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Comforted by 'bomb proof' runner I step out onto the steep right-hand wall and slowly edge on upwards fingering at tiny holds, boots feeling clumsy on the small ledges. Time slows, the runner now seems a long way below, another gradual move upwards and at last my hand jams comfortingly in the crack between chockstone and gully wall. Sitting in swirling cloud penetrated by shafts of bright sunlight I bring up Denise and soon we are scrambling in blue sky to the summit of Pico De Las Nieves, Gran Canaria's highest point and our start to a year of world Ultras.
Two weeks later we awoke to the sound of gunfire and aggressive chanting which sounded all too close; it was still dark and now too late to be wondering if Guatemala was such a good idea. It was, and we enjoyed an incredible two weeks travelling the country on the local aptly named 'chicken buses' to climb the country's six Ultras. We reached Volcan Acatenango summit at sunset, blasted by the scoria carried on 65mph winds while, just to the south, Fuego vented clouds of black smoke and ash into crystal clear skies, its summit cone glowing red with lava as daylight faded. Volcan Agua is notorious for its muggings so we weakened and employed the protection services of a local off-duty policeman; he claimed to be unarmed and said it was fine as there wouldn't be any bandits on a Wednesday. We met only friendly locals collecting firewood and tending their fields.
Leaving the well-travelled volcanoes of central Guatemala, we headed north close to the Mexican border. Few tourists here so few bandits, no maps and much more challenging transport. After procrastinated negotiations in Spanish we hired a 4x4 pickup, driver and mate to take us to a mountain village. The driver had never been there before and was unconvinced by our motive to climb the highest peak. As we gained height on dirt tracks, our drivers marvelled at the expanding views and joined in with the spirit of the adventure. So much so that, on reaching the village, they insisted on continuing as high as possible. Driving through deep dusty soil we bounced over tree roots and along narrow rocky tracks until finally there was only forest. We left the pickup at a shed with a small group of loggers and continued on foot to the summit of Pena Blanca. On returning we were greeted with fresh tortilla and hot chicken soup prepared by the loggers' wives. On our last night in Guatemala City we again heard the gunfire and chants of the training security forces.
Through leafless forest and bright sunshine, legs move rhythmically, gliding skis over the snow but cloud is rapidly forming. We glimpse the summit of Monte Cimone but it disappears into greyness, the wind picking up. Sadly, we see nothing but cloud from the deserted snowy summit. Only 12 March and our eighth Ultra this year, our last for a while.
April and May are filled with visits to distant corners of Scotland for new Marilyns, the weather for the most part is kind.
Grosser Priel and Grimming in northern Austria were two Ultras hard to resist on a work-related visit to Munich in May. Both fine, steep mountains but it's really too early in the season and the remnants of the winter's snow give exciting ascents.
We gulp down water in the hot sunshine, joining the large group looking across to the rocky couloir at the summit of Mount Olympus. From our foreshortened view it's impressive and soon we are scrambling over warm rock to the summit. The four other mountains we climb in northern Greece are deserted: the flower-filled slope and subterranean chapel of Oros Ossa; pine forests and traverse of Fangari ending in soaking off the day's sweat and dust in hot springs as the light drains from the sky.
From the lonely chapel on Kaimaksalan we look out to Macedonia before returning in darkness to find a farmer waiting by our car, concerned for our safety.
'Wolves and bears', he says. The summit of Radomir on the Bulgarian border eludes us; running out of time amongst dense forest and minefields, we race back to the airport for our flight home, but this gives us a reason to return.
Summer was spent in the high Alps of Europe with highlights of Todei with its long glacier, ice falls avoided on crumbling rock buttresses, yawning crevasses and a summit far steeper and further than it appears from below. Discovering that the snow cap of Cima Tossa has melted significantly I believe its neighbour Cima Brenta is now the possible group Ultra but ponder if even Brenta can muster the 1500m prominence. From heights measured by hand-held GPS it's too close to call.
September in Albania: a country where everyone we met was so incredibly friendly and helpful. A wild, mountainous country laced with dirt roads clinging precariously to steep mountainsides, switch-backing between deep, flat- bottomed valleys where rivers are crossed on the splintered planks of log bridges. Driving was at best slow. Haystacks gilded by the evening sun beside white-washed walls of smallholdings, each with well loved and cared for animals. Even on remote mountains, we were never far from shepherds tending herds of sheep guarded by fierce dogs, a sort of cross between German shepherd and wolf. We quickly concluded that these hillsides were best left before nightfall to avoid an encounter with one of these beasts in darkness. It took us our full ten days to climb the eight Ultras, which included my 100th.
We squeezed our final two Ultras of the year, Montalto and Cime Dolcedorme, into a weekend in Calabria in December. A dog decided to accompany us on Dolcedorme; he was unsure of the windswept frosted grass of the high ridge but loved the beech forest which he bounded through, sniffing out truffles. Sadly he was reluctant to share them.
During 2011 I climbed 30 new Ultras, and Denise 23. We look forward to 2012.
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