Scratch & Win


The parting line in my last blog was that my elbow injury seemed to be on the mend. Well, since then I acquired another elbow injury on the other arm which has proven to be even worse. So my plans for training rock this winter were shelved until further notice. I was a bit lost on what to do climbing wise looking ahead, until a wet weekend in the late autumn forced us to go dry tooling. To my surprise both elbows seemed to react well to ice axes, it seems the pain it’s only really bad when using slopers or crimps, but seemingly tolerable holding a big handle. By the end of the session I might have looked quite psyched because Rich Kendrick asked me if I’d be interested in a trip to trad winter mixed-climbing in Senja Norway. That certainly perked my interest, but I said I’d have to think about it. Two days later I had signed up to it.

Rich approaching the crux of The Gathering

I realised I was in no shape to do any decent mixed climbing, so working backwards from our departure date I’ve put a few things in the diary to get some sort of fitness and no make a fool of myself on the trip. We visited Mannod a few times in an attempt to catch up with everyone else’s fitness which seemed to be off the chart. The other thing I did was to line up a few days up in Scotland with Adam Booth, another member of the Senja team. Unfortunately the dates we arranged had bad conditions so I had to re-arrange a last minute hit with Rich instead.

Rich putting his drytooling skills into practice on The Gathering. I didn't use it, I just yarded past it to better hooks.

Fresh from the Blade Stadium in Chamonix, Rich was chomping at the bit to have some Scottish action. I was also pretty excited but with apprehension in equal measure as I knew it was going to be no picnic to be sharing a rope with Rich. As Dave Keogh put it recently, making plans with Rich is like trying to put a lid on a jar full of snakes. We settled on plan to stick to the Cairngorms, with its gentle approach, I had a chance to actually make it to the crag and not just die on the walk in (like in Beinn Eighe!). We draw a plan to hit two of the test pieces we were gagging for, The Gathering and Pic’n’mix, both originally graded at Scottish IX but now settled on grade VIII.

On the Saturday we woke up to some of the best weather I’ve ever had in Scotland winter, blue skies, no wind and relatively mild. We were both like very excitable kids on a sugar rush, even I managed to make the walk in in just under 50min which is my Usain Bolt speed (I paid for it the day after…) On seeing the crag the psyche went off the charts to see the cliff fully plastered and knowing we were in. We discussed who would take the crux pitch of The Gathering and suggested Rich should take it as my confidence on a clean onsight was low being my first pitch of the season and a stiff grade VIII is perhaps not the best warm up. Rich inched his way up, not without some struggle, but eventually reached to belay with some smooth climbing. However when it was my turn I certainly felt under gunned not having trained properly. When it came to a powerful lock-off at the crux I just found I couldn’t. Resorting to technique instead, laybacks, heel-toe cams and some determination I managed to do the move clean and restore some hope. The top pitch, my lead now, looked hoarded up with thick hard rime. I got to work, only to turn around the corner and see an awful off-width crack that had to be climbed to gain easier ground. After some too-ing and fro-ing I committed to the off-width, making use of a well jammed boot, I reached the chock-stone and the difficulties were over. I topped out into the sunshine and with great elation: what a first route of the season. The top pitch seemed to be about grade VI/7 perhaps.

Wondering how I'm gonna get up the off-width crack on the second pitch of The Gathering
Me getting involved with the off-width. It wasn't so bad at the end, about VI/7

With wide grins we looked at Pic’n’mix and we settled that would be our route for day after. We retreated back to the van in the carpark and just drank tea and complimented each other for a great day out. However the Sunday dawned with high winds and snow. As soon as we start walking up the crag I realised that this wasn’t going to be the stroll of the previous day. Also considering that the crux pitch this time was harder and it was my turn to pull it off. Rich set off onto first pitch, which is no push over. I could tell by the pace that Rich was struggling with the gear and thin tenuous climbing, but eventually got to what seemed the hardest move of the pitch, a blind traverse to the right with some long reaches. Rich is not the tallest of men, so after a few tries he finally committed to a full-stretch hook with no feet and let go of the other placement, swinging wildly but ultimately nailing it. We had a laugh at this boulder problem and then switch racks. Now was my turn to show some grit and set off of the crux pitch. Not having a topo for the route and the line not being in the guidebook I was confused as were to go as soon as I turned the corner. From a pumpy position I tried to go directly up trying to hack the thick rime above me. After a good half hour of not finding hooks or gear I concluded this might be the dead end of the summer line that Pete McPherson tried a while back (p.s: it was much higher up were he got halted apparently). I tried to turn another corner but it seemed impossible again. Meanwhile it’s blowing a hoolie and it’s snowing and my hands are blocks of ice. Soon running out of juice and psyche I turned to Rich to ask if he fancies to have a go before I blow the onsight, but then I thought I wouldn’t forgive myself if at least I didn’t try to push on. I kept looking for a way through and finally found the tiniest of hook on the arete and so I placed the one tooth of the pick, keeping my body low, I managed to go around the corner delicately. Once I got established I saw I a corner above and rationalise to myself this must be the line. I went up with not to much trouble and ended up topping out in horrible weather but elated at having pulling it off. It was only later on back in the van looking at some pictures of previous ascents that we realised that I didn’t actually climb the proper line. Oh well, I guess I’ll need go back to do it properly, but I was still pleased with the effort as the climbing was still hard and it was a good pitch.

Rich inching his way up the 1st pitch Pic'n'mix, the boulder problem was moving right from the very top of the picture

Quick hit concluded and with the weather looking to worsen I let Rich have a rest day to prepare to keep up with Dave Almond (no easy task dare I say) and drove south to London to resume my office life for a few more days before heading out Senja. The whole weekend was 20 hrs round trip of driving but both routes were totally worth the effort and great addition to my Scottish winter climbing apprenticeship.

Can't beat Scotland in winter in nice weather

Senja frozen wonderland

Against the ebbing tide