Fontainebleau 2016 – trip highlights from a five time Font SHAG’er

I touched down at Charles de Gaulle and made my way swiftly out of arrivals. The rest of the SHAG group had landed about an hour beforehand and I didn’t want to keep them waiting longer than necessary – we still had to drive a little further south to reach our final destination for the week: Fontainebleau.

While this was now my fifth trip to Font with SHAG, being based in Austria since 2014, this yearly trip is one of the few remaining links I have with a city that I grew to love and called my home for three and a half years. It was in Glasgow and through SHAG that I truly caught the bouldering bug – so it seems a fitting tribute that once a year I spend a week at the birthplace of bouldering whilst the dulcet tones of Scottish banter reverberate in my ears 😉

Being one of three stalwarts of the SHAG Font trip, over the years I’ve learnt a few things about how best to approach a week in the enchanted forest. My biggest lessons have come surprisingly not through my successes, but through having to endure the frustration of injury. In 2014, I badly twisted my ankle dismounting from a boulder at Dumbarton and had only been walking for a week before heading to Font. Before the 2015 trip, I injured my shoulder whilst bouldering and found hoodies blacklisted for weeks as I could not lift my shoulder to get out of them. While injuring oneself two weeks before a trip is not conducive to achieving PBs (although ironically my hardest Font climb was done with a very dodgy ankle!), what it has taught me is the value of enjoying the forest time and the magical place for what it is. So thus, whilst this year I was finally (relatively) injury-free, I went without the goal of achieving PBs (although if it happened, bonus!), but with the mindset of enjoying the company of friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year, and the prospect of frolicking in beautiful forest and clambering up the odd boulder or two.

So what follows is just a few personal highlights from Font 2016 –moments that remind me why I love this sport so much, a sport that has helped me keep my sanity through stressful periods of my life, allowed me to laugh again during emotionally hard times, and taught me the importance of camaraderie and having a little self-belief. I know they’ll bring me a quiet smile when I am back in Austria and missing the lovable rag-tag bunch of SHAG’ers, and I hope for you readers, it’ll at least provide some mild entertainment.


A typical scene setting off to find boulders to play on for the day. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Smith)

Our first day of bouldering, we headed to Diplodocus. The weather was going to be a relatively cool 26 degrees so it made sense to head to one of the less shaded venues as it was going to heat up significantly as the week progressed. Also, only Mark, Billy and I had been there previously (during Font trip 1 and 2) – so for the rest of the crew, it would be a new venue to explore. My memories of my time there was that it had a good range of easier problems, thus it would be an ideal way to ease us into Font sandstone climbing and allow us to brush up on our mantling skills – which we would undoubtedly put into practice throughout the week.


Acclimatising to the Font sandstone at Diplodocus. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson) 

The highlight for most of us that day surely was the moment we heard Billy’s roar. I was at another boulder a little further away at the time but I knew that it must have marked something significant. For a lot of us there, Billy has played an important role in nurturing our development and love for the sport, thus his personal achievements are ones that are always collectively celebrated. We came from our various boulders towards where we heard the roar and found Billy breathing heavily and barely able to speak, but looking decidedly chuffed. He had finally conquered his nemesis climb from Font trip #1 – Technogym. This climb also claimed the life of his camera during that trip so Billy clearly was pleased to settle the score.


Billy’s delight at sending Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Hamilton-Reilly).

With some elegant bum-shuffling, a few burly moves to move out of the cave and then a mantle to top out, you have to work hard for the 6a tick. Jamie flashed it this year – a testament to his elegant yet strong climbing style. It was fantastic to see.


Jamie flashing Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Laura Begbie)

Having tried it previously and not being strong enough to do the burly moves out of the cave, I was keen to try it again as I knew I had definitely improved my upper body strength since our last visit. However, the burly move out to the lip again proved to be the crux for me. I worked that section in isolation and quickly discovered a right drop knee and left arm cross move that worked. “Sweet!” I thought, “now I just had to link it”. However, while in isolation the move felt very easy, I never found the exact sweet spot again to allow me to move through that section smoothly. But like Billy, the boulder had gotten under my skin, so whilst the rest of the crew settled around to eat lunch, I doggedly tried to re-find my small person beta and scrutinised every little nub and bump to see if they were the holds I had previously used to make the move. I also tried working the burlier version, however it was a low percentage move for me with my feet usually brushing the mat (I could hear Billy shout ‘DAB!’ in my head each time). I wasn’t going to leave this boulder though, I knew it was within my ability.


Stuck at my crux on Technogym. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)

In the end it was Fran who was my saviour – she has only been climbing for a relatively short time but has an enviable amount of natural ability and moves beautifully over the rock. I only met her for the first time at last year’s trip but got some effective beta vampiring action off her. So I was more than happy when she wandered over to discuss different possibilities for my crux. Within minutes she was able to find me an alternative to the drop knee that still allowed me to do the left hand cross move. And thus, more than an hour after Billy’s roar, I was also able to stand atop Technogym. It was a small personal achievement but what I enjoyed was the fact that I had to persist with the problem, go through the torment of unlocking the crux and promptly forgetting how I did it, and then discussing movements and alternatives to find yet another version that would eventually got me to the top.

Jamie is another person whom I regularly beta-vampired off – his footwork is exquisite and he can engage beast mode at the drop of the hat (sadly, I cannot engage beast mode at will). But more importantly, I find he is able to describe his movements really well – which is important for bouldering when slight shifts of weight can be the difference between peeling off the boulder or being stable enough to make the next move. On our previous trip to Font, I regularly called out to Jamie when I was freaking out near the top a boulder feeling my shoulder quivering and knowing I didn’t have long before I fell – his calm talking through got me out of a few situations last year, and this year, his advice was the key in unlocking another boulder for me –Les Charleston at Buthiers. It was as simple as ‘lean to the left’ – I had been trying to top the boulder straight on, however as soon as did as Jamie suggested (after many, many failed attempts), the hold with my left hand became more positive and I was able to get my weight over my leg and push myself over. The subtle changes in body weight positioning were all that had separated me from getting to the top. Leaning left would never have been something I would have intuitively thought of doing – it still felt completely wrong right before I attempted the move, so it was a great feeling to high-five Jamie to acknowledge another team-effort send. I should also thank Laura (who sent the problem last year) for her role too – she patiently spotted me for each attempt and provided the encouragement to persist with each failed top out.


Jamie displaying exquisite style at Chamarande. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)


Laura fighting with her own nemesis of the trip – Pas Glop – at Cuisiniere. She sent it after putting up one heck of a fight. (Photo courtesy of Laura Begbie)

While getting up boulders I couldn’t do previously certainly brings a sense of satisfaction, I also get immense fulfilment celebrating in the success of others. I remember the day we were in Cuisiniere, I had just topped a boulder I had been working on and as I was looking for my decent. Helen and Emma yelled excitedly at me to come over to where they had been working on a traverse. They wanted to share the news that they had sent it. I insisted they chose a name for it (it’s now called Chicken Foot Traverse) and took a photo of the proud pair next to their boulder. It was a joy to then have them talk me through each foothold and handhold – as I moved through each section, they would tell me all the nuances they had discovered whilst finding the path that worked best for them. Their elation was infective and I was pleased to have been able to share in their success.


Helen and Emma triumphant next to Chicken Foot Traverse at Cuisiniere. (Photo courtesy of Emma McLean) 

And how could I not mention slabs when it comes to Font? As a smaller climber and often needing to get my feet up before reaching a handhold, slabs seem to suit my climbing style as moving feet first comes easily. Although in Font, I find I also have the advantage of being able to fingernail crimp tiny edges for extra stabilisation. Known for my technique within the group, it was hilarious hearing the surprise from a group of Swedes when they heard the sound of nail scraping against rock and realised I was using my fingernails to pull up myself up the wall.


Engaging the fingernails on Le Surplomb des Frelons/TGV at Roche aux Sabots. (Photo courtesy of Billy Sands)

However, my favourite slab moment of Font 2016 was witnessing John’s battle with Gratonnade (6a+) at Isatis. I had done the route previously on another trip but despite doing it again this year on my first go, it did feel quite sketchy for the feet. Fran waltzed her way up effortlessly and Jamie also managed to top it after a few attempts, however John was having a mental battle trying to commit to standing up on a shiny (and rather slippery) sliver of rock only a few millimetres deep with not much purchase for the hands. Several times he would be just two moves away from the top and then berate himself before bailing. But despite it all, he persisted with the route. I could see he wanted to win this particular head game and it was a fantastic moment watching him commit to standing up and then finally being atop the boulder. “Just step up” is something I am used to hearing, however when it comes to slabs in Font, this is often the best approach.

There were so many other moments of the trip that I made it memorable for me – the beautiful sector of Chamarande with its chestnut trees and some of the quality problems we did there, the pool shenanigans that had me with tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard, sitting outside and looking up at the magnificent Milky Way and seeing shooting stars, offloading my troubles to patient ears that let me keep talking till 2:30am, the barbeques and al fresco dining, the post climb ice creams…I could go on and on…but I won’t.

As a final note: Font 2016 was made possible through the efforts of Mark Reilly – so a big thank you to Mark for making this trip a reality. Finding a week that works for 12 people, then organising the gite, hiring of the vans and mats is no small feat. Thanks also to the drivers, John and Kris – you guys allowed me to quietly soak up the views of the French countryside or nap soundly in the back while you delivered me to and from the boulders each day.

And finally, thank you to the entire Font 2016 crew. I have not mentioned everyone personally here but thank you to each one of you for making one lonesome Aussie in Austria not so lonesome for one glorious week in August 🙂


Al fresco poolside dining (Photo courtesy of Jamie Smith)


Kris and Mark at Buthiers for some pre-dawn bouldering. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson)


Fran and I get in a spot of morning rock yoga at Cuisiniere. (Photo courtesy of Helen Downie)


Dave looking intense on Pas Glop. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Hamilton-Reilly)


Sarah, our professional photographer, on her first trip to Font and putting in a valiant effort on Les Charleston at Buthiers. (Photo courtesy of David Robertson)




Posted in Bouldering, General | Leave a comment

Nasty Knoydart?


This is another uncle windbag reminicence post as I get back into shape, which has seen a three munro walk completed yesterday without problems. This post contains the occasional naughty word and satire not intended to be taken seriously, loosely based on a walk some 15 years ago 🙂

Up until now, despite several trips to the area, I had never managed to bag more than one knoydart peak in a day. In the past, weather, time, motivation and the choice of route had conspired to prevent me from achieving this minor personal goal. This time Craig and I set out on a Saturday night in late February. We set out from strath ‘an to spend the night at a’ chuill bothy. This time, we arrived at the bothy at about 10.00 pm. This was in stark contrast to other expeditions to the area. On one such occasion, a group of us from the Glasgow university mountaineering club had set out one December night for the bothy at kinbreck, with the plan to walk from sgurr mhor to sgurr na ciche. We left strath ‘an at midnight and headed over the hills to the bothy. The night was cold, cloudy and moonless. The chill crystallised our breath and this was caught in the light of our torches. It must have looked like a procession of steam trains chugging up the hill. It was not going to be pleasant, so we bolstered our morale by singing songs like bohemian rhapsody (with head banging action – before wayne’s world) and right said Fred’s “I’m too sexy”. The latter obviously had a profound effect on young Brian and probably initiated his transformation from former altar boy to the self styled dark lord of heavy rock and bothying. We arrived at the bothy at 3.00am – goodness knows how. I have since done that walk in the light of midsummer and lost the track. Although I arrived at midnight with Dave R. we could still see without torches. Still, my blushes would light up the bothy that night as we met a couple of guys who worked at the national museum of Scotland. Not much embarrassing about that until you realise one recognises you. You were one of those two goofballs that got permission to film and dance there in Craig’s first music video. We were skidding about the polished floor and going arse over tit because Craig forgot to put eyeholes in the cardboard box robot heads that we were wearing! However, when we got to the bothy on this dreary December night, Brian, who was inspired by stories of Rhys and Scabby Neil decided to save time in the morning by having his breakfast before going to bed. He made a stomach churning mix of porridge, milk, eggs, kippers, bacon and jam – all in the one pot. After taking a few nibbles, he decided that he didn’t want to eat it and went to bed. That night was so cold that we put our sleeping bags inside our survival bags. The thing I remember most about it was that during the night all our sweat had collected inside our survival bags and had turned to ice in places. After we had crawled out of our ice chrysalises we made breakfast – except Brian, who had already made his the night before. It obviously had time to mature. It now looked even worse! And it now resembled congealed dog’s vomit in a perforated gastric ulcer wrap. Even more disgusting was the fact that he ate it. As breakfast was going down –or in Brian’s case, coming up- we were all gloomily pondering what we would do on this miserable day.
Because of our late arrival, and the miserable weather, not much got done that day. Brian and I managed enough motivation to climb sgurr mhor. Simon and Chris got as far as sgurr coireahcan with full packs- they planned to stay at sourlies- before returning, and I think quiet Dave did something long and silly, as was his want, like Gairich. Dave has a habit of blending into the background and then doing some epic walk in winter, like Derry Cairngorm, starting from braemar. He also has the ability to condense the whole experience into a single adjective: “how was your walk Dave?”…”Far”.
When Brian and I returned from the hill, the atmosphere was totally different to the one we had left. The rest of our group, who had spent the night camping at strath ‘an had arrived before we got back and had brought in some much appreciated coal. The bothy was now a cosy place with a warm orange glow that was supplied by the fire and helped out by various torches, candles and stoves. There was the sound of laughter and wee Pete playing the penny whistle. People were busy cooking and there was the roar of Duncan’s primus. You could feel a soothing warm damp comfort against your whether beaten skin, although in reality, it was only 50C inside, but it was still a world away from the damp chill and mank that we had just left on the outside.
On another occasion, I sent out for another location with Brian and Simon – again in December. And again we started out late. This time it was because Brian’s car needed some repairs done to it, and the garage took longer than expected and charged him more than his old Cavalier was worth. So, we set out at midnight. We plodded in the cold damp air without much motivation; each of us secretly hoping one of the others would say “lets just go back”. After about 90 minutes we stopped by an old building; more because we couldn’t be arsed with the walk, rather than because we needed a rest. We huddled against the wall and had some chocolate and Brian produced some whisky Then Simon said “look, this window can be opened.” So, we climbed in to be met by a notice that read “ This is not a bothy, but you are welcome to use it as a refuge in an emergency situation”. Well, we were cold, tired and our mental resources were seriously depleted by the thought that we still had at least another 3 hours walking until we reached our planned destination – unfamiliar routes take a lot longer in the dark when wearing plastic boots and carrying heavy packs that also contain coal. We therefore reasoned that this was a mild emergency and decided to stay. Most of our time was spent festering indoors, after all it was crap out side and the nearest hill was bloody miles away. We did venture out side to repay our anonymous host’s hospitality by filling up his stores of firewood. We then spotted some of our friends (Craig, Mark, Nils and Amanda) retreating from their bothy along the track, so we ran back inside to hide. Well, we didn’t want them to know that we had spent such a lazy and comfortable weekend, after they had got wet on the hills and shivered for a few days in a cold draughty hut with no fireplace. We didn’t hide out of embarrassment, although we did have to acknowledge that they had spent an “proper” weekend; Craig later told me he had a very nasty experience with a cornice in a whiteout. Our shyness had more to do with wanting to protect the identity of our holiday villa, and prevent it from being abused (hence the vagueness here  ). I thought that this was rather “considerate” of us. Especially since we were squatting there ourselves, with our only justification being a rather liberal interpretation of the phrase “emergency situation”.
In all aspects of life, people who learn from their past mistakes grow from the experience, and improve their chances of future success. The lessons of these previous misadventures had now been assimilated; I had learned not to go to knoydart in December, or if I did, I would at least not expect a successful trip. I had also learned that getting to the bothy early was a good idea too. This time, it was late February and we had walked the 5 or so miles to the bothy by 10.00pm. This set us up nicely to climb Sgurr na ciche and garbh cioch mhor the next day.

Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mhor

                                      Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mhor

As we left the bothy in the morning, we looked over to the hills. They were constantly kept out of reach by the river and forest that we had to walk along, but they looked stormy to say the least. The top third was in whiteout conditions, with the rest looking wet, grey, windy and miserable. It was like there was a doorman hovering around the hills. Not the professional but firm “regulars only tonight” type, but a nasty neanderthal knuckle dragger who kept a claw hammer with a stanley knife taped to it under his jacket and a rusty nail in his toe cap. This one snarled at us “don’t even think about it. ‘Cos if you do, you’re going to wish that you had stayed at home, sandpapering your fuckin’ nuts and dipping them in vinegar by the time I’ve finished with you. Now FUCK OFF!” Still, this was nothing to worry us; we’ve been out in this sort of stuff lots of times.
To this day, I’m not sure if our cockiness was due to experience or stupidity, but how else do you gain experience? By surviving similar things in the past – that’s how! I do believe that most situations can be tackled “safely” if you are confident in your own abilities and aware or your weaknesses and danger signs. I have often heard it said that there is no such thing as wrong weather. Just wrong clothing. I think this is a partial truth, as you do need a certain toughness and determination to be up for the fight. You should also be able show the wisdom not to get into a situation that you cannot get yourself out of. Mountaineering can be as safe or as challenging as you choose to make it. If you choose the challenging situations you do so at your own risk, and if it goes well, you will have a rewarding experience. However, you may also die. Only to be found in 5000 years time by a bunch of archaeologists that want to gang probe your butt.
I would like to say that we had weighed all this up, but without much thought, we just looked at the doorman and said, “Bring it oan ya dobber” and chibbed the walloper in the swingers with our crampons. However, we decided to tackle sgurr na ciche first, and headed up the gentle gully to the fedan pass. Halfway up, I decided that it was time to put on my crampons. This was going to be good. I had spent much of the previous year recovering from a broken ankle that I got running down stac pollaidh – seemed like a good idea at the time! Then, I also remember Brian thinking that it was a good idea for him to try impressing a girl at a party by licking a lit light bulb and stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue. This ended in screams of “aaaargh , I can taste burning, It really hurts”. Needless to say, he spent the night with Pam and her five sisters.
As we were gearing up in the gully, we were being plastered by a moderate mix of wet snow and hail at this point. We didn’t think that these conditions were bad enough to constitute an avalanche hazard, and there were no signs of weakness in the snow pack, so we continued upwards. Suddenly my left crampon parted company with the sole of my boot. The tensioning bolt on the heel clip had worn through. I tried to fix it, but it only lasted for a few steps and came off again. I considered going up with just one crampon, but reasoned that this could give my left foot a dangerous sense of false security. There was nothing for it; I was going to have to do it the old fashioned way by kicking extra hard and cutting steps where necessary. Despite this, we made remarkably quick progress up the gully to the gap, aided the strengthening wind that was pushing us on from behind. Heading up from the gap, we reached the break in the slope that leads to the summit, and took a bearing. The summit was found easily enough, but we decided not to linger there and tried to retrace our steps, but the wind and spindrift had filled them it. We took a back bearing and came to a break in the slope. We were not convinced that this was the exact spot that we had ascended from, but nothing makes much sense in these conditions, when you can barely see your feet, and few rocks protrude through the snow and spindrift to give you any point of reference. In situations like this, you have no idea where the ground is and you can quite literally walk into a snow bank or even over a cliff as some have done. I remember one occasion on the drumochter hills with Craig when we got separated in a white out. We had strayed no more than 10 feet from each other, and the wind drowned out the sounds of our whistles. I went up and down the ridge, 4 times looking for him, we could have passed within feet of each other and been none the wiser. The wind blew me over and turned me round. I was convinced that I knew which way to go, but my compass said otherwise. I had to follow the compass, even though my head said no. At this point, I was experiencing a strong inner conflict between perception and logic. This was causing me a great deal of uncertainty and filling me with apprehension, not what you need in a situation like that, where mental strength can make all the difference to the outcome. I carried on down to be blown over again. This blast caused a brief thinning of the opaque semi solid shroud that covered the hill. As I laid on my back, I looked around to work out where I had been blown to and to my surprise, floundering around me were four cross country skiers. The furthest one was no more than 10 feet away. If this had not happened, I would never have known they were there unless they skied over me. Experiences like this had justified our right to feel uncertain at this break in the slope. To make matters worse, this white out on sgurr na ciche was even nastier. We were now facing into the wind on the descent, and the winds were the strongest that either of us had yet experienced. It could only be described as awesome. It was a malevolent wind that was firing sharp pieces of ice up my nose and blowing my breath onto my storm flaps and goggles, where it was freezing. I couldn’t see and had to take off my goggles. However, I still couldn’t see as my eyes were now being sand blasted by the horizontal hail that was being thrust into our faces. The conditions were so bad that you could hardly see your feet. Though, considering that you could not open your eyes, this didn’t really add to the severity of the situation. It seems strange to say, but being stung by this barrage of icy shrapnel was still preferable to trying to see out of iced up goggles. The best that I could do was to take off my mitt and squint through semi splayed fingers. I would do this for as long as I could take it, then turn my back to the gale, close my eyes and let the pain and the tears subside, and then repeat the process.

The Gully (Photo By Craig)

                                             The Gully (Photo By Craig)

Trying to descend from the break in the slope was not going to be the piece of cake that we had anticipated. The wind was so strong that we were pinned to the spot; you could not even throw yourself into the wind, because it would just lift you back up. It is at times like this in the gloomy white haze that the red mist comes down and you tap into that inner beast. It was like the mountain had just spilled your pint, shagged your burd and then just called you a hand woven wicker jacket wearing rambler – without a bobble hat! Oh yeah, and if that wasn’t enough, the bastard was holding us prisoner and trying to kill us in to the bargain. So, feeling the adrenaline rush, I ran at the slope with all my being, arms wind milling in an exaggerated cartoon swimming style. I had all the determination and emotional content of someone charging a machine gun nest on the Somme. After all, it was laying down rapid-fire rounds of ice projectiles at us. So, here we go, over the top….”AAARRGGGHH, BASTARD! BASTARD! BASTARD! …AAARRRGGGHHH”. Pause, puff, pant ….”AAARRGGGHH, BASTARD! BASTARD! BASTARD! …AAARRRGGGHHH”. “This hill is Japan and I am Godzilla. I’m going to kick down its cairn and shit in its lochan…AAARRRGGGHH.” The mountain was fighting us and I was loving every minute of it. This went on for a while, it was an epic fight, like Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris. I was pumped up and felt heroic. I stopped to wonder how far I had come. How many feet had I kicked the mountains’ hairy oversized ass? I looked back at Craig. The fact I could see him was not very reassuring. I thought, “Fuck! Four fucking feet! That was the hardest fought four fucking feet of my life!” This was pretty poor when you consider that in the past, I have descended the 1000 or so feet of the an stac screes in under four minutes. It would truly have been easier to run at the all blacks with a rugby ball. Eventually we got down the slope by slow determined walking, not running. If I had ever bothered to think about the biomechanics of bipedal locomotion, I would have realised that this was the way to do it: always one point in contact with the ground! Once about 60 feet down from the break in the slope, the wind became less severe and I chuckled to myself as I remembered a throwaway piece of Brian Zen wisdom: “All ways walk below the ridge, it’s less windy – its true!” Although he did say that in a situation where it was actually more dangerous to walk below the ridge – clinging to the snottery frozen side of a cuillin coire.
This major struggle was behind us, but we still were not out of the woods yet. Craig needs his glasses to see, and they had frozen over, as had his trousers. In fact, he was beginning to remind me of the scene from “Terminator 2” were the cyberdyne T1000 has an unfortunate encounter with a truck full of liquid nitrogen. I was thinking that any moment now. I‘ll hear a crack and one of his legs will drop off. There was no crack, but what I did hear was just as disturbing. I have always thought of Craig as an “rock” on the mountain, but for the first time ever I could hear an alarming shakiness and uncertainty in his voice. Up until now, I had been joking with him that we HAD to get Garbh Cioch Mhor done, and if he died, I could always hollow him out with my ice axe to make a toboggan. However, it was now getting serious. He was becoming hypothermic. I now had to guide him down the slope, and through the crags. The going was tough and I was getting tired. I had to kick most steps (and several rocks) two or three times, and due to my ankle injury I was not as fit as I could be. Strangely, the thing that contributed most to this tiredness was actually trying to shout instructions to Craig; the wind just tore away your voice and it was lost forever. This disrupted my breathing and caused my strength to wane. Eventually we fought our way to a frozen waterfall and sheltered under it to have some food (eating on top was rather tricky, and the wind could easily have blown our gear away if we tried). As soon as we stopped though, I noticed that Craig was now shivering violently. I was also starting to cool down at this point, and my exposed hand was now numb and useless. This made me realise that we had to get to the bothy as soon as possible, get Craig in both the sleeping bags, get the fire going and make lots of hot sweet tea.

The Ice Cave (photo by Craig)

                                          The Ice Cave (photo by Craig)

As we got closer to the bothy, the food we had was starting to kick in and Craig was beginning to perk up, so we just decided to have some tea, pack up and head for home. By the time we got back to the car Craig was almost bouncing, and through all my extra efforts and injury, I however, was sore and dragging my feet. I also developed shin splints on that walk that prevented me from running and playing football for a year.
As I neared the car, Craig had been there for a few minutes and was starting to change. He was bouncy and chirpy, his spirits having risen considerably. I looked at him and wondered about the reversal of our circumstances. Why was he now so lively and I literally had to drag myself the last few miles? I somehow felt cheated. I don’t know what ending I expected. Surely I should have heroically carried Craig (preferably lifeless – or close to it) and his gear back to the car. Surely I would be heralded with ticker tape and fireworks as I approached the car to the sound of the ode to joy excerpt from dear old Ludwig van’s No 9. Surely the path before would be showered with rose petals from topless maidens. Then it would be off home to miss Scotland – please God, surely? In reality, I limped to the car, cursing every step and the resulting impact on my bruised and swollen toes and shins. When I finally drew up to Craig, I looked at him and demanded, “Why aren’t you dead you bastard? It would have made a better story and impressed the girls if you did. BASTARD!” Honestly, there is no justice!
Despite all the hardships, it was a very very memorable expedition that took us close to the edge, and we had the satisfaction of measuring up to the challenge of what the day had thrown at us. There is a great deal of comfort and peace in the tiredness that comes from such an experience. It seems so honest. It is an unparalleled restfulness that you feel as your mind and body start to settle down after such an epic adventure. It is like an inner tranquillity of your whole being. You know that you are going to sleep deeply and come the morning, you will feel renewed – I still only managed one summit, but the whole experience was much more valuable. It didn’t matter that the hill has been climbed thousands of times before us. What we had experienced was in the true sense of adventure in a pioneering spirit. And we didn’t have to go to some remote part of the world and eat monkey brains, yak’s testicles or Brian’s’ fishy porridge to get it. That is the true beauty and wonder of the Scottish hills – much more satisfying than a safe ramble!

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Comeback Hill

Wot, no Craig?

 Beinn a’Chrulaiste is often overlooked by those who are out bagging. It is also unfortunately nicknamed by some as “hangover hill”, suggesting it is only worth doing if you crawl out your tent at 2:00 pm feeling like you have Brian Blessed shouting at a deaf elephant performing a tap dance in your head as Lemmy does the background music (maybe I’ll send that one to Jim’ll paint it).

we're not worthy!

Heading on up


This however is unfair, as it has the best views in the area and has plenty of other things to offer, like the first time I climbed it via the pink rib route in a blizzard with Craig. We were not expecting such conditions, so we only had bendy boots, no crampons and one Ice axe each. As we got higher and the climbing got steeper, we were finding it tougher. The bendy boots were giving little purchase on the poorly consolidated snow. The worst parts involved very steep heather that lay in wait for you between the short rock pitches. Our boots just sloughed off the branches. There was nowhere stable to put our feet. On a few occasions I thought about climbing back down, only to vividly see myself losing my footing and falling, bouncing and my head cracking open on the rocks on the way down . Down climbing is when most accidents occur and the thought of a climber who had been found dead the previous day was going through both our minds at this time. I vividly remember one bit where Craig was stuck in a funnel. It was only about 10 feet high and about 8 feet wide and he was stuck for about 20 minutes. He would try and move his feet and there would be nothing to hold on to – it was like he had wheel spin, and the snow above would not take his axe. I remember climbing up to him and offering my shoulders as foot holds. This got him through the funnel, but there was no way I was trying it as there was no way he could safely help me up. Craig later told me he had vivid images of his mother crying at his graveside flitting though his head at this point. Anyway, I thought I would try the steeper rocks to the left. I climbed about 15 feet and hit an impasse. I had to decide whether to continue up the steepening rock (which was inclined at about 75 degrees) or to try and find another way. I cleaned the snow off the next block and tried it for size, but the first foot hold was in a concave recess and at the limit of my stretch. If I went for it and had to come back down, the hold would be hidden and there may not be enough purchase to take my foot. The result would be a crippling or fatal slip over the edge. Breathing heavily, I took a moment to compose myself and assess the situation. I noticed that I was grasping my axe so hard that my arm was going into cramp. I worked my way down a sloping grass and heather ledge. It was about a foot wide and sloping downhill. To make matters worse my feet would occasionally slip as the snow covering the thick heather branches failed under pressure. After about 20-30 feet, I had gained safer ground and after a short ascent, met up with Craig again. We both continued up for about 150 feet and then hit an impenetrable rock band. Looking at it, I physically felt myself fill with dread from the feet up. Our only option was to find a breach, so we turned left and came to the top of a broad gully. We down climbed the short wall onto the hard packed snow filling its base – if only all the snow had been that good. Now how to get out of it? I looked around and decided that a vertical 15 foot rock step on the other wall was the best option, although a fall would mean that I would shoot down the gully and probably land on the road 900 ft below to invent the new sport of bus-surfing. Because of this, Craig thought he would explore for a bit to see if there was an easier way. When I got to the top, I noticed that the ground was safe and shouted “Hallelujah”- which Craig heard and a few minutes later, he popped over the step too, to be met by a big grin. “I’m happy now” I said, grinning and happy just to be alive. Just then, Craig’s Jaw dropped and said “look – look behind you!” The blizzard had gone and the cloud was clearing. We hadn’t even noticed when it had stopped snowing. For the last hour and a half, our entire universe consisted of only that which was in our immediate vicinity. All that was important to us was that which was within your immediate reach and whether you could grab it, plunge your axe in it or if it could take your weight. Our heightened attention to detail made the view all the more stunning. Ahhh, memories 🙂

Long time no summit

You can make out a track to the summit from the ntop of North buttress

You can make out a track to the summit from the ntop of North buttress

Anyway, this time the point of the hill was to reintrodu ce me to hillwalking after a partial menisectomy 14 months ago. The original damage possibly being initiated by my knee twisting under me as a bit of turf disintegrated below me seconds before reaching the ski centre car park at the end of doing the Clachlet traverse. This was much less adventurous than previous comeback hills; Seanna Braigh on the 2nd of January, starting out at 11:00 am*, The Aonach Eagach and Sgurr na Ciche, which Craig wrote about here, but the last hill I had climbed was Schiehallion some two and a half years ago. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to what might be, and wondered if I might suddenly breakdown, or post hole through the snow and hear a grating crunch as my the ends of my tibia and femur grind past each other as I collapse in pain

. Dave - not Craig :-)

Dave picked the hill and fortunately the day went without a hitch. It’s hard to believe it has been over 3 years since I last walked with Dave, as he was one of my main bagging partners as I worked through the munros, but things settled into a familiar pattern of jokes and banter and I was also reacquainting myself with sugary powder, neve, slushy nastiness, wind sculpted footprints, hands that don’t warm up again when ungloved, rime formations, cameras needing warmed up, bum-sliding and stunning views of my favourite hill; The Buachaille. I secretly wanted to climb it, but kept quiet about it in case we did and I really broke down. As much as I love climbing on The Buachaille, a summit I’ve stood on 20 times, with only two days lacking expansive views, it is sometimes just as good to gawp, and take in some mountain porn. When the inevitable post-holing did occur on the decent, I just bounced back. So far so good! I do still have a faint hope of doing a 10 munro walk this summer, but I’ll take it slowly and see how it goes. In the meantime, my priority is to get in shape for our summer trip to Fontainebleau for some boulder pulling (2 months and counting).

No, it's not a bacon roll

I dedicate this post to Craig who for some inexplicable reason was somewhere flat. However, the views were better the day I did it with Craig, when Dave was doing things with cheeseboards and bubblegum.

*The weekend fix pp 78-80.


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Avalanches……What the books don’t always tell you.

Avalanches……What the books don’t always tell you.

As the recent series of fatalities and near misses from Avalanches in the Scottish hills show us, they are a clear and present danger for those of us who enjoy walking in the winter wonderland our mountains provide at this time of year.

Cobbler avalanche debris

Avalanche debris on the Cobbler

I’ve been witness to both the frightening spectacle of a full on slide and sadly the aftermath of these catastrophic events and I’ll be honest, it’s always been my biggest fear on winter hills and rescues. I’m fortunate enough to have had considerable training and instruction on avalanches, their cause, their effect and how to take a stab at predicting when they might occur. From my journey through the Winter Mountain Leader scheme, Avalanche courses at Glenmore Lodge with undoubtedly the best in the business of prediction, ongoing avalanche training via rescue seminars and training days I feel I have a pretty good knowledge of what to look for regarding slides but, and here’s the rub, even the very best get caught out as the recent tragedy in the Chalamain Gap sadly proves.


The relieved author after a close call cornice collapse avalanche in Hells Lum Crag

For a long time, many walkers thought avalanches were for the Alps and the higher ranges. Mountaineers in Scotland knew differently and whilst there are many sources of first class information, courses and equipment available to “guide” you in the avoidance of avalanches and even what to do in the event of being avalanched, there hasn’t been a great deal printed with regards to what to do in the rescue and associated first aid phase of recovering a buried casualty.

From a personal point of view, I’d never be on a winter hill without a shovel and a probe at the very least. I’ve had to dig down through snow to reach casualties and the amount of effort to shift the quantities of snow involved is incredible. Again, personally, I wouldn’t entertain anything other than a metal shovel. I’ve seen the plastic / non-metal ones break all too frequently when put to use. Probes are also essential and weigh next to nothing but get the longest one you can afford. I have images of casualties being recovered in snow so deep in Scottish avalanches that NO snow probe would have reached them from the surface, so give yourself and your friends a fighting chance. Having them is not enough though. Learn how to use them and, like your ice axe arrest, you should practice at the start of the season (and whenever you get the chance throughout)


But recovering the casualty is only part of the task in a successful rescue. In 2010 we trialled our first Avalanche Rescue and First Aid course at Venture Medical UK for a group of winter mountaineers. Our aim was not to teach the science of avalanches although we showed crystallisation of the snow and basic pits, the purpose was to teach the importance of what you should do in the aftermath of an avalanche involving a buried casualty to avoid causing further injury or even death.

The first thing to recognise is what exactly is a buried casualty. In avalanche medical terms, the definition of a completely buried casualty is one whose “head and chest is buried”. A partial burial is when the head and chest are free from the snow. The risks of a complete burial should be obvious to all.

Many Scottish avalanche victims are not buried but suffer horrendous, life threatening or fatal injuries as a result of travelling with the sliding mass and striking solid rock on the way down. Immediate first aid and preventing the worsening of the casualty’s condition or complications of that condition are necessary.

avalanche piece 1

Where a casualty is buried, we, as the only real and immediate source of rescue, have some things we need to remember to work towards an effective outcome and mistakes made at this stage can and do costs lives.

Mistake Number 1

Uninjured group members leaving the avalanche site too early.

Unless you have a rescue team training in the same coire as you when the slide happens then YOU are the only real hope of finding the casualty alive. It’s imperative that immediately following an avalanche those uninjured group members remain on site carrying out an intensive search using eyes, ears, probes, avalanche beacons for as long as possible and at LEAST 20 minutes after the slide.

Mistake Number 2

Rescuers unnecessarily trampling all over the avalanche site.

For a full burial victim, the only thing that’s going to save them, other than you digging them out quickly, is an air pocket. Research has shown that those casualties who are buried “face up” have a longer survival chance due to the heat from the back of the head melting the snow down wards and maintaining an air pocket in front of the nose and mouth. Rescuers trampling all over the snow is clearly going to comprise that airway. Horrible thought isn’t it?! Approach the avalanche site only to locate, dig out or take care of the victim.

Mistake Number 3

Removing an avalanche probe after a possible find.

If you think you’ve struck something other than a rock or solid ground (and here is where practice with your equipment comes in, try burying a rucksack just to feel how sensitive a probe can feel) then leave the probe in place as a marker to dig towards. Don’t make life more difficult for yourself or delay recovering your casualty by removing it and having to start again.

Mistake Number 4

Digging down vertically to the casualty.

Standard practice years ago for rescues in the belief that you got to the casualty easier, thankfully procedures have now changed and recoveries are being carried out both quicker AND safer for the casualty as a result. Strategic Shovelling is a name bandied about for the technique now most favoured. Whilst the act of shovelling may seem basic, it is always the most physically time consuming task of any avalanche rescue. Strategic Shovelling involves always starting downhill of the casualty’s location. In burials deeper than a meter, start the excavation about one and a half times the burial depth. Working downhill from the site of the casualty should mean there will be less snow to move and less likelihood of compacting the snow over the victims limited air pocket. Snow debris is normally quite firm and many times it’s easier to chop the snow into blocks and then scoop out in a paddling motion.

avalanche piece 2

Mistake Number 5

Not paying attention to the casualty’s airway or air pocket.

As soon as you can, check the space in front of the casualty’s face and make sure the airway is clear. A compromised airway can only result in death.

Mistake Number 6

Making large movements of the casualty during extrication from burial.

The urgency to get the casualty out of the burial is understandable and its not uncommon for non -professional rescuers to undertake a herculean tug of war with the snow and an unconscious casualty. Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is a VERY real threat in a hypothermic casualty and sadly very common. Hypothermia will normally be well and truly set in after about 35 minutes of burial and any unnecessary movements of the casualty CAN cause a hypothermic heart to go into Ventricular Fibrillation and SCA. Clear the snow, give them the necessary treatment and insulate appropriately. Leave the evacuation for those equipped.

Mistake Number 7

Not placing an unconscious casualty into the recovery position.

Unconscious casualty – get them into the recovery position and maintain the airway. Remember the risk of SCA.

Mistake Number 8

Not carrying out CPR on an apparently dead victim who was recovered with an obvious air pocket.

There is a saying in avalanche rescue that the casualty is “not dead until they are warm and dead”. There are some important riders to that and I always remember being told that we don’t resuscitate snowmen but if there are no obvious fatal injuries, if you can compress the chest (NOT always possible in an avalanche victim) and certainly if the airway appears clear then start resuscitation. Remember though, once you start it you need to keep going.

Mistake Number 9

Not having suitable equipment.

Now as a bit of a gear freak myself, I’m all too aware that a shovel and probe may not be the sexiest of mountaineering kit when we compare them to the latest cams or screws but they are as equally, if not more, important in keeping you safe in winter mountaineering. Get the best you can afford and ideally everyone in the party should carry the same. Avalanche Transceivers are great bits of kit and incredibly effective but outwith the price range of most hill goers. Or are they? How much did you pay for your top of the range jacket? Think about it, they are a huge investment. There are also loads of new developments over the years, designed in the main for off piste skiers but equally available for the mountaineer. Avalungs, airbags, balls on ropes have all been tested and tried, all with varying results. If you’re interested then Google is your friend. Having the gear is not enough though. Practise with it. Grid probing requires prior practice. You DON’T want to be trying it for the first time while a friend lies buried beneath you. Same with the shovelling and more importantly with a Transceiver.

probes avalanche



snow-shovelspiep-transceiverMistake Number 10

Lack of knowledge.

There’s absolutely no excuse for having no knowledge of a subject that can potentially kill you or for which alternatively you can assist saving someones life. Get some books, get on a course, get out on the hill with someone that knows what they are talking about. Burying your head in the sand about avalanches could easily result in you being head first buried in the snow. Get on a suitable first aid course as well. Some are more suitable than others but a little bit of knowledge CAN save someones life. Go to the hills long enough and eventually you’ll come across an accident. I guarantee you that.

avalanche piece 3

About the author

Craig Borthwick is a former training officer with a busy Scottish Mountain Rescue Team and has been involved in countless rescues throughout the Scottish Mountains. A qualified outdoor instructor in various mountaineering and outdoor disciplines he has led expeditions throughout the UK and in the Swiss Alps. He trained as a medic and first aid instructor and seeing a gap in suitable first aid courses for the adventurous outdoors lover created Venture Medical UK whose Adventurous Activities Outdoors First Aid course now caters for professionals and enthusiasts alike from throughout the UK. You can read more about Venture Medical UK and the variety of courses they offer by going to  or . SHAG members are entitled to a discount on all Venture Medical UK courses.

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North by North West

Stac Pollaidh

If you are a munro-bagger, the far north of Scotland is a place renowned for being the inconvenient location of the two most northerly munros  – Ben Hope and Ben Klibreck.

However, if you are a normal human being with a passion for the outdoors, Sutherland and Caithness are just fabulous.

Jacqueline and I are just back from a great trip up to the north of Scotland.


It’s “only” four hours to Ullapool and another hour and a bit to Durness. Before you leave, it always seems like a long drive, but once you get there, you realise what a brilliant place it is!


In our five days we scrambled on Stac Pollaidh; walked all three of the Corbetts of Quinag; watched the Army pound Cape Wrath with artillery shells fired from Faraid Head; went to the remote and beautiful Sandwood Bay; ticked off the most Northerly Munro; and scrambled on the lovely rock at Portskerra.

What we didn’t do is now a list as long as your arm – so many amazing hills to explore; heaps and heaps of rock climbing – with possibilities for new routing on the 1000s of unclimbed crags; long distance walks; remote bothies and wild camping; sea kayaking, beach-combing, chilling and relaxing. The big problem for the next trip is what to do first…


Sandwood Bay

If you haven’t been that far north, you really must go!

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Competition night at TCA

This was our third bouldering competition and by far our most popular with 43 entrants.  It is a tribute to the hard work put in by our climbing organisers and members who have made strangers feel welcome that we have built such a group from 3 members attending our first meetup at the GCC. It certainly was not easy to build up the group, as beginners had to be trained and looked after, so it was personally very satisfying for me to see such a large turnout for the competition, with everyone having a good time. The emphasis was on having fun, and offering beta and encouragement was definitely encouraged, although, TCA had kindly offered some prizes for us. Now that I’ve given myself diabetes, it’s down to business……. 


Green Cobra

As I wasn’t competing, for reasons of injury/retiring undefeated,  I chose most of the problems, with some help from Mark (who would fluke a second win in the open section) and Chris, who had a dodgy knee, but heroically went down to TCA a few hours before the event to select some new routes as the ones I had reserved for the competition were accidentally reset  the day before. Chris heroically climbed them all in his socks – yeah, that’s why some of the holds were a bit greasy to ensure they were the right grades. I think he did a good job and picked some good ones. Guess who you can all thank for the dyno by the way 🙂 . However, it was a direct replacement for the dyno I had selected for the beginners. My comfy chair and pop corn never went to waste after all. It was also good because no one had practiced those routes before.


The routes were chosen to be varied and not favour a particular type of climber, although I did plan some mischief on the cobra wall green route. I offered 10 bonus points to anyone who could down climb it. No one managed it, but I was interested to see whether the   “power climbers” would attempt it at the risk of getting tired and whether the “technical” folk who can’t do a pull-up, but can climb 7a and still get stuck on top of bits of French rock, would sacrifice the chance of points to be stronger later on.  There were of course a few slab routes and balancey traverses to mock the power thugs too.


There was also the downright weird. Like the heel hook traverse for the intermediate bonus route. This made use of the kiddie’s traverse at the back wall, but the hand holds only were allowed and you had to heel hook them. There were a further two points up for grabs to anyone who could turn round while still heel hooking. This lead to many folk employing a technique which can only be likened to a dog with bum worms relieving its itch on a carpet, which is most amusing to watch.  If you survived that, you could get an extra 8 points by hooking your way back to the slab.


Slab fun

The night started with a Klaasy bandana and ended with two ties.  First up were Ewan and Bran for third place in the beginner’s category. With the group watching, the battled it out on an easy green we used in the intermediate circuit. Ewan won, with Bran having an unfortunate slip, but considering he has only been climbing about 2 months, this was a really impressive 4th placing for him. I suspect he will be moving up a level in January’s competition – A bit like all the winners and runners up in the first two categories – nae luck guys- and Mr Don, who just missed out on a placing despite only getting in an hour’s climbing . Still, the cake you won will sweeten that news for you :-).


Nightmare in 7b


The next climb off was for first and second place in the open category between some jammy guy who can’t do Font 4 mantles and Alasdair. Originally I had chosen a 7a on the comp wall to separate them, but Alasdair had done it previously, so after some consultation, we decided on a fingery route from the white circuit. Mark won by getting two hold more than Alasdair, to retain his title.



I t was a really enjoyable night,  and great to see the continuing improvement in the all round abilities of the group. This was the first competition that we had a 7b route in and I wasn’t certain it would remain unclimbed.  It did defeat everyone this time, but one of the great things about competition night is that it pushes folk out their comfort zones and make them realise that with a bit of work, a particular grade that they would not ordinarily touch is actually achievable. This week, quite a few folk have been working on their new grade busting projects. It was also great to have Mhairi back amongst us, plying us with delicious homemade cake,  after her nasty injury at the last competition. In typical style, she told some folk that if they didn’t go home in an ambulance, they weren’t trying hard enough



Cutting some moves


Results and photos can be seen here and here.


ImageAlasdair preparing for the climb off


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Yet another tick-list…

It seems as though I can’t escape them.  Tick-lists.  No, no I don’t mean a list of my favourite biting insects but something almost as irritating as those blood-sucking varmints.

I’ve previously blogged about my struggle to complete the round of Munro’s. Part of my reason for this was because rock climbing took over from walking as my activity of choice, particularly when bagging Munros required ever longer and more involved trips.

Final Selection, Stag Rocks

Now I have a new tick-list that I think I am becoming enslaved to, and this is one of my own creation. Earlier this year, saddo that I am, I ploughed through a dozen SMC climbing guides and put together a list of all of the top rated multi-pitch rock climbs in Scotland.  333 routes from Moderate to E8 6C. I put it on the UK Climbing web site so that others could share in the fun.

I know that I’ll never get close to completing this one.  There are routes that I am not a good enough climber to even think about doing.  Some are very hard to get to. Some are “esoteric” – i.e wet, vegetated and obscure.  Some are just too difficult!

However, there are many routes on the UKC tick-list that are do-able for me, and have sparked my imagination.

Climbing is a very personal thing, and with so many styles and types – trad, sport, indoor, winter, bouldering – each can all be further sub-categorised – indoor top-roping, leading, 5+ or 7C, onsighting, seconding, red-pointing etc etc.  Everyone who climbs does so for different reasons – leading harder; on-sighting, new routing, exploring remote regions, big mountain routes, having fun even! However, I would guess that anyone who takes their climbing even vaguely seriously eventually becomes more focused on one or two particular aspects – no-one is ever going to become a master of all styles.

I’ve done a fair amount of indoor climbing but lately it’s just not doing it for me.  Indoor bouldering always hurts, so I’ve shied away from that.  I’ve never really done outside bouldering. Winter is hit and miss – either superb or utterly miserable.  Local trad cragging involves pushing the grades to get the most out of it, and I have a fear of breaking limbs! Outdoor sport is either very hard (UK style) or very far away (European style) – I’ve climbed in Spain and really enjoyed it but it’s not the sort of activity that you can do every week (unless you move there!)

But I really enjoy easy mountain multi-pitch routes.  There are several routes that have been on my “really want to climb them” list for years – Agags Groove; Cioch Nose and Ardverikie Wall – and I have done them all now.  They all have that special something.  A feeling of remoteness. Something adventurous despite their relative easiness. Great rock and brilliant situations

Yesterday I “ticked” another 3 star route in the Cairngorms – Final Selection.  It was only a Diff (therefore easy climbing) but it was hard to get to.  There was the long abseil into a wet gully for starters, with that feeling of trepidation that you were entering a situation that you could only climb out of.  It had that fantastic remote feeling – the route being on the southern flanks of Cairngorm, overlooking Loch Avon and the amazing Shelter Stone crag. You were away from the crowds.  Added to all of the above, there was the lovely rock and a brilliant belay ledge. This route ticked all of the boxes.

So, what is next?  Another trip to the Cairngorms beckons soon I reckon.  So many to choose from.  Squareface; Afterthought Arete; Auld Nick;  or Savage Slit. Or maybe Ben Nevis and the ridges – Tower, Obervatory, North East Buttress, Ledge Route.  Or East Buttress on Beinn Eighe.  Or. or.or. With 326 to go for me I have so many choices!

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