The Northern Ireland of our childhood was a no-go country and has never showed on our radar of possible holiday destinations. However, my 86-year-old mum’s visit there last year inspired us to think again.
Despite dire warnings about the rough Irish Sea we booked the Birkenhead to Belfast ferry and enjoyed the flat calm of untroubled waters throughout the 8-hour crossing.
We travelled in our small campervan using the luxury of proper campsites on 6 out of 7 nights. Perhaps we’re going soft but the electric hook-up, level hard standing, full facilities and quietness easily justified the expense.
The Antrim Hills were a gentle introduction to the charms of this new landscape with views in all directions including across the sea to Scotland. The following day the much-anticipated Causeway Coast Path was every bit as spectacular as expected. The 15-miles from Ballintoy to Bushmills via White Park Bay and the Giant’s Causeway was possibly the best coastal walk that we have ever done.
While on the northern coastline we couldn’t miss the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge so we wisely arrived at the opening time to avoid the coach parties that would soon be arriving. Later that day we explored the unheard of before, Binevenagh Cliffs in County Derry overlooking the Magilligan coastal plain – a weird and wonderful place in swirling mists and haunted by squawking peregrines.
Then we moved south to Newcastle and the Mourne Mountains, where a bad forecast gave us the opportunity to visit Belfast. The highlights for us were the several second-hand bookshops we explored and the famous Titanic Quarter.
Our week’s finale was to be a mountain day in the Mournes to include a 3-star rock climb and an ascent of Northern Ireland’s highest summit, Slieve Donard (850m). I had really wanted Jane to be enthusiastic about the prospect of climbing Devil’s Rib on Satan’s Buttress, but all I got was a non-committal grunt. I interpreted this as ‘I’d rather not do it, but if you want to that’s just about OK with me.’
After 1½ hours we reached the Mourne Wall and headed off towards the Devil’s Rib via an old smuggler’s path called the Brandy Pad. The strengthening wind then calmed down enough to encourage us to get geared up beneath an impressive soaring line. However, the advertised easier start was wet and after an initial slithering foray and I descended and started up the drier but harder variant. As I climbed up I just knew that Jane wasn’t going to like the awkward high stepping moves with loose handholds. Then I noticed that the views had disappeared, the clouds had rolled in and an up-draught of wind and drizzle were beginning to make things unpleasant. I managed to set up a belay in a slightly sheltered corner and hailed Jane. She immediately started to shake her head and mutter; this was not a good sign. It took a while but with a little helpful tugging, quite a lot of swearing, the occasional use of knees and much determination she made it.
Jane’s hands were visibly shaking so we quickly sorted ourselves out and I was off again up the exposed arête. Although marginally easier the damp rock, buffeting wind and unfeeling hands made it an un-nerving battle upwards. I tried to escape left but this was a mistake and wasted time. My fumbling hands dropped a karabiner while trying to protect the final moves but I didn’t care. I screamed into the howling wind for Jane to start climbing. There was more shaking of the head and cursing but she doggedly made progress. I thought that Jane would be really angry with me but amazingly she pulled over the top with a high-five and a broad smile in spite of the full-body shake through cold.
We were strangely happy (or perhaps just relieved that we’d avoided an epic) with our adventure and quickly packed away the gear and re-energised with some chocolate bars. For the record the V. Diff grading with a Severe start seemed somewhat irrelevant in such conditions.
Back at the Mourne Wall on the col we deposited our sacks and completed the final 280m to the top of Slieve Donard. No views and too windy to stop but who cares – a grand day out celebrated with a pint of Guinness when we eventually got back to the car park in Newcastle.
The journey back across the Irish Sea was equally calm and we look forward to a return visit.
Sometime during the summer last year my wife Janet and I realised that for this year at least we might be able to escape the glitter, tinsel and mince pies of the festive season and quietly sneak off to Nepal for Christmas and New Year.
Our plans were to spent Christmas Day in Namche Bazaar, the de facto Sherpa capital, and do two treks, one in the Gokyo area and another up towards Everest, returning to Namche for New Year in between. After trekking we would return to Kathmandu and spend a few days visiting friends, including Phanden Sherpa and his family who added so much to our Nepal Earthquake fund raising efforts when he was in the UK last summer.
For the first section we would be five people. Janet, our friend also called Janet, two porters (friends and neighbours of Phanden’s) called Kami and Nima, and myself. For the second half, our friends Janet and Nima would descend due to a lack of holiday time, and we three would continue.
We made Namche our base because despite having no road access it does have 24 hour hydroelectricity, shops and bars etc. For many years the quality of life was far better in Namche than in Kathmandu. Actually I should have said that Namche had 24 hour electricity because the system had failed and the village was without power for more than 10 days. The welcome was as warm as ever but the temperatures and facilities were not. We stayed at the Kangri Lodge run by Tenzing Sherpa, above the Sherpa Adventure Gear shop. Higher up in the mountains some other trekkers reported temperatures of -20°C.
I have trekked up the Gokyo valley many times before but our special treat was to climb the view point Gokyo Ri (5300m) and watch the sun setting on Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and Makalu. The descent in the dark using headtorches was fun and made all the more so when, just a couple of hundred metres from our lodge, we encountered three pairs of staring eyes lit up by our torches. Jackals on the look out for an easy meal (fortunately not us).
On the Everest side we stayed in the village of Dingboche, a starting point for people who want to climb Island Peak (6189m) or Imja Tse as it is correctly called. There are many lodges here but only two were open and we were the only people in one of them. It was so cold here that the barrel full of water supplied to flush down the inside toilet froze solid in the night.
The highest settlement here is Chhukung where we met a small group of foreigners who were being guided up Island Peak by a local.They seemed somewhat ill prepared physically, mentally, and with their equipment for the cold ascent that lay ahead of them, so I hope they were OK. I have climbed Island Peak many times and it is not to be underestimated. There is more than 1000m of climbing from base camp to summit and it is especially cold as it is surrounded by glaciers and bigger peaks.
Janet and I went and explored a small (5400m) hill that squeezes between Chhukung and the south face of Lhotse called Chhukung Ri. An excellent summit with dramatic views of Ama Dablam, Baruntse and all the surrounding glaciers.
For our final objective we aimed to cross a pass between two peaks that I first climbed in 1991, Kongmatse (5820m) and Pokalde (5806m). For a while Pokalde was quite a famous mountain as for a charity event two of my friends had guided Sarah Ferguson to the summit. In the main trekking season the pass is a steep rocky ascent but in mid winter there are sections covered by waves of hard ice and boulderfields covered in snow. The top of the pass, the Kongma La is quite sharp with a steep drop off the other side. Definitely not a place to slip, so looking at the stunning view has to be done before leaving the top or after arriving at safety lower down near a small lake below.
Some days later, after trekking down to Lukla we made the short scenic flight back to Kathmandu and had one final celebration, my 62nd birthday.
Now that’s what I call a Christmas Holiday!
Even the best laid plans need adapting to the weather, or the traffic, or any number of factors. On Snowdon, we ran the gamut from A to L.
For those unfamiliar with this challenge, in order to complete the Welsh 3000s you need to reach the top of all 15 of the 3000ft+ mountains in Wales within the space of 24 hours, without using any form of transport. It’s about 24 miles, but walks to the start and finish can take it over the 30 mark.
After leaving work we will drive over to Wales, drop Tom’s car off at the end of the route and proceed to Snowdon. We will all bivvy at the summit of Snowdon for a first light start.
The weather is not kind to us, so a bivvy at the base of Snowdon seems more doable; we will wake before dawn, then head up to the summit to start at first light.
It's freezing, far too cold for me. We will sleep in the car instead, then start before dawn breaks.
The inevitable happens; we are so comfortable that we oversleep.
We set off at 07.30. It's been light for half an hour. It's cold but dry and we can see the tops covered with snow. We head up the miner’s track and eventually reach the snowline. Me and John immediately step in behind Tom and let him take the lead; we know our place on the mountain. Progress is slow but we keep on keeping on.
Battling through the snow we agree that we are not going to be able to complete our target.
We could just do Snowdon and the Gwydyr then back to the cars. We march on relentless and on reaching the summit we take the obligatory photograph and head slowly and carefully back down.
We head back down the miner’s track meeting several people along the way who upon discovering we have been to the top are very impressed.
We reach the car and decide to get changed and head to Plas y Brenin for a cup of tea then go over to collect Toms car.
Drinking tea, we discuss our plans and agree we made a few but had a fantastic day out.
We will be back in the summer to finish what we started. Hopefully this time from A to B.
With the autumn season in the Alps being a non-starter and Scottish Winter conditions seeming to disappear (for now!) I’ve been focusing on some more local projects. A few routes I’ve been eyeing up for a while have finally been laid to rest. London Wall has been on the list forever, I see it every day on the drive home, staring at me saying “come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough!”. Well, a few years ago I wasn't, and took the ride from the last move. I finally went back and very nearly took the same whipper, but not this time!
Also my Foster 5 tick list came to a close with a headpoint ascent of Balance It Is (E7 6c). It has been brilliant having a real goal so close to home. As satisfying as completing a climb or tick list is, it always leads straight onto the next, and Neil Foster has conjured up another list straight away (hold tight for Another Foster Five!).
Many of these ascents were captured on video, usually as a bit of an afterthought with a phone propped up in a shoe, this explains some awful footage, sorry! I hope you enjoy the video and don't take it too seriously, I’ve never made one before so it may not be up to scratch with the modern ones out there now but what the hell!
Outside’s Christmas book competition offers one lucky reader the chance to get inside the minds of climbers, mountaineers and hillwalkers ranging from the Hollywood persona of Andy Pollitt to the 40 something neuroses of Graham Wilson.
Our selection of four books explores our shared relationship with the outdoors, and the diverse responses we have to success, adversity and failure. Why do some people respond with maddening flamboyance, while others take their strength from logic and rationality? What do we find out about ourselves when we reach our limits, and how do we deal with the consequences?
Read our review of the four books and answer our cunningly devious multiple choice question for your chance to win them all and discover a world of insight and adventure.
High adventure in the high mountains
In the summer of 2012, a team of six climbers set out to attempt the first ascent of one of the great unclimbed lines of the Himalaya. At 10 kilometres, the giant Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat is the longest route to the summit of an 8,000-metre peak.
After 11 days two of the team, Sandy Allan and Rick Allen, both in their late fifties, reached the summit. They had run out of food and water and began hallucinating wildly from the effects of altitude and exhaustion. Heavy snow conditions meant they would need another three days to descend the far side.
In Some Lost Place is Sandy Allan's epic account of an incredible feat of endurance and commitment at the very limits of survival.
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
Driven to extremes
We should all have seen it coming. Climbing’s film noir episode was genre defining: the charming hero with flowing locks and smouldering eyes, driven by ambition and the expectation of his peers to take ever greater risks in the pursuit of first ascents like The Hollow Man at Gogarth and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door on Curbar Edge.
Andy Pollitt’s autobiography, Punk in the Gym, shows the man behind the Playboy image without flinching, laying bare a fragile ego riven with self-doubt and tangled with personal loss, drugs, drink and depression.
From the opening scene the denouement is obvious, but like all the best film noir the journey is what’s important. Frank, surprising, engaging and complex, Punk in the Gym is a dark treat cloaked in Pollitt’s characteristically flamboyant style.
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
Nine walking challenges to take you off the beaten track.
As middle age loomed, Graham Wilson faced a dilemma - 40 and fit, or 40 and fat? His response was to explore long-distance walking routes in northern England.
Forty Plus is the outcome of that exercise: nine walks of 40+ miles through the less frequented parts of three National Parks, featuring hand drawn maps and evocative photos provided by Chris Harle.
Published by High Tor Publications
A philosophical look at life and death decisions in the mountains.
Choices made above the clouds aren’t always black and white. The most rational mind can be affected by personalities, hopes and expectations, and the line between adventure and misadventure can be alarmingly narrow. Judgement Days is Tom Richardson's story of over thirty years’ climbing in the Himalaya and Karakoram and a reflection on the decisions he has made.
“A marvellous compendium of adventure, knowledge and insight about the mountains and how to stay alive in them” Dave Pickford Climb Magazine
Published by High Peak Books
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