Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men...

I've been rather quiet on the blogging front lately, largely because I had little to say that wouldn't involve airing my dirty washing. After a good start to the road trip with Clare, our relationship took a downturn and carried on that way until we decided to call it a day.

I came up to Scotland to see my family and chill out for a while, and though I was sad, despite my recent struggles with depression I thought I was coping fairly well. That changed about a month ago, when I tried to get back on the road and head for Catalunia.

I felt the anxiety building as I was preparing to leave, but I shrugged it off, thinking I would settle once I was on the road. The clouds continued to build - in Sheffield I stopped to see friends but ended up making excuses to leave as I wasn't coping with being in the company of others, and by Toulouse I was in a really dark place where I struggled to be in my own. I turned tail and made for the channel.

It was the most severe attack of anxiety and depression I've experienced; at its peak it was terrifying, although thankfully the worst passed fairly quickly. I went back to Gargunnock to get my head around what had happened, and figure out what to do next. I considered stopping here, looking for work and going back into couselling, but I still feel the need for a good break from all that, so opted to just rest up and try to get my head together. I'm lucky that my parents still live in the large family home (and don't seem to mind me abusing it), so there's always a bolt-hole if I need it.

The depression continued to lift, but the anxiety was keeping a firm hold. I tried yoga and meditation, music, writing, pottering around doing jobs on the van, and even picked up a bit of delivery work to get me out of the house, but nothing affected the agitation. There were knots in my stomach and a sense of dread lingering in the background of every activity - a constant and dibilitating companion.

Thankfully the last few days seem to have been a bit of a turning point. I got myself out running in the cold and wet up the Gargunnock hills a couple of times - nothing too long, but those 30 or 40 minutes of fun and brutality in equal measure blew the cobwebs away a bit.

Then on Sunday morning, I woke up to an unexpectedly sunny day. My first thought was to get cracking on the van, but it seemed a bit of a waste, so I collared my dad to see if he fancied a stroll in the hills. We both wanted something easy and relaxing, so we picked Ben A'an - a short childhood favourite that punches well above its weight when it comes to views.

The usual path runs up through the woods, however it's been closed for tree felling and a diversion over the peat bogs set up - complete with floor mats, signs every 100m and fixed ropes up the steep sections. It was not quite the immersion in nature I'd been looking for, and to begin with I still had trouble relaxing, but half way up we came across a family - three children 5, 7 and 9 years old - at the top of a steep muddy slope. The two older kids were having a ball and eager to reach the top, but the youngest one was quite upset as her mother wouldn't let her slide back down the slope. She plonked herself down in a strop.

I had to chuckle - it reminded me of a story my dad used to tell; apparently when I was around the same age we exited the forest, and looking up at the front face of the summit, I saw a bunch of climbers on ropes. I asked if we could go that way, and when he said no, sat down in the huff... it was the south face or nothing as far as I was concerned.

The thought of my early display of pig-headedness bordering on the absurd (a trait I still carry), seemed to snap me out of it, and for the next couple of hours I felt relaxed and back to normal. It was wonderful to soak up the views and the winter sunshine, without fear in the background.

I don't suppose I'm out of the woods yet, but I've felt much better over the few days since, and this morning I managed to really engage my mind in my yoga practice for the first time. Mountains and crags definitely have a strong effect on my mental well-being... I think it's about time to have another go at getting on the road.

It would be nice to have some climbing to talk about ;)

The strop was soon over and much fun being had once more... perhaps a good lesson in letting go of things!

Ploughing up the peat bog by fixed rope or by crook.

Someone had decided to decorate a lone christmas tree growing by the path.


The first view of the summit, and that "south face" I wanted to climb at 5 years old...


A busy summit, with views over Loch Katrine

Loch Achray from the summit. In the distance you can see the Campsie Fells (the hills above Gargunnock I get to play in)

It was sunny, but was the end of November in Scotland, so the trusty Alpkit down jacket was needed on a windy top.

The clouds on the hills looking west over Loch Katrine were beautiful... unfortunately from a distance the camera doesn't really do them justice.

Monday, 22 September 2014

An Apology

On Friday morning I was pretty despondent, and said I'd hung my head in shame at how we'd voted in the referendum. It came from genuine emotion but it was a knee jerk reaction, and it was wrong.

For most of the lead up to the vote, deep down I thought independence was a pipe dream - to be chased valiantly but probably never attained. As we got closer I saw the swell of grassroots support - the animated discussions between people who'd never seemed particularly engaged in politics, and the soul searching and ultimate change of heart from lifelong labour supporters. The conversation seemed so much about social change that I began to believe we had a real chance of something better, although it felt like we had just one shot.

On Friday morning that shot was gone, but around the web - from friends on social media through the various campaign sites to the Scottish political parties - people with more belief, more conviction, and more vision than I were dusting themselves off and deciding what should be done next. As their message filtered through I realised my mistake. The people of Scotland had not let themselves down; for sure some would have voted against independence out of narrow self interest, but the vast majority had engaged and debated over what would be best for the country, and nobody should be derided for deciding independence wasn't it.

Those who felt it was had galvanised themselves, forged a new political consensus, and come tantalisingly close to a monumental victory - and unlike me they were certainly not ready to see this as the end of the fight for significant social change.

Initially there was a feeling of betrayal and a banding together under the banner of "45"; a sense of "We voted for change, what's coming our way now isn't our fault", but then a more positive narrative began to form. There was a perception that the unlikely alliance of the big three Westminster parties, with the help of banks, corporations, and perhaps most importantly a compliant media, had interfered with the process of Scottish people deciding amongst themselves. People thought that regardless of the result we needed to ensure the internal dialog continued, and that outside interests could not impede it. We must look to engage everyone fully - not just go out and try to convert people to our cause, but to ask questions of them, ask questions of ourselves, and determine how we could all work more closely together.

Divisions would just allow Westminster to slip back into business as usual, benefiting nobody in Scotland. The call for our nation to come together must not become a convenient sound bite to silence dissent, it must be a genuine driver for like-minds and not-so-like to sit down and talk openly about Scotland's future without prejudice.

Ideas began to be passed around. By Saturday, on the Six Degrees To Independence group on Facebook I read the following list of them:

  • Stay engaged.
  • Consider joining the SNP, Scottish Greens or SSP. Many people are doing so. They're the only parties fighting for Scotland and there's a General Election around the corner apart from anything else longer term. Send no more Tories, Red Tories or Lib Dems to WM.
  • Have a good hard think about what supermarkets, businesses and bank you use. Continue to vote with your feet and your wallet.
  • Join CND. Sign up to Rethink Trident.
  • Refuse to give the BBC and the rest of the mainstream and print media air time. Cancel your apps. Unfollow them. Find new honest sources of information. Start with the Sunday Herald and NewsnetScotland but there will be more.
  • Find post-YES projects and groups to support. We'll post them here as we hear more about how people are regrouping on the ground.
  • Find your nearest foodbank and offer donations or help. The vulnerable need us now more than ever.
  • Set up a Twitter account and follow people and groups with the same passion as you.
  • And when they break their promises make sure everybody knows.


And people were doing it. The SNP website creaked then went down under the load as people tried to sign up. By Monday afternoon they were reporting almost 17,000 new members. George Square turned into an impromptu food bank donation center. Tommy Sheridon issued a statement on Facebook asking socialists not to stand against the SNP at the next Westminster elections and instead get behind them in the campaign against Westminster austerity.

Something exciting is happening in Scotland, and while the tireless work of a small group of politicians and activists towards the referendum may have started it, the people took it on and made it so much more. So to all of you - from the seasoned politicians to the new bar-room economists, but in particular to those who voted No out of genuine concern for the good of the country - I apologise unreservedly.

I still believe independence would be the easiest way to improve things, but I'm happy to continue arguing the toss with anyone who thinks otherwise, while we discuss what we can do within the existing framework. Who knows, maybe you can even change my mind. In the meantime, long live this new, vibrant Scottish political scene.


Friday, 19 September 2014

Fear over Hope

Yesterday Scotland had it's future in it's hands, and decided to give it away again.

We could have decided to vote for change - to leave what remains of the faded British Empire with its ever-rising inequality and try to build a fairer, more socially responsible democratic society - but we didn't have the stomach for it.

And it was more than just that.

The world was watching while we decided whether to stand up and send out a message, load and proud, that we would reject the neoliberal political consensus that dominates Westminster, and the morally indefensible foreign policy that comes with it.

That message was drafted to say:


  • We will no longer allow weapons of mass destruction to be berthed in our lochs, threatening the children of other nations, at the expense of hospitals and schools for our own.
  • We will no longer commit our troop's lives to the endless invasions of foreign countries in wars for resources and strategic gain.
  • We will no longer be a part of radicalising the middle east and producing the next Isis.
  • We will no longer place the god of the market above the equality of our society.
  • We will no longer agree with the dogma that every man should fight tooth and nail to climb the ladder of personal financial success, whilst labeling those who can't follow as scroungers.
  • We will no longer support a system that sees the poorest in society bearing the brunt of an austerity package aimed at recovering a crisis no fault of their own, while those who caused it continue to reward themselves handsomely.

Instead, after a No campaign dominated by claims of economic uncertainty, the message we sent was simple:

  • We'd rather be party to all of the above than risk losing a few quid.


The world is not really watching Iceland's quiet revolution, but they would have had to watch ours. The chance to make a real mark on global politics was there, and now it's gone.

Yesterday I walked to the polling station full of hope, with my head held high.

In the early hours of this morning, I hung my head in shame.

Scotland the not-brave-enough.

Food bank queue

Image of trident sub

Oil wars

Isis killers

Banker

Child poverty



Monday, 23 June 2014

Back to School

Since my last post I've been through a bit of a schooling - both physical and mental; Finale is a hard but fair teacher.

To start with I was only managing a few routes a day in the 6a to 6b range and left feeling broken.

My skin hurt. My fingers hurt. My back hurt. My arms hurt. My feet hurt.

After a few days of this, I began to feel frustrated - I was desperate to get back to where I was before the injuries, illness and van building duties that kept me out of action since September.

I was throwing myself at the rock with gusto, but the climbing here is very technical; Finale rewards patience (and footwork) over enthusiasm.

The frustration ruined my crag psych, which spilled over to affect Clare as well - I wasn't a fun person to climb with.

I should have known better, I've been here before.

After a bit of "heated discussion" on the matter, on Tuesday I realised I was behaving like a child, and resolved to try harder to relax and enjoy where I am, instead of thinking of where I want to be and immediately things began to improve.

On Wednesday we went up to Falesia della Luna - a short crag with quite cruxy routes that didn't really suit my style - and onsighted six routes up to 6b.

After a rest day, Nic appeared in town for the weekend, so I headed up with him to Bric Scimarco - Superior for a Friday evening climb. Nic's non ti prioccupare attitude to climbing (and life in general) was just what I needed to help settle me down, and the sector proved to be an ideal place to show myself I wasn't doing too badly.

After warming up on a couple of long easy routes, I went for Tutti Questi Temerari Uccelli - a 32m 6c. It was more my usual style of climbing with a steep, powerful crux on good holds.

On my onsight attempt I lost composure, concentrated too much on my hands, cut loose, tried to campus, and failed.

Getting back on I tried the same sequence, but took the time to really place my feet well; I comfortably reached over to the jug at the end of the crux. There was a bit of climbing left, but nothing too difficult and as I clipped the chains I was a little annoyed: Just a bit more composure, or a bit more finger strength, and I'd have onsighted that!

By the time I reached the ground I was already in a better mindset; I read the route well and picked the right sequence for me at the crux, and in a few weeks time my composure will be better, my fingers stronger and my footwork tidier; in fact it was good that I didn't have the strength to campus - I wouldn't have learned anything from it.

I sent the route first redpoint, which left time for one more line. Nic went up Hyperzot (34m, 7a) and watching him climb I tossed up in my mind - have a go or take a sensible warm down?

Nic got to the chains and asked:

"What do you want me to do?"

"How was it?"

"Crux is tricky but I think the rest is quite climbable."

"OK, leave the draws in and I'll have a go."

Having already watching him climb it, I pumped Nic for the beta and went for the flash. The crux was high on the route with a rest immediately below, and I climbed everything up to it pretty cleanly.

I phsyched myself up and went for it - some crimpy moves round an arete, then a reach to a tufa blob at the back of a dihedral. I set my feet well and stretched over. As my left hand touched the rock, the fingers of my right hand popped off and I was in the air.

So close, yet this time I was not annoyed. I'd read the footwork correctly, kept my composure, and executed the moves well - I simply didn't have the strength to stick it.

That will come. Just like a route, project Get In Shape needs a little patience - and if there's one thing I have a lot of right now it's time.

After another rest day to let the fingers recover, we joined Nic and Simone at Placca dei Maleducati - another new crag for us, this time just down the road from our home base at Monte Cucco.

Clare and I started on some shorter lines to the left of the crag - these were quite dirty, technical and hard. One line - Via Centrale (6b) - defeated me and I had to pull on a draw to finish and clean the route.

Further along the routes became longer and better, but still with a very technical style - Nic tells me the alpine club take students here to learn footwork and I can see why.

Il Falcetto Picheitto E Il Mangiatore Di Mosche was a beautiful 20m 6a that made me think a bit at times, then next to it was K-pax (6b+, 20m). Simone had some difficulty working the crux, and as I tied in to have a go he said to me "let's see your style". I immediately felt under pressure to perform, to make a good impression on the locals.

Once I got under way however this fell away, and I climbed with much more freedom than I have to date. I nailed the crux, and apart from wasting energy stopping to clip just before reaching a good rest, I knew I was climbing well. I clipped the chains and let out a whoop of joy... the numbers did not matter - I was as proud of that onsight as I would have been on a steep 7a.

I may seek out some "harder" lines in my style again before I leave Finale, but for now I'm going to stick with the technical climbing - see if I can learn to climb these 6bs like a local.

First lesson learnt.


Crux of K-pax - photo by Nicola Ciancaglini
Then a super-strenous clip, two moves from a jug... D'OH! Photo by Nicola Ciancaglini.
Simone on the super-wild looking Les Couleurs d'un Autre Monde (6b)...

... and sending in style.


Bit of rest day fun...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

On the road at last!

It's a year and a half since we decided to quit the rat race and live on the road for a while. Having dinner in the Monte Cucco car park in Finale, watching the fireflies dance after a morning at the crag and an afternoon at the beach, it's hard not to feel smug. The hard work and sacrifices of the last 18 months are fading into memory now we're into the payoff. And what a payoff - we've hit the jackpot.

I finished working six weeks ago, and after a bit of time in Scotland seeing my family then down in the west country with Clare's, we popped back into London to get a fresh MOT for the van, get drunk one last time with old friends, and head for Dover.

With time on our hands, we avoided the toll roads and ambled down France on les routes national passing by Paris, Lyon and Grenoble to cross the alps at Briancon last friday afternoon. We went down to Turin to see Nic and Elo for the evening, then after a lazy morning and trip to an open air market for fresh fruit and veg we headed south for Liguria.

Clare hasn't been here before, and as soon as we left Savona on the coast road she was blown away by the scenery. We were sweltering and it would be too late for a climb, so we parked up at the first free spot and hit the beach, before heading up to the car park for the night.

Between work, van building and injury, neither of us have climbed for a long time so Sunday morning we looked for somewhere easy. One of the sectors at Monte Cucco seemed to fit the bill - the historic settore Della Torre. After a couple of 4b climbs to warmup I got on the first pitch of La Torre - a 5c first climbed in 1969 by Gianni Calcagno and Allesandro Grillo. Boy did I have to fight for the onsight... it may be much more polished than the day it was graded but if I needed a reminder of the old school style and grading in Finale, here it was.

Monday lunchtime (after a long lie and a slow breakfast), we decided we'd better find a north facing crag and went for La Goletta in Rian Cornei. It was a 20 minute uphill hike from the Ponte Cornei and despite the tree cover we were drenched in sweat by the time we arrived. It was worth the walk though - Goletta is a small but beautiful crag that deserves more traffic than it obviously gets. The bottom of the routes was dirty and vegetated, and the pockets filled with cobwebs, weeds and dead spiders. We didn't see a soul between parking the car and getting back to it.

The highlight of the crag was an overhanging groove called Alle Cinque Della Sera (6a+), of which the Tomassini guide book says:

"Whoever goes to climb at the Goletta cannot help noticing the corner masterpiece... sometimes you ask yourself whether it's worth taking a trip just to climb one route... in this case Fabio (Bigo) Peirpaoli and the Association Outdoor Liguria think it is."

I think they're right, and I'm glad I got on it while I wasn't fit enough to make it an unfair fight. Whilst not quite the old school grading of some of the earlier bolted crags it still packed a punch for the grade; it took a strong dose of determination and good tactics to bag the onsight. It's a line I won't forget for a while, for more than one reason.

Powerful moves between pockets up the groove led to an uncomfortably stretched bridging rest, before pulling over to a short vertical face climb to the chains. My first three attempts to get established on the slab resulted in a scrabbling retreat to the rest, before I finally saw the missing jigsaw piece. A couple of moves later I was somewhat precariously onto the slab and breathing heavily. There was a line of three pockets in front of my face; the middle one wasn't so positive so I took a double gaston position on the outer two to sort my feet and get pressed into the wall to recover.

My face was against the rock with the middle pocket just by my temple when from the corner of my eye I noticed there was a twig inside it... wait a minute... that wasn't there before... I pulled back to focus and realised it was a small arm complete with claw - I'd been resting with my head against a scorpion's front door and he was coming out to tell me I wasn't invited. So much for getting the heart rate down!

I didn't want to blow the onsight, and I knew I wasn't yet recovered enough to bolt for the top, so I leaned back and watched him - all the while wondering if the three open-backed pockets were connected and whether his family were in there. As it turned out, standing watching him was less scary than moving off - as soon as he was out of sight by my feet all I could think about was him scuttling out and up my leg to sting me, so it was with considerable joy and relief that I high-stepped onto the ledge above to clip the chains.

We got back to the beach in time to catch the last hour of sunshine. As we swum around cooling off we started laughing and I think it finally sunk in... WE MADE IT OUT!!!

For so long Monday has been a day to dread - the start of the working week. One day we may have to go back to that but for now it's just another day to climb and visit the beach. The hard work and sacrifices to get here were definitely worthwhile.

Deer in the highlands of Scotland

Summer in Ullapool... not quite the heat of the italian riviera

Beautiful beaches though

Church in Albertville.
French wheat fields

Crossing the Alps

Fruit market in Turin
This little fella climbed onto my shirt as we arrived at the crag...



And had finished transforming when we left.

Lo scorpione...

The beach we go to most afternoons, between Finale and Noli - free beach and usually free parking within a 5 minute walk.

A selfie... since all the kids are doing it these days...

View from the beach.

I had no idea there were scorpions here, but it turns out they may be quite common - found this one a day later on the toilet wall at Monte Cucco car park.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Push the button

My hand shook slightly as I sat at the computer, the mouse pointer hovering over the Send button. My heart raced and my body felt electrified as a torrent of conflicting emotions fought for my attention.

I sat for a while and let them linger, savouring the delicious uncertainty.




It was a simple e-mail, and my boss was expecting it. I'd been working towards being able to send it with single-minded determination for so long, yet now that the moment had arrived it was terrifying. Sending it would be a step beyond the point of no return.

Sending it meant I was starting a 4 week notice period.

Sending it meant it was 4 weeks until I would officially become an unemployed climbing bum.







I hit send.

A few moments later, my boss looked over his shoulder and gave me a smile and a thumbs up... it was done.

The doubt gave way and a wave of euphoria washed through me. I was free. I felt giddy.

At some point I got an e-mail from HR outlining the exit procedures, and a few congratulations came in, but most of the afternoon was a blur.

After a decade in the city of London, I've called time. Time to try a new life at the opposite end of the spectrum - from my small part in greasing the path for large amounts of money to flow around the beating heart of the capitalist machine, to no fixed job and no fixed abode - an itinerant climber.

I've no doubt there will be moments over the next few weeks when I'll wonder if I've done the right thing, but when those moments come, I'll just have to remind myself of this simple truth:






See you all in the next life!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Rehab Psych

The last six months or so have been frustrated by injuries - shoulder, knee, hand, elbow... then just when I thought I was back on the road to fitness, another slipped disk. To use an old Scots phrase, I was fair scunnered.

I went to see a new physio who had some new ideas to compliment advice I'd had before, and initial progress was really good. However after a few weeks I got to a bit of a plateau of my own making.

I'm no stranger to injury, and I'm usually pretty good at taking a positive mental attitude to my rehab; but physio sucks at the best of times, and when nerve pain is involved it's excruciating. This is the third time my L5/S1 disk has gone in the space of a couple of years, and I've been finding it hard to push through the pain barrier.

I started casting around the web for inspiration, but UKC and /r/climbing didn't seem to be cutting it; fortunately help was at hand from sources closer to home.

First came the news that Tom "Slab Master" Le Fanu had climbed his first 8a. Next up were grainy pictures of a head-torch 8a+ ascent from rock athlete Jerome Mowat. Then along came the news that Adam "Beast" Brown had also ticked his first 8a.

Wow.
Le Fanu clearly had nothing left to even raise a celebratory smile after La Crema (8a) - photo by Adam Brown

Jerome making his outrageous head-torch ascent of  Brot de Fonol (8a+) - photo by Adam Brown

News of some incredible feat by a top climber is really just that; news. But hearing of friends achievements is something else - you know the work they've put in, the highs and the lows, because you've been there with them.

You can feel the buzz they felt when they first thought "this can go". You can feel the deflation they felt when for the next few attempts it didn't. And you can feel the elation they felt when they clipped the chains.

And as great as those vicarious feelings are, you want it all back for real.

Next morning, two insightful blog posts appeared with some excellent photographs and a bit of an old-school vibe. Ramon "discovering Suirana" with the afore-mentioned team of UK based crankers, and Nicola going back to the world of multi-pitch slabs in Italy. It was particularly useful to see new pictures of Finale... I'm going to be there in a few months time, and it reminded me I want to be fit.

A couple of days later, Jerome also put up a great account of his end to the trip.

Thanks to these guys, I've been back in the basement shower room before work, during lunchtimes and after hours for the last two weeks doing back bends till I think I'm going to vomit and poking around in my lower back and glutes with tennis balls, golf balls and rollers till I feel close to passing out.

And it's working.

I *will* make it back to full fitness before our departure date, with a bit of hard work, gritted teeth, and a little help from my friends.

I'll leave you with a great reply and picture I got from Adam when I mailed him for the lowdown:

The one attached is of us just after we each ticked our projects in a very crazy 2 hour window on the last night of the trip. It was honestly the craziest couple of hours of my life. We'd gone back down to the crag (after a 4 hour siesta!) all feeling weak and lazy and unable even to do the easy bits of our project to get warmed up - I think objectively I gave Tom a 30% chance of getting the tick; me 10% and Jerome (on a different proj) also 10%. Then suddenly it all happened - 30 mins later Tom had ticked his second 8a; then I had done my first; but the fact that we'd both succeeded meant Jerome had to crank in the dark. Instead of being down on his chances (esp since he hadn't even managed the crux move in isolation at that point) he just tied on and did the thing. I think we were all in a state of shock (Fatima and Rachel saw us and I think they thought we were mad!). Psyche like that is definitely contagious...!

Indeed it is, Mr Brown. Indeed it is.

Team Psych after a their night of glory