South Avellano Tower

South Avellano Tower

Saturday, 25 October 2014

This Changes Everything

The North Face of the South Avellano Tower viewed from the base of the 'Tooth'
In January 20014 John and I were hunkered down in El Chalten. We sat despondent, yet another weather window collapsing before our eyes. The proceeding week of hectic planning, training and getting excited seemed nothing but a cruel joke.

We cracked and took Jim up on his talk of Northern Patagonia and booked bus tickets.

Jim has had a house on the shores of Lago General Carrera for several years and has used it for a base to explore the mountains surrounding the lake and the edges of the Northern Patagonian Ice Cap. Information online was limited. There were a few trip reports, Cerro Choss, The Avellano Towers and Mt St Valentine but all were very vague.

It sounded like an adventure, something totally different far from the Cerro Torre circus.

We took a punt on Jim’s talk of ‘interesting’ objectives and Jim delivered.

In a weeklong spell of immaculate weather we walked into the Avellano Towers. Jim Donini assured us it was a short six hour walk to a basecamp by a lake. We followed as he led up out of the town of Bahia Murta and into the mountains. There must have been something wrong with our watches, as it seemed to take at least ten hours.

To kick things off Jim, John and I climbed the tooth. This shapely summit had previously repelled Jim in 2007 so it was good to see him settling old scores. From the top of this we gazed upon the face of the 'South Avellano Tower'.

This was the largest unclimbed feature I'd ever seen, un-climbed but not un-climbable. From our vantage, our eerie on the summit of the tooth features were visible. Huge dihedrals and ramp lines led the eye upwards. There were even some snow patches so we could make do with just taking a jet boil. Enthusiasm boiled over trumping reality and sensible decision-making.

After a 2 am alpine start we descended the couloir to the base of the wall. We managed to locate the base of our intended route in the nick of time prior to the wall falling into the moon shadow of the range. Congratulating ourselves John set off. In the pool of torchlight at the base I immediately noted Johns progress was slow. He inched up the big corner.

At 12 pm we had climbed three hundred meters. This sounds impressive, three hundred meters of new route up a thousand meter face. Gaining the top in two days was totally achievable. The problem was that our three hundred meters of climbing involved three faltering starts followed by abseils, several diagonal traverses and a short section of down climbing. We were possibly only fifty meters higher than we started.

Reality kicked in, we had climbed fifty vertical meters in six hours. There were another nine hundred and fifty meters to go, even my mental arithmetic told me we needed hundred and fourteen hours to gain the top. Convincing John however to bail was the hardest battle yet but in the end he also conceded that the chances of us gaining the top before starving to death were remote.

A highly forshortened view of the South Avellano Tower from below
It took one and a half abseils to gain the base so we might have made the top in only 60 hours of continuous climbing. Who knows.

Sitting at the base looking up at the wall in the afternoon sun I knew one thing. This unfinished business changed everything.

You just cannot leave unclimbed big walls made of impeccable granite lying around. They get inside you. They challenge you. I was coming back.

Screw commitments; I've an appointment in December.

David Brown hanging out at the bivi spot in the col with the approach from Bahia Murta visible in the background

Jim Donini accending the final pitch of the 'Tooth' with the Avellano valey below

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Crown Jewels

In February, John Crook, Jim Donini, Angela Goodacre, and I spent a week in the Avellano Mountains of Chile. This area is near the northern Patagonian Ice Cap and northeast of the shores of Lake General Carrera. We focused our attention on the Avellano Towers, an area of granite spires at the head of the Avellano River. The lack of accurate mapping, coupled with various approaches to the towers, have led to fragmented descriptions of the region.

John Crook cramponing up on the approach to the 'Crown Jewels'
Our group approached from the small town of Bahia Murta, using the approach employed by John Bragg, Wes Bunch, Angela Hawse, and Brenton Regan in 2005, and used again by Jim Donini and Thom Engelbach in 2008. This approach leads to a valley west of these striking granite peaks. [See AAJ 2008 for Jim Donini’s description of this approach and climbing. See AAJ 2004 and AAJ 2006 for other established climbs.] After establishing a base camp between two lakes below the spires, we climbed to a bivy site in a col south of the smaller, tooth-shaped tower to the south of Avenali Tower, aptly nicknamed the Tooth.

The following day we climbed the east ridge of the Tooth. This tower had previously been climbed, as we found abseil tat on the summit, but due to the lack of written evidence it’s suspected that this prior ascent was via easy, broken terrain to the north. There was no evidence of any ascent on the route we’ve called Tooth Arête (300m, 5.10). After descending we bivied again at the col.

The next day John Crook and I set out to climb the east ridge of the tower just north of Avenali Tower and south of a summit assumed to have been climbed by Dave Anderson and party (AAJ 2004). We first gained the hanging glacier below the towers by dropping from the col between the Tooth and Avenali Tower, then crossed under the northeast face of Avenali Tower before gaining the east ridge of the unnamed tower just to its north.

Jim Donini and David Brown on the summit of the 'Tooth' with Avenali Tower and the Crown Tower in the background
The ridge was easy for several hundred meters until it narrowed to form a classic knife-edge. Several steep pitches (up to 5.11-) allowed access to the upper portion of the ridge. From here we made progress up steep ground (5.10) to gain one of the twin summits of this tower. The climb took approximately 10 hours from the bivy. We descended the ridge, which took seven hours and involved a complex mixture of abseiling and downclimbing. Fortunately the upper section was descended in the daylight with no significant rope tangle issues.

This was a high-quality route, ascending mostly very good granite to a fantastically sharp and pointy summit. We called the formation Crown Tower and the climb Crown Jewels (800m, 5.11-).

In addition, John Crook scrambled to the top of the two highest summits (both 5.6) south of the Tooth; the left of these had some abseil cord indicating a prior ascent while the right-hand one did not.

David Brown high on the Crown Tower

Anotated aerial photograph of the Avellano Towers taken from the south east

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Actual Rock Climbing

Weather wise the 2013/2014 season is not like the preceding few by most accounts. Few rock routes have been climbed due to short variable weather windows preceded by generally heavy snowfall. General mountaineering, mixed climbing and ice objectives have been going down but less so the rock routes.

As I eyed up the meteorgram I was optimistic enough to suggest rock climbing. Actual rock climbing with rock shoes and bare hands. Elemental contact with the Patagonian granite. A heady feeling comes over one in the days prior to a Patagonian Weather Window. Anything is possible.

I teamed up with Drew, an American down from Colorado who also had tired of axes, crampons and snowy faffing. We egged each other on and generally shot our mouths off across town. We were going to climb the Pillar Goretta on Fitzroy, Hell we were going to traverse Guillaumet and Mermoz to get there to save us having to walk through snow.

Inevitably after we had told everyone we knew the weather window deteriorated and a sheepish "morning after" feeling crept in. Had we really said the things we said? We walked in not to climb the Pillar Goretta but just "to have a look".

The walk of shame.

We walked past Piedra Negra. To maintain some dignity we were still aiming to bivy at the base of the Pillar Goretta to "see how it looked in the morning" and had accordingly only brought one sleeping bag with the 1.5 person Patagonian special modification. This simply consisted of a triangle of fabric to be zipped into the bag. Instant intimate comfort assured. Arriving in the early afternoon we were on time but the sight of the rime plastering the top third of Marmoz stopped us firmly in our tracks. This indicated that basically the entire pillar would be rimed up.

Reality was firmly kicking us in the face by now so we retreated to Piedra Negra and the tent Drew had stashed there. Here we pondered the ridiculousness of sharing a sleeping bag in the most accessible bivy spot in the mountain range. Lets just save ourselves blushes and spare the details. We both took turns at being big spoon and their was certainly not enough room for us to both lay on our backs at once!

Dawn saw us commit to climbing the Comesana-Fonrouge up the Northwest Ridge of Guillaumet. In an attempt to preserve some dignity we tacked on the Giordani "sit start" and we had an amazing climb. Sunshine, rockshoes, bare hands and actual climbing moves on amazing Patagonian granite. Due to our comparatively late start (to give the day time to warm up) we saw none of the hundred thousand people who climbed the ice and mixed routes on the east face that day topping out in solitude at 6 pm to a tempestuous sky and snow moving in.

Walking back down the glassier by moonlight with head torches not required was a privilege.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Arguably the best route on the Old Man of Hoy

Photo courtesy of Adam Long

James, guardian of the Burnmouth Bothy in Ratwick, probably has the best idea of anyone of how many teams a year climb the Old Man of Hoy. His estimate is one hundred and fifty per year. Of these we mused, how many were by the Original Route? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? Ninety five percent?

As we peered upwards into the mist enshrouded heights of the rock tower we knew one thing; there were five people climbing the original route and none on the GMB West Face route. Congratulating ourselves on our originality we gently mock the numpty cluster fuck taking place around the corner. Assuredly we tease in a couple of optimistic wires as a ‘belay’. I settle back to watch Reeve dispatch the first 5c pitch. Half-jokingly I suggest we might beat the other teams to the top.

Twenty minutes of total failure later we were again both still stood on the starting ledges. Damp, sand generating slopers, indifferent gear and fragile footholds with a propensity to crumble had defeated all upwards progress at a height of less than five metres. Daunted we swapped lead; additional RP’s were nestled into cracks, holds rigorously brushed and good jams on the lip of the overhang gained. Having stuffed the break with the largest cams I ran it out to the belay. Confidence slightly knocked we muttered something about there being no point in retreating yet and continued on.

Over the next few hours we both, backed off, traversed off, prevaricated and split pitches at additional belays. The guide description quickly became mere optimistic guidance.

Struggling to progress upwards I forced a wafer thin traverse in desperation. A unique crouching experience, stooped below an overhang, smearing sandy foot holds and pinching a horizontal wafer thin flake. Walking never felt so exposed and gear never felt so far away. Had this been included in the original ascent I’m sure it would have had a prominent write up.

We quickly realised our double set of wires were nothing but ballast whilst our double set of cams were woefully inadequate. As we climbed higher it became clear that bailing off this route was going to be a costly exercise.  I favoured building a good belay, tying both our ropes together and worrying about the consequences tomorrow whilst Reeve was eyeing up a diagonal abseil across the North Face to the sanctuary of easy ground. As both of these plans seemed worse than continuing upwards we kept going. The forth pitch stretched on forever with its thirty five metres (really?) eventually broken down into three pitches with us finally gaining the terrace thirty metres below the summit at about eight pm. A mere half hour prior to sun set. We used the terrace to bail onto easy ground, topping out in time to watch the sun set. As we descended into the gathering darkness we agreed that tomorrow we would return to finish it off.

Needless to say there was no sign of the party of five.

Another late start saw us looking down from the landward cliff top behind the old man. A slow moving team on the first pitch of the original route filled us with horror. Our plan of blasting up the trade route and abbing into the final (crux) pitch of the GMB looked optimistic. Luckily they headed left up the South Face in a shower of loose holds and fulmar vomit, leaving the way clear. One pitch of overhanging offwidth, two pitches of ledge shuffling and one good corner led to the top. We abseiled and traversed into position below the final thirty metre, overhanging corner system, of the GMB. At this point I declared that having led the lion’s share of the lower section it was only fair to let Reeve have first refusal. He almost bit my hand off.

This last pitch was epic in position and quality. The final capping buttress overhung the North West arête and the climbing was steep and athletic with enough gear to provide comfort but long enough run-outs to focus the mind. A section of wafer thin flakes added spice with the specialty being good breaks with a subsidiary fragile flake above. This left one with no option but to trust the fragile higher surface. When weighted these often held for a while before dropping you, unexpectedly half a centimetre lower onto the solid hold below. Logic flew out the window on these occasions and I’m sure I heard whimpering floating down from above along with the sandy debris.

This time we topped out with plenty of time to enjoy the summit. Three tops in two days seemed quite good going.

Having only climbed the West Face GMB route and the East Face Original route I’m possibly not in a position to argue that the GMB is the best route up the Old Man but I do know that if I head back again I’m taking less wires, a triple rack of cams and going for the one-day speed ascent. Although as Dave Turnball always insists, the best thing to take on routes like this is John Arran.

Monday, 3 September 2012

I'm bigtime

I'm bigtime

Chasing an indian summer or post monsoon season window of climbing opportunity plans were made for the South West.

Targets hatched. An unstoppable team assembled. Routes quite literally crumbled before us.

Staggering under the weight of a million small wires, a rigging rope, 100 meters of static, two 8mm half ropes and other gear we gained the top of Dyres Lookout.

I was psyched. This feature was epic, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Walk of Life and The Earth Sea Trilogy part 1. All amazing lines. All climbable by the strong and the talented. The Earth Sea Trilogy possibly climbable by me.

I was going to stack the odds in my favour. The new job and house renovation had led to the quietest spell in my climbing since 2003 so I needed all the help I could get. I abseiled in for a quick look.

Don't be mistaken. I was ticking holds, ticking gear placements, pulling on and trying moves. Onsite this was not. I unlocked moves downwards, penduling  across the slab to clip directional runners then nothing.......

Blank rock. I pondered. This looked hard and bold. I swung across to the walk of life for a comparison, it had holds and gear. Swinging back I continued downwards passing a hold. I pulled on and the hold came off. Then I got to the bottom third, there was holds and gear a plenty. It looked piss. Reeve and I sat at the bottom comparing topo photos and route descriptions.

The middle had fallen down. The Earth Sea Trilogy part 1 was no more.

In consolation next time someone asks:

"So you go climbing do you?"

"er yes"

"do you go abseiling as well?"

"hell yes, I've abseiled the hardest trad route in the country, I'm bigtime."

Monday, 24 October 2011

Ten years later

I cadged a light off the group sitting under Fandago wall. As we huddled into the strip of dry we caressed the crimps whilst talking bollocks. Someone mentioned they were moving to Bangor in a couple of months, my ears perked up.

“So am I”

A short blond lad, eyebrows almost as fair as his face was leering at me. We’ll have to climb some stuff then.

The uni club seemed like a waste of time. We met under the SU in the drizzle. Gortex clad wanabies milled whilst veterans of a year at university tried it on at being in charge. I’d seen the Orme in the sun from my halls so was unimpressed with their plan of a walk in the rain.

“fuck this shit”

An hour or so later we were cranking out our first 7a’s at LPT. Alex could crimp like a fucking lunatic and I just tried hard.

We rampaged. Library tours were sacked off and seminars missed. We had next to no gear and no fucking idea. At first we fell off eight meters up everything we tried, the height of Harrison’s Rocks. We climbed the corner of the Cromlech placing about five runners as we only had five quickdraws. We thought we were bigtime.

We knew though that Slate was where it was at. We were unfit and even thought the walk in to the Serengeti was a long way but we could both pull on tiny holds. We moved from shitting ourselves on E1s to shitting ourselves on E4s. We failed to notice the accumulating near misses. Ground sweeping falls on the Never Never Land slab, decking gently with an unzipped rack and a general lack of judgement. I had been raised on a diet of Hard Grit, Deep Play & tales of the Redhead. I thought the reason I fell off was because it was too safe and I did not care enough.

If Slate was where it was at, Rainbow Slab was the main deal. We had climbed the easy routes but knew the real deal were the proper routes. Raped By Affection, Cystitis by Proxy & Naked Before the Beast.

Poetry Pink looked like the soft option. Reputably it was safe where hard, and easy where dangerous, and if equipped with Linford Christy on belay, not too bad. (I suppose now, one would rather Usain Bolt)

I left the ground with a few quickdraws and a handful of wires. I pissed the opening slab to a faint break. Sacking off the potential gear I shook out, buoyed up by the adrenaline displacing the traces of hangover. Further moves gained the first bolt. Hard finger searing moves led up right of the bolt. Further pulls lead higher above the bolt until fingertips grasp the good edges.

I pause.

If I fell off here, arms at full stretch I would probably stop just above the floor. Above me was a bolt; between me and the bolt was an easy mantle. Well, a comparatively easy mantel. Once, however I start the moves I know I’ll hit the floor if I fell. That extra height and the bunched position would add additional rope into the system. Alex is light and slow. Not as fast as Linford anyway. I’m about fourteen meters up and begin to sweat despite the chill late October day.

I move.

A moment later I’m stood on the good holds fumbling the rope into the quickdraw on the bolt. Fingers which had been crimping hard discover I’m in balance and relax. Now it’s just a case of not fluffing the 6b crux above the bolt.

The edges of my shoes stick and my hands grasp the rainbow, calf’s burning I rock up gaining better holds. The climbing eases as I run it out above the gear, panting with muscles feeling the twinges of lactic acid working against them. I gain the cracks and slam in wires, my legs shaking, cramping, then onwards. From above the gear looks shite and the moves feel awkward. I consider retreat but can smell the safety of the belay. Reaching right I gain the base of the groove. Matching and reaching up will gain jugs. Instead I’m off.

Accelerating downwards I rip the few wires I’ve placed and stop thirty four meters later in a crumpled heap on the floor.

I hit the floor, moan a little and then convulse. I’ve broken my arm, the outrageous angle and bone protruding are obvious diagnostic aids. My leg was is also an awkward unnatural angle.

Alex delves in and retrieves my tongue and broken teeth from my throat. Airways clear I begin to breath again.

Next I say fuck.



Duvet jackets are pilled on top of me.

Three days later I wake in hospital.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Nebbifield Nose - Foula - Shetland

The Island of Foula lies twenty miles west of the main Shetland Islands in the North Atlantic. It is the most remote permanently inhabited island in the British Isles. The population of 30 crofters are separated from the delights of mainland Britain by a three hour boat crossing to Walls and a further twelve hour ferry journey from Lerwick to Aberdeen.

What Foula may lack in accessibility it makes up for in huge cliffs.

The epic challenge of Foula first muscled its way into my consciousness in the form of Johnny Dawes. At a small art gallery opening in Llanberis, I mentioned my recent climb up St Johns Head on the Isle of Hoy to him. His eyes lit up and he began eulogising about an island he’d once visited. There were tales of immense cliffs at the edge of the world with eccentric locals and wild climbing.

“If you liked St John’s Head, you want to get yourself there” said Johnny

The idea was incubated throughout a three-month trip to the west coast of the States. Having tasted the exotic drug of Scottish Sea Cliff (mini) Big Wall Climbing I found I craved more. Other venues just couldn’t provide the same kick. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, famed for its ticks, poison ivy, loose rock and epics failed to subdue the subtle yearn for the Scottish wilds.

The biggest problem with a venture such as Foula was always going to be finding someone else who wanted to go. I gave my friends the hard sell but they knew me too well; had been dragged to enough of my favourite crags to consider risking two weeks of their holiday on a wild goose chase to the edge of the world. Fortuitously I ran into Reeve, he seemed interested and could climb. With those two boxes ticked he could have had three heads for all I cared. Not only was he strong and psyched but was also a mental health nurse. This proved to be a bonus as most people consider a trip to Foula as sectionable behaviour. We agreed to climb the Nebbifield on Foula the following year. I headed off to Huceo Tanks, Texas, figuring a winter bouldering was the best training for three hundred meter sea cliffs.

The Nebbifield is probably the most impressive cliff in Scotland. It rises almost vertically, terminating abruptly three hundred meters above the crashing Atlantic waves. Its neighbour The Kame although a sixty five meters higher, provides a far less appealing climbing target being vegetated, slabby, and broken at half height. The Nebbifield cliff however swooped up from the comparatively small (150m) cliffs of the Waster Hovedi to form a clean prow facing west. The arête of this cliff formed the line of The Nose, first climbed by Dave Turnball and C. Jones in 2001.

Our research had informed us that a two hundred meter free-hanging abseil gained a narrow grassy rake at one-third height. A second, hundred meter abseil gained the beach. Alternatively we could swim in. One look at the swell dispelled this notion.

This explained why we were slogging up to the cliff top on the Wednesday morning with three hundred and fifty meters of static rope. Our hearts sank somewhat when we reached the cliff edge. We knew that Dave had abseiled from a prominent grassy niche and had naively assumed it would have gear to rig our abseil from. We scrambled up and down the back wall of the niche. All that confronted us was blank rotting sandstone. Reluctantly we examined some large rocks embedded in the scree that flowed towards the edge of the cliff. Initially we had dismissed these potential anchor points as a joke. After an hour digging with our bare hands we had three passable attachment points. The fifty-meter rope was used to equalise these somewhat pathetic offerings to produce a single “good” anchor.

The following day saw us portering an enormous rack of cams back up to the cliff top. After a brief bite to eat I was first over the edge, rigging rope protectors as I went. My mind brooded on the idea of the rope sawing across an edge. I feared a forced retreat, epic failure or accident, compelling us, or one of us to jummar back up this fragile rope in the dark. Dave had said that having left the ropes in situ one night they returned to find them half cut through.

Hanging free I discovered that using a 9mm rope with an old Petzl Stop was an un-nerving experience. Using a caving decender had seemed more sensible than abseiling 300m using a belay plate. However, Pezil Stops are designed for use with 10mm ropes and provide much less friction when used with thinner ropes. The weight of 200m of rope hanging below stretched the rope even thinner. This stretching combined with the worn out Stop turned it into a “for fuck sake stop”. With the rope wrapped around me as well as through the descender, I slid down in the manner of a classic abseil, controlling the speed with my legs.

Passing the knot I stopped to photograph the situation. Behind me lay a 100m gently overhanging wall, reminiscent of Honeycomb Wall at High Rocks. A myriad of tiny pockets led up the wall, possibly providing enough purchase for fingers but not for gear. It would take an incredibly bold climber to take on that challenge.

We stopped on the beach to compose ourselves a little. Above us rose the cliff. It was ten am. It got too dark to climb at about eleven thirty pm. We had thirteen and a half hours to climb 11 pitches. Our bivy kit consisted solely of one balaclava so benightment was not to be considered. By taking one balaclava I reasoned that if the worst came to the worst, we would keep warm by fighting over who got to wear it.

The first few pitches were on loan from the shale cliffs of the Culm Coast. Exfoliating, sloping ledges, with creaking holds were teetered across before better rock was gained.

We measured our progress by looking across at the Hovedi, watching anxiously as we gained height. I had cunningly offered to lead the first pitch, ensuring Reeve would have to lead pitch 7, The Crux. He deviously retaliated by running two pitches together, leaving me out-manoeuvred. A shale band blocked progress onto the steep upper wall but some cracks led through it, offering gear and encouragement. We realised that we had perhaps taken a little too much comfort in this gear, as we heard much of this pitch tumbling into the sea in the subsequent half-hour. The offwidth crux followed shortly after, a crack widening into a squeeze chimney that terminated at a roof. The massive cams we had brought with us especially for this pitch slotted in and buoyed me upwards until I found myself gazing down at the last size 6 from the depths of the squeeze chimney. At least I was wedged in so tight that I could not have fallen out.

Reeve demonstrated the awesome power of his biceps whilst seconding, pulling off a large flake. He offers his apologies to future teams because it provided excellent holds and gear! Its presence will be sorely missed.

Above this pitch we basked on the belay in the late afternoon sun, swinging from creaking flakes and cams and almost enjoying ourselves. Two pitches later I was worried. The behaviour of the birds had changed. They were defiantly starting to come in to roost. The sun was dropping and it was colder. Reeve was somewhere up above, and in my mind the rope was inching out terribly slowly. I began to time the intervals between his movements, counting the seconds in my mind. Eventually after an eternity the ropes were taken in and I followed.

My fears evaporated as I got the lead. The route led diagonally upwards and I climbed in a cavalier manner, using the ‘one good point of contact’ philosophy. Having the ledge you’re standing on fall off was ok, provided your hand hold held and there was something within campusing distance. I tested this philosophy on numerous occasions during the final pitch. Rocks rained down and I proceeded up, slowing as rope drag took its toll on my mobility. I was almost forced to halt below the final boulder problem roof, unable to climb against the rope but my desire to top out was overriding. Straining against the drag I got within a meter of the top. Here the ropes would let me go no further. Close enough. I set up a final belay leaving Reeve the final mantle onto the grass cliff top.

We lazed around for most of the following day before deciding to recover our gear. Reeve lost again at paper-scissor-stone so would be going down the first abseil to pull the bottom rope up. I took photos as he jummared back up.

Despite the huge quantities of unclimbed cliffs on the island we climbed nothing else. We were absolutely shattered. The apparent ease of our success hid the huge mental and physical effort we had put in. If anything had gone wrong we were a long way from an efficient mountain rescue team.

We hadn’t been entirely without back up; Magnus the Laird of Foula had offered some emergency services.

“If you get stuck on a ledge you can trust us. We know what to do. Occasionally our sheep get stuck on ledges. We’ll use a 22 rifle to put you out of your misery. It’ll be more humane than letting you stave”