Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The perfect day

Sitting in the dark, scooping beans from the tin with a spoon fashioned from the top of the empty milk carton that will later become my breakfast bowl, I feel happy. A deeply relaxed happiness I haven't felt for some time. I'm content just to be. Just to sit. Just to listen to the sea.

I drift off to sleep to the sound of a guitar from the camp in the trees behind the beach. Some time later I wake feeling cold and climb into my sleeping bag. The moon is unusually bright now, lighting up the beach like a weak, white sun. I fall asleep again easily, and sleep soundly until the real daylight arrives - waking in time to wander across the beach and sit on the rocks, watching the sun come up over the sea.

A man in a loin cloth and sandals appears and walks to the water's edge, stripping naked and swimming out towards the rising sun. The dog that had been sleeping outside a tent further up the beach wanders over to say hello. The naked swimmer returns to the beach and stands facing the sun, eyes closed, meditating. His partner arrives and joins him. Two more people come down onto the sand with rugs to do morning yoga.

I take my sleeping mat and walk out to face the sun too. 

Normally I'm distracted while I practice - it's hard not to think about getting finished and the day that is to come. Today is not like that. I'm not counting breaths till the next pose, I'm listening to my body as it awakens. Relaxing into the stretches with each outward breath until I reach my limit, then holding for a while. Waiting. My mind is with my body in the asana today.

After resting a while, I strip too and go for a swim, feeling the warm Mediterranean lapping against my skin, then come out to lie in the sun.

This feels like how life should be.

The previous morning I was in a hurry. I'd arrived in the airport at Palma with the intention of climbing non-stop for 9 days, super-psyched for the Deep Water Soloing. I was rather unprepared - I'd packed in a last-minute scramble and couldn't find my guidebook. I was planning on bivying, but I'd come with hand luggage only so I couldn't bring a knife. I'd left my plate, cup, fork and spoon sitting on the bed in the van.

I'd driven straight across the island, hooked up with Jerome at Cala Barques and got stuck into the climbing. I warmed up on Hercules (6c) with surprising ease and then tried to repeat Metrosexual (7a+), taking a lot of falls on the high crux. Despite my lack of recent sport climbing, I felt in decent form.

I almost changed my mind on bivying when Delphine said they had a spare bed, but I'm glad I didn't. Waking up on the beach I realised I had a lot more to gain from kicking back and getting in tune with myself on this holiday than I would from obsessing about cranking out projects.

I decided to leave my climbing shoes in my bag and sit on the beach watching the day go past.

The guys in the camp made their way down to the beach as the morning progressed and spent the day there - some doing DWS, some having a swim, some having a beer. They had a sea kayak and every so often someone would take it for a paddle along the coast. One girl had a little stall selling earrings to the tourists. They sang a lot. They laughed a lot. They give the impression that life is rather good when you stop taking it seriously.

The guitar player, with a rough but tuneful voice - ideally suited to the reggae beats he favoured - played with boundless enthusiasm. He started in the morning as everyone else was stretching and making coffee. He had a blast in the afternoon while the tourists covered the beach. And round the campfire at night, off he went again. Another guitar joined in sometimes, and a couple of djembe drums, but at the heart of it was always his voice.

The beach swelled with tourists in the afternoon, boats appeared and moored up in the bay. Large catamarans teeming with sight-seers swung past - stopping to take pictures of the caves, before heading to the next attraction.

I sat on the beach. When I got tired I snoozed. When I got hungry I ate. When I got thirsty I drank. When I got hot, I swam. And in between I did nothing more than sit and think.

The boats left. The sun started to disappear over the hill. The sunbathers began to pack up, the beach slowly emptying until all that was left was that group sitting round a guitar.

The light faded out and they too made their way back into the trees.

I lay on my back watching the stars come out. The moon rose casting it's cold light across the beach once more. I climbed into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. I'd spoken to nobody and distracted myself with no books, no games, no internet. I'd spent the day with the company of my own head and felt neither restless nor concerned.

Content. Happy to just be. The perfect day.

Sunrise at Cala Barques

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Orco proper

First full day in Orco, we woke up to blue skies and drying rock. The rain was supposed to return around 5pm, so we decided to try for one multi-pitch before it did. After a long breakfast waiting for the sun and wind to do their magic, we headed to Torre de Aimonin. Me and Adam jumped on a nice easy line called Spigolo (6a+). After the head fuck the day before I was happy for something that wasn't going to be too much of a stretch.

It started to rain with two pitches to go, but we managed to finish and rap down before it got too heavy.

Up high and a bit soggy on the first day. Photo by Adam Brown

We figured we'd squeezed what we could out of the day... however after dinner, a couple of beers, and a few glasses of vino, Nic had other ideas. He decided we should have a go at the Kosterlitz crack - an F6b hand crack up the middle of a large boulder, with the crux at the start making it a reasonable highball. In the dark. After pouring rain.

We were never going to manage it, but we had a good laugh trying.

We did go back to it in better conditions later in the trip, Adam and Nic sending it in short order, whilst I struggled manfully... I gave it a good go, and got within one move of the better jams on several occasions, but it wasn't to be for this trip.

Adam crushing the Kosterlitz, spotted by a crazy Italian... probably the most psyched guy you ever met.

Next morning we went back to Aimonin - Nic and Ramon to redpoint the heinous slabs of Unna Notte A Thaiti (6c) (which had given them some trouble in the rain the day before), while me and Adam got on a 6c multi-pitch called La Casa Degli Specchi. The first pitch was a fierce 6b+, reminiscent of Test Case at Pembroke, but harder. I let Adam have the lead, and he had a really good go for someone pulling straight on without a warmup, taking one fall going for it with total commitment, before finishing the pitch.

After dogging my way up that I got an amazing traverse under a roof, with wild moves, but which turned out to match the guidebook description "more psychological than technical".

Adam got a really nice flake, then I got an "easy" 4c.

After traversing up a crack line, I was faced with a 15m rising slab traverse, that looked totally devoid of gear. "more psychological than technical" popped into my mind again. As it turned out, after about 10m there was a hidden peg that cheered me up immensely, only to be given cause for thought again by a section of fairly loose rock above.

I'd ran two pitches together, giving Adam the highlight of the route - a 6c crack climb way above the valley floor. He did kindly offer to let me to block lead, but I figured he deserved it for his patience in the first couple of days.

In the end, it was probably a good thing anyway - I doubt I'd have done the first 8m of unprotected climbing from a cam just above the belay. It was desperate on second - I had to dyno to a flatty that looked good from below but turned out to be just about usable. Adam has balls, there's no doubt about that.

I flashed the pitch on second, and was absolutely stoked with that... top rope or not, flashing 6c crack climbs would have been beyond my wildest dreams a few weeks ago - seems I learned a lot in those couple of weekends in Millstone.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and blue. Rob and Lee, a couple of English lads we'd met earlier in the week had size 5 and 6 camalots they weren't using, so they kindly let myself and Adam take them on La Fessura della Disperazione (6a+) - an aptly named 3 pitch off-width crack.

I went for the first pitch - a rising traverse along the rather well defined fissure. After a few meters outside the crack I arranged some gear, dropped my leg in, and started udging along. Shuffling the size 5 along in front of me I edged my way forwards.

It's a strange feeling, relying on one piece of gear to keep you off the ground - and I really had to give myself a good talking to - but eventually made it to a peg half way along and was able to relax and move a bit more freely to the belay.

Adam started pitch two, and immediately found himself in some difficulties... this crack was much harder. It was a pretty tense belay for a while, until he left the number 5 behind and started with the number 6. Knowing he had two bits of gear between him and a factor two onto the belay made life happier for me, and I'm sure for him too.

I started out along the crack on second, and found the number 5 overcammed and totally wedged. It was not a good place to be stopped fiddling around, and by the time I got it out I was already gasping for air... and the pitch was hardly started.

What followed was one of the biggest fights of my life, and by the time I reached the belay I was retching, and thought I was going to vomit.

Facing me now was a 10m vertical chicken-wing off width, which then widened out into a full-body crack. I really had to psych myself to get started, but eventually the nausea subsided and felt ready to go.

I placed a few small cams on a crack out to the left to protect the belay, then started up the crack. It was size 6 camelot all the way. Just below the top of the vertical section, about a meter from the first rest, I reached a widening where the cam would not fit. I was boxed. My fingers were opening, my right foot was slipping, and my brain was red-lining.

Instead of leaving the cam and pulling out to go for the rest, I desperately fought to get the cam up higher where it narrowed again. I almost fell out of the crack with the cam in my hand. I just managed to get it back down in position as my hand and foot gave way, and I sagged onto my protection. So near, yet so far. I was completely spent.

I took a few minutes resting on the cam but didn't recover much, so I lowered down and let Adam lead the pitch. He put on a brilliant show to nail the flash - laybacking the crack and making it easy where I'd blown myself out trying to udge up inside.

Sitting on the belay, I wondered had I tried hard enough... had I given everything I had? It felt pretty close, maybe just too many wrong choices finished me off. I guess it was a hard route to pick for my first off-width.

It beat me up and spat me out, but it truly is an amazing experience - not to be missed.

We finished the day on a beautiful thin hands crack called Incastromania (6a). Adam onsighting it, and I cleaded it on second.

Adam on Incastromania

We decided Ramon and Nic should not know how broken we felt, so we did all we could to look fit walking off. In truth, I was a broken man.

Our sandbag worked... the guys got on it the next day. Nic seemed to quite enjoy himself, although Ramon ended up as beaten as I was.

Nic running it out on the third pitch of La Fessura della Disperazione

Ramon gurning his way up the crack

Karma had the last laugh though - I had tweaked my groin on that attempt, and after laughing at Ramon, as I walked over to the next sector I slipped off the path and pulled it properly.

On the last day, I tried to have a go at a classic 6c multipitch called The Rattlesnake, and although I only made it up two pitches before I had to retire, climbing the Orrechio de Pachiderma flake made it  worth having the go, for sure.

Nicola on the Orrechio... an amazing pitch
Rattlesnake finishes up the overhanging offwidth in the middle of the picture... I must go back and try this line again.

Injuries aside, a great time was had, and I will no doubt be back again. In fact, I think the year long Tour De Mediterranean with Clare may just have found a new starting place... she loves the peak so Orco should blow her away - it's like gritstone on steroids.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Driving to Orco

Sitting in the van driving down to the alps my head is in a total mess. Dark, confusing thoughts come in sickening waves. Fuck no... not now... not this week. I'm supposed to be heading down to Orco for a break. It's not going to be much of a break if I'm feeling like this.

Luckily getting on Adam's insurance was too expensive, so I'm able to sit and ride it out while him and Ramon take turns behind the wheel. I sleep restlessly in spells, and try to detach myself from my thoughts - observing the stream but attempting not to judge. It's not an easy thing to do, but it does help figure things out.

Publishing my last blog post was a pretty big thing.

Not the writing bit - that was easy. Sitting at work the morning after, the story was burning inside waiting to get out. I had to take lunch early, I put pen to paper, and it just came out in one stream. I barely registered what I was writing, and the process felt very therapeutic.

But publishing it was different. Publishing fed right into my insecurities. I barely slept a wink for the next couple of nights... what would people think... are they laughing at me? or worse, are they pitying me?

I got a good response though, and I knew that as uncomfortable as it was, facing those insecurities in public was a good thing. Like standing on a ledge arranging protection, getting ready for a difficult and run-out crux. You can back down and learn nothing, or commit and find out what you're made of.

I was glad I had committed, and so those thoughts had already started to die down by the time I left work on Friday evening, and raced across London to catch my lift. Something else was going on, something unsettling lurking in the back of my mind.

It took me a while, but eventually I realised - the last time I came to the alps it was a pretty difficult time in my personal life. Someone very important to me was very unwell, and I had found myself lost for a while. Desperate to help but unable to do so, I felt helpless. It's horrible to be in such a beautiful place but unable to let go and enjoy the moment for fear of what might be.

There were clearly some bad associations left over, and my subconscious needed some time to wrestle with them and cast them out. I hadn't quite done that by the time we got here - arriving on Saturday afternoon we headed straight to the crag and I really struggled. On simple warm up routes I was petrified. I didn't trust the rock, I didn't trust the gear I was placing, I didn't trust my feet and I didn't trust myself to make the right decisions. My self confidence was just shot to pieces, in the one place where felt I should have it.

I let Adam know what was going on, and he was very understanding - offering encouragement but no pressure to get on with things. That, a good curry, and a good nights sleep, and I woke up feeling like a different person.

Thank fuck, the holiday could start.

The counselling has been a confusing process - some days the sessions feel hard but the after-effects are easy. Other times the sessions seem innocuous, but touch a nerve deep inside and all hell breaks loose in my head at a later point. Sometimes it lasts moments, sometimes hours, sometimes days. I think that randomness is the hard bit.

But like everything in life, the hard work is required if you want to get somewhere - and I really do feel like I'm getting somewhere now. The bad days are getting less severe, and the gaps between them getting longer. I know now that there will be no quick fix, I'm on a journey of self-improvement that will take the rest of my life.

It's a journey that's worth being on.

Friday, 30 August 2013

What has climbing taught me?

Climbing is the first activity I can remember taking part in where I've truly believed in myself.

After a session with my therapist last week, when we had been looking at how my negative self-image affects the important things in my life (relationships, career, etc.) I popped into my old local to watch the Celtic qualifier for the champions league.

Celtic showed great self-belief to keep knocking on the door and eventually overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg with an injury time winner, going through to the lucrative group stages of the world's premier club competition.

There was a pool match going on at the other end of the pub, and I could see a few faces I remembered as pretty handy players from my time in the Hammersmith and District pool league, so after the final whistle I wandered over to see what was going down.

It was a playoff match to see who would be going forward to the EPA Champions of Champions event at Great Yarmouth, so a big event in these guys year, yet I noticed that most of them looked more relaxed than I used to be on a regular league night.

Despite being up against strong opposition, one thing they all had was confidence in their own ability to play well should they get back to the table.

It struck me that was one thing that I never had in my playing days.

From my early days in Peckham up to Willesden Green and down to Shepherds Bush, everywhere I went in London pool team captains would see me play, sign me up, sticking me in the starting 6, and then eventually drop me down the order as I failed to live up to my potential. I was a notorious black ball bottler.


Well looking at that game last night I stopped to think about what would have been going through my head if I was in those player's shoes, and the answer was almost exclusively negative thoughts.

I'd be pre-occupied with not becoming the guy who let the side down by losing from a winning position, rather than thinking about becoming the hero.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised this wouldn't just happen in competitive games - even having a knockabout in the pub I'd be concerned about how others would view my game and what deficiencies they might see.

I could see it must have affected me technically too - there were some shots (like the stun run through) I never really learned to play - I'd be too afraid of the "risk" of trying to work on them, sticking instead with the game I knew wherever possible.

Around the third pint of Guinness, it began to sink in that the same could be applied to the rest of my life too.

I've made a lot of changes in the last year or so and am starting to feel a bit happier as a result. Big life changes are afoot, and I've clearly started to break out of those patterns of behavior and take risks, but how and why did that start?

I guess it first kicked off in 2008 when I decided I was going to train up to climb 7a (indoor) in a year. I don't remember ever thinking about what would happen if I couldn't - I just decided that as long as I was determined, I could do it.

And I did.

Next, in 2009 I took on something different - to train up and compete in a half ironman. This showed me I could pick up something new, learn how to train for it, do so, and perform quite well on race day itself (making my target time by a couple of minutes, and beating my out of practice but vastly experienced training partner in the process).

An outdoor 7a went down that year too, then 7a+ and in 2010 I sent my first 7b. When a 62 year old lady walked up and onsighted that line right after my 4 day seige I didn't feel belittled, just inspired.

I began to truly believe i could do whatever I wanted in climbing - so long as I was prepared to put in the effort, and sure enough in 2011 I knocked off my first 7c.

When injuries started to get in the way of pushing harder on limestone sport for now, I shifted my goals. Emboldened by my successes I took on new challenges - getting into trad climbing and rock types that wouldn't suit my style.

The "failure" didn't matter any more, I was ready to work through it to learn and "succeed". I was no longer limiting myself to the "shots" I thought I could pull off.

But why did I approach things so differently?

I think it was a matter of timing. I've slowly become more accepting of myself and who I am over my time in London. Growing up in small town Scotland there was a distinct set of rules governing the person you were supposed to be which felt inescapable, but down in this melting pot of cultures there's more of a sense of freedom to be yourself.

And whilst that perhaps didn't have a direct effect on my self-image regarding life skills and activities I was already involved in, it meant that new activities could be approached with more of a clean slate.

I've often heard people talking about climbing teaching them life skills and nodded politely but at the back of my mind was probably the thought that it was a little pretentious. But here's a huge life lesson staring me right in the face.

If I can take that approach and apply it to the parts of my life where I do already have that poor self-image, I should be able to continue turning things around and get on a happier path.

Seems climbing's taught me a lot, and there's a lot more to come if I'm prepared to listen.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Who inspires you?

I don't think in my teenage and early adult years I was inspired by anybody. I spent most of my time trying to hide from life behind a curtain of recreational drugs and alcohol - I wasn't looking for anyone to show me the way.

It's only really since I got into climbing that I've started to see sober life as something to enjoy instead of something to endure between highs, and it's made me look around for that direction. Recently in that hunt, I'm mostly inspired by guys like Nick Bullock, Christopher McCandless, and an old family friend (sadly no longer with us) called Steven.

Steven's parents were friends with mine, and his older sister best mates with my younger one. He was a socially awkward kid, (as was I) and I never really got to know him till he came to work with us years later, but his story is something a bit out of the ordinary.

At 16 he pocketed his passport, emptied his bank account, and disappeared. Several months passed before he called home "Hi mum, sorry I didn't call sooner - I wasn't able to get to a phone, I've been living in the jungle."

When he ran out of money he came home and got a job. Not a stepping stone on a career path, just a job. While the rest of us were wasting our wages on drink, drugs and cars, he put his into his bank account, until he had enough to go away again.

The rest of his life was spent saving and travelling until one night, in a hotel in Mexico, an undiagnosed heart condition got him in his sleep.

Steven lived his life on his terms, nobody else's, and that truly is inspirational.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” - St. Augustine

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

You can't always get what you want...

Redpointing can be a frustrating process, but only if we lose sight of why we're there.

With most of the country under severe weather warnings options for the weekend had appeared in short supply, but by the Friday afternoon there was a glimmer of hope in the forecast - Portland. All the rain would be overnight, and with a westerly wind, I thought of Chayne Cliff - an often overlooked crag because of a bird ban for nesting peregrine falcons from the 1st of March.

Chayne Cliff holds some stunning lines over bands of flowstone and coral. As usual for portland there's a fair share of technical climbing, but the unusual rock formations make it stand out from the crimpfests of The Cuttings and Blacknor.

After a warm up, Ramon and I went over to have a look at a line that I first set eyes on years back called Road Rage - a three star line that goes at 7b+. I wasn't climbing well enough to try it back then, but it was one of the lines that inspired me to commit to serious training so it was a bit of a pilgrimage to finally get on it.

A couple of local lads were there working Road Rage and Illusion (7c), so we got some great beta and after two goes I had my sequence worked out. It's a sustained power endurance test with two cruxes - a sequence of long moves at mid height, into a semi-rest, and the technical crux on crimps, crossly holds, and a tricky gaston move round an arete right at the top.

I had one more burn before we headed off to the bunkhouse for the evening, making the chains with one rest, so I was quietly confident of a Sunday send.

Road Rage area - Adam getting ready for an attempt on Illusion (7c)

And then testing out his belayer... it's a fierce looking route!

After a relaxed and jovial evening and a good solid breakfast, we headed back down to warm up and discovered the slightly greasy conditions of the previous day were gone - the friction was perfect.

Before I even got back onto Road Rage, I could feel the nervous excitement that often comes when you really believe the send is on... I knew I had to try to bring that down or I was going to suffer a full-on bout of sending fever.

I managed to relax before setting off for my first attempt of the day, but after cruising most of the route and pumping out just below the chains, it came roaring back. All I had to do was climb a little bit more efficiently, and I should get there with the beans to push through the last couple of moves.

I couldn't calm down, and I compounded the issue by going again a bit too soon - this time I didn't have the juice. So I stopped for lunch and a good hour's rest.

My timing was poor, the sun had now left the face, and with sea-spray in the air, the holds were quickly greasing up.

Getting frustrated, I began to worry more about getting the send than enjoying my day, which rather defeats the purpose of getting out of London. Some nagging concerns from my personal life were adding to my frustrations, and I didn't really snap out of it until Adam made a couple of comments about enjoying the journey and following the Rock Warriors Way.

I sat myself down by the water, where the sun was still out, and thought about what was important. Here I was away for a sunny weekend in Portland (shirtless climbing in February), with a great bunch of friends and a wonderful girlfriend, and I was getting annoyed because I couldn't send a route? Madness!

So after a bit, I came back up for a last couple of attempts. I greased off twice, but it didn't matter any more. I was climbing like I should have been two hours ago, relaxed and focused. Road Rage will definitely go when the conditions (and my timing) are right, but that's not really important. What matters is the movement on rock, the company of friends, and the contentment with where I am, both in my climbing and in those personal matters.

Sometimes molehills become mountains inside our own heads... it's good to see them for what they are, and let them shrink away again.

A little wander looking for interesting flotsam to photograph helped remind me what's important about getting away for the weekend

As did hopping my way out to a large rock in the sea for some quiet contemplation

And a nice sunset to round off the day

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Intro to dry tooling

Starting out from the rest, I pull up on one axe and lock off, searching with the other for purchase in a cleft in the roof. The pick catches, and the head cams against the rock - a solid stein pull. Hauling up again, I reach around the lip, tracing the tip of the tool up a crack until it slips into something positive. It feels good so I match on it and swing out, getting a left heel hook up by my hands. I cam the toe in to take a bit more weight off my fading arms, wrestle the axe from the rock below me, and reach for a small edge. It doesn't feel great, but I don't have time to reconsider. I clip the draw by my waist, and pull again for another edge – even more marginal. I weight it, and try to bring my right foot up. The tool in my left hand pops off, then the right, and all of a sudden I'm upside down, hanging by the cammed foot. Panting and cursing, I struggle to sit up, get a pick back into the slot in front of me, and shake out. I can barely hold the axe to rest, and I'm close to vomiting from sheer exertion.

Welcome to the world of dry tooling.

After sport climbing the first two weekends of the year we were keen to keep the run going, but with snow forecast all over the country, Ramon suggested I get my first taste of tools. The conditions were good for some Welsh traditional mixed climbing, but my instructor for the day didn't want to put me on it without an induction, so we headed up to an old quarry in Clywd County known as the White Goods dry tooling crag.

Arriving on Saturday morning, it did look like a proper winter venue – a short walk through snow laden trees let to a steep curving amphitheatre of blocky limestone, icicles hanging from the roofs and verglas coating the slabs, so I was quite excited to get going as I geared up.

The main wall

I've done a lot of sport climbing with Ramon, and he got me on the trad fast-track last year, so he knows I like to get stuck in – for starters he picked a line called Left Wall (M5+). Before going up to put the draws in, he explained that with tooling, clipping at waist height is more important than in sport climbing, because you never know when an axe might pop off a hold. As if to illustrate this, halfway between the second and third bolts and looking comfortable, he came flying off without warning. As he swung towards me with metal spikes protruding from all corners I realised this game was a bit more serious than the usual bolted cragging, so it was with some trepidation that I tied in and pulled on to the rock.

I was over-gripping the axes, so although on easy terrain I was pumped before long. The fourth draw was run out which stressed me a bit, but once I'd clipped that I began to relax and think about how to recover. Loosening the grip to hang by the fingertips, straightening the arms, dropping the heels and adjusting body position to get more weight on the feet were all things that should come naturally to an experienced climber, yet in this alien environment they had to be conscious decisions. After regaining my strength, some delicate climbing on small edges led me to the chains – a satisfying onsight on my first mixed climb.

Next up, Ramon took me to the steeper, and allegedly M6 (I was later to discover M7+) line of The Bold Start. Suitably sandbagged, I fought my way up the initial section to the rest where this story began, and proceeded out round the roof to that first fall. Although the heel-toe cam had stuck securely, quick reactions from my belayer ensured a tight rope halted my swing, so the onsight was off. Not that I would have got it anyway – even after resting I couldn't bear down on the axes hard enough to establish myself on the head wall; if my arms were shot before, the adrenaline dump from the unexpected inversion had finished them off. I took several more falls before I dogged my way to the chains, but that was valuable as despite being on bolts, subconsciously I wasn't happy about falling in the unusual situation of trusting to metal picks on blind holds. 

We stopped for some food, and it took me a while to recover, but eventually I was ready to go again. As the purpose of the trip was to learn technique, I decided to try another line rather than going back for a redpoint – following Ramon up Jaz (M8). 

Steeper again, this line consisted of some thuggy moves to a rest, more of the same to a second rest, then a huge pull to the lip of the cave. That move took many attempts, and by the time I made it I had nothing left to get through the head wall. Darkness was approaching as I lowered off, so Ramon repeated it by head-torch to put up some tick marks to aid me the next day.

Ramon on firelighting duties
After a chilly night camping, we got a good fire going to warm up before pulling back on. Ramon lead Jaz again, and suggested I should warm up by doing it bolt-to-bolt, but I figured with two good breathers on the line, I might as well go for it rest-to-rest.

The first section seemed easy this time, but I redlined and almost blew it between the two rest positions - just managing to avoid the flash pump and recoup enough energy to carry on. Better footwork allowed me to probe for the good part of the crux hold instead of lunging, and two moves later I was looking at the tick marks Ramon had left. A little more composure meant I could rest on the axe to sort out good feet, before moving out onto the face and up to clip the chains. An M8 second go on my first weekend was a satisfying outcome, and my back was feeling pretty stiff, so after a bit of internal debate I decided to leave it at that.

Learning process

It was interesting to see how I adjusted to this style of climbing. Despite the familiarity of the movements (albeit exaggerated due to the extra reach), to begin with my autopilot wasn't firing. Footwork fell by the wayside as I concentrated on the axes. Although you have the mechanical advantage to pull hard on small holds, it still helps to have a solid base from which to reach, so as my feet improved the long moves became easier.

Perhaps a lot of the early problems were down to tension, as once I'd taken a few falls things felt more natural, but choice of footwear made a big difference as well. Initially I used my alpine boots with Grivel G12 crampons, which were fine for front-pointing but the plastic binding made heel hooking difficult. Trying out Ramon's comp boots allowed more instinctive footwork, although I'm not sure how much help that would be if your main goal is to train for alpinism.

Stamina, and lock-off strength seem to be key attributes for this discipline. In sport climbing, when you leave a rest you tend to move quickly, whereas here you might weight one hand, reach for a tool hanging from your shoulder, adjust the grip, pull up, lock off, and begin searching for a hold. It also involves a lot of big rolling moves utilising the back muscles, and my lats and abs are still feeling the workout three days later.

An alternative to hooking the spare tool over a body part when matching is to hold it in your teeth (a wrap of rubberised tape round the shaft helps prevent expensive dental bills). The advantage of doing so is that you can retrieve the axe and make the next move faster – the trade-off is it can restrict the movement of your head, for example to look at your feet. I'm not sure which technique I prefer yet, I guess it pays to practice both and see what works for you.

A couple of other tips I picked up over the weekend. Firstly, you have to wear thin gloves, and your hands will mainly be up where gravity helps drain the blood, so they will get cold. Over-gripping will speed up that process, so the only way to combat it is to relax and shake out often. Plastic handles on the tools does help over metal grips as well though. Secondly, always wear a helmet – even if there's no loose rock around, you'll be glad of it when you pull a tool off a hold just above your head.

Sport dry tooling may not be a common practice in the UK yet, but my first impressions were of a great way to learn to use axes, get strong, and begin to relax on holds you can't see or feel, without the complications of traditional protection. The fundamentals learned here should stand me in good stead when I venture out into the Scottish/Welsh winter scene, or go on to more technical alpinism, and I'd certainly recommend it as an introduction for anyone looking to take up these disciplines. Do make sure you head for a recognised tooling venue though, it does trash the rock.

More information on White Goods, including topo can be found here, or on Ramon's blog.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Stop that train, I'm leaving

At the time it felt like an unmitigated disaster, but one of the worst events of my 2012 may just turn out to be one of the biggest turning points of my life.

In the autumn, I slipped a disk again - requiring an ambulance visit to get me into hospital after 8 hours stuck on all fours in my bedroom, and putting me off work and out of climbing for two months of excruciating rehabilitation.

This event became a sort of catalyst point for a growing dissatisfaction with the direction my life has been going. Instead of wishing I was off doing something else, I began to ask myself "why not do something about it?".

Clare and I had been talking about going on an extended climbing trip, but the finances to do so seemed a long way off - since I arrived in london 9 years ago I've always been in reasonably substantial debt.

To begin with this was mainly down to excessive drinking and partying, but a few years back I gave this up. I got the red bank balance going in the right direction, but the main thing holding me back from finishing the job has been consumerism. I buy stuff, I throw it out, and I buy more stuff, just like all the rest of us - and like many of us I've been doing this on credit.

As I began to think there must be another way, I started to take notice of quotes and videos that popped up on social media that said exactly that - there's plenty of evidence under our noses that we can change the priorities of life easily, I was just ignoring it. I began to think about why I needed that stuff, and came to the conclusion that all the toys are to make this "life" of traipsing into the city to write code five days a week bearable - if I was doing what I wanted to do, I wouldn't need them. 

The realisation that if I continue to spend 40 hrs a week in the unnatural position of an office chair, I'm going to suffer more of these episodes, was enough to trigger a change of mindset from "we should do this" to "lets get planning the logistics".
The first thing to do was for me to get clear of my debts. A few months of hard saving and a couple of PPI claims later, I'm well on the road to doing that.
Next step is to save up for a van, and its conversion into something that we can live in for a while, and then enough cash to dirtbag round europe for a year, with a small contingency fund. Target date is June 2014. 
What happens after that can be decided later - maybe find some work near some decent climbing, or we might decide to just carry on travelling, working our way round.

But either way, I'm not going to be sucked back into the nine to five - life's too short.

Tough one this weekend!

What's the options this week for the London based weekend warrior? The short answer is not a lot.

With freezing temperatures and not much sunshine anywhere, sport climbing looks totally out, and with snow forecast from the Peak to Fontainebleau, bouldering looks rather unlikely too.

Which leaves just one option... climbing with gloves on. Time for me to head for north Wales and learn the dark arts of dry tooling!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Where to get out this weekend?

With rain forecast for most of the south and west on Saturday, it's looking like a weekend for getting up north. Either way, it's going to be cold!

Llanberris is set to be dry after overnight showers on Friday night, and the Peak should be cloudy but dry and cold.

If you're looking for southern sport, I think a Sunday day drip will be the only option, with Brean Down a likely candidate - we were there last weekend and although many of the upper lines were suffering seepage, the lower lines were all fine. Portland is also to be sunny and on sunday, although there's a misty start forecast.

Day trips should also be possible to Pembroke and the Gower on Sunday.

Happy cranking!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The importance of getting out

First weekend of the year, and we were back in last year's winter stomping ground of Brean Down.

The forecast wasn't great, the rock was damp and chilly at times (waking up to thick fog on Sunday morning, it seemed like a bit of a lost cause) but once we were warmed up and cranking, it was all worth it for several reasons.

After two months laid up with a slipped disc, I'd been back in the climbing gym for a couple of weeks before christmas, but hadn't really been out on the rock at all. Factor in the couple of weeks off over the festive period, and I think it's fair to say there were a few cobwebs needing blown out.

The gym got me used to falling where there was nothing to hit and bolts every half a meter, but it didn't get me used to falling in the real world, so I needed a few lobs to sort out the fear.

The gym also got my muscles used to pulling again, but it didn't get me used to the subtleties of rock climbing, so once I'd got myself relaxed, I needed the rest of the weekend working on body position and footwork.

And what a good school for body position and footwork Brean Down is! For such a small place (made even smaller this weekend due to seepage on most of the upper lines) there's so much to learn at Brean.

We did a lot of laps of the two 7as Chepito and Pearl Harbour, and despite all three of us knowing the routes well, I don't think anyone used the same sequence twice. There's so many ways to do each route there you can really just explore the rock - a line up decent crimps one time, and a more strenuous line on sidepulls the next; or endless variations of footwork to refine and climb the route more efficiently.

Then there was Tide Rising (7b+). I spent several hard days of projecting to send this line in 2011, and although a repeat was never likely to be on so soon after the layoff, I figured it would do me good to try and work the moves.

Despite remembering most of the hand sequence I had used, it felt totally impossible to begin with, and even after several goes on saturday and two on sunday, I hadn't figured out a really reliable way through the bottom crux.

It's so sequency - with a bit more fitness I could have powered through, but as it stands everything would have to be optimised, and I couldn't quite do that. Finding the easy way to do one move would leave me in a poor body position for the next.

It felt like I was missing one little trick that would link everything together for the bottom half, and the same for the top.

But no matter, every second I spent trying it out was valuable; I was reminding my body what it feels like to be on a piece of real rock instead of a slab of chipboard with friction paint and bolt-on holds - and working the muscles that don't really get worked in the gym.

So I came away with the feeling that a bit more practice will have me cranking hard again in no time.

The final reason it was all worthwhile, was simply the psychological boost. The months of inaction had left me a bit down, and if there's one thing guaranteed to lift that cloud, it's a weekend with the guys on the rock, whatever the weather!

So here's to getting out more often for a year of cranking... happy 2013 everyone!

Ramon with total concentration on the crux hold of Tide Rising (7b+)

Tom working the extremely technical crux move on Storm Warning (7c+)

Dog walkers making the most of a grey seaside afternoon

Sunset at the end of a great day's climbing

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

I couldn't hold on any longer...

How often do we say or hear that at the wall or the crag?

We all do it to a greater or lesser extent - letting go on a route and blaming failing muscles.

I was thinking about this the other day, as I was trying to convince Clare she really could have stayed on a route at the gym. She's proud of her determination to hang in there - and rightly so she's much better than most with her level of experience - but as a relative beginner she's no idea what she's actually capable of.

So, as I was trying to get across the fact that we all have to learn to pull harder and stay on that little bit longer, I pointed out that I still have to work on this aspect too.

Which lead me to ponder later on, do I work on it enough?

Truth be told, it's one of those areas where I've become complacent. It is one of my strengths, but that's no reason to rest on my laurels - especially since it's one of the facets of climbing that comes at little cost. You don't have to take time off from periodised mental attitude training like you do with the physical aspects - it's something that can be worked on in every single session.

If I needed any further prompting, it was to come a short while later whilst re-watching Dave MacLeod's excellent Echo Wall. If there's a better sysnopsis of the mental preparation required to climb at your absolute limit, I'd love to see it.

It also reminded me of a little saying I used to use learning trad last spring with Ramon, when faced with a scary decision: What would Dave do? It would normally be enough to convince me to go for if it was safe to do so, and only back down for genuine safety concerns.

So, as the new year begins this will be two of my resolutions: I will challenge myself to hold on that bit longer on *every* send attempt, and try to be a bit more like Dave.

Sunset over the Gower peninsula - last climbing weekend of 2012