As the Crow Flies

I was at two-thirds height when the storm struck Pic Carlit from the southwest. Above the increasing fury of the wind I heard the rumble of distant thunder and fear quickened my pace. Once I crossed the col and descended onto the east face, I should be reasonably sheltered from the relentless wind and rain.

The loose, scree slope felt exposed and the faintly discernable ridge on my left offered a tempting handrail in the thick cloud. A shaky banister feels better than nothing on a rickety staircase, so I allowed it to lead me on up.

Puig Carlit seen from the northwest at a distance of 2.5kms. This picture was taken in fine weather while returning around the massif on Day 2 – the conditions on Day 1 were less conducive to photography.

Eventually passing through a notch, I descended a few metres into relatively still air and marvelled at the sound of the express train roaring above my head. I peered into the clouds below, searching for the route. I was puzzled by the absence of any obvious signs of human traffic on the rocks around me.

A worm of doubt began to turn in my stomach as I moved back and forth across the slope hunting for the descent route. I remembered the guidebook describing the col at 2900 metres and from there the summit a twenty metre scramble up to the right. I wedged my rucksack firmly under an overhanging rock and, trying to stay on the sheltered eastern side of the mountain, I started to climb into the swirling clouds. After about thirty metres the rock continued to rise up steeply in front of me and I knew I had made a mistake.

I down climbed carefully, retrieved my rucksack and studied the map. A quick check on my wristwatch compass gave me cause for concern and, no matter how hard I willed it not to, my Silva compass confirmed the northerly aspect of slope. The altimeter on my Suunto Vector showed 2800 metres (100 metres lower than the col I should be on). I was at the wrong col – separated from the right one by loose rock and precipitous drops.

Improving conditions in the east and 8kms away, at the end of the rainbow Lac des Bouillouses, a warm welcome, cold beer and hot meal at the CAF hut.

If I descended the apparently easy angled north face, I could immediately escape out of the storm into the sheltered valley below. The roar of the express train over my head made this a tempting proposition but this would also put me on completely the wrong side of the mountain, a very long way from the CAF hut where I intended to stay that night and even further from the tent that I had left earlier in the day. In the poor visibility I had allowed the shaky banister to lead me off route. I was annoyed that I had made such a rudimentary mistake.

On the two dimensional map, this error only put me a few millimetres away from the correct col. But on the three dimensional mountain it was a rising traverse covering 100 metres of ascent and 300 metres distance as the crow flies. Unfortunately I was not a crow. Even if I had been, I’m not sure I would have taken off into the teeth of the storm.

So I stuck my head above the parapet once more, into the forceful blast of the oncoming express train and made a slithering retreat as fast as I could down the way I had come.

I soon came across the track I had unwittingly left on my way up and in no time at all I was safely down at the bottom of the scree slope. Relieved but disappointed to arrive once again at the little Estany (lake) dels Forats, I contemplated the ignominious 14km schlep back to my tent. As I looked up again towards the mountain, the clouds parted momentarily and I stared in disbelief at the obvious path winding its way up through the scree towards the correct col. How could I possibly have missed that? On a clear day you could see that track from outer space!

In the next moment, the clouds descended and the route was once again obscured but I could not erase from my mind what I had clearly seen. The wind was still strong but the lightning had not arrived with it and the rain now seemed more intermittent.

Fearing a change of mind, I headed back up the slope at the gallop. The weather was better initially but 100 metres below the (correct) col the wind returned with a vengeance, driving torrential rain and sleet. The last few metres were wild as I climbed through the gap onto the eastern side. I dropped down a short distance to the shelter of some rocks and listened to the next train pass loudly overhead. Finishing the last of my food and water I waited for the train to move on. Leaving my sack under the rock, I scrambled quickly up the 25 metres to the summit.

A few minutes later I had retrieved my sack and was heading down the rocky, eastern ridge as the sky brightened, rain turned to sleet and briefly some flurries of mid-summer snow. By the time I had descended to easy ground, the sun came out and an incredible double rainbow appeared below me spanning the beautiful Estany (lake) de Sobirans. At the end of the rainbow, about 8kms away, I could make out Lac des Bouillouses. On the other side of that lake lay the CAF hut, a warm welcome, a cold beer and a great meal.

Pic (or Puig) Carlit is the highest peak in the eastern Pyrenees. My solo west-east traverse covered 42 kms of beautiful mountain scenery, sections of the GR10, GR 7, and Pyrenean Haute Route, returning around the massif after a night in the hut. I worked out a circular route that enabled me to get back to the car at Porté Puymorens where I had left my tent pitched. The poor forecast suggested that a summit attempt might not be possible – had that been the case I intended to retreat back to the tent on Day 1. Then if the weather looked like it was going to improve, I would have rearranged my hut booking and tried to make the summit and traverse the next day. Fortunately this was not necessary.

Day 1 Campsite at Porté Puymorens 1600 m ASL > 14kms to summit of Pic (Puig) Carlit 2921 m (1321 m height gain) then descend 8 kms and 911 m to Chalet Refuge des Bouillouses 2010 m.
Day 2: Chalet Refuge des Bouillouses 2010 m > 22 kms to Porté Puymorens 1600 m via Portella de Grava 2426 m and Etang de Lanoux along the GR10 and GR 7.

MAPS: 1:25,000 Carte de Randonée IGN 2249 OT Bourg-Madame Col de Puymorens Pic Carlit and IGN 2249 ET Font-Romeu Capcir

GUIDE BOOKS: “Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees” by Kev Reynolds, published by Cicerone, 6th edition 2015 is a well written guide and very useful, as is “Trekking the Pyrenean Haute Route” by Tom Joosten, Published by Cicerone 2009, reprinted 2016 with updates, as well as “The GR10 Through French Pyrenees” by Paul Lucia, Cicerone, updated 2010.

EQUIPMENT: (Early August) La Sportiva Evo lightweight scrambling boots, POD Super Teardrop rucksack (sadly discontinued), maps, Silva compass, Suunto Vector (watch/altimeter/compass), whistle, small first aid kit, Petzl head-torch, hill-food (nuts, raisins, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds), wash-kit (toothbrush +small toothpaste, earplugs, spare contact lenses, lens case with fluid in), Leki trekking poles (only used in descent), Terra Nova Bothy 2 (very lightweight emergency shelter), 2 x 500 ml plastic water bottles, chlorine tablets for water purification (half a tab per 500 ml), camera, phone, base layer, lightweight zip-off trousers, fleece gillet, lightweight fleece, Rab lightweight pullover smock (synthetic insulation), Crux Torq Smock (eVent breathable waterproof, discontinued), Lowe Alpine very lightweight over-trousers, warm hat, leather gloves, sun hat, sun glasses, small tube factor 50 sun screen, spare T-shirt (for hut), spare socks.


Lucky escape

Grand Paradis II, Twid approaching the cave.

I clipped both axes to a quickdraw at the belay and started pulling the ropes through. The cave protected us from falling ice but it was a tight squeeze as the three of us organized ourselves for the next pitch. In the mêlée I could feel my jacket repeatedly snagging on something behind me.

Martin belaying as Twid enters the ice cave.

While thrutching around in the cramped space, my axes became wedged between my back and the shield of ice forming the outer wall of our tiny room-with-a-view.

The thought of the razor sharp axe picks, so close to my spine, was disconcerting but the image of them trashing my new lightweight jacket was much worse. Bugger! Literally, brand new jacket. This was its very first outing. I envisaged the business ends of my axes slicing through the expensive waterproof fabric. Shit! Another sartorial lesson learned. I suppose it could have been worse. I could always repair the damage with Tenacious tape. That way it would match my belay jacket and the rest of my hard-worn gear.

Soon the rope was snaking out as Twid made his way up the pitch above us. In no time at all, Martin followed and I was finally able to move from my awkward position. I turned, retrieved my axes, dismantled the belay and started to climb.

A couple of awkward moves to exit the ice-cave and start up the next pitch.

The route was superb and after a quick abseil descent we were onto the next icefall. Completely absorbed in the activity, I soon forgot about the textile havoc that my tools had wreaked behind my back in the cramped cave.

Passing overhanging rock and taking care not to dislodge massive icicles during an airy abseil descent. Exciting stuff but if you don’t experience fear when abseiling, then you haven’t understood the situation 🙂

Afterwards, back at the car, my heart sank as I remembered the expensive, snaggy feeling. I pulled the smock over my head to inspect the lacerated fabric. Nothing. Nicht. Nada. Not a mark. Deep joy!

Had I imagined the whole thing? Definitely not. Like finger nails on a blackboard, the sound and sensation of pointy picks catching on pricey technical garments is distinctive and quiet unforgettable. But my new jacket had escaped entirely unscathed.

It received lots more abuse during the rest of the trip. Thrutching up awkward restrictions between ice sheilds and abrasive rock walls. Coming into close contact with ice screws. Stuffed unceremoniously into the bowels of my rucksack, alongside all the other injurious paraphernalia that goes with the territory of climbing frozen waterfalls.

Having totally worn out my long serving Montane super light-weight jacket, I was tempted by a 50% off RRP special offer from Needle Sports for this Crux smock. I was aware of their reputation for making good gear (I have no connection with them whatsoever) and have never bought any of their kit before. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you would wear one of these instead of a stab-proof vest, but I am very impressed by its toughness.

We climbed a couple of dripping ice pitches and hunkered down in wet caves and I remained totally dry, so it will probably keep out the rain too (my next trip to Wales will probably test that). At only 425 gms (L), it is less than half the weight of my bombproof, full spec Mammut Goretex mountaineering jacket (still going strong after many years of abuse). This Crux smock rolls up into its own (helmet accommodating) hood and compresses to a tiny, packable size.

Minimalist, well cut, with a half length zip, and high chest pockets, it fits well and tucks into your harness neatly. Unbulky, it gives a clear view of your racked gear.

Unfortunately, Crux don’t seem to make this Torq smock any longer, although I can’t imagine why. Maybe they’re one of those old-fashioned, well-made products that once you’ve got one, they last indefinitely, so you don’t need to replace it. Needle Sports might still have a few and if I could afford it, I’d buy another one (just in case I’m not so lucky with the axes next time). Onwards and upwards.

KragRags is a family run business dedicated to making ethically produced clothes for climbers. When we’re not out climbing, we’re busy creating comfortable, high quality, eco-friendly clothing, from 100% organic cotton, using green renewable energy, ethical Fair Wear employment and ecologically friendly farming and manufacturing practices. Click these links to see our unique designs for men and women.

Getting back on the horse

Mo Farah’s double double, Usain Bolt’s triple triple, GB women’s hockey gold and many more sporting achievements have dominated recent headlines. But two individuals have made a particular impression on me this last week. In the Olympics, 58 year old Nick Skelton made show jumping history when he won his first individual gold medal. In itself, a remarkable achievement – made all the more incredible, given that his career seemed to be over when he fell from a horse and broke his neck 16 years ago.


Twid climbing the 2** Sea Mist, Saddle Head, Pembrokeshire, less than a year after breaking his back while climbing in Morocco.

In Pembrokeshire, a long way from the Olympic spotlight, I watched another person getting back on a metaphorical horse. In October 2015, IFMGA mountain guide Mike Twid Turner broke his back in a fall at a remote location in Morocco. Now, less than a year later, after two major operations – he is climbing again.

Twid’s climbing CV is truly hardcore with over 75 E7/8s, numerous first ascents, plenty of sport F8as, alpine icefalls and winter WI 7. He has established more than 50 new lines in the greater ranges, and climbed some of the hardest mixed and rock routes in the Alps.


Nigel happily gurning into the bright sunshine on the 2** star classic HS “Sea Mist” at Saddle Head, Pembrokeshire. Picture by Mike “Twid” Turner.

Twid has a penchant for exploratory climbing in harsh, remote locations around the world – with multiple visits to wild places like Patagonia and Alaska. Despite this pursuit of gnarl, as an IFMGA mountain guide and MIC instructor, his “day job” for the last 23 years has involved patiently guiding and coaching countless climbers who are generally more “recreationally” inclined. Throughout this time he has passed on his sense of adventure and passion for climbing, along with hundreds of essential tips for climbing efficiently and staying safe.


Alun Richardson abbing in to climb with Twid at St Governs. Alun is a professional photographer, writer and Mountain Guide. It is well worth checking out his website here.

Last weekend, friends and fellow climbers came from far and wide to gather around a BBQ in Pembroke and celebrate Twid’s forthcoming 50th birthday and return to fitness. A great time was had by all. We even managed to watch Mo Farah’s 10,000 metres victory on Paul and Emma’s telly at 2 o’clock in the morning. Then of course, a few hours later we headed for Bosherton to go climbing.


Conor and Pete enjoying a laugh with Twid at St Governs East.

There were no E7s on this occasion (thank god!) but watching a mate confidently tackling steep HVSs so soon after recovering from such a show stopping injury brought smiles to all our faces.


Twid up for the craic at St Governs East.

Twid’s catch phrase over the years has been “Eat lard – pull ‘ard”. A maxim that he lived up to last Sunday. His preparation for this careful return to the vertical world was to stay up late, eat twice his own body-weight of charred BBQ sausages, washed down with copious amounts of ale and then sleep in the back of his car. Given what he’s gone through in the last 11 months, this surely deserves a medal!

Twid is sponsored by DMM, has worked as a qualified British Mountain Guide  all his working life (now a registered Swiss Guide) and runs The Mountain Guiding Company.


The end of a memorable day’s climbing on the stunning sea cliffs of the Pembrokeshire coast. Photo by Mike “Twid” Turner.

Pembroke Rock – 1000 selected rock climbs by Emma Alsford & Paul Donnithorne and published by the Climbers Club (2016) is a great place to start if you want to savour some of the best climbing in Pembrokeshire.

KragRags is a family run business dedicated to making ethically produced clothes for climbers. When we’re not out climbing, we’re busy creating comfortable, high quality, eco-friendly clothing, from 100% organic cotton, using green renewable energy, ethical Fair Wear employment and ecologically friendly farming and manufacturing practices. Click these links to see our unique designs for men and women.

Hanging by a thread

Here is some atmospheric, unedited video footage taken whilst abseiling (rappelling) from an Abalakov thread down an ice climb in Morocco. There was an extra sense of urgency because moments earlier, the icefall on our left had collapsed as the warm sunshine loosened its nocturnal, frozen grip on the mountain.

This sort of thing gives an insight into why most experienced climbers regard abseiling more as a necessary evil than a leisure activity. Unlike when you are free climbing, abseiling is one of the few occasions when you are entirely reliant on the rope and anchors. It is also the time when you are most likely to reflect on the age and durability of your harness, rope and slings. On particularly sketchy descents a voice in your head might say something like “Please let me survive this one and I’ll sell all my gear and never climb again.” Fortunately, this internal dialogue is usually forgotten or ignored once you’re safely in the bar drinking beer with your friends.

Anyone who tells you they aren’t frightened when they are making abseil descents like this, is either lying – or has not understood the situation. This is worlds apart from those charity abseil events down the side of an office building, from solid anchors, backed up with a safety line 🙂

KragRags is a family run business dedicated to making ethically produced clothes for climbers. When we’re not out climbing, we’re busy creating comfortable, high quality, eco-friendly clothing, from 100% organic cotton, using green renewable energy, ethical Fair Wear employment and ecologically friendly farming and manufacturing practices. Click these links to see our unique designs for men and women.

Cuba – climbing out of the past

It seems a lifetime ago now but just ahead of the US presidential visit, we achieved a long-held ambition to visit Cuba.

When I saw Obama’s entourage on the news, sheltering from the torrential rain under their umbrellas, I thought of the dozens of families living in this derelict building next door to us in Havana. I knew they’d be getting wet – because you can see the sky through their “roof” and this grand, colonial structure no longer has any doors, windows, or proper drains.

A dozen or more families live in this dilapidated building in Havana.

A dozen or more families live in this dilapidated building in Havana, a few doors along from our Casa.

Thousands of people live in similar conditions in Havana and Obama’s carefully managed tour definitely didn’t include places like this.

We stayed in Centro Havana, not the swankiest part of town but close to the old centre and everyone we met was very friendly.

We stayed in Centro Havana, not the swankiest part of town but close to the Vieja (historic old town) and everyone we met was friendly and made us welcome.

We only had a week, so we decided to focus on Havana. We didn’t want a sanitised, tourist experience and we wanted our money to go directly to the locals who need it most (the state, still owns or controls almost everything in Cuba). So, rather than staying in an international hotel (as depicted in “The Godfather”, many were run by the US Mafia before the revolution), we sought out a little “Casa Particular” (a private home with a bit of space to rent). It was very basic but we could not have been made to feel more welcome.


Havana is a visual feast, held together by rhythm, rum and sunshine. Go with an open mind and you’ll meet great people and come home with memories to last a lifetime.

I’m looking forward to going back to explore the climbing in Valle de Viñales.


Our Man in Havana (Buildering)

“Our Man in Havana” mantled onto the ledge, high above the Cathedral square in the heart of Habana Vieja. His distinctive red T-shirt was the perfect disguise in a country still celebrating Che Guevara and El Revolución.

In a few days, Barack Obama would become the first serving US President to visit Cuba in ninety years. The Presidential party would enter the Catedral de San Cristobél just below the ancient tower. It was essential that “Our Man” completed his mission before the Americans arrived.

Our Man in Havana gains a perfect vantage point, overlooking Plaza de la Catedral, ahead of the historic US Presidential visit to Cuba.

“Our Man in Havana” gains an ideal vantage point, overlooking Plaza de la Catedral, ahead of the historic US Presidential visit to Cuba. The tower was the perfect position to take the shot.

The USA don’t have a good track record in this part of the world and “Our Man in Havana” was determined to complete his mission before history repeats itself.

From his secret vantage point in the Cathedral tower, "Our Man in Havana" had a clear view of the ancient Plaza. He was determined to get his shot in before it was sullied by the gaudy hoardings and golden arches of another bloody MacDonalds.

From his vantage point high in the tower “Our Man in Havana” had a clear view of the ancient Plaza. He was determined to take the shot before the city changed forever. There will be boots on the ground soon. The shock troops of the cultural invasion will be advertising men. MacDonalds’ golden arches will arrive in the second wave, laying down a massive calorific barrage to cover the advance of Trump Towers and Wall Mart.

One of the few good things about Communism is advertising. There isn’t any. If American culture is on the way to Cuba, then this will change. The writing is already on the wall in Havana but mostly it isn’t trying to sell you the latest plastic gizmo or electronic doodad.

Like any big city the world over people are leaving their mark. Street culture is vibrant in Havana. Not least because they are such sociable people who live much of their lives outside rather than inside their homes.

As in all big cities, people are leaving their mark. Street culture is vibrant in Havana. Not least because they are vibrant, sociable people who live much of their lives in the street, rather than inside their homes.

The USA’s attempts to subjugate the island by force failed – the CIA backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 ended in a humiliating defeat for the USA and drove Cuba even closer to the Soviet Union.

The 100mm self-propelled cannon that Fidel Castro himself, supposedly saw off the US backed forces of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Now standing proudly on a concrete plinth outside the Museo de la Revolucion

The 100mm self-propelled cannon that Fidel Castro himself, supposedly saw off the US backed forces of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Now standing proudly on a concrete plinth outside the Museo de la Revolucion

The whole world held its breath in 1962 as the Cuban missile crisis brought the simmering Cold War to a terrifying boil and the world teetered on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The Cuban trade embargo by the US, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the resultant “Special Period”, brought untold hardship to Cuba – yet ordinary Cubans somehow remain cheerful, unbowed and justifiably proud of their beautiful country.

Our Man in Havana looking North, from Malacón towards the American Dream, contemplating the threats and opportunities on the horizon.

Looking North from Malacón towards the USA, contemplating the threats and opportunities the “American Dream” holds for the Cuban people.

“Our Man in Havana” relaxed, took a deep breath, slowly exhaled and squeezed off the first shot. The Secret Service can relax, President Obama is safe. There was nothing sinister about “Our Man’s” mission to capture images of Havana before it is irrevocably changed. Let’s hope the American Dream doesn’t become a Cuban nightmare.

Our Man in Havana checking out the tower, and doing a little Buildering. Beauty is in the eye of the Boulderer.

Our Man in Havana checking out the tower and taking a few shots of the old town before it changes. And of course, doing a little Buildering. After all “Beauty is in the eye of the Boulderer”


People have been predicting change in Cuba for years. Let’s hope it is the sort of change the local people need. Get there quick, just in case Cuba is annexed by Disneyland Florida.

I’m looking forward to going back to explore the spectacularly featured limestone crags of Valle de Viñales. This little video gives a tantalising taster: