Monday, 5 October 2009


A while ago, over two years ago in fact, a friend of mine showed me these pictures. They were taken at Long Crag in Yorkshire, which is a small esoteric venue covered by the Yorkshire Limestone guide. I sent them into a climbing magazine at the time, but they couldn't print them, and I sort of forgot about them. I found them while trawling through my hard drive and as this blog is not a family blog I thought I would put them up here. It is difficult to work out exactly who did what - but  judging from the clumsy bolt chopping it seems likely that the bolt chopper with his angle grinder decided to leave a little message for the bolter. In terms of ethical actions, this is just about the most stupid thing I have ever seen.

I love British climbing and I love British climbing ethics. I love the way that climbers in Britain are so strictly self policing - it is very reassuring to know that there are enough people who care stopping bolts spreading into the mountains, or painted route names onto roadside crags. Seeing and hearing extensive debates in pubs or internet forums is always a positive sign and as long as this debate comes before action, the right decision is almost always taken. I can’t think of an ethical debate where the consensus opinion has been wrong, can you? 

And yet, perhaps inevitably, there will always be renegades who are so self assured in their opinions that they decide to take their own direct action. Somewhere, probably not too far from Long Crag, is someone just like this. Maybe you are reading this. Maybe you think I don’t know enough about the situation to pass judgement. Maybe you have a point. But so do I. Whether the bolt should be there in the first place is not for me to say, but quite clearly the backlash was the wrong course of action to take in that, or any other, situation. If you want to chop a bolt, then do it properly or not at all. It is not hard to chop a bolt, hammer in the stub, and fill the hole to leave a barely visible scar. 

Apart from anything else, the hypocrisy of the action is absolutely astounding - whoever did this left the cause of traditional British climbing behind a long while ago for some crazed and illogical anti bolting frenzy. There is a time and a place for bolts in British climbing. There is no place for vile graffiti like this on our rock.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Tony Barley

Tony Barley's Wild Bouldering In Yorkshire is a slim volume which makes little impact on the guidebook shelf lineup alongside the likes of fat, shouty Yorkshire Gritstone. It doesn't have many pictures, it's not very shiny and I haven't even been to that many of the crags featured in it. But it's still one of my most treasured guides.

It's not just a guide, it's more than that: it's a declaration of love for the little outcrops which escaped the notice of most others. It illustrates his secretive, exploratory nature beautifully, and records years of local adventuring.

Tony Barley died in August after a long running battle with heart disease. Reading his obituary in Climber magazine, the author refers to Barley's bid to get on the transplant list. His age and underlying complications made him an unlikely candidate for a transplant. With his life literally hanging in the balance, he presented the doctors with two things to tip the balance in his favour: a series of technical engineering papers and a copy of Wild Bouldering in Yorkshire - with plans for the second edition. It was probably the practical importance of Barley to civil engineering that sealed the deal and a spot on the waiting list, but I like to think that it just might have been the slim, stapled guidebook that swung the needle in his favour.

Volume II will probably never be made, but despite this, with the first volume he left the Yorkshire climber with an inspiring guide to what the grit holds in the wooded valleys and remote moors, far from the exoteric.

I never met Tony Barley, but I wish I had.

Smash n' Soup

Today is a good day. The latest copy of Summit magazine is out, and with it my second back page slot in less than a week.  I'm super proud of this one, but not because I got the story published. I'm chuffed, granted; for a self styled 'struggling young writer' any byeline in a decent magazine is worth it, even if it is for free.

The reason I'm proud is that I got a picture of smash and soup into a nationally published and well respected title; and that is something to write home about. Smash and soup is a true alpine delicacy - a carb loaded, stodgy wrong-un, the sort of dish you just want to crawl inside of and wrap yourself up in. I like it with chorizo, garlic and onion, and then a little wedge of camembert, which you tuck inside the warm underbelly of the dish, and then oozes out when you eat it, giving a welcome bivi surprise. In the interests of public service, I have provided the recipe...

Packet of smash (two normal servings seem to work for one person)
Chorizo (as much as you fancy)
Garlic (one clove per person)
Onion (quarter per person)
Soup (one of those big French powdered soup packets - vegetable is best)
Cheese (soft cheese works best)

Chop your chorizo, garlic and onion finely, and add to a pan on a very gentle heat to ease the fat out of the sausage. As the fat comes out you can increase the heat slightly to fry the ingredients, until soft and ready to eat. At this stage increase the heat to full whack, add the water - as much as you are supposed to need for the potato, and then some more - and bring to the boil. When the water is boiling, add the soup powder and simmer until it is all absorbed, then remove from the heat and add your potato, stirring well so there are no unwanted powder pockets. Add butter, pepper and cheese and leave for 30 seconds (crucial) before devouring.

Saturday, 5 September 2009


I think, pretty much definitely, that summer is over. The wind has an autumnal chill, the leaves are yellowing and crisping around the edges, and the air has that earthy, moist smell of decomposition that marks the start of the autumn. It's been quite a summer of climbing, and I've been seeking out quality routes here there and everywhere, chasing the stars like some sort of crazed paparazzo drooling at the mouth: four star classics in Glen Etive; viciously coarse gabbro on Skye; perfect granite cracks and sinuous razor ridges in the alps; lazy roadside granite in Cornwall; and breathtaking sea cliffs on Lundy. 

I need a break. I need some back of the guidebook obscurity. I need to feel the pithy grit of lichen under my fingernails, and the fractured thud of loose rock cratering into the ground below. I need the dry, fluffy feeling between my lips of a mouth too scared to salivate.  I need blast-shattered limestone and green-cloaked gritstone and flakey shale. I want to do routes that no one has climbed before, and never will again. I want whimsical adventure and giggly days out that other people don't understand. And I need it to stop raining so I can go out and find this all, because, as I've found out, you really can have too much of a good thing.

Glen Etive

Wow, Glen Etive is a beautiful place. Of the big Scottish valleys, Glencoe probably has the edge in jaw-dropping, crane your neck, sharp inward breath, rocky mountains, but Glen Etive is right up there in the wide-eyed, looking around, ‘why haven’t I been here before’ stakes. The road, as you follow it along the crystal, tumbling waters of the river Etive, winds and turns, each corner peeling back a layer to reveal more of the valley. Not for Glen Etive the all out flash of Glencoe, here the valley reveals itself with a progressive, teasing strip. As you slip around the back of Buchaille Etive Mor the glen tightens, narrowing its passage way as if driving through a castle entrance.

I’d seen the glen from the summits of the famous Glen Coe peaks, seen the pewter glint of wintry sun reflecting off the loch that curls lazily to the sea. I’d seen it and I thought it was just another valley, just another gap between hills to climb: usual trees, usual loch, usual river. But it isn’t. Along the valley floor, the muted tweed greens are picked out with the vibrant stinging pink of invading rhododendrons. From this angle, the usually iconic Buchaille is a defiantly lumpy mountain, not the shapely rock as seen from the north. And yet, it’s still rather beautiful, still an appealing target. You feel you are seeing the hidden side of the mountain. You are seeing something special beyond the calendar shots. 

The road winds along, unfurling the glen in its oil painting beauty, and there, at what feels like it should be the head of the valley, but is really the sea, starts the loch. On the right, up on the hillside, are the Etive slabs - a sliding stack of granite offering routes of the highest quality with the barest mention of polish or wear and tear. To look back up the valley from the top of the slabs you are blessed with one of the best views in Scotland. 

It was a stuffy, warm day when we climbed there at the start of June and we finished with a skinny dip in the Loch to wash off the grease of the day. 

Monday, 24 August 2009

Spartan Rigours

I do like a well turned phrase. I have been reading the Guardian Book of Mountains, an anthology charting the surprisingly frequent appearances of mountaineering in the paper’s pages, in both its current form and its previous guise as the Manchester Guardian. A series of editors and leader writers were enthusiastic and almost evangelical in their treatment of climbing and walking.

In a strange little piece entitled Meals Out Of Doors, published August 27th 1925, the mysteriously initialed AJA writes of the ‘greatest earthly joy’ of the al fresco dinner. ‘To get the full flavour’ he says, ‘one should spend a week tramping over the passes of the Dolomites, sleeping in the Alpine Club huts and enduring the spartan rigours.’

What a delicious phrase ‘spartan rigours’ is: dated, descriptive and suggestive.  

Friday, 24 July 2009

A job.

The first climbing magazine I bought had Joe Brown on the front, and I bought it because it was the first climbing magazine I’d ever seen. It was a copy of High and everything I knew about the climbing scene was contained within its pages. Joe was climbing Right Unconquerable again, except this time he was coloured in. I remember looking at the black and white photos of the first ascent, and thinking ‘wow’ about the whole thing, even though I didn’t know where it was. It was important, I knew that much. In front of Joe’s face, underneath the clingy plastic wrapper, was a Power Bar. This is what I have to eat from now on, I assumed. I have tried to make it as a climber who doesn’t eat Power Bars, since that first taste and the five-minute-chew which followed.

I guess it’s worked, because about 11 years since my first purchase, I am standing in a newsagent secretly reading a copy of Climber. Reading it because I am one, I guess, and reading it secretly because I spent all my pocket money on going to the Alps. John Horscroft has been going out to lunch to write his column for longer than I’ve even been climbing, and he’s finally saying his farewells from the slot under the back jacket. And I’m going to replace him, with a short interview column. It feels weird. For the first time, it hits home that I actually might be a writer, that it isn’t just a pipe dream any more.

I put the magazine back on the shelf and buy some fruit pastilles, to show the shopkeeper I know it’s not a library.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Epic Weekend

It's early. Or late. One or the other depending on your life outlook. Rusko, the no-prisoners, mohican-ed, gun finger toting, dubstep God is dropping insanely heavy tunes, the sort of tunes which make grown men and women convulse in involuntary orgasmic spasm. I'm one of those grown men, and it's late. Just so you know.

It's early now. Definitely. Too early, that's for sure. In a sleepy haze, I consider hitting 'off' on the alarm clock and grabbing some more zeds before a guilty trip to the cliff in the afternoon to touch rock. The sun has other ideas, and the climbing lobe in my confused and tired brain is in overdrive, motivating leaden limbs into lakes-ward motion, blocking out the reality of 2 hours sleep and concentrating on the important things: bacon sandwich, some rope and the mountains. I sit in the back for the drive, in a daze which starts with sun rise in Leeds and ends in mist fall in Langdale. The ground is wet, the crag is somewhere in the mist, and I am not impressed. Neither is Tom. Balls.

Pavey Ark under a thin veil of cloud.

My body is rebelling against me. I am trying to do all day climbing after all night raving and it is objecting in no uncertain terms. "Easy day today Tom". The sun starts to shine. We climb gradually away from the teams on Jack's Rake, and end up at the top with a picnic of cous cous and licorice.

Belay on Stoat's Crack in the sun

I'm not sure of quite how it happened, but one of us must have suggested going to Bowfell Buttress. It definitely happened. Perhaps I was still drunk.

Slip, slip sliding, down the scree slope, bundling down to the river, across, and then up, steaming up the grassy slope, neglected calfs burning, quads screaming in pain, dissolving in lactic acid. Ground is churned up, the direct route is quick, like, and we arrive a sweaty mess at the Buttress. Bowfell. My tiredness is no more, and other than the ache in my feet from a long night dancing, I feel - almost - human.

The climb wasn't much to write home about. Not much to write to a blog about either, so I won't bother. We did it though, and ended up on top, and subsequently back in the valley, two flogged bodies in tights and rucksacks.

It turns out you don't need to sleep to climb.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Blogs that I like...

I thought that I would make a list of climbing related blogs that are actually good. If climbing blogs were a genre, the genre would be branded 'crap': most climbing related blogs are the pre-pubescent blatherings of super-hyper-uber-keen-youths, describing the tedious minutiae of their climbing related life, like some sort of log. A log on the web, a web log. Surely that's not what blogs are for?

And so, in the spirit of blogging the way it should be (like magazines but free-er and without pages) here is my top list of blogs with words on which are worth reading, and pictures that are worth viewing...

The Irish funny man and BMC guidebook writer has a very good, though rarely updated blog. The archives are well worth a scroll through on a rainy day, and his Jonny Dawes story is an awesome bit of storytelling.

A proper climber's proper climber. Expect bracing ethics, gripping tales and dry humour...

Only recently brought to my attention: a west-country bloke who can certainly turn a phrase. Possibly the only blog in history to be able to record ordinary day's climbing with verbosity and hilarity combined. 

Despite starting almost every post with the word 'well', and dubious grammar skills, Mark Reeves has got some very interesting stuff on his blog. There are some really nice photos, tales from Wales and interesting insight into life on the Llanberis MRT. There's some dross too, but you don't need to read it.

Some pretty funny stuff here by singer/climber Murphy. Worth it 'cos she uses the phrase 'another petite, rad little bitch', which is pretty funny.

Consistently good photos from one of the best, together with some entertaining tales make this blog one worth reading.

Quality tales and funnies.

So yeah, that's the sort of thing I like to read. Hope someone finds those links useful.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Almscliff was my first experience of the fabled grit. I may have been from down South, and therefore dead soft, but its reputation had not escaped me, nor had that of the now familiar ‘cliff. Steep, hard and fierce was what I’d been told, and I believed it. It was, I assumed, one of those crags which gives a little tingle in the base of your spine: half excitement, half paralysing terror. The reality was somewhat underwhelming - even the dreaded Almscliff VS felt, well, VS. The quality, on the other hand, spoke for itself: behind the polish were superb climbs. I was converted.

My first trip to Almscliff was also pretty much the first time I saw real, proper boulderers in the wild. I used to boulder a lot in Somerset, and obviously saw others doing the same, but it was only when I moved to Yorkshire that I encountered the bona-fide, self confessed full time boulderers, with their buckets and beanies and one armed pull-ups. 

The chalk caked holds of Demon Wall stood out a mile off; the white-washed splodges looking like the resulting clash of a boulderer with a paintball gun and the problem which spat him off just one too many times…

I watched as a public spirited boulderer cleaned the chalk off: scrubbing hard with a washing up brush, he removed a significant portion of the crap from the holds. Impressed, and hoping for a demonstration of this iconic problem, I continued to watch as he dipped the same brush into a bag of chalk and preceded to smother holds with it, brushing hard and working chalk well into the rock. Strange. 

Another time, same crag. Wandering about climbing problems in sporadic bursts, I walk past the roof. “D’ya wanna go?”  “Alright”. I climbed across the easy start section, out to the lip and the painfully small crimps, almost hanging them, I could move no further. But my inability to hang small holds is by the by. What I’m getting at is the slippery chalky covering on grit, which normally has pretty amazing friction. Even the starting hold, which is enormous, gets brushed and recoated on a regular basis. Quite why people do this is beyond me: chalk is not a miraculous grip powder. It does not increase the friction coefficient between rock and hands in itself. It dries moisture from the hands, which increases friction. Excess chalk, or chalk on the rock does nothing of benefit, indeed quite the opposite. Tick marks do have their uses: blind and slappy holds, not uber jugs right in front of your face at the sitting start.

Chalk may wash off rock in our frequent rain, but not when it’s under a roof, and so in a combination of easter time essay-writing boredom and public spirited self affirmation I caught the train to give those holds the cleaning of their life. It turns out that two litres of water is not sufficient to clean all the holds properly, but I managed to get the worst off the really chalky holds under the roof. I’ll be back for the rest of the crag...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

UKC Winter Writing Competition.

This is a piece I wrote for the UKClimbing "Grand day out in winter" writing competition. I thought I would post it on here so those who don't look at UKC could see it. Feedback and criticism of the positive or negative variety would be most welcome. The title of this piece on UKC was their idea, not mine!

Knees ache from the exertion. A million lunges force upward motion, sometimes gliding over the top, skis floating on a crust beaten hard by the wind, sometimes crashing though into a heathery powder pond. 

The air is crisp; like taking a deep breath in a freezer, hurting the back of your throat just a little bit. Air conditioning on overdrive. Globules of snow hang heavy on the trees, some bend over completely to meet their roots in a rarely made handshake. Forced friendship brought on by snow. Between us and the deep block blue of the sky, someone has hung a very thin white veil, preserving her modesty for the summer time. We look up at the barely concealed blue and to each other with wide eyes and smiles wider still. Words aren’t needed today, no one needs to verbalise the experience. Pictures speak a thousand words and we are surrounded by a magnum opus.

Sheep scuffle through the snow, their usual snow-white appearance exposed as fake by the large scale arrival of whiter than white frozen manna from heaven. Embarrassed, they run to hide as we lunge past, floating over fences as if they didn’t exist. 

Past the sheep we go, past the trees and the fences. Past the farm and the dogs and the road and the people. Past we go and up we go, skis pointing at the top of the hill - the beginning of the way home, the start of the fun. 

Up we go, lunging and laughing and smiling. Smiling with the beautiful joy of it all. The hares feel it too, their white coats justified at last. Around in circles they run, leaping through the snow, jumping from cornices and pulling front flips of joy. The Ptarmigan, the other seasonal chameleon of the highlands, is not so forthcoming, but the prints he left from earlier have a visible spring to them. It’s a good day. It’s a good day to be skiing up a hill, but everyone else is away behind us, busy skiing downwards, giving in to the lure of gravity and its addictive squeeze on the adrenal gland. We make lonely tracks up the hill, absorbed into the experience, almost at one with the mountain, floating just slightly over it. 

The top almost comes too soon, a bitter sweet arrival marking the imminent close of the adventure. The skins come off. Their sticky backside is reluctant to go, wanting to be needed more. Waxed bottoms, free from their sticky covering, are eager to slide. They slip downwards almost before I’m ready. The speed builds and I whip down hill, punctuating the slide with rusty turns, cutting fresh tracks in the pristine mountainside. Adrenaline flows, powder flies up behind us and gravity does its job. 

We end up at the bottom of the slope - panting, whooping, giggling at the pure pleasure of it all. Joy flows thick in the veins and buoy the tired limbs as we shuffle and slide along the morning’s tracks to the van. Days like this are so good nothing needs to be said, but we do anyway: gabbling excitedly and bouncing off the roof of the van on the way home. Recounting again the falls, the sights, the views which only occurred hours before. Tell it again, tell it again. What a day.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009


It’s been the biggest dump of snow in however many years; the media mumble, grumpy people grumble, but everyone else just gets out and enjoys themselves. We headed out to Harewood house for some night time snowboarding. In Yorkshire? Who’d have thought it...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Shades apart.

If grit was a colour it would be pink. Fact. 

There's no special name for green when you mix some white in. Well, there is - it's called Paradise Green according to Dulux, but I bet you didn't know that. If you're not going to get technical, then green is always green, no matter how much white you put in. All the colours are like that, except for red, which suddenly becomes pink with the addition of some white. 

It's called an anomaly.

Someone, somewhere, obviously thought that 'pale red' wasn't sufficient a monicker, and came up with the word pink. I don't know who that person was, but I do know who first used the term Millstone Grit: it was John Whitehurst, and he wasn't a rock tapper by trade but a mechanical engineer from Cheshire. Like pink, gritstone is something of an oddity, just a shade of sandstone with a special name. Lots of sandstones have their own names, just like Paradise Green, but none of them are quite as ingrained in our language as the ubiquitous 'grit'. It's a climber thing really - the sticky, abrasive brown stuff seems to deserve it's own name, it's definitely worth it.

Red, the much celebrated colour of danger hasn't suffered from pink's separatist tendencies. Probably because it makes you go faster. Poor old sandstone, mother rocktype of the much celebrated gritstone gets a pretty hard time in Britain, unjustifiably so. Frequently dismissed as soft, crumbly rubbish, many climbers forget that there is more to sandstone to the soft, crumbly rubbish down South (I jest...). If you visit the excellent sandstone of Northumberland you'll find something not too dissimilar to grit, to mention nothing of the brilliant sandstone around the world. So next time you're bearing down on some boulder problem at Stanage, or climbing splitters at Millstone, just remember it's all just sandstone. More love for the sand.

Torridonian sandstone is maroon, in case you were wondering.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Deliberately Dangerous?

Bouldering mats are a piece of gear, just as slider nuts and micro cams are. Using any gear changes the nature of the route, and leaving out gear to make it more dangerous and justify a higher grade seems pretty dumb. If I deliberately don't take a crucial number three cam on a route it doesn't increase by a grade, I've just made it more dangerous, and I think the same principle applies in a slightly different way to James Pearson's no mats ethic. 

The problem with ethical stances is that they often conflict with one another. There are many hard climbers doing routes in the mountains who are ardently 'free only'. Aiding is cheating and that's bad. And yet here they are, taking multiple falls onto bolts while redpointing a pitch. As far as I'm concerned if you're putting bolts into mountain crags then you're on pretty thin ground ethically. By all means go for it, (I've had some good times clipping bolts on big mountain routes) but try not to preach to others. 
James Pearson's approach is to use no pads, to draw the line between trad and 'pad trad' right there between the hard ground and one mat. And fair enough, that's an admirable ethic, but if you then go onto spend 10 days on it on a top rope you slightly lose the ethical high-ground.  

The idea that danger=ethical is a strange one which seems (from my experience of climbing around the world) to be a very British thing. Clipping that rusty as fuck peg on quarried grit is fine, but clipping a stainless bolt is somehow sacrosanct? Because you might die if you fell off? That's pretty stupid logic if you think about it. Both are damaging the rock, both make the climbing experience less natural, and yet one is tolerated because it might just kill you. How jolly British. 

In my opinion, a one day ground up ascent of a little padded out route is purer than a multi-day headpoint siege on the same objective. It just makes more sense, it's doing what climbers have always done - starting at the bottom and ending at the top, making it as safe as you feel comfortable with in the mean time. Deliberately taking a more dangerous approach, but then practicing enough to make it safer again seems illogical to me. 

I've kept out of all this grading furore until now, when my dissertaion deadline is 48 hours away and I'm embracing procrastination like never before. James Pearson seems like a genuine and really nice person, and it's a shame that there's been so much debate about such brilliant looking climbs. It should be admitted though, as good a climber as he is, the bottom line is he just can't grade routes very well; there's nothing wrong with that. 

If only he'd padded the hell out the Promise and given it Font 8a, I doubt any fuss would have been kicked up!

Thursday, 15 January 2009


I'm stuck in a black hole. Geological hyper-gravity is sucking me in. Revision that must be done lies between the window and me: outside the window is fresh air, sunshine and climbing; inside I sit in the middle of a swirling mass of notes, papers and textbooks, all orbiting my sluggish brain.

I must work, but I need to climb. From all directions come tales of good times to be had. Perfect friction at Caley, sunshine and powder in the alps, even bloody ice in South Wales. Photos pop up. Albums of denied fun fill my facebook news page. People's cameras in a state of constant upload, me in a constant state of jealousy.
The dissertation looms, not far off, in the shadows of late January. Behind it, freedom seems a lifetime away. 

Bring on February.