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


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.

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

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


Tower Bridge

Coming into London at 7:30 on a sunny morning, you see a city at peace.

Early risers stroll to the office across London Bridge while behind them the sun rises over Tower Bridge, creating a spectacular silhouette of another time.

Joggers pad along the Thames embankment to the sound of water pushing past concrete. Seagulls cry out as they circle the river looking for food. A boat goes past, creating a wash that swooshes through rotting timbers, perhaps depositing another old clay pipe on the stony bank.

For a time, it's almost enough to make me forget the madness I'm so keen to escape...

A peaceful Thames

... almost.

It's hard to relax in this city - quiet moments are snatched but you always know that chaos is just around the corner.

The traffic will swell and in an hour London Bridge will once more become a teeming mass of suits, streaming out from the station like ants leaving the nest. Desperate to reach their financial factories on time, they probably won't notice the beauty of tower bridge or the contrasting steel and glass buildings shining in the sun. London does that - it blinkers you.

Some will escape the confines of the office for a lunchtime stroll or a run by the river, but most won't - they'll have lunchtime meetings and sandwiches at desks; wasting away lives in the pursuit of a better postcode, a faster car, a bigger bonus, and perhaps a trophy wife... or maybe just - as I did for so long - to blow it all on going out in the evenings.

I arrive at the gym for my physio appointment - many who like a physical challenge are here before work, pumping iron or pounding away on stationary bikes and treadmills under LED lighting, while the sun shines on a beautiful day outside.

It reminds me of myself over the last few years.

The climbing gym was my second home. Pulling on plastic till my fingers blistered, my elbows inflamed and my body ached in pursuit of strength and stamina... yet seldom did I touch rock.

Endless laps of the pool, following the black line, trying to improve speed and endurance... but rarely tasting salt in place of chlorine.

Even on the bike, I spent more time circling Richmond park to see if I was getting faster than I did exploring new places.

Everything became results driven - training for sport climbing grades and triathlon race times. Constantly living for that next great experience, not the good one I could be having today.

The Walkie Talkie building

Looking back, I don't really understand how I fell into this world. I remember the choices that got me here, I just don't know why I took them. It was never an ambition to work in the city - I grew up fishing, mountain biking and hill walking, getting stoned, taking mushrooms and dancing the night away shit-faced on amphetamines and alcohol. Life was about the now, never about the future, and I thought it would always be like that.

I remember laughing at a high school classmate who told me of his plan to come down here, work hard, make his fortune and retire early. To me, back then, it sounded like a lot of effort into something you wouldn't enjoy. As it does now. Somehow, somewhere in between, I lost sight of that.

Yes, on reflection there just aren't enough of the beautiful moments here to justify putting up with the hectic pace. I've made a lot of good friends in this city - and those I will miss dearly - but the rat race? I don't think so.

It's time to go back to being true to myself, living life for the kicks and the creation of memories; spending my energy on having fun... except perhaps this time with less of the drink and drugs.

I'll leave you with one of the best little life philosophy videos I've come across in some time. If I ever question the wisdom of what I'm doing between now quitting my job to get on the road, I'll just have to play this one again.