Thursday, 25 April 2013

Hill-running in my new back-yard.

Lingering low-level snow on my run up Creagan a'Chaise (722m) 
It is strange to think just how different my new back yard is to Glencoe, yet how similar. Here the skies are bigger and the vertical is less dominant. The ground feels different under your feet, yet aren't the calls of plovers and the smell of deer the same?

My new surroundings offer different but almost limitless opportunities. I am no longer within a stone's throw of some of the most impressive mountain cliffs in Scotland, but in the middle of hundreds of square miles of exactly the kind of ground needed for what I'm beginning to focus on.

I had a bizarre moment today. For a split second I was looking down and  there was a mountain hare between my feet. I was leaping between two peat hags, too far a distance perhaps? I didn't have long to reconsider…a mountain hare sprinting beneath you as you jump through the air is quite a distraction.

Looking towards the Beinn a'Bhuird/Ben Avon plateau.

Creagan a'Chaise (722m) is the fourth local hill that I have run up in the last 10 days, and it feels brilliant. Running had taken a firm back-seat to climbing since November and part of me was worried I'd find it hard getting back into the swing of it. But its clear now that the fitness I've gained from my busiest and best ever winter is a whole lot more than I'd hoped, and the key to lots of new opportunities.

A really enjoyable 7 miles over steep heather and reindeer moss.

Hill-running is still something I'm quite new at. How long had I been climbing for before I considered myself "a climber"? I can't remember. Just now I am a climber who hill-runs. I wonder if that will reverse one day? Maybe…strange to think that only a few years ago I never thought I could be either.


Saturday, 20 April 2013


The view from my first hill-run in my new local area, the Northern Cairngorms.

6 days since I left Glencoe…packing, goodbyes, driving, unpacking, sadness, excitement, plans. New surroundings, different sights, different sounds.

The peerless glen which I have left behind is now replaced by the endless land of plenty that is the Cairngorm plateau. The permanent snows and the tundra, the views that don't have an end to them. Forests like nowhere else, ospreys, reindeer..the kinds of rivers that come to you in daydreams.

The first few days of a new life haven't given much time for the hills, but today I started. A windy hill-run up the local graham Carn a'Ghille Charr (710m). Heather and sphagnum, mountain hares and grouse, curlews and plovers….so different to my runs in Glencoe, but yet so familiar.

The unique rapture of running to the top of a hill, but with a totally unknown view to greet me and expand with every footfall. It felt fresh to be somewhere new again. Carn a'Ghille Charr's summit looked across almost the entire Cairngorm plateau, still fully in winter's grip. What first? I hardly know where to start.


Sunday, 14 April 2013

The end of my time in Glencoe, but not the end of the blog.

 A blog post to sum up my 4 years in Glencoe….where the hell do I start?

I only came here for a summer to save some money, and somehow forgot to go home.

"I'm definitely leaving at the end of next season"…I said that so many times to my co-workers at the Clachaig that it has become a long-standing joke, and I'm not sure any of them really believed that I meant it this time. I have lived and breathed Glencoe since 2009, almost obsessed with the staggering scale of opportunities that it provides for somebody like me. But it's time to move on, to go and explore the nooks and crannies of somewhere else, to be new somewhere again.

About 11am on the 30th August 2010…I was soloing up the cruxes of North-East Buttress on Ben Nevis. A thin layer of frost was coating the holds of the "Forty-foot Corner" - I was out of my depth but didn't know it, and I topped out onto the summit of the Ben feeling more amazing than I'd ever felt before.

At the time I remember thinking that soloing North-East Buttress would be my "big climb" of my time living in the Highlands. It would be a one-off. But like everything that becomes an addiction, you always need one more hit. And the rest is history….

I'm going to let some photos say the rest, but I owe a huge thankyou to all my friends and co-workers at the Clachaig Inn over the last few years. Some of you helped shape me in ways you probably don't know, and I doubt I'll ever work anywhere as brilliantly mad again.

So the end of my time in the glen, but not the end of the blog. Now I'm off to see what living in the Cairngorms is all about, after a month on Skye. See you out there folks.

Alex Roddie and myself climbing on the East face of Aonach Dubh, June 2009. Still very new to the Glen and climbing as many mountain rock-routes as possible.

 Rannoch Moor, Jan 2010. Temperatures of almost -20C and weeks of high pressure made for an unforgettable first winter in the glen.

Glen Etive, April 2010. Somewhere to go for peace and quiet.

 The Aonach Eagach, Dec 2011. It was here that made the decision to stay in Glencoe, looking down on a cloud inversion in Sept 2009.

Soloing Castle Ridge (III**),  Ben Nevis Dec 2011. My first "big" winter solo. I ended up soloing about 100 winter routes up to grade III,4, during some exceptionally good winter seasons.

 Inside a snow-hole, Creag Meagaidh, Jan 2011.

 A cloud inversion on the Cuillin Ridge, Skye, March 2012. Two great days soloing Pinnacle Ridge (Diff***) and Amphitheatre Areté (Mod**) and the Northern and Southern sections of the Cuillin Ridge.

First ascent of "West is Best" (V.Diff*), Aonach Dubh West Face, May 2012.
 Glen Etive, Nov 2010. Photography and climbing have battled it out as my "main" hobby throughout my time in the Highlands.

Soloing The North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag (Diff*), May 2012. A very memorable solo of a remote and adventurous route.
 The Isle of South Uist, Nov 2010. A visit to my good friend Julie MacIntyre in the Outer Hebrides.

 The Aonach Eagach, July 2012. The Ridge would become possibly my most photographed subject in the glen
 A trip to Glenbuck Bothy with my girlfriend Nicole, May 2012.

 Soloing East Buttress (Diff***), Beinn Eighe, July 2012. A superb route and a great introduction to climbing in Torridon.

 Ben Lui, Jan 2011. One of the absolute most beautiful days I've ever seen on a mountain.

 Sgurr nam Fiannaidh, Feb 2011. One of countless sunrises I spent on mountain-tops.
 The view from Carn Mor Dearg, Oct 2012. Mountain "enchainments" starting becoming an interest in 2012, on this occasion Carn Mor Dearg, Ben Nevis and the Aonach Eagach back to back in 9 hours.

 The view from Gearr Aonach, March 2011. Early rises would become a bit of a speciality, and I would start going to very great lengths in order to get certain photographs.

 The Northern Lights, Rannoch Moor, Oct 2012. A photo I'd dreamed about taking for years previously.

Soloing "Archie's Ridge" (III,4*), Aonach Dubh Dec 2012.
 The Great Ridge of Garbh Bheinn (DIff**), July 2011. One of the best mountain routes I've ever soloed.

Watching sea eagles on Mull with Nicole, Feb 2013.

 Ben Nevis North Face July 2011. The prominent North-East Buttress, V.Diff*** (left-hand skyline ridge) was the route by which I summited Ben Nevis for the first time.

Soloing "Pioneer Gully" (III*), Coire an-t Slugain, Feb 2013. The start of an exceptional 6 week period of winter conditions.

The famous snow areté in "Staghorn Gully" (III***), Creag Meagaidh, Feb 2013.

 Soloing "Taxus" (III***), Beinn an Dothaidh, March 2013.

 The view from Ben Nevis, Nov 2011. Sat on the summit of the Ben at 10am in unbelievably warm November temperatures. I went on to climb North Buttress on the Buachaille the same afternoon.

Soloing "West Gully" (III*), Beinn Udlaidh, March 2013.

 The beach at Traigh Allt Chailgeag, Durness, July 2011. Several trips to the far North-West, and I was blown away by the landscape every time.

 The West face of Aonach Dubh, Mar 2011. This face would fascinate me more than anywhere else in the glen, and climbing here would always be a memorable adventure.

Stob Ghabhar, Feb 2010. Sunburnt in February.

 Soloing the probably first ascent of "The Surprise" (Severe*), Aonach Dubh, Aug 2012. The Un-named Pinnacle would become a favorite haunt during summer 2012.

Ben Nevis, March 2012. I started actively seeking out cloud-inversions whenever they were likely. Get in the right place at the right time, and they are one of the greatest natural wonders you'll ever see.

 The Clach-Glas-Blaven Traverse (Diff****), Skye, Sep 2011. The best route of its grade in Scotland? Still the most enjoyable summer mountain day I've had.

Nicole entering the deepest sea-cliff in Scotland, Isle of Mull, Feb 2013. I was fortunate to be able to visit 10 of the Hebridean islands during my time in Glen.

 Sea-cliff climbing at Reiff, Inverpollaidh, July 2009. 

Alex Roddie on the crest of the lesser known Aonach Eagach of Bridge of Orchy, Feb 2010.

Bidean nam Bian, the queen of Glencoe, March 2011. My favourite mountain on the mainland and one with peerless character and presence. I lost count of the number of times I stood on the summit of Bidean and Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

An extraordinary winter

"Normal" conditions for winter 2012/13. Untouched perfection on the top-out from "Ceannacroc Couloir", Sgurr nan Conbhairean.

On the 18th February I soloed "Pioneer Gully" (III*) in Glenshiel on perfect ice under a cloudless sky. I topped out into bright sunshine and smiled at the privilege…even if I were to have no more days this great for the rest of the winter, I would be happy.

I had no idea…I couldn't possibly have hoped for what came next. The following 6 weeks were the single most extraordinary period of perfect weather and climbing conditions I've ever seen. Continuous sunshine, perfect nevé everywhere, styrofoam ice - these often rare components of Scottish winter climbing became the norm for an unbroken period of almost ridiculous length.

The day after being in Glenshiel I soloed the ultra-classic Staghorn Gully (III***) on Creag Meagaidh, and thought that having two such perfect days in a row would be enough to satisfy my itch for a while. But it very quickly became clear that a remarkable climbing season was unfolding…why limit myself when my fitness and motivation were at an all time high?

The knowledge that this winter would be the end of my 4 year spell in Glencoe was always going to mean that I was going to try and make the most of it. Combine this with exceptional climbing conditions over a long period, and it was unthinkable to do anything else but really go for it this time. All my other past winter seasons suddenly seemed to be leading up to this one.

So there I was, in an exasperating situation. I'd never been that happy soloing ice before, always being more comfortable climbing alone on buttresses. Yet some of the best ice climbing conditions in recent years had appeared and were here to stay across the Highlands. Twitter, facebook and UKC bombarded me daily with photos of climbers enjoying ice routes in perfect nick from Eilde Canyon to the Orion Face….could I face my demons when it came to soloing ice?

Long before the 6-week nevé-fest started, I'd already had my most successful ever winter. I'd broken some formidable mental barriers with my solos of "Archies' Ridge" (III,4*) and "Devil's Rib" (III*) and was becoming clearer than ever on what actually makes me tick when it comes to climbing.

So why not try ice? Being open-minded as a soloist…dangerous and liberating at the same time. For months I've been treading a fairly delicate path between ambition and realism, with the pressure of perfect conditions constantly there. On occasions it has been hard to tread that path…but when you climb alone for a while winter, you simply have to get it right.

And despite so many preconceptions and doubts about some routes, I can't remember how many times this winter I've turned up at a route, which I've previously rejected as a solo, and found myself cruising up it and wondering what all the fuss was about. The fact that most of them were under blue skies and on perfect ice is a bonus that I have never taken for granted.

The 20 minutes I spent climbing "Nutcracker" on Stob Coire Beith sum it all up for me perfectly. A beautiful, twisting ribbon of grade III ice tucked behind a ship's prow buttress…white and untouched, almost unheard of. The most plastic and enjoyable ice I have ever climbed, every single placement solid first-time.

When you live somewhere like this for a while, it's easy to lose perspective on just how special a day like that is. But multiply that over 32 winter routes on 10 new winter cliffs, and that is my winter. Beinn Udlaidh on the last day of March? Aonach Dubh's West face in April? Preconceptions out the window this winter.

Looking back on the last 5 and a half months, I'm suddenly quite tired. I have never been so continuously psyched for such a long period before, and I've never had to think so deeply about my motivations and the risks and rewards of repeated winter soloing.

I dare say I might get one or two more late-season routes done, but me for now it's over for a while. A thaw is finally on the way, and the closely-knit and super-motivated climbers of Lochaber are all gradually winding down. I think many of them will agree that it is no exaggeration to say that this will be remembered as one of the best winters ever.

The deep cleft of South Castle Gully (II*)

 Soloing "West Gully" (III*), Beinn Udlaidh

The East face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, Glencoe.

 Soloing "Taxus" (III***), the classic ice gully of the Southern Highlands

The view from Ben Nevis.

 Inverlael Gully (II*), Beinn Dearg, Wester Ross

"Nutcracker" (II/III*), Stob Coire nam Beith, the narrow ice ribbon directly in centre.

The view from topping out from Pioneer Gully (III*), Coire an-t Slugain, Glenshiel

A perfect morning to solo "Staghorn Gully" (III***), Creag Meagaidh.

Alpenglow on the Post Face Creag Meagaidh

"Devil's Rib" (III*), Sgurr a'Mhaim West face.

Views into Knoydart from Glenshiel.

Fogbow on Aonach Mor.

Soloing "Stairway to Heaven" (III*), Beinn an Dothaidh.

 Soloing Archie's Ridge (III,4*), Aonach Dubh West Face
Ice pillars in the Central Couloir of the East face, Stob Coire Sgreamhach