Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Swimming with dolphins, meeting the Queen, falling in love, standing on the moon. Everyone seems to be talking about "bucket lists" nowadays.

If a climber was to have a bucket list, I think that close to the top of the list would be to do a road-trip in America. With autumnal alpine conditions looking less than average, this year seemed like a good time to head west in search of the American dream. Despite having been to Alaska a number of times, I felt like I'd never been to America itself. Burgers and pristine granite were calling.

After a summer of guiding in the Alps, fellow snowplodder, Fairhead specialist and Ireland's most handsome climber John Mccune and myself had hatched a vague plan to go and get shutdown by some wide cracks in Yosemite, followed by wherever the wind would take us. With a load of friends also floating around the US this autumn, it was sure to be a fun trip climbing or not.

Yosemite, arguably the most famous climbing valley in the world is a curious case of juxtaposition. A 1000 metre cliff of impeccable white and gold granite sits a leisurely 5 minutes stroll from a tourist loop road. Hundreds of king-sized Americans and pocket size Asians are carted around on an open top tour bus, bad jokes and trivia blasting out of speakers. Above, climbers strapped to El Cap are getting scared, strung-out and having a very different experience.

Upon arriving in "the valley", we set about our Yosemite apprenticeship. Cragging at Arch rock - my favourite small crag in the valley - and doing many medium-sized classics. Moratorium, The Rostrum, D.N.B (highly recommended, and no, it doesn't sand for Do Not Bother), Astroman, South face of Washington Column.


El Cap - a site to behold.

Some amusing toilet graffiti.

Refining(/discovering) our aid skills.

The world classic that is Astroman.

John seconding the Harding slot. A bucket list pitch.

The West face of El Cap.

Myself on Crimson Cringe, a contender for the best granite pitch I've ever done.

After a couple of weeks, much panting and screaming inside offwidths and a heavy schooling on many a 5.10, we felt like we were making a bit of progress; we'd sussed the shower situation, how to get in and out of the valley without paying and John had found an array of sections of foam matting he could sleep on. We figured we should get stuck in to something a bit meatier.

NIAD, or the Nose In A Day was high on our priorites. After a brief recce of the first section the day before, we launched at about 5 a.m. and about 18 hours later both sat next to the famous tree that marks the top of the route on the rim of El Cap. 34 pitches of involved climbing, each more famous than the last had made for a tiring day, especially as we dropped a jumar low down, and never quite got a good system sorted for the next 25 pitches.

Shortly after sunrise, 800 metres of compact granite above.

The Great Roof. A defining pitch.

After NIAD and the west face of El Cap, we decided to get involved with trying to free Freerider, a variation to the uber classic Salathe wall. We didn't finish the route, but went to pitch 25 (of about 32) freeing all the pitches apart from one between us, including the "Huber Pitch", the number crux at 12d/13a which John dispatched swiftly. However, we were under no illusion that this was the crux for us, the wide 5.11's being far more of a challenge.

The route turned in to more of a recce than going for it properly. On waking up at the niche, the corner system above was glazed in ice, and even sported a stalactite on the pitch above the spire. Not exactly what we were expecting, we spent day two huddled in the niche under a bombardment of falling ice. Also, the fact that we hadn't done the monster offwidth on day one (we arrived at its base in the dark, and went up the A1 pitch of Salathe instead) felt like a real copout, being a key, and one of the crux pitches of the route.

However, it was a great three days we spent on the wall, and now I know what it involves, i'm really inspired to go back and do it properly. Minimal hauling or even in a day, would be a fantastic way to climb freerider.

John struggling with the haul bags on the lower section of Freerider.

Just above heart ledges, on day 1.

John in the alcove. A luxurious bivi.

John chilling on El Cap spire.

Myself on the 11c offwidth above the spire.

Stunning climbing

Evening light on the Muir wall.

John on the Huber pitch.

We went from pitch 24 of freerider to the pizza house in about 5 hours, which really goes to show how well designed El Cap is for climbers. After a month in the valley we were definitely wanting out, so we went surfing.

A massive whale.

Pacific surf in Santa Cruz.

As per normal, I got scared and thought I was going to die, but it was a lot of fun.

A fun week was spent with my friend Michelle from Seattle. She taught me the ways of America and laughed at my bad driving.
After an abortive but fun mission to the Needles (too much snow), we found ourselves in Red Rocks, Vegas, and another rock climbing paradise.

John on Cloud Tower.

Heather on Cloud Tower.

Heather styling.

Myself on pitch 1 of Rainbow wall.
Rainbow wall

John on Monster Skank. An amazing 13b that just managed to evade us both. Next time.

Although at first it seemed wrong to be sport climbing in America, we were lured in to a fantastic route in the last few days of our trip called "Monster Skank", our redpoints were ending higher and higher, but fate intervened. We had one last chance to get it on the last day, but John discovered the morning we left for the crag that his passport, harness, and rock shoes had been misplaced. Climbing Monster Skank was no longer a possibility, as we made a frantic drive to the British consulate in San Francisco in order to get an emergency passport before out flight back to the UK the next day.

A great 1st world adventure. I can see this being the first of many rock trips to the US. A country designed for road-tripping, crack climbing, and mass consumption of burgers and IPA.


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!