Saturday, 9 July 2011

Woah, slow down there cowboy!

One of the biggest changes to my climbing this year has been that I've really slowed down, and learned to recover on the rock.

I guess I'd begun the process last year, Nic always seems to have time on the rock, and I was trying to emulate that. In El Chorro last November I took a slow approach and sent Annack Sunamun, my first 7b. But then, over winter in the gym, I speeded up again. The problem is that routes in the gym don't tend to reward slower climbing, especially if you tend to hang around the competition wall - they're often set with a sustained level of difficulty from bottom to top, that you don't tend to see in real life. So in order to "achieve" at the climbing center, you speed up. So you get fit, but you're not practicing the way you need to climb outdoors.

I came out of the winter in the gym strong, but my first few trips in the UK this year saw me climb nothing of any real note - a bunch of high 6s and a solitary 7a+. Then I started climbing with Ramon, and I looked at the way, even in the gym, he was climbing so slowly - stopping every few moves and taking rests where I didn't think it was possible to recover, never mind neccessary. At first, I thought this was a mistake - he was going too far. I'd forgotten how much effort I'd put in to slowing down myself the year before, and I thought he was bringing across the pace of his ice climbing to a discipline where it wouldn't be helpful. But then I watched him blitzing everything in his path at the crag, and I started to realise it was *my* mistake - I'd been using the wall to get good at wall climbing again, not to practice for the real thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the good indoor climbers are not necessarily the good outdoor climbers. This was something Nic had talked about a lot in the past, but although I could see that was the case, I hadn't really understood why.

So I began to copy Ramon - slowing down indoors. At first it was a bit difficult to keep my discipline, after all we're driven by the numbers game. To climb slow, I had to ignore the fact that there was a tick to be had - I tick that I knew I could get, and a tick that I was watching others collect. But I had realised these ticks would not help me in the real world, and a tick on rock is worth a thousand on plastic, so I persevered. And quite quickly I started to notice an improvement - I could climb slowly on plastic after all! I have a reasonable aerobic fitness base, developed mainly from cycling, so just like it takes a few weeks to adapt that fitness to the swimming pool, or to running, the same applied to bringing it to my climbing.

And then I went off to Margalef for easter and blew my mind with my first 7c, and my first 7b+, in that order! Suddenly the patient approach was vindicated, and it's no longer so hard to keep my discipline in the wall.

Ignoring the numbers game at the wall also taught me a valuable lesson - by taking the pressure to perform away, I performed better. So I've taken that outdoors - every route is part of the learning process, and I don't care who else is sending it, or whether or not I send a particular route that I think is within "my grade". I'm still playing the numbers game, but I've changed the rules - numbers in the gym do not apply, and nobody else's numbers count. I want to climb an 8b one day, so the only rule is that when I look back over my climbing log, my numbers must show I'm still progressing towards that goal.

It's interesting now though, that when I try to explain what an improvement this change has made to other climbers at the wall, people don't seem to think it will apply to them. One response I get quite often, from pretty experienced climbers, is "yeah, but you're really fit so you can climb like that. I'm not fit, so I have to get up there quickly before I tire out". Surely it's the other way round - the less fit you are, the more important it becomes to climb conservatively. Anyone with time on their hands can walk 26 miles, but you have to be pretty fit to run a marathon. Attacking the wall like an enthusiastic puppy leads to in-efficient moves, which raises the heart rate, pushing you into the anaerobic zone. Your anaerobic fuel tank is pretty small, and using it up quickly leads to the brain shutting down. When we're getting spanked by a route, that panicky feeling where we suddenly don't know what to do next, technique goes out the window, and all we can come up with is some crazy do or die lunge is not down to mental weakness, it's a physiological reaction. Not only that, but if your anaerobic fitness is good, but your aerobic fitness is shit, which one do you reckon you'll get the most benefit from training at the gym?

So anyway, big thanks go to Nic and Ramon, for helping me grow out of my enthusiastic puppy phase!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Taking the piss.

We need to do more of it.

Please - take the piss out of me.

No - not my balding head, my Scottish accent, or the hairy shoulders that all the girls at the wall seem so fascinated with waxing... my climbing!

A few weeks back, late in the afternoon at Brean Down, just after I'd sent Tide Rising - feeling drained but not quite ready to call it quits - I went for a go at Roof of Inequity (7a+). I didn't get anywhere near the onsight, but it's a bit of a one move wonder so once I'd worked it out I knew the route should go, despite being boxed.

Second attempt I got to the crux, crossed through to a jug, and tried to bring my foot up. Next think I knew I was swinging on one hand, both feet scrabbling desperately for some purchase before my fingers gave way. That purchase was not forthcoming.

I returned to the ground to find Ramon far from sympathetic - instead laughing his head off at my "Riverdance" attempt. My immediate impression had been that I'd tried my best, but because I was tired the move was just too powerful. Ramon's words quickly shattered that illusion - the reason I failed was I lost my composure. Next go, with Ramon's laughter still ringing in my ears, I took my time - used my feet properly to shift my weight under the handhold before bringing them up - and sent the route.

Now, Ramon could have just said to me "dude, your feet were sloppy there, what's that all about?", and it probably would have had the same result as far as that one route was concerned. But it wouldn't have had a lasting impression - and as it is I suspect it'll be a while before I forget that fall. Sloppy footwork, born of lack of composure, now has a catchphrase. And hopefully every time I do it I'll hear that catchphrase in my head, recognise what I've done, and understand why I failed.

Understanding where our weaknesses lie is of course one of the most important factors in improving performance. The subconscious will often make critical self-analysis difficult - our self image is after all important. So, unless we're employing coaches we rely on our climbing partners for that crucial feedback. We're always quick to heap praise on our friends when they do well - and quite rightly so - but I think we need to look for the negatives more often too. I regularly ask whoever I'm climbing with to point out my failings, but not many do. Assuming we can discount the unlikely idea that I'm so good nobody can find fault, that means either they don't want to bruise my ego, or they're not even looking for what I'm doing wrong.

Further evidence that how we perceive ourselved is often not the way we're perceived by others came this week, in a conversation with Nic. I was telling him how pleased I was with one aspect of my recent attempts - problem solving. On Tide Rising, I worked out the sequence that I eventually used for the send in a single weekend - pretty much on my own as Amira's broken toe prevented her working it with me. Two weeks ago, working Storm Warning(7c+) with Ramon, we got the sequence in three attempts - he put together an awesome send next go. To me this was a sign that I was getting better at something I considered to be a weakness - so I was quite surprised when Nic told me he'd always considered problem solving to be one of my strengths.

So who's assessment is correct? I'd have to assume it's Nic's. He can take a more dispassionate view of my climbing, whereas I will always be fighting the human brain's remarkable capacity to lie to itself. We're all pretty good at ignoring the evidence to get a view that satisfies the ego, let's us do what we want to rather than what we should, or just makes us feel better about life - from the "Ach, a few smokes when I'm drinking won't do any harm" to believing in gods. All of us - from the V6 boulderer who still thinks it's a lack of power that's holding him back on low 7 routes, to anyone who can rationalise sending a 7c+ one week and backing off a 6a DWS the next - we all construct a version of reality that suits.

So please, help me uncover these lies I'm telling myself. If you're climbing with me, or just in the vicinity at the crag or down the wall, tell me what I'm doing wrong... and if I don't listen the first time, you have my blessing to rip me to fucking shreds! :-)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


Since last weekend's trip, I've been thinking quite a bit about our climbing limits - how you find them, why I want to push them, and how close to them I'm actually getting.

The answer to the first part is I think quite easy - to find your limits you must go past them. It's only by getting shut down by a route, figuring out what's holding us back, and then working to over-come it, that we will find out what we're actually capable of. Of course this sort of climbing is a high risk strategy - we reward ourselves for ticks, and you're not going to get too many of these if you spend weekend after weekend projecting the same route. But with high risk comes big rewards. In Margalef this easter, I walked away from a 7b+ I'd had a couple of tries at, to get on a stunning 7c line (Antologica) instead. I thought I was sacrificing the chance to go home with a big prize (my first 7b+), but I ended up sending my first 7c instead, and to cap it off I got the 7b+ on the last climb of the trip. Too often we climb well within our capabilities, only attempting what we know we can send - if something seems just too hard to go in a few attempts, then we back off. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that - if you're just out to enjoy yourself then why the hell not stay in your comfort zone? But for me, pushing hard is where I get the most satisfaction out of climbing.

But why?

All my life I've been quite happy to be mediocre. Average. OK at things. From the age of 5, up until I went to university, I played the bagpipes - I got immense amount of pleasure from playing and competing over the years, but I rarely ever played outside of the official band practices and competitions. I was quite good, but I never showed any inclination to put the work in to become very good. Academically, I was a very bright kid, and I duly went off to university and got an engineering degree, but it was only a pass degree, way below what my parents would surely have expected of me. I took up various sports over the years, from martial arts to squash, to running and then triathlon. I got as far as completing a half ironman, and clearly enjoyed the training and the racing, but that was six months of focussed training, and then my enthusiasm started to wain. Whenever injuries forced a break from training, I found it hard to get the motivation to start again.

So why has climbing, and training for climbing, gripped me for the last three or four years, with no signs of abating? Quite the opposite in fact, I'm more psyched now than I've ever been. If I get injured, all I can think about is "how long till I can get back into training?". Obviously there's the sense of achievement in sending a hard route, but there's a huge sense of achievement in finishing an ironman, or winning a medal in a piping competition, so that can't explain it on it's own. Neither can the fact that climbing takes me to so many gorgeous parts of the world on trips - so would scuba diving, or wind-surfing, or any number of other persuits that I've had a go at.

I think the answer lies in "the zone". In order to climb at or near your limit, you have to reach a point of mental focus where the rest of the world disappears. The rope is no longer a safety device, controlled by someone on the ground who you're relying on to keep you safe, it's just something that's there by your waist, that you clip into some bolts on your way past. There's nothing to fear because the ground isn't there, the ledge you just stepped off - with it's ankle breaking potential - doesn't exist. There's no failure to fear either, because the chains at the top of the route don't exist. Your whole world has become a small circle of rock, containing yourself and the next move. And that, when you get it, is a fucking addictive experience.

So, how am I doing in my persuit of my limits? Actually, I think I'm doing OK. In the last 12 months I've gone from a best redpoint of 7a+, to my first 7c. Obviously my technique has improved over this time, and I'm fitter and stronger after a hard winter in the gym, but I think the biggest improvement has been in my head. I'm much more likely to believe there's a solution to an obstacle now, and go find it, rather than getting frustrated and thinking "that's impossible for me". I've learned to place absolute faith in my harness, the rope, and most importantly whoever's on the other end of that rope, and give everything I've got to latch that next move. And I'm getting much better at staying composed when I do get through the crux and the send is in sight.... that one still catches me out now and again though!

Having said all that, those 16 attempts to send Tide Rising was the most I've taken to send a route in two years, and I did know within a couple of attempts that it could go. Even on Antologica, by my third attempt I knew I could do all the moves. And I can't think of any route I've ever had more than a couple of goes on, and not gone on to send.

So, could I do better? Absolutely. This weekend it's time to up the ante, and get on something that will properly shut me down!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Brean Down

I spent the last two weekends at Brean Down - a tourist spot on the west coast near Weston-Super-Mare. It's a small crag, but (fingery "warmups" aside) some awesome climbs and a gorgeous location. There's a bunch of hard lines to work on, from 7b+ right up to 8b, and it's also got to be one of the friendliest crags I've ever climbed at - right down to an offer of a crash pad for future visits. It's going to be a great project venue, and at only two hours from London it's practically my local crag.

First weekend we had a really nice sunny day Saturday, I on-sighted a few easier lines, then had a couple of goes at Tide Rising (7b+). This route was totally not my style - a short, hard, bouldery, power-endurance climb. On the first go, I ended up having to pull on the draws past a couple of moves that I just couldn't figure out and came down wondering if this was way beyond me. Second go however, things started to come together. I found a heel hook that got me through the lower boulder problem to a decent shake-out, and worked out the beginnings of a sequence for the second crux. Now I knew the route could go, I just had to put it all together, but I thought it was going to be a bit of an epic.... and I was right!

Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of gentle, but persistent rain. This continued right through breakfast at a nice B&B, and didn't stop till after elevenses at the cafe. Fearing the rock would be unclimbable for most of the day, we were just about to head for Anstey's to try and get an afternoon in, when we saw a bright yellow jacket on the wall. Amazingly, within an hour of the rain stopping, all the routes were back in play. Of course, I had one thing on my mind, and spent the afternoon on my new project. By the end of the day, I had actually got through the second crux, but was so pumped I fell off the slightly easier ground above - two moves before the final shake-out and easy last couple of metres. So I worked out a new sequence for this last section, and headed home - satisfied with a great weekend's climbing and confident that a return trip the next weekend would see a fairly quick send. Haha.

This weekend we knew we were going to get rained off on Sunday, so I gave it my all for the redpoint on saturday, from 10am till it finally went about 6 in the evening. In total, it took something like 16 attempts over the two weekends, so it felt like I had had pushed pretty close to my limit. With what little was left in the tank, I also managed a hard fought send of Root of Inequity (7a+), before heading to the pub for a well earned pint.

Me on Tide Rising - photo by Tom Ball

However, sitting in the pub, a thought started to form... it may have taken a lot of attempts, but I did get the send at the end of a long, hard day's climbing - so whilst it may have felt close to my limit, it surely wasn't. So, how do we work out what our real limits are?