Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Final Selection

 Soloing "Final Selection" (Difficult****), Stag Rocks.

It has taken quite a while to get my head into the right place to be ready to on-sight solo "Final Selection". It is well-known for its sustained steepness and as being one of the best routes of the grade in Britain. The fact that it is on Cairngorm granite, a rock-type that I don't find naturally easy to climb, was always enough to stop me from attempting it.

In the last few weeks I've walked or climbed past it a few times and always given it a good look. Two things would always strike me…it looked steep, and it looked brilliant.

The great slab of Final Selection. The route starts up the right hand edge then breaks left directly up the slab.

I guess it is the Cairngorm's equivalent of "Quiver Rib" in Glencoe. The idea of soloing it intimidated me for a while and I rejected it as a bad idea a few times, but I wanted it badly enough that it was probably inevitable that one day I'd do it. Of course the trick with soloing is to be able to recognise when the time is right, to be able to distinguish possible blind ambition from genuine preparedness. 

Recent temperatures in the Cairngorms have reached 30 degrees.

Scorching skies in Rothiemurchus Forest

The Garbh Uisge Mor snowfields resisting the hot temperatures.

This morning I stood at the base of Final Selection and felt totally composed. When I looked up I felt excitement, not nerves, at its continuous steepness and exposure. I had climbed a lot on Cairngorm granite in the last few weeks and the cliffs couldn't have been any drier after such a long heatwave. I was in no doubt that the time was right, so I started climbing.

Starting up the right hand edge.

Final Selection climbs the slab left of the central sun-lit edge.

It's a great feeling when you have thought so much about soloing a route, and then you feel to be calmly floating up it once you start climbing. I loved every moment of it, and the airy and exposed crux crack and mantleshelf was pure enjoyment, not the stress that I'd imagined on negative days when I'd thought about soloing this climb.

Perfect rock throughout. Looking up towards the crux crack, which leads to underneath the prominent roof.
Looking down the crux crack. A great set of moves finishing with an exposed mantleshelf.

From the location amongst the stupendous Loch Avon Basin to the sublime quality of the rock and line of the route, I think Final Selection is one of the best routes I've ever soloed. I can't think of much better way to finish my run of routes during this amazing heat-wave which is now coming to an end.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Crystal Ridge

Crystal Ridge (Difficult****), Coire Sputan Dearg, Ben Macdui. The steep route directly in centre-frame.

"Crystal" is a word that I guess we associate with quality, clarity and flawlessness. How fitting then that such a totally perfect day today was based around soloing the classic Crystal Ridge (Diff****) of Coire Sputan Dearg.

From the fiery but silent dawn to the immaculate reflections in Loch Avon, to the unbroken hot sunshine and the superb quality of the route itself, this was one of those rare perfect days that sit a cut above the rest.

I could have written a lengthy blog post, but I think this time I'll let the photos tell the story.

The Spey valley at 5:30am

The stunning Loch Avon Basin

 The Shelterstone

 Castlegates Gully

Harebells by Loch Avon

 Coire Sputan Dearg, Ben Macdui. A 3 hour walk-in from any direction.

Crystal Ridge, one of the great classic routes of the Cairngorms. To begin with you mainly climb on the left side of the slab, and then move onto the arete higher up.

Looking up the main slab. Superb climbing.

Past the main difficulties and onto the ridge crest.

 Immaculate rock and some good exposure.

Remarkably dry conditions in Coire Sputan Dearg

 Scorching sunshine over Braeriach.

 Does it get much better?


Thursday, 18 July 2013

Black Spout Buttress of Lochnagar

Soloing "Black Spout Buttress" (Diff**), Lochnagar

An adder took me by surprise in Glen Muick. Looking into its piercing eyes brought back fond memories of the hot and dry summers of my East Anglian teens, when climbing mountains was often in my thoughts but seldom a reality. I took the warmth and dry for granted back then, as I simply didn't really know anything else.

It's strange how things change, and I always find myself in slight disbelief when the Highlands are treated to a period of "real" summer. Proper rain hasn't come for weeks in the Cairngorms now, at least never more than briefly. A bit of a dream come true for someone who likes climbing on the high and cold cliffs of the mountains.

Black Spout Buttress is the obvious buttress crest to the right of central gully

I always assumed my first route on Lochnagar would be in winter. But the drought here has fully taken hold in the last few weeks and the corries are possibly the driest I've ever seen in Scotland - the kind of conditions that have prompted me to re-consider some summer routes I'd rejected as possible solos…

Old snow resisting the hot temperatures

The upper walls of the route

Walking underneath the crags of yesterday was a bit like being underneath the North face of Ben Nevis…wherever you look the routes above you are amongst the most mythical and finest in the country, and there's a definite feeling of being amongst greatness.

The classic route I was heading for, Black Spout Buttress, is one that I've always been dubious about climbing solo for the first time. Reports of vegetation and slimy rock always ring alarm bells. But the summer route is usually started opposite the fork in the Black Spout itself, avoiding the heather-bashing of the lowest part of the route by a traverse in from the gully.

A climber on Black Spout Pinnacle
The snow has lingered more than usual this year, and I wasn't sure about traversing out of a gully that was snow-filled until only very recently. But the temperatures over the last week have been impressively high, and I figured I would probably never find the corrie drier than right now. It was fine, but traversing across steep and damp grass out of a grade I winter gully is never the most enjoyable experience. Luckily the glimpses of what lay ahead were enough to leave me in no doubt it was a good call to come here.

Some large areas of snow remaining

Looking up from the central level arete

"A deceptively difficult short chimney" said the guidebook. I had wondered about this…would it be like the grim struggle up the crux chimney of the North-East Ridge of Aonach Beag? Thankfully not at all, but I had to try a few different positions before managing to wedge myself into the slightly overhanging start and make my way up.

Looking down the "deceptively difficult short chimney".

Looking back at the central arete.
Basing things on the chimney it could almost have felt like a West-coast Diff, but then the route changed to the totally different character of a Cairngorm route. Beautiful clean granite walls with rounded holds and smooth horizontal cracks. The 30ft crux wall was every bit as good as it looked, steep and continuous, and a superb ending to a long mountaineering route.

The top 30ft wall. 
Topping out from a route in a corrie you've never climbed in before always feels great doesn't it? This one especially so - I can't wait to get back to Lochnagar


Friday, 12 July 2013

Serrated Rib, Stag Rocks

 A flawless summer day in the Loch Avon Basin.

Soloing Raeburn's Buttress Direct on tuesday left me feeling satisfied and content. Some routes can become really important to you, and sometimes after climbing one of them I like to step back for a short while, reflect and think about what I want next. 

Afterwards there is always a short period when I like to just get out and be amongst the mountains, and not necessarily have a goal or agenda for a change. It feels like a release, before that itch starts to inevitably build again and "what's next" is always on my mind.

Yesterday morning was beautiful. Mist filled the glens and the drive up past Loch Morlich was at its finest, red squirrels chasing each other across the road and mallards breaking the glassy reflections of the Northern Corries in the water. It was warm and the sky was full of promise, the kind of day when everything feels just that much better.

Unbroken sunshine over the Cairngorms

Dawn mist on Loch Morlich

Carn Etchachan and the Shelterstone

But I wandered into the magnificent Loch Avon Basin without much of an agenda, quite happy to simply be there. My eyes turned to the sharp arete of Serrated Rib on Stag Rocks and it looked inviting, the rock sun-kissed and dry as a bone. So up I headed and found my way up, the feeling of hot sun on my neck more important than the actual climbing for once.

Serrated Rib (Moderate*), Stag Rocks

Serrated Rib is the central arete

Would I have had any less of a good day if I'd not climbed a route yesterday? I'm not sure, but that uncertainty feels good sometimes, to not feel failure if the route is not ticked….and for longer term satisfaction to be more important than the immediate.


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Raeburn's Buttress Direct

Raeburn's Buttress Direct (Difficult*), Sgorr Ruadh. The steep and obvious crest.

Is a hollow victory in fact worse than failing altogether? This was my thought as I stood alone beneath Raeburn's Buttress Direct…the head-games had started.

I'd been weighing up the idea of soloing this route for months, totally inspired by photos of its imposing and dominating profile. Now I was stood underneath it, and the temptation to take the easier non-direct route to the left was pretty strong. My first attempt to start up the initial steep wall had not been encouraging, I couldn't seem to find a way to get established on the sloping holds of the wall…and doubts about soloing it were rapidly strengthening.

An impressive and beautiful route.

I could have gone left and joined the upper half of the route above the crux. It was so tempting. But after thinking about this route for so long, did I really want to "cheat"? The lower half of the route looked superb, clean and dry rock everywhere. Was the route under-graded? Or was I just not finding the holds to get started up the wall?

The first wall. Down-wards sloping rock everywhere.

Something clicked in me, and I realised I would rather turn around and walk away altogether than climb the route by the non-direct and easier option. Failure did indeed appeal more than a hollow victory. I wasn't here to come back from the route feeling disappointment…the climbs that have become personally significant are the ones which you should do in the best style, or maybe not at all.

The stunning Sgorr Ruadh. Raeburn's Direct is the right-hand skyline.

Mainreachan Buttress.

So I tried again. I tried left and right at the base of the wall, rejecting a few different options. Eventually I worked it out and found the way, and climbing a move than felt above the grade got me established on the downwards sloping holds of the cliff.

Then all the doubts and conflicting thoughts evaporated, and moving upwards was all there was. 50ft up and I was so relieved I had committed to that move off the ground…this felt fantastic. After a ledge I reached a slanting ramp and crack line that looked unlikely, and again I was forced to look twice.

Getting established on the first wall and committing to the direct.

 The ramp and crack that gives access to the second tier of the buttress.
But this time I was looking with confidence, and the ramp turned out to be a really enjoyable bit of climbing on brilliant rock. Above here I reached the first tower, and again I felt so relieved I'd not let doubt get to me and climbed the easier non-direct route instead. That first half of the route was one of the most enjoyable pieces of soloing at the grade that I've done.

It is a climb of two halves, and the upper towers and ridge are far looser and more vegetated, and I was glad I waited for a heatwave to climb this route. On a route with such a presence and noble shape, it doesn't matter if the quality of the climbing itself isn't consistent. These are the kind of routes that really inspire me, the ones with great lines and character. If this was Ben Nevis, this would be the North-East Buttress.

A grass ridge leads to the upper towers

 The second tower
The third tower

As someone who always solo climbs, I regularly ponder what drives me to repeatedly put myself through the stresses, doubts and dangers that can be involved. Sitting at the top of Raeburn's Buttress Direct yesterday, I wondered if is really all just about experiencing the total and unique calm that comes after soloing a route that you have longed after, had doubts about, been scared by. There is no feeling quite like that.