Author Archives: Jon Leighton

North Wales, Australia, climbing, and the start of our van life

Nearly two years ago I stepped into the unknown and moved to North Wales. I’d arrived in London three and a half years prior, not really knowing what I wanted from the place but feeling like it was an obvious thing to do. As I got increasingly motivated for climbing I started to feel less and less content in the city. Week days were busy with work, evenings at the climbing wall, and then at the weekends I went in search of real rock. Long drives to Portland, Brean Down, Anstey’s, the Peak or sometimes North Wales. There wasn’t really much space left for the other things which feature in a balanced life, like having friends for dinner, going for a walk in the park or spending time with my partner.

I’d been discussing a move with Emily for months but eventually we concluded that whilst she had her reasons to want to stay put for a while longer, I really needed a change. So we decided to try living apart for the first time in five and a half years. It felt like a risk, but the status quo wasn’t risk-free either.

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Clogwyn yr Eryr with Will on my 27th birthday

I slotted into the Llanberis climbing scene and for the first time felt like I lived in a real community. Hours on motorways were replaced with having a social life. I could walk down the street and bump into friends. I had enough time and didn’t need to rush from one thing to the next. It wasn’t perfect but it felt like a huge improvement on the big smoke.

I was delighted when Emily decided to join me the next July. Surely she’d love it! We’d live happily ever after in our cute little mountain village, surrounded by friends, rock, and lots of fluffy sheep!

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Snow day with Emily and a friend’s lively dog

She did love North Wales, so it came as a bit of a shock when later that year she told me that after a long process of reflection, she’d decided that what she really needed was to return home to Australia. Having come to the UK 10 years ago for university, she’d not really intended to settle but had ended up staying (I had something to do with it…) But Australia was home and she was asking me to go with her.

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Bouldering in the winter sun with Ramon at Porth Ysgo

A digression: one thing that I have found helpful in the last couple of years is learning about mindfulness and meditation. There are some good apps available to help. Initially I used Headspace for a few months but fell out of the habit. I picked it back up with Calm around the time that Emily and I were having this discussion, and have managed to continue more or less daily since then (although I no longer use an app).

Anyway, mindfulness has definitely made me more able to be accepting of the idea that I am not actually the absolute master of my life, able to direct it exactly how I want. (For what it’s worth, nor do I believe that there is some external deity orchestrating things.)

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Trying out our new wetsuits at Whistling Sands on the Llyn Peninsula

It’s easy to think that we know what should happen or is going to happen in life, but that idea is demonstrably false. I can think of many instances in my own life when I was convinced something was going to turn out terribly, and yet it did not. And vice versa – times when I thought things were going great but then the shit hit the fan.

Observing this has made me more able to accept paths I did not explicitly choose. Paths like moving to Australia. Initially I definitely threw my toys out of the pram a bit, but as I gave it more thought, I realised that I actually have no idea what might happen either way. What I do know is that I value my relationship and that given I can’t predict the future, I may as well focus on enjoying the present.

So we’re moving to Australia in March! Melbourne initially, but we will probably look to live closer to rocks in the longer term.

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Gogarth Red Wall

Having made this decision I started to relate to climbing in North Wales a bit differently. My days there were now numbered and I needed to choose my battles. Somebody asked me in April what my goals were for the season. I hadn’t given it much thought but replied that a very good year would include doing my first F8a+ redpoint and my first E6 onsight. I didn’t really think I’d achieve this, but knew I’d be stoked if I did.

The spring and early summer saw many days spent at LPT . I had half an eye on a planned trip to Céüse in July and so got stuck into sport climbing. One session I decided to have a play on an 8a+ called Wild Understatement. It’s a cool variation on Ben Moon’s classic 8a, Statement of Youth – it takes a more direct start through a big roof, climbs through the middle of Statement, and then branches out left into a delicate off-balance crack at the top.

I was surprised to find that I could basically do all the moves and so decided to keep trying it, whilst telling myself that I was still just playing around. After a few sessions I fell right at the top and had to admit that I was probably now on redpoint. I got it done just before the Céüse trip, many thanks to John Bunney who pretty much came down to hang out and belay me! In hindsight, Wild Understatement was exactly my style: sustained endurance climbing without any super bouldery cruxes.

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Introducing our friend Charlie to the slate

When I returned from Céüse I was super keen to do lots of trad climbing. The sport climbing in North Wales is decent, but trad is really what it’s best at, and I still had loads of classics to work through. As the summer wore on, in the back of my mind was Skinhead Moonstomp on Gogarth Main Cliff. I’d read about it in Andy Pollitt’s book and it sounded epic and kind of scary. But Dan Mcmanus told me it was basically safe so I kept wondering… maybe I should try it.

I spent a while waiting to see if the opportunity would magically arise but it did not. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to try it I needed to just decide to do so and make it happen. I couldn’t really think of who else I could persuade me to give me a belay so asked Emily, and she graciously agreed.

We left a bit later in the day as I thought conditions would be better, but arrived at the base to discover that the only other party on the cliff were just starting up Positron, with which Skinhead Moonstomp shares some climbing. After waiting for them to get ahead I did the first pitch and Emily started seconding.

I’d perhaps been a bit optimistic about Emily’s suitability as a second for this route, and she fell off but eventually got to the belay. I started up the second pitch, which is the E6 6b crux. You traverse out left to beneath what I think the guide describes as a “looming wall”, plug in some gear, take a deep breath, and run it out until Positron’s crack. At this point the ropes are fluttering in the breeze for perhaps 8 metres below. (I could have done with a breeze actually, my t-shirt was now drenched in sweat.) You then do a few moves on Positron before going directly up to the infamous “bucket seat” belay. Somehow I succeeded, my Céüse fitness certainly helped but it was touch and go.

Poor Emily now needed to follow, and the traverse moves are not actually straightforward. She fell off and took a pendulum, finding herself dangling in mid-air some way beneath me. I’d hurriedly tried to remind her how to prussik at the previous belay, but she was out of practise and there was some trial and error involved (we couldn’t really communicate due to the noise from the sea). By the time she arrived at the bucket seat it was nearly dark. I set off to string together the final two easier pitches by head-torch, slightly gripping. When we got back to our bags it was midnight… dinner was on me the following evening!

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Rock Bottom Line with Glyn. My technique was completely wrong but made for some fun photos…

Having decided to move to Australia, I was sad to be leaving behind the fantastic variety of climbing destinations that Europe has to offer. (Which is certainly not to say that Australia doesn’t also have exciting climbing potential.) So I was pleased when Emily agreed to the idea of us spending the winter pursuing the quintessential climbers’ dream of living in a camper van, following the sun, and doing loads of climbing at European crags.

It’s easy to look at people doing these sorts of things and think “wow, they must be having fun literally all the time”, but this overlooks the fact that such trips take quite a bit of (worthwhile) work to put together, and even once you’re on the road there are still highs and lows. (I’m still getting used to the stress of manoeuvring a massive van up tiny Italian mountain roads…) The fact that we rarely share photos of the more dull or difficult moments of our lives probably helps to perpetuate the image that everybody else is having more fun.

For us the run-up to coming away felt pretty stressful and busy, and didn’t involve much climbing either (in part due to a terrible September in North Wales). There were lots of things to do: buy a van, get it ready, sort through our belongings, get rid of a load of them, pack the rest of it into boxes, clean the flat, and so on. Then, once we’d finally left North Wales, several days of driving lay between us and our first destination, Arco in Northern Italy.

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Putting a solar panel on the roof of the van

Before all this though, we thought that if we were going to move to the other side of the world, we’d be really sad to say goodbye to the lovely friends we have in the UK. It felt important to mark the occasion, so we decided to put together a big party in North Wales.

Just a few miles from Llanberis is a beautiful, co-operatively run, organic farm called Tyddyn Teg. We’d been getting weekly veg from them and so asked if it might be possible to hire out their barn. They agreed so we set the date for the first weekend of September and started to make plans.

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Tyddyn Teg farm

We were really touched to receive help in all sorts of ways from various friends which made the end result all the more special. Lots of people pitched in to make food (veg supplied by the farm!), Nathan set up some awesome speakers, lights, lasers and smoke machines, Amy made hanging decorations, James and Chris (aka Gaenz and Fixd) kept the dance floor moving til the early hours, and lots of people turned up with great costumes. We were quite stressed with the organisation for a couple of days preceding but it came off really well and felt very rewarding to put on a party that everyone seemed to enjoy!

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Amazing lighting setup from Nathan

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Veg shop jamming trio

Also, I had been pondering learning to DJ for some time prior, and so decided that having a deadline would give me some impetus to actually do it. I played for the first hour or so and it seemed to go down pretty well!

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My first live DJ set!

So that’s it! I’m sad to leave North Wales behind, but I also feel like it has been an immense privilege to spend two years of my life there. It’s the first place I’ve ever left which I feel like I’ll miss.

Now we’re on the trip, living in the back of a van in Northern Italy. We’ve enjoyed some great climbing in beautiful scenery, but have also dealt with some electrical issues in the van, a part of the sliding door breaking, some exceedingly polished routes (which we are striving to avoid) and various day-to-day things that don’t just go away because you’re on a trip.

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Waking up in Austria, en route to Northern Italy

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Rest day sunshine in Sarche, Northern Italy

At some point we’re planning to get a ferry to Corsica and/or Sardinia, and then another ferry onwards to Catalonia. In March we’ll fly to Melbourne. After that, who knows?

Australia Part 2 – The Totem Pole

Four years ago, when I first visited Australia with my partner Emily (who is from Melbourne), we spent a week in Tasmania at her family’s holiday home in Oyster Cove, about 30 minutes south of Hobart.

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Looking out from the lovely holiday home at Oyster Cove

Before we went across on the ferry, her dad, Rod, lent me a book to read: The Totem Pole by Paul Pritchard. I’d never heard of Paul Pritchard or The Totem Pole at the time, but Paul was a key member of the 80’s climbing scene in Llanberis (where I live now). In 1998 he came on a trip to Tasmania and planned to climb The Totem Pole which is a unique tower of dolerite, 65 metres high, about 4 metres wide, jutting out of the sea just off the western coast of the Tasman Peninsula. An abseiling accident caused a loose block to give him a life-threatening head injury and the book tells the tale of his injury, rescue and subsequent recovery (although he is now not able to move one side of his body).

It was with impeccable timing that Paul visited North Wales about a week before I came out to Australia, showing a film and giving a lecture about his accident and successful attempt, last April, to reclimb the pole. He has a wonderfully positive outlook on his accident and how it changed him for the better. (Read this interview, it’s brilliant.)

On that visit we didn’t do any climbing, but the book motivated us to go on a boat trip along that section of coast line. While the rest of the tourists marvelled at seals I looked up at “The Tote” and thought to myself: one day.

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Tree hugging in Tasmania, four years ago

This past March, Rod sadly and suddenly died, so it has been a difficult year for Emily and her mum, Mandy. We came back to Australia for christmas to be with Mandy but I have also been able to fit in some climbing as well. My top agenda item was of course the Tote. It seems fitting that we are here primarily due to Rod’s death, and it was he who introduced me to the Tote in the first place.

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Emily’s dad, Rod

I was a bit worried about how to find a suitable climbing partner in Tasmania, but everything came together. I got in touch with Rob Greenwood who was also planning a trip at this time, and he told me to talk to another Brit, Jim Hulbert, who has been on a working holiday for nine months, sampling the best climbing spots across Australia. Jim was already planning to come to Tasmania the day before me, so we agreed to partner up.

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Fortescue Bay

After a couple of days warming up at The Organ Pipes above Hobart, we took a rest day and then headed for the beautiful Fortescue Bay, where the hour and a half long walk-in to Cape Hauy begins. After descending through bush until we were about level with the top of the pole, we found abseil bolts and fixed a rope.

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Jim descending down the mainland cliff

I was first down and faced the slightly tricky task of swinging on the ab rope about 4m out from the mainland in order to get onto the starting belay on the Tote. The rock was greasy and there’s not a lot to grab, but after a few tries I managed to do it, hooking my index finger through a bolt hanger before quickly clipping in.

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Hanging belay at the bottom of the Tote

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About to pull Jim across onto the Tote (the chaps behind are gearing up for an icy swim to the start of the Candlestick, which is another sea stack behind the Tote)

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Aforementioned icy swim in progress (he didn’t hang about)

We immediately regretted our optimistic clothing choices as it’s quite dingy down there and the wind comes howling through the channel. Jim set off on pitch 1 of the Deep Play route, which climbs 20m to a ledge at grade 24 (about French 7a). After a good fight, Jim unfortunately popped off on the onsight. We decided to lower back to the start and he had a couple more goes at redpointing the pitch, but didn’t quite manage as there wasn’t much time for him to rest between attempts and I was getting increasingly chilly. So we decided to press on. (Jim plans to return for another go later in his trip.)

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Jim on pitch 1 (Deep Play, 24)

Now it was my turn: the Deep Play route joins the original Free Route for its second pitch, a 40m grade 25 (about French 7a+). This pitch was superb and we were far enough above the water now that there was no greasiness. The climbing mostly involved short harder sections between pretty good shake outs, although there was quite a bit of chalk on route which no doubt made the onsight easier. Despite notionally following an arete, most of the moves were actually face climbing with occassional use of the arete for hand holds.

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Jim getting ready to come up pitch 2 (Free Route, 25)

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We had tourist boats gawping at us all day! Note the shadow of the Tote projected onto the side of the Candlestick.

Jim then lead us up the final 5m so we could stand on top of the huge block which perches on the summit of the pole.

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Summit selfie, trying not to wobble off! (It’s quite small and not very flat)

All that remained was to get off: we’d been trailing the rope we’d abseiled on behind us, and we needed to use this to rig a tyrolean traverse, something neither of us had done before but reckoned we could figure out!

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On the Tyrolean traverse (you can see we have threaded the bolts, ready to pull the rope through)

Fortunately it was straightforward. We threaded the rope to the mainland through the bolts on the summit of the pole, and pulled it tight using a gri-gri (we tied a knot behind the gri-gri just in case). Jim then clipped in to the line and went across, trailing the other end. We now had a rope which was tied at one end to the mainland, went across to the summit of the pole and through the bolts there, and then went back to the mainland. I removed the gri-gri on the pole side, and Jim used another gri-gri on the mainland side to tension it up from there. I could then go across the doubled-over line leaving no gear on the summit, and we then pulled the end of the rope through the bolts to retrieve it.

I’d read that this was a mixed route with both bolts and trad gear required. In fact it was probably about 80/20 bolts/gear, and all of the harder moves were protected with bolts. We placed a few bits of gear: 1 wire and some small cams. Frankly I don’t really understand this bolting ethic; it felt like it was practically a sport route and I think that if you’re going to place that many bolts you may as well just bolt the whole thing and be done with it. Or leave the bolts out except where absolutely essential. (Doing the whole thing on trad gear would undoubtedly be a much more serious proposition.)

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Cute echidna spotted on the walk out

Anyway, rant over, it was a fantastic day out in a beautiful place, and a major item ticked off the bucket list!

RIP Rod

Australia Part 1 – Arapiles and Grampians

I’m currently in Australia, and whilst the primary motive for the trip was to spend christmas with my partner’s family (who live in/around Melbourne), I have been able to arrange to sample some of the climbing as well.

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Smoking the ham on the Weber, a christmas tradition apparently!

In the run-up to christmas we stayed in Melbourne and did various social things meeting up with family and friends. This was enjoyable but by the time christmas day came I was really looking forward to Emily and I heading out on our own to do some camping and climbing.

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christmas day – it reached something like 35°C!

We started at Arapiles. Being summer time, it’s not really the best season for climbing in the state of Victoria, but I was keen to check out some of the classic venues whilst not having high expectations about encountering good conditions.

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Surprisingly we actually had quite a bit of wind and rain rather than the searing heat we had expected. But the rain was mostly light and we managed to climb in between (and sometime just in) showers. We spent a couple of days at Arapiles getting a feel for the place and ticking off some classics such as Kachoong (21) (good fun, I didn’t find it to be overrated as some have reported) and Comic Relief (21) (amazing climbing, hard for the grade and bold at the start). Having never climbed in Australia I didn’t have a good feel for the grade system, but discovered that in general everything felt harder than expected! This is probably partly due to conditions, but also lack of fitness…

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The juggy roof of Kachoong (21)

On our rest day we debated sticking around but eventually decided to move to the Grampians. We were worried about finding crags that would work with the weather, but the desire to see somewhere new pulled us away from Arapiles.

We headed for Dreamtime Wall which is mostly a sport climbing venue, but in a very remote location. After a fairly sketchy drive  down a 5km dirt track (we didn’t have a vehicle with much ground clearance) we established a bush camp and settled in for the night.

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Complex manoeuvring around a hole in the track…

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Bush camp for Dreamtime Wall

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The gorgeous sky that night

After warming up on Dreaming of Reconciliation (22), I decided to try to step it up a bit with Red Chilli Nights (25). It was really warm and humid and I didn’t realise the route relied on quite a few slopey holds. After an onsight battle I greased off, got frustrated and decided to come down. Then it started to rain and everything got wet, and I got even more frustrated! Eventually the rain eased a bit and Emily talked me in to trying something else, so I did R.E.M. (21). When I came down it had finally started to properly dry up and I could enjoy The Stolen Generation (23), which redeemed the day somewhat.

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Looking out from Dreamtime Wall – so nice to be able to see nothing but the natural environment

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Massive spider next to our tent, perhaps a Huntsman?

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the climbing at Dreamtime Wall as there was quite a lot of loose rock, but I think my opinion is probably biased by the terrible conditions we had that day. (And the loose rock should clear up over time.) That said I did enjoy going to this remote location and camping on our own in the bush, so it wasn’t all bad.

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Our little friend at the crag. Not sure what type of lizard this is.

The next day it was much cooler and we headed to Eureka Wall, which is one of the more famous bits of rock in the Grampians. I’d have liked to get on the classic Archimedes Principal (26) but it was clear by now that given the conditions and my fitness, I would be biting off more than I could chew. Instead I did a quality crack climb, Newton’s Law (23/24) and then the pumpy P2 of Darwin’s Theory (18) after Emily lead P1. It was a great way to get to the top of this impressive wall, and I’m now very psyched to come back for an onsight crack at the harder routes one day!

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Eureka Wall! Photos don’t do it justice. It is simply magnificent. Archimedes Principle (26) follows the enticing black streak.

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Blue-tongued lizard (Tiliqua rugosa, I think)

Once we got down from Darwin’s Theory it was approaching 8 PM but I managed to persuade Emily that we should mission it a bit further up the hill to Eureka Towers for Return to Gariwerd (22). Our guidebook promised a cairned track but it seemed very overgrown and we ended up mostly bush-bashing our way through. But the route was an absolute joy to climb, hands down the best route so far, and as I topped out the golden sun was just dipping below the horizon… a beautiful sight… but one which meant we needed to walk down in the dark!

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Massive fly on our windscreen

This was more challenging than expected because with our head torches we could only see a few metres ahead, and there was dense bush everywhere. Once we got back to Eureka Wall we thought it would be easy to follow the cairns down, but we couldn’t even find the start of the track! After searching around for ages we just plowed into the undergrowth and eventually came upon a cairn, but it was still very difficult to follow the track. We got down at maybe 11 PM and pitched our tent in the dirt, tired but content. We were treated to a completely clear, starry sky and saw several shooting stars!

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Red bull ant dragging what I think is a dead horse-fly

After that we were too tired to climb the next day so headed off to meet some friends to celebrate the new year. I’m now about to get an overnight ferry to Tasmania for part 2 of the trip, and looking forward to much cooler conditions down there!

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An echidna trying to hide from us

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A chilled-out wallaby

Lewis and Harris

Last year I did plenty of great climbing and went on some very enjoyable trips, but I was rather left with the feeling that I had lacked a little bit of adventure in my activities. Whilst I very much enjoy pushing myself physically, the more adventurous types of climbing add a little bit of spice which I can’t do without.

So when Ramon Marin asked me whether I would be interested on going on a trad climbing mission I was very keen. We picked our dates specifically to maximise the potential for good conditions in Scotland: late May to early June would hopefully have that potent combination of long days, stable weather and few midges. Fortunately for us the stars did indeed align and I’ve just returned from two weeks of stunning adventure climbing on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris (it’s one island, but the northern part is called Lewis and the southern part is called Harris).

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Dalbeg

After a long drive up to Ullapool and a 2 and a half hour ferry crossing to Stornoway we headed to Dalbeg and parked the van right next to a beautiful beach. The next day we ticked off Neptune E3 5c and Limpet Crack E3 5c (I pumped out and fell off on my first go, but it went ground up on the next attempt). We were also visited by a pod of dolphins which was pretty special.

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Looking over to Dalbeg Buttress, which is the left-facing wall above the slab

Next we headed down to to Uig area which has lots of good crags in close proximity. Our particular motivation was the 4-pitch E4 5c, The Prozac Link at Mangersta. This route featured on the front cover of our guidebook so we knew it was one we had to do.

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The Prozac Link E4 5c takes a line above this massive sea cave

When we first walked down to the cliff and peered round the corner my stomach lurched a little. This thing was absolutely massive, and there would be little chance to bail after the first pitch as an abseil, if our ropes reached, would just land us in the sea. It didn’t help that the cliff was in the shade when we first arrived which made the whole place seem much more foreboding.

We chilled out for a bit and waited for the sun the come around to burn off any grease. Gradually the crag seemed to soften its gaze and become less terrifying, and in actual fact I needn’t have worried. As ever, things are easier when broken down into steps, and it turns out the climbing is quite soft for E4. I think it gets the grade due to the commitment factor more than anything. The first pitch is probably the best and features a lovely granitic crack, although it was a little greasy towards the bottom.

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Ramon dispatching the first 5c pitch. This crack was probably the best bit.

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Pitch 2 (5b) of The Prozac Link

Next day we were keen for pushing a little harder on some single pitch climbs so we headed to a crag called The Painted Wall, where I did (wait for it) The Painted Wall E4 5c, following a lovely pink pegamatite band. I’d never heard of pegamatite before, but it’s super solid and fun to climb, though gear can be tricky.

Ramon then stepped it up a notch with Dauntless E5 6a, and then it was my turn to climb again. I had come away on this trip with the definite intention of doing my first E5, and it seemed like now was as good a time as any to try one. However, the best-looking line featured British 6b moves, which seemed like quite a challenge. I’m fairly sure I’d never tried any 6b moves on a trad climb before.

Faced with the conundrum of a great-looking E5 6b or a slightly inferior E5 6a, which crossed the route I’d already done, I decided to follow my heart and go for the great line. It didn’t matter if I failed, at least I’d learn something in the process. I’m so glad I did, because I gave that route everything I had, coming within a whisker of falling in several places but somehow just managing to stay with it. Elated, I gave Ramon a belay as he finished up with Pink and Black E4 5c.

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Me on Goodbye Ruby Tuesday E5 6b

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Ramon seconding Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

After a rest day we headed to another nearby crag, the Magic Geo. After following Ramon up the excellent Am Burach E4 6a, I decided to try another E5, The Magician E5 6a. This was a totally different experience which I’ve already written about: the route proved long, loose and very pumpy at the top. After I’d fallen twice I felt totally battered and we bailed.

The next day we tried to climb but actually failed to find the crag! The guidebook directions didn’t work for us and we didn’t have an OS map which would have provided some clarity. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I was still feeling depleted from the day before, and we had our sights on a bigger objective: Stone E5 6a at Sron Ulladale.

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Walking in to Sron Ulladale

Sron Ulladale is a big, adventurous crag which requires at least 2 hours for the walk in and another 2 for the walk out. Our chosen route had 7 pitches, although some of them were quite straightforward (but still take time). Of the harder pitches, there was a 5c which I’d lead and a 6a which Ramon would lead.

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Sron Ulladale

We got up at 8 AM, got ready, walked in, got on the route and made it to the crux pitch easily enough. It was a massive 40 metre corner, which we thought looked OK, but oh how wrong we were! Ramon went up and put in a strong effort, but a route-finding error (the guidebook description was a bit confusing) unfortunately saw him back at the belay. Next go he did it clean, and I followed up. Even on second, I couldn’t believe how hard this thing was. Despite my confidence at the belay, the crack was way more steep and strenuous than I had realised. It was also wet and dirty in places, and didn’t really let up at any point. Eventually I power-screamed my way onto the next belay ledge and we finished up the easier pitches above. Ramon said that he was close to giving up at points and would have passed the baton to me, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that – I really don’t know if I could have done it! A really impressive lead.

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Me on the 5c pitch of Stone E5 6a

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Ramon on the crux 6a pitch of Stone

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A belay with a view!

We finished the route and got back to the base for about 10 PM (sun still shining this far north). We then walked out, had dinner, and got to bed for about 1.30 AM. A very long day out!

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Captain, bring up the midge defences

After resting up we headed back to Mangersta for some of the single pitch objectives there: we both lead Killer Fingers E5 6a, and then I did Suffering Bastard E4 6a, a sustained crack climb which I probably found harder than the E5 actually.

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Suffering Bastard E4 6a

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Walking out at Mangersta

The next day Ramon did Tidal Rave E4 6a at Aird Fenish – a lovely route but unfortunately done in pretty greasy conditions. I tried Wave Dancing E4 6a but bailed half way up when I realised my arms were completely blasted.

Next we headed back to Dalbeg to look at a couple of highly-rated long E5s in the area. Ramon got on Blessed Are The Weak E5 6a, but wasn’t feeling it and decided to back off (the gear wasn’t great). I then went to attempt The Storm E5 6a, which is a full 50 metres long.

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Ramon on Blessed Are The Weak E5 6a

The Storm starts up a steep crack, and unfortunately I pumped out about 15 metres up. Fortunately Ramon encouraged me to lower off and have a ground-up go. I’m really glad I did. After looking at the route quite a bit from the ground, on my next go I found a bomber knee bar just below my high point. From this I was able to blast up through the hard section above and get to a hidden jug.

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Abseiling into The Storm E5 6a. Amazing patterns on the rock eh? The route starts up the crack in the top left corner of this photo.

But I wasn’t even half way at this point. I think I must have been on the route at least 2 if not 3 hours, climbing through some fiddly gear and really scary run outs. A blessing in disguise – if there had been more gear I’d have placed it all and had none left by the top! It really seemed to go on forever; 50 metres is a long way. At one point I was convinced I could see foliage poking over the top, only to move up and discover another 10 metres or so above me. Eventually I got onto easy but very loose terrain, about 4 metres from the top and was experiencing some mega rope drag. I looked down to Ramon who yelled something about the red rope, which my exhausted mind thought to mean that I was nearly out of rope. So I tied in to the abseil line and belayed from there. When Ramon arrived, it emerged that he was trying to tell me my red rope was caught on a spike, thus causing all that drag.

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Grappling with the steep crack at the start of The Storm

The Storm was a real effort and a real adventure, surely one of the most intense climbing experiences of my life. This is what I love about trad climbing: I have yet to find a better way to reliably have a really memorable day out.

For our last day we opted for a gentler outing, ticking off a bunch of classics at Creag Liam on Bernera island.

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A rest day swim, fortunately the beach wasn’t too busy

This is the first time I’ve climbed in Scotland. It’s certainly an effort to come somewhere like this. You endure a long drive, take risks with the weather and meet plenty of bastard midges (although we were mostly fairly lucky, since there was often a breeze). But the effort is worth it. The climbing is world-class, and the stunning raw beauty of Lewis and Harris felt really special. As well as midges, we saw eagles, seals, dolphins, herons and countless sea birds. We swam in turquoise waters next to deserted golden beaches (thanks for lending your wetsuit, Ramon) and even managed to get sunburnt!

Totally epic. Scotland, I’ll be back!

The Magician

Bouyed by success on both my first proper E5 and my first British 6b onsight, prior to our rest day, I decide to try the 3-star E5 6a at today’s Hebridean crag.

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A rewarding effort on Goodbye Ruby Tuesday E5 6b

The Magician begins with an insecure move to what looks like a decent ledge, the only protection being an RP. Unfortunately the RP is too low to really keep you off the boulders should you fluff it, but psychological protection is better than none at all. The holds are also affected by seepage and are unpleasantly greasy. This is not ideal, but I reason that if I can sketch through this section, we’ll be rewarded by some amazing climbing above. The route soars 40 metres up an obvious crack line which steepens out beyond vertical at the top.

I climb up and down a few times, unsure. I dowse the holds in chalk and wonder why the good ledge gets further away when I’m on the rock. Eventually I unlock a sequence. A high left toe on a pointy little nubbin lets me sit on my foot to chalk the next sidepull. Believing it, I commit, and am rewarded with a good flatty and a solid wire. We’re in.

I go on up for 10 metres or so, placing plenty of gear, thankful that there actually is some now. The next crux looks to be a rightwards traverse out from under a little roof with smeary feet and sidepulls. Although most of the route is bone dry, I seem to have found another seepage line and the holds are greasy. I place a suspicious nut behind a flaky flat hold, and a decent blue alien in a thin crack. The flaky flat hold becomes my foothold, and proceeds to crumble incrementally as I weight it.

Eventually I begin a delicate sequence rightwards. Trusting the smears I reach for the next sidepull. I am careful to hold the barn-door, but the sidepull snaps and down I go. The decent blue alien blew, but the suspicious nut stuck. A lower cam also blew. 1 out of 3 is fine, right?

I improve the gear and lower off for a ground-up attempt. I’m not particularly keen to repeat the start but with gear in-situ and the sequence sussed out it should be fine. The holds are wet again, so more chalk is needed. I weight my left foot on the pointy little nubbin and this time it crumbles under me. I downclimb, but after several false starts I eventually manage to make a different and slightly worse foothold work for me. The quickdraw tantalisingly stroking my hair helps.

Back to my high point. Hold the barn-door. I step gingerly onto a ledge, arrange some gear, and exhale. The next bit looks delicate, but my confidence in the security of this rock has been seriously undermined by now. Footholds routinely crumble away, and pulling on thin flakes now seems a ridiculous proposition. Who knew gneiss could be so chossy? I procrastinate.

Eventually I manage a few balancy moves up. Looking around I find no gear and no real holds above. I’m off route. Keep it together. I get back down to the ledge with difficulty, and try the more rightward line I had spied.

Now approaching what is evidently the crux of this neverending expedition, the crack rears out above me. I put a big yellow cam in and eventually suss out the next little sequence to what looks like a jug. I’ll get there, arrange some gear and then press on with confidence.

Unfortunately what looks like a jug is not always a jug, and the position is more strenuous than intended. My feet are on smears and my hands are sweating up. Shit, time to move.

I reach up to a juggy undercut flake and run my feet up the wall. That yellow cam seems far away now, and my position is seriously strenuous. It occurs to me that a knee-bar might be possible in theory, but there’s no way I have the juice to figure that out. I shove a cam under the flake, wasting energy. I know it’s bad but I don’t want to go all out with no more gear, although I also don’t want to hang around to place a better piece either. Failure is close now.

Giving it all I’ve got, I reach for a distant sidepull, body at full stretch, feet skating on smears. I let out a roar and urge them to move higher up, but it’s no use. Something snaps, and as I begin the ride I notice that my leg is behind the blue rope. I flip upside-down and have time to be thankful that my helmet is on my head. When I eventually come to a halt, sure enough, the last cam is dangling around my waist. I feel like I’ve been beaten up and there are grazes on both elbows and both knees.

“Can I maybe come down now, Ramon?” Graciously he agrees. I collapse on a boulder while he scopes out the escape, a VDiff corner. It doesn’t feel easy in this state. Sensing that I’m incapable of doing much else, Ramon instructs me to sit down while he abs for the gear. I don’t need much persuasion.

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The rock that spat me off!

Manic Strain

Although I’ve not explicitly mentioned it here on my blog, I moved from London to Llanberis, North Wales back in October. The two places could hardly be more different, and I’ve enjoyed having a project, Manic Strain 8a, which is walking distance from my house rather than a 4 and a half hour drive as it was previously with my first 8a, The Cider Soak. This certainly makes it easier!

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Manic Strain, found in Vivian Quarry, just opposite the Comes The Dervish slab, is the epitome of slate climbing. It features moves I’ve never even done before, in particular a bizarre pinky finger lock which you have to hang off in order to make a foot movement, as well as a big rock-over on a small but good edge for which stiff shoes help a lot.

I had to be resourceful to get this done. Being on the shorter end of the spectrum is quite unhelpful between the first and second bolts. It took 3 sessions to even work out a sequence for this move, and I jealously watched Will and Dan easily use lower, better feet which their extra reach made accessible. In the end my sequence involved a high left foot and then a weird kind of drop knee. The amazing thing is that when I got the body position completely perfect, it didn’t feel hard at all. But if I was off by just a fraction the move felt impossible.

Practising this move to really solidify the muscle memory was crucial, and so I decided to go there on my own, put a rope down from the top, and do some self-belayed climbing. I’ve never done this before, so I also had to figure out how to actually do it. Steph Davis’ article was very useful, since it has photos showing how the chest harness is meant to look. I was of course very careful and cautious at first, but this is a technique I’m glad to have learned, I’m sure it will be useful in the future.

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Will Oates on one of the many high steps

Another obstacle was a 4th bolt which was hanging out and wobbling slightly, which you’re also pretty likely to fall onto. Not confidence-inspiring! If you did fall onto it and it failed, a ground-fall would be on the cards.

I talked to Glyn Hudson, who had re-bolted it a few years back, and he told me that at the time he hadn’t realised that he’d been given a pretty blunt drill bit. This meant he had to push quite hard to drill the holes, and so the holes were probably a little too big. Fortunately he was keen to get back there and sort it all out, and he very kindly spent a wet afternoon on Wednesday doing a full re-bolt so the route is now safe. Thanks a lot Glyn.

On my successful attempt today, I tried really hard to be in the moment and focus on each move I was doing. I’d set myself the arbitrary goal of doing it before I go away for 3 weeks this evening (a bit of time in London, then 2 weeks trad climbing in Lewis & Harris!) So this was basically my last opportunity for a while. I’ve definitely failed many times on redpoint attempts when under time pressure, so I was pretty pleased that I managed to find the right head space to focus on the climbing rather than the sending. Obtaining this presence of mind is something I see as a really powerful tool to become a better climber.

Manic Strain hasn’t had many ascents so I’m hoping this post will encourage a few more people to get down there!

San Vito Lo Capo rock climbing; taking the train to Sicily

This year, immediately following Christmas day, I joined my girlfriend Emily and our friends Glyn and Amy to escape the wettest UK December on record for some winter sun and rock climbing in Sicily.

Although there is climbing all over Sicily, we decided to focus on the San Vito Lo Capo area as it was clear there was plenty to do there for one trip and we didn’t want to lose lots of time driving around.

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The train journey

We decided (as we often do) to travel via train. There were various possible ways to break the journey down but they basically all involve travelling from Paris to either Turin or Milan, and then from Turin or Milan to either Rome or Naples. From there it’s another train ride to Palermo in Sicily where we hired a car for the final two hour drive to San Vito Lo Capo.

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Naples

Below is our itinerary. I’ve shown prices too, since I always get questions about this, however note that you need to book in advance (3 months generally or 6 months for the Eurostar) to have a shot at getting these prices. I recommend Loco2.com for tickets, but I do work there so I’m obviously biased. (But I do genuinely think it’s the best site and we have fantastic customer service.)

Train Depart Arrive Cheapest ticket (approx)
London St Pancras International to Paris Nord
Eurostar
9.24 – Day 1 12.47 £29
Paris Nord to Paris Lyon
RER line D
Paris Lyon to Milan Porta Garibaldi
TGV
14.41 21.50  £22
Milan Porta Garibaldi to Napoli Centrale
Trenitalia InterCity Notte (4 berth sleeper cabin)
23.17 9.28 – Day 2  £30
Left bags in station left luggage and spent the day exploring Naples
Napoli Centrale to Palermo Centrale
Trenitalia InterCity Notte (4 berth sleeper cabin)
23.53 9.48 – Day 3  £30
 
Palermo Centrale to Napoli Centrale
Trenitalia InterCity
10.05 – Day 1 19.12  £15
Napoli Centrale to Milano Porta Garibaldi
Trenitalia InterCity Notte (4 berth sleeper cabin)
21.32 7.11 – Day 2 £30
Milano Porta Garibaldi to Paris Lyon
TGV
8.45 16.12  £22
Paris Lyon to Paris Nord
RER line D
Paris Nord to London St Pancras International
Eurostar
18.13 19.39  £29

Total cost (assuming cheapest tickets): £210 return

On the outbound journey, it would have been possible to arrive in Palermo at 23.00 on Day 2. But this would have been a bit late to be sorting out a hire car, and we’d have spent the day sitting on a train rather than exploring Naples.

There is actually a night train service (although I use that term loosely as it takes about 20 hours) which goes all the way from Milan to Palermo which avoids the change in Rome or Naples. However it departs too late to connect with the Paris to Milan TGV on the outbound, and arrives too late to connect with the Milan to Paris TGV in the inbound. You could get a later TGV but then you’d miss the last Eurostar to get back to London the same day.

Another option to throw in the mix would be using the Paris to Milan Thello sleeper service rather than the TGV day train; although I’ve heard pretty bad things about that service and have never taken it myself.

We opted for the slightly shorter return journey without the day in Naples, and part of the rationale was that we could experience the incredibly exciting crossing from Sicily to the mainland in the full light of day. There’s no bridge or tunnel, so the train is literally loaded onto a ferry and shipped across the water!

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The climbing

The climbing is not spread over a huge area but a car is definitely needed to get around. The routes are generally not mega-long endurance epics; we had a 70m and an 80m rope but the 70 was mostly sufficient. The grades are often soft, sometimes unbelievably so.

In town there is the climbing house which is a great place to hang out and get advice from the friendly staff. They sell excellent beer from some Sicilian micro-breweries, although it’s fairly pricey (but worth it).

You need to keep an eye on the bolts. In the past there have been issues with non-stainless bolts being placed which rust fast in a marine environment (which this is, even if the crag is not right next to the beach). It seems like the locals are aware of the issues and the situation is improving with stuff getting rebolted, but there were some routes we simply avoided because they looked too suspect. You can contribute to the bolt fund at the climbing house.

In our time we got around to most of the main crags…

Salinella is a long but not especially high cliff face which wraps the western side of the peninsula which San Vito Lo Capo sits on. You could easily walk/bike there from town. It is fairly bitty and broken rather than a single clean face, but there are some sections of high quality rock. On the north end I most enjoyed the Cala Mancina sector. Highlight routes were Chr.is.to 7c+ and Mal Di Schiena 7c. On the south end my highlights were The Wish Comes True 7c+, Pipeline 7c and Red Pillar 6c (climbed in the dark at the end of the dark, long and exciting).

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Cala Mancina (photo: Glyn Hudson)

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Glyn flashing “the move” on The Wish 7c+ (photo: Amy Underwood Thompson)

Never Sleeping Wall is one of the longer crags with some interesting tufa formations. Tears of Freedom 7a+ and Long Sleep 6b+ were both excellent.

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Never Sleeping Wall (photo: Glyn Hudson)

Crown of Aragon is excellent for climbing in the 7s. It’s not especially high but has some great looking steep lines – the guidebook photos don’t show the full crag very clearly but I was suitably impressed when I first saw it with my own eyes. Highlights were Walk the Line 7b+ and All Cats are Black at Night 7b (climbed at night, which felt appropriate!)

Lost World was worth seeking out; the guidebook photos showing massive tufas hanging in a roof caught our attention, but we were worried by reports of rusty bolts. Fortunately we found out that it has been rebolted 5 months ago and the bolts are now decent. The approach is more complicated than most of the other crags in the area; we needed to drive up a rough track and then descend a via ferrata. It probably took an hour in total to get in, but is well worth the effort. Highlights were Me Gustas Tu 8a and Stabilo Dave 8a although the grades are extremely soft. This crag clearly doesn’t receive as much traffic as other areas; some bits of tufa could well break off and so it felt a little more adventurous here. A helmet wouldn’t go amiss although it’s generally steep enough that the belayer isn’t in the line of fire.

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Amazing tufas at Lost World sector (photo: Glyn Hudson)

Parco Cerriolo was my least favourite sector, although this is partly due to the fact that it was a very cold day, the tufas were dripping and I got stung on the head by a bee which then caused me to get a reaction and a fever in the night and take the following day off. But objectively I just don’t think it’s that good; a lot of the harder climbs start with a super steep roof and then turn the lip onto a much easier face. The best route we did was Feistus Reglettas 7b+. Watch out for bees’ nests!

Rocca Firriatio is another more adventurous / less trafficked crag which gets no sun so is best on a warm day. The grades felt harder (i.e. more in line with other places). It’s quite a bush-whack to get in although this will improve if it gets more traffic. There is quite a bit of loose rock; take a helmet – the girls had a near miss when Emily pulled a large block off Let There Be Rock 6b+. Il Pandoro 7a+ is fantastic, climbing up to straddle a huge stalactite and then crossing through a ridiculously steep roof but somehow the holds just keep coming. Roof Rabbit 8a was also excellent and ridiculously steep. I failed to redpoint it in the day but Glyn managed. If it was in Ceuse it would be a classic.

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Chilling out on Il Pandoro 7a+ at Rocca Firriatio (photo: Glyn Hudson)

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Roof Rabbit 8a at Rocca Firriatio (photo: Glyn Hudson)

On our last day the four of us all went up a multi-pitch, Parole al Vento 6b+/c on a rock pillar on the side of Monte Monaco. We chose this route because it’s one of a few which are fully bolted, and we had no trad gear. However “fully bolted” doesn’t mean it’s a conventional sport route; there are run-outs of up at 5 metres at times which can feel exciting. The climbing was excellent although I unfortunately didn’t have the best time on the crux pitch (P3) because it was very wet and greasy, causing me to fall off. The rest of it was dry and enjoyable though. The final pitch in particular was great.

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Glyn at the top of the run-out first pitch of Parole al Vento 6b+/c

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Emily right at the top (P5) of Parole al Vento 6b+/c

Climbing as a team of 4 we had both our ropes for the abseil, which was pretty handy. You can probably get down on a single 80m rope but having two ropes saved us the faff of having to back-clip through some roofy bits which we could just descend past.

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We climbed in the shade but there was some gorgeous evening light at the end of the day (photo: Glyn Hudson)

Special thanks to Glyn for taking so many great photos on this trip – I was unfortunately extremely lazy with my camera so most of the photos are down to him!