Saturday, 21 February 2015

Runner or climber?

I suppose this post is mainly just for me, but of course you're more than welcome to come along if you're interested. It's neither a race report nor any sort of technical thinking or philosophy. Just a bit of wandering and reminiscing and musing if you like. And it will probably turn out quite long (well, very long I suspect) so be warned.

The thought started around last Christmas I think, when I was looking back over 2014.  If you've dipped into my blog before, you may know that I took up running when a job posting took me to the Netherlands in 1999, after being a climber for most of my life. I still carried on climbing whenever I could  during this exile, then more regularly on my return to the UK in 2006. Retirement in 2007 gave me time to pursue both sports more consistently, but in 2014 I only tied onto a rope on two occasions, and I wondered why. Have I changed from a climber who runs to a runner who climbs? Or both, or neither?

Descending Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra, on the "Lakes in a Day " ultra, 2014

If you look back over the archive of this blog you'll find plenty of tales about running, and I hope some insights into why I do it. Nothing about climbing though, so I'll attempt to redress the balance just a bit. 

Climbing Black Slab, Stanage Edge in Derbyshire, in 1965

It was on a junior school outing to the Three Counties Show at Malvern, when my first ever view of the Malvern Hills seemed to fill the entire front window of the bus, that I suppose I knew that hills were going to be important. Hillwalking with friends in my teens lead to a first rock climb and I was hooked. Three years at university in the Fens only reinforced that I really needed to live near the hills, so I chose Liverpool for my postgraduate research mainly (but not entirely, I like to think) because of its proximity to Snowdonia, and that's when it really started in a bigger way. But I think the best way to give a flavour of my subsequent wanderings in the sport is to reprint an article I wrote for a mountaineering club journal in 1999. If you're a climber you'll probably know the venues involved; if you're a runner who has been to Scotland and Chamonix you'll maybe understand. I've put a couple of notes (in brackets) here and there in case it helps, and scattered some random photos from over the years (not necessarily connected to the text!) to break things up a bit.......

"Playing in the Second XV

To start with it was all about ambition. Fired with enthusiasm by Joe Brown's book, and guided by James, Rebuffat and Wilson, I had worked my way from Cenotaph Corner to the Walker Spur and many in between. After fifteen years climbing I had a lot of ticks, but also by then a time-consuming job, a young family and the dilemma of what to do next  -  carry on fitting the rest of my life around mountaineering, or quit while I was ahead.

With typical decisiveness I did neither; I couldn't really find the time for climbing but I couldn't give it up. So the next fifteen years were characterised by long lay-offs, snatched days or long weekends, a precious week in the summer and a constant struggle with fitness that rarely matched the game plan. But the "second fifteen" has in many ways brought higher rewards than the more active earlier years; not necessarily the achievement but the day out, the craic, the adventure, maybe just the fun of this rather irresponsible and unproductive game we play....

Shrike on Clogwyn d'ur Arddu in the 1970's
A stance on the Walker Spur, Grand Jorasses, Chamonix

On the Night Shift  (winter climbing in Glen Coe and Ben Nevis)

"Teachers Week" as the February half term was known to those of us who had to break into our meagre 22 day holiday allowance to join in for a day or two, was becoming unbearable. Breakfast in the dark, slither round the icy roads and sprint for the route, to end up fourth in the queue waiting on insecure, cramped stances while those above chopped ice on your head.

I was beginning to think that the whole business wasn't worth the effort, when one not quite fine day we stumbled on the remedy by chance. A walk up the Allt a'Mhuilin was halted just above the CIC hut due to our inability to stand upright on the path because of the wind. We descended disconsolately for a lunchtime pint in Fort William. Driving back to base in Glen Coe, Paul mused "Aonach Dubh looks good from here", to which Chas added "and the wind seems to be dropping". We stopped the car for a better look. I'm not really sure how the decision was made, but somehow we had donned boots, grabbed rucsacks and were off up the hill. It was after one o'clock.

By the time we got to Gulley Six it was deserted. Moving quickly, we caught up with some stragglers just finishing the last ice pitch but otherwise had a completely clear run. It was wonderful. We topped out just in time for sunset and stumbled back down to the car feeling pleased with ourselves. Gulley Five on the same cliff followed in similar style next day, and after that it was time to put our new approach to timetabling to a real test.

After a leisurely breakfast we parked at the golf club around 8.30am on a cold and perfect day, and reached the foot of Observatory Ridge some three and a half hours later. It's a long climb and still no pushover even with modern gear, but our team of four had a memorable and completely unencumbered afternoon kicking, pulling and teetering our way up the route. We reached the easy upper reaches of Zero Gulley in the last rays of the setting sun, and by the time we reached the plateau it was truly dark. As far as we could see (!) we were completely alone. A whimsical thought was voiced "Hey, we're the highest people in Britain" and a camera was produced to record the event.

We sloped off down the Red Burn to the halfway lochan, where I remembered from previous visits that the bearing back to the dam above the golf course is just about due North. Feeling by now like real night-time travellers, we left the compass in the sack, latched onto the Pole Star, and headed out across the frozen moor.

In the Couturier Coulour, Aiguille Verte, Chamonix

Swiss granite, Motorhead on Eldorado at Handegg

 The Pit and the Pendulum  (the Aiguilles du Diable Ridge on Mt Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix)

A grey dawn found us on the final ropelength up to the Diable ridge, where we were met by a cold wind. Shrugging into our collars, we set off across the pinnacles. This wasn't the sun-baked rock we had romped up a few days earlier on the Cordier Pillar before the bad weather came; though only grade four this was high, cold and hard. Brush snow from holds, move up slowly, repeat four or five times, pause for hot aches to return feeling to fingers, continue, slow but steady. Several ups and downs further on, a late breakfast on top of the Pointe Mediane saw the appearance of a watery sun, but he was still losing the battle to the clouds that swirled around.

All the books warn about the abseil from the Mediane. Assuming this meant you can get the rope stuck we prepared with care and down went the rope; we couldn't see where it went. Abseiling scares me even when I can see where I'm going, too much like having all your eggs in one basket, so Malcolm looks after me by going first on the worrying ones. For reasons which would only complicate the plot, we hadn't equipped ourselves with descendeurs on this trip, so he looped the rope over his shoulder and disappeared. A few moments of silence were followed by a strained "shit a brick!" floating up. Hanging from the anchor, I daisy-chained the sundry slings left to me and leaned out to survey the scene.

Malcolm had missed the landing point, a knife-edged snow crest, by a good ten feet, and was dangling free, rotating slowly, above what could only be described accurately as a Black Hole, formed by a deep, steep gulley and a large capping boulder. By a great effort he managed to get the rope to start swinging, and after what seemed like a very long time but was probably only two or three minutes, he managed to lodge himself on the snow crest. Excitement over, he found a belay, I slid down to join him, and we relaxed.

Without thinking too hard I started to pull down the rope and almost immediately it jammed solid. A quick curse, a longer look, and the true nature of our predicament became only too apparent. We had abseiled maybe 80 feet. The rope I was pulling went from me, up to the anchor above and then directly downwards ten feet out in space and into the depths of the Black Hole, which was clearly where it was jammed. We now had control of less than a quarter of our 300 feet of rope, and no amount of tugging or twitching at the end we had could change the situation.

The solution was obvious of course. As Malcolm lowered me into it, I discovered that the only face of the Black Hole which didn't overhang consisted of holdless, verglassed slabs, interspersed with short roofs which I bumped over at intervals. Just as the rope ran out, I reached the jam in the other end; six inches from the end it was neatly held fast in a perfect rock vee in the darkness. Climbing out of the dungeon was impossible, especially as I'd left my crampons back up on the snow crest, so the resulting prussic was long, cold and tough on the knuckles. When I got back to the top, the abseil from the Mediane had taken over two hours, but we were back more or less in control.

Hours later, up and over the Tacul, wearied by the climb, the weather and the "affaire Mediane", we made our way oh so slowly up the last few hundred feet of snow ridge towards the Aiguille de Midi summit. Those who have been there at the end of a long day will understand. Out of the mists above, a badly distorted loudspeaker announced "La derniere telepherique................en cinque minutes".  Our boots grew wings, and we flew.

NE Face of the Piz Badile (Cassin Route) - a 60th birthday treat in 2008

N Ridge on the same mountain (Piz Badile), 33 years earlier!

The Peak 14 (a club meet devised as an antidote to the annual outing over the "14 peaks"  - the Welsh 3000's)

 The idea was probably contrived to get one back on "the walkers", wizened, grey-bearded men who appeared each year in the Aber dawn, loped off over the Carneddau and were not seen again until many hours later in the pub (twelve or less for them, sometimes fifteen or more for me). To tip the balance back rock climbing would be required, so the plan was to walk the 14 Eastern gritstone edges, climbing a classic VS on each along the way. It sounded a good day out and I drove down from Yorkshire to join the meet at the Robin Hood on Saturday morning. By the time I arrived the ever-competitive Chairman Eldridge had turned it into a race against the clock, with bonus points for grades and star ratings. "And" he added significantly, "the others have over an hour's start already!".

It didn't begin well. Parking at Cutthroat Bridge we made our way wetly over the moor to a dripping Derwent Edge. Our chosen VS definitely didn't look inviting for starters, so we made do with the severe Brown Windsor (since that time upgraded to VS!) and turned tail. Bushwhacking through the bracken to Bamford Edge we were aware that the rain had stopped and the sky was brightening. Quien Sabe seemed almost pleasant in the improving conditions and we realised the deal might just be on. By Stanage we had devised a system so we put it into practice on Goliath's Groove  -  leader dons rockboots while second uncoils the rope; leader climbs to halfway while second gets boots on; leader places "the runner" and carries on to the top, now belayed; second follows with sack; coil up, pack up and away  -  the whole thing had taken rather less than ten minutes, and as we trotted off along the top the watching galleries appeared amazed.

The File at Higgar Tor and Knight's Move on Burbage North came and went, and by Byne's Crack on Burbage South we were moving through the field (about a dozen CMC stalwarts had started this enterprise). Malcolm led the Mall at Millstone in fine style and I shot up Excalibur at Lawrencefield, unable to rest, place runners or even pause without uncurling fingers, thanks to the latest three-month lay-off. Tea and buns at Grindleford station helped, as did the absence of a VS on the next crag, though Tegness Pinnacle still gave us an entertaining summit. For tiring muscles, Sunset Slab on Froggatt was much more my style, which left Malcolm with the thuggery on Bel Ami at Curbar. Into the home stretch now and I celebrated by falling off, ten feet up Och Aye Wall at Gardoms. Luckily the ground broke my fall and Malcolm selflessly refused to take over, arguing that my confidence would benefit by returning to the fray immediately. The last bit of uphill brought us to Birchens and the classic Topsail, and it was almost in the bag. Walking past the door of the Robin Hood en route to the last crag required some willpower, but we held on and made it to Chatsworth Edge just as the heavens opened. This gave us the excuse we needed to race up the easy Choked Crack and get back to the pub, some twelve and a half hours after setting out. The beer was never better.

With daughter Julia (age 12) in the Vallee Blanche, Chamonix

Last day on the Haute Route, Chamonix to Zermatt

 Brave New World  (Pointe Gugliermina on the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, above Courmayeur)

I had always wanted to try the Gervasutti Pillar on the Gugliermina, described by Rebuffat as "undoubtedly the most difficult route done in the Mont Blanc Range before the war", and one fine day we climbed the Aiguille Croux to get a better look. The approach to the Pillar from the Monzino hut goes over the Col de l'Innominata behind the Croux and across the tortuous Freney Glacier to the Schneider ledges at the foot of the face. We intended to bivouac on these ledges as, according to the current English guidebook, "a confident party can leave their bivouac gear here".

On top of the Croux we chatted to a French guide about our plans, and together we traced the line of the route, laid out before us on the far side of the glacier. He pointed out what he felt was the best descent from the Gugliermina summit back to the Schneider ledges. It seemed very roundabout, and why, we asked, should we not come down the obvious snow-filled Schneider Couloir? "Because", he said, "you will be wearing your rockshoes".

Now this was news to us. Climbing in the Alps had always meant big boots, big rucsacks and bivvies. Rockshoes were kept in their proper place, at home in England. The pre-war greats, our guide friend mused, would be amazed at how we treat their epic climbs, like roadside playgrounds, fun in the sun. And the bivouac on the Schneider ledges? "Not at all necessary  -  you will go from the hut, back in the day."  Back at the Monzino that afternoon we pondered the situation. Should we really be adding another six hours activity to a trip which we were already unsure of completing in a day? And the rockshoes were out, as we didn't have any. Still, if that's what the boys do nowadays........

At 4am we threw cameras and water bottles into our sacks and burned off into the starlight. The Pillar was magical, the climbing sustained and elegant, the weather perfect, the freedom without the heavy rucsack intoxicating. The ultra-light bivouac on the Col de l'Innominata on the way back, when we realised we could go no further, was something else. But the corner was turned, next year we brought the rockshoes.

Climbing in Morocco
Fun rock in the Ailefroid, France

Rock Around the Loch  (rock climbing in Scotland)

Summer had come and gone with no climbing so when Mike Dennis suggested a few days in Scotland in mid September I agreed at once. I seem to climb a lot with ex-Chairmen of the CMC, they don't necessarily perform any better than you or me but their contacts are always good. We had a leisurely drive up and pitched our tent by the side of Loch Morlich. That night the water bottles froze.

The first day was scheduled as an easy introduction (on account of my general unfitness), so we winged our way up the Cairngorm chairlift, slid down the other side and on to the Shelter Stone and its Needle. Mike offered to lead the first pitch, not realising that this meant I got all the good ones, the Hanging Rib, the Crux, the Crack for Thin Fingers and so on. I was tiring however by the time I engaged the final steep crack and Mike was forced to be very patient while I struggled. He got his own back on the very last pitch by craftily untying and threading one rope behind all the chockstones, a topological problem my brain couldn't cope with for several minutes when I reached it  -  I found him chuckling quietly to himself on the top. Slogging back to the top of Cairngorm, we declared ourselves knackered but probably competent enough for a good week.

From then on we wandered about the place enjoying exciting drives, long walks to big remote crags, great climbs, good weather and probably more than our fair share of beer. In two days at the Dubh Loch we saw one other party, on the other crags we visited, none. On a "rest " day we played on Creag Dubh at Newtonmore, where Mike led me up the bold Haston route "The Hill", but the whole mood of the holiday was encapsulated perfectly by our day out to the West coast..

I had fancied The Big Top ever since I saw Brown and Bonington squelching their way up it on the TV all those years ago, but Mike had already done it so we settles on Trapeze instead. We scrambled up to the foot of what we had by now come to expect  -  a big deserted crag in the sunshine. I quickly rattled up the short crux corner and we thought it was all over. Not so, for this time the plum was ready for Mike to pick;  the penultimate pitch, a full ropelength, always testing, never desperate, almost enough protection, and surely one of the most perfectly positioned bits of climbing in Scotland. We sunbathed on the summit and eventually set off down. As we dropped down the last rocks to the scree, I remarked that all we needed to complete the day was a shower and a good meal. "Well, there's the shower" said Mike, pointing to a waterfall a few yards away, falling free from an overhang to a pool twenty feet below. A minute later, we were in.

Mike knew a man (he always does) who had just opened a restaurant in Inchree.  Now clean, but still in our ragtag climbing clothes, we wandered into this rather smart place and were welcomed like family. The poached salmon was superb, and, as it was Mike's turn at the wheel, the return to Aviemore not even a  memory.

The place to oneself in Kyrgyzstan

Goodbye to All That  (Route Major on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc)

We bivouacced in traditional style at the Sentinelle Rouge and scuttled across the Great Couloir by starlight. We hit the crest of the ridge to the dawn of a perfect day, cold underfoot, cloudless and completely calm. As we drifted up the ice aretes, we could see Eric Escoffier and friends engaged in some deep play on the Eckpfeiler, but between them and the steady procession up the Old Brenva route we had the whole huge face to ourselves in the silence. At the rock step we ignored the modern full frontal and followed Smythe and Brown down to the right, round and up, like a Scottish gulley in the sunshine. The serac barrier was easy that year, the top slopes tedious, and we arrived in some time at the summit. We lingered, brewed up, savoured the scene, reflected on other climbs, other days. There was no hurry that afternoon, just some sort of understanding that this was probably the last of the Alpinism in us. We started down.

Two years later we were back, on the North side of Les Droites; but that, as they say,  is another story."

On Cathedral Peak in the Sierra Nevada, California

On El Capitan in Yosemite

Of course in my third fifteen years I carried on climbing as the family grew up and I had more time again. Half a dozen visits to the Yosemite valley, Springs or Autumns on the sunny rocks in Spain, Italy, Croatia;  occasional summers in the Alps still, and an expedition to Kyrgyzstan to bag a peak of one's own; Snowdonia, the Lakes, the Peak, and all the other climbing areas in Britain were still there. As with most technical sports, the gear gets better year on year so one's declining abilities are quite well disguised.

Until last year. Two evening's climbing. Even now, I'm not sure why. Maybe I was preoccupied by the injuries that somewhat messed up my running year, maybe I was just ready for a year off, I don't know. But this rather indulgent trip down memory lane has definitely conjured up some enthusiasm for getting going again, so I think this year the rope will come out a bit more often.

Islands in a sea of cloud
A week or so ago I went down to Wales with a friend from my climbing club. We were meeting a local builder at our hut in Llanberis to discuss some repairs we need on the roof of the building. Business concluded by lunchtime, we decided that as we were there, we shouldn't waste the rest of the day so we spent the afternoon on a walk up Snowdon. It was a day of low mist and general murk when we set out, typical Wales in February, but the exercise would no doubt do us good. Just above Halfway House we came out of the mist into a perfect inversion covering the whole landscape and the next couple of hours or so turned the day from ordinary to memorable. Above about 2000ft the hills were covered in a later of hard neve, the sun shone and the air was almost perfectly still. We lingered on Snowdon summit for half an hour, picking out islands in the sea of cloud. Moel Hebog, the Nantlle Ridge, the Moelwyns, the Rhinogs, Cadair Idris, and was that even Plynlimon far away on the Southern horizon?  We had intended to come down the long rollercoaster ridge to Moel Eilio, but another opportunity just to sit and gaze on the top of Moel Cynghorion made the chance of being overtaken by darkness on that route a near certainty, so without torches we plunged back down into the mist to return by the good track long known in our circles as the "Telegraph Road". Reflecting on the afternoon as we covered the last two or three miles in the gloom, it occurred to me that while the activities we pursue are interesting, sometimes challenging and often satisfying, the real reward we get from these things is in the places, just the being there, whatever we do.

So runner or climber................who cares?

1 comment:

Paul said...

I admire your attitude Andy. If you fancy climbing in Scotland again I would be happy to belay you.