Thursday, 21 January 2010


Pooley Bridge pier

It's probably a bit late to talk about the incredible snow we've had here in the UK, but it really was an exceptional winter. And one that really took the rug out from underneath our feet in many ways. We can't forget the tragedies it brought, with about one death a week on the hills amongst many other lives lost and changed forever. But for the rest of us, I think it made us think differently, at least for a while.

Stu on Blencathra

Those days were like a dream now. The Eden Valley was exceptionally beautiful at -15 degrees C, draped in a new kind of cold as silent as the grave. Completely windless, too.

For some, maybe many, it was a hindrance. Me too, at first. For a day or two I sat around, wondering where to go running. On the third day, I saw this new landscape as an opportunity. Magically, it turned out the running was perfect on a bed of squeaky pack-snow. These runs turned out to be some of the most amazing runs of my life.

The magical Eden Valley

In some ways, I liked the way the snow mixed things up. Made people think about things in a different way, and slowed us down. Showed a different side to folk.


It's conditions like these that make me think of a quietly brilliant film called Sinners, by Bill Heath. In amongst the noise and haste of a million adrenaline-fueled films about cutting edge skiing, Bill's film takes a different path. The film came about by talking to the folk he met whilst backcountry ski-ing in Western Canada, and chancing upon mountaineering physicist, A.J. Snow, still skiing at the age of 100.

Light and spindrift on Great Dodd

The film is beautiful and poignant. In amongst words of incredible wisdom and clarity from A.J., Bill cuts through the loud shouts of the fastest skiers and the ones with the most tricks. He shows you how beautiful it is. It's a work of art, and at the same time, whispers of a wisdom and truth that goes just a little bit beyond our normal thinking. And at its heart is a belief that being among mountains is more than what the powder junkie might see. Bill's film won the award for best mountain sports film at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2003.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Tales of the Unexpected

The magnificent Bernia Ridge

If there's one lesson this winter has written large on the blackboard of life, it is to expect the unexpected. Whilst quietly smirking at the good fortune of flying out of the UK before the first snows, we were hit with the news that our 'hot rock' winter getaway in Catalunya was already nestled under a foot of snow.

Some quick thinking was required. The rustic finca in the hills, our base for the fortnight, was snowed in and no longer an option. In a flash, a devilishly simple Plan B appeared: to keep driving south until the rock got hot.

In a thick fug of exhaustion after sharing an early morning flight with sixty excitable Liverpudlian school-girls, we had the unenviable 500 km drive south to contend with. Still, we were on holiday, we told ourselves.

Lemon leaf

The safest option was to head to the Costa Blanca. Here, at least some hot rock was a possibility. Yet it is an incongruous destination in some ways and a place of stark contrasts. Climbing on some of Europe's most prized cliffs means being up close and personal with the retired ex-pat holiday fleshpots of Benidorm, Calpe and Alicante. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but perhaps it's just not my scene. The problem is, the old Spain has been washed aside in a race for development. The stillness of climbing at the beautiful Sierra de Toix is often broken by the sound of pile drivers hammering footings into the limestone or jackhammers taking up pavements. To accept the luxury of climbing in the dead of winter, one has to take the flip side too.

The sixteenth century Moorish stronghold of Bernia

Even so, there are hidden gems like the Fort at Bernia, used by the Moors as a final hiding place before their eventual routing, and the inland towns of Xativa, Guadelest and Xavo.

A Monty Pythonesque cathedral frontage, Xativa

Long-awaited and uncertain though it appeared to be, we had some great days of climbing and walking despite some unusual twists and turns.

Airborne at Toix

Sunday, 3 January 2010

New Year's Eve

Montserrat, northern Spain

Whilst Stu's running days were sadly curtailed by a ski-ing accident some years ago, he still has a creative genius when it comes to suggestions for unique runs. There was a memorable run in a long Sardinian cave system when hailstones the size of eggs were falling outside. And now this- a run through the mythical spires of Montserrat in north east Spain on New Year's Eve.

From the south, the immense conglomerate spires of Montserrat are captivating. A long line of almost excessive serrations, deeply incised teeth set in a flat plain. Driving up to them from the north, the sensation is the same, a dizzying steepness, spire after turreted spire.

Running up past the largest of the many monasteries and into the river-worn clefts between spires was like a running dream. The chattering crowds emptying out of the Basilica were headed the other way, back to the coaches. A few people lingered on the paths, not really sure how far to go in the fading light. I ran on and up to the top of Sant Jeroni, the largest of these incredible peaks. I arrived as the sun was about to set.

Many places like this are imbued with a sense of religious significance for obvious reasons: they are quite magical. But grains of truth are easy to come by in so many different ways, and aside from my conspiratorial run through this landscape of dream-like beauty, there were backpackers slowly and silently making their way to the tops of the spires to await the dawn of the New Year.

Running down the paths, the spires turned red in the evening light, appearing in and out of the trees and stretching away in the mind's eye. The full moon rose from behind a cloud, bathing the monastery in an orange glow. So this was the last run of 2009, and it was surely one to remember.