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.