Monday, 12 January 2015

One last caving trip

Water Icicle Close Cavern - the North West Passage.

The last two months have been the first time in 5 years that I've not felt the need to be tight on the heels of the next adventure. My October solo trip into Ogof y Daren Cilau in Wales is the first thing I've ever done that has actually satisfied the itch for a substantial length of time. Indeed it left a lingering sense of contentment that has only started to wear off in the past couple of weeks.

Life at the moment is one of packing boxes, bus journeys, letting agents and chaos. My thoughts are of our imminent return to living the Highlands, winter routes, new possibilities and the start of a new chapter. My caving rope and SRT harness has been bundled up underneath the kitchen table since November, gathering dust instead of mud.

A week or so ago I realised that moving back to the Highlands could mean it could be months or even years until my next caving trip. I wanted a last fix to end to my time in the Peak District on a high.

The tiny farming village I've lived in for the past 10 months sits on top of an extensive network of mines and caves, some of which are classic descents and suitable for the wet winter months. Water Icicle Close Cavern is a system that has been the scene of extensive recent exploration , and I recognised it as an opportunity to visit some pristine and only recently discovered cave passageways.
Large and colourful cave formations.

I sat on the edge of the entrance shaft getting pummeled by the wind and rain. The nearby copse of trees roared with the noise of swaying branches, and it all felt very different to decending into Yorkshire potholes in the hot and dry summer of last year. I shined my torch on full beam down the shaft. The pitch was 110ft, and it started to look like a long way down.

Rigging the pitch head, I dealt with the niggling doubts that had popped up from nowhere. The wind and rain wouldn't follow me underground. I adjusted my bowline-on-a-bight for the second time, locked off my descender and swung into the black.

Looking down the 110ft pitch.

The temperature shot up and that familiar muddy aroma filled my lungs. I abseiled slowly, enjoying it. It felt like a long way, more than twice the length of any other underground pitch I've done.

Three passageways led off from the chamber at the bottom of the pitch. Large, semi-circular walking passages seemed to be the defining characteristic of the cave. I came across occasional impressive flowstone cascades and areas of stubby stalactites. There were some high avens and taller areas of chamber where high level passages look to lead off, and it was immediately obvious that there is a lot more cave there than has been yet discovered.

A very large flowstone cascade.

As I headed down the South Passage towards the most recently discovered passages (2012) I couldn't help wonder just how much cave is waiting there that has never been entered by humans. At floor level on the left in The Great Rift, I crawled through a muddy boulder choke and easy squeeze to enter the 2012 Extensions.

Volcanic Bug-Pusher was a memorable passageway, easily the most pristine I've seen in the Peak District. Extremely tiny but beautiful crystal formations covered patches of the floor, untouched sediment deposits all around. It is an amazing thing to think that countless miles of similar passageway remain undiscovered underneath the Dales.

Clipping my ascenders on the rope for the journey out, 110ft once again looked like a long way. Jumaring up a rope is a pretty tiring business sometimes. Half way up the rope, I briefly considered the absurdity of my position. Hanging on a 35 metre length of 10.5mm thick cord, in the dark, by myself. I looked at the devices with which I've become so familiar - my jumar, croll chest ascender, mechanical descender. To a climber who used to repeatedly say he'd never take up potholing, won't all this seem like a very surreal set of memories a month from now when I'm back in the Highlands?


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Highlights of 2014 in photos

One of my best days of 2014 - a solo of Central Trinity gully followed by the Traverse of Liathach in perfect conditions.

Climbers gearing up on Lochnagar. Central Buttress (II**) was an enjoyable mountaineering route.

 A trip to Arctic Norway, as far as the Russian border at Kirkenes.

Sgorr Ruadh after soloing the classic Post Box Gully (II***). 

 A lot of my winter season was spent in Torridon. Ling, Lawson and Glovers Route (II***), Deep South Gully (I****), White's Gully (II*), Fuselage Gully (II*), the Traverse of Liathach (II****) and Central Trinity (II*) were all wonderful days.

The Cairngorms, my home for the 2013/14 winter season. I climbed quite a few routes and spent a lot of my time exploring the the Caledonian pine forests. 

"The Great Display" - the Aurora of 27th February 2014. I was very lucky to catch one of the best displays of the Lights for many years, from my own front door in Grantown-on-Spey. 

The sublime Traverse of An Teallach (II****). I finally got round to doing this in March, along with 4 other winter climbs in its corries.

The Isle of Handa, Sutherland. Nicole and I spent a week here as volunteers working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. This part of the NW coast of Scotland is insanely beautiful.

Puffins on Handa.

In the spring we moved to the Peak District in England. I enjoyed soloing easy routes on the gritstone edges, but wanted something a bit more adventurous.

So I became fully engrossed in caving and potholing instead. This is deep in Magnetometer Pot, Yorkshire, an extremely wet pothole but with some beautiful formations.

I taught myself the skills required for Single Rope Technique so that I could solo caves with vertical pitches. This is me ascending the 15m entrance pitch of Hagg Gill Pot, Yorkshire.

A solo trip into Ogof Daren Cilau, South Wales. 17 miles long, the hardest entrance crawl in the UK, and one of the most awe-inspiring places in the country. A solo trip is a bit of a journey into madness.

The stunningly beautiful Illusion Pot, Yorkshire.

Volcano walking on the island of La Palma, Spain.

Inside the Caldera de Taburiente, La Palma.

The year ended with heavy snowfall over the Peak District and several days of hard frost. A fitting end to a wonderful year.

A very Happy New Year to all our readers, have fun and stay safe in the mountains in 2015.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Moving back to the Highlands

So a much anticipated phonecall came last week, and the outcome is that we will be moving back to the Highlands in a few weeks time. 

When Nicole and I left the Cairngorms to live in the Peak District in April, I feared somehow we'd never get the opportunity to move back up North. As it happens our time here has turned out to be short but sweet, and an overwhelmingly positive thing. There is so much in the Highlands I will look at with a new appreciation, and with a perspective I'd started to lose.

Seven months in the Peak District has been a great experience and I feel like I've done it properly - going caving, living on a farm and working at The Old Nag's Head. Solo caving and potholing has taken me places in body and mind I'd never imagined existed, and I'm eager to sample some of the wild caving opportunities in the Highlands.

However I can't wait to get back to the mountains and to climbing. I failed to be inspired by climbing on the Peak gritstone edges and I discovered caving instead, but I'm itching to get back on the big mountain routes in the middle of nowhere. I should be back in the Highlands by the end of January, so I'll still catch a good chunk of the winter season. See you up there!


Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Caldera de Taburiente and the Cumbre Vieja

Looking down the 5000ft walls of the Caldera de Taburiente

After years of trips to cold and high places, it seemed about time for a trip to a warm and high place instead.

In the past I would have dismissed such an idea, considering it a waste of time especially when the winter season was starting in Scotland. But this year has reinforced for me the importance of variety, and an opportunity to see entirely different kinds of mountains could not be passed up.

The volcanic island of La Palma lies off the West coast of Morocco, and is sometimes referred to as the steepest island in the world. The volcanos are still active, the last erruption being in 1971, and as a result the mountains are mad, crumbling places with almost no climbing. But after studying a map we found it promised mountain walking amongst vast surroundings.

Pico de la Cruz

Some of the huge, crumbling pinnacles inside the caldera

The scene was set for Nicole and I on our first day. Warm clouds and drizzle hugged the hillsides, the humidity a shock to the system after leaving the Peak District in 4 degrees C. In search of getting above the clouds , we started the drive up the endlessly steep and winding road to the Roque de los Muchachos (2421m). Occasional large rocks on the road had to be swerved around. As we got higher the rocks got more frequent, until the road was littered with them everywhere from the cliffs above. Starting to get nervous, we turned another bend to find the road totally blocked by a large landslide, obviously very recent.

Getting out the car to guide Nicole's turn-in-the road, I had that precise same feeling of being hunted that I've had when crossing a snowfield threatened by the sun hitting icy cliffs above. But we were soon out of harm's way and starting towards the summit. My hopes of getting above an inversion didn't look like they'd be rewarded, the cloud thick all around us.

Amazing lighting.

Occasional glimpses of blue sky and sun above us convinced me that it was going to happen if we just waited. And sure enough, an hour later the cloud started to break and drop, and we found ourselves in the sun looking down on the 5000ft high walls of the Caldera de Taburiente.

The inversion breaking from Roque de los Muchachos

Canary Pines growing high on the mountain walls.

The Caldera de Taburiente is one of the most immense places I've ever seen. Mountain faces as big as the Alp's highest curve round in a giant arc, forming a huge forested bowl that is quite amazingly beautiful. Our route took us in a circuit right into the middle of the crater, and was probably one of the best walking routes I've ever done. And definitely memorable in that it featured 1080m of descent, but only 200m of ascent.

Roque de Idafe.

Inside the huge forested bowl of the Caldera de Taburiente

A La Palma Lizard 

The vibrant colours of the caldera couldn't have been different to the mountains to the south, the Cumbre Vieja. Everything here is black, grey or brown - the summits appear to just be huge piles of ash and some still hold the heat from their last erruptions. Cactuses and 12ft high heather adorn the lower slopes, lizards scuttling about in the dry.

On the summit of Pico Nambroque (1923m)

Nicole on the black slopes of the Cumbre Vieja

Arid, desert like conditions above the forested slopes below.

Pico Nambroque (1923m) and Pico Birigoyo (1809m) were both summits totally unlike anything I'm used to. Instead of a snowy crest or a corniced plateau, these summits were formed around the edge of arid craters with the sound of canaries flying past filling the air.

Hot and humid cloud forest.

After the smothering humidity of the cloud-forest/jungle above La Galga, it was a shock to the system to fly back to the Peak District to find snow. Yesterday we were up on Kinder in very wintery conditions, and now my thoughts are turning to the season which is underway in Scotland.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Ogof y Daren Cilau - caving in South Wales

 Epocalypse Way, Ogof y Daren Cilau.

At over 28,000m long (17 miles), Ogof y Daren Cilau is one of the greatest cave systems in Britain. It features arguably the most difficult entrance crawl in the UK, and the passages beyond are amongst the most remote and awe-inspiring places in the country.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe actually exists - it is one of two subterranean camps in a cave so big that multi-day trips are required to reach its furthest extremities. A mild obsession with the idea of a solo trip into this cave has defined the last month for me, the idea of being able to experience such a place too much to resist.

The 517m long entrance crawl has been described as "like doing 1000 push-ups on one arm whilst inching forward in freezing cold water". Considerable stamina was going to be required as was a fairly stoic mental attitude, as you have to endure this crawl a second time in order to exit the cave. At least four squeezes have to be passed in both directions in order to get through. Lots of upper body training and lots of caving over the summer was hopefully going to pay off.
"The Silver Goddess". An iconic formation and one of the thousands of crystal formations found throughout the cave.

I slid into the entrance of the flat-out crawl in the perfect mood - totally free of fear, expectation or pressure and aware that my existence for the next while would be crawling. After 80m I entered The Vice, a squeeze considerably more physical than it's namesake in Giant's Hole but not as tight as I was prepared for. First obstacle down.

Relentless crawling on my right side for the next hour took me round endless tight bends and over boulders, the passage almost never wide enough to let me crawl with both arms on my front. Long sections of rifts required a tiring half-crawl, half-crouch approach. I hummed music in my head and just crawled and crawled. Occasional spots that let me stand up never lasted long, but progress felt less strenuous than I'd been expecting. Was the fearsome reputation of this entrance crawl justified?

The final squeeze in the most difficult entrance crawl in the UK

After a long while I reached the bit that I thought might shut me down -  The Calcite Squeezes. I'd entered the cave with the strict principle that if I had doubts about these squeezes when I saw them I'd turn around without attempting them. The first hole looked intimidating on first sight, but I was definitely lean enough to fit through. The second and third were tighter and I had to carefully plan my moves before I entered them. Yet more sideways shuffling then a final squeeze which I had to take my helmet off in order to fit through, and I popped out of the crawl.

The contrast with what I emerged into could not have been greater. The entrance crawl might be tight and constricted, but the miles of passages beyond are huge, humbling places containing some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the country. Everything suddenly seemed so big. Was I meant to still feel quite fresh after the labours of the crawl? Excitedly I started down Jigsaw Passage, the knowledge that many miles of massive passageways lay beyond.

On the survey, Big Chamber Nowhere Near the Entrance actually does look pretty close to the entrance. So it felt to take quite a while to get there, a tight down-climb and another squeeze the only obstacles interrupting a long stretch of walking passage. I signed into the logbook in the Big Chamber and took note that I was the only person inside Britain's 5th longest cave. 

Turning right here would have taken me into The Time Machine, the largest known passageway in the UK, and the way on to Hard Rock Cafe and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Chambers and passages named on the theme of space and time covered the survey. The feeling of scale there and then felt overwhelming.

Epocalypse Way is huge and impressive, the roof high above and the walls scalloped from when a river last flowed here, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Cracked mud deposits on the floor remain undisturbed from millennia past. And this is where I found The White Company, one of the most impressive arrays of crystal formations yet discovered.

The White Company.

The White Company.

The White Company.

These weren't like the huge stalactite or column formations found in Yorkshire potholes, these were mainly only a few inches across. But they were beautiful beyond words. I felt a strong urge to stroke them or to feel if they were freezing cold like ice, but firmly kept my distance from these perfect geological marvels. The way they seemed to glow at me out of the darkness was mesmerising, and each formation seemed more improbable than the last.

Epocalypse Way continued tall and wide. Being able to walk for such distances in a place of such vast dimensions underground is quite a surreal experience. After a while a short climb up a rope took me into Urchin Oxbow, and here the crystals became frankly unbelievable. It looked like some bizarre coral formation had grown all over the roof and walls, "urchins" of calcite sprouting out everywhere. Some distance later I found the famous "Silver Goddess" standing on the floor, an anthodite growing out of a column giving it the appearance of a silver winged figure.

Urchin formations.

Fatigue was starting to make itself known. The thought of the return trip had been ever-present in the cave, and this was going to be the test of my mental stamina. My return back to the entrance series was uneventful, and felt just as long as it had on the way out.

The reputation of the entrance crawl as arguably the hardest in the UK felt far more justified on the way out. Doing it twice in a day is indeed quite a test. The Calcites Squeezes felt a bit harder but not much so, but the relentless pushing along with my right arm never seemed to end. Shuffling my bag along in front of me was becoming very tiresome, the only relief being in the deeper sections of water when I could float it forward instead. Finally I was back at The Vice which was challenging on my tired arms, and soon after I entered the flat-out crawl into the entrance pool. "The delights of reaching this point on the return journey cannot be over-emphasised" says my description and it is not wrong.

Today, reflecting on what is surely one of my biggest ever solo ventures, I can't help but wonder if I'll return to Daren Cilau one day. Many cavers declare "never again" after the entrance crawl, but how can only one trip ever do such a place justice?


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The day I didn't solo S.C Gully

The one and only Stob Coire nan Lochain, Glencoe. S.C Gully is the steep central gully.

The first of two reflective pieces on my experiences of Scottish winter climbing whilst living and working at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe between 2009 and 2013.

It is near impossible to describe what it is like to spend a winter climbing season living in Glencoe. During the 4 winters I spent living at the Clachaig, my every day realities were so far removed from what can be called normal that looking back on it now is a slightly dreamlike experience. If I wasn't actually out climbing, normality would be watching avalanches from my bedroom window, checking the weather forecast 10 times-a-day, strolling 5 minutes from the door to look at frozen waterfalls, calling out mountain rescue for yet another overdue team on the Aonach Eagach.

All my winters spent in Glencoe were unforgettable, but the 2012/13 season was the big one. Good conditions could be found somewhere almost continuously between November and May, and high pressure and cold air arrived in February not to leave for weeks. The time was right to aim high and try to achieve some long held ambitions.

Of all Glencoe's winter climbs, to me SC Gully in Coire nan Lochain is the most beautiful. Arguably the finest line in the Glen, it had me hooked the first time I read W.H Murray's account in his timeless masterpiece. It had also gained quite a mean reputation at the Clachaig during my time there after two colleagues bailed off it on two seperate occasions. One amusing incident in particular springs to mind from the 2009/10 season. A group of climbers who used to frequent the Clachaig had got roaringly drunk in the Boots Bar on a saturday night, woken up monumentally hungover and proceeded to take repeated falls off the crux of SC Gully onto a dodgy peg. They staggered into the bar later that day to be greeted by my brother Alex who was still working there at the time. "What can I get for you?" asked Alex. "Got any valium?", they replied.

February 2013, Glencoe
A year of focused hillrunning in the glen had brought my fitness to what felt like near Olympian levels. I could happily do a swift ascent of Ben Nevis and the CMD Arete, run the Aonach Eagach immediately afterwards, and wake up the next morning fresh as a daisy. I could summit the Buachaille in 50 minutes via a climbing route, and comfortably run up Munros in a 3 hour break in an 11 hour shift. Running up Glencoe's steepest corries became an almost daily occurance, and with time I felt like I could float uphill with an ease that at times almost frightened me.

I was on the form of my life that winter, on-sight soloing Grade III's all over the place, often on no sleep or after yet another wild party in the Clachaig staff bothy. Everything felt so smooth, and I felt able to move through the mountains almost effortlessly. Ice climbing conditions were amazing and everyone seemed to be having their best ever season. I was going to near ridiculous lengths to climb the routes I wanted, on occasions driving 200 mile round trips to go climbing before a 3pm shift in the pub. The time arrived when I realised I was going to attempt to solo SC Gully.

A normal day for February 2013.

The idea, once seeded, grew to have deep significance for me. I weighted the idea with a label, my abilities would be measured by whether or not I could solo that route. Would climbing SC Gully, solo and on-sight, somehow put me more at peace? Would it quench that irrepressible thirst I had to be climbing everything all the time? Would it prove me to be who I wanted to be? I believed that it would. It would be the big one to top off everything else.

27th February 2013
Another freezing dawn, another cloudless sky, and another time trudging up that bloody path that goes into Coire nan Lochain. It could have been one of dozens of winter mornings I'd had on that path, but things were very different this time. I had run up that path more often than I could remember, walked up it with a heavy sack to more days on Bidean than I can recall. It was part of my every day existence. Yet that morning it felt a bit like I was walking towards the most important test of my life.

I glanced at the streak of ice flowing down the classic rock route Quiver Rib, thinking of the first time I'd done it, 4am one summer solstice morning. I felt like a different person this morning, serious and grim. Why could I not get in the right frame of mind? The fear of turning around empty-handed was worse than the fear of what would happen if I messed up on the route. I wanted it so badly.

Looking towards S.C Gully at dawn. The left hand gully.

The corrie bowl opened out around me, the temperature notably dropped and everything became much brighter, the same way it always does up there. I stopped to put on my helmet before I could actually see into the gully, afraid I'd see it and want to turn around.

Five minutes later and the pit in my stomach was becoming a bottomless hole. There's something about that unusual kink in the ice in SC Gully which makes it intimidating. But I set about it, and charged into the first pitch. It felt steep, steeper than I was liking. I started to shake, but not from muscle pump. My arms felt clumsy somehow, my axes unusual in my hands. My crampon points bit into the sticky ice but didn't convince me as they should. I stopped in the tiny bay before the crux ramp and looked upwards with the inevitable dawning on me. Rarely have I felt so tormented as I did right then. 

I had undoubtably soloed harder pitches in winter, in worse weather and in more serious situations. The route was in better than perfect condition and was there for the taking. But there and then, in the moment I knew I'd measure myself by, I could not justify it. All the thoughts that you have to not think to survive as a soloist came at me at once.

Looking up S.C Gully in perfect conditions.

Downclimbing the first pitch, I felt a numbness I'd not known before in the mountains. This was everything I'd feared. Almost without feeling, I went on to climb Langsam on Summit Buttress, and the possible second ascent of Odyssey (II/III*) on Bidean nam Bian. Not a breath of wind touched the summits and the sky was the deepest blue, and it was one of those days that many mountaineers will never witness in years of climbing in Scotland. 

Dawn light on the Ben, seen from beneath the route.

A few days later Isi Oakley and Roddy Murray climbed the route as a team, and told me that the way the ice had formed meant the pitch I'd climbed was in fact the crux, not the ramp above as usual. The hardest bit was behind me when I decided to retreat.

They climbed it the same day that I soloed Taxus (III***), the classic ice gully of the Southern Highlands and the same grade as SC Gully. My lasting impression of that ascent is one of calm and peacefulness, of enjoying great climbing in a beautiful place. Fear hadn't come into it. As Isi and Roddy told me about their day, surprisingly I can honestly say that I didn't feel the slightest envy.

So what did I learn from all this? Very little, at the time. My winter season continued for another 6 weeks and I rarely gave thought to anything apart from what what I was going to climb next. My failure was soon swept under the carpet and forgotten while I hungrily ate up a rare banquet of winter routes that seemed to just keep on coming.

I soloed about 150 winter climbs in the 5 years I lived in the Highlands, and it still didn't seem like enough. I'd done most of the big summer mountaineering routes and the majority of the Munros in a 2 year period, many of which numerous times. Now, 6 months since leaving the mountains, the perspective brought about by distance is very different. It is not the fleeting glory of climbing successes that I miss nor the adrenaline rush of pulling through the hard bits. The freezing silent dawns, the glisten of first light on snow, the otherworldly beauty of the sun rising over a cloud inversion - these are the things that come to me in daydreams now. I miss the perfect starscapes and the wild views, the beauty and the vastness of it all. Would anything have been different if I had continued to the top of S.C Gully? Not a thing, at least not anything that matters. I place more value now on the times I stopped and stared, than on any day when ambition got me to the top of a climb but turned me blind in the process.