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