Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mind Games

My logbook might say Super Cantina Marina (8a), but Makach Walou (7c+) has been physically and mentally the hardest project I've worked to date by far.

It started well - doing all the moves on my first attempt - but I knew it needed a level of power endurance I didn't have. It was my first day in Céüse though, and as I was planning to stay a while I figured working it would be a good way to get fit.

After two weeks of solid projecting I'd linked all the sections, and one-hung the route. A week later I made it through the top crux, twice. The first time my arms gave out; the second I fluffed my footwork for the very last hard move. Little did I know then, how that mistake would come to haunt me.

I took another couple of rest days and came back expecting to send, but pulling back on I felt sluggish and couldn't recover fully on the rests. A month of marching up from 1400m to 1800m and projecting hard was taking it's toll. I was back to falling at the crux again, but was it physical, or had it become a mental problem? There was clearly a bit of both, but it was hard to say which was the most significant.

This put me in a bit of a dilemma... the weather was getting hotter and I knew the crag would only get busier - I wanted to get the popular line done before it got too bad. I was stuck between the need to rest and the desire to send.

To complicate matters, I began to feel depressed again. It was nothing major, but then I went to a party in Sigoyer and had a few too many drinks, triggering several days of severe anxiety which messed with my guts - interfering with my ability to recover and re-fuel my body. I had been running up to the crag when I first arrived, now I was plodding and it didn't feel good.

I gave away the beer and wine I had in the van, and decided to get on some other walls for a change of scenery. I had a go at some steep, juggy routes - Bibendum (7b+) was a lot of fun but didn't quite go before another rest day, and then down at Cascade I got on Super Mickey (7b). Big lock offs, huge jugs, and an even bigger grin characterise the line. On the first redpoint attempt I linked all the way to the top crux, but fell off the dyno. I stuck it next go off the rope, but immediately felt a pain in my left forearm. Shit.

I could crimp on holds with my ring finger, but I couldn't hang them - pretty important on the pockets here. It also felt very similar to an injury I had before which turned chronic... should I even try to climb through? I'd had a good trip, maybe it was time to head back to the UK, look for work and rest my weary body?

I slept on it, but looking up at the rock over my morning coffee I knew I had to stay and take a chance.

The temperatures were climbing all over Europe, and Céüse was no exception. Resting up in the car park for a few days I was sweltering. Hiking back up for another go yesterday, I must have sweated out more water than I carried up. With a tape strap at either end my forearm actually felt OK, but the rock was so greasy I fell off before the third bolt. After a good brushing I had another go, making it to the crux, but I'd had to work so hard to stay on the lower section there was little in the tank to get through it. I ate dinner and took a long rest to go for an evening send, but by the time I got on the breeze had died away and conditions felt just as bad as before. I trudged down the hill feeling pretty dejected.

It felt like there are just too many stars that need to align before I can send this route. Physically and mentally I need to get it right, and the weather has to play it's part. The send is so much further away than it was a fortnight ago that my head says I should give it up, but my heart says I've put too much in to let it go.

I needed a sense of perspective - it's only a couple of weeks since I happily proclaimed (whilst staring at the stars after good food and good wine in good company), that if I won the lottery tomorrow I'd still want to be exactly where I was. So this afternoon I drove down to the Lac du Pelleautier, and after a bath and some sun lounging swam the length of it and back.

From google maps, it looks like I did about 1.5km, and although I wasn't breaking any speed records I surprised myself by finishing quite strongly. In the process I reminded myself that there are other sports out there, and that I'm pretty lucky to be in the position, for now, of being able to wake up every morning in the alps and decide which one to do.

I feel a lot happier tonight, and mentally more rested. I'm ready to enjoy what the area has to offer for a few days and wait for the weather to break. In the meantime, my body can rest a bit too... perhaps I can get those stars all aligned. :)
Antoine sending Makach Walou.

Matt on the bouldery start of Bibendum, on his way to a quick send.

Kat lowering off Bibendum... it is quite steep!

Super Mickey is full of big lock offs...

... hanging out on jugs at the knee bar...

... more big lock-offs...

... sticking the dyno that could have ended my trip. I must go back and send this, once Makach Walou is safely in the bag! Photos by Jill Sompel.

Unknown climber on L'errance d'une passion (7c) at Berlin.

Evening sunshine at Lac du Pelleautier.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Back on the rock (and the one that got away)

By Wednesday I'd convinced myself to head up to Chamonix the next morning, when Gerd messaged me to say he was keen on coming to St Leger. I told him I wasn't fit, but it started me thinking again.

That evening, I grabbed my climbing shoes and chalk bag and wandered down to hang off some holds. It was still painful but not as bad, and the discomfort was dependent on the wrist angle - if I stayed below the holds it was fine.

I started soloing up and down the bottom of a 6b+, and the longer I went the less pain I felt... maybe I could climb through it by warming up properly?

This was probably wishful thinking, but decided to give it a go; I arranged to pick Gerd up at Sahune on Friday morning.

Fancying a change of scenery, I went for a drive on Thursday - stopping in pretty little French villages and generally being a tourist for the day. Suddenly it felt like summer had arrived, which made for a lovely day out, but I began to wonder if climbing in St Leger would still be feasible.

I stopped for the night in an aire about 5km short of Sahune, and woke up in the morning to find a beautiful little tufa crag right above the car park. This part of France is just amazing, there's quality rock everywhere you look.

Despite the heat, I found a super-psyched Gert sitting by the bins in the centre of town so we turned and made a bee-line for La Baleine.

Warming up on Du Rire de Baleine aux l'Armes de Crocodile (6c) things felt OKish - more discomfort than pain, but when I got on Commando Fada (7b), I came to a move that sent a familiar tearing sensation through my right arm. I grabbed a tree with my left and shook it out. Fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound. I managed to dog to the chains, and by the top I found I wasn't having as many problems.

There were two open projects I could have a go at - Pirequetoutopoulos (7b+) or La Chant Des Baleines (7c/+). They are both cracking lines, and there doesn't actually feel like much difference in difficulty between the two, but I decided to err on the side of caution and go at Pirequetoutopoulos. I surprised myself by almost linking to the rest below the top crux whilst putting up the draws, dogged the rest, and then called it a day; I'd pushed pretty hard so time to see how the arm felt in the morning.

The answer was pretty good - no bruising or swelling, and a similar pain warming up as the day before. However, the heat was becoming a real issue, too much sweat meaning low friction and fast wearing skin. The original plan was for Gerd to be there for five days (four days climbing with a rest day in the middle), then he was going back to his Miriam's parents farm and I was planning Céüse. We came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to pop up to the farm for our rest day, then Gert would come up to Céüse.

That gave me an afternoon to send Pirequetoutopoulos. I had two cracks at it - the first, I climbed well and made it into the crux sequence, but an error cost me. The second I was a bit more ragged; with energy reserves low I was fighting the whole way. I got the sequence right, and got to the final hard move, but couldn't hold the tension to reach for the jug. I knew I didn't have enough in the tank for another go, but it didn't really matter. I was grinning from ear to ear as I knew I had given it my all in the quest... I was back!

Miriam's family run an off-grid organic farm and guest house nestled amongst the trees an hour south of Gap. We arrived on Saturday night to a warm welcome and a hearty dinner, and spent Sunday sitting by the pool listening to the cuckoos and larks, watching the bees and butterflies going about their business. Total relaxation in a stunning location - I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for an alpine getaway; fantastic hosts and the sort of place where time just stops.

It's been a brilliant few days, and to cap it off yesterday we made it to Céüse... if the first day's climbing is anything to go by the next few weeks are going to be a bit special.

Park your van randomly in the dark, and wake up to find tufas above your head.
It looked really good, and had about half a dozen bolted lines.
Every French village has a beautiful church.
War memorial at Buis Les Baronnies.
Gert getting ready to do battle with the tufas
It's a magnificent cave at La Baliene
The heat didn't seem to be slowing down this young french lad, working Un Monde Sans Gauche Est Sans Issue (8a)
Goodbye to Saint Leger... it had a really nice bathroom.
Chilling by the pool.



Tuesday, 26 May 2015

It's been a while since I wrote an update, mainly because there's not been all that much climbing going on. For personal reasons, going back to Rodellar didn't work out, and feeling mentally and physically exhausted I decided to head for the beach. I ended up in a lovely little spot called Segur de Calafell, near Tarragona.

Despite being more than warm enough to swim and sunbathe, there were few tourists around - most of the apartments were shuttered up and I was able to just park the van by the beach for about 10 days with nobody bothering me. With nothing to do but yoga, guitar and chilling on the beach, had I been in a better state of mind it would have been absolute heaven. As it was it was a great opportunity to recharge and reflect on the last few months, and some of the old behaviour patterns that I'd fallen back into.

It was also a great place to be inspired to get fit again - with people constantly biking, jogging and roller blading along the sea-front, and making use of the free outdoor gym. I strapped on the GPS watch, and discovered to my surprise that I'm still capable of running quite quickly. I guess the weight loss of the last couple of years helped plug the gap created by lack of fitness. If I stay at this light, it will be interesting to see where I can get to with a bit of CV training.

After Calafell, I went back over to Siurana. I bumped into Charlie and Gillie, and had a really nice day climbing with them, but back at their pad in the evening I started to feel quite anxious again - not really dealing well with being in company, so I jumped in the van and headed back up to the car park behind the goat farm where this whole trip began.

There was a really nice bunch of people staying there, and as the week wore on, I started to crawl back out of my shell. I wish I'd spent more time getting to know them. They all left for Margalef, but I hung around as Mike Reed was on his way back over from Kalymnos. It was good to see him again - we get on well and I find it easy to relax in his company and talk about the shit that's bothering me.

Next stop was Barcelona, to catch up with old friends Monica and Marco, and meet the new (to me at least, it's been a while) addition to their family. It was great to see them and get a look around the city.

After that I went back to the beach for some more me time, but the tourists were starting to arrive and the resort felt a bit less secure - one afternoon I was sat with the curtains drawn when somebody came by casing the camper. I guess it's one of the drawbacks of van life, your gear is never safe so you need to steer clear of nice spots that attract thieves.

I'd been thinking about St Leger for a while, so when I found out some more old friends were heading there for the weekend I decided to make the long drive up the Route National. It was a liberating feeling being on the road proper again, and arriving at the car park for La Baleine sector I found a lovely little camping spot. It was good to climb with Vlad and Aurelia again, and after they left I met up with a really nice French/Quebec couple, looking for a third to make it easy to look after their kid.

It was all seeming to click back into place - mentally I was feeling better and on the rock I was beginning to feel strong again. On my first attempt at La Chant Des Baleines (7c+) I'd figured out all the moves, so I got back on it a couple of days later feeling like it could be a quick tick. Nic offered to put the draws up for me so I could have a good go at the first redpoint, narrowly missing out on the onsight himself in a really good effort.

I made it through what's probably the crux for most people, but slipped off a tricky intermediate sloper on a slightly morphological move just after. I was pretty boxed, so even if I'd stuck it the chances of recovering enough for the send would have been pretty slim, but to even be thinking along those lines felt great.

After resting on the rope and carefully checking out the middle third of the climb, I made a mistake whilst trying to link the top section. After skipping a clip, and with the mists of oxygen deprevation descending, I forgot my footwork on the final hard move - stepping across and behind the rope instead of the drop knee I'd worked out before. I reached the next hold, but couldn't unwrap my feet and came off. Facing the prospect of a long inverted fall, I instinctively threw an arm round the dead side of the rope as I passed it; I succeeded in keeping myself upright but at the cost of a fair bit of skin, and as I was later to find out some muscle damage underneath.

I've spent the week since week pottering around Mont Ventoux resting, and although the arm is now back up to general duties I suspect it'll be a while before I'm able to climb hard sport routes again, so I'm thinking on heading up to Chamonix. Anyone fancy bagging a few 4000m peaks?


The beach front at Segur de Calafell
Looks like even the Face Man is a fan of the resort...
Katerina on the crux of Ruaxa (7a+)... Siurana has some magnificent crack climbing.
Physio in the evening sunshine.
Aurelia on a three star and hard 7b+ (name escapes me) at La Baleine
Vlad starting out on the super steep Malaxe (8a+)
It keeps going....
D'OH!! 


Saturday, 18 April 2015

Taking a holiday from the holiday.

It's been a funny few weeks - the climbing has been ticking along nicely, but after a fairly long period where I felt happy and settled, my moods started swinging wildly again. I suppose it was always to be expected, but it's pretty frustrating.

Highlights have been a quick send (4th go) of Festa Fortre (7c) at Margalef, onsighting the magnificent Fiesta De Los Biceps (6c+/7a) at Riglos, and an epic ascent of the easy (6b) route up El Puro - where the three of us made enough mistakes for a week's climbing, but managed to emerge laughing in the end.

After Riglos I headed to Rodellar, but was starting to feel a bit battered, both mentally and physically. I had a good time getting on some old projects - Gracias Fina, Kings of Metal and Made in Mascun all feel doable now - but I was finding it really difficult to relax away from the crag.

Last weekend someone damaged a water pipe in the car park at Rodellar, and the police came round taking pictures of all the vans, so fearing a fine for illegal camping we thought it might be a good idea to go somewhere else for a couple of days.

It was a good thing for me to get away anyway, and after two days climbing with Stephane and Frank in Alquezar I decided to hang around and take a break. Aside from the climbing (which I definitely want to return to some time), the village is really stunning, and there's currently no problem with parking up. I suspect it would be a rather different story in high season, but with most of the climbing south facing, it really seems like an ideal winter destination. I think you want to be climbing pretty hard to get the most out of it though - there's some stunning roof climbing here.

It was a great place to sit and contemplate things. I did seriously consider jacking the trip in and heading back to the UK, but after a week of nothing but yoga and guitar, I'm feeling a bit refreshed in body and mind, so decided to turn back for Rodellar... having come this far it would be a shame to give up before I got properly fit ;)

Just to make sure I couldn't change my mind, I popped into Huesco today for some climbing related retail therapy....


Fiesta De Los Biceps

At the top of El Puro with Nicole and Stephane after a bit of an epic...

Meeting old friends in Rodellar
Alquezar is stunning
Frank on the world's steepest 7b+ at Alquezar... I couldn't do the crux... what a shame - it means I'll have to go back.



New toys for Rodellar... Kings of Metal here I come!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

You always have more time than you think

I say this often, but am I really acting on it?

On my previous attempt at Super Cantina Marina, I'd climbed well but fallen just below the crux. From the ground, I had decided I must do the powerful move before clipping to keep the flow of the sequence, but it didn't work.

Going back last Saturday, I decided to try a more measured approach. After a warm up, I got on to put the draws back up. I climbed slowly and steadily to my previous high point and looked around. I found a higher knee bar that not only allowed me to clip first - I was also able to shake out, brush the crucial hold, and visualise placing my feet and engaging the core. After that, I pulled over it fairly easily. Why didn't I have so much time before? I didn't try to find it.

The rest of the line went much the same; the send barely entered my mind until I was stood at the final rest. When it did, I rushed the next few moves and almost blew it, but after reversing I re-focussed and was soon clipping the chains.

I was pretty stoked with the 8a tick, but even more pleased with the way I'd gone about it. The project took just 5 attempts over four days, and I felt I'd taken the mental side of my climbing up another notch in the process.

To cap the day off Aussie strongman Gerd onsighted the same line, and watching him climb slow and measured felt like further vindication. Good climbers always look like they have loads of time, and it's easy to get a little jealous; thinking they're able to do that because they're so good - when perhaps they got so good because they learned to take their time?

Back on the ground with an 8a tick in the bag... happy camper!

Gerd onsighting Super Cantina Marina (8a)


Saturday, 21 February 2015

Giving myself credit

It's something I've never been very good at; when I was in counselling, my therapist must have got sick of pointing it out.

When it comes to my climbing, I've always said "I'm not a strong climber, I'm not a super technical climber, but I am good at giving it everything I've got." I've voiced this a few times recently, or at least tried to. First Sam interupted me before I got to the "but", to question what I was saying. Then Mike interrupted me before I got to the "but". Then Nicole interrupted me before I got to the "but".

I sat one evening and thought about this - the most credit I could give myself was to add an addendum to my self-criticism. Everyone else seemed to think those criticisms weren't warranted. I resolved to put a lot of energy into believing in myself and my climbing ability. The next morning, I did an exercise in positive re-inforcement - something I hadn't done for a while.

We went round to Las Chorerras, and climbing with a Bristol lad, Toby, I was having a great day. We were onsighting 7a for fun and having a right good laugh. The line of Super Cantina Marina (8a) caught my eye. I heard the voice of doubt, saying it was too hard for me to get on, and decided it could fuck right off. I cruised up the first 15 or 20 meters, then fell off what turned out to be the lower of two cruxes. I plugged away, and some time later I'd done all the moves and reached the chains on a sustained 40m 8a with a technical crux.

Since then I've been climbing more relaxed than I ever thought possible. A second go on Super Cantina Marina improved the crux sequences and identified a knee bar rest between them, then I decided to take a break and get on some other stuff. I found a bouldery 7c that really wouldn't suit my style (Los Mercenarios at Parade de Enfrente), and worked out all the moves first go. I jumped on the more suitable 7c+\8a Ramalla, and at a hands free knee bar at about 25m had the onsight firmly on my mind, but not the choking desire that usually accompanies it. The crux proved too much, but again I figured it out and felt the line should be very doable.

With my finger skin getting pretty thin, I decided to have one more go on Super Cantina Marina before taking a longer rest. I went fully "A Muerte" and was climbing really well until a sequence error sent me head first and backwards down the crag - thanks Stephane for a superb soft catch to keep me in one piece. After that, I linked from the rest below the bottom crux to the top of the second - although as I reached for the jug at the end, my skin finally gave way on the other hand and I slid off. Two tips were clean through and pissing blood, but I didn't really care. I knew I was rolling the dice when I pulled on, and I may have lost the skin but I'd found more than enough confidence in my climbing to make it worth while.

So I am a strong climber, I am a technical climber, and to top it off I've got a fucking good head for getting the most out of that. If you hear me saying otherwise, you have permission to slap me.


But to give credit where it's due elsewhere, I owe a big thanks to my new found friends in the Chulilla car-park. Coming off a bad depression it has been hard to find confidence, and whether you complimented my climbing (or my singing!), popped into my van for a chat on a rainy day when I needed it the most, accepted some decisions I had to make without any ill-feeling, or just welcomed me into your circle, you've helped me back onto my feet more than you'll probably ever know.

Joris on (I think) Richer Line (7a)
Stephane on what he thought was a 7b line at Las Chorerras (athough on UKC it looks like there's only a couple of 7cs where he was climbing) 

Nicole getting into a knee bar high on El Ramallar (7c+)


Relaxed - this was right before I pulled on to go "A Muerte" at Super Cantina Marina (8a)

Focussed - but still relaxed... I never knew climbing hard could feel so simple.

About to go for some upside-down airtime... forgot to move my left foot before I tried to stand up. Thanks Per for the photo to remind me not to do it again.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Team Scotland

After three days of rain, we were itching to get back on it, and I formed Team Scotland with Mike to return to Sex Shop.

Warming up on the polished 6b+ felt I felt strong, so I decided to go straight at the line to the right, which I had a feeling went at 7a (the guidebook is out of print at the moment, so a lot of us are flying a bit blind). I had to really pull hard through a technical crux, but I managed the onsight of what turned out to be Eco dildo (7a).

I was going well so despite intending to get back on Dale Duro Negro, when Mike fancied a go at Happy end (7c), I decided to join in.

Mike went first, and took it sensible redpoint style - conserving energy, resting to look at sequences and then completing them with minimum fuss.

I went with my usual not-so-sensible "a muerte" to see where it got me - the answer was not very far into the hard moves of the upper half of the route, but I was still very pleased with the effort. My head is in a good place, but it's not yet on a solid enough foundation for complacency.

I dogged my way to the chains, and lowered with a smile - I'd done all the moves, and that meant I could do the route. I've never had a first go at a 7c go so smoothly.

Mike dispatched it second go, and I decided to just go for it again. I made the chains with only two falls, which I was very happy with. After finding better footwork where I'd fallen, I think I'm already in with a genuine shout of the redpoint next time I pull on.

As the next day was Saturday, we decided to walk round to the quieter far gorge. It was a fair slog, but worth it. Beautiful scenery and stunning walls, with a lot more steep sections and tufas. After a not very finger friendly "warmup" at Oasis we walked along the crag a bit to find a gorgeous 6b+ tufa climb that was almost 40m and finished up practically inside the rock.

As we finished, a French lady was lowering off Catherine Panzeta Jones (7a) and whooping with delight. "That was good then?" asked Mike. "That was better than good, like an orgasm, you know?" came the reply. Obviously I had to have a crack. It was indeed a fantastic line... by 30m I had a grin plastered across my face despite the pain of the pump, and after a slightly desperate lunge, I clipped the chains for another 7a onsight. I was starting to feel like it's something to be expected.

Mike wanted to have a go at Sendero luminoso which goes at 7a+ for pitch one, and 7b if both pitches were strung together. He onsighted pitch one easily, but didn't have enough draws to carry on. I wasn't sure exactly where it finished, but I racked another 8 and set off. The French lady (who we now knew as Lilly) was climbing next to me, and we chatted for a while on the way, which helped keep my mind off what I was trying for. I was climbing relaxed, and the first anchor came surprisingly easily, but then I was on my own. I tensed up a bit and it turned into a real physical battle. I also started to get distracted by fears of an epic descent - if the rope wasn't long enough to lower back to the first anchor, it was far too steep for me to abseil, and I was running out of quickdraws. I skipped two bolts, and it was just as well - I finished with none so the top would have been very run out, and there was one final hard move just below the chains. That move almost snatched the onsight from me, but after a desperate reversal I found some better footwork and reached the finishing jug.

I was properly spent, but elated... my first 7b onsight. I know these are Spanish grades, but I've spent enough time on Spanish rock before without getting these numbers so it's still a sign that I'm climbing at my best.

Mike's a strong climber, and I'm sure there's a lot I could learn from him, but the thing that struck me the most was that his route reading is light-years ahead of my own. On my first attempt at Happy end, every time I got stuck, he gave me the perfect beta; even when I didn't believe it was possible, he was right.

If I want to take my climbing to the next level, this is obviously something I'm going to need to work on. But other than logging the hours on the rock how do you do that? I guess the first step is to keep a more open mind to what's possible, but what then?

Answers on a postcard please (c/o The Top Car Park, Chulilla, Spain), or in the comments below :)

Team Scotland colours nailed to the mast...
Can't beat breakfast in the sunshine, under a lemon tree...


"We go this way, right?" "What ze fuck are you talking about?" Joris, Mike and Stephane on the walk to the second gorge

Worth the walk though...
Stephane embracing the tufas on Magic Line (7a+)
Mike on the "Orgasmic" Catrin Panzeta Jones (7a)