Friday, 5 September 2014

Geological mapping, on your iPhone

Here is the second film we were involved with this summer. Glasgow based geological mapping company Midland Valley asked us to shoot and produce a film on Ben Nevis detailing the new app they have released for geologists to do digital field mapping. We had a great time on the north face of the Ben and learned a lot from the guys.

FieldMove Clino - Digital Field Mapping from Midland Valley on Vimeo.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Scotland - what to decide? A starting place in the decision making process

 Although this blog is primarily about my thoughts on climbing, I’m aware that the huge decision on Scottish independence is getting close, and I need to think about whether to keep my thoughts to myself, or share them with others. It doesn’t seem to make sense for interested parties to make their decision in a bubble of isolation. Why not discuss it openly? Moreover, why not make clear where the gaps in the arguments aired in the media lie, so that we may have more of the information we need to come to the best possible decision.

Unlike the way the decision is presented by politicians, I don’t feel that anyone can truly come to the right or wrong decision, where right or wrong implies prosperity of the country in the future. Either path carries considerable uncertainty. In my mind, the right decision is the one that people are happy to have made, given the information and feelings we have at the time. Even if it did turn out to make us a tiny bit worse off in the pocket, that won’t make it the wrong decision because either path could have led to that outcome.

Because of these uncertainties, I was undecided for a long time, but as I’ve thought it over repeatedly, I have now decided that a Yes vote is definitely the choice I wish to make. Part of the reason it took me a long time to reach a firm conclusion was the the disappointing level of coverage of the issue in the mass media. In the political field, each side is obliged to try to strengthen it’s case. Realistically, what else could we expect? I hoped to hear more from respected intellectuals who were prepared to offer their thoughts. Thankfully, these have appeared on the internet over the past few months.

If ever there was an issue that is not black and white, it is this. Here are some questions and ideas that have come to my mind to guide me through this decision, which I am so happy to have made. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve been truly excited to receive my ballot paper through the letterbox.

These ideas span several different concepts and issues, and all of them seem relevant to me. I hope they are at least interesting to some of you who may be going through the same difficult process.

Part 1: Power

They say that the one lesson from history is that no one learns anything from history. However, right now we have a future in front of us of being able to make decisions for ourselves. I cannot find a good reason to take a huge gamble in handing this power over to a distant government. The idea that power is never given, only taken comes to mind here. Although I do think there are some major problems with politicians, political system, and the way the media handle it in the UK, on the whole I do think that many politicians are trying to do good work under difficult constraints. However, I have a basic worry that the distance breeds complacency. I am unsure about others worries that Scotland may lose influence internationally. If we replace the ability to interfere in the middle east with a focus on the advancement of education of our own people, we will end up being able to exert global influence in much more effective ways (such as in solving many of the problems that cause wars in the first place).

I just mentioned that I felt Westminster politicians are generally speaking trying to do good work. The British political system is a somewhat archaic arrangement, which creates some  undesirable consequences and sometimes appears to reward the wrong behaviour among politicians. There have been repeated opportunities to change it, but these haven’t been taken. I fear that this will simply continue if we vote to hand our power over to a government in London.

Peoples across the ages right up to the present day have given their lives in a struggle to take their power back from distant government. All those people didn’t fight for nothing. In general, it’s because distant government just doesn’t act in their best interests. It is interested in the resources of the territory, rather than taking care of the people living on it. It’s almost unbelievable that we are being given the opportunity to take the decision without a single bullet fired. 

So why are the polls predicting that we will vote to reject home rule? Surely, it must be down to psychology?

Part 2: Psychology

Consider the scenario that we were voting for or against a union with a government in London if we had been an independent country for the past 300 years. Do you think we would vote for it? Surely, the very idea would be laughed at. Therefore, the psychology of the status quo must play a huge part in our decision making.

The current government is in severe danger from UKIP simply because of the very modest effects of European influence on our government. There is an irony that that they argue that the UK union should stay together. I also wonder how the English would vote in a referendum to move the seat of government to Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh.

Is the future status quo not an illusion? Obviously, it’s a leap of faith to vote for setting up a new government (not a country - we are already a country!). But surely it’s also obvious that it’s a huge leap of faith to enter a union with a country which has some frightening looming problems. I’m thinking here about us leaving Europe, spending vast quantities of money and lives on wars that don’t seem to have helped, killing off the NHS, failing to properly address the many issues that contribute to wellbeing of the population.

The status quo in our country is that the leading cause of death among male adults between 21-50 is suicide. I can’t see any reason to vote for a status quo where our children are more likely to wish to end their own lives in their prime than in years gone by. The status quo is not making us happy. I don’t feel that there is much to lose by letting go of risk aversion and voting to take another path.

Part 3: Wealth

Despite the fact that our current wealth (in a world perspective) has not made us happy, the data shows that the short term effects on our financial situation are most likely to swing voters decisions. There are two critical points about this.

Firstly, the predictions about whether we may be slightly better or slightly worse off are totally unreliable. On both sides, they are assumptions, based on assumptions. Economists are famous for being unable to agree on anything. And recent history certainly underlines the lack of ability to predict avoidable economic disasters. To vote based on predicted numbers truly is to take a gamble. 

Secondly, what is wealth? The most exciting piece of discussion I’ve heard in the mass media relating to the independence debate was back in May and wasn’t even being discussed in the context of independence. It’s well known that above a basic level, more money doesn’t mean more happiness and wellbeing. I’m simplifying and recommend some good reading that explores the complex picture. The media constantly encourages us to worry about GDP, despite the ever greater understanding that it doesn’t relate to quality of life. Back in 1968 Bobby Kennedy said GDP “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Although it doesn’t make such an easy headline for mass media, the social progress index has over recent years shed much more light on what is important. It puts GDP in it’s place as one among many factors we should be concerned about. The findings, and the league table of countries makes interesting reading. Note that the UK is a lot lower on the list than some other countries that have much in common with Scotland.

I’m not saying money isn’t important. But since the numbers war averages out at a few hundred quid either side of the recent past and it’s clear that this sort of difference has only limited effects on wellbeing (that may well be countered in other ways), it doesn’t seem right to take the gamble along these lines. Moreover, an Independent Scotland, even in tough times is likely to be more left leaning than the current government and pay closer attention to those with least opportunity. For these reasons, surely the best lines across which to thrash out a decision are cultural.

Part 4: Culture

Niall Ferguson (a conservative) described in 2012’s BBC Reith* lectures why countries prosper first and foremost from their institutions rather than simply their industries. He was referring to legal and educational institutions. In both of these fields, Scotland has institutions which are looked up to around the world. He also pointed out that the accumulation of national debt is now undermining democracy since successive generations inherit the debt without having voted to accumulate it. Whether you choose to love or hate the SNP, they have been clear about their intention and proposed methods to reverse the current direction of the UK of accumulating vast quantities of debt. Although our current austerity programme is reducing our national deficit, the debt is still rising.

Very few Scots seriously question whether we ‘could’ be independent. I would urge the few that do to have more confidence! So to decide whether we should, surely we should think about what would give us a greater sense of being part of a community, greater sense of purpose and a feeling that our voice as individuals or may be heard.

This aspect has been my strongest lever towards voting yes. We are already a country, in all but government. Completing that missing piece by deciding to govern ourselves would allow us to shape our circumstances to better reflect our needs. Sure, we have absorbed so much of culture from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. There is a McDonalds in every town. We eat full Scottish breakfasts, which are basically full English breakfasts plus Irn Bru. Etc. But it seems pretty clear to me that we are different from the rest of the UK. Suitably different to benefit from having a sovereign government. That was also the view of the UK's outgoing permanent representative to NATO, expressed while she was pointing out that NATO would have no reason to interrupt Scotland's membership.

Where England is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, Scotland is one of the least. Rather than worrying about the influx of foreign talent, we realise that we need it. Where England repeatedly votes for a Tory government with a far right chaser, we have always leaned a little more to the left.

I just don’t feel the government represents us. In fact, I don’t think we are even on their radar. The independence referendum neatly illustrates this. So many in England are barely even aware that the UK is a few points away from breaking up.

It ought to go without saying that I have no axe to grind against the UK. None whatsoever. I feel that the situation we are in is just human nature. We are a tiny part of the UK, population wise, with quite different needs and ideals. And so it has come about that we have been given the chance to represent ourselves, but remain connected in the wider European Union. At a very basic level, it makes sense. I still want to do business with, travel to and consume culture from the rest of the UK, just as I do from the the rest of Europe which I regularly spend time in and have friends in. 

I do feel that taking the step to independence will do Scotland a massive amount of good. If there is one piece of Scottish culture that I feel still exists and is not our best asset, it’s lack of confidence. I think that it will make it more focused, more flexible, and especially more confident. 

So I’m voting Yes.

*Footnote: John Reith, of Stonehaven, developed the concept of public service broadcasting for the education of the people and created the modern BBC as its first director general. I doubt he would have any confidence issues with the idea of establishing a Scottish broadcasting service. He admitted that he felt he had the skills to “manage any company”. He put his money where his mouth was.

Lots of films

This summer I have been involved in many films, both in front, and behind the camera. Here is the first of them. Land Rover made this little film about me which I guess focuses on how the decision not to leave any unspent effort on the table tends to help you go home with the route in the bag. It’s a difficult concept to explain in simple soundbites. But ultimately, you need to be in a place where desire to complete the climb simply overwhelms fear of failure, falling, and any other excuses to miss your opportunities.

Bit of a bottleneck

Bit of a bottleneck

“People ask me if I’m busy, I tell them, ‘I’m so busy I had two heart attacks’. They congratulate me on this achievement.”

Ruby Wax

Over the last ten years or so I have been fantastically lucky to have one great opportunity after another. Sometimes, they’ve come all at once and I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve made a real mess of dealing with that. I’ve been awful at choosing between good things, like a toddler in a toy shop. My general approach has just been to try and have it all. Understandable I hope, but still stupid.

I’m even more ashamed to admit that going at full pelt with no off button for so long has, at times, made me unhappy, although I mostly didn’t realise it. This is because life is not black and white. I love virtually all of the activities I do in my life. In fact I can’t get enough of them. So on one hand I’ve had numerous influences helping me to enjoy and make the most of life. However, two things have pulled in the other direction - injury, and over-working myself.

From day to day, doses of things such as training sessions are such a pleasure and a boost, and are enough to counter the negative effects of another night working until 2am. In the short term at least. But sooner or later, the cost of this is evident. And I’ve realised that sometimes this way of working has starved the golden goose. I ought to know better.

I could go into more detail on the problems I’ve created for myself, but they are not unusual to me, so there isn’t any need. The question is what am I going to do about it?

Just because you wake up and see the problem doesn’t make it go away. I don’t write to do lists on paper any more but they are still there in my head and I still want to do them. My first plan is to stop beating myself up about failure to achieve unachievable goals, or goals only achievable at huge costs elsewhere. I have proven to myself that I have the dubious ability to work myself to death for years on end. Sure this approach gets projects sent tomorrow. But I have also proved, as so many others do in the western world, that it soon kills you.

I’m determined to make a better job of focusing on the priorities, saying no, or later to the rest, and deciding not to beat myself up for not managing everything.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

New E7 at Wave Buttress

Starting up what was to become Final Wave E7/8 6b. Photos: Dorota Bankowska

Yesterday, after a rather damp day, a good dry breeze picked up. So I called Kev and half an hour later we were walking in to Wave Buttress. I had my pick of either trying to repeat his E7 Cu Sith, or trying a new one that I’d cleaned last time I was there.

With the breeze strongest on the new route, I chose that and finished cleaning it. I’d forgotten to bring a top with me and I actually got rather chilled as I cleaned the route in a good strong wind. Once I lowered down for a think about leading it, I started a comedy wobbly shivering fit. Right then, two of the world’s best trad mixed climbers, Guy Robertson and Greg Boswell came past. I tried not to look freezing cold on a June evening. 

The route started up a gnarly old E5 called Frantic Across the Atlantic, put up in 1987 by Mark McGowan. Mark is a pretty bold trad climber and even with the in-situ nut and peg (long since fallen out), the route is a full value old school E5. Near the top of the big slab it runs into a vertical arrier headwall and escapes left into the famous Crackattack (E3), leaving the obvious finish direct through the headwall unclimbed. I could see why. Where the peg was, there is now a collection of appauling gear I probably wouldn’t even lower off on, followed by a very thin, teetery move right that would be very easy to fall from. I wouldn’t like to think what would happen.

I knew I could do it if I was feeling confident. So my strategy was just to climb up the E5 part and see if everything was good inside my mind on arrival at the headwall and make a decision from there. At the last gear, I sort of laughed to myself. I didn’t feel any less apprehensive about committing to the crux. So the usual process took over - I just don’t like passing the opportunity to get the climb climbed. So without saying anything, I just swallowed hard and did it. What else can you do?

Cu Sith video

Kev came round to my place so I could help him capture the footage from his tape of his recent new E7 at Wave Buttress, Cù Sìth (pronounced Ku Shee, it’s Gaelic). I ended up cutting it into a wee clip which you can see below. Well done to Dot for filming with one hand and taking pictures with the other!

As you can see from the film, the climb has a lot of personal meaning for Kev. You can’t help but feel cheered by his obvious genuine ecstasy on topping out. It’s quite a big moment to realise you can still make good things happen after so much trouble with injury, and several years regaining fitness and confidence. Apart from that, simply completing a hard and dangerous route you’ve put a lot of work into is a fantastic and highly addictive feeling. 

If you’ve never tried projecting something really hard, this is a great advert for it. It has to be properly hard though - if you know it will go, eventually, it probably isn’t hard enough to take you on a real adventure of doubt. This film is about a guy with one hand and a fused ankle taking on an E7 first ascent. What would you have to take on to give an equivalent challenge? That would be quite something!

Going round Ruthven

Last autumn I extended Blair’s traverse of the Ruthven boulder, making a mega 40 metre F8b. But the challenge remained not to go up at the crux to the good line of holds, but to take on the full challenge of the tiny crimps and slopers below. I tried it for a few sessions last October, and two days before my ankle surgery, I got reasonably close to it. It was looking like an F8c or Font 8a+ standard piece of climbing.

I intended to go back this spring, but I built a climbing wall instead. So I just got round to it last weekend with Alicia, reworking the sequence and having a quick burn. I didn’t quite have the flow required to stay nice and fresh for the crux after 30m of F8b climbing.

But after another focused visit of getting it wired and having good training burns, the other night I managed to do it. You can see the video below - It’s a great trip with an intense crux after a lot of climbing. 

It was a little bittersweet leaving the boulder after the successful redpoint, knowing I have no projects here to come back for. I have done all of the problems here now and really enjoyed the location for it’s tranquility. Even the drive through the hills east of Loch Ness is very relaxing, especially on a Sunday listening to Crunluath on the radio after lunch at the caf. It’s also a handy place to dodge the Lochaber monsoon, and the midges.

Thankfully, the world is full of rocks to climb on. Pastures new!

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Wicked

Leading pitch 3 of The Wicked, E6 5b, 6b, 6b, 6b, 6b, Ben Nevis. Photo: Dave Cuthbertson/Cubby Images.

In 2000 and 2001, Gary Latter and Rick Campbell worked on a major new line on Carn Dearg Buttress of Ben Nevis. It took the obvious challenge of stepped grossly overhanging wall pitches, followed by the attractive wall left of the Bat corner pitch high on the buttress.  At the time it was by far the hardest rock climb on Ben Nevis, before much harder routes such as Anubis and then Echo Wall were put up in the years following.

They approached the climb ground up, cleaning the route on aid and then redpointing the pitches. However, they did not climb it in a single push, but rather climbed various pitches on different days (and years) by accessing them from the easier routes, eventually grading the route E6 and calling it The Wicked.

This left the obvious challenge of a first continuous ascent. It was a great challenge too, as the climb has four consecutive hard pitches. I had stood at the foot of it once before with Niall McNair several years ago, but it was wet. In fact, frequent wetness on the first two pitches seems to have helped maintain its unrepeated status for all this time. As far as I know noone else has climbed it.

I went up to the buttress with Donald King the other day with no particular plan. Since a period of fine weather had not long started, I expected to find The Wicked wet and we might go for the other mega E6 on the buttress, Trajan’s Column. But on arrival, the wet streaks didn’t look too bad, so we decided to go up for a look. Donald studiously avoided a few wet holds on the first pitch which was ok. But on closer acquaintance, the slab leading up to the first hard pitch looked pretty wet, and the start of the crux itself even worse.

I went up, expecting to quickly come back. At the overhangs, the holds above looked quite big so I wondered if I could just climb on through the wetness. I knew it would end up in a scrap, but who cares? It’s training. And, who likes starting up a route and not finishing it, ready excuses or not?

 I picked my way through the wet and sharp jugs in the roof and eventually managed to grab a flat jug over the lip. Looking down, there were no dry options for feet whatsoever. Hanging with my feet off, I felt under pressure to make a decision so opted for an overhead toe-hook behind a loose looking flake. This worked nicely to get a runner in and dry wet hands. But with one hand in my chalk bag, the block suddenly flew out, sending me swinging wildly with one point of contact. Instinct kept me on and there was no option but to go up, quickly. Below, Donald tried hard not to laugh. The holds beyond were manky, covered in thick lichen and the odd bit of wet moss. I pressed on trying to clean as I went, but totally pumped, I slid off onto the rope at the last move.

Eyeing up the final pitch of the lovely wall left of the Bat corner.

Why on earth didn’t I put the brush in my bag? A quick clean by rubbing the slopers with my hands sort of worked, and on the next attempt the pitch went down no problem. The next pitch was almost as bad, cleaning thick lichen off most of the holds while pumped, but at least I got up it onsight. The next was even worse and I slid out of licheny jams twice before giving it a good rub with my T-shirt and getting it done next go. The final 6b pitch up the lovely Bat corner wall looked immense. It looked a little less dirty too and I was determined to clean it on lead without resting on the rope. However, as I reached for the crucial crux crimp, my finger tips sank into a fluffy pile of moss which was saturated with water. Damn! Even that one needed a quick garden before releading it from the start.

All in all we got quite a workout. But we got to the top!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Come climbing for a day in the Dolomites

On October 19th I am at the International Mountain Summit in Bressasone/Brixen in the Dolomites. Gore-Tex are running a competition as part of their long running experience tour for myself and David Lama to take some of you guys climbing for the day on Oct 19th. Gore-Tex are paying the expenses to get to the Dolomites too!

If you like the sound of that, all you have to do is enter the competition here with a few clicks and a note about why you would like to come climbing with us, and then get yourself some votes on Facebook. See you in the Dolomites then...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The message and the story

I mentioned before I’d been doing some filming in front of camera. I was on the sea cliffs of Lewis and some footage of me throwing myself off Screaming Geo is now in a Land Rover ad which reached the TV screens of the UK last night. You can see it above.

I was aware I needed a bit of falling practice after the last proper trad fall I had ended in surgery. There is a short film about one of the other guys in the ad called Mike Goody (the blade runner) below, which is a really nice and honest film. Worth watching. It’s amazing how feeling a bit powerless can really creep in and affect you after an accident or injury. I must admit I’ve let that happen quite a lot at times over the past year and been in need of a bit of support (understatement) from friends to help me get through.

It’s not as black and white as just finding the will to be positive, as some sources of advice would suggest. You have to have something to be positive about. I.e. there has to be a plan, and knowing what that should be can be next to impossible when you are very injured. I reckon most folk can deal with adversity pretty well, and many can even take it in their stride. It’s the uncertainty that really hauls you over the coals. You aren’t sure if you are still going to be able to be the person you are and want to be any more.

Even the old Churchill saying about 'when you're going through hell, keep going' is a bit simplistic. Sometimes you just don't know where to go to leave your present predicament. I've definitely learned over the past year or two that good help and advice are critical. Without it you are vulnerable. Good friends and very very good doctors who share, or at the very least, truly understand your goals, are precious.

In the ad, everyone was saying 'I can'. It's true that 'I can' is the message it boils down to. But the wider story is 'with your help, I can'.