Monday, 5 March 2018

Winter Climbing in Northern Ireland

'Real' winter, for the first time since 2013, has made an appearance in Ireland. The first week of March 2018 saw temperatures consistently below 0 for days on end, and a fair bit of snowfall.
This means one thing to climbers in the North – ice in the Mournes and Glenariff. Carpe diem (or perhaps carpe ligo).

I was due to fly to Glasgow on 2 March, to meet up with Conor Gilmour, see an Elbow concert and maybe go winter climbing in the highlands. With a red weather warning in place for Glasgow this was looking unlikely, so arrangements were made to go take a look at Glenariff as a backup plan and investigate the possibility of frozen waterfalls. In the meantime, the snow allowed some unusual Pursuits such as cross-country skiing around Edenderry and along the Lagan.

Winter comes to Edenderry.
That Porsche isn't going anywhere in a hurry
Cross-country skiing at the Giant's Ring

Skiing in Edenderry
 Glenariff is one of the nine glens of Antrim and boasts numerous waterfalls streaming off the plateau. These occasionally freeze to give good ice but the low altitude and proximity of the sea makes this uncommon. On 2 March they were well frozen. Peter Hughes, Sarah McAleavey, Stuart Abraham and I met up at the Spar in Martinstown (where no coffee was available due to a frozen water supply) at 9.30 and headed into the glen, rewarded with the view of numerous frozen watercourses. We parked up in a layby under something that looked good and wandered up the hillside, in a state of disbelief and with the air of cautious pessimism that accompanies any winter climbing attempt on this island.
Approaching 'The Mane'

A ten minute walk up the hillside brought us to what turned out to be ‘The Mane’, first climbed in 1981 (and not many times since) but Martin Manson and Eddie Cooper. This provided two pitches of perfect plastic ice which even took full length ice screws. Heavy winds at the top resulted in numerous weird and wonderful frond-like features in the ice. Fantastic. Buoyed by this, we returned to the road and moved on to have a go at the classic ‘The Grey Mare’s Tails’ 500 m further up the valley.
Peter on P1 of 'The Mane'

Sarah on 'The Mane'

Stuart on 'The Mane'

Roadside ice climbing in Antrim. Surreal. Caught up in the moment, I went awry. On the scramble up the hillside to the waterfall I followed Stuart up an ill-advised mossy, grassy, dodgy unfrozen turf scramble. Halfway up Peter appeared behind me, took one look at it, and decided to go round. I stupidly thought “sure I’ve come this far…” and carried on. Shortly thereafter I found myself standing on a tuft of turf which gave way, leaving my scrabbling at blades of grass before tumbling backwards, head over heels, bouncing on my head and tailbone and coming to a rest 7m below in a tree. It took a moment or two to figure out if I was injured but (extremely) fortunately it turned out that this was confined to a very unhappy right ankle. Thankfully I’d left my helmet on from the previous climb.
Not a great photo but I fell from where Stuart is to where the photo was taken from.
Stuart is here retrieving my ice axes

I rang Stuart who came back done, recovered my axes from 7m above and escorted me back down to the road where I hobbled back to the car and watch the other three climb ‘The Grey Mare’s Tails’ through binoculars. It looked like a fantastic climb with two well frozen pitches of quality ice (the bottom wasn’t fully formed) and if it ever freezes again I’ll be right back on it.
Peter on 'The Grey Mare's Tails'

'The Grey Mare's Tails' from the road. Spot the climber

Lisa, despite recovering from a rather bad dose of the flu, came with me to A&E in the Royal Hospital that evening. This took 5 hours and she was rewarded by having her recovery derailed somewhat. My amazing fiancée, willing to put my own self-inflicted injury before her own recovery. I have a massive amount of making up to do.
Outside the Royal A&E

The next day was, naturally, needed for recovery! Lots more snow fell so Lisa and I managed to do a bit of tobogganing on the hill above Edenderry before rewarming in front of the fire.

Winter in Edenderry

Peter Reid contacted me asking to borrow some winter gear for an attempt on ‘The Black Stairs’ on Thomas’s Mountain, below Slieve Donard in the Mournes. Since I was due in Newcastle anyway for MRT training I figured I’d meet him and Sarah in Donard Park and give them the gear there. As it turned out mountain rescue training was cancelled as the (more mobile) rest of the team had had a busy time helping people get about in the snowy conditions.
I met up with Peter and Sarah in any case. The ankle was feeling better and I found with boots on and walking poles I could walk OK. The Black Stairs almost never freeze since it’s so low and coastal (300 m up, overlooking Newcastle and the beach). Carpe Diem and all that.
I tentatively threw some gear in a bag and decided on walking up with Pete and Sarah, with the option of turning back at any point if it started to hurt. There’s a good path pretty much the whole way to the waterfall so turning back and hobbling down should be OK. Before long we were at the edge of the forest, and could see the waterfall was frozen. At this sight any residual pain disappeared (for now). Pete was psyched as this was his one chance to get winter climbing this season, and Sarah was over the moon to be able to climb ice so close to her hometown of Newcastle. You can even see the Black Stairs from the window of her parents’ home.
Sarah and I with The Black Stairs in the background
The Black Stairs in Winter

We tried to get to the base of the waterfall but this involved crossing a frozen pool which wasn’t as frozen as we’d like, resulting in wet knees when the ice gave way. The first pitch didn’t look as well frozen in any case so we were happy to retreat and move up and round on good frozen turf in order to climb the top half of the route. Between my injury and this being Pete’s one chance to climb this season, Pete was given the honour of leading. Despite not having climbed ice in 3 years he made short work of it, making lots of very happy noises on both pitches and declaring it his favourite Mournes winter climb (he has actually managed to do a few of these). I nursed the ankle up the route but the adrenaline (and cold water from the pool at the bottom) helped dispel any pain.
Seconding the first bit

Pete starting up P2


The excellent second pitch

Pete on P2

A very happy Pete

Sarah topping out

We topped out as the snow turned to rain and the melt was starting in earnest. Back down to Newcastle and everyone was buzzing from the experience. Winter climbing in Northern Ireland – good while it’s there and worth the effort! Who knows how long it will be before we get to do it again?

The aftermath

Postscript: it’s now Monday 5 March, 4 degrees C and raining. Normal service has resumed.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Holidays on Ice

I haven't written anything on here for a while. The internet is many things, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that social media is, on balance, a negative thing that reduces meaningful social interactions and spreads unhappiness through clickbait and FOMO (fair of missing out) where people present an edited highlights reel of their life to their world, which in turn makes others feel that they are not enjoying themselves enough (probably because they're spending their time scrolling through reddit, instagram and facebook). Thus when those who have experienced this unhappiness do go out and enjoy themselves, they spend the time making sure it's photographed, hastagged and microblogged to high fuck to make sure everyone else can see how much fun they're having. Which they aren't, becuase they're glued to the phone. It's a toxic mixture which leaves you hollow inside and unhappy. Put the phone away, enjoy the moment, and then consider taking the photo.

It's an easy trap to fall into and I've done it as much as anyone else. Hence, why write a public blog? I suppose I find writing slightly cathartic, and I've spent the last 3 years writing an incredibly dull 45,000 word PhD thesis which took care of any desire to write so I'm only getting back to this now. I also know full well that my memory is fallible. Reading back through some of my old posts on this has reminded me of little details of adventures that I had completely forgotten or misremembered. So basically I mean this as a form of journal, back backed up to the cloud and all that.

I present - snapshots of things that I consider worth recording.

Ice Climbing in the Écrins, France, January 2018

I drifted away from climbing a bit for whatever reason in 2015-2016 and got stuck into the world of road cycling. I did a bit of racing and training and took it fairly seriously but found something was missing. A trip to Scotland in 2017 with the Mourne MRT reminded me that I really like being in the mountains and as quickly as I got into cycling I lost interest in it again and came back to climbing. 12 months, on Boulder World annual pass, a training programme and setting up a Climbing Club in Belfast later and I finally got back into *proper* winter climbing, with ice axes, ice screws, and snow.

Except... this time, it wasn't winter climbing as I knew it, which generally consisted of getting up very early in Scotland, trudging up a big hill for several hours in windy/too warm/foggy conditions, getting to the base of a terrifying route with a 50/50 chance of decent conditions and doing battle with the weather, mountain and Reynaud's syndrome while desperately looking for gear placements buried under snow or verglas - or spending the day in a café/pub/bookshop (not that there's anything wrong with any of this).


No, this time it was Alpine ice, which is a revelation. Pitch after pitch of good ice, short walk-ins, good weather, bolted belays (*GASP*).

On a whim and with minimal encouragement I opted in to a winter trip loosely organised through BCC to the Écrins massif in the Hates-Alpes of France. Going on the trip were Peter (from Ballymena-ish, aka Liam Neeson jr), Michal (from Dublin, via Gdynia) and Sarah (from Newcastle, via Chamonix and Belfast) and the psyche was high. Peter, Michal and Sarah had all climbed continental-style ice before in Rjukan, Cogne and the Canadian Rockies before.

The team: me, Sarah, Peter and Michal (photo: Michal Samsel)

After an interesting drive in a snowstorm over the Col de Montgenevre in a 1.2 Fiat Panda with snowchains, we found ourselves at our base of Vallouise, staying at an apartment owned by Jerry and jackie Gore. Jerry is one of those proper Alpine hardmen, who doesn't let type 1 diabetes stop him from holding the UK speed record on the Eiger North face or from putting up hard first ascents in the Alps or Himalaya. They relocated the the Écrins in 2003 finding the quality and quantity of outdoor fun to be had irresistible, combined with the much more relaxed atmosphere compared to the likes of Chamonix. Jerry's advice was indispensible all week and his enthusiasm for the area was unmistakeable - and understandable. The Écrins are magnificent.

Driving in

After the snow on day 0 and the resultant avalanche risk, Jerry strongly advised us that our time on day 1 would be best spent skiing at the nearby Puy St Vincent. We happily went along with this - me especially as it allowed me a sneaky bit of practice before a dedicated ski trip in February. A fun day was had on the slopes, a particular highlight being the many, many (many!) jokes resulting from the piste named "Le Bois [forest] de Coqs". This was a rather choppy, ungroomed piste on which I feel several times, prompting Peter to remark that the only coqs in this particular forest were us for skiing down it.

We also got the most polite parking ticket I've ever seen, without a fine.

Polite parking ticket

Improved conditions and some snow melt saw us out climbing on day 2. We drove to Ceillac, in the Queyras, close on the map but about an hour drive from Vallouise. This being the Alps, straight mine distances between places are meaningless as there are usually mountains in the way. Ceillac has a notable confluence of qualities - reliable, quality, roadside ice climbing. Hence it is of course busy, which is why visiting on a Monday was better than at the weekend.

Sarah and I climbed the appropriately named Holidays on Ice, a mild route and a good reintroduction to climbing with pointy things. It took a couple of pitches to get used to it but by the end we were happy to take the more challenging right hand finish. For the first time ever, I was able to ice climb in liner gloves due to the favourable conditions and din't even need a big belay jacket. Practically sport climbing! Meanwhile, Peter and Michal were on form and climbed not only Holiday on Ice but also its neighbour, Y Branche de Droite.

Holidays on Ice (WI 3)

That evening, Sarah used the skills she learned from a year in Chamonix and produced a fantastic Tartiflette and the four of us played the board game K2, wherein you simulate an expedition on the famous mountain, supposedly designed by a Polish team tentbound on such a trip.
K2 (photo: Michal Samsel)

Day 3 saw us back to Ceillac to climb the 'ultra classic' Les Formes du Chaos (WI 4), the Point Five Gully of the Queyras. This is, naturally, a very popular route, and one we shared with numerous other parties, causing some bottlenecks at belays. The route had quite a lot of water running beneath the ice (and over the ice on one particuarly damp pitch) but apparently this is normal and not a particular cause for concern (at least it didn't seem to concern anyone else). One pitch, in particular, involved climbing some thin ice out of a cave and the noises arising from peter's ascent were loud and unsettling. However, the ice remained in place - Alpine ice must be made of stronger stuff than Scottish!

Pitch 1, Michal and me leading (photo: Peter Hughes)

Me on the wet pitch, with very numb hands (photo: Michal Samsel)

Peter leading on the loud and suspect ice (photo: Michal Samsel)

Sarah leading
Les Formes du Chaos was nonetheless as good as the hype and provided 6 pitches of great ice, sometimes steep but never overly so. Sarah also led several of the pitches, her first leads on ice and dispatched with style and confidence. Sarah and I went a bit awry at the top looking for the descent route and at one point downclimbed a snowslope which partially gave way to reveal a tree underneath. Meanwhile, Peter followed an Italian party up a continuation pitch which had a ridiculous start out of a pool of water and Michal abseiled an adjacent ropes on a rope which wasn't as long as he would've liked. Quality adventure.

Peter and the daft pitch

Day 4 and we visited the valley of Freissinières. This steep sided valley with it sown microclimate (consistently 4 degrees colder than the surrounding area) possesses countless ice falls of high quality. The access road is not completely cleared, with the main tactic being to drive as far as the snow allows, park, and walk the rest of the way. The four of us set out to climb Ice Pocalypse, a classic WI 4, but Sarah and I were slower to gear up and missed the path through the forest to the base of the route and overshot. However, we came across some ice anyway and decided to have a go, with no idea what the route was and with only a vague trail up to it. It turned out to be the route Paulo Folie (WI 3+), 4 pitches of adventure with a steep 'cigar' on the 2nd and luckily with recently bolted anchors. The only other party we encountered were a Catalan (not Spanish!) team, unusually quiet for this area! One notable moment was on pitch 3 - I placed an ice screw and moved up. Placing my crampon about 30cm right of the screw, a sheet of ice gave way - thankfully, the crack ran through the ice screw hole and the screw fell out, rather than pulling me down with it. I was left dangling from the axes with no feet. Good sport.
Paulo Folie (WI 3+), apparently

The descent from the route was interesting. We followed footstep leftward from the top of the route which disappeared down a steep wall of ice. Did the Catalans downclimb this? Fair play to them! We climbed back up a bit and decided instead on a slightly sketchy traverse to a sturdy tree, from which we abseiled. Unfortunately or 50m ropes brought us to the top of another steep step and no anchor, although this time it was snow and so downclimbing was possible, if slightly necky. Sarah, not particularly familiar with this form of terrain, nonetheless downclimbed it with ease and is clearly made from the Right Stuff for mountaineering!

Sarah downclimbing on steep terrain 

Meanwhile, Peter and Michal found Ice Pocalypse but decided on an adevnture up the monster route Au-delà des ombres (Michal's blog here) and had a proper epic with numerous abalakov abseils and one bloodied face!

Day 5 and we returned to Freissinières. Sarah and I managed to find Ice Pocalypse (WI 4+) this (as did, seemingly, every ice climber south of Grenoble) and had a bash. The final pitch provided steep and sustained climbing - the steepest I have done on ice, certainly, and i got pretty pumped. Ice climbing is a confidence game, and the route had just enough rests for me not to panic. It's essentially aid climbing (you have a piece of gear in each hand!) and so there's really no point in placing gear unless you're in a comfortable position. I had built enough confidence on ice to use other peoples' hooks and placements and to depend on less than perfect axe placements. With an unfavourable forecast for the next day, we abseiled the top pitch to the belay it shares with the adjacent Happy Together (WI 4) and climbed this as well. We were met by Michal and Peter who had had a much-deserved late start after the previous day's adventure and climbed Ice Pocalypse as well.

Ice Pocalypse (WI 4+) 

Snow was forecast for day 6 and so after consultation with Jerry we visited the 'artificial' ice wall in the village of Aiguille sin the Queyras. This consists of a ravine in the village at the top of which hoses have been installed which progressively form ice falls over the course of the Winter. You pay €4 each at a local Tabac to cover the cost of upkeep and away you go. On this day a large group were also on the wall but they allowe dus to share their ropes and we played about for a few hours, testing our confidence on marginal placements and steep ice. Sarah and peter also had a go on a fun looking mixed route for which I waited for a turn but unfortunately the large group had different ideas on queueing etiquette than me and I became fed up and hungry! The wall is nonetheless a fantastic resource and I'm very jealous of the conditions that allow it to exist.
The Aiguilles ice wall

Peter leading at Aiguilles

Throwing shapes

Throwing shapes

Peter on a mixed route

Day 7 and it was time to go home. Sarah took over the cleaning of the apartment (she was a professional cleaner in a previous life) and put the rest of us to shame. She did such a good job that Jerry tried to offer her a full time job in the Alps. Peter went on to Chamonix to continue the adventure on skis while Jerry succesfulyl gave us the hard sell on the Écrins and showed us numerous guidebooks - the area has something for everyone interested in the outdoors whithout being overdeveloped. It also, apprently, sees 300 days of sunshine a year. Needless to say there will be a BCC summer trip to the area in th near future and it was all we could do not to start looking at houses in Vallouise!

A fantastic week and an experience I didn't realsied I had missed for the last few years. The craic in the apartment was great - we took in turns to cook; Sarah makes a mean tartiflette and peter is a renaissance man who makes a mean Spahetti Bolgnese with tabasco. The hotel (and only open restaurant) in Vallouise fed us well severla nights and provided excellent 'Edelweiss' weissbier.

Caution: modern man at work

I like ice. Ice is nice. Maybe Rjukan next year. And some ski touring. And an Écrins summer trip. And... oh, there go all my holidays...

postscript - home now, and my knuckles hurt. Apparently I was punching the ice a lot and may have a mild fracture. It's amazing what you don't notice due to adrenaline.