a look at Gearr Aonach. This large prow of rock features two main scrambles, the Easy Route (Grade 3) and the Zig-Zags (easy Grade 1) plus a range of rock-climbs. I had hoped to climb the Easy Route again--it was hugely enjoyable when I climbed it with Maz back in the spring--but when I reached the ledge it was obvious that a very slimy water weep was coming down the tricky slab at the start. Coupled with high winds, I decided that going up this way would not be sensible.

As a note for a future winter ascent, I believe this water weep will form a good icefall down the slabby initial section; it's probably only graded winter III for ice-encased conditions such as these.

I went back round to the easier Zig-Zags. A small guided party had climbed it minutes before, and I followed them up the delightful short pitch of scrambling. A couple of corners, furnished with massive flake holds, soon leads to the upper ledge and a final short bit of scrambling before the top.

I overtook the group near the summit of Gearr Aonach, then strode out across the ridge, enjoying the fine views on either side. The cloud had lifted above the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan and there were even patches of sun.

Despite not having done much walking or climbing all summer, it was gratifying to find that I could still run from the coire basin to the road in about half an hour. This bodes well for the winter!

Photos from today

CONDITIONS-WATCH for 23/09/10 :
No winter conditions reported in Glen Coe as of yet, but the freezing level is forecast to briefly dip beneath the summits on Friday and Saturday, with the chance of some snow showers. Obviously this will not be enough to bring any climbs in condition, but it can only be a matter of time now.

Monday, 20 September 2010

In our September

EVEN the mountains can look dull.
When we remember
their haze of August heat,
the glaring rays that beat
on flattened colour, unrelieving line,
our clouded hours of life seem of design ;
for we remember
that even mountains can look dull!

Mountains are most beautiful
in September.
For evening, and distance,
the sun's more level glance
lifts under curling lashes of rain-mist
to rest on hills, silvering and shadow-kissed :
in our September
all hours of life grow beautiful.

--Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, 'April and Rain'

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Summer 2010 in review

As the seasons turn and the mountains once again mellow with the autumn, I find myself on the train back to Glen Coe for another season of fun at the Clachaig. The summer has been an interesting one for me. I haven't climbed anywhere near as much as I did during summer 2009, thanks in part to being away from Scotland for the bulk of the season, partly due to my policy of putting my writing first this year. I may not have climbed as much or as hard, but in its own way summer 2010 has been just as enjoyable as the previous one--and I have been to many new and fantastic places.

The other defining characteristic of summer 2010 is that most of my adventures have involved snow and ice! Here is a brief summary of some of the highlights.

The season began in May, that no-man's-land between winter and summer. On the 12th of May we climbed No.2 Gully on Ben Nevis. While hot weather gripped the glens and trees burst into leaf, ice remained in quantity on the high mountains and we enjoyed the finest ice climbing conditions of the whole winter. A very memorable day out.

A little while later, in the last week of May, James and I made a rare visit to the Cairngorms for a climb in Coire an t-Sneachda. Large amounts of snow still hugged the cliffs and we made a rather Alpine-style ascent of Pygmy Ridge, climbing steep snow to the start of the route then pitching the excellent moderate rock climb above in our mountain boots. After this hugely enjoyable excursion, I struck off by myself down the Lairig Ghru to finally climb Braeriach and some of its companion Munros. After several failed attempts over the past few years this two-day trip into the melting ice wonderland of Braeriach was particularly satisfying.

To celebrate my 24th birthday, on the 3rd of June, James and I made an ascent of Shrike Ridge on the West Face of the Aonach Dubh. I made the first recorded ascent of this fine climb the previous year, and it has now generally agreed that it is graded Diff--probably the best route at that standard on this side of the mountain. The crazy exposure on the sharp arete that forms the first pitch is certainly memorable, although unfortunately the upper pitches do not live up to expectations.

A few days later, James and I headed up to Skye. A visit to Skye is a rare treat and we made full use of our time: a short easy day on the Spur, followed by the excellent Round of Coire Lagan. We took in all of the most prominent mountains and enjoyed a full day of interesting scrambling and moderate climbing. The highlight was most definitely an ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

In late June I left Glen Coe in preparation for my great Norwegian adventure! It didn't turn out to be quite as great as originally planned--the weather saw to that--but nevertheless I enjoyed a full week of backpacking through delightfully wild and barren country, surrounded by remote, glaciated mountains. I climbed only one of these peaks, Kvitskardtinden, again hampered by conditions. Eventually a series of storms forced me to retreat several weeks earlier than planned. However, I feel better prepared for future adventures in the Jotunheimen region, and there's so much I would like to do there.

Finally in terms of mountaineering trips, the Alps! All the details are in my most recent post. I knew I'd have to make a short trip to clear up some research questions, but hoped I'd be able to get some climbing in as well. Happily, my friend Lauren and her husband were also planning a visit, and we spent nine days in Arolla. Our mountain, Pigne d'Arolla, blessed us with some fine views.

Last but most certainly not least, the end of the summer has brought more happiness for me in the form of a lovely red-haired florist from Lincolnshire--something of a UKC celebrity over the last few years, and I'm sure many of my regular readers will recognise the wonderful 'Hannah S'.

So: overall, an excellent summer, a bit more relaxed than last year but no less successful. In between mountaineering excursions I have been working hard at my book ("The Only Genuine Jones"), and thanks to the research I conducted in the Alps I am now in a position to finish it. Only four chapters remain before I'm at the end, after three years and one fairly major setback! Further adventures are in the pipeline for our hero Mr Jones as well, and with a bit of luck my store of ideas, and vast amount of research amassed to date, should keep me going for some time.

For now, it's fairwell to the summer and hello to the autumn, one of my favourite times of year. Snow and ice has already been reported on the high mountains. A new season begins!

Monday, 13 September 2010

Alps 2010 - Trip Report

The Pigne d'Arolla

Glacial approach to the Vignettes Hut

I'm now back from my two weeks in the Alps! The first part of the trip was spent in Arolla--for an account of our ascent of the Pigne, click HERE. Together with Phil and Lauren, we spent nine days in Arolla all in all, making use of the excellent campsite (apparently the highest in Europe at almost 2,000m).

My impressions of Arolla were almost entirely favourable. Although it's in French-speaking Switzerland, and my French is non-existent, I found it to be a delightful place, far quieter than the frantic honeypots of Zermatt and Chamonix. The village is tiny and quiet, perched on a high alp where horses and sheep graze. The view is grand, looking over Mont Collon, the Pigne d'Arolla, and the Aiguilles.

Lauren on the summit of the Pigne

The rather fine view

After our successful climb of the Pigne we wanted to attempt l'Eveque and Mont Blanc du Cheilon, but the weather took a turn for the worse and became very cold, with snow down almost to the village and frost at nights. The unsettled weather put our mountains out of condition, and we spent the time pottering around in the valleys, visiting the surprising Lac Bleu (on a good day), having a look at the biggest gravity dam in Europe, eating pizza in Evolene, and brewing up a lot of tea!

We also visited the roadside sport crag of Pra Grassette. It's not a spectacular crag but it does have a friendly atmosphere and the routes are quite short. Moreover, I had never done any sport climbing before so it was quite a novelty. Lauren led two routes at about F5 standard, which I seconded in my approach shoes and found the cruxes challenging but not impossible. Lauren climbed an F6a which I didn't attempt, and then to round off the session I led the easiest route at the crag, a VDiff / MS arete equipped with bolts at about F4. Technically speaking it was the hardest rock climb I'd led for many months, although the bolts did take away some of the experience!

After Phil and Lauren left for Britain, I moved down the valley to the sleepy town of Evolene. At this stage the trip changed to a research operation for my fictional project. In August 1899, O.G. Jones and his friend Mr Hill stayed in Evolene on Jones' last ever Alpine season. After a frenzy of climbing for a week they departed for an attempt on the Ferpecle Arete of the Dent Blanche. The subsequent accident, and death of the entire party sans Mr Hill, is one of the saddest episodes of Alpine history and the premature end of a great man.


I spent my time soaking in the atmosphere of the town, visiting Jones' grave, and trying to piece together his final days. I walked up to Bricola Alp where he spent his last night. I feel I understand my character much better now that I have spent some time at the place where his incredible climbing career drew to a close.

After two days in Evolene I took the train to Grindelwald, again for research purposes. I have been looking forward to a visit to Grindelwald for many years, and in some respects (notably the Eiger!) it did not disappoint, but in others the experience was significantly different from my expectations. The town has been radically modernised and is indistinguishable from a dozen other Alpine ski resorts. Most of the old 19th century buildings have been pulled down. There is a superficial air of 'ye oldeness' which might fool the casual visitor, but to someone interested in digging out the truth of the place as it was in the 19th century it was something of a let-down.

The Fiescherwand above Grindelwald

Even commercialised Zermatt retains more of its authentic, unassumed 19th century character. The mountains around Grindelwald, however, were grand: Wetterhorn, Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Fiescherhorn; famous names from the golden age of Alpine climbing. I took the train up to Klein Matterhorn and hiked up to the Lauberhorn, a foothill that gives unbelievable views of the Berner Oberland. I had the opportunity to study the Eiger North Face in detail.

Kleine Scheidegg

Paragliding over the Eiger

So, overall a very enjoyable trip. I got to visit two completely new Alpine centres, climbed a big icy mountain, and allowed myself the luxury of being a tourist where usually I'd be rushing around intent on climbing mountains, eyes closed to my surroundings.

For some alternative accounts of the first part of the trip, it is my pleasure to point you in the direction of Lauren's excellent blog, Flight of the Bumblie.

Photos from the trip

I have divided my photographs from the trip into three separate Flickr sets.

Set 1 : Arolla
Set 2 : Evolene
Set 3 : Grindelwald

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Finally revenge on the Brothers of Kintail (posted by James)

Ben Nevis and a misty morning

Aonach Meadhoin, Sgurr Bhealach Dearg and Saileag, Glen Shiel, early September 2010

I've made at least four attempts on the three Munros that make up the "Brothers of Kintail" ridge. I've been turned back by biblical rain, lethally unstable snow slopes, my own fairly bad car crash and muscle fatigue.

Today, however, was my day. Although I was knackered from my solo of North East Buttress, I went for it anyway. "Seize the day" is a mantra which I have successfully managed to lived my life by for the last two years.

I can't remember the last time I had moved so slowly going up a hill. My legs were just burning, having still not recovered from the Ben. But there was no way "the Brothers" were going to have their way again, I was bloody well going to do the ridge crossing come whatever.

The view along the North Shiel Ridge, from Saileig, my 60th Munro.

Once on the summit of Aonach Meadhoin (the first Munro of the ridge), it was a straightforward up and down ridge crossing, with spectacular views. In the distance, Ben Nevis towering over its surroundings, reminding me of my unforgettable day on the North East Buttress just 48 hours earlier. Even the snow patch in Observatory Gully could be seen, from such a distance - a reminder of the stunning winter that had come before, and the impending winter to come.

The summit of Saileag - my 60th Munro! September. Munro season is here again, a project to get stuck into before the winter arrives, when the real work begins again.

Finally revenge on the Brothers of Kintail (posted by James)