Sunday, 29 January 2012

Exposed Scrambling: Grading on a Curve

Some time ago I wrote a short post on the blurring of the line between hillwalking and mountaineering. That grey area is largely occupied by scrambling, which is defined by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland as: " amalgamation of walking and true rock climbing; it is the ascent of steep sections of mountains where hands have to be used as well as feet. It is often done ‘solo’, without the use of technical equipment used in climbing (ropes, harness and protection devices). This is mainly because scrambles are usually part of a longer walk on a ridge or rocky hillside, where speed of ascent is important as part of a long day. However, a scrambler will find him or her self in potentially serious situations, where a trip or stumble would mean a very long fall."

Scrambling grading is not an exact science and there is still disagreement about the precise definitions within the system first used by Steve Ashton in his 1980 book Scrambles in Snowdonia. However, the system most frequently used grades scrambles from 1 to 3S. Each are graded with stars to denote level of interest.

Grade 1: No special climbing skills are required, exposure is limited, route-finding is straightforward and any difficulties can usually be avoided.

Grade 2: There are longer, more difficult stretches of rock climbing requiring a degree of commitment - once undertaken there may be no way back. A rope may well be needed for safety or confidence on exposed sections. Route finding might be more difficult.

Grade 3: Commitment required as escape may be impossible and the harder sections unavoidable. Rope usually required for exposed sections of rock climbing or steep grass where a slip could be fatal. Experience is required.

Grade 3S: Particularly serious and only be undertaken by very experienced scramblers. Exposed passages on steep rock or poor vegetation. Inevitably involves rock climbing and mountaineering skills with the use of rope and other climbing equipment for passage on key areas. Escape is impossible and probably only by means of an abseil.

Most scrambles do not encounter vertical or overhanging ground, a staple of rock climbing, but the hands are vital for support and to negotiate rocky steps. A rucksack, even a UL set-up, will mean a good sense of balance. More challenging and technically difficult scrambles will encounter steeper rocky steps and upper body and arm strength becomes more important. Indeed, when the scrambling becomes more ‘technical’ (you have to look harder for holds; there are less large footholds) then you will be entering the world of ‘graded’ rock climbing, albeit with graded climbing moves no more than those termed ‘Moderate’.

In order to get to grips with scrambling, we went with our alpine guide Nigel Shepherd up to Idwal Slabs and Tryfan in early December last year. I wrote a piece on this for the January 2012 issue of Trek and Mountain magazine so wanted to wait until it was on sale until I posted on the two days of, literally, steep learning. So here it is.

As the rain comes down in a malevolent, horizontal sheets I wonder, not for the first time, what possessed me to be tied to the end of a rope, desperately feeling for a secure foothold on a ledge smaller than my little toe. No other recourse exists - each and every rock is slathered in greasy wet treachery and there is no prospect of any purchase. My only option for upward movement would not balance a 10p piece. And when my partner yells down for me to hold on whilst he checks the direct belay above me, I am left suspended, my fingers curled around a tiny fingerhold and the edge of my boot, precariously balanced, holding my weight. Above me is the lion’s share of the Direct Approach to Senior’s Ridge, the route often used by climbers to descend the Idwal Slabs in Cwm Idwal. When ascending, it is a Grade 2 scrambling route. It is day one of the two day tutorial I have arranged with BMG/IFMGA Guide, Nigel Shepherd.

That morning, after a quick check of clothing and equipment over a cooked breakfast, we had begun with a walk-in to Devil’s Kitchen, at the base of the Idwal Slabs. As we arrive, I find myself gazing down at froth-tipped waves caused by the squally wind on Llyn Idwal. A fine spray of drizzle blurs the landscape. We pull on harnesses and tie in with a rewoven figure of eight and stopper knot. Nigel begins to describe the crossover between climbing and scrambling, as well as the  fundamental and crucial differences. Climbing is a much slower process, he explains. Each section of climbing - the pitch - is protected if at all possible. Technical equipment and anchors are almost always used. Scrambling is not intended to require protection in the same way - it is a faster, more fluid process where direct belays are identified quickly and are much more ad hoc. It has more in common with alpinism than with climbing, he says. Protecting every part with the traditional tools of the rock climber would take far too long. Flexibility is key.

He begins to demonstrate various direct belay techniques which don’t utilise technical equipment  at all - the shoulder belay and the waist belay. Both are used to recover a slip on less steep ground. Neither, without more, would hold a fall. Nor would you want to be using them repeatedly on a membrane shell jacket - the fabric would melt from the friction. Far better is a direct belay achieved by wrapping the rope around a rock. Test the rock first, he admonishes repeatedly. You need to be absolutely sure it is safe - there will be a lot of weight on it and a mistake would be disastrous. As I lean backwards on a shallow slope until the rope is taking all of my weight my partner verifies that, with the friction created by the rope around the rock, he can hold me with just two fingers. Whether the belayer himself needs to be anchored to the rock largely depends on the exposure or safety of the belay position. Understanding the crucial role friction plays in a direct belay like this is essential. In fact, wrapping the rope around a flake of rock is the quickest way to offer a climber quite effective protection. Perhaps the most essential skill we learn is taking in the live rope without every taking a hand off the dead rope which holds the weight. It requires a mechanical, metronomic mindset I do not possess and I have to keep practicing until it becomes second-nature.

Nigel pulls out some curious items from his rack - they look like metal nuts on the end of long, thin pieces of wire. I have seen them before and to me they represent the arcane world of real climbing, a world I do not yet understand. They are called ‘rocks-on-wire’ and are placed in small cracks to create an anchor. A quick-draw (two snap-link carabiners attached together with a length of dyneema tape) is attached to the wire and the rope goes through the free carabiner. These can be runners, Nigel explains, or anchors at a belay. It is all about finding ways to anchor yourself to the mountain to protect a pitch.

When the time comes to begin the day’s scrambling, we head off to the base of the chimney which marks our route to Senior’s Ridge and Glyder Fawr. Nigel climbs first, showing us how to look for footholds and handholds. Take your time and keep calm, he warns. Look around you and test each hold; don’t rush. Easily said, I muse silently. I am first up and I begin to assess the wet, greasy rock. Eventually, I find a tiny shelf on which to place the inside edge of my boot and a spur above it to get my fingers around. I push upwards and grasp my identified handhold. I half expect it to come away from the mountainside but it is secure. I search again, this time for a place to position my left boot and for another handhold for my right hand. Slowly, but surely, I begin to find a rhythm for the short pitch and I am up. Look for a direct belay for your partner, Nigel tells me. I retrieve a sling, flake it around a small rocky prism and attach an HMS carabiner. I take in my partner’s rope until he shout’s “that’s me” and then tie an Italian Hitch into the carabiner. As he climbs, I take in the rope knowing, or hoping rather, that should he slip, the Italian Hitch will hold his fall. Knots are all about friction too and the laws of physics have my respect. When my partner reaches me, Nigel tells him: assess the position - can you stand without anchoring yourself, or do you need to clip into the anchor created by the sling? If you are not sure, either clip in using a carabiner or, more preferably, a clove hitch on your own end of the rope, leaving enough room from where you are tied in to move and still be safe.

After two more pitches, identifying direct belay opportunities and protecting each other’s ascents, we stop for lunch not far from Senior’s Ridge. The rain has become ever more aggressive and we suspect that, once we are able to assess the weather above us, our plan to quickly bag Glyder Fawr may well be scuppered. After another short, wet climb, we reach level ground and stare upwards, watching the cloud sweep across the ridgeline: the wind on Glyder Fawr is savage. This is another essential skill in hillwalking which is thrown into particularly stark relief when scrambling - assess the weather constantly. We skirt round to see if it gets any better but dusky clouds mean the light is failing too. 

Nigel decides to head for he Gribin Facet instead, where we will rehearse abseil skills. I have abseiled before so this is not new, but the weather adds a new dimension to the cauldron of learning. The first step is to lower each other down a short, craggy drop - having confidence in partner and friction whilst the rope takes your weight entirely. The rock is so wet and smooth there is no other way to descend. We find a suitable rock around which to flake the rope. My partner lowers me from his position at the top after which I pull the rope down to me. Using the same direct belay, I take his weight and slowly feed the rope through in order to lower him down to my ledge. It is entirely counter-intuitive but abseil techniques require trust in the belay and moving past your fear. Controlling the dead rope is, in fact, quite easy. Our abseil route proper is nearby and Nigel sets up an abseil anchor. Feeding the rope through a belay device clipped into my partner’s harness, he is ready to go.

He abseils first, knocking off the 30m in double quick time. I am rather more ungainly but also get down safely. The rain is heavy now, and Nigel joins us, eager to get home and warm. An RAF Tornado uses the valley walls for low-flying practice and we are actually above it. It is the end of the first day and we are tired but happy. Steaming tea beckons.

Day two takes us up Tryfan via the Nor Nor Buttress. It is a Grade 3 route. The weather is good - for the first time in a long time, the sun breaches the cloud and it is a fresh, cool day. As we stroll along the Heather Terrace, I realise the wet, greasy rock of yesterday has not been much affected by the sun. When we start scrambling, I will still need to be extremely cautious in foot placement.

We pull on harnesses and tie in, before taking in some coils. The initial moves will be tricky. My partner leads whilst Nigel watches. The exposure is far greater than it was yesterday, even at this early stage of the route. We are already around 700m up on the sheer east face of Tryfan. The valley below looks staggeringly far away. The buttress of the Nor Nor groove is a very different proposition to yesterday’s route and I feel acutely that this is not a game. Every single foothold is meticulously sought, each handhold gripped with the strength of a miser holding onto his coin. As my partner reaches the top of the short pitch, he takes out a sling and places it over a flake of rock before protecting my ascent. 

As I see what the next stage requires, my eyes grow wide in astonishment. The crag above us, jutting out impossibly from the mountainside, is cursed with vertical drops from it on all sides and seems to have little in the way of foot or handhold. It is not quite smooth, but the shallow ribs across it will hardly take a boot. My partner shrugs to me and slowly follows Nigel up the slab. I watch assiduously to see where he places his feet and hands, and run the route through in my head. Eventually, there is protection set up again for me and I begin to climb. In fact, I am able to find better purchase than I expected - the friction on my boot, pressing down as much of the rubber sole into the rock as I can (‘smearing’), is good enough. Momentum carries me forward and I reach the end of the pitch. I risk a glance down and realise just how exposed the section was. Nigel is full of smiles - he’s loving this.

The next pitch has far more in the way of handholds, but I have to use another technique where I actually find my huge feet are a boon - the ‘boot jam’. Wedging my boot in a crack in between rock, I am able to use this in lieu of a ledge on which to place my boot. I take care not to get my boot stuck and head upwards. On occasion I need to use knee and shin for stability - not recommended. They are bruised and battered as I write this. The wind is limited today - were it not, this would be an almost impossible route.

In fact, this is exactly how the rest of the Nor Nor buttress continues. Exposed, steep pitches which we protect with rocks-on-wire wedged into cracks, slings and Italian Hitches or simply rope wrapped around rock. We move swiftly but carefully, protecting where we can, always under Nigel’s watchful eye. Once we reach the top of the buttress, below the north ridge of Tryfan, we eat, before stowing the rope and scrambling the rest of this classic ogre without protection. I don’t jump from Adam to Eve - I feel I’ve ridden my luck for the day already.

Reading to gain a basic understanding of the principles is advisable and some good beginner and intermediate texts are:
Shepherd, The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques, Frances Lincoln 2007
Adby and Johnson, Hillwalkers Guide to Mountaineering, Cicerone 2003

And below is an Amazon Associates affiliate link to purchase the books I suggest you might want to read. I get paid a few pennies if you buy any these books through this link - if you liked the post, it's a great way to show you care and you get a great book too!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

2011 Gear Reflections: Six of the Best

In 2011 I took a different path in my outdoor pursuits as I went higher and harder than usual. It was a learning experience as much in respect of new types of gear as new skills and new environments. My Six of the Best reflect that.

The Rab Vapour-Rise Pull-On
No longer produced by Rab, there are several garments now which offer specialist subsets of what I have been using the Rab V-R Pull-On for. I think it's a shame that Rab no longer seem to be making the basic half-zip Pull-On, but with the V-R Stretch, V-R Lite, V-R Lite Tour and the V-R Jacket, you have the items covering the range within which the V-R Pull-On sits. I feel the V-R Pull-On has more versatility than these more specialised items. Only the Stretch comes in a half-zip, but if you are not looking to get a tight-fitting top, it seems like you must settle for a full-zip jacket instead but there are many versions to choose from - all of varying weights and roles.

I have analysed the V-R Pull-On already and waxed lyrical about it for much of this year, in particular when I took it into the Brecon Beacons and to the Alps. For a start, that will give you a sense of the versatility and comfort I attribute to this top. It can be used as a base layer, a mid-layer, or an outer layer. It is warm, wind-resistant, water resistant, well-made and cut for a multitude of activities. It is pleasant to wear both in terms of comfort and effectiveness - by which I mean it is durable, moves with me whatever I am doing, vents and breathes reasonably well, stays silent when I am moving, which other outer windshells do not, and is not overburdened with pointless features.

It dries reasonably quickly when wet, and remains effective, even when the pertex equilibrium outer shell is damp. It is heavy at around 550g but most layers which are meant to be outer layers as well as warm mid-layers are relatively heavy. If you're wearing it a lot, this doesn't matter quite so much, but if you're likely to be carrying it around (and consequently not using it that often), then you should really be looking for something lighter - a part-time layer should really be down or primaloft in any event rather than this as the V-R is meant to be used regularly in many different environment. Where it excels is adaptable, multi-activity use. It has been perhaps the single most effective and loved piece of kit of the last year.

2011 was my first experience of Grivel kit and I cannot really separate the Grivel G12 Airtech Newmatic crampons and the Grivel Airtech Evolution Ice Axe in terms of their usefulness to me. They fall into the category I have sardonically dubbed 'heavy metal' this last year and they come as a pair for me. I cannot envisage taking one without the other so I list them together. They are relatively lightweight for their role, albeit you will certainly find lighter, but when climbing in wintry Scotland, winter hillwalking in the Lakes or mountaineering in an alpine environment, they perform exactly as required and don't weigh the earth.  The Evo is a  particularly versatile piolet. You could climb Scottish Winter Grade I gullies with it, take in a winter ridge-line with it and engage in alpine mountaineering with it. You might have a single, separate axe for each of those activities, or you could take the Evo on all of them and be comfortable with an axe you know and love in your hand.That's why I like it.

I envisage more alpinism and mountaineering in 2012 and I cannot think of a single reason why I would depart from Grivel's pairing of G12's and the Evo.

OMM Cypher Smock
The outer shell layer is one of the more hotly discussed layers. It is the layer most likely to sit at the forefront of the mind when considering essential kit for any outdoor activity, particularly in the UK. Getting it right is not easy, particularly if you engage in a variety of activities throughout the year. The OMM Cypher is not the first shell layer I have used in the last few years - of course not - but it is by far and away the best for my pursuits. I am looking for an extremely lightweight smock, bereft of pointless features, with full 3-layer membrane fabric not some proprietary 2-layer derivative - preferably eVent - which keeps out weather and breathes well, that packs down small and will sit in the bottom of my rucksack until it's needed and then shrug on in seconds. It should cover whatever needs covering whilst still retaining an athletic-cut so it does not flap about when I am on a belay and trying to get my DSLR out, whilst wondering what the hell I am doing up this mountain, in this weather, for the umpteenth time that day. The Cypher is all of those things. At 260g, there is little chance of 3-layer eVent getting much lighter and I know that even in really crap weather, it does the job I want it to do. I don't know that I am carrying it and it's significantly lighter than my old Haglöfs LIM Ozone (c.120g) and packs down smaller. I like the thumb-loops which mean I can be assured sleeves won't ride up whilst I am scrambling, and over which I can put gloves to create a seal around my wrist. It's durable enough to take a rucksack, and to scramble over rock. All in all - I cannot see my using anything else after March and before December. In those months, something else takes centre stage...

Páramo Aspira
Again, I am going to daub Páramo with a broad brush and include the two Páramo items I used this year as one - the Aspira Smock and the Aspira Salopettes. In winter, there is no chance I will use anything else. I place a single layer beneath the Smock - either the Patagonia R1 Hoody or the Rab Powerstretch, and that will keep me warm, particularly when moving, in a Scottish winter climb or hillwalk. Much has been said about Páramo and I wrote a guest post for Philip Werner's Section Hiker site earlier in the year, so I do not intend to review either here - that's not the purpose of this post. What I will say is that this system is warm, kept me dry, breathed well when I was undertaking really hard, physical exertion (and confronting fear), and is rather lovely to wear. It's heavy, mind-you, far more so than a membrane layer, but when climbing in winter, with wet rope rubbing against your shell layer, I don't think membrane is the layer to be wearing anyway. This is the one occasion where having a few pockets can be useful, although this smock has pockets I still don't know about and features you need to be a theoretical physicist to understand and use. I despair, but I still love it and, although it is not the quickest to dry, the interior is comfortable enough after a frozen night's wild camp to shrug on over a winter base/mid-layer or, if you prefer, a combination of the two. I like the fact it is more pleasant to wear than a membrane layer and the cut, again, suits a wide variety of activities. I have chosen to go with a size too small to make it more athletic a cut still but that's because I have only one base layer beneath it and any insulation layer I want will be shrugged on over the top of it (a Rab Generator vest or Páramo Torres gilet, most likely).

The salopettes might as well be made of steel - I have sat in snow bucket seats and remained warm, dragged them across sharp rock and they have been recalcitrant and walked through a deluge of wet and cold precipitation and only been damp at my calves because of Gore-Tex gaiters pressing against them, compressing the pump liner. Páramo gaiters don't prevent this either, so I am getting mid-level gaiters for the alps and winter climbing - the Rab Latok Mid, which will change that. The only criticism is the press-stud sides which easily come undone and venting is virtually impossible once a jacket or smock is on without undoing your smock. Forethought is needed to use these garments when synchronised and I feel that Páramo could address than by changing the zips to two zips and permitting venting around the thigh without having to unzip from the ribcage. Nevertheless, they are superb together.

Mountain Equipment Liskamm Pant
For vertical endeavours, a breathable, weather resistant, close-fitting, stretchy, fully articulated pant that is hardwearing on both the knee and seat is essential. Tall order, in reality, for a single garment to fulfil all of that and be reasonably priced. Well, the Liskamm does not deliver on every front - it's obscenely expensive at £160 or so. However, if you do shell out that sort of money, you get exactly what you need in an alpine pant. The ankle area has gaiters built-in to protect against crampon damage and the fit is sublime. For all sorts of climbing and scrambling moves, I have contorted my body into angles I would wince at but not once have I been restricted in my movement by the Liskamm pant. I wore them in very warm conditions, very cold conditions, wet conditions, windy conditions - they were comfortable in each and every one. This really is an excellent all-round mountain pant. I wore them in huts as my evening 'slobbing' pants as well - that's just how comfortable they are.

MacBook Air 11"
Ok, ok. This is not an outdoor piece of kit, I acknowledge that, but there are two good reasons for including it as my last piece of kit to be considered influential in my outdoor pursuits in 2011. I am a writer and, combining this with my current profession, in my down time, means I need to be able to carry a laptop around with me all the time. The MacBook Air 11" weighs 1.03kg. It fits snugly in my rucksack's padded laptop sleeve and I hardly realise it's there. It boots up in 21 seconds, and that includes the time it takes to tap in my password. It shuts down in 3 seconds. If you close the lid, it sleeps so efficiently, the battery power used is negligible. It is faster than a normal MacBook as a consequence of the flash memory. Everything I need is on it. This item facilitates my writing, and has done since I bought it, more than any other single item. And my writing facilitates me being outdoors as much as anything else. We spend time outdoors for all sorts of reasons but whatever mine are, and they are personal to me, writing about them afterwards, either professionally or for the simple amusement of others, enhances and entrenches those personal reasons. It also enables me to research and plan, whenever I want, the trips I am taking. Without it, my life would be harder and, for that reason alone, it deserves its place here.

So there you have it, a 2011 which forced me to learn a lot about myself, what I want to do with my life, and my outdoor pursuits, and the kit I need to facilitate those aspirations. Quite a bit failed this year, or simply met expectations rather than exceeding them. I used trail runners for the first time and enjoyed it, but I cannot say that it was a revelation. My OMM Villain, so long a constant companion, simply was not comfortable enough in the Alps in the 8-10kg bracket (my kit plus rope). The Hilleberg Akto was an astounding failure - too heavy, too much condensation, and too low. I used it for two nights and off it went. 

All in all, a good year for kit, but I suspect 2012 will be a year of consolidation. Attitudes are changing and I am no exception. There are other things I will be focusing on and new kit is not one of them. I have what I need now and, unless I am asked to test kit as I have been for 18 months now, I am unlikely to be buying much new. 

A Brave New World, then.