Sunday, 30 December 2012

Tubing at Dover

Plans for Scotland this weekend were binned again due to the high winds forecast. I made a day trip with Murilo to Dover instead. We parked the car at St Margaret's Bay at 8am shortly after sunrise and one hour after low tide. Clear skies greeted us. A welcome break from the sometimes unrelenting rains of late. After examining a number of unclimbed lines we eventually opted for The Tube. I climbed this fifteenth months ago - largely in the dark, due to a slightly bonkers 8pm start, and with no head torch. I was happy to climb it again in order to appreciate the daylight experience.

St Margaret's Bay at Dawn  (Dry Ice, III pictured left)
Murilo beneath the Tube
The start of the first pitch was harder than recollection. The short-lived overhung wall was well hooked but my fluency was compromised by a number of the pockets being worn down to a bed of flint rendering them unreliable. The going was soft today and I could sometimes feel movement in my foot placements. My forearms were feeling the effects of me gripping the axes tighter than normal as a result.

Steep start to the first pitch
(Photo by Murilo Lessa)
The climbing in the runnel was much easier than the first pitch - particularly given the added benefit of daylight this time. Much of the gully was dominated by vegetation that offered a range of stability. My conclusion after a number of Dover climbs is to aim for the long thin grassy stuff as the roots seem to be denser. I ran out the first 25m without concern before an in situ stake presented, which I promptly clipped. More in situ protection followed in the form of drive-in ice screws, all of which I had obliviously bypassed in the dark last visit. Theses were interspersed by McDonald's cups and Stella bottles before I reached the metal sheeting that had caught me off-guard last year. Some entertaining bridging around the sheeting with axes alternately hooked in adjacent walls offered some light fun. I promptly ran out of rope at the same location as last year and so adopted another reconstructed belay consisting of recycled warthog holes.

Starting the second pitch up the runnel
(Photo by Murilo Lessa)
Murilo dropped his lump hammer a short way into his second pitch... a nasty surprise for any seagulls below. Fortunately I had only needed to place one warthog on the pitch, which Murilo managed to remove with just his axes.

Technical gardening on pitch 2
Second belay and close to the top
We were now only a short distance from the top via easy ground so I was happy to lend Murilo my hammer to disassemble the belay. I solo'ed to the top with the rope trailing behind. A staircase of placements led to the turfy barrier beneath the top, which I easily straddled. I set up my belay off the Coastal Path stone marker, which felt secure enough. A group of friendly, inquisitive walkers stopped to chat, which made a change from the company of coastguards, policemen, etc. We had both reached the top of the route by 1pm - 9.5 hours sooner than my previous ascent of the Tube and 10.5 hours sooner than my last Dover route Dover Soul. Only my second daylight finish at Dover in six attempts. I'll be aiming for a third next time...

Close to the top
(Photo by Murilo Lessa)
Murilo near the top
Technical top-out


...Within hours of arriving back from Dover I started to develop rumbling stomach aches. I was immediately suspicious of my appendix. Six months ago I had attended a walk-in centre with mild pain in the appendix region but the Doctor was unsure of the cause and advised me not to be concerned unless the pain worsened. If this happened I should go to A&E. The pains had soon resided however.

...Six months later I was now experiencing marked pains in the same location and even my untrained girlfriend could feel swelling on my right side. Living only a short distance from the nearest A&E I could afford to wait a few hours to see if the pain increased  I waited until 11pm by which time the pains had worsened and it was time to be driven to St Georges Hospital A&E. I packed my toothbrush with the expectation of being admitted...

A&E Doctors promptly came to the conclusion that it was my appendix. By 3am I had been admitted to a ward with the view to removing my appendix the morning. By 9am I had already been individually examined by a further three doctors and was being wheeled into theatre...

...I regained consciousness in the recovery room by around 11.30am and was soon back on the ward. In typical Harrison fashion I managed to eat all my lunch soon after noon despite protests from my stomach. I spent the remainder of the day connected to an IV drip with nurses regularly taking by blood pressure and temperature. I drifted in and out of sleep until 4pm when my girlfriend visited. In the evening a registrar briefly popped up to say the surgery had been straight-forward and that I could likely go home tomorrow. It was New Year's Eve but I was asleep by about 10pm...

New Year's Day: I was discharged at about 4pm with a bag of drugs. No work for a week or two. No climbing for longer!

The patient on New Year's Day

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Blood on the Car Seat

I pulled the plug on plans for Scotland this weekend at about 7pm on Friday. The Northern Coires were full of wind slab and category 4 avalanche risk. The situation was the same on Ben Nevis. I considered Lochnagar for a bit as it sounded as though less snow had fallen there. Snow and wind was forecast throughout the night so maybe Lochnagar would also be a problem by the morning? Then there were the road conditions to consider. Would we reach the car park? If I lived in Scotland I would "take a look". Travelling from London to "take a look" seemed unjustifiable.

I would have to make do with chalk although nobody was available for climbing. Low-level traversing is always good for strength and stamina though. Low tide on Sunday was the ghastly time of 7am. I managed to park the car at Saltdean for 8am. A record early start for me on chalk. Some of the regulars had been at the cliffs since 6am and so put my efforts to shame.

Eastern end of the cliffs
I traversed the cliffs East of the Thunder Dome. The sequences of moves were excellent and often sustained. A hold broke off after only 30 minutes... I was fully committed to an overhung section at the time with both hands gripping the same axe. I fell off from only a meter above the ground but landed with a thump on my back. Fortunately there were no blocks of chalk beneath me. My left forearm, which had taken some of the impact, was left with a deep hole that bled for the rest of the day. I managed to traverse for a while longer until the blood running down my arm suggested I go home. I had at least worked the arms sufficiently to justify the visit. I drove home trying not to get blood on my trousers and the passenger car seat. I would make sure to always carry some sort of first aid kit in the car for future. And to make sure I have a spotter next time...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Newhaven-Saltdean Double-Header

With a fresh dump of snow in the UK mountain areas followed by warmer temperatures it seemed sensible to climb chalk this weekend. Rick and I headed to Newhaven this morning. The routes at Newhaven are in the same style as Saltdean but with a smaller selection of routes.

The cliffs at Newhaven
Our planned warm-up route, called Sea Shelle on the Sea Shore (C4/5), proved to have fallen down. To its left a large detached pillar suggested further collapse was imminently. We opted for the next ‘easiest’ route called Fly Catcher, graded C6. Compared to Saltdean the placements were minimal and sometimes hard to spot. Tricky technical moves up moderately overhung chalk led to a smooth wall that was climbed to beneath a roof. Rick’s attempt to lead to route halted below the roof. I top-roped as far as Rick’s last quickdraw, however the time needed to search for hooks above the roof called for a rest. I led on above the bolt and managed to rock-over the roof to the lower-off. Both Rick's and my next attempt again needed a rest beneath the roof before I finally managed to clean the route on top-rope at third attemp. A fourth attempt would quite likely have resulted in me leading the route cleanly but, given that the main objective was to improve strength and fitness, I wasn't that bothered.

Rick leading Fly Catcher (C6), Newhaven
Rick above the roof on Fly Catcher (C6), Newhaven
Both the C7/8 routes looked to have suffered missing sections and the remaining C9/10 routes looked improbable for mere mortals. We opted to head to Saltdean for the remainder of the afternoon.

With a number of visits to Saltdean already this winter, and with full confidence back in my shoulder (previously a rotator cuff injury), I was keen to start knocking off the routes on the Six of the Best wall. I had studied a route called Get into the Groove (C6) on a number of occasions but never attempted. It was time to man-up and have a go.

With shingle at its lowest the difficulties through the overhung start were exacerbated. I reached the corner groove for which the route is named after. To its left the groove was buffered by a narrow hanging steep slab. A sequence of vertical linear axe placements up the slab with nothing right of the groove to allow bridging made footwork tricky business. My body weight inevitably shifted left of the groove as I followed the axe placements on the slab and my feet battled with the empty space beneath the slab as I struggled to mount it. The pump was building but once my feet were properly mounted it eased back. A narrow crack in the upper part of the groove allowed for some rare torquing on chalk. I gained the upper slab, which was void of hooks to the lower-off lower and so needed a couple to be added. Although not as steep as some of the C7 routes that I have done in this vicinity the sequences of moves proved more testing.

Rick made an attempt to lead but struggled with the moves at the base of the slab and needed some rests before eventually reaching the lower-off. We had both sufficiently worked the forearms though, which was the primary goal for today. Stripping the route proved strenuous given the lower-off was positioned a number of meters left of the line of the quickdraws. With the tide almost upon us the rope chose to jam with Rick still perched 4 meters above the ground. With some encouragement we freed it and visions of epic coast guard rescues subsided.

Rick leading Get into the Groove (C6), Saltdean
A quick traverse along the Six of the Best area finished us off and it was time to go home. Hopefully some better winter climbing conditions next weekend to entice me into the hills.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Crest Route (V,6), Stob Coire nan Lochan

With more clear weather promised by the forecast we opted to return to Stob Coire nan Lochan in order to capitalise from its fine viewpoint. We rose again at 5.30am again and began the walk in with head torches under a moonlit sky. A good night's sleep had rejuvenating my tired legs and arms. We reached the coire as the crimson light was creeping over the hill tops. Another perfect dawn.

Another perfect sunrise
View to Aonach Eagach & Ben Nevis
View across Glen Coe Peaks
After the drama on the last pitch of Chimney Route yesterday we settled for the easier Crest Route (V,6), which was recommended to us by a pair we briefly spoke to yesterday in the coire. The route from the ground up looked a spectacular line for the grade.

Beneath Crest Route
After a cold night the conditions had further improved with turf encountered now rock solid. The first pitch was a gentle warm-up before the real climbing began on the second and third pitches. Rick led the second, whilst I took over for the third. Both pitches involved some tricky sequences of hooks and torques that felt at the top of the grade. The third pitch in particular offered a short tricky uniform corner crack and thin hook placement out right that took a little consideration before committing.

Rick at the top of the first pitch
Rick starting the second pitch
Rick tackling the third pitch
Hot aches
We finished the route around 1pm. With the drive back to London now approaching the forefront of our minds we could not afford to linger for long. We paused momentarily to take in the breathtaking scenery and snap a few photos before beginning the descent to the valley. The sat nav estimated we would be back by midnight. Result.

A day worthy of a summit photo
Another climber on Crest Route
A day to linger and snap a few photos
The decent: time to head for London

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Chimney Route (VI,6), Stob Coire nan Lochan

We rose at 5.30am, five hours after completing our drive from London. I had slept restlessly due to combination of uncomfortable bedding, snoring in the dorm, and general excitement about kick-starting my winter season. We were keen to start the season with a VI in order to lay down a benchmark. Chimney Route in Stob Coire nan Lochan looked a great objective.

With head torches donned we started the steep climb into the coire. A beautiful sunrise greeted us. The cliffs looked in splendid condition. This weekend would be payback for all the dreadful weather I endured last winter.

Stob Coire nan Lochan
Perfect winter weather
The first pitch of Chimney Route looked inviting. Rick was keen to lead it, despite having never climbed grade VI before. I had no objections. We wasted time trying to find a belay. The start of the route was choked with ice, which wasn't strong enough for ice protection. The thin cracks in the vicinity were flared or parallel but we had no pegs. In the end I banged my axes and a warthog into the frozen turf and clipped in to everything.

Frozen turf belay
Gaining the chimney proved tricky for Rick but once inside he was soon up to speed. The lower half of the chimney was fairly easy but sustained. The difficulty increased once beneath the roof. Rick looked baffled as to how to progress. After a couple of false starts he eventually got on with it and skirted the roof with a combination of back-and-footing and bridging.

Rick on the first pitch
Rick on the first pitch
View down from halfway up the first pitch
The second pitch had a brief technical start but the gradient soon eased back. Climbing was disproportionately time consuming due to the amount of fresh snow present. Plenty of sweeping was needed in order to locate cracks to protect. Care was required as some of the turf on the pitch was a little soft in places due to deep pockets of snow providing an insulation blanket. I belayed in the vicinity of some ancient looking tat that was wedged in a crack by a knot. Rick climbed up to join me and took the gear.

We deliberated over whether to continue up the wide chimney of a grade VII called Inclination or stick to the normal line for Chimney Route that joins up with Tilt. With no certainty as to what grade the top pitch of Inclination went at we opted for the latter. The pitch looked stiff but there again reminded me somehow of the main pitch to Honeypot, which wasn't that stiff in my eyes.

A difficult move to gain a slab was followed by an even more difficult move to then overcome an overhang higher up. Rick needed a rest on the rope below the overhang as his forearms were pumped and the climbing was evidently only going to get harder. Two quickdraws dropped at my feet in succession indicated that he was at his limit. A good high axe hook but little for the feet led to a physical tussle. Rick overcame the overhang but with a spinner leash accidentally wrapped around his last quickdraw and with no strength left to try and untangle it Rick promptly fell off. The spinner leash to his other axe checked his fall. He would have to repeat the overhang with only one axe given that the other was now out of reach. Fortunately there was only one axe placement overhead anyway. After some resting time Rick's second attempt proved a success although now it was the guidebook falling down the cliff from beneath his jacket.

Rick starting the third pitch
Now it was my turn. The move on to the slab passed smoothly courtesy of a thin axe placement in the left wall that Rick had easily missed. The overhang proved more fun. I launched over it, fully committed, only for one of my ropes to snag beneath it. I frantically lowered myself slightly with all my weight on my axes, freed the rope, and then resumed the fight. My forearms were getting pumped but the main problem were my freezing hands, which seemed to exacerbate the problem with grip. I clung on until I was high enough for my feet to surmount the high ledges and relieve my forearms. Then the hot aches began...

A short easy pitch led to the top. The climb had been exhilarating and full of gripping, anxious energy. A perfect way to kick off the season.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Clocking Mileage at Saltdean

With no sign of winter re-emerging I headed to Saltdean again with Julia. We left London at 7am in order to capitalise on the 8am low tide.

There was a decent turn-out of climbers given the perfect weather conditions of clear winter skies and little breeze. I was inspired to witness someone climb Blade Runner (C5/6) for my first time before I set to work on Everyman's Route (C5) in order to swap the screwgate karabiner installed last week for one rarely used. I then top-roped Cathy Come Home (C8) to the right but only to 2/3 height. The pair climbing next door to us had started to lead up the same route directly below me and, despite it being unlikely, I did not want to risk dropping an axe on them. I'll come back soon and work this route properly.

Climber on Blade Runner (C5/6)
Water was beginning to pool beneath the Seaward Face, which I know from bad experience means rapid advancement of the tide here. We abandoned the section of cliff to climb Slab Route/Extension whilst the climber on Cathy Come Home was forced to make a premature abseil, else let his belay be submerged by the sea.

Climber on Cathy Come Home (C8)
Slab Route
Julia climbing Slab Route

We moved to the West side where we climbed the unnamed route between Back Up and St Gerome (C5). The bolts on the slab are now slightly loose and best not tested too much. The initial moves through the low overhang are excellent however nearly all the placements in the upper half of the route are now into soft chalk ledges that require little precision.

We climbed Back Up (C5), The Strangeness and Charm of the Quark (C5), and then finished the day on Back to the Future (C6), which is one of my favourite routes at the crag. The intimidating crux involves committing to a jutting roof in order to gain the steep wall above, which is climbed for three bolts before the gradient eases back. It's the longest bolted route on this side of the crag with the belay a matter of metres from the top of the cliff.

Julia contemplating the crux of Back to the Future (C6)

The cliffs turned ochre coloured as the sun began to set. My forearms were telling me it was time to go home.

Afternoon sun over Saltdean's cliffs
Incredible sunset over Saltdean's coast

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Saltdean: Something Less Dramatic

After last weekend's late night climbing antics at Dover I was keen for something less dramatic this weekend. Jack and me headed to the bolted routes at Saltdean.

We warmed up of Slab Route/Slab Extension. The start to Slab Route continues to get slightly harder each season as chalk falls away beneath it. A small cave has now formed beneath the slab. The undercut chalk at the base of the slab is plagued with extensive cracks that suggest the slab may begin higher up in the near future. The short wall to gain the slab offered good value and needed composure to clip to the first bolt, after which the climbing became easy.

Jack gaining the Slab on Slab Route
Having climbed Slab Route we set up a top-rope on the lower-off further right, which I believe to be Christmas Cracker (C6). I think this was the route that Hugh Dennis climbed on the BBC program 'The Great British Countryside', which was broadcast earlier this year. Therefore surely a push-over? This section of cliff has since a lot of change in recent years. We top-roped the route as a precautionary measure in order to check the route's viability. It proved the right decision as after some acrobatic moves through the lower third the holds abruptly disappeared with no sign of continuation higher up. I lowered off. I'll leave it to the first ascensionists to chop new holds as they choose. Then maybe I'll come back and see if I can go one better than Hugh Dennis.

Hung at Dawn (on Christmas Cracker, C6)
We moved around to the Seaward Face and climbed Everyman's Route (C5). This is maybe the best route at Saltdean for the grade in my opinion with some steep, exposed climbing in the upper half and a delicate finish. The mallion installed last November has already rusted so we were forced to leave a screwgate karabiner at the lower-off. I may climb this route a couple more times this winter to get it's worth.

Jack climbing Everyman's Route
We spent the remainder of the afternoon low-level traversing the cliffs east of the 4x4 cave. My main objective for the day was to work on strength and endurance post-shoulder injury. The relentlessly steep nature of some sections of the cliff at Saltdean means traversing is an ideal way to achieve this. We traversed along the overhanging Six of the Best wall, along the more gentle Seaward Face, before my arms finally gave up a short distance into the massively overhung Pleasure Dome. After a short rest we then traversed back along the Seaward Face. Job done.

Traversing the Six of the Best wall
Traversing the Six of the Best wall
Jack traversing the Seaward Face
Traversing the Pleasure Dome