Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ballaghageeha Buttress - Poisoned Glen, Donegal

We try to climb in Donegal a couple of times each year. It's quite a long drive; 2 hours from Mark's house, add another 40 minutes for me from Dundalk. But it's always worth it, as long as the weather plays along. There's a lot of variety, from sea-cliffs with no walk-in, to real mountain crags that are quite remote.

Yesterday we visited one of the latter. The Ballaghageeha crag sits high up at the very top of the Poisoned Glen. It's best approached from the other side, from just near Lough Barra and the Bingorms - it's exactly three years since we climbed Tarquin's Groove on Bingorm West, on a beautiful June weekend in 2007, the last one before the three month rain shower that washed out the rest of that summer.

Because this was our first visit to this crag, and also because you can't see it from the walk-in, we missed it the first time and ended up too far west. Having no map with us, we resorted to examining a photograph in the guide-book that showed the area we were in, but taken from way to the north, looking south. We were on the mountain looking north. So we had to find a landmark (an old stone church in the valley) and try to discern where we were in relation to it with the opposite view. This made my head melt, so I left it to Mark; being a land surveyor these things are less daunting for him. I must also emphasise that we were not lost, the crag was!

When we eventually tracked it down we climbed "Diagonal", a 3-star grade V-Diff route. 3 stars is the maximum awarded in British / Irish climbing quality, and the whole crag is nice and clean with good rock. On the way out, I stopped to take a phone call (who would have thought you get a full signal in the Poisoned Glen) and Mark took the opportunity to do some bouldering. So here some photos, in no particular order:

Looking down the Poisoned Glen; the peak to the right is Errigal, the highest in Donegal:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

With Nicholas and Lara on Hen Mountain

Yesterday I took Lara (10) and Nicholas (8) up to Hen Mountain, the first rock-climbing either of them have done in ages.

My goal was to climb the Boulder Route (grade Diff.) on the Tower, which due to its length has to be done in at least two pitches. Because both of them are too small to belay me, I was soloing, and then roping up one tied in the middle of the rope and the other on the end. Nicholas got really scared on the first pitch - granite can be very intimidating; in fact I remember being terrified on the Lions Head granite crag at much the same age. So I lowered him down and finished the climb with Lara, who did really well. I broke it up into three pitches, because I wanted to be close to help her climb up over the boulder at half-height - a very long reach involved for a little girl. I was actually glad at that point that I didn't have both of them on the route, so it all worked out for the best.

This is Lara emerging at the top of the climb up the final slab.

Then we went round the back of the Tower, and climbed an easier route up the ridge.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Doan do that again

It seems winter has finally released its grip, and allowed Spring to take a practical hold, rather than just a nominal one. After not having heard from Mark in a while, a text appeared out of the blue last Wednesday, and today we headed over to the Ott mountain track and up to Doan, a rather lonely peak over-looking both the Silent Valley reservoir and Lough Shannagh. This photo is looking down from the southern side of Doan to the Silent Valley and the Irish Sea beyond ("where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea"):

There are only a handful of routes on Doan, and not all of the best quality. Further, they seem very hard for the grades given. I suppose this could be because both of us haven't climbed rock in a while, but we've both been training and are fairly fit - ah feck it, it's just typical Mournes climbing, and climbing granite always was and always will be a weird experience, no matter how much of it you may do.

This is Mark trying to remember how to interpret the Mournes route book:

We started off on "Practice Crack", an easy, short, blocky route that we climbed in our walking boots. Great, now for a face graded Severe (3c). Should be a doddle. Heh. A dodgy wire placement just above the belay and committing moves on rounded holds - "3c" my well rounded ass. So, with typical Irish logic, we moved on to something harder, not that we had much choice, due to the limited scope available.

This climb was actually quite pleasant, and very well protected, for the first 25 of its approximately 30 metres. The top is bloody scary, certainly harder than 4a, and I'm glad Mark led it. Oh, and it goes by the rather uninspiring name of "Fag End". Here's Mark smiling for the camera before getting really scared just a few feet higher:

This seems a fairly remote part of the Mournes, but walking back down afterwards we had to dodge what seemed like about a thousand runners taking part in a fell-running event. One of them was a climber we recognised, we've seen him up at Fairhead before. "You should rather go to Lower Cove", he said, "much better climbing there." Well we've been to Lower Cove a few times, and he's dead right.

The views from the summit of Doan are lovely. This is looking across to Slieve Binnian:

And down to Lough Shannagh:

And your's truly:

Doan is lovely, but when I come back it'll be for the walk and the scenery, not the climbing.

Bobby Woods

I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend and former work colleague, Bobby Woods, on Thursday 08 April 2010. Bobby was climbing with two friends in the Left-Face area of Table Mountain, and it seems he pulled down a massive loose block. Mercifully, from the sounds of things death was instant, and he did not suffer.

I'm not going to write an obituary here. I honestly think Bob would be annoyed with me if I did. He was a huge inspiration to so many people, and one of our finest all-round mountaineers. His achievements, both in business and climbing, speak for themselves and will remain as a tribute to his life. What I will say are a few things about his effect on my own life, in particular in relation to climbing. We were roughly the same age, and I knew him from about 1984 or so; we would often meet on the mountain somewhere. I didn't get to know him well until 1995, when I was sent to Johannesburg to start a branch of Toprope, the rope access company he owned with Daniel Bottomley. We spent a lot of time together that year, and when he subsequently left Toprope I often employed him as a private contractor. In 1996 we were the first people to perform rope access work in the boilers of Eskom's many coal-fired power stations, during maintenance outages. It made sense, somehow, for us to end up working together on a fledgling venture in Pretoria in 1997. We choked on a lot of boiler dust for a long time, shared a house initially (during which time my and Nadia's first child was born), oversaw the construction of a climbing centre and rope access training facility, fought with the bank, schmoozed with clients, and had great fun. That was Bob's philosophy, work hard, play hard.

He was also the person who encouraged me to get up off my fat arse and get back into climbing. As a climber, you couldn't not be infected by his enthusiasm. We went sport-climbing at Waterval-Boven and Harrismith, and also climbing in the Drakensberg. I also climbed the North-West Frontal on Du Toit's Peak with him during his preparation for the successful second attempt at his awesome "3-peaks" solo challenge (he wanted to check that the rock was dry all the way up, as this is what had thwarted him the first time around). What was a long tough day for me was something he later accomplished as one of three climbs on the same day!

Shortly after this Bob and Kaolin moved down to Randburg, and Nadia and I moved into the house at the climbing centre that they had lived in. Our youngest, Nicholas, was born there (a midwife-assisted home birth), in the same oversize bath-tub where their daughter Lilu had been born the previous year.

I'll miss you Bobby, and so will many others. Rest in peace.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Two days in North Wales

I was in Wales last week for two days alpine training with the director of the International School of Mountaineering (ISM), Pat Littlejohn. Pat is one of the world's leading climbers, and was recently granted an OBE for his contribution to British mountaineering over the years. When I first started climbing as a youngster in SA, his name was known even there, so I must admit I was a bit apprehensive about meeting and climbing with him. This came about through my contacting the ISM, and after chatting with Pat's wife Eira (she rang me at work to discuss what course would best suit me) we agreed it would be best for me to spend two days doing some winter climbing with Pat so he could assess where I'm at in terms of climbing skills.

Pat lives at the foot of Mt Snowdon in North Wales, about 3 miles from the lovely village of Beddgelert. I stayed at a B&B called Plas Gwyn, a 19th century house right next to the stone bridge crossing the Colwyn river.

I needn't have been nervous about meeting Pat. He's a normal, down-to-earth, all round smashing bloke, and, as expected, really knows his stuff. Because ice and snow climbing is quite new to me (I had only done a bit in Canada with Teddy McCrea last year) I find it extremely tiring, and I'm not as fit as I need to be yet. Towards the top of Thursday's climb my leg muscles began to cramp up, Pat immediately showed me a different technique to achieve the same actions, but using different muscles, enabling me to continue climbing where otherwise I'd have collapsed in a heap. The route we did was the Left Hand Y-gulley out of Cwm Lloer in the Ogwen Valley. We covered short roping, moving roped together over mixed ground, descending snow slopes, snow belays etc - all things they teach on the Alpine Summits and Skills course, effectively enabling me to bypass this course and go for the next level, Classic Alpinism.

This route brings one to the summit of Pen Yr Ole Wen (978m). As you can see it was a beautiful day, and a good freeze the previous night meant the conditions were perfect for British winter climbing. The other guy in one of the photos below was someone we met on the summit, he had soloed one of the easier climbs.

On the Friday we did a long ridge climb, just a rock climb this time, but in mountaineering boots carrying our rucsacs. We climbed the Pinnacle Ridge (and continuation) on Mynedd Mawr, walking up to the summit of the peak after the climb.

Pat's verdict? Well he's happy with my climbing skills, and said he felt quite safe climbing up after me when I was roping him up sections I had led. He's happy for me to do the Classic Alpinism course; the only thing I need to work on is my general fitness, although he said I'm not far off where I need to be, and there's plenty of time still to prepare. He also suggested I do the course in July rather than September, as the weather is more reliable then.

Two great days in the mountains learning from one of the world's best. Couldn't ask for much more.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A somewhat different day in the Mournes

Well this was almost two months ago, just after some of the most severe winter weather in decades. Yes, it's taken me that long to put up a post about it; I will not be rushed on these things.

The western part of the Mourne Mountains is the quickest to get to for me, it's less than an hours drive from Dundalk, more like 45 minutes. That's if traffic in Newry, a town which I can't avoid, isn't too heavy. Newry and Dundalk are only about 13 miles apart, but on different sides of this weird, artificial construct of a border which creates Northern Ireland. Spike Milligan wrote a book about this border ("Puckoon"), so enough said, probably. Anyhow, due to different VAT rates, lower cost of doing business in general and a very favourable euro-sterling exchange rate at present, Newry, and many other border towns in NI, have become shopping Meccas for people living in the Republic. The Sainsbury's in Newry sells more alcohol than any other Sainsbury's in the UK, and I've done my bit to contribute toward that reputation. The ASDA in Enniskillen is apparently the most profitable ASDA in the world. So when I go climbing after work in summer, or walking over the weekends in winter, I have to deal with Newry, its drivers, shoppers and worst of all, its unsynchronised traffic lights.

But it's all worth it to get to the Mournes, which has become one of my favourite places on earth. The rounded mountain tops, sometimes crested with rocky tors, spectacular views, beautiful countryside and great rock-climbing makes up a large part of the gaping chasm in any Capetonian's life who no longer lives there.

Every winter there's a bit of snow on the higher peaks of the Mournes, not all season, but for a few weeks. This year, however, we've had several heavy falls. I've never seen as much snow on the peaks as that Saturday, the 9th of January 2010. I donned my thermal base layer and headed out. The peaks on this side mostly have bird names, Hen, Cock (stop sniggering in the back there), Pigeon and Eagle. Not really inspiring, it has to be said. The tors of Hen provide some good rock-climbing with only about a 25 minute walk-in. Likewise Pigeon has some good rock routes, and I'd walked to its summit before with the children, so I decided to walk up past Hen to the summit of Cock, and back down.

The above photo is looking across to Eagle mountain on the way up to Hen. The path, a steep but pleasant stroll up a grassy slope in summer, was icy and quite teacherous; I slipped a good few times. Going up the northern slope of Cock I was soon wading through snow. This was the view looking down on Hen (the scene of my accident in 2006):

The view from the summit was amazing, not because Cock is a high, inspiring peak (it's not), but because I have never in the 5 years I've lived here seen the Mournes with this much snow. The peak in sunlight at the back of this next photo is Donard, the highest in the area at 850 metres. To the left of it you can see the rocky summit of Slieve Bearnagh (I was up there 2 weeks ago):

The Spelga Dam was frozen over and almost unrecognizable, the mountains' usually green landscape temporarily dressed in white, as though to be given away. I'd take you, Lady Mourne, except I'm already married.

And now the real fun part, I had battled through the snow on the way up, and wasn't looking forward to sinking up to my thigh on each step on the way down. Then I remembered there's a thing called "glissade", glissading is basically sliding down a snow slope on your arse. I was able to do this for at least 200 metres before it got a bit too rocky and grassy lower down.

By the way; the main reason I use Blogger instead of Wordpress is that with Blogger you can upload 5 photos at once. That's also why most of my posts have a maximum of 5 photos. I'm a lazy blogger, and totally unashamed of that!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

In the snow without a camera.........again.

We've shaken off the lethargy of Christmas, and I've found new motivation for getting out there......I want to do an alpine climbing course in Switzerland in September, and I will need to be really fit. Not as in a bit of walking two weeks before type fit, as in start-right-the-hell-now or be left behind.

So to this end, and also because really I'd not rather be doing anything else, Mark and I headed up the mighty Slieve Donard last Monday. Donard is only about 860m above sea level, but seeing as how you start from a carpark opposite the beach in Newcastle, you have to work for every one of those metres. On the last part up to the col between Donard and Commedagh, the path was badly iced up, so much so that we had to find an alternative route up some dodgy heather next to a frozen watercourse. Because we didn't fancy going down the same way, which would have been a treacherous undertaking, we walked up to the top of Slieve Commedagh instead. Because this is a popular part of the Mournes, and because despite the cold it was a beautiful, clear, windless day, we met many other groups of hill-walkers. In Ireland, because the weather is always such a topical issue, the standard thing to do when casually greeting someone you've never seen before and will probably never see again, but feel you have to say something because you are after all out doing the same thing, is to make some remark about the weather, or, if the other person speaks first, to agree with what they have said about the weather.

The top of Commedagh, a few meters lower than Donard, was plastered with snow. We returned to Donard forest and the car-park via Commedagh's north ridge, a more sensible proposition than the iced-up path above the head of the Glen River valley, pausing to agree with random strangers about the weather several times along the way. One thing we could certainly all agree on was that a clear winter's day is some of the best weather you can get, no matter where in the world you are.

Yesterday (Saturday) we opted for the Cooley ridge walk, from Slieve Foye above Carlingford, to the telecoms masts on Black Mountain and down to Ravensdale forest. These are my "home mountains"; I have done the walk before, but as two separate walks on different occasions. Doing it in one is quite a walk - it took us six hours, moving at a fair pace, and we didn't stop anywhere for more than a few minutes at a time. Nadia dropped us on the south side of Foye, and we followed a route straight up the south side, to the right of the lamp post in the photo (yes, I forgot the camera again and that photo was taken this morning from my bedroom window). We then followed the ridge from the high point (the summit of Slieve Foye) left along the ridge, then the heart-breaking loss of height down to the Windy Gap, and you gain most of it back again on the opposite ridge.

The Cooleys are a bit lower than the Mournes, but there's still plenty of snow, and the road that you follow from the masts down to Ravensdale was completely iced over.