Early Winter Skiing and Walking

From blue skies and steep ice in Canada it was back to hillwalking in North Wales in some rather wet and wild weather. Its the variety of locations, weather and people that means no two weeks or days of work are ever the same!  A few days at home for Christmas in Ireland with the family rounded off a great year and allowed for a bit of respite before the winter season kicked off properly.

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One of my favourite views and places to go climbing…the small but atmospheric Hen Mountain on the edge of the Mournes.

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The incredible view up Llyn Padarn on the way to the airport…superb!

Winter 2015 started in the Alps this year with a few weeks skiing in preparation for my BMG Skiing induction. Due to lack of snow at the start of the season my skis took a bit of a hammering from the rocks and grass showing through…more akin to skiing in Scotland really! A great days touring above the Col de la Forclaz with Tim, Dave and Lee meant we were able to escape the crowds and chopped up pistes and get some good turns in before the inevitable combat skiing through the trees at the end!

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Shadows and light skinning up to Pointe Ronde

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Eastern vista across to the Valais and beyond.

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Tea break anyone?

A superb ski technique course in Leysin, Switzerland was followed by the ski induction which went well and then a 5 day avalanche course run through the European Avalanche School. This looked at all aspects of snow science and avalanche education which was very useful for my own personal benefit but also for thinking about how I deliver avalanche education to students.

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Snow science and Mark Diggins showing us how to record it.

On return to Wales the snow had arrived and so I had a great week running a winter skills and walking week with work including an amazing day on Snowdon with the best inversion I’ve ever seen! I spend a lot of time in snow throughout the year between Scotland and the Alps but when it happens on your back door, whether that’s Snowdonia or the Mournes it makes it even more memorable and special!

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The start of a great week on Moel Siabod.

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Lliwedd floating in a sea of cloud.

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Incredible inversion with Lliwedd and, in the distance, Moel Siabod rising above the clouds.

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Canadian Ice

Terminator, Stanley Headwall, Polar Circus, Sea of Vapours…these were all routes I had heard of over the years as being legendary Canadian Ice routes. Canadian ice climbing has always conjured up various images in my head…huge walls and pillars of vertical ice, remote backcountry access, massive blue skies with snow covered trees and lines that you could see from the valley miles before you even got close to them. It was always a dream to go and climb ice in Canada and get to see if what I imagined actually was true. At the beginning of December I was fortunate to head out to the East Rockies with work for two weeks to climb some of these lines and teach others how to give people a safe experience on ice.

Whilst I didn’t get to climb any of the above mentioned routes, I did climb some incredible lines and found Canadian ice to be all I imagined and more. I left inspired to return to climb some of those incredible lines I had seen from a distance but never got close to.

Evan Thomas Pan

Massive blue skies and snow covered trees…Evan Thomas Creek, K Country.

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A thin start to Moonlight. Evan Thomas Creek.

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Wicked Wanda, The Ghost

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Exiting Wicked Wanda after a very wet top pitch.

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Part of the adventure of going into the Ghost…getting your truck stuck!

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Lake Louise Falls

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Lead climbing coaching with the students

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Trainee instructor managing a descent at the top of Grotto Falls.

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Andy on the classic Carlsberg Column, Field

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Myself approaching the belay on Carlsberg Column, Field

Sun, Sea and Mountains

I’ve come to the conclusion that blogging is hard work and the longer you leave it the harder it is to write something! Climbing at Fairhead in glorious sunshine away back in June seems a very distant memory as I write this looking out towards where the Mourne Mountains should be…instead there is only greyness and incessant mizzle.

After the incredible summer of 2013 it was hard to imagine the summer of 2014 being any better, but it was! It just kept on going and going and despite a brief interlude towards rolled on into a generally dry and sunny Autumn and North Wales just kept on giving. Here a few photos that sum up some of what happened in those months.

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Cenotaph Corner

– Mel puts to rest a longheld ambition to climb Cenotaph Corner…not bad for a 70 year old!

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Heart of Stone

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West Buttress Eliminate

The high mountain crags once again dried almost completely and so it was off back up to Gallt yr Ogof and an almost obligatory visit to Cloggy to climb a couple of classics, West Buttress Eliminate and Great Wall.

Until a couple of years ago the Lake District was never high on my list of paces to go climbing, that is until I spent an incredible weekend on Scafell Pike climbing dry, high quality mountain rhyolite. This year I made a couple of trips back up including one week of incredible blue skies and hot weather. Climbing on Pavey Ark, Gimmer Crag, Esk Buttress, Dow Crag, Goat Crag, Reecastle and several others just confirmed to me just how great the mountain cragging is in the Lakes!

Langdale Reflections

Central Pillar, Esk Buttress

Central Pillar, Esk Buttress

Esk Valley...stunning!

Esk Valley…stunning!

The remainder of the summer was largely taken up with sport climbing as I rediscovered The Diamond on the Little Orme. A lot of redevelopment has taken place here over the years to turn it into a top venue. Unfortunately its only climbable a small part of the year so there were a lot of after work visits to capitalise on the golden evening light and generally good conditions. Some accounts were opened and closed, one other in particular was left open…I’m already looking forward to getting back down there at the start of August!

The Diamond in golden evening light.

The Diamond in golden evening light.

From sea level bolt clipping it was off to the very north of Scotland for some classic sea stacks as part of a work trip. The Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoer and Am Buchaille are three of the most iconic lines in the UK for the adventurous trad climber. I was fortunate to climb both Am Buchaille and The Old Man of Hoy along with a couple of days cragging at Sheigra in exceptional weather for the north of Scotland!

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Am Buchaille from Sandwood Bay

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The Old Man of Hoy standing proud of St. Johns Head

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A Few Dollars More on Old of Hoy

From the seaside it was off to the Alps and a warm up route on the North Face of the Midi set us up for the Schmidt Route on the Matterhorn. Conditions on the face were exceptionally good and made this one of the most enjoyable north faces I’ve climbed! It also completed the big three North Face Trilogy routes for me!

Alpenglow on the Tournier Spur, NF Aiguille du Midi

Alpenglow on the Tournier Spur, NF Aiguille du Midi

Top of the ice field on the Schmidt Route

Top of the ice field on the Schmidt Route

The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn

The glorious Autumn continued on with a good bit of great autumnal weather that allowed cragging right up to the end of the month. Autumn is definitely a favourite time of mine to climb, the air is crisp and clear, the sunshine more than welcome and the colours give the surroundings a vibrant feel. Climbing in the sun all the way up to the start of my winter provided a fitting finale to what’s been a great year.

Photo: Tim Neill

Crisp, sunny days at Nesscliff. Here on Notional Trust

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Breezy, sunny days on the Lleyn Peninsula. Path to Rome.

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Cold, friction days on Slate. Tom Livingstone on Poetry Pink.

Photo: Tim Neill

Last day of rock climbing for me in amazing sunshine by the sea at the Great Orme, Gritstone Gorilla

Fairhead Meet

Walking along the top of Fairhead seven years ago I was amazed at how many climbers had turned up for the Fairhead meet…about 20 or so. Having only been to Fairhead a handful of times before this I had never seen any other climbers when I had been there climbing! The meet had been organised by some locals to introduce them to a neglected crag and hopefully clean up a few routes. It can be a daunting place to try and find your routes so it was useful bumping into the likes of Calvin Torrans who gave myself and Jonny some handy pointers at what routes to get on. We got ridiculously pumped on Aoife, stumbled around the boulders at the bottom trying to find Roaring Meg and delighted in the stunning climbing and positions on Girona and Fath mo Bhuartha….routes that only confirmed to me what a special place Fairhead was and what a privilege it was to have such a crag in our wee country.

White Lightening Ampitheatre

White Lightening Ampitheatre

We were only there for a day as we were heading over to the Culdaff Climbfest in Donegal which arguably was much bigger and more popular at that stage. To say I was underwhelmed when I seen the climbing at Culdaff was an understatement!

Seven years on with my climbing horizons having been broadened by climbing further afield, Fairhead remains a very special place, probably the most special climbing place to me. Moving to Wales I was always wittering on about Fairhead and how great it was, people undoubtedly got a bit bored. I persisted and eventually got round to organising my own little Fairhead meet for a North Wales and Scottish contingent every May for a few years. I secretly delighted in the fact that everyone was blown away by Fairhead, the location, the climbing, the adventure.

The meet has become an established event in the Irish climbing calendar due to the superb effort put in by Paul Swail and the welcoming hospitality of Sean McBride, the local landowner, who allows us to climb on his cliffs.

Rathlin Wall

Rathlin Wall

Thursday evening and people started to drift into the campsite and I got chatting to Shea and Tony, both newcomers to the head. We went for a wander up to the crag and in amongst excited chat I pointed out various routes and ab points. We arrived at the top of the Prow and I watched as they got their first view of the mighty Rathlin Wall. I thought back to when I first seen that view and the thoughts and feelings I had…awe, trepidation, insignificance and unbelievable psyche…I could tell they were the same as the guys were experiencing now.

Three days of great weather, great banter and great climbing were had over the weekend with the highlight being John‘s humourous chat on the Saturday evening to a packed out barn. Having climbed a substantial amount of the classic routes I found myself getting on the less travelled but equally good routes. This inevitably means climbing some dirt. I spent a day brushing Maiden Voyage only to be stopped on the lead due to it still being too dirty. I watched nervously as Nick tentatively made his way up the dirty second pitch of Waist Deep in Alligators (this is a very serious pitch in a dirty state…the top pitch is superb!) and got fully engrossed in the muck and worms on The Icarus Gun as Tim and I turned a 1 pitch route into a 3 pitch adventure. With many more dirty lines to be climbed there are more than enough routes to last a lifetime!

Sitting at the top of White Lightning Ampitheatre after the epic cleaning ascent of The Icarus Gun with Tim we watched Nick on Hallowe’en Arete as the setting sun lit up Nick and the arete as clouds swirled around behind. It was a perfect scene to finish a perfect weekend.

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John ‘I’ve already got a million photos in the new guidebook’ McCune

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Belay banter on Swails new route ‘Full of Energy, Ready to Party’

 

Sophie Whyte following on the superb Face Value

Sophie Whyte following on the superb Face Value

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Lee Roberts on the 3rd ascent of Swails new route..he had a slightly more traumatic time as the holds started to come off!

Lee and Tim in spectacular evening light on The Promised Land

Lee and Tim in spectacular evening light on The Promised Land

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Nick and Lee on the amazing Hallowe’en Arete

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Sunset over Rathlin Island

Winter to Spring to Summer

This year seems to have flown by so fast already. Its now the end of May, the evenings are light and North Wales is having a mix of intense sun and intense rain. Winter in Scotland and Spring in the Alps seem like a distant memory whilst summer seems to be always just around the corner but so far hasn’t arrived with a bang just yet!

This winter was the first year when I haven’t done a complete stint in Scotland due to having work down in Wales at the start of January. I had a great variety of work over the weeks I was up there. It was hard work at times due to the amount of snow and wind but that just makes it all the more satisfying…looking back at it now that is!

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As always a great few days working with QUBMC. This was definitely one of the better days at the start of the winter!

After a couple of very snowy and buried routes at the start of January in the Cairngorms the first route of the season on the West was Central Grooves in Stob Coire nan Lochain with Kenny Grant. Had been wanting to climb this for a while and it didn’t disappoint.

Central Grooves

Central Grooves (Photo: Kenny Grant)

Climbing days were limited this year due to work and rubbish weather but I did manage two fantastic days on Beinn Eighe towards the end of February. The first was a FWA of The Root of All Evil with Murdo on Far Eastern Buttress. At IX 8, apart from the tricky first pitch, this was quite a bit beyond me in terms of fitness. It was however pretty inspiring to watch Murdo put all his training to good use!

The Root of All Evil – Murdo hanging out on the roof of pitch 3.

The second visit was a week later with the super keen Andy Howgarth to climb Central Buttress. Again this is a route that has been on the radar for a while and it didn’t disappoint!

Andy questing towards the top.

A week later I was somewhere in the middle of the North Face of the Eiger, engrossed in climbing probably undoubtedly the most well known face in the European Alps and beyond. Climbing on Beinn Eighe a week earlier this hadn’t even been on the cards but such is how opportunities present themselves and when they do you have to grab them as you never know if you’ll get another chance!

Suffice to say climbing the 1938 Route on the Eiger was a dream come true, three of the most memorable days climbing with great weather, great partner, great climbing and not so so conditions! I will write about it in a bit more detail in due course.

John on the Hinterstoisser Traverse, 1938 Route – Eiger

The morning after I got off the Eiger I started a ski course in Bavaria for two weeks. Unsurprisingly I was slightly hanging for the first couple of days until I caught up with some sleep!

Vic rapping in to ski the Ellerkopf couloir on a day off.

After two weeks of stellar sunshine and very warm temperatures I had a couple of weeks ski touring, firstly with Guy and Blair in the Albula Alps and then with John around Chamonix.

Looking over St. Moritz

Stellar blue skies and lots of fresh snow!

Stellar blue skies and lots of fresh snow!

Team photo on top of Piz Kesch in the Albula Alps

John on the way to the top of the Aiguille du Tour Noir. A long skin up to the Col du Tour Noir and then a sketchy PD to the summit was great end to the trip!

John on the way to the top of the Aiguille du Tour Noir. A long skin up to the Col du Tour Noir and then a sketchy PD to the summit was great end to the trip!

Back in North Wales now and the weather has been a mix of sunshine and heavy showers. In between work its been great to get back rock climbing around North Wales, the Peak District and Pembroke over the last few weeks. Off to Fairhead in a few days which is a the trip I’ve been looking forward most to so far!

Kitten Claws at Carreg y Barcud, Pembroke. (Photo: Tim Neill)

Kitten Claws at Carreg y Barcud, Pembroke. (Photo: Tim Neill)

A Grandes Traverse

After what was an incredible summer of rock climbing in the UK I was nearly reluctant to leave the UK and head to the Alps for a couple of weeks but a good looking forecast for the Alps made it easy to go! Heading out with Dave we had a few plans for routes and link ups of routes. Phillipe Batoux’s new book, Mont Blanc – The Finest Routes provides plenty of inspiration for big and small routes all over the massif.

We headed up to the Monzino hut with a view to getting on the Ratti Vitalli route on the remote West face of the Aiguille Noire. Dropping off some kit at the Monzino hut we carried on up to Aiguille Croux, a great little summit that gave some great climbing on its South face via Que Cherches to Jean Marie and a good view of the approach to the West face of the Noire.

West Face of the Aiguille Noire

West Face of the Aiguille Noire

A long and slightly involved approach the following morning brought us to the base of the route where we set off up this amazing face. The crux of the route is a long overhanging corner, the top section of which goes at 5c or AO.  The exposure on this pitch is wild as you’re hanging out over the chaotic Freney Glacier! It also took a lot of energy being unaccclimatised and having got past this point we thought we had it in the bag but quite a few pitches of immaculate slab still lay in front us meaning that we topped out in the dark and got to spend a delightful shivver bivvy on the summit of the Noire!

Dave just below the crux corner.

Dave just below the crux corner.

A loooong descent (first time I’ve been so far out on a guidebook time!) the following day meant by the time we got back to the van we had been going for nearly 48 hours with only a litre of water each which was rather sub optimal! Thankfully the weather was not so great for the next day or two so after a bit of R&R and a lot of drinking we caught the Torino lift to climb the Bonatti/Tabou route on the Chandelle du Tacul, a great example of one of the shorter, accessible rock routes that is highlighted in the Batoux book. Amazing granite slabs, cracks and corners!

Bonatti Tabou, Chandelle du Tacul

Bonatti Tabou, Chandelle du Tacul

Each of these routes was great in its own right and for us served as a great way to get acclimatised for something higher up. The Tronchey Ridge lies on the south side of the Grandes Jorasses and as it happens is the only route on the Jorasses that doesn’t require you to step on a glacier on the way up. The entire ridge can be seen from the valley floor, from where you start and cover around 2500m of ascent to the top of the Grandes Jorasses. It’s a bit of a slog up to the Jacchia bivouac hut (if anyone needs a better description for this approach just ask) but its worth it. The Jacchia hut gets maybe 4 or 5 visits a year so you can pretty much be guaranteed solitude and as a bonus is situated at the base of the Ridge itself so no approach walk in the morning!

Jacchia Bivouac Hut

Jacchia Bivouac Hut

The Tronchey Ridge rises from the hut in a twisting narrow arete towards three towers which bar the way to the summit. I would like to say that the quality of the rock matched the great aesthetics of the ridgeline but for the majority of the initial section it didn’t! Steady progress brought us to the rock towers which the standard route takes you around (there is a direct integrale). Steady climbing on good rock, interspersed with some death block scrambling brought us past the first two towers. Here the rock improved and gave way to some good, interesting climbing leading up to the third tower. Being so rarely frequented there is a near total lack of insitu gear which all adds to the remoteness of the situation which, in the Mont Blanc region in August, is quite hard to come by.

The Tronchey Ridge stretching out below

The Tronchey Ridge stretching out below

The route brought us out on to the summit of Pointe Walker and hence the Grandes Jorasess. When John and I climbed the Croz Spur a couple of years ago we didn’t go to the summit so it was great to finally stand at the top of the Grandes Jorasses. A relatively comfortable bivvy (we slept through the alarm in the morning) brought us through to an amazing sunrise and the start of the Grandes Jorasses traverse. This has got to be one of the best traverses in the Alps taking you along the top of what is arguably the most prolific North Face in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Looking back towards Pointe Croz and Walker

Looking back towards Pointe Croz and Whymper.

The initial traverse from Pointe Walker to Pointe Croz is relatively straight forward along snowy/icy slopes and when you gain Pointe Helene the up and down climbing becomes more technical all the way to the far side of Pointe Young, although the rock for the most part is solid and actually enjoyable to move on. The traverse is more traditionally done from the the Torino Hut via the Rocheforte Arete so we passed a few teams heading in the opposite direction along the ridge. Doing it in reverse also meant information about the descent off Pointe Young to the Col des Grandes Jorasses is a bit harder to come by and so to be sure we took a second rope ( as suggested in a certain book) for the raps to the Col. Turns out the second rope wasn’t needed at all…at least we (or anyone else reading this) know for next time!

Quick breather just past Pointe Helene.

Quick breather just past Pointe Helene.

On the traverse of the Grandes Jorasses. Pointe Margerite ahead with the Rocheforte Arete beyond!

On the traverse of the Grandes Jorasses. Pointe Margerite ahead with the Rocheforte Arete beyond!

Rapping the immaculate granite of the West face of Pointe Young we arrived at the Canzio Bivouac to find we were only sharing it with a friendly French guide and his client who were traversing the opposite way to us. Their mutual back massaging (maybe it’s a French Guiding ‘service’) later that evening led to some awkward staring at the wall from Dave and myself.

The following morning saw us climbing immaculate granite on the East face of the Calotte de Rocheforte. Dave pulled out a great little lead to get us over the tricky 5c step on to the Calotte de Rocheforte. Great mountaineering along the ridge brought us to Dome de Rocheforte where some careful downclimbing on choss brings you to the snow leading to the Aigulle de Rocheforte and hence the deservedly famous Rocheforte Arete.

Arriving on to the start of the Rocheforte Arete.

Arriving on to the ridge leading to the Rocheforte Arete.

Having read about the Rocheforte Arete since I first went to the Alps it was great to finally traverse along it as it is a very aesthetic line with stunning exposure along its length. A quick sprint down the descent from the Dent de Geant and a final lung bursting walk up to the Torino hut brought us to the end of an amazing four days out in the hills.

This is the first time I’ve done a link up of routes in this way and I’m definitely keen for a few more. Having spent a reasonable amount of time now on the Italian side of Mont Blanc my eyes have been opened up to the possibilities of big and small days out in lesser visited places.

The icing on the cake for the trip was when the little Italian lady in the cafe at the base of the Torino lift brought us out the bonus basket of assorted crisps with our order. Having enviously watched other groups on prior visits receive this bonus basket it made us smile that we were now deemed regulars. Made up.

Looking back on an amazing journey!

Looking back on an amazing journey

Pabbay and Mingulay

Golden sandy beaches, clear blue water, soaring Golden Eagles, screaching Peregrines, darting and diving seabirds, a noisy seal colony, puking Fulmars, diving Bonxies…these are probably the memories that will stay with me the most when I think about Pabbay and Mingulay. However most of all I’ll remember these islands the most for being pumped out of my mind on some amazingly steep sea cliffs!

Pabbay Paradise

Pabbay Paradise

Pabbay and Mingulay are two little uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, renowned for their sea cliff climbing. The islands were last inhabited in the early 1900’s with Mingulay having a population of around 120 at one point. Today they are uninhabited save for the abundance of wildlife and the occasional climbing team in the summer months. Suffice to say the climbing on these islands is incredible with something to suit everyone (well maybe apart from those with really weak arms) but what makes climbing here so memorable is the wildness, remoteness and beauty of the islands themselves.

The Great Arch on Pabbay. Dave and Donald are two tiny little specks under the Great Roof which they climbed a couple of days later.

The Great Arch on Pabbay. Dave and Donald are two tiny little specks under the Great Roof which they climbed a couple of days later.

So when Team Scotland went about organising a trip out there for June I decided I could forgo Fairhead for one year and go check these islands out. The only slight flaw in the plan was that I had been mountaineering for the previous 6 months and I was climbing with Murdo ‘never gets pumped’ Jamieson who was on the form of his life (actually come to think of it, he’s always on this form). We had four glorious days of weather on Pabbay before we headed across to Mingulay where unfortunately the weather was not so great. Mingulay has some fantastic big cliffs with Dun Mingulay being the star attraction. The route we did, Big Kenneth, was fantastic but unfortunately the marginal weather didn’t really allow us to get on any other routes on this great crag.

Murdo with a smile on his face...he must have been happy that this route made him try a little.

Murdo with a smile on his face…he must have been happy that this route made him try a little.

I’ll be honest in saying that I found this trip to be incredibly frustrating from a climbing point of view as my mind was willing but my body was lacking in the fitness and confidence to get on the routes I wanted to climb! It was made even more frustrating by watching Murdo cruise up multiple E5’s and E6’s without even getting a sweat on! However it was hard to stay frustrated for long when the climbing was so good, the location was breathtaking and it was truly inspiring to watch someone make E6’s look like VS’s.

These islands are truly a fantastic place to visit and the great thing about having been on such poor climbing form this trip is that I have all the amazing routes there to go back for!

Guy and Nona on the Poop Deck

Guy and Nona on the Poop Deck

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Murdo cruising the crux of The Bonxie…this was significantly harder than he made it look…standard.

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Murdo’s words leaving the Bonxie belay were ‘Take your time…but hurry up’ I’ve never seen someone 2nd a pitch so fast, drop his harness and then disappear to find a large hole in the ground…poor hole!

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Looking across to the campsite on Mingulay

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Lounging around at the top of Dun Mingulay waiting for the weather to get in before abbing in… Think now, ab later.

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There was a lot of standing around in a circle with our trousers tucked into our socks on Mingulay playing the alphabet game…all part of a climbing trip.