Sunday, May 26, 2019

the nostalgia project: Grand Wall, Canada (2005)

The route

The west faces of the Chief and the Malamute from Nexen Beach on a crisp winter afternoon.
The Grand Wall ascends the sunny face in the centre. The Split Pillar pitch is clearly visible.
For climbers who know it well, the Stawamus Chief has interesting rock faces on almost all its aspects. But for tourists driving the Sea-to-Sky highway to Whistler, who have turned in to the pullout under the Chief, it is the towering west face that captures their interest - and, if climbers are visible on it, brings out cameras and binoculars. The Grand Wall is the route central to that face and the best-known climb in Squamish.

The route's history began with the highway, as until the road reached Squamish in the late 1950s, the Chief was relatively inaccessible, on the wrong side of the Mamquam river from the port area that until then was the town's only connection with the rest of BC. Though Fred Beckey and others had climbed a few lesser lines previously, it was Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper, scouting for Yosemite-like "big wall" projects from Vancouver, who committed to the big prize: the Grand Wall. Their 40-day ascent, almost entirely aided, drew thousands of spectators to Squamish. The local Howe Sound Brewpub honours them with a beer:

© Howe Sound Brewing
Over the years the aid on the original line was reduced to a couple of short bolt ladders at 5.11a A0. This is the route that most people now climb, either starting up Apron Strings to make a ten pitch route or via a scramble up Flake Ledges to reduce the pitch count to eight or nine. Three successive pitches in the middle of the route form the main difficulty: the soaring crack on the right side of the Split Pillar (sandbag 5.10b), the devious Sword (5.11a A0) and Perry's Layback (5.11a). (One day an earthquake, or perhaps just an abrupt freeze-thaw, will cause the already near-detached Split Pillar to fall off the wall, probably taking all these pitches with it.)

From the 1980s, Peter Croft and then Scott Cosgrove worked on variations to the right of the Sword to ultimately create the wholly Free Grand. This is rarely climbed, perhaps because the 5.13b crux pitch is a thin slab best suited to mid-winter conditions when the rest of the route is often wet or icey.

The context

In 2004, two events occurred that were pivotal in shaping the life that I lead now. One was official confirmation that I (and Leo) had dual British-Canadian citizenship. Though my father was born in Alberta, he never considered himself Canadian nor held a Canadian passport. Furthermore I was born in Britain. However, in the early 2000s, encouraged by research by my shrewd nephew Ollie and by a conversation with an emigration consultant, I took an interest in the topic. Weirdly, Canadian citizenship law is so poorly-worded that calls to the country's citizenship helpline yielded three different answers: "you are definitely Canadian"; "you are definitely not Canadian"; "we are not sure".

Fortunately the staff at Canada's London embassy were more helpful and recommended that I researched my paternal grandfather's status (for arcane reasons, which I do not understand, it was crucial that he had been born in Britain) then submit an application for citizenship. I did this in 2003 but the response took another year.

The other pivotal event was being offered an investment management job with a sovereign wealth fund in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Though not previously a career option that I had considered, a friend, David, had joined the fund a few years earlier and spoke enthusiastically of the work and the lifestyle. I accepted the offer. As I knew that my time in Abu Dhabi would be finite (most outsiders can only obtain fixed-term work visas for the UAE), and I was weary of life in the UK, it also struck me that I could plan around moving to Canada afterwards.

An obvious first step was to buy a property in Canada. At that time we did not own a house in the UK, and - surprisingly though it may seem now - western Canada seemed comparatively affordable. In early January 2005, I flew alone to Calgary, hired a 4WD and drove across the Rockies and on through BC over five days, looking at towns that seemed like good locations for a climber: Canmore, Golden, Penticton, Nelson, Pemberton and Squamish. Squamish should have been bleak at that time of year but I arrived in what I now know to be improbably good winter conditions: cold, bluebird skies and just after heavy snowfall. The town looked beautiful. I viewed a few properties and tentatively picked one. The transaction completed four months later.

In summer 2005 we had a month-long family holiday in Squamish. Sometime before that, my friend Andy in Boulder, already featured here, mentioned that he had some unfinished business in Squamish - he had got injured on University Wall on a previous trip - and would be keen to visit for a week or so. I encouraged him to book flights and he then duly arrived for the second week of our stay, manfully enduring the family chaos into which he had descended. His visit worked out very well for me as I got my first taste of Squamish climbing without the uncertainty of seeking a local partner or risking failure on anything (Andy is one of the strongest trad climbers I know). Naturally Grand Wall was high on my priority list, and, luckily for me as Andy had missed out on it before, high on his. We ended up trying it on his third day.

The ascent

We started the route via Apron Strings. Fortunately Andy led the first pitch as I have since realised it can be quite serious. On lead there is a long layback on which it is strenuous to place gear. Some people opt to run it out - and some then fall most of the length of the pitch when they exit the layback into much more delicate climbing.

Andy leading the runout but easy pitch 1 of Grand Wall (Two pitches of Apron Strings lie below) 
Me leading pitch 2
Stance at the end of pitch 2, where the route steepens
Andy leading pitch 3, traversing over to the start of the Split Pillar
I got the Split Pillar lead. I was very intimidated by this and focused hard on climbing it well. It turned out to be one of those perfect cracks that widens steadily through cam sizes, making protection choice simple (and consuming most of the rack). I milked the rest at the good hand jams in the middle of the pitch then laybacked the top part. Seconding the pitch, Andy demonstrated much better technique, fist-jamming the wider section.

Me starting the Split Pillar crack
... and higher on the pitch
Andy following the Split Pillar
The exposure on Grand Wall is most tangible at the belay ledge above the Split Pillar and on the Sword pitch above. The first part of the Sword, which Andy led, is in a shallow groove system but higher up you step out left on to the flat granite wall with space clean to the ground a couple of hundred metres below. Above there you step back into the crack, execute some slippery laybacking and grab a chain where the bolt ladder starts. This is usually "french-freed" using quickdraws and standing on the bolts. Easy but also very exposed.

Andy on the Sword
Andy encouraged me to lead Perry's Layback. Though it follows a wide crack, it is fully-bolted and effectively a sport pitch. A good thing as you would need to carry up several very large cams to protect it otherwise and I am pretty sure a significant proportion of those cams would get fumbled and dropped by nervous leaders. Just clipping the bolts is hard enough. At the top of the layback you can find a cheeky rest with your upper back and head wedged against a fin of rock. I missed this opportunity and tried a little too hard on the last moves, straining my back. But not so badly that we couldn't complete the route. From where you finish, a very narrow ledge, the "Bellygood," leads right to the descent trail, providing a final dose of massive exposure.

Me on Perry's Layback
Subsequent ascents

My second time up Grand Wall was with Duncan (featured here) in June 2007. We had spent two weeks in Squamish attempting to climb, but were thwarted on most days by unusually bad weather. Somehow skies cleared just sufficiently for a lap up Grand Wall. The route was busy and we ended up waiting for an hour or so in the long-suffering tree below the Split Pillar. However parties above us then all bailed, In fact, a european climber took a very long fall off the Sword pitch then rappelled off. I was not sure if I was ready to lead that pitch but in fact it went fairly well. Risking a slight run-out rather than over-protecting the final layback seemed key.

After this ascent I felt that I was done with the route as I had led all the hard pitches and the necessity of setting aside a day or so to climb the thing was off-putting. But, inevitably, I have climbed it three more times since - and not yet had a bad time. These ascents have always been with visiting British climbers in need of a partner. I have yet to climb it with a Canadian or any other nationality!

Simon Lee and his son Tommy following pitch 2
Eric Hildrew apparently off-route on the Split Pillar
One tip I can share after five ascents is that Climb and Punishment (5.10d) at Penny Lane in the Smoke Bluffs is a good proxy for the hard climbing on Grand Wall. It features powerful right-facing laybacking plus a couple of fairly thin moves similar to the first crux of the Sword pitch. If your prospective partner can manage this route, they can probably climb anything on the Grand.

Monday, April 8, 2019

the nostalgia project: Freeborn Man, UK (2004)

The route

The limestone sea cliffs at Swanage are located on the UK's south coast, near to Portland, but otherwise very distant from other mainstream climbing areas.

Freeborn Man may be Swanage's best known route; certainly it has the most YouTube videos. The route tackles a 15m overhanging face directly above the sea, topped by a short slab. Nick Buckley led the first ascent in the late 1970s (graded E4) but most ascents are now in Deep Water Soloing style ("DWS") and the route is graded like a sport climb at ~6c (5.11b).

The 1990s Swanage DWS guidebook "Into the Blue" suggests that soloing Freeborn Man for the first time is "a major life event comparable to driving your first car or burning down your first public building"!

Climber on the crux of Freeborn Man. The Conger is under the spectators. © unknown
Starting a few metres left of Freeborn Man is The Conger, also first led by Nick Buckley and also now a popular DWS challenge. The Conger has a very different character; the wandering line takes the climber into, then out of, a hanging chimney at the lip of a deep sea cave.

The context

In 2007 UKClimbing.com invited me to review Mike Robertson's extraordinary guidebook to world DWS : "Deep Water".  Aside from a free copy of the book there was no payment or obligation, so I cheekily started the review with a self-indulgent autobiographical fragment. In some ways, the exercise of writing those four paragraphs (below) was the original inspiration for my "Nostalgia Project":

"For a couple of years in the mid-1980s, I toyed ineffectually with being a 'full-time climber'. After a promising start in Nepal, Australia and one or two other exotic places, this lifestyle choice gradually lapsed into an extended stagnation in Bristol, interspersing long periods of doing not much with poorly-funded trips to nowhere in particular. A few other climbers in Bristol shared this life, one of whom, Crispin Waddy, would carve a successful trajectory from it into the future, whilst the rest of us eventually slid into office enslavement or other variants of normality.

Sometime in late summer 1986, Crispin, already revealing glimpses of higher ambition, encouraged three of us - Phil Windall, Jamie Ayres and I - to join him in Swanage, where he'd set up home in the Tilly Whim caves. I have various fragments of memory from the week or two we spent there: evenings nursing a single pint for hours in the gloomy Durlston Castle; stumbling later down the long dark cave-access tunnel, within which our host banned use of a torch; sleeping fitfully after failing to find a flat place to sleep; waking up to diffused but dazzling sunlight burning through the sea fog each morning. We climbed for few days in the Boulder Ruckle then were led by Crispin over to Connor Cove. At that time, there were almost no routes recorded there, probably because of the low height of the cliffs and limited number of belay ledges. Crispin rigged abseils optimistically in a couple of spots, and I held his ropes on some first ascents around E3/4 on what was later named the Funky Wall.

One day I was down on a ledge sorting ropes whilst Crispin eyed possible lines around us. Then I noticed he was gone and - more puzzlingly - was not tied in. He traversed a long way leftwards above overhangs, vanished around a corner and eventually reappeared on the cliff top. Reunited later he talked through the physics of what he'd done: the cliff was steep and not that tall, the water was deep and there'd been no real danger. I listened but didn't comprehend. The route was Fathoms; years later I realised it was probably the earliest first ascent in Britain made intentionally in DWS style.

A day later we were below the Conger and made a convoy solo. Crispin insisted that this was the normal way to do the climb; a statement that would only cease to be an exaggeration a decade later (though it was true that the route, originally led on gear, had been soloed by Nick Buckley in 1983). Most people are elated after their first deep water solo. Lacking any peer group endorsement that it wasn't madness, I set off scared, had a moment of relief after sketching across the hanging chimney crux, then reverted to terror, not helped by Crispin and Phil's laughter, as I topped out on friable shards of crud. As I get older, I notice that the world is split into people who grasp opportunity whenever it appears in front of them whilst others examine opportunity, succumb to caution and say "no thanks". Handed a privileged chance to get involved in British DWS pioneering from its inception, I turned my back and didn't solo above water again until 2002!"

My ascent of the Conger in 1986. Note the first gen Boreal Fires and the redundant harness!
© Jamie Ayres
DWS did not take off in Britain until the mid-1990s but then became fashionable very quickly. Notably in the late 1990s/ early 2000s it was popularised through a series of DWS "festivals", mostly held at Swanage, which combined crowds of swimwear-clad climbers attempting DWS routes with rave-style after-parties - a conceptually-radical evolution for British climbing at the time.

Freeborn Man climbed by Leah Crane during a DWS festival
© Mike Robertson, used with permission
I attended precisely none of these events, considering myself even then to be too old and boring. However I eventually became afflicted with a degree of FOMO, not helped by the irony (see above) that I had tasted DWSing a decade before most of the organisers of these events, let alone the paying punters. In August 2003 Dan and I paid a visit to Berry Head in Devon, also on Britain's south coast but 150km west of Swanage, to climb two famous DWS traverses there: Rainbow Bridge and Magical Mystery Tour.

Of these, Rainbow Bridge was considered quite hard at the time and had not been documented in a guidebook as a DWS. We had some beta from the web forums but little else. The early parts of the route were just above the sea but the "Crystal Cave" crux takes you high above the waves in a pumpy technical groove. I was absolutely blown away by the intensity of the experience. Being with Dan, there was an inevitable "safety-third" aspect to the day, resulting in us soloing two sections of the route that have boulders, rather than deep water, underneath and are usually bypassed.

At the end of the route, after about 300m of climbing, there is a giant wedge-shaped ramp rising out of the sea on which to recover and sun-bathe. Somehow I had not fallen anywhere on the route, and as it was a very hot day, I felt perversely cheated. Already awash with adrenaline, it seemed absolutely appropriate to hike to the very top of the ramp and take a blind running jump off the cliff beside the ramp without any thought to fall-distance or the adequacy of the landing. Thankfully it was "only" 15m or so to the water and the waves were soft.

In 2004, I was still living in Oxford, renting a small house by the Thames close to the centre of town. My "employment" that year was acting as finance director / cat-herder to an ill-disciplined software startup attempting to exploit a clever idea in financial econometrics from a local academic. This sucked up my time to a greater extent than I anticipated without generating any income. Meanwhile Leo was getting older and deserved more attention. Consequently I was not climbing as often as I would have liked.

Furthermore, Oxford is about as far from decent outdoor climbing as it possible to achieve in the UK. Swanage was one of the least-distant options, well connected by fast roads for most of the 180km drive from Oxford, so I made several day trips there. By then Freeborn Man was on my radar as a route I should try. The problem was that conditions there were hard to get right. It needed sunshine to be dry but also a calm'ish sea to be able to access the bottom of the route safely. In June a friend, Roger, and I hiked to Connor Cove for a "look".  We soloed the easier Troubled Waters next to Freeborn Man but contrived various excuses not to try its harder neighbour.

Throughout the summer the route stayed front of mind for me but opportunities to try did not arise.On the last day of July I was scheduled to spend the weekend at home, as we were setting off for a long family holiday in Ireland a few days later. However I could not help checking the south coast forecast: it was perfect. Frustrated, a mad plan popped into my head. Central to my reasoning was the rationale that everyone, even a non-bread-winner at the weekend, is entitled to a "lunch break" ...

The ascent

After yelling a "back soon" lie through the front door, I jumped into my car with climbing shoes and chalk bag. The diary does not document my start time but I recall it was "mid-morning": 10:30 - 11:00am? Average speeds in the "fast lane" of British motorways are 130-140 kmh, so a 90 minute drive time was just about feasible and I believe achieved. Unfortunately the approach hike to Connor Cove is a further 3km or so. Somehow, I found the energy to run most of this.

At the cliff-top I decided I had about an hour available to climb, at the very most. However the diary records that I allowed myself a "few zen moments" before warm-up laps on Troubled Waters then another pause "taking everything in" before scrambling back down to the shoreline. An absolute cardinal rule of DWS is to never do it alone, in case you fall awkwardly into the water and are unable to swim (collapsed lungs and broken backs have occurred from DWS falls), or get hit on the head by loose rock. Unfortunately, though it was the weekend and conditions ideal, there was no-one else in the area. I put that detail out of my mind.

As I remember it, the first few metres of Freeborn Man are steep but fairly straightforward up to a committing traverse on small pockets and undercuts into the crux bulge. There is a strong sense of summit-or-fly at this point as the prior moves feel irreversible The exit onto the slab is where most people fall off. I remember rocking-up optimistically and finding a small crimp that I knew I was definitely strong enough to hold. Then pulling into balance on the slab with a huge release of tension.

For an encore, I decided to climb The Conger as well, touching those holds again for the first time in eighteen years. The diary records that it was a "long expedition and not trivial". But with all the traffic on the route since 1986 it definitely felt more solid.

After that I just had to reverse the run and the drive. The diary claims that I arrived back at the Oxford house at 3:30pm. It does not record whether anyone had noticed that I had gone out!

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Connor Cove. In fact, 2004 was my last full year living in the UK and I have only climbed British rock on a handful of occasions since.

Some years later I met Mike Robertson, and some of the other larger-than-life personalities who pioneered the British DWS scene. But that story must wait until the 2012 instalment.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

the nostalgia project: Kantti, Finland (2003)

The route

A rather flat country, Finland has not been associated with rock climbing. In fact, it has no entry in the usually-thorough Mountain Project database. Recently, perhaps because one of the world's best boulderers is a Finn, the country has become somewhat known for bouldering, and has a candidate for the world's hardest boulder problem. But its route climbing is obscure. Olhava, about two hours north-east of the capital, Helsinki, is the best-known (or least-unknown!) area. The king line of the cliff is Kantti, a sharp 50m arete, rising straight out of a lake. The grade is Finnish 6- or about mid-5.10.

Unknown climber starting up Kanti
And higher on the route 
I am soloing low on the route to give scale - Toby took the photo from the boat
The context

After our successful Lofoten trip in 2002, visiting Toby in Helsinki to check out Finnish climbing seemed an obvious idea. A rough plan set for June 2003 eventually morphed into a family holiday, with Shoko, Leo and I flying there accompanied by Shoko's sister Tomoko and her mum Reiko. They entertained themselves taking a ferry to the fabulous medieval town of Talinn in Estonia, which I also joined, and a train to Moominworld, which I regretted not being able to join as the deeply-weird Moomin books were a big feature of my childhood.

Leo, Tomoko and the Baltic sea, Talinn harbour
Talinn skyline
Obligatory post-soviet graffiti photo
Drunk Japanese women in Talinn
Russian Orthodox church, Talinn
Moominbus to Moominworld
Leo's granny guarding him from Sniff
Leo with Nokia phones, back when that Finnish company had not yet been crushed by Apple
The ascent

Meanwhile Toby drove me out to Olhava for a two day stay. The diary noted the scenery as "forest and tractors" and that the hike in to the climbing area with camping gear was "quite long". It also started drizzling with rain when we arrived. This was disappointing as Toby had already described Kantti to me as The Finnish Classic and I was psyched to climb it.

Paranoid that it would rain for our whole stay I decided to get on the route straight away. A quirky feature of Olhava is that some routes have to be approached on a rowboat. We duly rowed across and tied the boat up to a convenient belay island. The route did prove to be fantastic and just runout enough to be exciting. The diary states that the "penultimate move was scary as very wet on slopers" - which I don't recall, so it can't have been that bad. I do remember crisp edges with reassuring texture, vaguely reminiscent of the granite in Cornwall. Though the line follows an arete there were few pure arete layback type moves, which was a relief as I have never been good at that technique. Through beer-goggles that evening I even raised the idea of doing the route purely on cams, but forgot about it in the morning. Probably a good thing.

Olhava campground by the lake
Finns expressing their love of climbing and barbecue
Toby belaying me on a great splitter crack route next to Kantti

Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Finland.



Saturday, March 9, 2019

the nostalgia project: Vestpillaren, Norway (2002)

The route

Vestpillaren is a ten pitch route on the peerless Presten cliff in the Lofoten islands of Arctic Norway. Mountain Project describes it as "one of the better long 5.10 free climbs you will ever do".

Presten from the north
Vestpillaren takes the skyline, approximately
Presten from the south with six climbers on Vestpillaren
The context

I forget when I first became aware of Lofoten. It is possible that the book "Exotic Rock", mentioned here, played a role. Anyway, some time in the 1990s, I acquired its first english language climbing guidebook, "Climbing in the Magic Islands", and became interested in visiting the place. In 2000 I achieved this, though in the form of a non-climbing road trip with Shoko and Leo. We drove all the way from London to the Arctic Circle and back over two weeks, aside from the Newcastle-Bergen crossing and 24 hours southbound on the Hurtigruten coastal ferry.

At the time we had the use of an entertaining, if distinctly "boy-racer", Impreza Turbo, which I had persuaded my employers to buy me instead of the standard BMW 3- or 5-series that young professionals were supposed to drive. This made the long journey excellent fun and shorter than it might have been, though it now embarrasses me to think of the number of times I impatiently overtook sensible Scandinavians on the single-lane coast road.  I loved Norway, which in many ways is like British Columbia, though with fewer trees and even more bare granite.

On that trip we spent a few days in Lofoten, in a cod fisherman's hut renovated for tourists just outside the amazing fishing port of Henningsvær. The town is built on an archipelago of granite islands linked by bridges and causeways. (It is one of a surprisingly long list of European towns dubbed the "Venice of the North".)  We drove under the Presten cliff but I only really appreciated its awesomeness when we were leaving the islands by boat. From the deck Presten became the last object visible on the horizon as the coast receded, like a 500m tall ski-jump sticking out of the sea.

Leo and Shoko with Presten
Lofoten from the Hurtigruten coastal boat service
Two years later, a couple of major life changes created the opportunity to climb Presten. One was that I finally left London in early 2002, after being ejected from the firm where I had worked for most of the previous nine years. A complex merger, then de-merger, with a US firm had sealed my fate, as I had gone out of my way to work with the americans, rather than ignore them, as it seemed our vile London boss expected us to do. On the positive side, various deferred compensation, that I had accumulated with that firm, was all released at once in my payout, so I briefly felt quite rich. We spent the early part of 2002 travelling - to Australia and Japan - then returned to the UK to live temporarily with my sister Sally in Oxford. She was pleased to have company as her husband Charlie had died the previous year. I did not feel any immediate pressure to find another job so began thinking about other long-term ambitions that I could fulfill.

The other major change for me was getting onboard the social media juggernaut, which at that time meant web forums, specifically for me the "UKC" climbing forum. In my last year or so in London, I was astounded to discover that it was possible to squander the day chatting about climbing while ostensibly "working" at my desk. Some time in late 2001 there was a thread on ambitions for the next year. I mentioned Vestpillaren, then read this intriguing response:

The post on the UKClimbing forum that set this adventure in motion 
At that time UKC was small enough that there were only two people overtly posting as a "Toby". Inevitably this meant that I had already taken an interest in TobyA. He appeared to be a Scotsman with a Finnish wife, working in Helsinki in a glamorous-sounding policy think-tank. His fairly numerous posts suggested a genuine climbing lifer though (healthily?) not a grade-obsessed one. I forget how and when his first post crystallised into a firm plan. These days the concept of real-life encounters with strangers met on the internet has become wholly normal, but in 2002 it seemed quite eccentric. At some stage in our planning Toby, who perhaps had less faith in me than I in him, proposed a telephone conversation to break the ice. My main takeaway from this was that he was not in fact Scottish - a distinct positive. I also learned that he would indeed be driving the 1500km from Helsinki to Lofoten and with two Finnish friends. Comically, they were both named "Toni" ...

So, in early August 2002, I flew from London to Oslo then onward on a much smaller plane to Bodo, just inside the Arctic Circle. Reading the diary while researching this post, I was reminded that my luggage hadn't followed me to Bodo and that I was forced to bivouac outside the airport while waiting for it. Somehow I had completely forgotten this, which is strange as even in summer a night out without any camping gear at that latitude should have been quite cold/ memorable. The next day my stuff appeared and I was able to take another flight, to Svolvaer on the Lofoten islands. Grandly I was the only passenger. At luggage retrieval the only visible employee in the tiny airport pointed at my bouldering pad as it was spat out of the carousel, and asked whether I was a climber. I was and so was he. This seemed a good omen.

Toby, Toni and Toni then appeared to collect me, sardined into a very small hatchback, and drove me to the campsite where they had set up the previous day. I liked them all straight away. We managed to climb that day despite light rain. I discovered that Toby was a much better climber than his self-deprecating web posts suggested. In the evenings the Finns lit a campfire and barbecued magnificently unhealthy-looking greasy sausages which they washed down with vodka. I broke out a bottle of Talisker acquired in duty free. Toby and I did some planning.

Toni, Toni, Toby
On my previous visit to Lofoten rain had made an appearance almost every day so I was somewhat paranoid that our week might pass without a decent weather window. Looking at a forecast it seemed the next day might be our best bet. However we both knew it would be sensible to do some more shorter climbs together before committing to a long multi-pitch. A tough call. In the end we decided we should just get on Vestpillaren in the morning.

However, when we arrived below Presten there were already other parties ahead of us. So we decided to roll the dice and hope that the next day would still be dry. Instead we climbed on a smaller cliff, Festvåg, climbing two routes, Puffin Club and The Skier, of which I only remember the latter. The diary states that I dislodged a rock at the top of The Skier which hit Toby's hand and left him with some worrying bruising. (I had forgotten about this too.) To his great credit, he gritted his teeth, ignored the injury and stayed committed to the Vestpillaren plan.

The ascent

Thankfully the next day dawned equally fine. As far as I recall, Toni and Toni drove us to the base of Presten and abandoned us with the intent to meet in the bar in nearby Hennngsvaer that evening. "Climbing in the Magic Islands" listed two ways to climb Vestpillaren: the "normal" and the "direct". The latter looked like much better climbing but upped the ante with more "hard" pitches (how hard was tricky to gauge as the guidebook used mysterious Norwegian grades). We chose that option. In retrospect a very good choice as the normal way now seems rarely climbed and I think we might now be feeling cheated had we not done the route "properly". I recall the third pitch of the direct feeling quite hard, pulling a bulge between a couple of slanting grooves out of sight of the belayer. I worried slightly that it might challenge Toby but he seconded it fine. A feature of climbing with him was the union jack sticker on top of his helmet. I guess there were not many Brit climbers in Finland. It always amused me when it came into view.

Toby following Vestpillaren's crux pitch 3
that helmet
Just above that section is a long ledge, the Storhylla, where the normal and direct ways converged. I started to relax at this point. According to the guide the "direct" was harder than anything above (newer guidebooks suggest otherwise!) so it seemed we were very likely to complete the route. There was one distinct crux pitch ahead of us, a slanting corner, that looked like it could be awkward. I was slightly apprehensive before leading this but it proved to be fabulous climbing: a thin crack that could be laybacked or finger-jammed with plenty of small footholds. As we got higher on the face the water in the ocean below turned a translucent turquoise in the sunlight. We could almost have been in the Mediterranean.

Toby leading pitch 7
pitch 8 - the awesome slanting crack
Toby on the summit
Looking south to Henningvær - the beer is calling
The climb took nine or ten hours. Little mentioned in the guidebook was the scale of the descent from the summit of Presten. The diary describes it as a "horror". Helpfully the sun barely sets in Lofoten in early August so running out of light was not a concern. I remember interminable knife-edge ridge traverses before we could start heading down. According to the diary we made the bar by 11pm. The place was still busy at that time (it also doubles as a climbing school) and I was struck by the disorientating timelessness of the Arctic summer. The rest of the world felt very distant. We knocked back cold beers there for at least a couple of hours before being collected by the Toni's.

Toby and I climbed some more things over the remainder of our stay including a possible first lead of a top-rope problem near the campground (later retro-claimed by a local) and a great multi-pitch slab frightener Solens sønner. It was a brilliant week - one of my all-time favourite climbing trips. But Vestpillaren remained the highlight.

Solens Sønner - crux second pitch
Solens Sønner - pitch 3
Subsequent ascents

Regrettably I have not been back to Lofoten. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

the nostalgia project: Prise de Tête, France (2001)

The problem

Prise de Tête is a problem at Franchard Sablons in the Fontainebleau ("Font") forest south-east of Paris, widely regarded as the best bouldering area in the world. The grade is around Font 5+/6a or V2/ 3'ish for North Americans.  The problem is also #19 in the "Red circuit" at that area. Circuits are a concept conceived decades ago in Fontainebleau to make bouldering more relevant to multi-pitch or alpine climbing. Problems within a circuit, numbered discreetly with paint, are climbed in a strict consecutive sequence to simulate a long route. Much less fashionable these days; the paint marks now mainly serve to orientate people in finding specific individual problems.

The context

Sometime in the early 1990s, various firms in the US and Europe began selling bouldering pads. Hardly a radical technology, pads could probably have been developed any time in the previous half-century or even before, but what really mattered was their cultural acceptance. Though there was surreptitious softening of landings with backpacks, puffy jackets, old mattresses, etc in places like UK gritstone for a decade or two previously, anyone wielding a purpose-built mat in, say, the late 1970s/ early 1980s when I began climbing, would have been mocked mercilessly.

By the turn of the millennium the bouldering pad had changed the world - for climbers, anyway. Rendered "safe", bouldering mushroomed into a huge new sub-sport, with all kinds of impacts from explosive usage growth at specific climbing areas - Squamish's Grand Wall forest is a good example - to major changes in gender participation to redefinition of the indoor climbing gym.

However my first bouldering pad purchase was prompted by a more mundane reason: becoming a dad. Bouldering venues seemed much more reasonable to inflict on a baby than cliffs for roped climbing (notably the ubiquitous British sea cliff!). Leo therefore visited places like Burbage and the Roaches in the UK's Peak district while still aged zero. The pad was used as often for changing nappies as falling on.

In 1999 my brainy nephew, Jeremy, who spent most of his 20's in a grand tour of the world's most prestigious academic establishments, moved to HEC (pronounced ash-eh-say) near Versailles, for a master's course ostensibly in  economics but apparently in partying. Presciently I had somehow inculcated him into climbing during his undergraduate years, so he also became a habitué of nearby Font. That year and the next we visited him several times, combining tourism in Paris for Shoko with bouldering for me.

Leo strikes an existentialist pose in St-Germain-des-Pres 
The most elaborate of these trips was at a weekend in spring 2001, just as Jeremy was finishing up at HEC. My sister Sally also joined us. We stayed in a cute boutique hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, at the heart of Paris' once-bohemian, now just expensive, Left Bank. Jeremy climbed with me on both days. In Saturday we went to Bas Cuvier, Font's most popular area. The next day started with brunch at a painfully-hip club, the Bermuda Onion, with which Jeremy had become acquainted. This was memorable primarily for two factors: that the food took hours to arrive (bad) and that the dining room had giant skylights which opened to let in the morning sun (cool).

Jeremy, Sally, Leo and Shoko at the Bermuda Onion, great food once it arrived
Jeremy and I then escaped to Font for an afternoon/ evening session. We chose Franchard Sablons for reasons I have long since forgotten. Probably because Jeremy had checked it out before and found it to be quieter at weekends. By chance - and this really made the day - there was one other group there, but they were true Font royalty: Jo Montchauseé, the guidebook writer and pioneer; his son; son's girlfriend and their other friends. We ended up working on a few problems with them. These days many people's experience of bouldering is almost entirely of this type - big groups playing on a single boulder - but for me at the time it was a total novelty.

The younger Montchauseé crew (and Jeremy)
Jo mentioned something to me that stuck in my mind (and has had some resonance subsequently): that, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the opportunity on his doorstep and supportive dad, his son had taken no interest in climbing until his late teens - but was now psyched and climbing hard.

The ascent

Jeremy styling (do people still say this?) Prise de Tête
I don't remember much about Pris de Tete. Mostly that it looked easy but in reality was slopey and baffling. Montchausee père et fils demonstrated various ways to do it effortlessly. The rest of us flailed but got up it eventually. Jeremy may have done it before me; generally he was climbing well at this time. The diary just notes that "we took ages".

Another shot of Jeremy at Franchard Sablons - identity of this problem now lost
 Ditto
Subsequent ascents

I have not been back to Font since this visit. Bouldering did continue to be a genuine, if unambitious, interest for a few more years subsequently. Notably I discovered and developed several areas in the west of Ireland near the family cottage, including a beachside V6 that made the "Irish Top 50" list in the first Bouldering in Ireland guidebook, and a massive area of bogland granite, Derryrush.

The Barn - a fun moderate boulder in the Derryrush area in southern Connemara which I discovered in 2004
Butterfingers, V3 - another addition to Derryrush from 2004
Unfortunately three arm/ wrist fractures between 2009 and 2013 have made me very wary of ground falls, even on to pads, and the horrific talus under most Squamish boulder problems has reinforced that. I hardly ever boulder outside now. I like to think that would change if I ever found myself at a bouldering area with genuinely flat landings. Even looking back at the old Font photos is quite inspiring.