" SO COME ON AND LET ME KNOW..SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO ? "

Almost 3 weeks had passed since my abortive trip to Scotland. I'd flown over from the Alps to meet with Nick Bullock for 2 weeks of action only to be closed down by an unexpected melt only a day in. With flights and hire car paid for to cover the whole period and the cost of extra flights to get out, only one route in the can and 750€ lighter, it was an expensive melt. Not only for the mountains but also for my pocket!

The following weeks passed with warm and windy weather in the Highlands, bringing hardly any decent mixed climbing conditions. The Alps were similar, very mild and not much snow and the mountains dry of ice but still there were a few good days out on the skis with clients to be had. It was a good period to guide and train. Countless sessions in the "pain cave" hang boarding and down at the wall pulling laps on a power endurance circuit I'd worked out that had become the winter indoor project for many for much of the season. It's nice to work out moves for others to enjoy. I can see how route setters get some satisfaction from this. As well as indoor sessions, it was warm enough to climb on the rock which is always good for early season fitness...

Keeping a close eye on the forecast in Scotland, it looked as if conditions would turn for the better from the 27th February with temperatures dropping, high wind, low wind, snow but then maybe no snow...ah should I stay or should i go ?  However, nothing is for certain in Scottish winter mixed climbing and the call to book flights and a car were left until less than 24 hours before departure. To be spontaneous is key! Thanks to Cath and the team at SAIS for your forecasting and images on the blog. Your knowledge becomes our power!. My trusty partner Jon Bracey managed to pull some time out for himself to give us 4 days of possible product on a quick hit. Looked like game on!!!

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Landing in Edinburgh it felt like t-shirt temperatures as the rain bounced off the runway. We collected our gear and headed straight to Ratho wall for a few routes at this fantastic venue. Plan was to go for a "light" session but for sure we got a little carried away and spent hours there getting spanked. (Thats pumped, or trashed, or beasted my U.S and European friends and not spanked as in "spanked" ok!!). We then headed west for a few days with open plans and minds. The rain came down hard as we drove over Rannoch Moor with hardly any snow in sight!  Fingers crossed for the morning then...

Thankfully we awoke to snow down to low levels and decided to head up to Glen Coe and slap up to Stob Coire Nan Lochan. Not knowing conditions, we somehow ended up on "Unicorn" VIII/8. With the rock well rimed and the cracks verglassed, the first pitch was as hard, confusing and bold as I had heard. Very "fall off-able" in those conditions but thankfully I managed to somehow stay put in the corner without a fall. I really didn't fancy the look of my gear too much to test it !  Jon followed and climbed through to the second pitch, still giving hard and sustained climbing but brilliant. I then took us to the top on yet another verglassed "un-fun" section with a steep pull to finish, topping out in beautiful evening light with stunning views before heading down to the Clachaig for a good feed in front of the fire.

After a nice work out on "Unicorn" we decided to climb a classic route that we've both always wanted to do, mainly because it has a cool name. "Neanderthal" VII/7 is on Bidean Nam Bian on Lost Valley Buttresses at the head of the Lost Valley. A long approach through old woodland and waterfalls brings you up to a plateau like valley, steep sided but a beautiful place to be. We waded in deep snow to the buttress. A steady 1st pitch gave way to 2 excellent pitches. Again the crag was heavily rimed once we pulled out from the cave so time had to be taken in cleaning the rime off rocks to give way to hooks and gear. We thought back to the first ascent in 1987 by R.Anderson and G.Nicoll, climbing with Terrordactyl axe ices back then, a fine effort that.

We topped out to the most amazing views that I think I've ever experienced in Scotland. It's hard not to be blown away by the beauty of the Highlands at this time of year when the suns out!. Late afternoon light is almost bronze in colour and really worth all the effort when conditions finally come good. 

Day 3 for a change of scene we headed to the Cairngorms. The early morning start from Roy Bridge for me felt savage but for Jon I think it was still a lie in, not having his kids around to wake him up. Besides which, I'm not the best morning person. We walked into Coire an Lochain and headed up for another classic we both had on our wish list.  "The Vicar" VII/8 on No.3 Buttress. Again the crag was well rimed up and a little verglassed. Jon gave me a belay to cross the Y Branch gully in case of windslab. I continued up the first pitch, which was steady but still ground that I had to take my time on. Jon then continued through and climbed the short but pokey 2nd pitch, doing well to dig out the hooks on a deep lock off to pull into the belay.

I climbed the 3rd pitch. Steep to start but on good hooks, then pulled out left into cracks all of which were again buried. It took time to find the good gear and hooks. At the top the guide book mentions to pull back right to the arete to continue to the top but I got lost and went direct up this loose, verglassed, gear less, nasty off width,  which almost took longer than the harder moves below as I was trying hard to not take a monster lop onto a distant hex below. Scary stuff...

We met Graeme Ettle in the bar afterwards. He assessed me in my Scottish winter guides test 10 years ago. Now a friend, first winter ascentionist of "The Vicar" and total sand bagger,  he told us a good story of that ascent back in 1992, saying it was easy and was given 7 in the "old" grading system at the time. Don't listen to him, it felt more like VIII/8 to me. 

With one of my heals ripped to bits by my boots, a windy forecast and with both of us feeling a little jaded we head back into Coire an Lochain on day 4. With the wind in our face the walk in felt for me like a bit of an effort especially with my heal getting further ripped to bits but listening to the  Clash on my iPod got me in.

We headed for "War and Peace" VII/8. Jon took the first lead up the slabby but unpositive corner with me taking the 2nd pitch through some steep overlaps. Jon continued up a nice hanging corner till I came though on easy ground to the top. Given the conditions, we got out as quick as possible back to Glen Mor Lodge for a cheeky coffee and cake !

So the trip gamble paid off this time. If conditions stay in I will be back at the weekend. It's hard to beat this place when conditions are working with you.....

EPHEMERAL FRUSTRATIONS

A life time of training for something so ephemeral as winter climbing can be challenging on the mind. Are conditions in, not in ? Will it be good in a few days, maybe a week ? Should I play it safe and just go rock climbing in Spain ? For sure I'm fortunate to have these dilemma's in my life, and It’s something I don't take for granted.

That’s why making the right choice in what I'm doing and when, stresses me out! Climbing is my life, the only thing I know and something that brings me happiness (and pain !) Trying to balance fitness for rock climbing, mixed climbing, and alpinism all around the same time is an impossible task, to be performing at the level in each discipline that I want to be at is something I need to accept rather than constantly beat myself up about.

After weeks of looking at forecasts and blogs, the Alps were dry and Scotland looked to be coming good for a while and worth a trip. Besides which, I was more keen to maximise some winter conditions rather than go to Spain at this time. Winds coming from the north brought snow Wednesday through to Friday, then temperatures where due to stay cold for at least a week, bringing the cliffs into condition. Game on...

Being able to be spontaneous, I boarded a flight to Edinburgh and met up with Nick Bullock in hope of some quality product. We’d both committed for 2 weeks, so psych was high driving up to the CC hut in Roy Bridge that evening. Nick had already arrived. Walking through the door I was confronted with “Have you seen the forecast?. It’s changed. A thermo nuclear meltdown on Sunday is now on the cards! Looks like we have one day... two at the max.”

Still optimistic, we headed into Stob Corie Nan Lochcan in Glen Coe on Saturday. The mountains were covered in snow and in the morning sunlight looked stunning as we approached the crag.

It was great to be back out with my old mate again and the walk up seemed to fly by as we caught up on each others news. The crag was “in”, looking white if not possibly a little verglassed! We decided on climbing the “East Face Direct Direct” VII/7 on the central buttress. A route I’d never done and that Nick had always wanted to do. The line looked fantastic. Conditions on the route where tricky with verglas, so felt pretty solid for the grade.

Protection and placements were hard to get and what might have been good foot placements were covered by bullet hard clear ice, so climbing was at times a little unpredictable and “wiggy”. With the turf in places not being fully frozen it made for a few exciting pulls! We topped out and arrived back at the car just before dark.

Checking the forecast that evening made for disappointing reading. The warm spell was incoming and looked to be staying put for a while moving west to east.

The following morning we drove to the Cairngorms, watching the outside temperature gauge of the car go from 0c to 5c, back to 1c in Aviemore to 3c and rain at the car park! We stepped outside to get a feel for things but already both knew we were fucked! Nick said “I don’t need to go out in that” and I agreed. The cliffs would already be black and out of acceptable climbing condition, so we bailed and headed down to Glenmore Lodge for a coffee and catch up with Matt Pycroft who was up for some filming and Calum Muskett. Callum had been in the car park just before us with Dave MacLeod and had also decided not to bother which helped ease my anxiety about our decision !

The rest of the day was spent catching up with friends and drinking huge amounts of coffee. A day later I’m sat on a plane heading back to the Alps.

I will return to Scotland once conditions come good again. Some folk may wonder why all the effort for something that is so condition dependant and unreliable. The answer is simple. Scottish winter gives the best mixed climbing in the world. The mountains may be small but the adventures are far from that. We’re also lucky in the UK to have a great community of climbers sharing the same passion and enthusiasm, looking out for each other and sharing information when things come good. A strong scene. 

Thanks to Nick for some of the images above, already looking forward to the next hit mate....

NEW ROUTE "ROTATORNATOR"

It's been a dry Autumn in the Alps. Sure, there was one big dump of snow in November, to get everyone excited for a big winter, but as yet there is nothing on the horzion in terms of precipitation. A high pressure in the Alps brings day after day of blue skies, but along with that polluted valleys, filled to the brim with wood smoke and diesel fumes, all trapped like a caged animal until a low pressure becomes more dominate to realise its toxic air away from the valleys, and up into the higher atmospheres, and to then most likely, make all of us again forget what we are doing to our planet, out of site out of mind, maybe so! But its still there, still infecting!

To escape the smog on the 2nd December, the opening day of the Skyway lift in Courmayuer, Italy, myself along with Stu Macdonald took the ride to the top, skied and skinned into Cirque Maudit to go and check conditions, and to look at a few new route possibilities I've had in mind. To no surprise conditions where dry, limited amounts of usable ice and from what I could make out, no transformation of snow on the existing routes, only powder!

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Route choice for a climb later in the week was limited, but I had one cool line in mind, a line that to me stood out on the l'epaule NW de la Tour Ronde and as far as I was aware, unclimbed. The following days I spent hours looking through old guide books and going through the route files at OHM Office in Chamonix to confirm or not as to if the line had already been climbed. Weather it would be or not, it looked cool, something different to go at in an area where the potential for new routes are now limited, especially in these conditions.

7th December, with the first lift at 8.30 at Skyway, and with short daylight hours, myself and Stu didn't even have time for a coffee when the lift docked into the top station (very unusual). With a slight breeze but under a blue sky we skied, then skinned back up into the Cirque Maudit, rounding the bend the breeze stopped to leave a calm day. Perfect weather gave way to some perfect mixed climbing, cracks, corners, and caves with just enough snow to hold together some loose ground, and with just enough ice to let us creep up smooth slabs, but with the rock lending itself to solid hooks and great protection. At the top of pitch 5 one below the top we where consumed by darkness. Pitch 6 I took a right hand corner leading to a roof, which I pasted on the right with zero feet! Bringing us to the side of the buttress and a logical finish of this line at a large spike, revealing beautiful views over to the south face of Mont Blanc in a moon lit sky.

We rappelled the line to the top of the 4th pitch, but from here rappelled the falline for a further 3 rope lengths to the glacier, on blue cord ( you can't miss it!!). I have to say that the climbing to the top of pitch 5 was really excellent, pitch 6...."not so fun" but it was dark! I think if anyone's keen for a repeat either call it good at the top of pitch 5 and rap, or rather than go up and right where we went, go up and left, this could be a nicer finish!! Maybe....  Oh and take a number 4 cam, 2x number 1, 2x number 0.75. This will keep it fun. 

Once back at the base and after a short chat with Stu, about either battling down the toula glacier in the dark after a re-freeze, or stay in the hut and have a shite nights sleep, there was only one good option.... We skied the Toula! It was "skiable" to the mid station to where we then carried on down to the valley with only 15 minutes of walking at the end back to Skyway and Pizza, result!

I've checked in with a few Italian and French local area experts and everyone believes this is for sure a new winter line, with only one other route on this face being the rock route from Jean-Marc Boivin and Patrick Decorps in 1980. It's possible other folk have rock climbed up there before in the area but nothing is for sure. Either way it's a line well worth seeking out when all the classic mixed routes are mobbed. Enjoy.....

"Rotatornator" 250m Scottish VII (M6/M6+) . l'epaule NW de la Tour Ronde, 7th December. 2016 Matt Helliker/Stuart Macdonald

NEW BLOG!

So here goes...I'm going to attempt to keep a blog for the occasional times where I may have something of interest to share. So if you need a challenge and are able to fight your way through my dyslexic posts and take what you read as it comes, then good luck, you will definitely need it.....