Monday, 30 April 2012

Recharging the batteries in Torridon (posted by James)

A perfect day on Beinn Alligin

I don't usually blog my hillwalks or runs. I'm out so often that I'd struggle to keep it interesting and I know there are already thousands of people out there who are writing hillwalking blogs.

Today I'm going to make an exception today though. Yesterday I did the classic walk and scramble over Beinn Alligin and its Horns, the "Jewelled Mountain" which overlooks Upper Loch Torridon. 

A clear and sunny day in Torridon

I won't say much about the walk itself, other than that it was superb - every inch the classic ridge traverse and with an almost impossibly beautiful view in yesterday's sunny and clear weather.

Fresh snow on An Teallach

No…instead I want to talk about it more in a wider context. On saturday I worked for 10 hours in the Clachaig and finished at 1am, packed a rucksack and started driving at 2am, did Beinn Alligin, got back to Clachaig before 4pm then started another 7 hour shift at 5pm. So by the end of my shift last night, I'd been either working, on the hill, or driving non-stop for 47 continuous hours.

Sunrise over Liathach at 5:30am

After reading that I wouldn't blame you at all for supposing that I take bizarre pleasure in exhaustion and suffering, or that I'm just plain stupid. I guess there are elements of truth in both. 

The sandstone cliffs of Tom na Gruagiach

During the summer months I do a lot of this, making the absolute most of the lengthy hours of daylight and pouncing on every period of good weather as an opportunity. And I've found that doing what I've just done since saturday, i.e occasional long periods of continuous tiring activity with no sleep or rest, is a surprisingly healthy thing to do sometimes.

Beinn Bhan's impressive corries

It's hard to explain, but when you finally get to rest and sleep after a stint like that, waking up the next day is almost like a minor rebirth. Even though I spent the last few hours of my shift last night in a state of severe fatigue, I felt recharged and rebooted when I woke up this morning. Getting into bed at the end of the night wasn't just a relief as usual, it was incredible. The simple sensation of not having to concentrate became amazing, as it was the first time I'd felt it for 47 hours. 

Sgurr Mhor at 8am

I know it's a cliché nowadays to say how "revitalising" the hills are, but that really isn't what I mean. Going into the hills always provides an escape from work and everyday life, but this is a different feeling. It feels like totally emptying the tank, running on empty and then keeping on running on empty. Then you wake up the next morning, and you have that wonderful knowledge that you can fill the tank again. 

For something that is so tiring, I find long continuous stretches of activity like that surprisingly invigorating. Now just the wait until the mega early sunrises of mid summer, so I can do some really long days….


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A disappointing winter? (posted by James)

Soloing Castle Ridge (III**), Ben Nevis, Dec 2011

Despite the ongoing wintery weather in the Highlands, for me the Scottish winter climbing season is over due to a shortage of spare time and a few other things - so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the winter season that is now all but finished.

I think I'm fairly safe in saying that for many winter climbers, it has been a disappointing season to say the least. "Worst winter ever" became an over-used (and frankly incorrect) phrase on, ironically often used by people on the forums who have only been winter climbing for a year or so.

But I am totally understanding of the viewpoint that it has been a poor winter. I think if I'd still been living in England and doing only occasional trips to the Highlands, I would have had a similarly disappointing few months if I'd set my heart on winter climbing.

The North Buttress of Stob Ban (II/III), Jan 2012

I think for me the phrase "highs and lows" best describes my winter. I climbed a lot of routes, some of them very good, some of them previously unclimbed or unrecorded and many of them in beautiful weather. But there were long periods in between routes, regular huge thaws that stripped away snow at alarming rates and made winter climbing impossible or ridiculous for up to 3 weeks on end.

The West Face of Beinn Fhada, Glencoe - my focus for new routes this winter

But despite the "proper" cold snaps being infrequent and fairly short, I still managed to climb a lot of routes relying on hard frozen turf or ice. But then…everything was in my favour living in Glencoe. I'm privileged to be able to see what the snow conditions are like every day of the winter, what the weather is doing. I'm well networked with local guides and other local winter climbers and always have the advantage of their first hand knowledge.

With those tools at my disposal I was able to make the best of the fickle conditions, in the brief weather windows in between the long thaws. But in my opinion, even if you live in the mountains, winter climbing is only what you make of it. Unless you are willing to put in a lot of effort, expect disappointment and suffering and be ready to adapt and think outside the box, then most Scottish winters will be disappointing.

The view to Bidean nam Bian's South East Ridge, March 2012

We were so spoilt by the last two perfect winter seasons, that I think some of us forgot this year that winter climbing is no pushover. Bad weather and unpredictability are pretty much the norm, and I think if you were a climber going into this season still in the mindframe of last winter, you were going to be disappointed weather you lived in Glencoe or London.

Soloing Crescent Gully (III), Creag Meagaidh, Jan 2012

If I were to be asked to give one piece of advice to someone starting out in mountaineering, it would be this: don't plan things too firmly, and always have a plan B. I think it's something I'm finally learning properly, that even if the snow is melting and there's a waterfall coming down Number 5 Gully, there's always something to do. Go hillwalking instead, go running, go and watch the waves crashing on the coast, go and visit a waterfall.

Soloing Garadh Buttress (III), Ben Nevis, Jan 2012

Ultimately we are all just spectators really. The mountains are in charge, and we are just playing at things. It is rubbish when things don't go to plan, when a climbing trip feels wasted. But it is a privilege to even BE in such places at all. There is so much more to do, see and feel in the mountains.

I'm not having a rant, and I genuinely hope everyone who had a bad winter has better luck next time around. But sometimes I find it very healthy to step back from the addictive absurdity of climbing, take a breath and a good look…before inevitably indulging in it again.