Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The fire

At this time of year, I often get manic. Im not really sure why. I know it’s not related to the season, because I’ve had the effects at other times in the year also. In a gradual process that takes many weeks to build up, I notice a string of quite striking mental and physical changes.

My mind tends to race all day long. When it gets to 2am and I’m still working or training, I’m exhausted and can barely conjure a rational thought. But I don’t want to stop. Going to bed and sleeping is so obviously required, but the other part of my mind resists it to the last. I find that I have amazing daydreams while driving or walking and find that these yield some strong ideas about whatever I’m working on, and all sorts of other things.

Because I’ve noticed this happening to me before in most years over the past decade of my life, I don’t mind it. It’s a kind of polariser of everything. It can cause me some serious problems, chiefly insomnia and being quite unreasonable. But I also find that I have the kind of fire of motivation that can drive a lot of things forward. The challenge is to tame it to harness the great benefits and try not to let it turn me into a sleep deprived zealot.

The first time I really became aware that this was not normal was in 2006. I was living in Dumbarton. I’d just done the first ascent of Rhapsody and after having pulled my climbing up from the odd 8b sport redpoint to 8c+ in a little over a year, I hadn’t done any work and was completely broke. I was counting out 2 pence pieces from a jar in my flat to by tins of beans and realised that I needed to change my life if I wanted to move forward onto new horizons in my climbing. The fire at that time was directed (outside of my climbing of course) onto starting to write this blog and trying to learn how to communicate what I’d learned from my life as a climber and student of sports science to coach other climbers. My accepted cut off for going to bed got later and later and I used to forcefully press the off button on the computer when I saw the sun start to rise out of my window.

My best effort at harnessing it was while I was writing my book 9 out of 10 in 2009. I found that I had so much mental energy that I was able to focus for up to 12 hours a day on writing with only trips to the kettle as breaks. When I don’t have the fire, I find it desperately hard to concentrate for long, uninterrupted periods. After I’d read, thought and written furiously for my shift, I’d attack my board at 10 or 11 at night, for a couple of hours. In less than two months, I got to the end of the book, and left for a sport trip in Spain.

The fire hadn’t gone, but I was physically exhausted. On the first day of the trip, I let my partners climb as a pair while I set up a rope to work on A’ Muerte (9a) by myself. After I’d set up the rope, I sat down at the base, put on my rock-shoes and paused for a moment, realising I felt pretty tired. I sat back against the rock to take a moment’s rest. Four hours later I woke up, and stumbled off to my sleeping bag. Despite being deprived of real rock for the previous two months, I started the trip with three days in bed before I felt recovered enough to begin climbing. But two weeks later I climbed the route for my first 9a, and felt in really great shape.

Right now, every night I feel like I’d need to hit myself over the head with a frying pan to stop my mind racing into the wee small hours. It’s really good being at home for a little while after spending most of this year out of the country on climbing trips. I wonder if it’s that opportunity to focus on climbing, training and work projects for a spell has brought on my current state of agitation. One minute I’m falling asleep over my dinner, the next I feel really good climbing on my board. One thing I have learned is that trying to work against what your mind and body want to do doesn’t really work. Not working, when I want to work, makes me depressed really quickly. Yet a mind that doesn’t have a diurnal ‘off switch’ is trying to square a circle. Like many problems in productivity, it may come down to an issue of habit replacement and self-discipline. I’m not really strict in following the simple rules of overcoming insomnia. I ought to be. An extreme problem requires an extreme intervention. I probably need some formal coaching in the field.

Complaints aside, I don’t really want this period to end. I know that I’m pretty lucky to have the feeling of burning motivation for the work I do, and I do enjoy it.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Drag Race

Drag Race 8A Rannoch Moor from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

On the vast, beautiful expanse of Rannoch Moor, a handful of granite erratics dotted around are kind of distracting for boulderers trying to drive in a straight line on the A82 into Glen Coe. In the low, crisp winter light, you’re always looking to see if you somehow missed a hidden boulder out there somewhere. I knew that the one big boulder close to the road had a few problems on perfect rough granite, but they were all easy.

But last year Alan Cassidy told me that a large flake had broken off the steep side, leaving a smooth sloping shelf and an excellent project he thought might be 8A or 8A+. I had a quick look in May and realised I had to come back as soon as it was cold enough to drag those perfect slopers.

Last week I had a quick try in poor conditions and worked out the moves. On the first day of proper snow in the mountains, I was straight back there and managed it. What a gem of a problem. As good quality as you’ll find anywhere. You can’t miss the boulder, easily seen from the road, five minutes walk from the first layby south of the Rannoch Moor summit.

Boulder season is ON!

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Ben Nevis North Face survey

Ben Nevis - The Hidden Side (TEASER!) from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

In August, we shot a film about a survey. It was the most fascinating fortnight I’ve had in a long time. The newly emerging Nevis Landscape Partnership has numerous impressive projects lined up for the Ben Nevis area, and this was one of them. A large team of climbers, botanists and geologists teamed up to explore the length and breadth of the north face over two weeks and try to get a better understanding of how the mountain was formed and which rare plants were hiding in the depths of the gullies as yet unrecorded.

We were asked to film the project. I’m editing the story that emerged at the moment and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. Generally speaking, I find most aspects of science interesting. But I have never spent any time learning about botany before and have only limited knowledge of geology. One overarching theme I wanted to explore while filming was what made these scientists tick. Climbers wax lyrical about the lines on Ben Nevis, the character of the ice, the weather and all the other ingredients for adventure. I bluntly asked the botanical and geological experts on the survey what the point of their work was.

One of Scotland’s leading botanists, Gordon Rothero’s reply was equally blunt. “Because it’s fun”. As I asked more and more of the scientists why they spent their lives studying the details of mountain environments, the same theme came back. Their studies made them happy. More specifically, It made them feel connected to the places they studied. This is something I felt the whole team, climbers and scientists of various disciplines had absolutely in common. By knowing the details of the mountains, they felt connected, and happy.

As for the survey findings, one story that emerged kind of took everyone by surprise. The geologists Jenny and Roddy had already told me when we shot the film for their FieldMove Clino app on the Ben in June that the available geological mapping that had been done 60 odd years ago was not matching what they had seen on the mountain. After a full two weeks gathering huge amounts of geological readings (using the app meant taking readings ten fold faster that traditional methods) it seemed like the old model of how Ben Nevis was formed was looking all but dead.

Roddy and Donald abseiling down the line of my own route Don't Die of Ignorance on the Comb. This part of the mountain is made of volcanic breccias; the result of violent volcanic eruption. I was kind of strange for me going back here after having climbed hard through this part in winter several years ago.

The traditional model of the formation of the Ben is that it was a ring fault where the centre of the ring collapsed into the earth’s magma below, with violent eruptions around the periphery. It now looks like the real picture may be very different. Their attention focused on the straight line of the Allt a’ Mhuillin itself and it may be that this was the fault in the earth’s crust that let granites come to the surface. It’s still unclear whether the rocks on the Ben Nevis side of the Allt a’ Mhuillin collapsed down, or the rocks on the other side rose up. It will take some time for them to analyse the data and they may need to collect more in order to obtain a clearer picture.

The problem with the traditional caldera subsidence model is space. What happens to the vast quantities of viscous magmas displaced by a sinking lump of the earth’s crust? There are subsequent surveys planned for the next few summers, and it may be that we cannot make a firm conclusion about Ben Nevis until after these have been completed.

Along the way I captured huge amounts of great interviews with interesting folk and footage of the deep dark gullies on the Ben. I also had a great night along with my mum up on Carn Mor Dearg bivvying out and shooting nice timelapses of the stars and sunrise on the north face.

If you want to see the film it’ll be showing at the Fort William Mountain Festival in February, and then released online afterwards. In the meantime, enjoy the teaser above.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Anatomist, Glen Torridon

The Anatomist, Torridon from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

Bouldering in Glen Torridon at this time of year does make me feel pretty lucky. The best rock in the British Isles, amazing scenery, solitude, good conditions, easy approaches and even some superb cafes. It doesn’t get much better. I’m pleased to say I’ve still got most of it to explore as well. I really ought to bend the ears of Ian Taylor, Dan Varian and a few other folk who’ve scouted about a bit more for good projects to try. I know of a couple of great ones, but they might be too hard for me, in the Font 8C region. Not that this will stop me trying.

In the meantime I wanted to just tick off some of the existing stuff. Last week I went to Dan Varians ‘The Anatomist’ (7C+) behind the new house in Annat. After 10.4 inches of rain in a couple of days in the west highalnds, it was dripping. Today I went back, armed with a towel, which was just as well. The landing is a bit on the poor side and I hauled up 5 mats since I was on my own.

I still managed to slip off and somersault backwards down the boulder gully, off my mats and onto some rather nasty rocks which took a fair chunk out of my elbow and added various other good bragging scars. At least I still did it. Check out the video above and see what you think of my falling technique. Classic problem.

This is always a busy time of year for me, finishing writing and filming projects and travelling around doing lectures and coaching events. In between all that, I’ve loved getting a bit of time in my climbing wall and starting on the ladder of finger strength and agility again. After the last two years of ups and downs, I feel I have am starting from half a rung lower. But my motivation is maybe that wee notch higher than ever. Hopefully soon I’ll be back in Torridon when the sun next shines and the slopers are even colder.