Scottish winter 2018

As I write this it’s 25 °C in Manchester, Northern England. It’s wall-to-wall sunshine, a Wonderwall of sunsh-ee-iiine (there’s some local music for you). This is freak weather. It is bizarre, not usual, out of the ordinary. And this winter was the same, bringing prolonged amazing climbing conditions. Here’s some of the highlights of what I got up to this winter.

January

Liz and I snuck in a quick ascent of Pinnacle Ridge and Sharp Edge in the Lakes in early January. Blue skies all round and good snow: quality.

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Sharp Edge

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Blencathra.

 

I was then whisked off to the USA with work and the bizarre Ouray Ice Festival. It’s amazing, scary and brilliant in equal measure. Real ice, but man-made with sprinklers, and top-rope lines everywhere.

It’s a great way to practice ice climbing and to get pumped out of your mind in relative safety, as long as you keep an eye on potential falling ice as you belay!

Ice climbing comps and watching heroes like Will Gadd was a great bonus.

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Will Gadd tops out on the comp route.

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An amazing sand/snow mountain thing on the way from Ouray to Denver.

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Ouray ice festival in fresh snow.

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Me getting seriously pumped on a long and steep WI6.

 

Back to Scotland

Next, a backpack and Munro-bag of the five Lochnagar Munros was on the cards, staying at the Glas-Allt-Shiel bothy. The weather was dank, it was warm, but we marched round and were rewarded with great views as we neared the Stuic.

 

One of the highlights of the winter was climbing Crowberry Gully in perfect conditions.

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Into the bowels of Crowberry Gully: amazing atmosphere.

Loads of people climbed it this winter but Ross and I got lucky and we were the only people on the route. The weather was mixed but it wasn’t too bad and the perfect neve more than made up for it. Tim Neill had told us we only needed one ice screw: we thought that maybe he did, but we probably needed two. However, he was right and conditions were so good we only placed about 6 pieces of gear on the whole route. The descent was a little complex as a cornice prevented access into the normal descent gully, but the rib to the north was okay, though some windslab was about.

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Pete gets stuck into the second pitch

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I took this from the floor because I’d already been blown off my feet. Windy.

A savage day climbing in the Norries a few days later was had on the Seam. Very strong winds, loads of spindrift, thick rime, and plummeting temperatures (this was Beast from the East time) meant getting out of there as quickly as possible. I’m not sure whether it was the weather or the conditions or both, but it felt more like grade V, 6 than IV, 5, and Pete who’d had the debatable pleasure of leading the top pitch agreed.

Back up North

Long-suffering partner Paul and I found ourselves in Scotland on a weekend where conditions were difficult: avalanche conditions were relatively high and yet the weather forecast was good, and climbing conditions were difficult to interpret with little info online and a lot of aspects unsuitable due to the amount of snow about. Following endless discussions we got on Scabbard Chimney.

The walk-in (wade-in) to Stob Coire nan Lochan had taken us an hour longer than usual, and I was very glad that Paul was very fit and very keen to wade up to his waist to reach the climb itself. I walked behind in his footprints/bodyprints, pretending it was hard for me too.

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A very white Stob Coire nan Lochan.

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Paul gets established on the first/second pitch.

The first pitch was largely buried so Paul got stuck into pitch 2 and made quick work of it – just as well as it wasn’t the place for hanging about. He got pounded by spindrift on his ascent, completely disappearing for minutes at a time. It was a good lead.

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Me on the crux corner (Photo Copyright Paul).

I had the next pitch, somehow being lumped with the crux. I took my time, teetering up on poor feet but with generally good hooks. The clearing was exhausting, though, and it took forever: about six inches of rime covered everything. It was probably a 90 minute lead for 25 metres.

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Me still battling and digging (Photo Copyright Paul).

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The brilliant upper ridge: if the weather’s good I’d highly recommend making the effort to top out on Stob Coire nan Lochan – it’s a great day out.

Being mountaineers and not climbers we opted to finish the route and we were so glad we did: the weather cleared and the upper gully and then the upper alpine-style ridge rewarded us with stunning skies. Perhaps my favourite climb of the winter, on a long and tiring day.

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Summit shot.

The next day we tackled Eastern Slant near Stob Coire nan Lochan (good option if lots of snow about and it’s cold: relies on frozen turf) the next day we headed to Ben Nevis for a short day. I led the first pitch of Vanishing Gully before Paul – a few minutes after saying he struggles placing ice screws one-handed – made quick work of despatching the crux second pitch. It’s a great route and the second pitch is plump-vertical for the first few metres, it’s the steepest bit of ice I’ve climbed in Scotland. We abseiled off and made our way to the cave belay for the second abseil – a far better proposition than abseiling off the peg belay.

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Vanishing Gully second pitch.

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The cave belay.

Late season

Later in the season the conditions were still great and along with Comb Gully in frankly ridiculous spindrift – the worst I’ve ever experienced – Scott, Ross and I climbed the CIC icefall. What an amazing piece of ice! It was dripping as we climbed it and we probably got it on the last few days of which it was climbable. A great low-level option on the Ben.

 

Liz and I climbed Twisting Gully in Glencoe on a great low-stress day where the only real difficulties were found at the cornice, which with a lot of digging by me got taken care of. The next day was one of the best I’d ever had: on an Easter with a good forecast Scotland was busy, but we headed to a deserted Glen Sheil to tackle the Forcan Ridge.

In terms of aesthetics and classical Alpine-style ridges, I think it’s superior to any of the Great Ridges on Ben Nevis, better than the Aonach Eagach: it’s just stunning.

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The first part of the Forcan Ridge.

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Like Castor or Pollux, but without the faff of altitude.

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Views of Skye and Rum.

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The Forcan Ridge goes on for a long while, it just keeps coming. We carried and used a ~40 metre half-rope for moving together, but we weren’t sure it would be long enough for the abseil once we reached it. However, there is a route down on the left (facing towards the summit of the Saddle) which, while quite tricky and a bit loose, wasn’t too bad and looked more tempting than the technical down-climb on the right hand side.

Excluding the top-rope lines in America I climbed 16 graded winter climbs this year (8 of which were grade IV or above) and bagged plenty of Munros too. That’s a record for me, in a winter which broke plenty of records.

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Even when the weather’s grim there’s light ahead. You might just have to wait a while.

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2017 round up

It’s the time for New Year’s Resolutions, goals, all that sort of stuff. But who actually looks at what they got up to last year? Surely planning goals is pointless if you don’t then think about if you achieved them…?

Winter climbing

My winter climbing objectives were modest in the extreme. They were something along the line of ‘do some nice routes and have some great days out’. How could I fail? The weather and one of the worst winter Scottish seasons in recent memory put paid to hopes of Styrofoam ice and blue skies, but I managed a couple of decent days out. The highlight was a day out with the Hiking Club taking a couple of guys out doing some easier winter climbs and generally doing a lot of miles on semi-technical terrain. We had fantastic weather the first day and good snow in the Nevis gullies. Other great days were had out on Kinder Scout – it was freezing, it might as well have been the moon for all the similarities to the normal ‘tame’ Peak District – the Aonach Eagach under blue skies, Munro bagging from a (very) remote Air B&B, and a fun day out in the Norries too. So, ‘tick’ on the fun Scottish winter season, despite the very mild winter.

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Blasting up and down Number 3 and Number 4 gully on the Ben.

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Kinder Scout on a seriously cold day.

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Classic gully action in the Cairngorms.

Cycling

I had a lot of cycling objectives for this year, a lot of which were pretty ambitious. I’d improved more as a cyclist in 2016 than I thought possible, and there was still tonnes of room for getting better.

The terrible winter cycling season was a big blessing for cycling as there were only a couple of nights where I couldn’t ride due to ice. It also meant the normal weight gain borne of winter climbing didn’t really materialise.

My big objectives were:

  • Find this year’s spring training camp a bit easier than last year. Don’t just get absolutely smashed every day.
  • Complete the Fred Whitton for Paul’s stag do and ride every single bit of it (no pushing).
  • Complete the Etape du Dales in under 7 hours (Gold).
  • Beat my PB on the local hilly TT course.
  • Compete in a local flat time trial.
  • Get a Strava KOM on a fairly decent local segment, not just some crap one.

From January onwards my cycling was getting better and better. I had an amazing reliability ride in Leeds where I felt like I could pull all day on the front and then when breaks went I kept reeling people back in. Only in the last five miles was I starting to tire. That was a good sign for the spring training camp.

The spring training camp was also great. Run by the absolute monster that is Pete Barusevicus at Arrivee Travel, I’d been on the camp last year in Spain and while it was hugely enjoyable and inspirational, it also mind-blowingly hard. Almost just too hard for me. This year I had more miles in the legs, more experience, a better bike, and better tactics. It was a brilliant week and I left it feeling super strong, as opposed to just completely wasted.

If you want to improve as a rider then I can think of no better way to progress, as well as getting a whole heap of inspiration.

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Not your typical bunch of overweight cyclists.

The Fred Whitton was a funny objective as until it was mentioned as a stag do idea I had no desire to ride it. However, on the day it was mega. I rode it with good mates and within myself.

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Paul at the top of Hardknott on a training recce.

Regarding gearing for the Fred, I’ve heard all sorts of weird things mentioned by various people…

 

Firstly, Hardknott is really hard. It’s an exceptionally difficult climb at the best of times, and with 100 miles in your legs it really is very tough.

It’s a totally difficult league to anything I’ve ridden in the Peak or even the Dales. On the day itself I rode it on 30×25, which is a gear I’ve never had trouble getting up anything with. However, that day was hard and I had to dig deep. However, it’s absolutely possible to ride Hardknott on a way bigger gear. On a training recce I rode it on 36×28 with 50 miles in the legs, and someone strong could ride it on 36×25 no problem. Some could ride it on 39×25 but that just sounds savage. So, for people who tell you 34×28 is minimum it’s just not true as long as you’re willing to suffer a bit and have the legs to back it up. I was pretty tired after the Fred but had 7 days to recover before the real deal…

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Going up Honister on the Fred. It had been cold first thing – overshoes – but by this point was getting pretty warm. Ideal conditions basically.

The Etape du Dales was my biggest objective of the year. It was, above all else, the thing I’d been training for. However, I almost totally screwed up on the day by getting my tactics wrong. As with many tough sportives, strong riders often set off late and then try to see how many parties they can catch on the way round the course. I got there a bit late and decided I’d just join the strong guys. Meeting Andy Cunningham (7th in national hill climbing champs, multiple hill climb records, all round animal) who I knew well from the Spring training camps was an ominous sign for what was about to go down. I set off a few minutes ahead of Andy and the Harrogate Nova guys who currently hold the course record, just to make sure I wasn’t racing hard out of the gate. About 20 minutes later I was caught by the Nova train and then immediately we were on to Fleet Moss, the first big climb of the day. I climbed alongside Andy, cresting the hill just behind him.

The big difference between us was that he was cruising, but I was absolutely dying behind my sunglasses.

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Trying to hold on to the flying Andy.

We screamed down the hill and while some guys stopped at the first checkpoint I kept rolling to try and recover from the onslaught a bit. I rode steadily up Buttertubs and down Swaledale but then the train was back and we were screaming out of Swaledale on one of the ‘unknown’ viscous climbs of the day.

I was hurting hard as we went through and off into a fearsome headwind, and soon I was missing my turns.

Miles of headwind followed and I was dropped from the group. This was where the problems started. My big issue was that no one who we’d caught could work for me, basically nobody was going quick enough for me to still finish in under 7 hours. So I worked like a dog into the wind, feeling sick and with no one coming through and a growing group of people following my wheel as I picked up riders ahead. At the next check point I was in trouble but I ate a lot, drank a lot, and didn’t rush. Then I was back on the road, still riding effectively solo. About an hour later though and I got a good partnership going with a strong rider, and we each worked hard to the final checkpoint, which I rode straight past. I had an hour for the last 20 miles, and by now I had a tailwind. It was still possible to make the time gap, but it would be balls out. I rode as hard as I could for the last hour, now completely on my own, and screamed into the finish knowing it’d be super close. I’d managed it with a minute to spare. I was delighted. It was the hardest ride I’d ever done given how I’d had to ride it: as hard as I could basically all day.­­

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The Etape du Dales. A hard day out.

Following the training camp I managed to get a KOM without too much difficulty. I found a great segment locally that favoured me – hilly but requiring multiple efforts with a bit of recovery between them – and which had no big hitters who’d yet ridden it hard. I rode at 180 bpm for 7 minutes and got the KOM. Another tick in the box!

I rode the flat TT – a pretty simple objective completed – but rode it badly so wasn’t particularly satisfied. As for the other TT, well that effectively marked the end of my cycling for the year. Overloaded and possibly with a bad bike setup I was in a bad way as I rode the TT and despite putting in a time on the way out which would have smashed my previous best my knee felt bad on the way back and so I abandoned. More on that below…

Running

For running I had two objectives: beat my long-standing 5k PB, and to do that bit better in some local fell races. I managed both of these, but not through doing any training! My fitness from all the cycling translated well into fell running fitness and I placed 12th, 14th, and 14th in the three races I did. I was very pleased with that and it was a big improvement over the top 25 finishes I’d been getting in previous years. My 5k PB fell when I came back from the Alps: I thought two weeks of altitude would have done my running fitness no harm, and so I set off to try and break 19.08. On an unfamiliar but flat Parkrun course I furiously tried to stay with the strong woman ahead of me, but she eventually pulled away. However, nearing the final bend I looked at my watch and could barely believe the time: I was going to do it! 18.53 was the official result, 15 seconds off my previous best. That was a good Saturday morning.

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Liz on a sunny training run round Langdale.

As an aside, back in Feburuary I managed to find a suitably niche event that I could do fairly well at. It was a duathlon which combined cross country running with a punchy bike course, and it was all over in just over an hour which is perfect for me. I was fourth in both running legs but third on the bike and so came second overall. The winner was super strong, being fastest on the bike (he was a Cat 2 rider) and second quickest runner too. That was my best ever position in a solo race, so I was psyched.

Climbing

My climbing objectives were pretty poorly defined. However, I’ve had the best climbing year I can remember, so that turned out to be no bad thing. I’m never going to be a good climber, partly because – unlike with cycling and running – I’m not particularly driven by pure performance and am more into it for good times. The other reason is I don’t train properly and am a big wuss.

However, I’ve had a lot of fun climbing this year, which definitely counts for something.

I’ve climbed amazing routes all over the UK and some spectacular routes in the Alps too. A day bouldering with good mates at Burbage, climbing 400 metres of bolted granite in the Alps in under 3 hours, Northumberland rock, loads of gritstone, Pembroke… it’s been awesome. I’ve also done a lot more plastic pulling than in previous years, and for the first time ever have learnt to enjoy indoor leading. I’ve always enjoyed indoor bouldering, but indoor leading makes you a lot fitter, rather than just stronger. That’s definitely helped on longer routes.

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The Cobbler. A fantastic mountain in a fantastic setting.

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Climbing at Peel Crag and Crag Lough: totally fantastic and yet deserted!

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Belay duty for Ross in the Alps.

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Liz gets to work on a pretty steep Pembroke VS.

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Dave Macleod: inspiration personified.

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That moment when you’re trying really hard but your spotters don’t seem to care.

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The end of a great day out.

Injuries

The above list reads like a huge line of successes, and I suppose it has been. I’ve ticked every objective that I had for the year with one major exception. My first objective was ‘don’t get injured’. It’s always my first objective, it’s always impossible, but this year’s been worse than most. In January I had a back injury but that’s now cleared up thanks to some excellent physio, a lot of core exercises to turn off my previously inactive deep abdominals, a lot of hamstring stretching, and a bit of fiddling over the bike setup. However, the big one which I’ve now had since about May-time is in my right knee. Broadly speaking it’s patellofemoral pain, and it’s a pain in the arse. Knee. I’ve not ridden my bike apart from to work for over 6 months now, and haven’t run save for the odd jog for the same time. However, it doesn’t affect climbing or hill walking one bit, which is partly why they’ve prospered. A lot of physio, two professional bike fits, and literally hundreds of hours of stretching haven’t fixed it yet, but it is slowly, oh so slowly, getting better. I think a combination of factors including overload and bad bike setup caused it, but it’s been a massive downer for the second half of the year. Objective for 2018? Simple: fix my knee.

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A bonus winter day: a great way to finish the year’s big days out was a day out on North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor. A long day, but a good one.