A Winter Ascent of Aphrodite - E7by Al Siddons (Astral Highway) Feb/2009
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Rad Butts and Creagan Beaulay are two keen British climbers. In our last feature, Creagan looked back at his beginnings in the sport, with a winter ascent of Aladdin's Couloir (I).
Read Creagan's last UKC Feature here: Winter climbing with 'Rad'
Here, Creagan describes the build up to his first winter ascent of a summer E7, Aphrodite, on the Shelter Stone crag in the Cairngorms.
'Aphrodite', first winter ascent.
After Aladdin's couloir, Rad told me I had 'something special' in terms of my personal climbing ability.
'Yeah, I'm looking back at generations of talented climbers and I'm seeing that you're going to leave your mark on the sport.'
This was music to my ears, of course, but I didn't let on that I was flattered by the comment. I just decided to apply myself to making Rad's prediction come true. If I really could be the next big thing in climbing, then at some point I could aspire to becoming a stunt-man without that being a delusional scheme.
Rad said we should each set ourselves a training budget of £10,000. It seemed a lot to start with, but when we considered the potential returns, it wasn't so bad, so we upped it to £15,000. Between you and me, I was even prepared to go higher than that. Some of that could be credit-card borrowing, which doesn't count anyway.
Rad had soon come up with our revolutionary training plan, based on his self-taught knowledge of fitness acquisition across many disciplines.
To get the really strong wrists we'd need for difficult winter climbs, he suggested we needed to go much further than the climbing wall.
We wanted something that was transferable to our sport, and also had a good cosmic vibe. One day, we were walking through the park, talking tactics, when Rad stopped and pointed to a big chestnut tree. 'That's it', said Rad, 'to have the strength of wood, you need to spend time with wood. You need to touch wood. Ultimately, you need to be wood.'
His theory was that to harden our bodies, and especially our wrists, we needed to hang out in forests and cut down lots of trees. So we planned to fly to venues populated with dense birch forests, where we could hack away to our heart's content.
On our first weekend trip - to Latvia - we started by going around and slapping the trunks of trees. Then we did hangs from the branches for a few minutes. After our warm-up, it was time to start lopping down a few saplings with locally-bought axes.
On his second tree, I stopped Rad in mid-chop. 'Hey!' I said. 'I've just realised, we need to have both sides strong.'
Rad put his axe down and nodded. 'Equilibrium: just as the sap rises in spring, so does it fall in the autumn.' So sure enough, he started chopping with the opposite hand to what seemed natural. But we'd missed something: chopping takes a lot of coordination. Wrong-handed chopping is hard.
On his first attempt at cutting down a tree with the wrong hand, Rad's axe pinged off the trunk and dealt him a glancing blow to his leg, cutting into his trousers to reveal the pink, frail and mortal flesh beneath. Fortunately, no real harm was done. But we took this as a warning and flew straight home.
Over the next month, we watched fifty episodes of 'World's Strongest Man' and saw how these beasts developed incredibly strong wrists by carrying heavy objects. We got hold of sand bags and filled them up with as many pebbles as we could manage. I can't tell you the weight, but it was probably more than ten kilos.
Soon, I thought of carrying these things up and down my street at midnight every night. But I discovered that just by thinking this instead of doing it, I could remain fresh and motivated for the next attempt.
Rad went a step further and carried his sand bags around his flat in the evening. He even used to do shoulder raises with them while sitting on the toilet. Not a second was wasted.
After a whole winter of training, we started going up to the Peak District and speed-climbing footpaths to the top of crags. And we took time off work to work on the mental side of our game. Rad put a top-rope on climbs like End of the Affair.
We decided that although we were capable of onsighting End of the Affair, that wouldn't be ethical, because we were trying for refinement of movement. The only ethical way to do that was on a top-rope, so nobody watching could accuse us of trying to lead it. Rad is more fluent with explaining this kind of thing, but you get the idea.
Rad would tension the rope and then I'd jump a bit until I was a few feet off the ground. Then I would hold different positions for as long as possible, before going a bit higher. Later, we'd swap. We did the same on other routes like Gaia and Parthian Shot.
We only went inside when it was really wet, and I mean absolutely minging. Indoor grades are a poor indicator of your outdoor ability. I know, because sometimes Rad went on routes that were F5+ or F6 indoors, but couldn't be motivated to finish them, even though he was obviously an English 7a climber. 'Ah, I just can't be arsed with this plastic shite,' he said, lowering off.
On the other hand, he completed a competition route that was graded F7c. Because he is a purist, he tried each section on a top-rope and had ten goes on the bit between each bolt.
In just three months, he had completed all the sections, only using about thirty extra footholds from other routes. That's the kind of commitment and focus I constantly saw in Rad.
'Rock energy' and a scare
Late the following autumn we started going to the Cairngorms and walking around the coires, touching the buttresses as we went. We could feel the energy of the granite gathering up and going into our bodies.
One December day, Rad fell through some ice into a kind of pond called a 'lochan.' It looked like a really serious situation and he was put in a sleeping bag by the Cairngorm Outdoor Centre before a helicopter took him away to hospital.
The Cairngorm Outdoor Centre's help had stopped Rad from getting hypothermia, which can cause something called 'flat-lining' in medical dramas. This is apparently much more serious than slack-lining, although I haven't tried either of them yet, to be honest.
The Cairngorm Outdoor Centre is just great. A few days after the incident, they even sent us brochures about their various courses. I hope they were not embarrassed when they realised who we are.
The strange thing is that Rad fell in to the lochan at the exact same time that I was transferring energy waves from the snowy rock into my body-memory.
But later, Rad told me he had deliberately fallen in to test my reflexes.
Aphrodite is a summer E7 on Shelter Stone crag. It is nearly a hundred metres long. The two pitches are 5a (35 metres) and 6c (60 metres).
We chose this route as our target route because Aphrodite was the goddess of sexual rapture and we had devoted ourselves so much to training that we had broken up with our girlfriends. And by climbing the route, we'd be kind of making love with nature. For me it was a spiritual thing more than a physical idea, but you get the picture.
Also, the route was very hard, according to Rad, and no-one had climbed it in winter before, so a good tick all round.
Shelter Stone crag is quite a long way from the ski car park, especially in winter, so we decided to save our energy for the climb, and not fanny around with rucksacks and heavy loads.
We soon found a solution on Ebay. We could get a second-hand Arctic Fox snowmobile for little more than 2,000 quid, plus a bit of loose change importing it. Then we just needed a trailer to get it up to the ski car park and we were off.
It's very narrow-minded of the Cairngorm Environment and Ski Authority not to not let winter activists use snow-mobiles. They intercepted us and turned us back just as we were carving up the White Lady piste on our snowmobile.
Still we didn't let them thwart us. Instead, we managed to sneak in from the Braemar side of the Cairngorms after a swift 70 mile drive round the back of the hill.
Initially, we couldn't find the Shelter Stone crag – we're climbers, not hill walkers, after all. But after two visits, we had it firmly pinpointed. We left small caches of food, because this is what commercial expeditions do in the Arctic.
We found it wasn't possible for us to rig a top-rope on our own, as well as focus on our climbing. So our idea was to use some of our training budget to pay mountain instructors to rig over 200 metres of rope and keep an eye on safety and so on.
When we told them what our project was, they said it was 'a ludicrously impractical' idea and they couldn't approve of it or be part of it. They even went as far as to suggest that we should 'just lead a far easier route' the conventional way, or 'go on a course with them', as if we were any old punters.
I think a lot of people would have seen red if dealt with in this way.
Not us: we were quickly hardened to this treatment. But here was proof that the world is full of snipers and detractors, hell-bent on deflecting us from our goals. We were basically on our own.
Fortunately, we managed to find another climber, BJ, who was working as a cook in the Cairngorm Outdoor Centre. We asked him to set up the top rope. Initially, he wasn't keen, but after we offered to pay him a secrecy bribe of £300, plus £200 for a day's work, and travel expenses, he accepted.
On our fifth visit, we were still within our overall budget. Altogether, I had spent £12,000 and Rad had spent about £7,000, because he still expected me to put in a bit more than him. This was fair enough, since he was effectively coaching me and giving me an experience that I couldn't otherwise have.
The day of our ascent, February 6, was clear and calm. We had bivvied in the Shelter Stone overnight and felt fresh and ready for anything.
Conditions on the crag were superb. Several freeze-thaw cycles had plastered the routes in névé and the big gully on the left was completely banked out in snow.
I wanted to concentrate on the photography aspect of things, so we paid BJ to look after belaying. But I would still get credit as a first ascentionist as I was a co-architect of the strategy we used.
We asked BJ to remove all the stretch in the rope using an ingenious method. This had never previously been done on a first winter ascent, and BJ described Rad as a 'magician' for even thinking of it.
We got BJ to take our 240 metres of ropes to the top of the crag, using the snow scooter and trailer. Then we asked him to set up the top-rope as a doubled rope to reduce stretch and to attach one end to the back of the snow scooter. He was to control the rate of ascent by driving the snow scooter forward on my signal over a two-way radio.
Rad tied on. After a quick radio check with BJ, we were ready for the off.
With his characteristic war-cry, Rad unleashed a double-overhand ice-axe attack on the opening corner.
The first bit was so hard and so previously unclimbed that Rad's best hooking didn't hold – that's how nails even the 'easy' pitch was. So I radioed out to BJ to drive the snow-scooter slowly forward, making sure that any pesky slack wasn't getting in the way of Rad's movement.
Once he was off the ground, you would never have known that Rad was on a summer E7. From the very first attempt, he showed no sign whatever of panic. His rate of ascent was very consistent, because I was constantly in touch with BJ over the radio. Of course, he did swing about a few times, but we're talking about controlling a very long bit of rope and obviously, he had to check the line and make sure he was on course from time to time.
And on top of that, he was looking for very subtle 'proclivities', as he called them, or 'nubbins,' as I preferred, in the snowed-up rock. Just you try doing that with leashless axes while hanging about 100 metres below a sinister, deserted crag deep in the Cairngorms.
There's a bit described in the summer line as a 'weakness' in the rock. Well, I can honestly say that Rad climbed the whole thing with storming, unwavering strength.
Rad lowered down and re-ascended that line five times all on the same day. Later, I asked him why he wasn't content with just once.
'Ethics,' he said, with a serious look. 'If somebody tries to repeat my route, they won't get credit for matching my achievement unless they tick it five times in the same day. We're going to be waiting a very, very long time for that to happen.'
BJ gave us a ride back to the car park on our snow-scooter undetected, as the ski centre had closed. He thanked us for 'letting him see a piece of history in the making.' BJ described the experience as 'very humbling' and only reluctantly took the £550 quid that we insisted on paying him.
Folk keep asking us the grade of the winter line. From my perspective, it looked quite a lot harder than Aladdin's Couloir. And Rad reckoned it was XVI, 13, which is okay by me, because these numbers have a nice ring to them.
What's next? Well, we're up for beating Ueli Steck's 2hr 21 minute time on the Colton McIntyre. Watch this space.
Rad Butts and Creagan Beaulay, FWA, Aphrodite, XVI, 13. Snowmobile rope tension. 6 February 2009.
© Al Siddons - all rights reserved. No duplication on any other media without permission from the author.
Al Siddons is a freelance writer. He works in content production and editorial trouble-shooting for a variety of organisations.