Whilst every year has it’s ups and downs, I still maintain that every year is the best year. This year was no exception, so much so that upon drafting up a ‘short list’ of my favourite routes and experiences I swiftly realised that it was a pretty long list: this year has indeed been an exceptional year.
Being in the mood for introspection, as one tends to be in/around the New Year, I wondered exactly how and why this year had been such a stand out: what moulded and shaped 2017? And more importantly, how might I use that knowledge to shape 2018?
The year started a little differently due to Penny and I being mid way through a month long trip to Tasmania. In fact, our parting shot to 2016 was to climb The Totem Pole, which would still rank as one of my Top 5 routes of all time. Anyhow, whilst we were out there we weren’t in hunt of grades – our main objective was to explore the island. Yes, there were certain routes we wanted to climb, but often these weren’t the hardest – they were just in the coolest places (Totem Pole and Pole Dancer being two good examples of this). The word ‘experience’ is cliched, as virtually everything is ‘an experience’, but I guess it goes some way towards describing the ethos of focussing on a whole variety of things such as people, place, environment, as opposed to just grade and difficulty. I didn’t really want to spend much time redpointing, as that was something I felt I needed a break from (and this ‘plan’ was very much the antidote to that).
Anyway, here’s a breakdown of some of the highlights, with the first – despite what I said before – being sport climbs that I red-pointed (I do as I do, not as I say…).
Thormen’s Moth and Arch Enemies
Thormen’s Moth and Arch Enemies are two of the most unique sport routes around, with the former looking like something straight out of Santa Linya and the latter from Yangshao (if your eye sight isn’t that good it would help to draw these parallels…). However, not only do they have some of the best and most unlikely lines going, but they have a unique climbing style to match. The burly pockets of Thormen’s, which are so large you can get both your hands and your feet in them, are very otherworldly. When it comes to Arch Enemies, the move to the jug in the centre of the arch and the final move to the jug at the top of it must rate as two of the most satisfying moves on Peak Lime (a medium with a plethora of highly unsatisfying moves).
I think the other reason that these routes felt so special is because that they’re a little off the beaten track, with Thormen’s Moth in particular being considered pretty esoteric (despite the cave frequently being filled with tourists). It’s also cursed with a reputation for being permanently wet, which is (thankfully) untrue, but does tend to put a lot of people off. Thankfully an optimistic attitude, a desire to head somewhere new, and a few rolls of tin foil made it all possible.
This little beauty came as something of a surprise, as we’d intended to do Coronation Street, only by the time my climbing partners (the nefarious Booth Brothers) had arrived there was already had a queue of people waiting to climb it. This was (retrospectively) a blessing in disguise as a) it gave me an excuse to go back and do it later in the year (which I did) and b) it gave us an excuse to do this infrequently climbed Littlejohn classic instead. What ensued was a lot of laughter, a lot of ivy, and – in between the wet bits – some really good climbing (a lot might be pushing it…). It also made me realise just how much I’d missed climbing on wet and vegetated rock, which is – believe it or not – actually ‘a thing’.
I’ve already written a lot about this trip already, but having never been shy of a word or two thought I’d say a few more – even though I can’t really articulate the magic. There was something about this trip, from the moment the clouds parted on Owey to the last route at Aillaide in the setting sun. The routes were world class, as was the company, and this really is a trip that I will never, ever forget.
Stand out routes, if I were to unnecessarily give myself five, would be Immaculata and The Second Coming on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Stormy Petrel (in a storm) at Muckross, On Reflection and…urrmm…pick pretty much any other route at Aillaidie – it doesn’t matter which as they’re all good!
Keep it local
Upon my return home I realised I was going to have a crisis of identity if I didn’t focus my efforts on loving what was around me. After climbing wall-to-wall classics on the Mirror Wall I found it a little hard to come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard I squinted, Peak Lime just didn’t have the same charm. In light of this dawning realisation I set about doing a load of routes I’d been putting off for ages.
At the top of the list was London Wall, a route I should have done around ten years ago, but had instead done what any other spineless idiot would have done and ticked my way through virtually every other route at Millstone instead. Whilst Master’s Edge did seem like a viable alternative for a fleeting moment, I basically went on a whim – found the start impossible – then came back the following day and did it. Saving things for the onsight is so overrated…
Over at Water cum Jolly (best named crag in the Peak) Behemoth was a similar state of affairs, having been on the to-do list for a number of years but never quite making it to the top due to a reputation for an alarming start and an awkward/flared crack up high. The reality didn’t disappoint, with the top being a particularly slippery fish, so slippery that I slipped out of it…
After doing a load of things locally it was only natural I’d want to head elsewhere. Having bouldered a lot in/around Northumberland, I’d done next to nothing on the ropes – this needed to be remedied…
Endless Flight, Master Blaster, and Greenford Road were well worth the wait, being as good a selection of E5s as you’d get anywhere in the country. That said, don’t be fooled by the numbers – Pembroke E5s these are not. A fall from the top of Endless Flight would indeed be endless, but the fall from the top of Masterblaster would most likely be ended when you hit the ground. After doing these two my pulse was adequately raised, so embraced an unforgivably high side runner on Greenford Road (the best decision of my life).
Of all of the crags we visited that weekend Sandy Crag was the one that stood out as a particularly special place, in its high moorland setting. Angel Fingers and Sandy Crack were both ace too, with the latter being one of the best pure hand cracks in the UK.
Eschewing the sport draws I donned the trad rack for some classics at Malham, Ilkley, and Gordale. Wombat and Slender Loris lived up to their reputation, but it was Mulatto Wall (in a single pitch) that I thought stole the show for ‘route of the day’ at Malham. Ilkley provided what was possibly the most unlikely ascent of my life, when I managed to luck my way up Milky Way first go despite the fact I wasn’t even sure if I was going to give it a go. Welly Crack didn’t disappoint either (and was thankfully a lot, lot easier than London Wall.
Most memorable of all was Jenny Wren at Gordale, which wins the award for ‘most psychological journey of 2017’. If you thought P1 was bad, just wait until you get on P2. At least by the time you’re on P3 you won’t hit the ground! I’m not sure who was more scared, me or Penny*
*I am sure, it was Penny…
Camp-a-neering in Scotland
Like a keen boy scout I got the bug for camping, so in August Tom Ripley and I headed up to Scotland on a (passably) marginal forecast in order to spend a few days underneath the Shelterstone. With grand plans to climb everything, we were thwarted somewhat by the fact that everything was wet. Still, it didn’t stop us climbing the Steeple (which was amazing) and the Pin (which was the wettest route I’d climbed for years, thus satisfying my thirst for wet/vegetated rock). After that we drank a lot of tea, went reindeer spotting, and talked shit for hours upon end before bailing.
Thankfully the weather cheered up out west and we headed over to the Etive Slabs. Having been there once before I was psychologically prepped for the terror that ensued. The Pinch Direct was something of a psychological thriller, with a alarming series of moves through the overlaps on P1+2 (which I had wrongly believed to be the crux) and a voyage into the heart of darkness on P3+4. Having spoken to Caff afterwards (no stranger to fear) he reckoned these pitches were E6. I have no idea how far I ran it out, but the top of P3+4 (which I’d linked together) just kept going, and going, and going, with gear being a dim and distant memory. I was crimping down on little stubs of heather with my hands and smearing on earthy cracks with my feet. I don’t know how far I’d have fallen, but…well…best not think about it really!
Pembroke is one of my favourite places in the whole world. I’ve been at least once a year for the past 15 years and it still keeps giving. This was Penny’s first time in Pembroke, so I made an attempt (possibly failed) to show her around some of the more popular, and a lot of the less popular, areas. We also had my parents around, and due to my Mum’s obsession with all things aquatic we ended up having a few good deep water soloing sessions – me climbing, her swimming.
Of the various unpopular places we climbed my favourite was probably the cliffs in/around Penally, where we climbed The Magic Flute plus a load of other beauties. We also had a good snorkel around on the beach below, which further added to the novelty of an already unconventional day out.
Another highlight was Love is the Seventh Wave, an esoteric little number over near Stack Rocks. We would later find out it had been subject to rockfall, which would have been obvious to a blind man, but apparently not to me whilst I was on it. That said, it would explain why this E4 was probably about E6, and the massive rock scar, and the fact the description didn’t match anything whatsoever with what I climbed. To coin the old phrase: I’m not sure who was more scared, me or Penny*
*it was Penny…again…
I thought that Ramon and I would have expended our weather based luck whilst we were in Ireland, but it would appear not as we were blessed with back to back sunshine throughout our time in Arrochar. Wondrous sunsets were a nightly occurrence throughout our three days up on The Cobbler, which (much like Ireland) led to a magical and otherworldly feel. The route itself was even better than it looks (and it looks pretty good) and I really can’t get over just how good the whole thing was. Club Crack didn’t disappoint either, being somewhat more rough and ready (read: dirty), but an outstanding effort for a route from the 50s – it’s still hard today!!
The Return to Cheddar (and a little bit of Avon)
It’s been years since Si and I have been climbing, so we set aside a date for a bro-mantic weekend away. Being that the date was in October our hopes were unsurprisingly low, with the likely outcome being rain, misery, death, and destruction. Thankfully our luck was in and the forecast was both warm and dry, which was perfect for what we’d intended – Coronation Street.
That said, upon waking up it was pretty apparent that all wasn’t perfect and that the weather was indeed minging. As such we drove towards Bristol in hope of finding dry rock, which we did, and it was amazing. Malbogies didn’t disappoint (wild!) and neither did Last Slip (I’m still recovering from the run-out) or Central Wall (thank goodness for bolts). What that crag lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in character…
The following day things (thankfully) dried up and we fulfilled the lifetime ambition of climbing Coronation Street, which was all that we’d hoped for – pitch after pitch of quality (if by quality you mean ivy for P1). Afterwards we thought we’d do Sullenberger, the other self proclaimed E1 classic of the gorge, which was total anarchy. Still, this highly vegetated classic was enjoyable, not least for the fact the approach resembles a scene from Jurassic Park – velociraptors and all.
There was something infectious about this weekend that had an impact on us all. Route after route went down and it had a kind of dizzying effect. I managed to surprise myself and do all four of the biggies: Yukan II, My Piano, 10 O Clock Saturday Morning, and Gathering Sun. I had gone into the weekend hoping I might do one of them, not all of them! Penny managed to top-rope them all too (possibly a more sensible option than leading them tbh). It was also great to see everyone else do their routes, with Ramon doing My Piano and Emma/Angus doing Cassini being particular highlights.
Despite having gone a great many places around the world for trad/sport, this was my first ever bouldering trip (shock/horror!) and it didn’t disappoint. Font was all that I’d hoped for, with thousands of the best problems you’re ever likely to climb, then another thousand more when you’ve done those.
Aretes were the flavour of the day, with L’Angle Ben and L’Angle Plus Que de Parfait being two particularly stand-out problems.
Upon getting back from Font I was keen for the brown and scrittly stuff, both local and abroad (well, Yorkshire). Tender Homecoming was a particularly unexpected treat, happening almost by accident when we bumped into Dave Mason and the Lawson brothers at Brimham.
Aside from that I tried my best to become a mileage master and was pretty happy with my haul of 2 x 7Cs, 7 x 7B+s, 9 x 7Bs and a load more 7s that I can’t be bothered to count since.
Highlights include not climbing Ben’s Wall at Curbar, despite having hit the pocket around 200 times. If people tell you on onsighting is stressful, chances are they’ve never tried to project a boulder problem or sport route – the levels of frustration are incomparable…
That’s enough self indulgent rambling for now, I hope you’ve had a good 2017 – see you next year (which is now this year).