Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Icicle whacking in Norway

The last two days have been action packed here at the Motherlode in the west of Norway. So much ice, so little time. Yesterday we headed down into the canyon with the intention of climbing the biggest rig in there but found it too dangerous, sun baking off ice on slabs and trying to kill us. Run away...

Tuesday: Second Choice, WI7+, 300+ Meters.

The second most tasty-looking line looked like an easy approach to a very steep wall with icicles. We had no rock gear, but headed up anyhow. The approach alone was 200M, and lots steeper than it looked--we roped up in a hurry, the overhanging wall above made the angle very deceptive down low. The icicle wall was a rare thing in ice climbing--a steep, gymnastic wall but with only natural ice gear (we didn't have any rock gear). It started with a small steep roof with screws low enough that you'd bounce hard off the ledge if you fell, then more stubbie screws and onto a frightening hanger with more groundfall potential. For some reason I was fired up on it and had a go while Andreas offered useful advice. After an hour of climbing up and down to unlock the opening crux moves and make very shallow ice placements while hanging in space later it was done. I'd call it WI7+, I don't think I've ever used that grade except as a joke before, but this was the real deal. Powerful, delicate, intense, it made every other "WI7" I've ever climbed irrelevant. Many mixed routes call the icicle at the end WI7, but the reality is that the icicle usually isn't very hard and has good bolts to protect the climber if it breaks. This didn't. It was cool to be doing dry-tooling style moves on ice (only one drytool move). A figure four would have been useful, but I didn't want to fall 6M onto the ledge in a figure-four position so burned a stupid amount of energy locking off. The last three pitches were all fantastic--a highlight was a belay on a rock spike (good cracks for rock gear too, we just didn't have any, so the spike was some sort of gift!) behind a huge sunlit curtain, then punching a hole out of it to climb on up. As my friend Chris Santa says, "Today was one of those days where some stuff fell off the all-time top ten list." Andreas followed it all without falls, he's climbing well.

I think my week in Scotland fired up me up climbing something like this with only ice gear. Bolted it would be just another route--a lot of climbing this grade with some safety margin comes from having the fitness to climb solidly in control on powerful, technical terrain. I felt like I was using my drytooling fitness developed over the winter to keep things sort of sane. I don't generally like climbing dangerous routes, but the wall was so very cool that it seemed worth it. There are hundreds of potential mixed lines here to bolt, but it's relatively rare to find a wild ice climb that can be done on pure ice gear. With rock gear you could make it a little bit safer, but unless a pillar of ice forms it will always be sporty. I'll post location details later.

Wednesday: "Insant Classic, WI5, 300+Meters"

We rapped back into the canyon for another go at the sun-baked rig, but Andreas wasn't feeling well and I was feeling worked from yesterday's sports action so we ended up doing a fantastic 300+M line at about WI 4+/5 (Andreas rated it Norwegian 5+, I think Canadians are generally conservative on their water ice grades). It was the kind of line you know people will groove on in the future, it's well-protected with good positioning, we dubbed it an "Instant Classic" and laughed all the way up it...

We only have one more day here, and the choices are just so damn hard. There's a big Polar Circus style line up the valley that needs to be done, as well as numerous other lines up to 600M anywhere between WI3 and WI?? We heard from a near-local that some of the easier lines in the lower canyon have been climbed, which is good to know--this place has more good ice climbs within 20K than the entire Parkway in Canada, I fully expect it to become a destination spot in the future. I'm already planning my next trip, yeah!

Monday, February 20, 2006

The "Motherlode," Scotland

Miners talk about the "Motherlode," the place where all the gold comes from. We just found that place in Norway. Today I saw a dozen ice routes between 3 and 15 pitches long, none more than an hour from the road, and none reportedly climbed. Yep, I'm totally floored. Stellar blue ice, that wild yellish stuff, ice everywhere. It's insane. Spak got a tip on this place a week ago from a friend, he (and I) owe that guy a bottle of fine Scotch at a minimum. There are simply too many routes to even think of climbing in the four days that we have. I always wondered about finding a place like this, where the challenge is to figure out what to climb first... Not to gloat, but goddamn am I psyched!

It's all ice. No mixed, just ice everywhere. I'm often quoted as saying, "fat ice is boring," and while I did say that I've since refined the idea a bit. I said that when I was primarily interested in horrendous technical gymnastic difficulty, which ice does not offer. Ice climbing is more like surfing--it's a style sport, about doing something fun and very engaging with the medium, grooving on the positition and the ride more than the physical desperate pump (although that can be found, if you're stupid over-trained it's unlikely). Surfing also has areas that aren't novice friendly, meaning big waves and serious reef breaks, same as ice climbing... I now climb ice because I just like doing it, it's not about the hardest or the steepest but climbing the coolest thing I can see. This new place offers that in unbelievable quantities, from 2,000 foot lower angle rigs that would be insane classics back home in Canada to skinny pencils only Guy Lacelle would even think of trying, and combinations of both that I have never seen anywhere in the world. And I'm typing this at a frigging hotel less than 15 minutes from the climbs, I thought I'd find this place in Mongolia or something, nope, it's right beside the road!! So game on for the morning, Andreas has even agreed to get up early, that's how good this stuff is.


The more I think about Scotland the more I realize that it's a special place. The freeze/thaw conditions and wild rime snow just aren't found any other place I've ever climbed. It's a bit like gritstone, with ethics that may seem bizzare to an outsider but grew on an isolated island and make sense there. In the Rockies our problem is too much climbing for too few climbers, in Britain it's more about loads of climbers making the most of what they have. If every line were bolted on either rock or winter lines then the country would sink under the weight of the metal... Dave Macleod's ethics and the Scottish scene also inspired me in a different way, I've always put routes up with the idea of making them fun for those that follow, but there are many kinds of "fun," some of which would seem a sure path to the mental hospital to the outsider. Regardless of the ethics, the Scottish mountains are a special place, and I definitely want to return one day for either rock or mixed. The light and space of the mountains there is different and worthy to see again, I could see getting addicted to it.

Time for bed, there's climbs to be done in the morning!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Scotland Dry, Ben Nevis

Headed back ino the Quarry, and had some more fun including discussing grades. It's an interesting discussion--Fast and Furious is an M10+ bareback, spurs likely drop that grade only a bit, call it M10ish. The continuation of Fast and Furious is Too Fast and Furious, which is much steeper but still on bomber drilled hooks (no issue with that, we're talking a rather swampy hole in the ground totally created by man, there are old bore holes all over the routes anyhow). You can spur the drilled holes very easily on Too Fast, I don't see it being much harder than Fast if done Comp style, I'd guess a max of 10+. Bareback I'd say M11+, there are two no-hands rests and some good footcams when needed. There are no "hard" moves, just pulling along bomber pick holes.

We were supposed to head up to Ben Nevis, but the weather was still too warm so we continued to session in the quarry, along with Kevin. Kevin sports two unique characteristics: one hell of a thick Scottish accent, and a left hand that's not all there. Kevin's modified a BD fusion to work as a prosthetic, and he sent Fast and Furious in a super-intense battle. Imagine only being able to clip with with your right hand, and relying on a prosthetic joint for the left while clipping... His effort fired us all up, and Dave and I ended up working Scott Muir's abandoned (at least according to the locals, I hope Scott feels the same way) project. It's a long trek out steep wall on the side of the cave, with the usual drilled pockets because the rock is total shite in the crack. Dave found a really creative off-width rest near the top that both made the climbing more fun, and the route very reasonable. It was wild to suddenly stuff your body up into a crack and get a "rest;" not really a rest as the position felt like a 5.11 offwidth move, but definitely cool. You had to move out of the rest by snaking upwards, then the route joins Too Fast to the chains. Dave and I both sent it. I'd rate it 11+ bareback also, probably not much different comp style. The quarry is a great place to train, and one of us said something about the route we'd just done being, "Good training for something." The name stuck.

So that was the end of all the routes in the quarry. Fiona (Dave's partner) is also very close to Fast and Furious, she's fired up to get what my girlfriend, Kim, calls a "dickless" ascent, meaning first female ascent. Anyone who has seen the Hot Aches film "Fools with Tools" will recognize the fun that climbing rock in the back of a hole in the ground with tools can generate--I came to Scotland to climb big mixed winter routes, ended up in a hole in the ground drytooling around, still loads of fun.

On Thursday we finally made the walk into the Ben on the basis of a falling forecast and lots of snow, and Tim Emmitt joined us--he always ups the psyche factor, and upped his own by lugging a BASE rig into the Ben... It was bizzare to start walking beside green grass and ferns, up through a hillside bog (how the hell does water turn into a bog on a hillside?), through pouring rain and then suddenly be in the snow and full winter. MacLeod had wrangled us space in the Ben Nevis hut, which was great as we were fully soaked from the hike--I can't fathom the hard-asses who camp in winter Scottish conditions, full respect to them. I was thrilled with a warm, dry hut with a drying room--these rooms are regulation in Scottish huts, it's a room with a heater and a fan to suck the moist air out. That says a lot about Scottish conditions right there, I've never seen a "Drying Room" in Canada or the Alps, you just hang the stuff up in a warm place and it dries. There were some other people in the hut with us, the evening passed pleasantly with their tales of spawning up neck-deep powder gullies and so on. Staying in huts is a gamble--sometimes you get a hut full of idiots, sometimes a group of people who are friends for a fine evening, fortunately we had the latter experience.

In the morning I got my first full view of "the Ben," the legend. It's one hell of a wild cliff--it's not that high or long by Canadian standards, but it's absolutely convoluted and featured, like ten miles of Canadian cliffs crunched up into one cliff. I've read so many stories about the Ben and its legendary climbers that I was totally fired up to do something, but going anywhere turned into an slog fest due to all the wet snow. We ended up below a very steep chunk of rock with bits of snow on the opening 20 feet but none on the overhaning bit. I was immediately fired up, but Dave looked pained and explained that he couldn't climb it because it wasn't white. You could see him just lusting after the climbing, but he respects the long-standing Scottish winter ethic that there has to be rime snow on the rock so you can scrape the rime off as you climb up the rock. I always assumed from the pictures that the rime snow on the Ben was solid enough to climb and thereby protected the rock underneath, but the rime isn't at all solid, you just scrape it off and then climb the rock. In Canada we avoid snow on the rock, it's annoying, but in Scotland it's important that winter routes look "wintry..." An hour-long discussion ensued...

Very steep routes, meaning harder routes, aren't going to have snow on them, so what's the point of requiring snow on them? Dave was really torn, but in the end decided that he wasn't up for doing the route--but he was all for Tim and me having a go. After more endless discussion I started climbing up, only to find large patches of moss absolutely running with water. I'm not down with destroying an entire moss garden that took hundreds of years to grow just so I can climb something, so I retreated and the big ethics discussion was decided for us. My opinion is that Scottish routes should be frozen--there was snow on the moss so it looked wintry, but the standard of "looking wintry" seems to miss the real point, which is that the cliff should be frozen up. In fact, I'm not sure there is a real point, climbing ethics tend to be pissing contests more than "ethics." My standard is to try not to screw the environment up too much and leave the place cleaner than I found it. I'll be watching winter climbing on the Ben in the future, some people are going to push the "looking wintry" litmus test and that's going to wind other people up a fair amount. I just hope people don't destroy the moss/turf in order to do routes, that would be as wrong as drytooling existing rock routes (wait, that's allowed on the Ben, but only when the rock routes are hidden under rime...). Even if people only climb the moss on the Ben when it's frozen it will still mean it gets destroyed over time (as has happened on many routes involving "turf"), so it's all a cluster anyhow.

We then then did a human snow plow stunt for a while before giving up on the new routing and wandering up a really fun set of ledges called "the Ledge Route." It was basically a scramble so we soloed, but it had great position, big drops on both sides of a ridge at the top, nice snow conditions near the top when it finally really froze up. We had gone from wanting to do a hard new route to just touring up the Ben, and it was great. Almost windless conditions on top, fantastic views out across the snow-capped mountains, a very memorable day and place for sure. The winters in Scotland haven't been what they used to be by all reports, meaning the number of freezing days is really low. There was only real water ice on the top 100M or so of Ben Nevis, each additional meter of altitude really matters this close to the ocean. The locals are sarcastically fired up on reports that the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that keeps Britian looking like Britain and not Labrador, may soon stop due to global warming--paradoxically, global warming may save Scottish climbing.

In any case, getting to the top of Ben Nevis with Tim and Dave was a fun way to end my first winter climbing trip to Scotland. If the Gulf Stream fails then I might be back, but the conditions are so completely whacky for winter climbing that I can't see investing the required time and resources to climb there. The "Miss and Miss a lot more before climbing something" nature of winter climbing in Scotland is part of the charm for those who live there, but I don't think I could handle it. The Brits definitely work really hard to get their winter climbing in, loads of respect to anyone who climbs something frozen in Scotland in winter, it's an accomplishment.

Thanks to Dave, Fiona, Paul, MacLeod and Kevin for the great week, and good luck to MacLeod on his current rock project--a French 8C with the crux something like 35 feet above the last gear, which may or may not hold. That's bold, he's been working on it (and taking the fall) for a while now, I hope to hear the yell of success in Canada when he sends.

Just arrived in Norway to climb with Andreas Spak, should be fun!