The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.

“Not bad for November”: England, part I

In my last post, I feel it was pretty clear that we went a long ways to get into the snow. A lot of effort was spent. We worked hard. And it was totally worth it. Which makes what happened a week later that much more bizarre: I got on a plane, and headed to the United Kingdom for two weeks of Octoberish seasonal rewind.

Back in August, discussions started about the Mountain Equipment 15-16 winter range launch. Distributors, reps, and sales folks from all over the world convene here in the UK, where Mountain Equipment is based, to see the products that will be hitting store shelves less than a year from now. As my involvement as an athlete has grown, so has the need to introduce me to the rest of the brand family. Thus, I found myself at the airport five short hours after Whitefish Mountain Films, bags in hand, none of it including ski gear.

I’ll try to keep this rant short, because as Louis CK recognizes (in his profane fashion, so be advised), most of the inconveniences in air travel are minuscule compared with the fact you are “LITERALLY FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD.” However, my experience is one of the many that leads to things like Untied.com, a website entirely devoted to consumer complaints against United.

Leaving Kalispell, we taxied out, then came back to the gate because the air conditioning was on the fritz. We deplaned, and an hour and half later, we were airborne. My connections would have worked, but since it was tight, I opted to reschedule in deference to my checked bag. While at Denver, I watched my money get cut more or less in half when converted to pounds. I also got an electrical plug converter.

Leaving Denver, same thing happens. This time though, an oven at the back of the plane was emitting black fumes. I didn’t even know that planes had ovens. And this one didn’t see the “no smoking” signs. So we taxied back, deplaned, then ten minutes later, we line up again to reboard. Also, since my flights changed, my seat selections went out the window. Which put me in 2/3rds of a middle seat, the other third occupied by the exceptionally large gentleman next to me in the aisle. Fate offered me another route in the form of a lady who wanted to trade seats before the plane got going, but the attendants were trying to get everyone seated and I didn’t want to cause more fuss.

Upon landing at Newark, I realized that not only had my next connection been more or less lined up to fly right as I touched the tarmac, United had done me a favor. Instead of rebooking me to a later flight, they’d send me back to Chicago, then to DC, then over to Manchester the next morning. I went to the help desk. An angel disguised as a grumpy looking woman proceeded to look at my new itinerary, get as confused as I was, and then rebook me through Heathrow. She also gave me two food vouchers, in her wisdom, because I was seriously hangry at that point.

Not only did I find a real restaurant in Newark, but the flight over the pond went fine. Upon landing, I walked a couple miles, took a bus, and somehow made my way through some very long lines to connect with my next flight.

Sam Hoyt: ME Rockies rep, gentleman, scholar, and friendly face in the Heathrow terminal.

I swear that the flight up to Manchester was intentionally zigzagged to make it last long enough to serve me some nuts and a drink. Which I would have been happy to forego, if they’d instead just put my bag on the plane. Per the agents at Heathrow, my checked bag had made it across and through all the changed connections via some wizardry I don’t understand. That last, hour-long flight though? Nope. And thus did I arrive in Manchester: six hours late, jet lagged, under slept, disheveled, and without my main luggage.

Thankfully, the kind folks on the ground graciously whisked me and Sam Hoyt away to the Lake District, a place specifically designed in the fabric of the universe for relaxing. Sheep cover grassy hills which poke out of the mist in an etherial and calming way. Pubs have seen fit to put climbing gear in frames on their walls. Torrential rain gently affirms your decision to stay inside. Which was a good call, because we had meetings and stuff. After dinner, I presented on some of the ski trips that have been featured here. Which should have been the end of me for that evening, but of course that lead to a series of great discussions in the bar and a bunch of mildly chilled (but certainly not warm) pints.

The next day, we did more meetings and showings of the upcoming line. I’m not allowed to give out hints, though I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pipe. You’ll probably see some of it later this winter.

And in the afternoon, the nearly the whole crew rallied into the rain for a late hike up to Stickle Tarn.

I’ve never seen so many vibrant jackets in the same place.

Everything was really slippery with the rain. Even so, I had a blast scrambling around on the way up. All the energy of eating, airplaning, and meeting bubbled over into that giddy sort of excitement that my friends know well. “I’m outside! This is great! Let’s run wild!” More or less, I turn into a golden retriever.

Evan, our US sales guy, was stoked too.

Then we went down in the dark. I had a borrowed headlamp head torch from Christoph, one of the gents from Norway. So I managed to not explode on the slippery stones of the trail back down. Props to Joanna for handling them so well.

At home, there’s an hour delay minimum before I can get hot food into my belly post-hike. Here, there are pubs right at the trailhead. Brilliant.

The next day, we headed back to Manchester. My checked bag had yet to arrive, even though it was said that it’d be there my first night. I found out that since the agent at the airline hadn’t provided the phone number for our hotel (which I didn’t know) the courier wouldn’t dispatch the bag. They then handed it off to a third party, which was planning to deliver the bag after we left the hotel that afternoon. Even though we were still there by the time they said they’d deliver, no bag. So I headed back to Manchester with that sinking feeling that I’d have two pairs of underwear for the rest of the trip.

At dinner, we went next door to our hotel to sample the local pub atmosphere. I was keen to try some beers that I’d never seen before. However, horror of all horrors, it seems that the trendy thing to do in “hip” pubs is to bring in a bunch of American craft brew.

None of the US brews looked bad, per se. I even like some of them at home. So it was just startling. I drank something from Portugal that was basically a Budweiser or PBR, and toasted the irony.

The next day, I spent most of it at the ME offices. Thanks to everyone who made time to meet with me. Here’s the UK sales team looking very serious.

In the process of those meetings, it came out that Sam, our lead designer, could accompany me as I went to wander in the Peak District. He generously offered that I should stay at his house, citing the ease of leaving in the morning. So we headed out late (my fault), missed the train, and he graciously grabbed a taxi to solve my slow walking issues. He and his family then entertained me, fed me, and generally made me feel very much welcome. Many thanks to them for their stellar hospitality.

However, the weather wasn’t on the same program. We woke to rain.

And on the way out to Edale, it really started to rain.

Once at the trailhead and getting suited up, it came to pass that despite the rain coming down, Sam didn’t have his waterproof coat. I mentioned that we could call it, but instead he grabbed a large, green, German army poncho that he uses as a family picnic blanket. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my first clue to the fact that the English people think about rain very, very differently than anyone I’ve met anywhere in the states. Or at least they do in my presence. Because Sam threw on the poncho, and off we went.

Our plan was to do as much of the Edale skyline circuit before we needed to head back into town. The trail above leads up this valley, then onto a plateau, which leads off into a ridge that more or less circles the town of Edale. The red brown bushy stuff on the left side of the above photo are ferns, which regenerate to a forest green in the spring of every year. It’s worth noting that even though it’s called the Peak District, it’s more like the Rolling Hills With Gritstone Sticking Out Of Them District.

It’s not a proper day out unless you end up off trail. We went up this little valley, scrambled a short, very wet cliff, and then walked around.

Sam contemplates E.T. His poncho is rolled up atop his pack. By this point, the rain had stopped, and it was just foggy and soaked.

Once on the plateau, we swung around and things got increasingly boggy. Our route was evidently a very popular one. This means tons of foot traffic, and with the peat  and sandy soil just under the grassy surface, it takes very little for humans to start erosive processes that then get made huge by all the water coming through. We walked through a lot of mud, which is standard for this time of year, but apparently less so in the drier summer months.

Along with some of the climbing I’ve been up to (next blog post), it’s be really eye opening to see the impact that tons of human traffic can have on a landscape. So many of the places I frequent at home are remote enough that they might see maybe ten to twenty people a year. Some places less. And as more people move to the mountains, and do the things that I do, the spread is going to change the places we play. That’s inevitable. Bogged out areas and super polished climbing holds can be our future, or I can be aware of that and help to set things right before they get bad. That means upping my own standards of Leave No Trace.

If one of my friends had been considering a trip like this, at this time of year, I’d probably have given the knee-jerk response: “What? That’s the start of ski season!” And that’s true. I’ve seen all the photos from home. But there’s a very different type of beauty at work in these landscapes. This trip has been about meeting people, but these new landscapes are pretty in how they roll, how their ridges connect, how the history of playing in them goes back hundreds of years. Stepping into that as a hill walker or climber is a unique thrill.

Even more, the hospitality for my entire trip has been astounding. I’ve been very lucky to stay in two lovely households, get personally shown around by folks who know this area well, and they’ve been super patient in dragging the sweaty American along as he fumbles setting up anchors and can’t run all the way up the hill. Many thanks to Duncan for all his logistical wizardry, Sam and Hannah and their family, Rich and Steph for where I’ve been the last week, Rich Bailey for his rock time, and Rich Woodall for getting me on the plane.

So has it been worth it to miss the start of winter? Absolutely.

Sam and I glopped our way back to the car, and headed out just as things really started to get almost sunny. That night, I got on a train to the Lake District, where I’ve been since.

Tune in for my next blog post to hear about my trad climbing education, becoming a lichen, and why fell running can involve falling.