The Rail 8b+
The Rail is the iconic 8B+ problem in Northumberland, which after over a year of trying Scarpa athlete Dan Varian was the inaugural climber to complete in October 2013.
Here Dan recounts the lead up to and the completion of The Rail.
“Bowden is a bit of a funny one for me. Before trying The Rail I’d climbed there roughly 5 times in more years, my first visit being when I was 16 or so. I used to really struggle with the erosion of it and it made me a bit sad to climb there as the joy of climbing problems would be dampened by the fact that one wrecks them a little bit more whilst doing so. As a padawan of the new “southern” county crags which are much quieter untouched crags it took a bit of getting my head around why all the focus was on Bowden. Then again it is obvious in many ways; a roadside crag with some of the most striking rock architecture in the UK.
So, The Rail. It always is and has been a striking feature. This part of The Wave is like a painting that you can interact with. It was December 2011 when Micky and I stuck a ladder up it to have a look at whether there were any holds or not. There were, just about. We didn’t try it that day as we got side tracked on Born Lippy, Pulp Friction, Working Class and Honeycomb wall. It was Jan 2012 before I took a serious look at The Rail to see about figuring out whether it went or not. My first sequence I figured out that day just about went but had a stupidly hard move on it and I wasn’t overly optimistic meg that it was a goer. The day after, we left for a skiing holiday in Austria for the week. The last time I left the UK in the last 2 years! It was a lovely holiday but I kept pillow pondering whether I was being a numpty on The Rail, there had to be a better way?
This makes The Rail a really special climb as it tests the mind as much as power, every session was fun when it wasn’t in the blazing sun. As to progress I needed to be mentally checking and balancing each move. When crossed over on the pinch with left foot up it’s really hard to generate the force onto the pinch so I do an ever so slight swing outwards and on my way back in the force comes on it and I have time to release the right and hit the 2 finger pock with thumb catch.
In February (2013) I had a real breakthrough session where I got to the pinch move about 8 times and really refined how I did that. I’d done Bourgeoisie the same day and it was great conditions and I felt a real spark of progress, for the first time I’d been convincingly stronger than my 2nd session on it. I left it after that as it got warmer and bided my time.
Come September I was chomping at the bit to get back on it and every session got better and better. I was stronger and could feel it. I dropped the last foot move before the final move from a cumulative error which was gutting but I refined my sequence.
We drove through rain last Wednesday night in a sort of madness driven by my desire as I knew if it was even a little wet we’d be wasting petrol. I knew the crag and wind direction was perfect, really strong but whipping over the back and 10˚C. We woke up to rain, it wasn’t supposed to rain! Well we are here so it’s worth a look. Nick and i walked in expecting the worst, but in a rare parley, Bowden had provided. The wind was so strong the rain had blown over the top of the crag and the rail was still bone dry, the sign of a good year. I felt like I had a get out of jail free card. I’d caught it whilst it was sleeping.
I felt great warming up and finally did it in a few tries once I’d warmed into the finicky shoulder cross over. It felt amazing to pass through years of fallen hopes and grab the finishing jugs. The perfect wave. Turning a truly brilliant feature into a climb of equal lineage.
If it’s the best climb I ever do I’ll retire a happy man, if it’s the hardest, likewise. All i know is that it was a joy seeing through the process. This to me is why i boulder, for the difficulty and intricacy that can only be felt without distractions, to climb up lines like this. The general climbing mass of people may often see bouldering as a cop out from real climbing, wimps obsessed with self image, grades and ugly, lurchy strength. The Rail is a good antidote to this for people struggling to understand the real point of it all. It was lovely to be offered good will wishes by passing tradders when they saw i was trying it. It is a line which transcends all niches of climbing, it is something everyone can understand. Stand near the thing and look at it and you’ll get what i mean. It’s not as brazen as a big arete or as bold as a highball. It’s just a really pretty feature. Obvious but for most of its life “impossible”.“
Offering just over half a mile of technical climbing in all grades, this quick drying crag is arguably the jewel in the climbing crown of Northumberland.
With a rich history of being at the cutting edge of UK route climbing and more recently bouldering, this tough sandstone edge packs plenty of punch into its though far from lofty max height of 15 meters.
Little is known about the early years of Bowden Doors climbing, although a few notes were made in the Oxford and Cambridge Journals in 1935 and Peter Biven did some routes in 1955. Unfortunately most of the routes ascended prior to the late sixties went undocumented.
However starting in 1967 the crag has seen a steady pace of recorded development from early greats like Eric Rayson’s Canada Crack HVS 5a right through to the modern bouldering test pieces like Jerry Moffat’s Born Lippy F8a and Dan Varian’s The Rail 8B+.
In that time Bowden Doors has seen it’s fair share of technical terrors and bold climbs. It’s also seen some dreaded controversy with over zealous wire brushing leading to rock damage on certain parts of the crag.
A staple of climbers in the North East Bowden Doors is well worth going out of your way for, whatever grade you climb.
Thanks to the Northumberland Mountaineering Club for facts from their excellent Climbing & Bouldering Guide Books.
Whilst the forefoot last is rolled on from the original version, the heel is a new lower volume design, with a higher cut rand, tighter REB and now three stretch gussets to optimise fit and hooking lock down! The toe rand has been blended into the all-conquering X-tension system to provide additional abrasion resistance and friction on toe hooks and scums.
Watch Dan on the Rail
The Frendo Spur is an iconic route up Chamonix’s Aiguille de Midi. Many people aspire to climb and to ski it. Scarpa athlete Ross Hewitt has had the pleasure of doing both.
The Frendo Spur, a route on every apprentice Alpinist’s wish list, 1100 m high consisting of a beautiful buttress topped by that elegant spine and crowned with the upper buttress. It is the most aesthetic route on the North Face of the 3842 m high Aiguille du Midi. The alpine route was opened on 11th July 1941 by Edouard Frendo and René Rionda. The spine was fist skied by Jean-Marc Boivin and Laurent Giacomini in the 2nd July 1977 before they abseiled over the buttress to join another slope which lead to the bottom. Giacomini was in the zone and on his 2.10 m 60 mm wide skis made big turns that for many people marked the start of freeriding. It should be remembered that in this era jump turns were the norm, the long stiff skis being difficult to control.
A few attempts we made in May got off to a false starts due to wind, slabby snow & rain runnels on the lower face. These days were pretty stressful, as you never know if your partners will read the conditions the same way or want to go regardless. Eventually I decided to take a break from the Chamonix valley and went to Finale rock climbing for a few days. This gave me the chance to relax and recharge the psyche. On my return to Chamonix I randomly met Bird Early, Minna Rihiimaki, and Camille Jaccoux at the Midi and we skied a Cosmiques together. The snow was perfect for steep skiing and I suggested to Bird we pair up and go for Frendo the following day.
Luca and Ben were also keen to go, and in the morning, Minna joined us. After a quick discussion we decided to ski as a team of five so as not to endanger each other with sluff. Up the Midi my psyche was high, there was no niggling doubts about the slabs or hard snow and it felt right. There was 30-40 cm of perfect cold, well bonded powder allowing big turns down the initial 45 degree slopes. Everyone was smiling and happy as we got to the first abseil point. There is a couloir that runs down the side of the upper buttress which is usually glacial ice and an abalakov anchor is required for the abseil. I went last since I had been shooting, pulled the back up ice screw and started off down the ropes on skis. Near the end of the diagonal rap it was nearly impossible to hold and edge on the black ice and I started to wish I had left the ice screw in case I took an uncontrolled pendulum. By the time I’d pulled the ropes and re-joined the others the stress levels were high. As short exposed traverse right on 55 degrees lead under the upper buttress and delivered us to the arête. Here I had the challenge of getting stable enough to look through the viewfinder and shoot without loosing my balance!
Ben skied first releasing sluff that poured down the face either side of the arête picking up more snow on its way and pouring spectacularly off the end of the serac and dropping 1000 m down towards the Plan de l”Aiguille. Seeing that the snow was great enabled us to relax and enjoy those special turns in an amazing situation. When I climbed this route in 1997 it never occurred to me that one day I might ski it. We rapped down the tower using Boulevard Hauusman and leapfrogged 2 sets of 60 m ropes to speed up the rope work.
The lower 500 m also held good snow and with no further technicalities each turn was relaxed and super smooth in the sluffy powder and a few minutes later we were skiing out the bottom of the face and putting some distance behind us en route to the bar!
I got to ski this fine line with my good friends; Bird Early, Minna Rihiimaki, Luca Pandolfi, and Ben Briggs. Bird followed in the tradition set by Giacomini and out in big turns down the right side of the spine unleashing spectacular sluff that went to the distance providing suitable entertainment to the onlookers.”
Visit Ross Hewitt's Scarpa Athlete Profile Page
As a mountaineering route the Frendo Spur is a classic. One of Gaston Rebuffat's 100 finest in the Mont Blanc Massif. First climbed in 1941 (TD) and first skied in 1977 the line starts if you are skiing (finishes if you are climbing) from the Aiguille de Midi telepherique station. An amazing line and a significant challenge whether going up or down.
© Ross Hewitt
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Test of the Best – Where Top Hill Kit Goes Head to Head
Taken from Trail Magazine, December 2014
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Lifestyle on Film
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