Thorpe Cloud winter solstice #microadventure

Thorpe Cloud winter solstice #microadventure

Alistair Humphreys first gave me the idea of a winter solstice #microadventure (check out his Lap of the M25). The idea is simple: grab a sleeping bag, bivvy bag and a mate, and sleep out on a local hill on 21 December.

The winter solstice holds no real significance to me, other than being the shortest day of the year with the longest night. It’s also an excuse for a bit of manly fun before Christmas.

The forecast seemed to suggest that the solstice itself would be rather wet, so we delayed to 22nd and headed to the nearest prominent hill we could think of – Thorpe Cloud, just outside Ashbourne in West Derbyshire.

Mark, my friend from church, came with me, and had suggested Thorpe Cloud. I’d wanted to do a winter solstice #microadventure for a few years, so with a willing partner, the game was on!

The logistics were simple: sleeping bag, thermarest, bivvy bag, stove, a few layers and a rucksack to carry it all.

We set off from Derby just after 8:00pm, and were soon parking up – maximum 25 minutes after leaving town.

We took in the traverse of Thorpe Cloud itself (a mere 285m or so), the limestone slopes of which were very muddy and greasy, and then found the bivvy spot soon after.

It was a lovely, cold, clear night and ice crystals were soon forming on all exposed surfaces. Sadly it clouded over before dawn, with the front of Storm Barbara coming in, so we missed out on a dawn photo shoot.

This #microadventure was no different to any of my other trips, prompting plenty of thoughts.

Fresh memories

I was vividly reminded of my last Christmas outing in 2009, when I slogged up Great Gable (899m) on Christmas Eve in deep powder with my brother. We were greeted by amazing views and I remember just standing in silent wonder.

It made me appreciate the time I had taken to document and write down my experiences in words and pictures. Until a few days ago, I had not looked over this blog for years.

I was struck by the importance of making and recording good memories to enjoy adventures and the company I have been in for many years to come.

Real company

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours with a friend, enjoying the landscape, fresh air and experience itself.

Too often when we are closeted in the office, car or indoors we miss the opportunity to be real with each other and talk.

It was refreshing to strip away the comforts of modern living for a little while, make fire and experience the elements as they really are.

Field notes

I’ve purposely not pinpointed our bivvy site to reduce impact on the environment. Please be aware that as a wild camper, you have no legal rights in England and Wales. Check out this UK Hillwalking article for further advice.

I used the following kit (excluding discontinued items):

  • Rab Andes 800 – 4 season down sleeping bag. Warm, packable and not too heavy
  • Therm-a-Rest ProLite – go-to, do-it-all insulated mattress
  • Rab Storm bivi bag – a simple, robust bivvy bag that can get you started. Look out for seconds on
  • MSR EGK-EX stove – sounds like a jet engine, but is an extremely reliable multifuel stove. Not the lightest with fuel bottle and pan added in
  • Black Diamond Icon headtorch – solid mountaineering headtorch. Winter glove friendly and has a button lock
  • Scarpa SL boots – classic leather 4 season boot which has gone through many iterations. Crampon compatible. A bit heavy, but a workhorse
  • Montane Flux Jacket – solid but lightweight synthetic insulation, with lots of pockets and a good hood
  • Rab Baseline Jacket – a decent alternative to the classic Patagonia R1 hoodie

Trad Climbing: Box Bay, Bridgend

Booked to leave Wales the next day, I still had seven lead climbs outstanding to put towards my SPA Assessment, so Box Bay was the venue for a whirlwind ticking session.

It is a nice, compact limestone sea cliff, tucked away and out of sight from the main beach. It gets a good dosing at high tide, but only for a short time, and the rock is otherwise razor sharp.

The last time I visited was in the depth of winter and I climbed my first VS (Sweet Pea Souper – a bit of a soft touch), so was keen to blast through lots of the remaining lines, and perhaps something a little harder. The conditions could not have been more different – warm, sunny and dry, so off we went and got on with it.

We climbed Cow Eyed Arete (HS, 4b), Jellyfish Tickler (HS, 4b), Bluto (S), Black Buttress (S), Prickly Bulge (S, 4b), Belayers Folly (VS, 4c) and Dead in the Water (VS, 5a). As you can tell from the route names on the crag, Box Bay has plenty of character, but all the climbs were straightforward enough.

Tops off day, and happy at the end of the haul

That is, apart from Dead in the Water, which you may have noticed is given technical grade 5a, instead of 4b or 4c, as is often the case with a Very Severe. This denotes that the climb has plenty of gear, typical of a Very Severe, so is on the whole ‘safe’.  However, the technical difficulty is notched up slightly. This was definitely noticeable, as the wall was gently overhanging, and it took several ups and downs to place gear, shake-out and think through the moves before successfully putting it all together.

Joel with our clutch of rockpool mullet!

Climbing with Joel made the whole experience more enjoyable. He gave me plenty of input for my SPA Assessment, ranging from tips on belay setups at the top, abseils and technical climbing tips. What is more, the icing on the cake was a bit of fun in a nearby rock pool once we had finished climbing. Joel noticed a group of mullet which had been trapped by the retreating tide, so with no lines, rods or lures, it was off with the t-shirts and some combined tactics to corner the fish and snaffle them. We managed to catch two with a good bit of luck and trashing around, but it was a great end to a great day!

The canny little things

I did the 3 Peaks Challenge and all I got was this lousy fish…

Over the weekend I was helping out with the guiding of a Three Peaks Challenge.

Beautiful views to Fort William from the flank of Ben Nevis in between the showers and cloud

It was my first Challenge, and not all went to plan.

Sleep deprivation was a bit of an issue, having driven from Derby to Fort William to start in the early hours of the next morning, but more for the drive back South at the end. The main problem was that floods had caused a landslide, closing the A82, so a detour via Stirling meant that the start was delayed, and inevitably the rest of the Challenge. However, I was only helping with the first two legs, leaving Snowdon.

Conditions on Ben Nevis were not too bad – low cloud and light, scattered showers – but the group were not accustomed to the long haul up the Tourist Track and the arduous broken ground. Conditions on Scafell Pike were worse, with higher winds and the onset of darkness, so we reached the screes above the Woolworth Boulder before turning round, to ensure the group had a good chance to complete Snowdon the following day.

I must have been slightly delusional with the affects of sleep deprivation and the fact that the Challenge was so different to what I normally do, so the enduring memory of the day was a dead, half-eaten and mouldering fish wedged under a rock by the summit trig point!

The eponymous fish…

First climb on gritstone

Eventually Sam and I will have an epic – a good epic – after our recent inauspicious attempt on Peak limestone.

I was up for some gritstone action, despite my unfounded suspicion of it, rather like sandstone, so we headed off to Black Rocks, a set of  crags with a massive amount of character and history.

The merry men, sheltering from the rain in a handy cave at the top of the climb

It can be easy to underestimate gritstone, as it requires a much different style to climbing on other rock types – big round breaks and parallel cracks. I wanted to drop down a grade or two, but took a shine to Curved Crack HS 4b, so couldn’t resist. A lot of the climbs below Very Severe or so tended to be of a traditional character (i.e., dirty, green chimneys that you have to squeeze, squirm and grunt up – also known as thrutching), which I wanted to avoid.

This, in a way, is the essence of climbing – seeing an inspiring line and getting on it, regardless of the grade (or almost). It was great for my state of mind, as I have been a bit off the boil recently.

Sam after a successful second

As for the climb, I placed some cams, which went into the parallel cracks beautifully, and after a bit of a think towards the top, swung round onto the vertical wall and rather ungracefully pulled myself over the top.

Unfortunately, by this point the rain set in, which seemed to create suddenly a magical layer of slimey mud on the surface of the gritstone, rendering its unique friction quality useless. We had a look at a Very Difficult [check out this pdf for an explanation of what a VD climb is] climb round the corner, but the climbing had turned from inspiring to horrible.

Hope to be back, though!

Rain on gritstone = mud, basically

Bad Day at the Office

The other day I headed out with Sam to Wildcat Crags in the Derbyshire Dales for some more trad climbing.

However, it was not a good day.

We got to the foot of the crag after a little detour, and I had just decided on a route to lead when I realised that I had left my harness at home.

This was not conducive to a good session.

After much searching around, including back at the car for a potential spare, I rigged a top rope, improvised a harness out of a sling and karabiner and we managed to salvage the day, climbing Jackdaw Grooves, VS 4b and Broken Toe Groove, VS 4c.

However, after all the time wasting and muddling about, my head was in a mess, and my climbing was equally messy. I just wasn’t in the zone and it was surprising how a few small factors interfered so much.

I also thought I was clever, packing my gear into an Ikea bag on the suggestion of an UKC article last year and turning up in jeans and t-shirt, as if I were going sport climbing in France. These were two additional mistakes: the bag was awkward and uncomfortable to carry, and the muddy, greasy approaches to the crag were treacherous in trainers.

Sometimes you just have a bad day at the office…

Learning to love sandstone

I happily managed to slot in my third foray down to St. Bees South Head for some more messing around on the boulders. I have to say that I am definitely coming round to the attractions of sandstone!

The view towards Seascale from the little cove containing the first traverse

If you brush off the accumulated dirt, ignore the woodlice under your nose and the generally neglected atmosphere, there is some great climbing and training to be had.

Great textured rock for all kinds of funky holds: pinches, smears, monos etc.

I split my time between two traversing problems for the sake of consistency and stamina, and found myself using all kinds of holds and moves that I would never dream of doing on a lead climb: desperate one-finger pockets, shallow pinches, grabbing seam and smears with the feet, simply relying on the friction of the rubber on the rock shoes. Still, excellent training for conditioning and problem solving.

Looking along the second traverse

I was really encouraging also to notice the improvement and gains on the problems I tackled. I figured out all the moves on both traverses, but was just undone by my lack of stamina. Interesting to note how small factors make big differences, such as avoiding the temptation to overreach with hands and feet and trying moves in one push to use the momentum gained.

Historical graffiti

Unfortunately, this will probably be my last time at St. Bees, but it has been thoroughly worthwhile, without even visiting the excellent and more well-known North Head or Fleswick. I will definitely be back.

You can always tell the older graffiti – this one I quite like

Bouldering: St. Bees

Just got back from some more bouldering at St. Bees, South Head.

Good little wall for traversing at South Head

Pumped out of my mind by the end, but happy to have worked out a sequence to a traverse on which I failed last time. Great to be able to see some progression, even though I was mostly no more than 6 inches off the deck.

Beautiful views at sunset over to Scotland

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