30 November 2014

Taking a chance.

Planning a climbing trip in advance always seems like a rash decision given that it rains pretty much half of the year in the UK. When you figure in that the higher up you go, the higher the chance of it raining gets, then picking a date out of the air is probably even worse than flipping a coin. And so it was that I found myself last week sitting at home constantly checking the Metoffice forecast, whilst outside a seemingly neverending mix of mist, drizzle, and full-on rain set in. Planning to get my annual trip to Northumberland in November might have seemed a bit optimistic, but previous experience had taught me that you never knew what to expect up there no matter the time of year. As it was the Gods looked like they might be throwing me the crumbs from their plates- the mist looked like it might be breaking this weekend!

We headed up to our base for the weekend- the delightful and luxurious Tillmouth Cottages (disclaimer: I'm one of the owners and might be slightly biased)- on a Friday afternoon, hugging the A697 as the sun went down and the mist closed further in. Wooler appeared to be keeping some of the mist at bay, however, looking as quaint as ever when we stopped off for supplies and a curry. Boardgames and beer carried us gently off to bed, and I rose eager on the Saturday morning to draw back the curtains and see... more mist. At least it meant we were in no rush and I spent some time sawing up wood and doing some chores, before we eventually headed out into the gloom.

The sun appears, sort of. Bowden Doors
One of fantastic things about Northumberland as a climbing venue is that each year I get to check out new crags, and I'm still only halfway through the list. I'd been to Bowden Doors, and Back Bowden on previous years, and this time thought we should have a look at their neighbour Ravens Crag. As we set off it properly started to rain, but by some magic things were looking a bit clearer by the time we got to Bowden. Well, clear enough to see anyhow. The rock, however, was persisting in remaining damp. Luckily, Ravens Crag itself is a roof, and so a large part of it was dry. Dry enough to sit under and picnic anyhow and look out across the misty hills. The atmosphere was heightened by the distant baning of hounds and the horn of a hunt- we weren't the only ones out searching. The roof itself proved too powerful and the holds too painful, and so we moved along the crag to look for a problem called Juggler. Given that Stu and I had met through juggling, and that juggling continues to compete with climbing as our main hobby, it seemed like we had to give it a pop. Despite the minging nature of the conditions, the positive holds and the nice wide ledge were positive enough for us to get up onto the problem, and whilst the damp/slimy/sandy top was too much for me Stu powered on through and ticked it off. Not much else looked safe enough to try, however, and so we walked along further. At this point the hounds and their followers charged across the fields below us. Whether they were chasing a fox or just a scent we'll never know- it was hard enough seeing the dogs as it was! This brought us up to the end of Bowden Doors, and we walked back under the imposing wave of sandstone as the mist turned pink with the setting sun, reminiscing about our trip there in 2012.

Fine views above Oxen Wood.
Sunday morning brought hope in the shape of a sunrise. Things had indeed turned a corner, though only a small one it turned out. The first part of the plan was to hit up some crags near Alnwick, in particular Oxen Wood in the hope that its elevation would help it dry. It turned that it had indeed helped, though only 2 boulders and only one of those partially. It was enough to give us 6 problems and we savoured every one of them. It was also a fine spot for a tromp around, with fine views across to Wooler and the Cheviots. Definitely not a crag to visit in the summer though, we seemed to pass through a lot of dead bracken. But I would happily return in better conditions and work the other boulders, there looked like some good low to moderate grade problems. Part 2 of the plan was to drive a few minutes down the road and check out Corby's Crag. Photos of this on a fine summer's evening look idyllic and I seemed to had forgotten this when I was dreaming away on ukclimbing's crag map. This was seeping like I had never seen a crag seep before, complete with waterfalls and slime. It also didn't help that some people seem to think the car park at the top is a great place to park up, have a drink whilst admiring the view, then chuck their can or Mcdonald's cup over the edge. Classy. Then it started raining. Still, I'm sure if I was up there in the Summer and passing then it would be worth giving another shot as there was plenty of good looking rock. I guess the main problem is that there are so many other crags I want to see, like Callerhues, or Ravensheugh.
Stu enjoying Summit Block, Oxen Wood.

So was it worth driving all that way to climb 6 and a half problems? Of course! As it was we actually did pretty well to get any climbing at all done given how shite the weather has been for the last 2 weeks. It helped break up my overuse of indoor bouldering, where all the holds are kindly coloured and there are no scary top outs. Yes, some of those holds were sandy or slimy, but the views were great, the company sublime, and we got curry and boardgames. And herbal schnapps in test tube shot glasses (not part of the plan). We'll be back next year, flipping a coin and seeing what we get.
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