Category Archives: Personal

With only a Shunt for company

Crag shot of St. Montan on a beautiful spring afternoon

Crag shot of St. Montan on a beautiful spring afternoon

With all the regulars are away at the moment, it was me and the Shunt today at the local haunt, St. Montan. Spring is finally here, and it was a fine afternoon, although April is proving to be much more showery than last year.

 

Self belaying (also known as self-lining) was on the menu, as free soloing wouldn’t really go down well with my wife, plus I would be rubbish at it. The basic concept is climbing on a fixed line whilst belaying oneself. The rope is attached at the top of the crag and the climber is attached to the rope via a device (a Shunt in my case), which automatically locks onto the rope in the event of a rest or fall.

 

Simple, surely?

 

It was was first time using a Shunt in anger, as well as on my own, so I was feeling slightly nervous. Strangely enough it brought back similar feelings to when I was tramping around Scotland in January in preparation for my WML – the feeling of being slightly on the edge and needing to watch one’s back that little bit more carefully.

 

There were a pair of climbers already at the crag, and in the vicinity of the climbs I had earmarked, so I set myself up, trying hard to look like I knew what I was doing, never mind the climbing. Despite setting the Shunt upside down initially, and wondering why it wouldn’t lock, the setup was straightforward and it was time to climb.

 

Shunt setup - rope represents the fixed line; silver karabiner attaches to climber; cord is to release mechanism (e.g., for abseiling)

Shunt setup – rope represents the fixed line; silver karabiner attaches to climber; cord is to release mechanism (e.g., for abseiling)

It’s quite a novel sensation self-lining. It’s not quite top-roping and it’s not really leading or soloing – obviously – but there are some similar elements. The Shunt slides along smoothly when you make upward progress. However, there is the awareness of climbing above ‘gear’, as it were, and so the instinctive desire to whip it up to avoid shock loading (of you fell) can make the process a bit disruptive. Overall, I was getting the hang of it and making progress by the end, but moving routes was a faff.

 

When I got home I was pretty full of myself, but a bit of nosing round the internet reveals that Petzl issue a number of ‘dire warnings’, as Needlesports laconically put it, about self-lining with the Shunt. More nosing reveals that really there is no ideal autoblock or device suitable for this kind of climbing. All a bit depressing and slightly worrying, although Andy Kirkpatrick seems to have some time for it.

 

So, plenty of food for thought – more than I had anticipated – but still great to get out after a long climbing drought.

Categories: Blog, Personal, Simon, Sport climbing
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Is responsible tourism just a big, fat contradiction?

BK230_000

Patagonia’s environmental biography so far

James and Miriam, members of my team, read Patagonia’s story recently, ‘The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years‘, and passed it on to me. I was keen to read the book, knowing a little about Patagonia’s environmental ethos already, but mostly interested by the challenging facts and angles that James had begun to recount to me. (They also make some nice kit, but that’s beside the point!)

 

The back cover immediately summed it up for me:

 

Yvon and Vincent aren’t here to bum you out about a planet turning to desert, or to shame you into anything. They affirm that the ingenuity and hard work required to clean up our offices and industries will be the most rewarding (and profitable) work we do.

 

I felt relieved that the scope of the book was real, tangible and affirming and began the story, eager to draw upon and utilise the experience of others.

 

However, having progressed into the meat of the book, I opened my RSS reader this morning and read with interest a post from Trek the Andes: ‘Responsible Peru treks – fact or fiction?‘. The article challenged me in turn, as Patagonia’s story had been doing so far. I couldn’t help but feel a check in my spirit with regard to our operations in the High Atlas of Morocco. I quote the fourth paragraph:

 

Responsible tourism is a broad spectrum and often a contradictory one. Flying several thousand miles to trek on the other side of the world that is bad; you damage the ozone. But I provide work for porters and guides is that not good? Buying bottles of water from the ladies along the Inca Trail that is bad, you should be refilling your water bottles and cutting down on plastics. But I am providing these Andean people with income, am I not good?

 

We as a company expect that our clients will fly into Marrakech, typically from the UK, in order to start the process of traveling to Imlil and then begin the trek to the Toubkal area. Aircraft produce a huge amount of CO2, which contributes to the process of global warming, causing a whole number of problems for the environment. And yet we as The Mountain People care deeply about the environment in which we live and operate. How do we reconcile the two?

 

Moreover, Trek the Andes rightly points out that responsible tourism claims are made by all and sundry these days, likening them to background noise:

 

Click on any trek operator’s website or leaf through the pages of any travel company’s brochure and responsible travel will leap out at you. Well they would like it to but it has suffered something of the same fate as car alarms. Once you hear the same noise so many times you no longer hear it. Some companies clearly do practice responsible tourism but for other trekking agencies it appears to be no more than a marketing tool. When everyone proclaims it, who do we choose who we believe?

 

When I say we care deeply about the environment, do you really believe me? What makes our claim any different from the myriad other ones? I have even pointed out where our claim fails before a potential client even steps foot in Morocco.

 

The trouble with tourism, let alone anything in the world, is that in order to engage with it, we will inevitably cause waste and damage. And yet there is something profound in the human spirit that seeks adventure, to push physical and mental boundaries, to find wilderness and ultimately attain a deeper sense of being alive, especially coming from an increasingly desk-bound, office-orientated culture with its ensuing checks and barriers.

 

The challenge then is to be true to ourselves without doing so at the expense of the environment. The natural world has a certain resilience and the capacity to regenerate, but would be much the better for our full cooperation in reducing our footprint.

 

At this point we don’t have all, let alone many, of the answers. The biggest two issues though seem clear: airplane travel from the UK to Morocco is polluting; getting heavy and bulky climbing and mountaineering equipment to Morocco. So, this then remains essentially a memorandum of understanding amongst The Mountain People. We see the contradictions, we see the damage, but we want to overcome it in a healthy way and with ingenuity. The solution is not to do nothing or go nowhere. To do so would deny something within us all, but to paraphrase Trek the Andes:

 

To stay at home and not trek the Atlas; that is not the answer. Come and visit this beautiful place, come and trek these magnificent hills and come and meet its people.

Categories: Blog, Personal, Responsibility, Simon
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Sport Climbing, France | Les Dentelles de Monmirail

The striking limestone teeth of Les Dentelles de Monmirail

The striking limestone teeth of Les Dentelles de Monmirail

Matt and I headed deep into Provence for my first taste of a crag other than the short, but sweet, St. Montan. Les Dentelles de Monmirail are a parallel series of toothed ridges that rise to the south of Mont Ventoux and provide several hundred quality limestone sport climbs.

 

To our surprise, in the shadow the north aspects, snow lingered from the storm two weeks ago. There had also been recent hard frosts, judging from the frozen ground and ice on small puddles in the carpark. The wind was also blowing, making the ambient temperature of around two to three degrees distinctly unpleasant.

 

We warmed ourselves on the south aspect, which was nicely sheltered from the wind and cold. Ravens circled and swooped in the eddies calling with their characteristic ‘puk, puk’, and it was necessary to strip down to the t-shirt.

 

We ticked three climbs on the beautifully sunny south aspect, a 5b, 5c/6a and a 6a+. All were good climbs, made us think and employ good technique, but as with many of the sport climbs I have done to date, were rather forgettable. In retrospect, the climbs tended to be reduced to the challenge of a couple of moves.

 

In contrast, there is nothing like having a full-on fight on a trad climb or winter line in Scotland to etch an experience in your memory.

 

Our last climb of the day was a multi-pitch on the north aspect (5b, 5c). We were brought back to reality – that it is still definitely winter – by the cold, wind and chill. I lost the feeling in my fingers and we had to rush to get back home, so perhaps didn’t get the best of that part of the crag.

 

A day of many contrasts once again!

 

More photos on the Facebook page.

Categories: Blog, Matt, Personal, Simon, Sport climbing
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To Opposite Extremes

James on La Gravité Abolie 6c

James on La Gravité Abolie 6c

James, Matt and I got out for some sport climbing yesterday. It was the complete opposite of six weeks in the Scottish winter – jeans, t-shirts, sunshine, dry rock!

 

I think we were all pretty rusty, especially me, but pushed ourselves in the time we had. We warmed up on Perlin Pinpin 5c, then Matt and I took it up a level on La Grande Dalle 6a, and the main event was James finishing a mini-project La Gravité Abolie 6c.

 

Two routes each, so not bad for half an afternoon and everyone went home happy.

 

Check out more photos on the Facebook page.

Categories: Blog, James, Matt, Personal, Simon, Sport climbing
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Highland Hobo Epilogue

Welcome home card

Welcome home card

Mark Chadwick, the Course Director for my Winter Mountain Leader (WML) assessment, passed my logbook across the table. There was a new red sticker in the WML section.

 

I had passed.

 

Primarily I was relieved, but then wondered what to do next. Better go and pack up and leave, was my conclusion. Clearly the culmination of six weeks was a huge anticlimax, but I was profoundly glad that the process had come to a happy end.

 

During the assessment, I was reminded of the Kraken, a mythical sea monster that is said to have ambushed ships and consumed their crews. Another candidate, Lucy Wallace of Wild on Arran, who passed the week before, had also described the process like a sudden, but expected, attack by demons:

 

There is a demon waiting out there in the storm for every prospective winter ML candidate.  You know it is coming, but you have to wait to learn how and when it will attack.

 

Although the weather was wild on the first day when it became hard to see fellow candidates in the blizzard carrying out their ice axe arrest skills 10 metres down on a slope, I felt we were given a reprieve on the expedition. Navigation plays a big part in the assessment, and although we had low visibility, walking in cloud predominantly, there were no winds to deal with at the critical points.

 

Tennyson wrote a sonnet about the Kraken, but interestingly in the poem the beast remains hidden in the depths, silent, still and waiting. Only one day will it awake and roar to the surface. We had escaped the Kraken – the weather beasts had granted us safe passage, but they are still out there waiting for the unwary…

 

So there ends the mini-chronicle of the highland hobo. Hopefully most of my walking will now be in and out from climbing routes and leading clients and friends in winter conditions!

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
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