Sunday, 4 October 2015

Passing Rock Bottom

I have passed Deer Gallows many times while running above Embsay Reservoir (and never yet managed to find an entirely dry route) but only occasionally visited with rock shoes, which after spending a short afternoon on the clean rock of Main Wall, I realised has been something of an oversight.
With far fewer routes than its neighbour Crookrise, and requiring a little bog-trotting whichever way it is approached, Deer Gallows is never going to get particularly crowded and is well suited to soloing.
Passing Rock Bottom (E3, 5c), a route on which telescopic arms are useful* and falling off the crux is not recommended, the blind flake of Cave Crack Alternative (VS 5a) provided an enjoyable start to the afternoon after which Fist Crack gave the sort of fight only Yorkshire Grit can. Harder than it looks, says the book. I would not disagree.
The Pinnacle, climbed on this day via Staircase Rib - a nice V Diff which gives access to the summit block where I sat for some time just listening to the grouse and soaking in the sun.
*Yorkshire Gritstone, The Millennium Edition

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Day of the dolphin

Some time before my first encounter with a dolphin on the water, a friend told how he had spent an hour watching a small pod from the cliffs at South Stack on Anglesey. For what seemed an age he had watched half a dozen bottlenose dolphins cavorting beneath the lighthouse until eventually, though it seemed wrong somehow to leave the scene, he turned and left them to work the tides. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to see dolphins (as well as orcas and minkie whales), off the Pembroke coast, around the Isle of Mull as well as Skye, from Shetland Mainland, the Coigach coastline and in the Moray Firth. A brief sighting of Risso's dolphins was perhaps the most special of these, a huge pod (approx. 100) of common dolphins in the Sound of Raasay arguably the most impressive, while the bottlenose dolphins Brian and I saw while paddling in Pembroke were by far and away the most playful. But I have never seen them while paddling around Anglesey. Until today.
It began beneath a strong sun and deep blue skies, crossing to Rhoscolyn Beacon where we played a while in the gently ebbing tide...
...moving out into the main flow between the skerries, I spotted a large fin, causing momentary confusion so unexpected was the sighting. The solitary bottlenose dolphin moved leisurely back and forth across the tide, at times very close, fish leaping clear of the surface as we tracked his movements for the best part of half an hour.
Moving on eventually we followed the low cliffs north around Rhoscolyn Head, exploring various gullies and caves before passing through the White Arch - obvious from the cliff top above, approaching by sea from the south it is hidden at the back of what appears to be a dead end gully which opens as the last corner is turned. Weaving amongst the skerries that follow we soon crossed Trearddur Bay and continued on past Porth Dafarch to rest in a small cove, soaking in the sun, waiting for the flood tide to build before heading out to the race off Penrhyn Mawr.
With no wind to speak of, the first hour or so was quiet but we had some fun in the outer race before the flow began to pick up.
Moving across the eddies and working back up the race to the leading waves...
...around the fangs for a final fling before heading in beneath the setting sun. A remarkable day's paddling which I suspect I will remember as the day of the dolphin.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

From Blazing Paddles to Burrow Head

It was on the way north on a climbing trip perhaps a decade ago that I came across Brian Wilson's 'coastal odyssey'. Breaking the journey at Fort William, I stood in the shop clutching a bag of chalk, some new slings and a couple of wires, gazing across rows of familiar climbing books before spotting one which looked distinctly out of place. Blazing Paddles. I bought it without thinking and returned to the car, stuffing the climbing gear and faded orange paperback in a rucksack and continuing the journey towards Reiff with its superb crags above sea. Our original plan had been to spend a few days in the heart of the Cairngorms, climbing The Talisman on Creag a'choire Etchachan and then if all went well, a route called The Needle on the Shelter Stone Crag above Loch Avon.
Creag a'choire Etchachan
First climbed in 1962 by none other than Robin Smith partnered by Davy Agnew, the epitome of of the Creag Dhu hard-man*, The Needle is still regarded as a test piece despite the grade (E1) which by today's standards is almost a trade route. But the weather was poor - the high crags shrouded in mist, slowly melting snow patches combining with persistent summer rains sufficient to dampen any remaining enthusiasm for the mountains and turning us away toward the coast and chance of a break in the clag.
Cyclops, E2,5b, Reiff
We completed some good climbs that week at Reiff, but it was the sea that truly captured my attention. I watched for hours as clean surf rolled into the bay beneath our camp, and in envy as a lone paddler carved across the waves.
Surfing into Achnahaird Bay beneath the old campsite
When the rain became to heavy to climb or simply to watch the waves, I retreated to the tent, captivated by Wilson's account of his journey around Scotland. I knew many of the headlands he described, the beaches, cliffs and islands, but not as he knew them, not from the sea. In that week, I accepted what I had known for some time but never admitted - my all-consuming passion for climbing was about to be superseded.
From the wildest beaches to breaching orca's, Wilson's writing captures so many of the things that continue to inspire my sea-kayaking today, but it is the description of Burrow Head that I remember first, whenever I think of Blazing Paddles.
...the sea became dark and ominous, the troughs deep chasms... ...My hands were white and bloodless with strain, and trembled with nervous energy when at last I reached the Whithorn shore where I hauled the boat mercilessly over sharp-edged rocks...Burrow Head had beaten me...*
For over a decade that passage has drifted in my mind, waiting for the day when I would leave the sheltered bay beneath St Ninian's Chapel and pass Broom Point, bound for the race off Burrow Head.
When it finally came, there was little danger of encountering any such difficulties. 
A gentle breeze barely ruffled the surface beneath the yellow, lichen clad cliffs and while the race gave rise to a few waves sufficient to bury the bow and send us on long surfing rides off shore, it was a gentle day by anyone's standards for such a headland on the northern shores of the Solway.
With an absolute lack of swell, we explored deep caves...
...squeezing between tight walls of smooth, dark rock...
...before sitting offshore on glassy seas.
Returning to the cliffs I went ashore briefly - not a place to consider landing in anything but calm conditions...
...before passing once more beneath the headland...
...and back to the Isle of Whithorn's colourful harbour. 
A gentle end to a beautiful day's paddling and a wonderful way in which to close a chapter opened so many years before.
*Hard Rock (Third Ed.) Compiled by Ken Wilson.
*Blazing Paddles, Brian Wilson

Sunday, 20 September 2015

On the edge

When the Millennium edition of the Yorkshire Gritstone guide was published (1998), Rylstone was well established as one of the best crags in the area: home to all the horrendous wide, flared crack climbs one would expect but also technical walls and some simply brilliant slabs. And while few of the boulder problems - some better thought of as short routes not really worth roping up for - had been officially recorded at that time, there are literally hundreds to choose from and I have spent many hours wandering on the edge, trying new problems and returning to old favourites...
...such as those found beneath the Cracoe war memorial in particular. Out of sight in this image, the face of the leaning block in the lower left of the image above provides a testing, delicate yet strenuous slab while the wide block centre right gives a minor classic starting from the obvious crescent ramp and finishing in the flared crack that splits the centre of the face. No doubt it is recorded in a more recent guide and whereas once I would have checked for such information instinctively, now I am happy just to know it is there, one of many amongst which there's those I can do, and those I can't.
One that I can - a simple enough problem pulling up on big holds to an awkward mantel at the top...
...from which there are long views into the heart of The Dales, the high moors littered in boulders worn and weathered, the only sound that of the wind in the heather and now and then, the grouse.

The Meetings

The tides were wrong for the round trip, but a F4/5 northerly promised a fast run down the west coast of Walney, and so we headed up the channel on a rising tide, hoping by the time we reached The Meetings, there would be just sufficient water to sneak around the top... chance. We followed what seemed the deepest channels that were rapidly filling, but it was slow work. Splashing and dragging the boats through shallow pools, along shallower channels and over short sand bars we finally met the tide pushing south...
...too late to complete in the round trip in daylight but with time enough to head out into Scarth Channel and enjoy the waves, surfing back in towards Lowsy Point and then on, down the channel and eventually, with the tide now ebbing, back to Roa Island.