Sunday 11 September 2016

Aaaaaaand.... relax!

It's taken a while to relax into this trip, but in the last few days it's finally happened. Mallorca will do that to you.

Mallorca provides a stunning setting to relax.

I had decided to fit a high roof to the van before going away again. If I'd known the DIY route was going to cause me enough stress to slide back into a serious depression I'd have paid someone to do it for me, but at the time it seemed like a good project to learn some new skills. As it was, my plans for a summer of british trad had to be put aside while I got myself back together, and got the job finished. I did of course learn a lot in the process, but the main lesson was that I never want to work with fibreglass again!

I also lost the chance to visit people around the UK before my departure - the ferry to Mallorca had been booked months in advance and it was a deadline I did not want to miss. Apologies to all those I missed, I will do the tour when I get back.

For the first few days, pretty much everything that could go wrong did. I had one mechanical issue that needed a spot of welding, my side door broke, my insurance broker told me I no longer have 365 day trip cover the day before I was due to cross to France (I didn't read the renewal documentation, assuming renewal meant, well, renewal), and the van starter battery died whilst overnighting in a quiet French layby. I felt the world was trying to stress test my recovery.

Thankfully, after a quick self-rescue from the leisure battery things turned around. Other than sweating through temperatures nudging into the 40s, the rest of the trip down through France and across the Pyrnees was pretty uneventful. Sleeping in the cool of the Col de Puymorens (1915m) was a blissful highlight.

Waking up in the middle of the Pyrenees is hard to beat.

I arrived in Barcelona a couple of days early to see some old friends (Marco, Monica and their delightful little handful Uma). I was just in time for the last evening of the Festa Major de Sants - a local festival where 26 streets are closed to traffic and decorated by the residents, with temporary bars installed to pay for bands that play late into the night. For the whole week, the residents eat together in the evening
Unfortunately I had missed the castellers, but the street decorations were amazing, and the Correfoc later that night - drums, devils, fireworks and a fire breathing dragon in narrow streets - was an experience. No health and safety getting in the way here as the catherine wheels spin around your head and are aimed at your feet (to encourage you to dance with the devil)... all the things we got told off for doing with fireworks as children!

Street dining - was impressive to see such community spirit in a modern city

Street decoration - Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

Devils and fireworks

Just when you thought you'd got underneath the line of fire...

And the fire breathing dragon... suddenly I wished I wasn't wearing flip flops!

Just round the corner from the Correfoc was the square where Barcelona's left hang out.

I felt a lot better by the time I boarded the overnight ferry from the mainland, but it left just one small problem. In the last four or five months, I'd had three sessions climbing on plastic and none on rock... DWS, by it's nature, is not a gentle re-introduction to the vertical world!

I dived straight into Cala Varques... literally - the first thing I did was take the leap off the top of the Metrosexual Area, that to my shame I chickened out of on my first trip here. It settled the nerves well, and so while the first two days were spent mostly falling off Bisexual(7a) and Metrosexual(7b), that didn't matter - I was there for mileage on steep rock, and quite pleased to be immediately relaxed above the water.

Those two days did trash my finger skin and forearms though, so the next few were spent practicing the guitar and trying not to get burnt in the ongoing heatwave.

I had one more day back on, and started to feel a bit of endurance coming back - making it to the crux of Metrosexual 7 times in total, but lacking the power (or technique?) to stick it. That volume did come at a cost, and two more rest days were in order. More rest days than climbing days is of course the sensible way to proceed right now, but it is a little frustrating when you're surrounded by great climbing and have been out for so long!

On Friday things started to pay off though. I went to the Cova area, flashing the mega classic steep jugfest Big XXL (7a) and coming very close to onsighting the delightful pocket climbing of Golden Shower (7a) - falling at the last hard move. I'm confident I'd have bagged it had I tried on fresher arms, so considering it's less than two weeks since I put my rubber shoes back on I'm pretty please with where I am - it shouldn't be long before I'm back where I left off a year ago.

Aside from the climbing, the beach life relaxed me enough to restart a daily yoga practice - setting up a virtuous feedback loop. I've done a fair bit of swimming, and yesterday it cooled down enough for a hilly bike ride up the coast, with a stop off to watch Celtic consolidate their position at the top of the league in the familiar surroundings of an Irish bar. I've gone from surviving on four hours sleep, to nine or ten every night and I'm finally starting to feel like myself again.

It's good to be back on the road, but more importantly it's great to be back in a normal headspace. Some serious relaxation was needed, and on that score Mallorca never disappoints!

Jurgen - one of a team of strong Austrians who crushed the Metrosexual Area, on Smash It In! (8a)
Lorenzo on the steep traverse into the crux of Metrosexual (7b)
A Spanish climber on the super steep jugs under the roof of Big XXL (7a)

A German climber onsighting Golden Shower (7a)
In case you get tired of climbing...

Friday 29 April 2016

Quitting gets easier

The first time I handed in my notice to go travelling, it felt like the world was turning upside down. Yesterday was an altogether more relaxed affair - after seven months of work it simply felt like time to get moving.

Last time was something of a leap of faith. This time I know what I'm getting into, and I know I'll still be employable when I decide to step back into "normal" life for a while.

I have four weeks left, then it's goodbye office chair and hello to the good things in life - being immersed in nature, climbing rocks, swimming in lakes, and sitting about in dusty car parks eating simple food and playing the guitar with friends I haven't met yet.

It seems following your dreams gets easier with practice. All you have to do, is take that first step.

I can't wait to be back on the road!

Sunday 24 April 2016

Life affirming moments.

It's nice when they catch you by surprise.

Going back to work was initially quite enjoyable; there was something nice about a bit of routine, and even the rather different social dynamic of an office.

That quickly faded however, as the reality of a Scottish winter working night shifts set in. The atrocious weather, some unexpected van repairs and the desire to save money for travelling combined to ensure I was doing very little with my free time.

I started working the odd overtime shift. Before long I had the pound signs in my eyes and it seemed the only thing I was doing outside of work was sleeping. I took to just parking up in the city all week. I rarely saw trees and countryside any more, or sunlight for that matter.

Life was getting rather dull.

Towards the end of one 70 hour week, I awoke to discover someone had blocked the van in the car park. My attempt to drive out over the grass was not entirely successful - due to the biblical amounts of rain that had been falling, my front wheels were promptly buried up to the axles. Half an hour of crawling around in a freezing peat bog digging with my hands got the snow chains on, and was able to pull myself out - just in time to see my tormentor jump in her car and drive off. I didn't even get the chance to rant.

To use a scottish turn of phrase I was fair scunnered, and that evening I came very close to handing in my notice.

Coming out of work the next morning I decided I needed a change of scenery. I headed towards the Crow Road, unsure even why I was doing so with the wind blowing the sleet sideways. The van skidded around on the icy hill, and there was still snow in the corners of the car park.

There were also three gentlemen with heavy coats and camera tripods hanging out by their cars... they must know something.

Sure enough, the sleet stopped, the clouds started to clear, and I watched a gorgeous sunrise as I made my dinner. I briefly wished I had my camera too, but then realised I was better without; I didn't have to worry about angles and apertures - I could just sit and watch nature at it's best.

That evening (my morning) I awoke with a renewed sense of perspective. The night shift flew by with a smile on my face, in the realisation that I'm a pretty lucky guy. I've found a sport and a lifestyle that I love, and which gives me the freedom to spend quite a lot of my time not working. After 18 months on the road I walked into a job which, whilst not exactly intellectually stimulating, is reasonably well paid and in an office full of really good people - and for a while at least I got to choose between three nights a week and a life, or six nights a week and quite a lot of money in the bank.

I decided to stick with the six nights a week, and reward myself for the hard work with a new toy inspired by the guys in the car park; I'd been wanting to get a DSLR for some time, but had found it hard to justify the cost. On the road however, I became quite frustrated by the limitations of a point-and-shoot so now it seemed a worthwhile investment.

Over the next five weeks I battered in the overtime like a man possessed, which means that in six months I've earned enough to sort out the van and put aside enough for another year on the road.

Since then I've spent quite a bit of time catching up with family, and out in the countryside getting photographs. In the process I've fallen in love with Scotland all over again, but I think it's almost time to move on.

I've booked a ferry from Barcelona to Mallorca at the end of August, for a month of DWS. That gives me four months to finish up at work, re-fit the van and get rock-fit again.

Perhaps a summer in Llanberis might be calling...

Winter morning on the Crow Road between Kippen and Fintry
Heading up to Glencoe for a day's skiing presented this stunning view.
Looking out to the Summer Isles, just outside Ullapool
One of my favourite shots of the winter - taken from Sighthill Cemetery one morning after work.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Back to my roots

I came home at the end of August, and after a brief stop in London and a weekend climbing in Llanberis, I came to Gargunnock to catch up with friends and family.

I had been thinking of spending a couple of weeks up here, and then down to London to look for contract work, however the culture shock of those first couple of days in the city changed my mind. I couldn't step straight from the tranquillity of Ceuse to those busy streets. I decided instead to try living in Scotland again, and began looking for work in the central belt.

Previously I'd been put off coming back to Scotland by the difficulty of finding good weather for rock climbing; the thought of not climbing for long spells wasn't appealing and the thought of losing hard fought gains by not being able to get out was too much to bear. But having just climbed for six months non-stop, and discovered how quickly I could come back to my peak after a long spell out, I've lost both the desperate need to climb, and that fear of regression. A finger board should be all I really need access to in order to ensure I can hit the ground running next time I get on the road.

Coming home also means I can get back out in the Scottish mountains. Injuries have limited my running for a while now, but I have an ambition to race the UTMB one day, and after picking up a bit of fitness in Ceuse I'm keen to keep it going.

I started off doing some running around Gargunnock, but after a good start I hit a snag - coming back down the hill from the waterfall I got a familiar pain in the outside of my knee - the dreaded IT band syndrome. I limped home and took a couple of weeks of rest and intensely painful foam rolling.

During that time, I had a trip over to Edinburgh to see some old friends from London. Gayani was at a conference in the city, and Dimuthu had tagged along for the holiday so we took a wander round the old town one morning then up Arthur's Seat.

I can't think of anywhere else you could stand at a trig point on top of a hill and see a guy in a suit, holding a briefcase, taking a break from work? I was always a Glasgow man, but Edinburgh has a lot going for it... the football teams might not be as good but they know what you're supposed to put on chips and the views are a bit better, so it's definitely somewhere I'd consider in future.

After that, the same run around the Campsie Fells passed without any knee pain this time, so when my old mate Ian phoned on Friday to ask if I fancied Munro bagging in the morning I jumped on it.

We headed up the west side of Loch Lomond, parking at Inveruglas and aiming for a loop of Ben Vane, Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain. We held a steady pace up to the first peak and stopped for a bite to eat with some nice views. The clouds began to close in, and by the time we reached Glas Bhealach we were walking in light mist. We made the Summit of Beinn Ime in decent time, but then the pace slowed a bit.

After a slog, the top of Beinn Narnain was in thick fog, and an overly blazé attitude saw us take the wrong ridge off the top. By the time we realised we were on the way to Arrochar we had already lost a good deal of height, and the thought of going back up was not a pleasant one. In the end, we decided on the six mile walk back up the side of the loch instead - our little detour turning it into a pretty long day. It didn't really matter though - I had a smile on my face and a spring in my step as we dodged the cars... it was great to be back in the Scottish hills.

I'm starting a six month contract in Glasgow on Monday. The job doesn't sound particularly exciting, but the big draw was the hours - three 12hr shifts leaving me four days a week to park up in the highlands and play.

Perhaps coming back to reality isn't going to be as terrible as I thought ;)

I was pretty lucky to grow up with the Campsie Fells as my back garden...
Gargunnock Waterfall is even more beautiful than my memory
Gargunnock from the waterfall
Dimuthu on Arthur's Seat
Lunch break for a city gent
The walk in to Ben Vane
Top of Ben Vane with Ian and his dog Bella
On the way up Beinn Ime
At the top of Beinn Narnain
The view of Loch Long that we shouln't have seen...
I was treated to this view on a bike ride out from Stirling to Gargunnock the other night... it's easy to take the place you grew up in for granted, but sometimes it will force you to take notice... central Scotland is a truly beautiful place.

Friday 31 July 2015

Learning my lessons in Céüse.

What can I say about Céüse?

Is it the best sport climbing crag in the world? Well I haven't seen all the competitors for the title, but it's often said that climbing is a masochistic sport, and on that basis it must stand head and shoulders above anywhere else I've been.

No place has abused and frustrated me, satisfied me, then left me begging for more the way Céüse has. Jill described her as bi-polar but that's just part of the game; like any good dominatrix she has to keep you guessing.

Nothing is given easily here. From the 45 minute hike to the crag with 400m of ascent (often in 30+ degree heat), to the bouldery cruxes and the technical top-outs it's all hard work.

Forget the stamina draining jugfests of Rodellar, the tendon shredding pockets of Margalef, and the psychological torture of a technical, run-out Finalese slab... Céüse takes all of these, parcels them up, and serves them as an entrée. If there's a weakness in your climbing she will expose it and then, if you are willing, your correction will begin.

In Chulilla, my first ever 8a redpoint went down with just four days projecting; here I took six weeks to send a 7c+ that is considered easy. In Siurana I came to expect to onsight 7a; here it's taken two months to onsight my first 6c+. On one 6c+ I had to pull on a draw to get past the crux, and come back to figure it out later. But as long as you can put your ego to the side, the high 6s and low 7s you're falling off are all astonishingly good lines - everything I´ve got on here is worth three stars.

A couple of weeks ago I nearly went home due to physical and mental fatigue, but when it came down to it I couldn't leave - I'll have to go back to the real world and make some money soon, but until then Céüse has me firmly under her spell.

Alex Megos resting on the steepness of (I think) La part du diable (8c) on the Biographie wall.
The holds got a bit smaller.

Jonathan Shen on the techy vertical start of Lapinerie (7b) at Demi lune
Matthieu Lapalus on the steep bouldery start of Bibendum (7b+)

Spring cleaning the vans and ourselves by the Lac de Pelleautier

Gorgeous sunsets from the top of Céüse plateau.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Putting things into perspective.

I'm on my way back into the hostpital in Grenoble, to see my good friend Nicola.

He was clipped into a belay station on a multi-pitch climb in Briancon when a large block fell from the anchor above, just missing his head and smashing his right arm and leg badly. He lost a lot of blood, and was still in intensive care when I got up here, but thankfully he's now stable and on a ward.

Suddenly the things that have been stressing me lately seem so insignificant. Nic's mother expressed a hope that this would convince us all to stop putting ourselves in danger by climbing, but this was a freak accident - the block could as easily have been a careless driver in London or a mugger in Turin.

Life is fragile, and sometimes something out of our control threatens to take it away; far better to live your life doing the things you love until that day comes along, than to worry about it's arrival.

It's going to be a long road to recovery, but I have some special memories of climbing with Nic and I look forward to the day we get out on the rock together again... venga a muerte with the rehab Nic, see you soon at the crag!

Down in Portland in the early days

Cranking out the steep stuff in Rodellar

A bit of Southern Sandstone bouldering

At the top of Bric Pianarella in Finale, after a superb day multi-pitching on Joe Falchetto... the realisation of a dream for Nic

Calm before the storm in Valle Dell'Orco

Psyched after the storm in Valle Dell'Orco :D