Sunday, May 3, 2015

The NW face of Mount Deborah

For a couple of years I've been thinking of alternative Alaskan trips. That is alternative to the Central Alaska range. Soaring granite faces dripping with ice, endless daylight and easy access via ski plane make the Central Alaska range undoubtedly one of the world meccas of alpine climbing. However there's a lot more to AK than Denali, Hunter and the Ruth Gorge and it was during one of my favourite pastimes - scouring the world on Google Earth for big cool looking faces - that i discovered there were some huge looking unclimbed faces in the more eastern "Hayes" range.

Central Alaska range on the left, the eastern ranges on the right.

After a little more research; reading the incredible account of the tenacious 1978 north face of mount Deborah expedition, and the FA of the east ridge in 1982 by John Barry, Roger Mear, Rob Collister, Carl Tobin and Dave Cheesmond (this is an awesome read)Mount Deborah, arguably the baddest of all the mountains in the Hayes was well and truly burned in to my brain as a mountain of mythical presence. After sending a couple of photos to Jon back in November it took the whole of 2 seconds until my Skype window was flashing orange with a "lets do it" kind of reply and it was on.

There are huge 2000m+ unclimbed faces on both the north and south side of Deborah. We ruled out the south side as we thought by the time we got there (mid April) it would be receiving too much sun for its exfoliating schist to cope with. The stunning NE face has a true "dream" line on it at first glance, but further probing reveals a suicidal approach amongst other problems. The NW aspect however looked promising; a pyramidal face with no apparent serac issues. It felt like a huge gamble going purely off the 3d image of Google earth and no actual photo, but then again, that was part of the attraction of this wild and relatively unexplored range of mountains.
Google earth view

The real thing.
The trip was a full on adventure: an organisational cock-up early on left us unsure that we could even access the upper Gillam glacier (and the base of Deborah) at all. Hitching up the Alaskan highway to Fairbanks with 200kg of kit. Becoming helicopter mechanics for two days before the pilot could give us a lift in to the range. Trying to halve our weight so the tiny R44 heli could take off. Having our base camp destroyed on the first night in a storm that made Patagonian winds seem trivial.  

Alex said he'd fly us on to the Gillam glacier if we spent a couple of days helping him fix this heli first. Only in Alaska!

Flying in at last!

The first two days on the glacier were pure survival after our tent got destroyed. We spent two days digging this hole which we lived in for the rest of the trip.

Reading material - very important.

The climb itself was one of the hardest three days either of us have spent in the mountains, and the face was undoubtedly the most spooky and unnerving thing I've ever been on. However i don't want to ruin it and i'll write up the story of the climb in detail another time, once I've let the whole thing sink in.

Here's a small selection of photos from the mountain:

When stood at the bottom of some faces they lie back and look a lot more manageable.This one reared up and looked truly nasty!
Half way up the face where things start to turn a bit spicy.

Jon on a traverse high up.

Myself feeling it on the second morning.

About to start the never ending knife-edge summit ridge.

Stay tuned for some awesome shots over on Jon's blog in a day or two!

Many thanks to Outdoor Research, the BMC, Alpine Club, Alex Shapiro, Alex's wife, Clint Helander, Rob Wing, the dudes that picked us up when hitching and the many other very generous helpful and friendly Alaskans who made this trip work out!

Friday, January 9, 2015

5 reasons why you should watch this

I recently re-watched this film, made 45 years ago about the 1970 British Annapurna South face expedition. 55 minutes is a lot of your life not to get back, so here's why you should watch it-
  •     Sieging in the Himalaya gets a bed rep nowadays. But its clear that in 1970, it was cutting edge, audacious and badass. This was arguably the first time a mountain in the Himalaya was climbed not by its easiest route.  
  •      Haston, Whillans, Clough, Boysen, Bonnington and Estcourt were all hugely active in developing the best crags in the UK. We climb their routes all the time whether it be on the grit, at Gogarth, in the pass, on Scafell or on the Ben. Not to mention the Alps. Facebook didn’t have athlete pages in 1970, but in this film you get to know these characters a bit.
  •  As well as being a total wad, Don Whillans was good with words. He's a pleasure to listen to in this film.
  •    In a time when its hard to find a climbing film that doesn't reak of melodrama, hyperbole and have obligatory unrelated base-jumping, this is a breath of fresh air. 
  •     I don’t want to ruin it, so watch it!

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Autumn's a weird time for a climber who is as entwined in the shifting of the seasons as i am. The week i got back from Canada was spent unpacking, unwinding and lazing about. It took almost two weeks for me to realise that winter wasn't going to arrive any sooner, and it would probably take longer if i didn't somehow escape in the meantime. Luckily for us Europeans there's a place always within cheap easy reach, which guarantees an autumnal paradise of rock, blue skies, cheap food and wine. Off to Spain i went.

Bullock and Slawinski on redpoint.
I was blown away by some of the sport climbing we did in the last week in Canada. I was also blown away by how Canadian sport climbers weren't bothered by a one and a half hour walk to the crag, when here in Europe, we moan when we have to walk 20 minutes to clip bolts! Much to my surprise, a few days after we got down from the north face of Alberta, i squeezed my frost-nipped toes in to tight rock shoes and dragged myself up a brilliant 8a.

A nice evening round the head.

Van life in Rodellar.

Rodellar is tufa heaven.
It was my first time in Rodellar, and it is indeed heaven. The land of lactic lived up to its name, and spat me off more tufas than i got up, but i thoroughly enjoyed my schooling in knee bars and drop knees - a style that i could do with getting to grips with!

Ruth and her guns.
From beautiful Catalunya to the dark ugly confines of a dry tooling crag. Photo Credit - Steve Ashworth
On returning from Spain, i headed over to "The Works". This place has really taken off in recent years, and its great to see all the hard work Paddy, Brian and others put in has rewarded hundreds of tool-mad folk from around the country.
     I hadn't been dry-tooling (apart from 30 mins in Newtyle last December) in two years, but after locating all the hooks, i managed "Guardian of the Underworld" D12.

As you may have noticed the Twitter feed on the blog, i'm now on Twitter - please follow me!

Friday, October 3, 2014

The North Face of Mount Alberta

Somehow we pulled it off, the plan A, the big one, shit, i didn't think that ever happened.

The North Face of Alberta is what i'd call a mythical face. In form, its pyramidal spike of a gable-end is so pleasingly intimidating, it must be one of the most spectacular faces i know of. This incredible photo by the aerial photographer John Scurlock is what inspired me a few months ago to put the N face of Alberta at the very top of my list of things to do.

From left to right; The N Face of the Twins Tower, Mount Columbia, N Face of Alberta. Photo: John Scurlock.

After the food poisoning episode i touched on in the last post, we watched the weather forecast, and when a two day window, with bad weather either side cropped up, we set our sites on Alberta once more. Although only really a marginal window for what we were wanting to attempt, it was our last chance so we had to take it. What we were wanting to attempt was the House-Anderson line on the N Face of Alberta. An incredible looking line, that was put up at the end of winter, 7 years ago by the amazingly driven American team of Steve House and Vince Anderson.

Nick drying off after fording the Sunwapta again.

With most of our gear stashed up there already, we made the walk in over Woolley Shoulder pretty fast and were chilling out in the sun for most of the afternoon before we left.

Drip harvesting off the roof.

There are many fascinating entries in the hut book.I love this one from Bill Bancroft and Scott Backes from sometime in the early 90's after climbing the N face on their third try, via the Lowe-Glidden.

The alarm went at 2.30a.m. and it all felt right. It's amazing how different you can feel before an intimidating route, sometimes you'll do anything for that alarm not to go off, sometimes you can't wait to get on with it.
      After forcing a bagel and a litre of water down my neck we got wrapped up and headed out in to the perfect crisp morning.

To get to the bottom of the N face you have to make a series of raps to the lower glacier which feeds off the face. After walking for an hour we were nearly at the point where we down climbed to make the first abseil when i made a horrifying discovery. My belay plate was not on my harness. What the fuck! how is that possible? after quickly checking the contents of my bag it was obvious i didn't have it. My magic plate has been attached to my alpine harness for about 5 years, i never take it off, along with two slings a screwgate and a ropeman i never remove it for the precise reason that it would be catastrophic to not have it in a situation like this. After some brief thoughts of anger at myself and how cruel it all seemed, my mind immediately flicked on to thinking of alternative methods of belaying and abseiling.With about 5 raps to get to the route, multiple pitches of very technical climbing, and god knows how many raps to get off the mountain, my belay plate was going to be sorely missed. Nick wanted to bail immediately, the wind had got up and stood freezing ourselves while having a debate about how possible the route would be with one belay plate things had suddenly got desperate in just an hour from waking up. I did my best to persuade Nick and in the end he agreed to give it a shot, i owe him for giving it a chance, with roles reversed i'm not sure what i'd do. I still don't know where my belay plate is.

We made about 4 abseils, 2 of which were free hanging, plus some down climbing to make it to the lower glacier. We managed to leave as little gear as we could, conscious that we needed to conserve it for the climbing ahead. I now know we actually abbed off the wrong spur, and it would have been better to go 200 metres further north.

With this over, we were now beneath one of the most inspiring faces i've ever stood beneath, and we could see it was absolutely plastered with whiteness, it looked awesome, so we strolled over to the schrund and got stuck in:

The first 60 metres of blue glacier ice was a painful start!

But soon we found a beautiful ribbon of neve to blast up to the icefield above.

Myself halfway up the icefield.

The brilliant line of the House-Anderson goes up the ice streaks in the centre of the headwall, with hard mixed climbing above and beneath, this is why i love alpine climbing, the lines on big mountains are just so inspiring. The pitches up to the top ice blob had been repeated by Canadians Jason Kruk and Joshua Lavigne when they climbed their great looking new line on the left side of the headwall in 2012.

Myself soloing through the yellow band. Scaring myself by finding the only pocket of nasty crud on the whole face!

Nick starting the first of twelve intense pitches we climbed on the headwall. This pitch was given M7 be Steve House.

Myself on the next pitch also given M7/who knows.

I was alarmed to come round a corner to see Nick in a sickeningly exposed hanging position on a belay mostly consisting of a rotting spike.

A scrappy and annoying little aid section got us out of a potentially sticky situation. The "ice" above this roof was mostly useless snow, so after a couple of small falls when gear ripped, i managed to reach higher to better ice.

Dark, still going.

And going
We climbed the last few pitches of day one in the dark. A 50 metre pitch of bullet-hard WI5+with wild stemming on the right wall was exhausting. The pitch above was an incredible yet very worrying skin of vertical and overhanging ice. Nick put up a brilliant lead, and i'll leave it to him to tell the story of how he climbed it. I spent the whole pitch belaying with my bag on top of my head as i was directly in the firing line.
    A pitch later and we were relieved to find the legendary cave feature that Kruk and Lavigne found. Although we knew it was there, we didn't know for sure whether we'd be able to get in to it, or if it was iced over or blocked somehow. We were relieved to be able to enter it and have the most surreal bivy of our lives. Narrow to begin with, we crawled to where it opened out and it felt like entering a cathedral. A huge tube covered in rime ice penetrated in to the mountain. We weren't sure how deep to go, as we needed to have some indication of light outside, but it goes deep, really deep.
      We didn't take bivi kit, i had a duvet jacket and some insulated trousers, curled up on the ropes and had a few hours of shivering with occasional bowts of sleep.

The surreal confines of the cave.

First pitch of day 2. Airy.

Nick seconding the traverse.

Seriously? about to commit to the wall above.
After leaving the cave, we climbed a few pitches then hit a kind of dead end. Nick went up and left, and belayed beneath a steep blank looking wall. I started up one weakness, which after a little excavation turned out to be a blank seam. I then traversed right and noticed a steep flake firing up the wall, it looked improbable but i got involved anyway. I battled my way up it with arms exploding for the final 10 metres. I think given the circumstances it was one of my hardest leads. I've done much easier VIII's in Scotland.

Nearing the top of the headwall.

Three continually tricky pitches later and we were off the headwall. 150 metres of  easy angled rock and ice lay above us which we climbed in three long pitches to reach the south east ridge.
Bad weather arrives on the summit ridge.
By this point the weather had taken a real turn for the worse. It was windy and snowing, and as so often is the case with these things, we walked straight over the summit, no hug, no handshake not even an acknowledgement that we were on top. The alarm bells were starting to sound in my head, we needed to get as far down the mountain as we could before darkness and the weather worsened still.

After down climbing the summit ridge, which seemed to take forever, we located the top of the Japanese route and started abseiling down the east face. The Japanese route, the easiest route up the mountain is probably the worst heap of choss i've ever seen. Extreme care was needed not to chop the ropes or worse with falling rock when we abbed. The night went on and on and once finished with the abseiling we started down climbing the easier angled lower sections. In the dark and snow it was very hard to navigate, and we were cliffed out everywhere we went. In the end we decided to call it and spent another night shivering in a fetal position. I got my head under a boulder and tried to find a happy place.
      After scrutinizing photos i'd taken a few days earlier of the mountain in good weather, i managed to work out where we were, and the next morning, with blocks of wood for feet, we stumbled out on to the glacier after the most intense bit of navigation i've ever done.

The hell hole i spent the second night in.

Morning of day 3.

A happy Bullock after finally getting off that mountain. That moment when you realise, its in the bag.
Sitting by a fire with a beer in my hand, it seems to be sinking in. But i'd like to say that climbing that line in March like Steve and Vince did is seriously inspiring. They must be made of tough stuff.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Canada Part 1

Lush green valleys, braided rivers, coniferous forest stretching for eternity, blunt yet jagged limestone peaks, huge trucks, bears - I'm pleased to say that the Canadian Rockies are pretty much exactly how i'd always imagined them. They're also massive. Massive in every way, faces that look 400 metres are actually 1000, an approach that looks like a pleasant hour's stroll on the map ends up being a grueling 7 hours of bush/moraine whacking, its seriously wild, seriously cool.

I'm here with Nick Bullock, with the idea of climbing some of the bigger alpine faces. After speaking to local experts such as Jon Walsh about conditions that are required for the north faces we decided that September/October would be the best time, the idea being that temperatures would have cooled off enough that the rockfall isn't too bad, yet not cold and snowy enough that the big stuff goes out of the window in place for the ice and mixed "cragging" that most people come here in the winter for. Although this is Nick's eighth trip to the Rockies, its his first at this time of the year with alpine stuff in mind, so the trip was a bit of an unknown for both of us.

When we first arrived in Canmore there had been an unseasonably large dump of snow, which made things look very wintry!

After a couple of days some good weather showed up and we climbed the north face of Mount Diadem. It was great to get stuck in to the Rockies and sample the choss. It went something like this; leave the car at 4a.m. thrash, wade and grovel up a very vegetated valley for a few hours, scratch up endless moraine to the glacier beneath the face, cross the glacier, climb the face, traverse the summit, down-climb the s.face, and then walk out of a different valley we'd forgot to research for 5 hours back to the car.

Nick at our road bivi, the valley behind leads up to the glacier beneath Diadem.

Nick fording a very cold Sunwapta river at 4 a.m.
About 4 hours later the sun rose and we could see the N face, very cool.

Nick crossing the glacier beneath the face.

The first roped pitch.

The crux was a really fun steep offwidth with some old ice in the back and not much for gear, here i am starting it and about to wish we'd brought a more extensive rack!

Myself on a fun pitch of thin snice higher up, the screw in the photo being the only worthwhile gear for the next 40ish metres.
Nick charging up some choss.

Choss on the final tower

Myself with the North face of Alberta in the background, the dream tick for this trip.

Descending in to the Canadian vastness.

It was great to have done such an awesome route in the first week, and it wetted our appetites for more.

Nick clipping bolts.

Down-time in Canmore at this time of year isn't so bad due to the amount of really great sport climbing there is. In Echo Canyon alone, which is right behind where we're staying there are some really inspiring crags, which disprove the theory that the Rockies only contain choss. Yesterday i did a brilliant 12c in Echo which would be three stars in Siurana or any other mecca of sport climbing. Its almost worth considering the Rockies as a sport climbing destination, although i can't believe i just said that...

Incredible amount of rock in Echo canyon, on the wall behind Nick there are 50 metre 8a's!
After resting post Diadem, we drove back up the road towards Jasper and set about a bigger objective. Unfortunately we messed up a bit on tactics, and whilst bivvying in the car the night before leaving i had a traumatic night of vomiting, which i think was due to a dodgy chinese take-out from the supermarket the day before. Nevertheless we made the long walk in to the col beneath the NE ridge of Alberta, but after not eating for a couple of days and finding small hills a struggle to walk up, combined with our intended line being in somewhat different condition to what we'd anticipated, it was an easy decision to stash the gear and come back at the next possible opportunity.

The north face of Twins Tower seen from wooley shoulder. The Columbia icefield stretches off its back and is a "Hydrological Apex", water flows from it to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic.

The Lloyd Mackay hut, with the East face of Alberta behind. 

I've been seriously inspired by the Rockies so far, they're wild, infinitely more "real deal" than anything that the European Alps can offer, and feel more on par with some of the bigger places i've been for size, gnarl and as i say, "realness".