Has anyone noticed today's Google Doodle? Today is the Autumn Equinox, the leaves are turning, temps are dropping...friction is increasing...midges...well they're still hanging on a bit but the wind is keeping them down. Yup, bouldering season is coming!
Just look at all those jolly little boulders, don't you just want to give them a squeeze with your big chalky hands? I know I do!
I arrived Friday evening at the boat in Stromness after train, plane and automobile. Dad and I had planned on two days in which to try and climb the Old Man before my friend Tom arrived and we had to set sail south back to the Scottish mainland. The forecast for the weekend was not good and the week before also had been quite poor.
We woke on the Saturday to see the hills of Hoy covered in cloud, with blustery rain showers blowing through frequently. It was obvious there was to be no climbing and Sunday’s forecast was also poor. However, the weather for Monday looked ok, and when we checked our itinerary we realised the third crew member, Tom, was not arriving until Monday evening so we had one more day. We decided it was worth a try and caught the 7:45am passenger ferry from Stromness to Moaness on Hoy with our folding bikes, in dry but windy conditions.
Once on Hoy we rode 6 miles along the quiet roads to Rackwick Bay where the road ends and the path begins. After reading the famous climbers’ warning sign we walked over the cliff tops where you catch the first sight of the Old Man. Once at the view point you get the full scale of the Stack, it is very impressive and quite intimidating. It was very windy, which was concerning as strong winds can be a problem on the final abseil which is a free 60m.
We started the descent down the cliffs which was not much fun. It was very muddy and slippery and feels very exposed, you really can't afford to slip as if you did you would not stop. Dad was using walking poles for the approach; we took one each for the descent, which was very useful and I strongly recommend it to anyone considering going down there. Once at the bottom the wind felt better so we racked up and set off.
I took the first pitch which is very straightforward and enjoyable climbing, we both agreed it was a very nice steady introduction to quite an intimidating environment. All the belays on the route are on good stances and well equipped with slings and tat which make it obvious when you’ve arrived.
Dad had the second pitch, but having climbed the route only seven days before with the first crew of his Orkney trip he ran up it! The waves below were quite big and noisy and as the pitch goes round the corner and up the chimney, you soon lose sight and sound of your partner. Three tugs on the rope were my signal to start climbing.
This is a very exciting pitch, with great climbing and amazing exposure. The initial traverse is delicate and quite sandy so you have to be careful – as with any traverse you wouldn't want to fall on lead or second. You then start up the chimney, where good bridges and jams get you moving. The most difficult move involved getting out on the left wall of the second chimney section. There are three stuck cams there which give the leader some welcome protection. After that move the major difficulties are over, good solid climbing follows. A #5 Friend is needed which you can work up the crack as you go. The 3rd and 4th pitch are easier but the rock is not so good. The fulmars also nest here but didn't prove to be too much of a problem for us.
The 5th pitch is a fantastic corner crack on good rock which takes you right to the top. I was glad this pitch fell to me and I really enjoyed it. It has good gear, bridging moves and solid jams. Towards the top you can see right through the stack and out to the sea in the west. As I pulled over on to the top the people on the viewpoint gave a cheer and waved as I stood on the summit. Dad was soon up as well and we took in the views and had a quick bite to eat knowing we were only halfway through the route, we had to get back down.
We did it in four abseils. You could do it in three, but we decided shorter more manageable ones would be better due to the wind. The first three went well and the final 60m free abseil is really quite impressive. It starts from the top of the second pitch but you have to be careful in the wind as the ropes could easily be whipped away and jammed. Dad went first but as he got off the ropes there was a gust of wind which blew the ropes below me out at a strong angle, they were fine but I had to move quickly to stop them wrapping round the lee side of the stack. It really is an amazing view as you look up and see how overhanging the whole thing is! The ropes pulled through easily and we were done!
The walk back up the cliff is better going up but you are still glad to be back on the cliff tops. After a few more celebratory pics, we were back along the path to the bikes and rode back for a quick beer in the café while we waited for the 4:30pm return ferry (the last ferry is 6:30pm and a there is a bothy at Rackwick bay in case you miss it!). I am so pleased that we had a weather window and we managed to do such an iconic classic British route, and with my old man! Now all we had to do was sail the boat back to Inverness, but that's a different story altogether...
It isn’t always easy to anticipate exactly when an adventure will begin.
Leading the KE Adventure Travel trip to the Karakoram to trek up the Baltoro Glacier, visit K2 Base Camp and cross the Gondogoro La, I thought it would begin with the dramatic flight from Islamabad to Skardu, over the top of Nanga Parbat.
In the event I was quite a few days out in my estimation because as I was in the process of changing planes in Turkey at Istanbul airport, the attempted military coup took place. We were on board our flight with the engines running when the captain announced that the flight had been cancelled due to “security”. Members of the cabin crew, knowing more than us, burst into tears. Over the next 24 hours we experienced glass shattering explosions, stampedes by other passengers, parts of the ceiling falling in after military fly-bys and the whole airport being overrun by thousands of shouting and singing presidential supporters. The next morning the information board showed all flights cancelled and very few staff appeared for work. Eventually, everyone in the airport had to queue for many hours to get a new boarding card to fly out.
When my group finally all gathered in Islamabad I hoped that things would go more smoothly. Wrong again. The flight to Skardu was cancelled due to bad weather, so we had to set off up the infamous Karakoram Highway. I have driven up and down this route many times since my first visit with Joe Simpson, Andy Cave and others in 1987. Our epic was graphically described in Joe’s book “This Game of Ghosts”. Whenever I travel this road, I always hope it will be the last time. It has improved slightly, in that we had a police escort through the potential trouble spots of Chilas, but it still takes two days plus. As is traditional, we were held up by a traffic jam caused by a landslide near the Gilgit Skardu turnoff.
As it got dark we also learned that there was a delay further ahead near Skardu. The road along this section is a truck’s width chopped out of the cliff side. Driving along the road in the dark, let alone getting past another landslide or stone fall would not have been a good option. The nearest town is Gilgit so we drove there to try to find some accommodation. Unfortunately, despite phoning about 20 hotels we could not find anything. That was until Mohammed Ali, (a Police Officer with special responsibility for Tourist Facilitation as it said on his card), intervened and sorted it for us shortly after midnight.
The next day the news about what I thought was the only road to Skardu was worse. It was now impassable and would remain so for some time. However, Zafer, the Director of Baltistan Tours and our agent in Pakistan knew an ingenious alternative. This took us by bus and jeep over the 4000m Desoia Plains around the back of Nanga Parbat and finally deposited us in Skardu at some time around midnight the next day.
Finally, I thought we had made it to the beginning of our adventure and we could get on with the original plan. It turned out that three further obstacles stood in our way. Firstly, so called security. The Pakistan Army are very anxious about security in the area as it is near to the disputed border with India. We didn’t get clearance despite sending all the required documents in weeks advance, until the evening of the following day. The excellent K2 Motel didn’t have any rooms available either so we had to camp in the rose garden. And despite leaving the next day at 3am to try to drive to the beginning of the trek and then walk a bit, we couldn’t recruit any porters at our destination in Askole as they were all having a festival.
In the end though the trek went well. The local crew, especially Mohammed Khan and Karim were excellent. The cook team and the food they turned out was superb and the views were stunning. We all crossed the pass, flew back from Skardu to Islamabad and even had a coup free transfer in Istanbul airport back home.
The pictures below tell that bit of the trek story as well as words can.
Alright, us Brits don't half like to whinge. It's too cold, too wet, too windy, and at the moment, way way waaaay too hot! Seriously, I've only just walked out of the shop and my Solero is already running down my elbows. Well don't let that spoil your fun, here's some of my favourite tips to keep climbing when the mercury shoots sky high. Most of these are really quite obvious, but there might be one or two that you've not considered.
Check the compass – north facing crags are generally your best bet, or you may have to move around to avoid the sun, starting on a west facing crag in the morning before moving to an east-facing one in the afternoon. Don’t forget that this advice completely changes in the southern hemisphere! On my first trip to South Africa I thought I was being smart by picking a north-facing crag to climb on, only once the sun had started to get high did I realise my mistake!
Check the wind direction – even a slight breeze can help reduce your body temperature. Be careful though, you might feel totally chill but end up burning to a crisp from the sun.
Shady zawns and obscure little holes – if you can’t find a suitable north facing crag, you’ll just have to make do with what you’ve got. Seek out gullies, slots, zawns, caves and blowholes. Even a small corner/groove line can provide some respite on an otherwise completely exposed crag.
Get high – Gain some altitude! In dry air you can expect a temperature drop of almost 1˚C for every 100m gained (in saturated air the lapse rate will less pronounced, maybe around 0.3˚C per 100m) so get yourself to those high mountain crags. Wind velocity also increases with altitude, adding to the cooling effect.
Bonus tip - there's often an icecream van situated on top of Sea Walls at Avon, don't forget to bring some pennies with you!
All other thing being equal, the coolest time of the day occurs half an hour after sunrise, so go to bed early, set your alarm and get to it. You’ll also get the smug satisfaction of seeing the sunrise and being first on the crag. Try not to gloat (well not too much anyway) as you pass all the losers while you stroll back for mid-morning pastries having sent your project already. Catch a late lunch and a snoozy siesta (or go to work?!) before heading back out in the evening for another session.
Proximity to water is good for the soul, and your body temperature. Go deep water soloing, try hard, fall off, it’s all good fun! If you’re nowhere near the sea, then riverside crags are the place to be. Dunk your feet in the stream between routes and you’re whole body will feel the effects.
Feet will swell in the heat. Your already tight climbing shoes will become instruments of torture, capable of reducing a grown man to tears, so break out your sloppy comfy pair. I’ve actually had a Pink Anasazi physically pop off my heel mid crux on a slabby, runout E4 before - not an experience I’d like to repeat! If you do need to stop and loosen your laces mid-pitch, make sure you’re in a position where you can do them up again (yup I’ve made that mistake too!)
Seriously. Just do it. Pick something non-greasy so your hands don’t get too slippery (or have someone else do it for you), choose factor 50 and re-apply often. You don’t want this to happen to you…
What, you want me to tell you how to dress? I’m not your mum! Sheesh. Well just one hint… a proper shirt, light cotton or linen. Wear that, unbutton all but two and pop that collar.
Super-important, and you probably don’t need reminding of this, but remember to keep your salt intake up when your sweating and drinking – adding an electrolyte mix to your water will help your body to absorb it more effectively and reduce cramping. Slightly less obvious is filling a wide-mouth Nalgene with ice, or even better, a vacuum flask. They keep drinks cold as well as hot you know.
Baggy boots and sweaty hands, honestly, now is not the time for hard climbing. Find some classic easy thing to climb, with good sharp jugs that you can just romp up.
If you’ve not heeded any of this advice, you’re gonna have to deal with it as best you can. My favourite is the impromptu legionnaire’s cap – take a t-shirt, drape it over your head so the sleeves hang over your ears and the body hangs over your neck, and secure with a helmet or long sling. This’ll keep the sun off your neck and face while allowing the breeze to pass through, and prevent sweat from dripping into your eyes. Certainly not stylish in the least, but who cares?
This is the last resort. If it’s really that hot just sack it in, go for a swim, find some shady trees for slacklining. Seriously, this is Britain, it’ll be freezing cold again in a day or two.
A little while back I had an amazing evening going ground up on the brilliant Block and Tackle (E6 6b) at Higgar Tor. A few safe but fun falls were taken before topping out and I left the crag buzzing from the sheer fun and quality of the climbing. Meanwhile, work colleague and crusher Nathan Lee had a similar ground-up experience on the harder and even more classic Balance It Is (E7 6c) just across the valley at Burbage South. Chatting about it the next day, we came to the conclusion that Neil Foster routes are awesome. It did start me thinking what makes them so good? Well normally a stunning line (are they all arêtes?), good gear but hard moves above it, and great quality rock. Only a few days after that evening I ran into Neil in the shop. I explained the current trend and asked “what would be your top 5 first ascents on grit?”.
The answer has lead to a great grit season for myself, also resulting in an incredible ticklist that MUST be completed. Below is what Neil came back with, someone out there must have repeated them all. I have one to go but the obvious ultimate challenge is all of them in a day! Hmmm maybe not for me but let's see…
The amazing thing about this list is there are so many other stunning routes out there from Neil not on it, Ulysses or Bust (E5 6b) at Curbar, Carpe Diem (E6 6c) at Stanage and Linkline (E6 6c) at Higgar Tor just to mention a few. So why do so many of Neil’s routes get forgotten or go unclimbed for so long? Firstly: Neil is so modest that he never even gave stars for his routes, allowing other people to judge the quality. Also, around the same time, a certain Mr Dawes was picking even bigger plums a little less quietly. Oddly enough I think having amazing, hard routes at Britain's most popular crag, Stanage, doesn't seem quite right. Who do you know who headpoints at the Popular End (other than me!). Last but not least a lot of these routes are in a mythical grade spectrum. It seems to be common place to try to onsight anything up to E5, but if a route is E7 this is definitely headpoint material (for all but the best). E6 seems a little lost, especially if it is generally considered a “safe”(ish!) route. Too hard to onsight, not hard enough for a head point? Whatever your style: get these routes done, they are amazing! Here goes:
Neil must have been laughing all the way home after finding this one. Good gear is placed at the start of the difficulties and then full commitment up the incredible arête. For me the crux of the route was to leave the gear, a hard undercut move allows a standing position (it doesn't climb like an arête at all!) next a powerful series of moves and rockovers leads away from the gear before a slap/stretch to the break and gear, ooofff! Beautiful, bold yet safe, forceful climbing.
This was the first ticked off the big five and I was very pleased to flash it with good beta from Dave Brown. A must for any aspiring E6 grit leader. With it being just to the left of the famous E3 Crocodile and slightly unnerving flexy hold it had to be “Make it Snappy!”
How can such an obvious line be left alone? Neil has a few awesome first ascents on this mighty crag, but he chose this one for the list. Starting in the gully you quickly reach the first break and once again find bomber gear. The steepness of the crag quickly becomes apparent and the next section up the arête is amazing. Burly slapping, heel hooks and commitment are what's needed to get you to the sanctuary of the next break. A stunning gritstone evening going ground-up on this cracker left me so psyched for more of the same. This route was the reason I got in touch with Neil about his list. So much fun! (see the last blog for more on this)
I have thought about this one for years, long before I even thought I may get good enough to climb it. There was a stunning picture of Neil on it from an old Stanage guide and then the story of the first ascent in the next. What’s even more impressive is that in the picture, (shown here) Neil has no belayer! Dave Simmonite had just belayed for the first ascent then afterwards ran round the top to get the shot while Neil posed with a tied off rope in a vest! Gnarly! He must have thought I was a wuss in my helmet, with a pad and a belayer.
I also loved the story that they both got up early to get the route done before work, hence the name.
This must be the most neglected of all his routes, when I first abbed the line it was filthy. It is a proud line at the most popular cliff in the country, crazy to think it appears to have had only a handful of ascents.
After a brush and a go on a rope one misty evening I could just about do “the move” but it was very hard and the fall would be a nasty clatter. The conditions put me off and I left it, but didn't forget. A week later and in true Foster fashion I had rallied some troops and met at the crag at 6.40am. Brilliantly I then received a text “Hi James, heard you're going to try my route. What time and can I come to take photos? Neil” 10 minutes later, Neil joins us. I felt honoured to have the first ascensionist there, especially so early! What a hero! I’d better not blow it now.
Easy moves lead to the break below the overlap and good gear. A great undercut move leads to a good flatty, a long lock to the crappy sloper. This morning it all feels great. Foot up, slap, done! This route went from feeling impossible to really steady, but that’s grit. All done by 8am. I really hope this spurs on more ascents, Neil described it as “small but perfectly formed”. I couldn't agree more.
When I asked Neil for this list I was worried he may put this one on it, the guidebooks description made it sound terrifying with the only gear coming from hand placed blade pegs. It didn't sound very reassuring, even scarier was the thought of Neil soloing the first ascent.
Winter's Grip follows one the the many proud Millstone arêtes, however this one is a little smaller than its famous neighbours. Neil said I should go ground up but I bottled it and another headpoint was on the cards. Once again the hard working Andy had prepared the rope in advance and we set to it. Quickly moves were figured out and the pegs we decided “might hold?!?”. We both top-roped it cleanly and I quickly lead it afterwards, it went very smoothly and was nearly a little bit of an anti-climax. However the excitement was to come, Andy stepped up.
Andy, who had top-roped the route a number of times cleanly, clearly didn't have his head in the right place this time. I could feel the trembles through the rope. He climbed up to the first peg then launched into the crux: hand up the arête, left foot to hand, left hand crimp, high right smear on the arête…. shaking, we watched on, terrified but relieved as he made it to the rest and the second peg. However as Andy tried to calm down he felt himself toppling over backwards from the rest. Frantic scrambling ensued and somehow he pulled himself back onto the rock shouting “DON'T FALL OFF!” (sound advice) Anyway he didn't and then he sketched to the top. Sorry about that Andy - but you did! Another awesome route ticked off from an awesome list.
The big one. The hardest, and strangely, probably the most repeated. That will be because it is at the classic hard grit crag. “Balance it is” is currently the only route unticked for me on this list. It may always be, but I’m damn sure going to try it one day. I just need some cold winter conditions back!
Balance It Is climbs the stunning left arête (yep they are all arêtes!) of one of the main buttresses at Burbage South. You start up a crack belonging to Boggart left hand (E4 6a) but just before the niche you blast out left and layback powerfully and with great balance up the arête. Near the top used to be a small slot for an RP4 but this has since blown due to many a spark-creating whipper. This now means the final run out is even more scary - however, once again, with these brilliant routes, you won't hit anything if you decide to take the ride.
There are many great videos of people taking said whipper and I think it was a fine effort of our very own Nathan Lee to climb it ground up, albeit with a battle. 7c sport grade has been mentioned so it's not surprising this is no pushover and may well stay unticked, but I can't wait to try! Here is a particularly brilliant video of the route.
This one must sit with pride of place on a stunning list of first ascents from Neil.
So there you have it: an amazing list of amazing routes on amazing rock all climbed by an amazing climber. You can tick them off over at UKC on their ticklists. Neil is a legend and mega nice guy too, so do him the honour of climbing his routes, all in a season? All in a week? All in a day? All in a lifetime? I’ll be happy with just trying them all. What would Neil do?
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