Feeding The Rat

Every year winter comes, some climbers go to the wall, boulder and moan about the weather, while others get excited for snow, check weather forecasts and moan just as much. I personally get nervous as winter approaches.

"I have to climb that scary stuff now"

"What if I fall off?"

"Will I miss all the good conditions and climb nothing this season?"

This is the main fear for me, I check conditions and weather for Scotland every few hours during winter, with the fear that either it will be "in nick" on my days off (crap, a long drive is coming) or fear that it won’t be (phew! but I do want to climb it). This makes the first winter hit of the season very important for me, just knowing I have one under my belt means I can relax. Usually I will do something in December just to feed the rat, but no joy this year and with the end of January, approaching I was getting nervous.

Luckily Simon had booked days off and committed to going so I couldn’t let him down, even though the forecast was not looking exactly "Mint"!

Pre-dawn start - Standard! Walk-in to Sneachda - that yellow ball is the moon!

Pre-dawn starts - standard!

We headed straight for Coire an t-Sneachda in the Northern Cairngorms as it seemed to have the best conditions. After the normal late arrival and sleep in the van we head in early, in fact it only just gets light as we reach the Coire itself. We both voice ideas of climbing hard, but thankfully Si says to me "shall we do a grade IV for the first route of the season?" Phew, we are on the same wave length. We romped up Patey’s Route (IV, 5) which was nearly in too good a condition, totally banked out with snow with only a few tricky bulges. Still it was fun and a classic first tick.

Simon Kimber on Patey's Route, Coire an t-Sneachda

Simon on Patey's Route

It had already clouded over and started gently snowing as we traversed across to Pygmy Ridge (IV, 5) which was a brilliant little route with exciting high winds on the final pitch blowing the ropes sideways!

We headed down a nicely full Aladdin’s Couloir only to run into friends Will Sim and Mike Thomas. After some lunch and banter we decided conditions are good and time to up the ante, Mike joins us as Will and his girlfriend grab another route. We head for the great looking corner of Damnation (VI, 6). On arriving at the main pitch I was told to lead on, I explained I would have a look but if there is no gear I won’t like it! I headed up, looked up the main corner to see a lovely snow patch right up the corner, looks like easy climbing, but with absolutely no gear. I like climbing with Mike because he is as modest as he is talented. "Mike, this looks like your lead!”  I pass Mike the sharp end and he says "Don’t see why I’ll do any better than you?” Five minutes later Mike shouts safe and belays me and Si up a brilliant pitch. It was in very easy nick but he must have faced a 12-15 metre run out. I should have lead it, but was far from disheartened, just pysched! Awesome route with awesome mates!

Mike Thomas eading Damnation with James Turnbull belaying.  Mike Thomas eading Damnation with James Turnbull belaying.

Mike Thomas leading Damnation

Back down at the bags people packed up to head home but as we went to follow suit someone said "must be time for one more?” We exchanged glances and 2 extended pitches later and Doctors Choice (IV, 4) finished the day off nicely with plenty of day light left for the walk down.

Simon Kimber and Mike Thomas in the Cairngorms Simon Kimber and James Turnbull in the Cairngorms

Of course the evening was spent in the pub having one too many and hearing about Will’s recent hard routes, talk about modesty! The next morning we arrive from the van a little later and rather more sluggishly as it rains constantly. The walk in was a damp one but, as predicted, it turned to snow as height was gained. We stood in the bottom of the very windy, snowy Coire, unsure of what to do or even where the buttresses were hiding. The game ‘Simon Says’ seems to be apparent on this trip and with "Stirling Bomber- your lead" I do as I’m told. Stirling Bomber (V, 7) turns out to be the route of the trip.

James Turnbull Psyched for Stirling Bomber! James Turnbull approaching the chimney of Stirling Bomber

Getting psyched for Stirling Bomber

The huge amount of powder on the ledges make it hard to even leave the ground, but after some huffing, puffing and digging I make it to the main event, the back and foot chimney. This ends up being amazing climbing, with good hooks and gear on the left and a (very) tall person’s back and foot. As I work myself higher, inch by inch, all of a sudden I have to release myself from the relative comfort of the chimney and make hard moves right, out of the chimney and into a sort of groove. I imagine this to be full of nice turf or névé sometimes, but after pushing my sideways torqued Nomic right down I commit to topping out through near-vertical powder. Mega! Si follows grinning from ear to ear! AMAZING!!

There's a climber in there somewhere!

There's a climber in there somewhere!

Then it was Simon’s lead and so we headed back over to Aladdin’s Buttress to climb a great looking route, The Lamp (V, 6).  The snow eases, winds drop and Simon leads a cracking main pitch which is steep with good hooks and (generally) good gear. One slight moment of fear kicks in as, once again, bomber turf is buried in soft powder, all the gear hidden with it. He kept it together well and cautiously moved along the strange rock ramp to the belay. I lead on up another easier but still brilliant pitch to finish the day and my trip. Awesome!!

Simon Kimber on The Lamp, Coire an t-Sneachda

Simon Kimber on The Lamp Simon Kimber on The Lamp

Simon on the Lamp

As I proceeded to take the long drive home alone and spill coffee all over my van, Simon stays for the weekend to meet Rich. By the sounds of it I got off lightly as Saturday was gale force winds, no visibility and very wet but they managed to climb The Seam (IV, 5) and Invernookie (III, 4). Sunday was raining so hard and +5˚C in the car park with little change forecast with height, an early bath was called for, that’s the way it is sometimes in Scotland.

This trip really fed the rat and has relaxed my nerves of missing conditions, for now at least! Being retailers it was a brilliant gear testing trip for both of us geeky climbers, reviews to follow but the highlights were the amazingly breathable Rab Strata and Patagonia Nano-Air Hoodies, both great as a versatile midlayer or on their own on approaches, a Haglofs Roc Jacket, the soon to be released Patagonia Ascentionist Rucksack, and a couple of old faithfuls such as my beloved Scarpa Phantom Guides and Sterling Photon ropes, the only thing to need no drying! This has got to be the best reason for getting a new pair of ropes, the dry treatment actually works! 

Enough geeky talk, cracking start to the winter. Let’s hope we all keep the rat well fed!!

James Turnbull modelling the Rab Strata Hoodie.

James modelling the excellent Rab Strata Hoodie

James Turnbull works in Outside in Hathersage. He's quite upset that he'll miss the rest of the Scottish Winter season as he's on honeymoon in New Zealand. Boo-Hoo.

By James Turnbull

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James Turnbull
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Drew grabs some winter sunshine on the Costa Blanca

While Britain was being battered by strong winds and coastal storm surges early in January, I was enjoying some winter sun on the Costa Blanca. Pretty good timing by me.

We flew out on Monday morning, leaving Manchester airport on a typically grey, overcast day. The cloud blanketed the land most of the way South. It wasn't until we started descending into Alicante that the cloud disappeared completely. I thought this was a pretty good sign.

After spending a bit more on the insurance for the hire car than expected, we headed off to find our friends in their villa in Calpe. For those who don't know the area, it's basically the next major destination North from Benidorm. It seems like a lot of the crowds from Benidorm have discovered the slightly less touristy spot, and made it almost as bad. However if you go up the hill slightly, and get away from the high rise buildings, then it's peaceful, calm, and with great views and sunsets. From our villa you could look out over El Peñón de Ifach (also known as Calpe Rock). It's a great place for a normal holiday, but we obviously went for the climbing on offer.

View of Calpe from the villa Sierra de Toix

View from Villa & Sierra del Toix

That evening we enjoyed some fine local cuisine... actually we went to an all you can eat Chinese restaurant. We were extremely well fed by the end, but it did feel a bit wrong. We were hoping to find some cute little Spanish restaurant serving tapas, and paella, but it turns out that's extremely difficult.

Our first day wasn't as nice as we were hoping, with fairly strong winds, lots of cloud cover, and the odd spot of rain, but we were here to climb, so we headed over to Sierra de Toix, and went to the single pitch venue of Toix Far Oeste (Far West) on the recommendation of our host Mark. It was a lovely spot, sat above an estate of holiday homes, looking out to sea, but the weather definitely dampened the spirits. After climbing a few 3s and 4s, we bailed from halfway up a 5, when the rain started to come down quite heavily.

View from Olta

View from Olta

The next day we joined Mark again at Olta, this time in beautiful sunshine. Apparently the previous day's weather had been atypical, and our lack of sun cream was actually a bad idea. We managed to find some trees to shade under, and climbed a bunch of 4s and 5s, which were longer but more ledgey than the routes from the previous day. The crag itself was virtually empty, and the setting was stunning, looking out over Calpe and the Peñón. As with many of the crags here you can pretty much start at one end, and climb route after route, until you reach the other end. If you're looking for a venue for mileage, there's plenty to keep you going on the Costa Blanca.

Olta View of Peñón from Olta

Olta & View of the Peñón from Olta

That evening we watched the sun set from a little jetty in the middle of the bay. It really is a beautiful part of the world.


Sunset from the beach

For our third day we decided to try a route on the Peñón. It's such an obvious challenge, sitting in the bay, sticking up about a thousand feet almost straight out of the sea. 


Peñón d'Ifach

After an early start, waking at sunrise, we approached the route we had chosen, Diedre UBSA, and the seriousness dawned on us. Once we reached the end of the paved path and started to walk under the imposing cliffs, we decided that it would be prudent to wear our helmets while walking up to the base of the route. There was a lot of broken rock on the ground, which wasn't very well settled. It looked like the rock was continually falling from the cliff, meaning that footpaths didn't have chance to develop. I hadn't banked on this level of looseness, but we racked up, and started up the first "scramble" pitch. This pitch was exceptionally loose, polished, and devoid of any gear (almost certainly the reason it is described as a scramble). Fortunately the belay was a double bolt belay in good rock, on a large ledge with a bit of protection overhead.

Approaching the Peñón 1st pitch on Diedre UBSA

Our day on the Peñón

After bringing Stacey up to join me, I set off on the second pitch, which I have since described as the lead of my life. An awkward traverse, with very little gear, polished footholds, but a few chalky holds led the way into the groove. After placing some dodgy cams on flexing flakes I pulled through some steep bulges and got into the groove proper, fortunately finding a few bolts to ease my concerns. I carried on up the groove, finding easy climbing on large holds, but worrying all the while that many of them wobbled and could easily come off. At times I had hold of two wobbly jugs, and was standing on two crumbling footholds. This was totally alien to me. Having climbed mostly on gritstone for the past 5 years, not having to deal with loose rock, I was out of my comfort zone. We were unprepared and felt like we had bitten off more than we could chew. Arriving at the belay after the second pitch I was relieved to find another double bolt belay, and was pretty much resigned to the fact that we were going to bail. Once Stacey had joined me I voiced my concerns and she agreed we should go back down.

Having only brought a single rope we had to abseil each pitch on its own. A few weeks ago I had been a guinea pig for a friend, who wanted a quick refresh before his MIA assessment. Stacked abseils was one of the topics which I hadn't really covered before, but it was now proving to be hugely useful for us to descend safely and efficiently. Once back on terra firma we decided to have a chilled out afternoon on the beach skimming stones, eating lunch, and splashing about in the freezing cold water. We also went for a quick (and I mean super quick) dip in the villa's swimming pool to escape from the heat of the midday sun.

That evening we spent about 2 hours searching for a proper Spanish restaurant. We were keen to have paella for dinner and after much googling and wandering around the streets we found one (El Andaluz) which was offering paella de mariscos on its menu board outside. We were in like a shot. We ordered the food, and a couple of beers, and while we waited the barmaid gave us a small tapas-like snack, and some bread with aioli (I love this stuff). We devoured everything which was presented to us, including a couple of free drinks which were brought out to us (probably a way of finishing a bottle of something they can't sell), which was nice, if a little strong.

Paella de marsicos Sierra de Toix

Paella de mariscos & Sierra de Toix 2

For our last full day we headed back to the Far Oeste sector of Sierra de Toix, and started at the far right hand end of the crag. We ticked off most of the routes, up to about 6a, and finished off the routes which we hadn't quite managed on the previous visit. It was a far more pleasant environment climbing in the sun.

That evening we headed round to Moraira to visit a friend of Stacey's, and enjoy a less touristy town. Residents Alex and Lisa showed us a nice bar for a quick drink, before heading to a local restaurant for amazing tapas and wine. It would be an even better place to have a holiday than Calpe, but the climbing is a slightly further drive.

For our last day in Spain we had chosen a late flight so that we could find somewhere to go climbing on the way back to the airport. Echo Valley was an obvious choice. It wasn't too far from the motorway and the walk in was impressively short. Also as the car was full of all our kit, being able to see it was advantageous. After climbing one fairly unpleasant 4, we decided just to climb a whole bunch of 3s as quickly and efficiently as possible. I think in the half hour we had left we managed to both lead three of the four. It was a fun way to end the holiday.

Echo Valley

Echo Valley

I would like to thank a few suppliers for their generosity, without which this holiday would have been far less enjoyable. Most of all thanks to DMM who supplied me with a sample of an amazing new rucksack (a review of which will be coming soon) whose lightweight gear helped to keep our luggage under the weight threshold, and whose harness I wore in sublime comfort. Secondly to Lyon equipment who loaned us a few items of Petzl equipment: one of their new Tikka RXP head torches (light and bright enough to take with us at all times "just in case"), their new Sirocco helmet (so light and comfortable, we both wore them even when doing short sport routes!), and the newish Grigri 2. Thanks also to Cordee for finding a copy of the guidebook, and getting it to us in time, and finally to Rab for being extremely helpful in our purchase of a down jacket. Despite the temperature reaching 18 degrees C in the daytime, the night temperatures were cold enough to justify packing them.

Drew Withey works at Outside Hathersage

By Drew Withey
Footwear Sales

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