Friday, 3 February 2012

Scottish International Meet

Well, the week started with a bang for me...on the head! But I'll get to that later. 
The International meet was something I was really looking forward to. The idea of being immersed for a week amongst 80 other climbers doing nothing but climbing and talking about climbing is my idea of heaven.
The check in at the lodge was 5pm on the Sunday, which meant we had the whole weekend to get some climbing done first. (you've got to take every opportunity you can with Scottish winter). So Saturday we walked into Lochan and back out again. Sunday we did the same, this time with slightly more success. The plan was to try and repeat Snow Pimp just to the right of Hookers Corner. Unfortunately after climbing the steep groove to get to the base of the crack, Dave dropped a crucial hex and with the crack well iced it was game over.
Rather than descend we decided to move right into the next corner and climb this up to a narrow chimney slot in a pillar. This turned out to be steeper than it looked (aren't they always) to gain the chimney recess above. Moves up this — making sure you didn't get too jammed in — then a reach out left, allowed a chockstone to be hooked in a groove, that led to the belay. The next pitch led quite straightforwardly to the top and seemed to match the description of the route Conundrum, VI 7.
After checking in at the lodge Dave Garry and myself headed to the bar where we met the guests we would be taking out for the next couple of days. I was pleasantly surprised to find we had been paired up with the Slovenians Urban and Matej, so game on.
Monday morning was an 8.30 start, so most people including ourselves, headed to the northern corries. Not knowing too much about Matej's abilities on mixed ground I headed for Hookers Corner, a VI 6 on number four buttress. After despatching the first pitch and setting up the belay Dave arrived on the ledge next to me. He'd done the first pitch of the Hoarmaster which shared the top pitch with our route. This wasn't a problem as you could climb it on the left or right at about grade five. So with plenty of lighthearted banter flowing and everyone enjoying themselves, Urban and Matej headed up pitch two.
After about twenty metres Urban shouted down to warn us that the block — about the size of a microwave — in the groove he'd climbed was loose. No problem, we'd keep an eye on it, although it slightly worried me that the ropes were running against it's right hand side. While this was going on Nick Bullock was just starting up pitch two on Pic n Mix. I turned side on to watch briefly. Looking back now its like my mind has reconstructed a memory of what happened next. I know there was a shout, Dave told me. I know I raised my shoulders up to my ears , cowered into the rock and tensed up. I could work that out after, by the angle of the impact on my helmet and the damage to my right arm, just above the elbow. I do remember the blow, like someone creeping silently up behind you and hitting you over the head with a baseball bat. I went down. I don't know how long for - Dave reckoned about twenty seconds — then I staggered to my feet in an intense state of shock. 
When people say their life flashed before their eyes, I now understand. 
It must have been when I was down. I remember seeing my kids and girlfriend and feeling sad, but I wasn't going down that route, not today anyway. 
The next thing I remember is Dave asking me where I lived. I think I got the answer right after some serious digging, but it wasn't easy. I started asking myself questions. My longterm memory seemed ok but I was struggling to remember the Slovenians names, although I was mostly struggling to work out how the fuck I was still alive after being struck by such a big rock.
I was dazed but otherwise seemed ok, just scared. Scared I was suddenly going to drop dead from a brain haemorrhage and that would be that. Matej had reached the top and taken in the ropes, so in a massive state of shock I got on with seconding the pitch. I asked Dave to climb next to me. I don't know why but it gave me a sense of security and in the state I was in, having people around was what I needed. As I climbed I noticed the impact marks where the rock had ricocheted on its journey to my head. Thats why I was alive...if it had been a direct hit this would have been an obituary.
I took the walk out nice and slow and Dave drove back to the lodge where George McEwan gave me the once over. He didn't think I was concussed but to be on the safe side recommended I not drink alcohol for at least 12 hours until the risk of concussion had passed. Damn, I really felt like a drink that night! 
Later, I spoke to Clare on the Phone. "You sound really happy" she said. "Is that because You're getting loads of climbing done?" "No" I thought. "Its because I'm alive".
Tuesday was an enforced rest day for me. My neck had stiffened up and if I wanted to get anything out of the rest of the week I needed to sort it quick, so I booked a massage and headed into Aviemore and the nearest chemist, to buy every kind of treatment I could find! 
It worked! By Wednesday morning I was feeling good, but unfortunately the weather wasn't and with freezing levels way above the summits we headed to Newtyle cave en masse, where Greg the beast gave us a consummate display of dry tooling. That boy is good!
For the last three days I was to be climbing with Takaaki Nagato, one of the infamous Giri Giri Boys from Japan. I was looking forward to this as I'd heard from Will, he was solid. So next stop Lochnagar and the VII 8 Where Eagles Dare. Since seeing the inspiring guide book photo I'd wanted to get on this and it lived up to my expectations. Its all about the final crux pitch really but the setting right at the top of the crag and the approach up the buttress below, really adds to the atmosphere of the route.
Taka on the (vertical!) headwall (Where Eagles Dare)
You can't come all the way from Japan and not climb on the Ben, so that was the destination for Friday. It seemed like everyone thought the same, as it was four full mini buses that headed west that morning, although having the key to the gate — making an easy walk in — might have added to the attraction!
I'd been thinking about a new route possibility. A direct line straight up to the belay — under the final chimney pitch of Babylon - with the option of moving right, for a final pitch up the big corner. So we headed up Number Three Gully to check it out.
It was busy, with teams on Sioux Wall, Babylon, Darth Vader and Gargoyle Wall plus the photographers snapping at us from all angles! 
Time to start climbing. I pointed Taka at the first pitch. A blocky groove just left of Winter Chimney that led to a big ledge. Like a ninja, he floated up it. Precise, accurate and efficient. Watching him climb was like an education for me and I'm sure my own climbing improved.
Sake P1
Now we were standing 25 m below the final chimney of Babylon, at the base of a steep slab and it was my turn on the sharp end. I racked the gear and looked up. Small features appeared on the wall. If I could just link them together everything would be fine. 
This style of climbing requires a methodical approach. Clean the wall to find the first hook, clean for feet, step up and repeat, then look for gear. A rock 3 appears. Step up and repeat the process. Another good wire. The moves blur. A small side pull gains some more height, then a small flat edge gains some more, before my mind clicks back into protection mode. There is none. I don't want to come off here. I do a quick assessment. Ledge about 10 m below and gear about 4 m below. More gear needed. Above me is a small triangular recess. Maybe some there? No, but a hook to my left  will take a bulldog. Now I can relax again. One more move up and the holds disappear. 1 m to my left is a crack that leads to the delicate traverse rightwards on Babylon, I take it and the climbing eases to the belay. Not quite as direct up the wall as I was hoping but still great climbing. Now its Taka's  lead. He opts to try the steep corner to our right and is soon well established. Delicate bridging on tiny smears see's him slowly inching his way upwards. Again I'm impressed by his steadiness on lead. As he nears the top James Dunn raps into position for the glory shots and I just know there's no way Taka's failing now! Sure enough he pulls over onto easy ground and all I've got to do is second it, then its drinks in the bar tonight!
Sake P3
I try to copy his footwork as best I can and it's working, until I get to a good foot ledge at the half way point and place my axe on a sloping shelf, only to watch it slip off, hit my foot and disappear. Damn, I was really enjoying it as well. Luckily Dave Almond is watching and gets Taka to lower his axe down for me to continue. The rest goes smoothly and I'm soon looking at the face of a very happy Giri Giri Boy and discussing what he'd like to drink that night!
Sake VIII 9
Me seconding Sake P3. (Dave Almond)
With the end of week party on the Saturday night, it was unlikely we'd be climbing on the Sunday but Dave Almond was keen for a rematch in SCNL. So we hatch a plan for Saturday. The Giri Giri Boys can climb Unicorn as a team while Dave and me get back on the route to it's right, Scansor. This way we weren't neglecting our guests and they would get to climb a mega classic with us close by. 
As with last year, Dave got stuck into the first pitch and although the weather was miles better the pressure to succeed was much greater. In the Bar yesterday I'd told anyone that asked, our plans for today, in the hope that mentally it might give us the extra drive to get up the thing. 
Yet again, after the first pitch we both commented on what a fantastic piece of climbing it was in its own right. If the route just stopped at the belay it would be worth doing! But it doesn't and that would be avoiding the issue. We weren't about to do that! 
Approaching the crux on Scansors first pitch. (Dave Almond)
The next pitch is intimidating. You look up at a seemingly featureless wall and every part of you is saying, "It doesn't go, give up". It didn't help that I'd heard the night before, that someone had attempted it last winter, gone back and climbed it in summer, then said they were no longer interested in trying it again. What did they know that I couldn't see from here? Only one way to find out. 
I hammered in a pecker then found a good nut before hooking my way up the initial groove to gain the ledge on the left. The only problem with this was I didn't want to leave it! The next twenty minutes were spent scraping around until I'd arranged some gear that I felt happy with.
Then there were no more excuses. 
I had to get in the water and swim with the sharks. 
Place the axe, match and pull on to the wall. Reach up with the right axe to a good flat edge, match and survey the new terrain. No more gear to be found so reverse the moves back to the ledge and recover. I repeated this about four times, each time getting slightly a highball boulder problem with a bad landing, until I could get my axes on the ledge, up and to my right. Then I looked down. The ledge below me was looking closer and the gear was looking a long way away. "Good effort" said Dave, but something in his voice didn't sound right. Worry. "That's not like him" I thought, and started to reverse downwards. My foot couldn't find the hold. I felt the panic rise and the energy drain with it, then my foot was on and  the door closed, but my attempt was over for now.
A foreshortened view just below my high point. (Dave Almond)
One metre of climbing to unlock and I can't get it out of my head. Every waking minute I'm reliving the moves and adding a different ending. I've got to go back.
As for the international meet, role on the next, as I for one, can't wait! 
Giri Giri Boys after Unicorn (Dave Almond)