by Daniel Wildey

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a little fixated on lifestyle.  Whether I’m trying to justify my own decision to jack in the 9-5 routine, or I’m simply in awe of those that have done so is still unclear to me.  But don’t we all envy those tanned and chiselled, sun-bleached, weather-beaten, adrenalin-sculpted specimens who guide us through the mountains or send dispatches from the corners of the globe?

The cliched ski instructor is an archetype of this image; “earning” a living by doing what most of us save up 51 weeks a year to indulge in.  What sacrifices did they make to get to this enviable position, or what fortune allowed it?  How do you make the choice to detach yourself from the mundanity of the real world?

Alison Culshaw – owner of Off Piste Performance, habitant of Chamonix, and brand ambassador for Jöttnar - didn’t make a choice it seems.  She told me “A good friend of mine is a lawyer and she was recently telling me how much she hated her job.  I asked her why she still does it and she said ‘it’s the route I’ve chosen’.  I just can’t relate to that; the thought of doing something you hate for the rest of your life.  I don’t see my lifestyle as ‘alternative’, it’s just sensible to do something you enjoy.”

This attitude is apparent as we skin across the Glacier du Geant in the middle of July.  Aside from a slight giddiness at skiing in the height of summer, Alison is entirely at home; there is a completely cool assuredness about her leadership.  It might come from her years of experience, but I’m sure it requires a significant level of happiness too.

Having learned to ski at the age of 2, I guess Alison’s life seemed obvious, or at least natural to her at an early age.  ”I’m originally from Aberdeen and my parents are really keen skiers – they would take me and my sister to ski at the Lecht every weekend through the winter.”  Alison’s retired parents still volunteer at the ski resort.

Watching ski porn, particularly the American variety, could lead you to believe that professional skiers are hedonists wrapped in a veneer of spiritual oneness with the mountain – spouting a deep connection with the environment one minute, and exploding things with shotguns the next.  There is none of this affectation about Alison; she makes a mountain life seem sensible, rather than radical. Literally down-to-earth.  Alison is devoid of that strange assumption many of us hold, that work should not be enjoyable.

Perhaps that’s why I asked her about the downside.  As with any dream, the danger is that it may become reality.  If your passion is your day-to-day, doesn’t it become mundane?  Particularly with instructing and guiding, I wonder if it almost seems like baby-sitting – how do you push yourself, how do you progress?

“Skiing with clients doesn’t mean I just switch off.  We may not be skiing the hardest terrain, but whenever I ski I concentrate on my technique – everything can be improved.

“But the thing that really pushes me is competing.”  Last year Alison took part in the Patrouilles Des Glaciers; a ski mountaineering race from Zermatt to Verbier covering 110km and 4000m height gain.  ”Training for something like that, skinning for miles before sunrise, forces me to make progress I wouldn’t normally come close to.  I love the preparation as much as the race.”

There has been an explosion in the popularity of ski mountaineering in recent times, but Alison has been touring for years.  What made her embrace the uphill?

“We were pottering around on skis at a local golf course one weekend when I was very small, and the only uplift was a basic tow.  My sister wasn’t with us and when I asked why, my mother told me she’d gone to the big mountains where they had chairlifts.  The thought that I would one day go there and use the chairlift was the most exciting thing – I thought the whole point of skiing was to get back for another ride on the lift!”

I’m not sure skinning is quite that exciting, but it’s good to enjoy the whole experience!

Thanks to Daniel for the words and images, and to Alison for her time.  Alison had just returned to Chamonix after a summer’s guiding in Scotland and Daniel was in the midst of his European road trip, having resigned from his 9-5 to do so.  

You can follow them both on @Offpisteperform and @DanWildeyPhoto.

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by Daniel Wildey

The media has always been fascinated by the motivation of climbers, and sometimes they are insultingly wide of the mark. They don’t understand the compulsion to climb, I’m not sure anyone understands it, but there’s one thing we climbers have that they don’t; climbers understand each other. Regardless of where they’re from, how much they earn, and what grade they climb, there seems to be a deep respect and a kind of masonic nod between them.

I don’t have any more experience of Everest than most of the journalists who have felt compelled to offer their views in the national press – I’ve never been there – but I’d like to think my opinions might come from a more balanced and informed place. Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing legendary mountaineers Kenton Cool and Lakpa Rita Sherpa. We touched on subjects such as how climbing on Everest has changed, how last year’s violence affected the relationships between western climbers and Sherpas, and the future of Himalayan climbing.

One thing that struck me is that Kenton didn’t speak to Lakpa as an equal – he spoke to him as a hero. Kenton Cool – 11-time Everest summiteer and the first to complete the Himalayan triple crown of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse – laid the future of high altitude climbing at the feet of his Sherpa friends. Respect doesn’t come close; Kenton is not known for his humility, but here he was, almost star-struck.

So when Tanya Gold in the Guardian claims that the “cretinous rich treat Sherpas like pack animals” something doesn’t quite ring true. You can expect the British media to present polarised opinions, but this is a flippant and offensive over-simplification of the problems which, undoubtedly, do exist.

The caricature of a bored billionaire, there on a whim with too much gear, too much money and expecting to be carried to 8000 metres, no doubt has its roots in reality. But as the Guardian well knows, applying generalisations to real life situations is lazy thinking. It ignores all the people who have saved and trained for years, who have climbed all their life, who have raised hundreds of thousands for myriad charities. It doesn’t take into account the dedication to a goal; many people have to complete high altitude climbs around the world before being accepted onto an Everest expedition.

More importantly it deliberately degrades the role of the Sherpa people in order to make a divisive point. To suggest they are “pack animals” says more about the writer than it does the climbers. As I mentioned, I have never been to Everest, but surely any climber can tell you the vital role of the Sherpa people? The caricature fails to take into account the Sherpa as a climber; the Sherpa that loves the mountains.

And while the western climbers are accused of a lack of respect for their hosts, the Mail Online publish a photograph of Sherpa Dawa Tashi lying in a hospital bed in critical condition after surviving the avalanche that killed so many of his colleagues. The photo was taken without permission, apparently.

There are complex issues surrounding the role and treatment of Sherpas on Everest; the government have increased available compensation since the tragedy, but have also put pressure on to continue the climbing season; there are reports that Maoists have threatened Sherpas with violence if they continue to climb, but it seems clear that the decision to stop climbing this year is likely as much out of respect for the mountain and its victims as it is any idea of ‘industrial action’.

I’ve read reports of any number of politically motivated spins on the situation, but I haven’t heard of a single western expedition putting pressure on their Sherpas to continue.

There are countless examples of rich westerners exploiting vulnerable people around the world; but to blame the tragedy on Everest on the whims of spoiled climbers is to sensationalise a complex situation, and I think to misunderstand the climbing community.

Daniel Wildey recently left his job behind him in order to travel around Europe in his van.  You can read the full story here.

Thanks Daniel for the words and images. 

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by Andy Torbet

The depth of a Highland Winter may seem an ill-advised time to embark on exploring the submerged passages of Uamh nan-Claigg ionn, The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest cave.  But I had a lull in my diary and besides after dragging my kit down five vertical drops and numerous constricted crawls I’d be convincingly ‘out of the wind’.

Cave diving in the Scotland is like most of the UK, specialising in tight, serpentine crawls, long abseils and muddy water (or watery mud)… and the sites are normally a bloody a long way from the car.  There aren’t many fat UK cave divers.

We were filming this little jaunt for the BBC’s Adventure Show.  The plan was for Stu Keasley to film me up top and in the initial section and I’d self-shoot on a small hand-held inside the rest of the system.  I had to carry one of the heaviest rucksacks of my life – twin seven litre cylinder, side-mount harness, climbing harness, 105 metres of rope, torches, reels, abseiling, ascending and anchoring kit and my camera – about 60kg in all.  Fortunately it was only about a mile and a half from the end of the nearest road, unfortunately it was winter, the road was blocked, so it was two and half…uphill.

I’d investigated a few other sites the day before so, after Sherpa-ing my load up through the snow, I was gifted the opportunity to pull on a partially frozen wetsuit whilst simultaneously blaspheming enough to offend most major religions.  Finally kitted up it was time to descend into the underworld.  The entrance is large cavity in the ground, overarched by an eldritch, gnarled tree with beards and bunting of moss and lichen hanging into the icicle-encrusted darkness.  Once I abseiled down and entered the system I could feel the rise in temperature as the warm earth enveloped me. The first awkward bend and low crawl brought the reality of my predicament.  It was impossible to drag or push all my equipment in one go so I’d have to shuttle, re-doing each section four or five times.  The first crawl is followed by two abseils, with one the most awkward take-off I’ve ever encountered.

Up to this point it had been narrow rifts, low crawls and small spaces.  That all changed after the second abseil.  I sidled through a narrow crack and stepped out into an immense cavern; standing on a boulder-strewn ledge half way up it’s walls.  The roof soared above me, tapering to a point, as the ground fell away into a shallow plunge pool.  Anchoring the rope and strapping all my kit on I swung out into the abyss.  I find myself abseiling on a near-weekly basis but never with this much weight on. I treble-checked the anchor points before I took a deep breath and that first small step….

This vertical descent was followed by the House of Cards, so called because slabs of rock, shaped like giant playing cards, have fallen from above and become precariously wedged against one and other at convoluted angles leaving only a low, narrow space beneath.  As I heaved and slithered through the gravel and water I kept reminding myself that the chaotic structure above me had probably stood for centuries and wasn’t likely to move anytime soon…(”are you sure?” said the voice in my head “besides Torbet” he went on “I’m no expert in geology, so neither are you”).

Safely through, and having shuttled all the kit, I came to the last two abseils.  Not the longest but the most fun.  The first was down a short waterfall into a thigh-deep plunge pool and the second has you lowering yourself down through an hourglass effect.  It starts spacious enough before narrowing to a point where you’re forced to turn your head to the side and bounce to get your chest and backside through before flaring out wide again.  Finally you reach the bottom of the cave, but, if you’re a diver, not the end.

To reach the first sump required me to slide through an extremely low crawl.  Unfortunately this had been made considerably tighter by the gravel, silt and debris washed in over the winter.   The height was less than 25 cm and water covered the lower 15…and I am not built to cave.  Too many years rock-climbing and carrying large rucksacks up large hills means I don’t possess the wiry, whippet, racing snake physique of the hardened caver…so I got stuck.  Wriggling my way backwards I began excavating some of the larger rocks and gravel, trying to plough a furrow deep enough for me to squeeze myself through.  With people waiting for me at the surface and overdue on my return time I had to leave, having failed to even reach the dive site. Morale was low.  It was not aided by the thought of having to haul myself, and all that kit, back out of this hole.

On reaching the surface I was exhausted and the effort of bring up all the equipment on my own had done little to improve my mood. I had said I would dive the limits of the deepest cave in Scotland. Failure.

Fast forward to June.  Having driven through the night I find myself kitted up at the entrance once again.  Alone this time with no cameras or filming to slow me down.  I’ve exchanged my twin sevens for twin threes.  I have one day, this will be like an alpinist ascent; fast and light.  Knowing the layout and with only myself to worry about I fly through the cave and am at the passage that stopped me last time.  I dig and try to push through but keep getting stuck. I have to back out, dig more and try again.  Each time the cold water burns my ears as I twist my head from side to side trying to breathe.  I have to remove my helmet so I can press my cheek hard against the roof and cock my mouth to the side to make use of the half inch airspace.  Finally I can see the end, I’m sure I’ve done enough and force my way on.  Inches from where the crawl opens out I stop.  One push, a hard push, should see me clear.  I take a deep breath, plunge my face into the icy water and push with my legs, pulling with my arms… I’m stuck.  I push harder – nothing.  The voice was back “what are you going to do now Torbet?”

Then an epiphany struck…the kind that has you slapping yourself on the back for your intellect in solving your current dilemma only to realise a slap in the face would be more appropriate as the solution is so blindingly obvious the problem should never have occurred in the first place…I breathe out, forcing the last of my air away, feeling my chest deflate and contract…and slip through.

After lugging the last of my gear, bent over double, along a low tunnel I reach the first sump.  It’s a short, shallow U-bend and the silt washed in left me with only enough clearance to slip though on my belly.  The final stretch is a smooth, wet, low passage that opens into a larger rift just before the terminal sump.  I should have felt enthusiastic and excited at this point; to be honest I was just tired.  I wanted to get in, see how far I could get and start the long haul back to daylight. I forced myself to focus, slipped into the dark waters and immediately felt the space around me constricting.  I pushed less than a few metres in before the passageway narrowed and became impassable, forcing a feet first withdrawal.

I had been the first person to pass sump 1 since Alan Jeffreys first attempt in 1976 and the first to ever dive sump 2…at last.  But I admit to feeling disappointed that I hadn’t discovered something more impressive after all that effort.  But such is the nature of exploration, not every venture ends in Mayan gold, lost tribes or plateaus swarming with dinosaurs.  But it is the endeavours and challenges themselves that I enjoy the most and the potential, the maybe, just maybe, if not on this trip then the next I will make a great discovery.  As ever – the darkness beckons…

We’ve known Andy for 16 years and over the last few he’s made his name as a TV presenter, climber, diver, underwater explorer, paddler, free-faller, adventurer, author and speaker.  Given his thick Aberdonian brogue, it’s the last of these that’s the most remarkable.

Big thanks to Andy for the words and images. 

www.andytorbet.com

First published on Sidetracked: http://www.sidetracked.com/cave-of-skulls/

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I’ve just quit my job to go and live in a van.

I’ve flirted with adventure for too long, I’ve toyed with making it my life, I’ve gone as far as I can go from a rented room in Cumbria.

I could never have been a professional athlete.  Not only am I not good enough, but the training and the dedication required seem like a cage to me.  I crave variety – is that not what adventure is about?

But I do admire that dedication, and like millions of people I am inspired by the result of total commitment to a goal.  As an adventure photographer I get to channel that inspiration like some kind of messenger translating the wild achievements of some into the dreams of others, and up until now it’s been a vicarious life.  But I need it to be my life; like an scientist studying sharks, a time comes when you have to dive in with them.

On the other hand, I could never be a genuine dirtbag.  For all my love of the unknown, I’ve still never committed to photography enough to give up on the regular payslip of a ‘normal’ job.  But I’m about to.  I’m about to stop paying for a roof over my head, and myriad utilities, and replace them with a wooden board in the back of a van, a big bottle of Calor gas, and a curiosity about what’s down the road.

I’ve written on this blog before that you should photograph what you love, but I’m going to take that a step further and photograph what I live. Climbers often talk about risk, commitment, dedication.  This is my equivalent; throwing all my eggs into one roofbox.

The process has made me think a lot about the parallels between the exotic, adventurous lives of those athletes we read so much about, and the lives of the everyday climbers.  Pete Boardman compared endurance in the mountains to what it takes to bear the drudgery of the 9-5 and then draw on all your reserves to get out and climb at the weekend.  I think this applies to commitment as well as endurance; professional climbers are paid to train and to climb, and while their focus is impressive it pales in comparison to those who train every night after work, or those who can find the energy to plan and raise funds for an expedition during their 3 weeks of annual leave.

So perhaps quitting my day job is the opposite of commitment?  But it still feels like risk!  I’ve balanced two lives for years, and it’s taken hard work. The bigger risk is that I don’t immerse myself in what I love, that I allow myself to remain tied to the security of a ‘normal’ job.

So there, I’ve managed to justify this irresponsible impulse!  Whatever it is it feels necessary, like an irresistible pull, and I look forward to sharing it with you over the coming months; the adventure of a lifestyle.

Daniel Wildey is the photographer behind much of the imagery on our website and the voice behind several pieces on our blog.  The energising effect of being entirely in your own hands is something we know well and we wish Daniel all of the sun-baked rock, sunsets, starry skies, open roads and sublime camp fires that this adventure will bring.  

You can follow his progress here.

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You may have read about Dave Almond and Mark Thomas‘s first ascent of ‘Jöttnar‘ last March, a tenuous and icy horror show that delicately weaved its way up the north face of Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi, at a proposed grade of Scottish VIII,8.   Dave was back in the Alps last month, partnered with Owen Samuel, and this time successfully ticked off the notorious 1938 route on the north face of the Eiger.

The Eiger from Kleine Scheidegg, its north face obscured by cloud.

The Eiger, the big challenge.  History, length of the route and weather all make this a difficult mountain to ascend.  For a number of years I have been going out to the Alps with various partners in the hopes of climbing this mountain but for a variety of reasons failing.  On Wednesday 5th March I received a call off Owen Samuel, to ask if I was interested in having a go at the Eiger.  The forecast was clear skies and no wind for the following week.  Could I leave on Friday?  No, as I was entertaining but Saturday was good, back home on Wednesday for the cheap flights and back to work for both of us.  It helps being self employed and I immediately allowed myself the time to have the opportunity for this 5 day trip.

We flew in on Saturday afternoon and caught the first train up the mountain on Sunday morning.  An hour walk in and we were on the route.  I had asked Owen who is a BMG if he was bothered about acclimatization but he responded that we would just have to deal with the altitude sickness.  It was on the way home that he let on that he was carrying all the drugs (as he is a Paramedic) for altitude in case he needed them.  I may just have had to suffer!  We hit the lower slopes hard trying to gain as much height as quickly as possible.  We had expected to spend at least one night on the mountain, possibly a second on the summit.  I must admit that I don’t do cold bivvys very well so was pushing hard to avoid this scenario.

Owen Samuel on the Difficult Crack

I sped across the Hinterstoisser traverse as we moved together only to reach the far side and I thought “Where are the photos?”  I had just crossed one of the most famous pieces of rock for a climber and I didn’t have a photo.  I realized all of a sudden that for this route going fast was missing the point.  When Owen came across we had a discussion and decided to back off the pace.  We carried on up to Death Bivvy enjoying the setting sun as we crossed the Second Ice field.

Owen Samuel on the Second Ice Field

Fortunately we had the bivvy to ourselves as it is not too roomy.  The following morning as I was waking up I noticed head torches on the approach slopes.  We moved off up the Ramp and before we were half way up two Swiss guides and their clients were overtaking us!  “Do you know the route?” I enquired, to be told by the guide that he was on his eighteenth ascent!   As they moved off I was left thinking their clients would fail to appreciate the climb despite being able to stand in the pub and say they had ticked it in 11 hours.  We continued on over the Brittle Ledges and up the Brittle Crack arriving at the bivvy on the Traverse of the Gods at approximately 1pm.

Dave Almond relaxing on second bivvy

Here we relaxed and made ourselves comfortable on the eighteen inch wide snow ledge and waited for the sun to arrive.  I have never previously had the time to sit, enjoy the view and sunbathe on an alpine route.  It was bliss.  At 5 o`clock three Italians turned up and as we were lying down, they were left with sitting room only.  They conversed all night till 3 am and then left us to have an hour of peaceful sleep before we were up and away at 5.30am.

Dave Almond on The Traverse of the Gods

We moved across the Traverse of The Gods which I personally considered the highlight of the face as you have exposure, loose rock and bad gear which really sums up the whole route.  Moving across the third Ice Field I managed to drop my new Petzl Sirocco helmet at possibly the most exposed point on the route for rock fall.  We quickly moved on enjoying the technical moves of the Quartz Crack and then moving together on the Exit Cracks.  Eventually we made the sunshine of the summit ridge and topped out at 2pm.  After a brief rest, we raced for the last train off the mountain and on for a celebratory meal and beers.

Owen Samuel on the summit ridge

On reflection I realised that by taking our time we had managed to relax and enjoy the route, avoiding altitude sickness by slowly gaining height and basically making a big Alpine route a whole lot more manageable for ourselves, rather than trying to do it in the style of the uber-Alpinist who has the advantage of acclimatization and fitness.  In future I will reconsider my attitude towards Alpine routes and the necessity of speed.

Dave left, Owen right, Eiger rear

Owen is a British Mountain Guide with Ibex Mountain Guides and Dave tries to fit climbing into a hectic life split between family and running a Builders Merchants.  

Congratulations guys, and thanks to Dave for the words and to both for the images. 

 

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Asked in a recent competition why Mike Pescod describes Scotland as a ‘tough playground’, Claire Roff correctly stated: “Winter climbing here is such a great mix of physical and mental challenge demanding the full range of mountaineering skills as well as climbing technique.  You never quite master the dark art of judging the climbing conditions but when you get it right the reward is great.”

Freshly back from her week up in Lochaber with Mike, here’s Claire’s account of this dark art and the rewards within.

Being the fortunate winner of a five-day one-on-one winter climbing package with Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides, courtesy of Jöttnar, the week approached with much anticipation.  Mike had contacted me a few weeks beforehand to find out, given ideal conditions, what sort of things I might like to do.  Having only done a handful of winter climbs before the list was endless – try out mixed climbing, become more savvy and independent in winter, do some leading, a traverse of the Skye ridge … Amazingly given that conditions were not ideal Mike somehow managed to work in a bit of everything (but not quite the Skye Ridge this time)!

Day 1

As the week got closer the weather got warmer and a balmy 17 degrees in London found me packing up my cold weather kit wondering if there was going to be any snow or ice left.  Mike came to pick me up from Bank St Lodge at 8am.  He had a few possible options planned for the day starting with walking up toward Coire na Ciste to check out the conditions.  On the walk-in we discussed the effects of the ongoing thaw and what to look out for – particularly concerning was the potential for rock fall.  After crossing (quickly) the avalanche debris from No. 5 gully and reaching the lochan we were just having a little chat about the pros and cons of carrying avalanche safety gear when we heard a big cornice collapse over towards our right.  That along with the almost continuous rock fall coming from the Tower Ridge side was making us a little jumpy and having hung around for long enough retreated to our next option – Castle Ridge. This turned out to be a brilliant decision.  The route was very enjoyable, we were able to look at placing protection and a few different belay setups and I had a lot of fun learning to trust my feet on wet slippery rock.

Day 2

Still raining and still thawing so Mike’s suggestion was to set off for Buchaille Etive Mor and do Curved Ridge and Crowberry Tower.  This was to be a leading day for me and we used a variety of techniques from walking the rope to moving together to pitched sections.  I was having so much fun I hardly noticed the rain and although a little less happy on the traversing sections, Mike’s gentle encouragement saw me through.  Walking off the top to the head of Coire na Tulaich we saw an enormous crown wall from a recent avalanche with more cracks appearing at the cornice edge.  This meant abandoning the idea of making a lucky horseshoe to abseil into the Coire and so walked further round on the ridge where Mike found an interesting ‘bergschrund’ like feature for us to cross onto the snow slopes.  A bit of coaching on footwork down steep snow slopes followed and then a new descent technique – bum sliding – deliberate of course!  Little did I know how important this was to become later on in the week.

Day 3

Winds up to 100mph saw us taking refuge in the Ice Factor.  Mike gave me some excellent coaching in ice-climbing technique and movement skills and we played a variety of games to enhance the feel and learning experience – climbing routes without axes, competing against each other to see who could get to the top with the fewest placements, moving one axe at a time and having to get your feet as high as possible in between, and only hooking – no swings allowed.  Mike’s teaching style is really positive and he is very skilled at finding what you do naturally and then modifying and building on it.  We then moved on to the abseil station where we looked at how to retreat from a route and a few more ways of setting up belays.  For the afternoon we spent some time dry-tooling under Ballachulish Bridge – a first for me and highly addictive!

Day 4

Hooray, it’s finally starting to get a bit colder.  As on the first day we were keen to go up towards the Ben and see how the routes had fared after the heavy thaw.  Walking up in heavy rain – a consistent feature of the week – we called in at the CIC hut for a cup of tea and some beta.  Tempting as it was to stay and chat for longer we made a decision to check out North East Buttress, however on nearing the buttress it became apparent the winds would be very strong so Mike suggested we make our way up towards Coire na Ciste and have a look there. It turned out to be a really good decision and we managed to do Thompson’s route – our first proper winter climb of the week.  The Scottish weather was really showing off giving us rain, snow, hail, high winds and just a little sunshine on the way down.  After getting over the initial shock of the spindrift on the first pitch the second pitch was ace and yesterday’s coaching session at the Ice Factor and dry-tooling had been time well spent – when Mike yelled down to use the cracks in the rock on the side and bridge with my feet I knew exactly what to do.  Topping out was also superb.

Day 5

The homework from last night was to look through Mike’s guidebook and choose a route for today.  Mike had pointed me in the direction of a few that he thought I’d enjoy and with the weather promising to be the best of the week I came up with Orion Direct.  We set off with high hopes, in the dry for once but it didn’t last long.  By the time we reached the CIC hut it was snowing heavily with strong winds.  We had a look at Orion Direct and also Observatory Buttress but it wasn’t to be and so decided to return to the area we had been in yesterday and turn our attention to Mercury.

Keeping out of avalanche prone terrain we approached the bottom of the route from the left up a steep slope.  Mike climbed the first pitch on ice that was breaking off down to the rock and brought me up to join him.  The condition of the ice along with two big avalanches from No. 3 and No. 4 gully made us feel that perhaps it was the right moment to put to the test the retreating off routes practice we had done at the Ice Factor.  Making a lucky horseshoe Mike lowered me down, and then abseiled himself but it soon became apparent that we would have to continue our descent down heavily loaded slopes.  This is when I found out my bum sliding training from earlier in the week was going to come into use.  I was going to be an ‘avalanche poodle’ and slide 120m down the slope while Mike belayed me on a stomper belay from above.  The idea being that I would spread my weight as much as possible but also if the slope was going to go I would trigger it but still be on the end of the rope!  Fortunately it didn’t go and we both walked out without incident.  So a big learning day (climbing is not just about getting to the top) and another useful technique to know for when things get a little sticky.

Many, many thanks go to Jöttnar and of course to Mike Pescod for providing such an amazing experience in a testing week in terms of weather and conditions.  It’s been a brilliant five days, full of interesting challenges and much learning along the way, and a lot of fun too.  It’s a real privilege to be out climbing with someone who has such knowledge, skill and experience.

Big thanks to Claire Roff for the story and to Mike Pescod for the images.

 

 

 

 

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Back in December we reported our involvement with the forthcoming expedition to Iceland involving Adam Crook, Simon Frost, Neil Griffiths and Dave Garry.  Having noted the massive and untapped potential of Iceland’s ice climbing whilst on an earlier visit, Adam returned to the UK and assembled the team of four who ventured out with sharpened front points intent on opening up as many unclimbed routes as they could.  

They returned to the UK a couple of weeks ago with a swathe of first ascents, some stunning photographs and tales of adventure.

Dave tells the story here: 

In February Adam Crook, Simon Frost, Neil Griffiths and myself (Dave Garry) decided to step off the beaten Euro ice road for something a little different.  Iceland: the land of fire and ice, Vikings, Bjork and dried Herring.  With few beer shops and high tax on alcohol it may not be everyone’s dream holiday but to a few intent on adventure it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

With the flights booked it was time to turn casual interest into serious research.  Rather surprisingly ice climbing in Iceland, it turns out, is quite the minority sport and with a little over 40 real activists information is not easily come across.  Yes there have been a few visits from strong teams in the past but these visits have still only scratched the surface, and the vast majority of documented climbing is concentrated within an hour or two of Reykjavik.

As we were looking for new areas to discover we needed to know what was out there so emails were sent out to everyone who had even thought about heading out there, and after several weeks we had sorted out the wheat from the chaff, piece-mealing our snippets of information and eventually putting together a plan.

The Western Fjords looked great but too well documented by the local activists.  Kaldakin in the north again looked great (who doesn’t want to climb off the beach) but had been done to death by several teams from overseas.  We scoured the maps identifying possible areas, did virtual recons on Google Earth and eventually settled on a town called Egilsstaðir.  This we hoped would be our base for the duration of the trip.  It was close enough to some existing venues a little further east with routes yet to see repeats and sat nicely, nestled in a valley littered with water courses and one very big waterfall “Hengifos” (Climbed by Albert Leichtfried, Markus Bendler in 2007 (yet to have a repeat)).

The weeks prior to our arrival had been warm.  With temperatures averaging 2c in Reykjavik, not much climbing had been taken place.  As we left the arrivals lounge to look for our car, –6c flashed in front of our eyes.  We all smiled and being Brits hunched up and pulled down hard on our hats.  That evening in Reykjavik we met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 16 years, who politely introduced us to several bars in the town’s main high street.  The consensus was that Reykjavik on a Saturday night was not unlike Liverpool but with a slightly better dressed and less violent drunk.

The following day we drove the 8 hours east to Egilsstaðir taking in some of the sights as we went.  The further east we got the colder it grew and the more ice formed on the crags above every road.  Potential lay everywhere although sadly it just wasn’t quite thick enough yet.

Our first goal was to repeat an established line, get a feel for the place and get our heads around the grading, so the following morning we drove out for an hour to the nearest established area in the eastern fjords.  As we arrived our hearts sank as we saw the potential lines everywhere, but none had formed fully. Down-hearted and frustrated we headed back and decided to look further inland.   

Luck it seems was on our side and not 40 minutes from our dig (in the other direction, mind) we came across a crag littered with ice, line after line after line.  It was a little late in the day and regrettably now we decided not to carry the gear up when we went to inspect the crag as we could have possibly got a route done, but you live and learn.

The following morning we were back and we ticked off four new lines.

Happy we returned although, sadly, when I told our man at the Icelandic Alpine club our news he returned with the news that just a month earlier a team had flown out from Reykjavik and opened up the crag.  Vivallagerishamrar was born in Jan 2013.  Gutted!  Well at least three of the four routes we had done were new lines.  This crag has the potential to be a world class venue with all grades present and we could have climbed a new route here everyday for a fortnight.  However, we had a goal: new crags and new routes – so back to square one.

With a brief look at the map again we realised that there was a similar looking valley just next door (yes its that easy in Iceland) and a few messages later and we were sure this had not been touched.

But it is now!

Mulihamar is where we spent the remainder of our trip, again lying just 40mins away from our base.  The crag was perfect and housed bigger routes again with an excellent mix of grades:

WI5 Ice n Happy Simon Frost & Dave Garry 19.2.2014

Climb the steep face of the buttress on delicate and featured ice, belaying in the cave below the next steep step. Again climb the steepest section of this wall and belay at the base of the next steep wall. You guessed it.. climb the thin runnel of ice up the next steep wall.

VI 7 Halda til blandaður – Simon Frost & Dave Garry 20.2.2014

We gave this a Scottish grade as the route and day had a very Scottish feel.  Trad pro with tied off ice screws. Good mixed section right at the top. 

Directly above the farmstead is a small bay with three obvious lines of three tier ice falls:

WI5 Lidless – Adam Crook & Neil Griffiths 19.2.2014

Climbs the left hand fall with 3 pitches ranging from WI4 to WI5 the second being the crux.  Done in three separate pitches but could be strung together.  Belay well back on blocks if you can find them or abolakov on the summit ice.

WI4 Muppet – Neil Griffiths and Adam Crook 19.2.2014

Climbs the middle fall. 3 – 2 piches depending on conditions of WI4 the top pitch was a small pillar through a constriction short but hard. Belay as for Lidless

WI3+ Collie’s Step – Adam Crook & Neil Griffiths 20.2.2014

The easier right hand line the top pitch being the crux.  Originally done in 2 pitches.  Belay as for Lidless.  Some 200m right of the small bay is a steep wall with several ice falls and pillars some hanging.  There is potential here for at least 4 more routes from WI5 to maybe WI6.

WI4+ Shep – Neil Griffiths and Adam Crook 20.2.2014

The far right of the wall is a wide ice fall some 10m wide.  Climb the centre of the wall in one pitch.  Belay on ice bulges before the summit plateau.

On our last day a collie dog followed us up the hill.  The weather was dreadful, with high winds and driving snow.  He was unperturbed and made the walk in a pleasure, watching him in his element sliding and rolling in the snow having great fun.  He obviously liked the new strange red men in his patch and stayed with us. If it was not his ‘leader’ barking I am sure he would have stayed all day.

He was reluctant to leave but after a few minutes and a few glances or two back at us he ‘skied’ down the hill on his feet and belly and was off.  It seemed apt that the Scottish-style name, Collie’s Step, was required for the following route and Shep being the next.  A great day and wild weather.

The snow and wind that had been pounding us for most of the night had us concerned that we might not make it out over the mountain road needed to get back to Reykjavik. Our plan had been to have an alpine start the day of our return flight and make most of the 8hr return journey under the star light.  With visibility down to about 5ft, driving through drifting snow was no easy task, and then the inevitable happened –  we were grounded. An hour of digging saw us move about 3ft and even that was in the wrong direction.  The weather was wild and as we dug, the snow seamed intent on replacing itself, our efforts futile.

Just as we thought we might have a long cold walk back to civilisation ahead of us a local pulled up in his mini monster truck.  We rigged a tow but no matter what he did nothing would get us free.  Another local came up the impassable road (they know how to handle snow these Icelandics) and he tied on as well.  We now had a two-car tow…but nothing!   All three vehicles were now stuck in the growing drift.  Then the ice road trucker appeared and shadowed over us like some sort of Norse god and in one swift tug he pulled all three free and we were on our way…although a little tentatively.  Next time we go I know what hire car I want – an HGV!

As we arrived back in Reykjavik we seized the opportunity to meet up with a couple of the Icelandic Alp club members that had been so helpful in our research and buy them a pint or three.

All in all we achieved what we set out to do and with so much potential out there I am sure that this will be the first of many visits.  Big thanks to Sigurður Þórisson from ISALP, Jöttnar for the great kit and Dave would like to also thank DMM for his Switch Axes.

Useful Bits:

http://www.isalp.is/  - great source of information and very helpful people.

Lyngás guesthouse –  very local to the crags we visited and very friendly.

OsmAnd – Android Map App – great for finding your way around.  Bit fiddly at first as you need to get lots of add ons but once up and running its excellent.

Big thanks to Dave for the words and to Adam for the great pictures.  Congratulations to all on such a successful trip. 

 

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Whilst up in Fort William last week at the mountain festival, we paid a visit to Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team’s impressive ‘gang hut’.  We were being shown the facility and meeting the team when a call came through about a climber who was in difficulty on  Beinn Eibhinn, a remote peak approximately 30 km east of Fort William.  What followed was a 10-hour rescue in foul conditions with numerous near misses: 

“We had a 10 hour epic day yesterday with a shout for a climber who had fallen through a cornice on Beinn Eibhinn to the north of Corrour. Our guys fell through cornices at least 4 times themselves and were avalanched while trying to locate the climber. Conditions were atrocious with total white out conditions and very high winds and heavy snow. The guys were having to navigate around the edge of cliffs and gullies in visibility that was not even the length of your arm. Although we say it ourselves, “The Team” did an absolutely fantastic job putting both life and limb on the line to get to the guy who was recovered safe and well.

“We would like to thank Philip and his staff at Corrour Estate for providing ATV’s to transport guys and equipment part of the was up the mountain and for allowing use of the of the community centre and providing refreshments for the guys when they finally got off the mountain. As usual much appreciated as the helicopter had to be grounded due to a mechanical issue.

“The conditions in the mountains this year are some of the most extreme we have ever experienced. Virtually every rescue has had a very high element of risk involved and this is not just in Lochaber but for all teams operating in the Highlands. We are quieter than normal with only 11 call outs so far this year but the conditions have been putting considerable demands on us and other teams across Scotland.

“If you are heading to the mountains enjoy but stay safe. If you use the outdoors support mountain rescue in what ever way you can.

“All the guys in Scottish Mountain Rescue are volunteers dealing with over 400 rescues per year. They provide safety cover for one of, if not the largest participation sports in the UK yet will receive less than one weeks wages for Wayne Rooney in support annually from government sources. In fact if any of our guys had been seriously injured or killed this year the total payout in insurance from Police Scotland would have been less than Rooney’s weekly wage. This is no criticism of Rooney, just the undervaluing of the resource by our politicians and agencies. In fact if the Crystal Palace fans want to come up to Fort William and throw coins at us we will happily accept the cash!”

Thanks to Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team for allowing us to reproduce this article, the original of which can be seen on their Facebook page.  You can read more about the team, here.

 

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In November 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton assembled 27 men for the most audacious expedition ever attempted in Antarctic history: to traverse the continent, from sea to sea, via the South Pole.

The expedition faltered when their ship, Endurance, was held in the grip of the ice of the Weddell Sea until she was crushed and sank.  It was three harrowing years of exceptional fortitude that led to not a single life being lost and the crew of Endurance being saved.

But what of the crossing of the Antarctica?  The prize eluded Shackleton and he never led another expedition to Antarctica.  The route he planned has become a part of history, along with the faded photographs of the men who were willing to sacrifice everything.

November 2014 will see the centenary of this great expedition, as well as a new team setting out from Great Britain to attempt the same route which Shackleton drew with his own hand.  Although there have been other traverses of Antarctica, Shackleton’s route has never been completed.  The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Centenary Expedition 2014 (ITACE 2014) is the only team to have had the backing of Great Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Granddaughter, The Honourable Alexandra Shackleton.

The ITACE 2014 team will be the first to complete the route and will ski over 2,500km, dragging 90kg of provisions on sledges through some of the most inhospitable conditions in the world.  They will operate in temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius and winds of up to 150km per hour.  Aiming to complete before the darkness of the Antarctic winter sets in, they have given themselves a maximum of one hundred days to complete the journey.

Jöttnar is proud to have been selected as the team’s clothing provider as they attempt to complete Shackelton’s unfinished business.

The Route

The Team

Jo Davies is a world record holder and experienced adventurer having rowed across the Atlantic and skied across Greenland.  Shackleton has always been one her heroes and has dreamed of carrying out the goals of the great man for many years.

 

Zac Poulton is a 36-year-old Expedition Guide and Mountaineering Instructor (MIC) from the Lake District.  In 2011 he led a successful expedition to the North side of Everest which put 18 climbers, including himself, on the summit.

 

Stewart Stirling is the oldest member of the team and will be 50 when they set out in November 2014.  He was born and brought up in Dundee, Scotland, before leaving for London at 17 for a career in the Metropolitan Police.  On retirement he is now a freelance Mountain and Expedition Guide.

 

Ian Prickett is a 34 year old self-confessed travel and adventure addict.  He has just returned from ‘down south’ as an important part of Ranulph Fiennes ‘Coldest Journey‘, an expedition which planned to make the first winter crossing of the continent.

 

Born in Edmonton, Canada, Pamela Brown makes this a truly British Commonwealth Team.  She has competed at International level in dressage, show jumping and three-day eventing.   No stranger to the cold, she is a Yukon Park Ranger as well as an accomplished endurance racer.

 

The team have spent New Year in Norway and will be training in the Cairngorms throughout February.  They’re off to Greenland in April/May and then fly down to Punta Arenas, Chile, in October to begin final preparations.

We’ll be updating our blog as they progress and you can read in detail about the team and its plans on their website here:  http://www.south2014.com/

 

 

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One of the many good things about running an outdoor clothing company is the close relationship between work and play.  It’s impossible to design and create good gear if you don’t actually practice what it is that each item is designed for and it’s equally unfeasible to bring something to market that you haven’t actually tested yourself.  So the opportunities for work-related playing are many.  It’s also a fact that we’re in the privileged position of being able to support others and that this exposes us to a wide and interesting variety of sponsorship opportunities.

One in particular that stood out was the opportunity to equip an expedition to Iceland this coming February, the team comprising of British climbers Adam Crook, Si Frost, Dave Garry and Neil Griffiths.  We were acquainted with Dave already but even still, the strength of the team was obvious, their plan was compelling and the destination – Iceland – quickly aroused interest.

Dave explains where the idea originated:

‘On visiting Iceland this summer Adam Crook’s initial reaction to the sheer beauty and wildness of this island was a little overwhelming but once used to the strange land he soon began to see the potential for winter climbing.  There seemed to be waterfalls everywhere he turned and it wasn’t long before he was searching out bigger and more remote falls (much to his wife’s annoyance).  Each day would find him driving up dirt roads into potential ravines that may hide hidden gems of vertical water.  It was not just these the occurrence of this endless falling water that caught his eye, the crags and mountains were covered in turf and rock lines just begging for a winter mixed climber to come and play.  He vowed to return soon with a strong team of fellow winter activists, a team who shared his joy of the remote and unexplored lines.

‘As expected we were all enthused by the reports he gave on his return and before long a plane was booked and the research had begun. Iceland has of course had visits from UK climbers before, but having now made contact with several key players in the Icelandic Alpine Club it has become apparent that most have honey-potted to the well documented areas such as Kaldakin.  Our aim is different, our aim is simple:  visit new places, climb new lines, do it some place wild, out of the way and to borrow James T. Kirk’s immortal line, ‘where no man has been before’.  So far the East is looking good.’

We’re proud to have equipped each of the team with our Bergelmir shell and Vanir salopette and we wish them the very best of luck as they boldy go…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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