Monday, 30 May 2011

Meeting Marlene

Oh, Marlene, Marlene! Or is it Marlina? It’s never a good idea to cry out for another woman in your sleep, but that’s probably what I’ve been doing because I’m obsessed.
Not that my other half is likely to worry – she knows were my guilty pleasures lie.
Anyway, after weeks of weather induced frustration I decided it was time to make a start on the list come what may and even found someone else crazy and optimistic enough to drive me an hour north through vicious rain and wild wind to Dunkeld and go searching on a wooded hillside for Upper Cave Crag, and the fabled Marlene.
Happily, the rock was as dry as we’d hoped. Astonishingly, not a single hold was damp on the 50 feet of climbing to the chain, and despite regular showers throughout the day, Kris and I set about besieging her.
One thing was apparent from the start – the wonderful schist was riddled with holds but not many were particularly good or facing the right way, making for an excessive number of possibilities. If we were to bag this route in a day, it would be a case of getting a sequence quick and going with it.
Unfortunately, the second thing that became apparent was that Marlene was no woman of easy virtue. In fact, 7c seems to be a consensus grade, not 7b+ as I’d thought, so I was also going to need a large dollop of luck.
When I lowered off after my first bolt-to-bolting, I was pumped and felt I’d learned nothing, but watching Kris gave me a few more ideas and on top rope I managed to start working things out. I knew were I was going through the steepness, but the route then dog-legs to follow a crack – scarcely more than vertical, but more tenuous and tricksome in nature. I diligently worked out a sequence along those final 15 feet of the route, but in the back of my mind I knew I was just going through the motions, on the very bit where I had to be most certain.
I decided to give it one redpoint attempt, knowing it was an outside chance. The start is bouldery and I managed it more smoothly that before, with the second half of the steepness easing somewhat. My forearms were feeling it after ten feet but I kept going, aiming for good holds at the junction with the crack. I stretched and got them, keeping things smooth and allowing myself a quick shake of the arms. Then it’s up and into a powerful cross over and...
I can’t reach the hold. I can. I tickle it. I can reach it but I’m knackered and I can’t twist my body back to face the other way and use it. I can’t even remember how I did that. Balls. I’m off.
I just wasn’t prepared enough and now I’m really blasted. I can barely batman up the rope. I get a rest and work the crack, bit by bit, and when I finish, I still don’t have a sequence.
I know when I’m spanked, and I guess Kris does too, so we head off, stop for tea, have a drink and get some nosh. We forget about Marlene.
Except now she’s come back to haunt me and I know there’s only one way to lay her to rest. My attempts to write an article about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Chinese joint venture flounder amid thoughts of tactics, training, and ways to do that crack, especially when I Google her and find an excellent blog giving detailed beta for Marlene. It’s good to know someone shares my obsession, and good to know you should milk that shakeout. I could do that. And good to have a different sequence to try on the top crack, even if I’m not quite sure if the footholds I’m thinking of are too high or too low.
Maybe they’re perfect. I’ll be back to find out.

Reviews: Paramo Mountain Vent Pull On and Torres Sleeves

When I asked Paramo for some more kit to review, I was really hoping they would offer the Mountain Vent. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s basically a sweatshirt but is just made of wonderful stuff, hard wearing and warm. It’s also a perfect cut and a great cobalt blue colour, and has some very useful zips.
The Vent is so named for the under-arm zips that can be opened to give your armpits an airing and thus cool you down. These are probably the least useful zips on it, but are still a handy thing to have. Even better is the nice big neck zip, which can let lots of heat out or trap the warmth in, as the Vent has a high neck almost like a scarf. Finally, there’s a very handy chest pocket, ideal for your keys, card and cash.
The Vent is reversible, but I’ve never seen much need for reversing (and it’s not always all that practical to do so either). If you want to feel cooler, much better to roll up the sleeves, which have a button that means they’ll stay were you want them to. This garment was designed to go under one of Paramo’s waterproof jackets but I find it a bit heavy for that, and prefer to use it on its own in all but the coldest conditions.
The Vent takes some beating as a thing to wear, being very versatile for comfort in the ever changing British weather, and has become my climbing and bouldering staple.
Now, for those of you who think I only give nice reviews and therefore that one was meaningless, let’s move on to the Sleeves. When I asked Paramo for some kit to review, I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t send the Torres Sleeves. Basically they just seemed silly, and they’ve done little to change that impression in the last six months.
The Sleeves are exactly that, a pair of sleeves you can pop on quickly over whatever you’re wearing for a bit of extra warmth. Paramo says warming the arms alone is a “speedy and hassle free” way of warming the whole body and especially keeping dexterity in the fingers, and it should be said that the Sleeves are made of absolutely lovely material – very light and very warm.
However, I’ve taken them out in a number of conditions ranging from the chilly to the downright cold, and I’ve always wished I had the whole jacket, or even better, a snuggle suit made out of this wonderful insulator. Basically, if I’m feeling cold enough to want to put an extra garment on, I’m ready for the whole thing. Like fingerless gloves, the Sleeves just make your back and chest feel all the more exposed. If you’re cold when resting or belaying, you might as well put a nice big coat on. I tried bouldering in the Sleves and whereas they did no harm, I can’t really say they did anything for me. It would seem to be a product for those who like a very nuanced control of their temperature. Also, you will have to be prepared to explain what you’re wearing to quite a few people – and you might find yourself struggling to do so.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Creaming of my favourite climbs

I have blogged before about the relative difficulties of extreme climbing and hard cuisine, but nothing prepared my right arm for the blasting it got tonight.
No, not even my teenage years.
The story begins a few days ago, when, at a charity bookstall in the New Town I acquired a booklet of fine desserts published by Australian Women’s Weekly.
It was full of exotic flavours and enticing photos, and I’m afraid I became a bit obsessed. In my excitement, I could never quite be bothered to follow the recipes to the letter, but the sheer inspiration led to the reawakening in me of a little knowledge I once enjoyed, for professional reasons, on the techniques of making sweets.
Some natural caution deep down made me build up to the tougher dishes gradually: I started with a Nutella cake, simple in conception and physically undemanding. All that was required was to whip some cream, fold in some molten hazelnut spread and cool it over a biscuit base – a doddle.
Then we had a magnificent day’s walking along the Water of Leith, a trail through the middle of Edinburgh that must rank as one of the finest walks I’ve done.
From pebble dashed suburbs this walkway follows a trickle of a stream and offers up surprises at ever turn, from verdant corridors of green to skate parks and industrial archaeology, allotments and cricket matches to modern art by Antony Gormley.
When we got home we were knackered, and made calzone, but just in case these towering immensities of stuffed pizza were not enough (and yes, because I harboured a desperate, unfulfilled, unfulfillable yearning for freshly made sweets) I also made a plum clafouti. That was another easy one physically, just a bit of mixing and then the whipping of cream. My energy was flagging but the radio obliged, I kid you not, with a spot of classic Queen to bring about the final firmness.
I could have done with that calibre of whisking music when I took on the ultimate challenge tonight, which left me cooling my biceps on a bowl of half frozen apricot mix but still leaping onto my pull up holds at regular intervals.
Because there’s nothing like making meringue by hand to bring out the savage masochist in a climber, who is inclined to strip naked and do sets of ten between increasingly desperate attempts to attain the fabled stiff peaks of success.
But meringue by hand, ultimate challenge that it is, was not enough for me. No sir. I decided to make apricot ice cream as well. And yes, that involves beating. Oh, what a beating.
Thing is, I’d promised myself an ice cream maker if I could succeed in making ice cream without one, and the meringue, well that was just a silly idea because I had two egg whites left over and I can’t bear waste.
Did I succeed? No idea, it’s nearly midnight and I’m still beating, baking, pulling and bulling. But who cares, I’ve got enormous arms and I’m as tired as if I’d spent a week climbing, and at some stage I’ll have something to eat.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Mac the Chisel

Fortune, as Blackadder would say, vomits on my eiderdown. Or perhaps it was always to be expected that plans made in the heady days of spring’s early blossoming should come to nowt once the Scottish weather returned to its grim unpredictability.
So I’m left high and dry, with a week off and no-one to climb with, and though it was a complex series of events that led to it, it feels like I only have myself to blame.
I’d been looking forward to the chance to get up to some of the more exciting crags for months, carefully trying to bottle my enthusiasm but allowing some release because if not I knew I’d explode, and of course by last week my mind has been on nothing except the rock, the rock. How it haunts me still.
That said, as I write this I’m happy because I had a great day’s climbing on Saturday, and that goes a long way.
I didn’t quite get up to the wild lands of the north, but I did find my way to Cambusbarron quarry, which has some pretty good climbing in it. It’s also quite a friendly venue to kick off the trad season proper, which I did by bagging a naughty little route called The Chisel.
According to the guide book, this manufactured line up a fine slabby wall was first climbed as late as 1993, although whether that was when it was chipped the manual does not record. If so, it seems strange that use of the eponymous instrument should still have been considered acceptable in the year that my own climbing career made a tentative start.
Indeed, use of the chisel seems to have been fairly commonplace in central Scotland at a certain time, and wielded by some fine craftsmen at that – I’ve already enjoyed some excellent cranking at North Berwick Law where the quarrymen’s rough work has been finished by the delicate hand of someone who enjoys a good lock off.
But The Chisel itself, well that’s something else, because the handiwork of these stonemason-climbers surrounds what would be one of the finest finger cracks in Scotland, had it been left alone.
Still, that was but a passing thought as I got on the route, the first really testing climbing I’d been on for more than six months. Even with the ‘extra’ holds, the climbing around the crack at the start is the hardest bit and had me desperately scrabbling to get gear in as my toes, of all things, suffered from a flash pump. I guess I hadn’t been training the little buggers hard enough.
Once I’d got two pieces of gear in, I suddenly felt comfortable, realising I was basically on a slab and could chill out there for as long as needed – a sure sign of early-season nerves, because I should have known.
The Chisel really does have some very fine climbing, with a bottle testing move higher up that actually left me wanting a second pitch. At least there were plenty of other good routes to tick, and a thoroughly good day was had.
On the food front, I haven’t quite managed to get my supply lines as short, or as much to my satisfaction, as they were in Devon. And realistically, there’s nowhere for my neighbours to keep pigs, so it’s not going to happen.
What I have got on my doorstep is a plentiful supply of gorse, so there’s a batch of wine flavoured with the scent of Holyrood Park fermenting away in the spare room. Gorse seems to be one thing Scotland can produce in abundance.