Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Back to my roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 31 July 2015

Learning my lessons in Céüse.

What can I say about Céüse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring cleaning the vans and ourselves by the Lac de Pelleautier

Gorgeous sunsets from the top of Céüse plateau.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Putting things into perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

Down in Portland in the early days

Cranking out the steep stuff in Rodellar

A bit of Southern Sandstone bouldering

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

Calm before the storm in Valle Dell'Orco

Psyched after the storm in Valle Dell'Orco :D

Monday, 13 July 2015

Mind games part 2 - The Sending Window

After my day of contemplation at Lac du Pelleautier, I decided to go down to Gap for a change of scenery, visit the laundrette, and find a decent 3G signal to play internet poker. I wanted to get projecting out of my mind for a while, let my body recover, and wait for cooler weather.

I didn't have to wait long - after 3 rest days the temperatures were forecast to drop by around 7 degrees for two days. I headed back up to Sigoyer on the evening of the third rest day feeling pretty psyched.

Gerd was back for a quick visit and he also had unfinished business with Makach Walou, so we headed up to Berlin at lunchtime to eat, rest and get ready for good conditions. Around 4pm the temperature started dropping rapidly. I knew I should probably wait a little longer, but I was itching to see what shape I was in, so I jumped on.

The holds were a little greasy, but I got as far as the crux feeling good. I gave everything a good clean and Gerd got on - sending for his warm up and looking really solid all the way. He followed that by closing out the cruxy Queue de Rat (7b+), a strong day coming back so recently from injury.

I had another two burns, falling on the same move each time. I came down in a state of confusion. I'd been through that crux before but now, in perfect conditions, I was dropping it every time. Was I not as well rested as I felt, or had I just developed a total mental block around that move?

As I voiced my frustration, a French chap who had sent the route earlier came over to ask how I was taking the crux hold. He told me he was using it differently; I decided to stick with my beta for the next attempt and then try his method if I fell. I did fall once more, but as soon as I tried the new beta I knew it should be the last time.

It was getting dark and I was tired, but in my excitement I tried to squeeze in one more effort. This time I didn't get as far as the crux, but it didn't matter... I fairly bounced down the hill that evening, knowing I had one more day of weather window and some crucial new beta.

I headed up with Will Oates the next afternoon, he wasn't so psyched for spending the whole day at Berlin so we decided to warm up elsewhere and come back when the conditions were at their best; after food and a good rest we headed round to Demi-Lune and I got on a bouldery 6c called Bonnye and Clyde to warm up. I ticked it first redpoint, and although I'd failed the onsight, it gave me a boost because I'd pulled on much smaller holds than I would find on Makach and the injured left arm felt good.

I could feel the nervous excitement building, it really was on now. I had to find a way to lower my expectations. There was a strong Spanish climber on the route as we approached Berlin - he got the onsight, and came off without cleaning the holds. It was perfect - I told myself "there's probably been three or four folk on here already and the crux will need a clean - you're not going to send, just get up there and try out the new beta". It worked, and I felt pretty calm as I tied in and pulled on.

After somewhere in the region of 60 or 70 attempts, I've never had a route so well dialled - the climb to the crux went like clockwork and with the new beta I pulled through it almost effortlessly. There's a half-decent rest at the next clip, but I felt good so I didn't hang around long. The next 5 moves flowed as smoothly as I'd ever done them off the rope and I was into a huge jug with a couple of meters of easy climbing to go. I could almost hear Jill's voice saying "after that jug, just don't forget how to climb!". I took a deep breath and didn't forget.

I've never felt so emotional after a sport climb. It wasn't a first at the grade, but it was the longest and hardest project I've been on. I learned a lot about my climbing in the process and I had to dig in when injury and common sense were telling me it was getting too much; I hope that experience will stand me in good stead when I'm getting shut down in future.

Later that evening, whilst falling off an onsight attempt of the stunning 100 Patates (7b) I heard Ali yelling in delight as she closed out her long term project of La Petite Illusion (7a+), and then Will flashed 100 Patates to round of a rather splendid couple of days at the crag.

So long Makach Walou, it's been fun and perhaps one day I'll come back to use you as a warmup; but for now, at last, I'm free to move around and enjoy everything else Céüse has to offer :)

Jill focused on nailing the crux... she crushed Makach early and left me in her wake.

Kat working the top moves - this balancy sequence was one of the most satisfying pieces of rock I've climbed.
Gerd pulling through the crux.

Ali also showed great determination to keep projecting and send La Petite Illusion.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mind Games

My logbook might say Super Cantina Marina (8a), but Makach Walou (7c+) has been physically and mentally the hardest project I've worked to date by far.

It started well - doing all the moves on my first attempt - but I knew it needed a level of power endurance I didn't have. It was my first day in Céüse though, and as I was planning to stay a while I figured working it would be a good way to get fit.

After two weeks of solid projecting I'd linked all the sections, and one-hung the route. A week later I made it through the top crux, twice. The first time my arms gave out; the second I fluffed my footwork for the very last hard move. Little did I know then, how that mistake would come to haunt me.

I took another couple of rest days and came back expecting to send, but pulling back on I felt sluggish and couldn't recover fully on the rests. A month of marching up from 1400m to 1800m and projecting hard was taking it's toll. I was back to falling at the crux again, but was it physical, or had it become a mental problem? There was clearly a bit of both, but it was hard to say which was the most significant.

This put me in a bit of a dilemma... the weather was getting hotter and I knew the crag would only get busier - I wanted to get the popular line done before it got too bad. I was stuck between the need to rest and the desire to send.

To complicate matters, I began to feel depressed again. It was nothing major, but then I went to a party in Sigoyer and had a few too many drinks, triggering several days of severe anxiety which messed with my guts - interfering with my ability to recover and re-fuel my body. I had been running up to the crag when I first arrived, now I was plodding and it didn't feel good.

I gave away the beer and wine I had in the van, and decided to get on some other walls for a change of scenery. I had a go at some steep, juggy routes - Bibendum (7b+) was a lot of fun but didn't quite go before another rest day, and then down at Cascade I got on Super Mickey (7b). Big lock offs, huge jugs, and an even bigger grin characterise the line. On the first redpoint attempt I linked all the way to the top crux, but fell off the dyno. I stuck it next go off the rope, but immediately felt a pain in my left forearm. Shit.

I could crimp on holds with my ring finger, but I couldn't hang them - pretty important on the pockets here. It also felt very similar to an injury I had before which turned chronic... should I even try to climb through? I'd had a good trip, maybe it was time to head back to the UK, look for work and rest my weary body?

I slept on it, but looking up at the rock over my morning coffee I knew I had to stay and take a chance.

The temperatures were climbing all over Europe, and Céüse was no exception. Resting up in the car park for a few days I was sweltering. Hiking back up for another go yesterday, I must have sweated out more water than I carried up. With a tape strap at either end my forearm actually felt OK, but the rock was so greasy I fell off before the third bolt. After a good brushing I had another go, making it to the crux, but I'd had to work so hard to stay on the lower section there was little in the tank to get through it. I ate dinner and took a long rest to go for an evening send, but by the time I got on the breeze had died away and conditions felt just as bad as before. I trudged down the hill feeling pretty dejected.

It felt like there are just too many stars that need to align before I can send this route. Physically and mentally I need to get it right, and the weather has to play it's part. The send is so much further away than it was a fortnight ago that my head says I should give it up, but my heart says I've put too much in to let it go.

I needed a sense of perspective - it's only a couple of weeks since I happily proclaimed (whilst staring at the stars after good food and good wine in good company), that if I won the lottery tomorrow I'd still want to be exactly where I was. So this afternoon I drove down to the Lac du Pelleautier, and after a bath and some sun lounging swam the length of it and back.

From google maps, it looks like I did about 1.5km, and although I wasn't breaking any speed records I surprised myself by finishing quite strongly. In the process I reminded myself that there are other sports out there, and that I'm pretty lucky to be in the position, for now, of being able to wake up every morning in the alps and decide which one to do.

I feel a lot happier tonight, and mentally more rested. I'm ready to enjoy what the area has to offer for a few days and wait for the weather to break. In the meantime, my body can rest a bit too... perhaps I can get those stars all aligned. :)

Update: you can read part 2 and watch the video here

Antoine sending Makach Walou.

Matt on the bouldery start of Bibendum, on his way to a quick send.

Kat lowering off Bibendum... it is quite steep!

Super Mickey is full of big lock offs...

... hanging out on jugs at the knee bar...

... more big lock-offs...

... sticking the dyno that could have ended my trip. I must go back and send this, once Makach Walou is safely in the bag! Photos by Jill Sompel.

Unknown climber on L'errance d'une passion (7c) at Berlin.

Evening sunshine at Lac du Pelleautier.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Back on the rock (and the one that got away)

By Wednesday I'd convinced myself to head up to Chamonix the next morning, when Gerd messaged me to say he was keen on coming to St Leger. I told him I wasn't fit, but it started me thinking again.

That evening, I grabbed my climbing shoes and chalk bag and wandered down to hang off some holds. It was still painful but not as bad, and the discomfort was dependent on the wrist angle - if I stayed below the holds it was fine.

I started soloing up and down the bottom of a 6b+, and the longer I went the less pain I felt... maybe I could climb through it by warming up properly?

This was probably wishful thinking, but decided to give it a go; I arranged to pick Gerd up at Sahune on Friday morning.

Fancying a change of scenery, I went for a drive on Thursday - stopping in pretty little French villages and generally being a tourist for the day. Suddenly it felt like summer had arrived, which made for a lovely day out, but I began to wonder if climbing in St Leger would still be feasible.

I stopped for the night in an aire about 5km short of Sahune, and woke up in the morning to find a beautiful little tufa crag right above the car park. This part of France is just amazing, there's quality rock everywhere you look.

Despite the heat, I found a super-psyched Gert sitting by the bins in the centre of town so we turned and made a bee-line for La Baleine.

Warming up on Du Rire de Baleine aux l'Armes de Crocodile (6c) things felt OKish - more discomfort than pain, but when I got on Commando Fada (7b), I came to a move that sent a familiar tearing sensation through my right arm. I grabbed a tree with my left and shook it out. Fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound. I managed to dog to the chains, and by the top I found I wasn't having as many problems.

There were two open projects I could have a go at - Pirequetoutopoulos (7b+) or La Chant Des Baleines (7c/+). They are both cracking lines, and there doesn't actually feel like much difference in difficulty between the two, but I decided to err on the side of caution and go at Pirequetoutopoulos. I surprised myself by almost linking to the rest below the top crux whilst putting up the draws, dogged the rest, and then called it a day; I'd pushed pretty hard so time to see how the arm felt in the morning.

The answer was pretty good - no bruising or swelling, and a similar pain warming up as the day before. However, the heat was becoming a real issue, too much sweat meaning low friction and fast wearing skin. The original plan was for Gerd to be there for five days (four days climbing with a rest day in the middle), then he was going back to his Miriam's parents farm and I was planning Céüse. We came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to pop up to the farm for our rest day, then Gert would come up to Céüse.

That gave me an afternoon to send Pirequetoutopoulos. I had two cracks at it - the first, I climbed well and made it into the crux sequence, but an error cost me. The second I was a bit more ragged; with energy reserves low I was fighting the whole way. I got the sequence right, and got to the final hard move, but couldn't hold the tension to reach for the jug. I knew I didn't have enough in the tank for another go, but it didn't really matter. I was grinning from ear to ear as I knew I had given it my all in the quest... I was back!

Miriam's family run an off-grid organic farm and guest house nestled amongst the trees an hour south of Gap. We arrived on Saturday night to a warm welcome and a hearty dinner, and spent Sunday sitting by the pool listening to the cuckoos and larks, watching the bees and butterflies going about their business. Total relaxation in a stunning location - I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for an alpine getaway; fantastic hosts and the sort of place where time just stops.

It's been a brilliant few days, and to cap it off yesterday we made it to Céüse... if the first day's climbing is anything to go by the next few weeks are going to be a bit special.

Park your van randomly in the dark, and wake up to find tufas above your head.
It looked really good, and had about half a dozen bolted lines.
Every French village has a beautiful church.
War memorial at Buis Les Baronnies.
Gert getting ready to do battle with the tufas
It's a magnificent cave at La Baliene
The heat didn't seem to be slowing down this young french lad, working Un Monde Sans Gauche Est Sans Issue (8a)
Goodbye to Saint Leger... it had a really nice bathroom.
Chilling by the pool.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

It's been a while since I wrote an update, mainly because there's not been all that much climbing going on. For personal reasons, going back to Rodellar didn't work out, and feeling mentally and physically exhausted I decided to head for the beach. I ended up in a lovely little spot called Segur de Calafell, near Tarragona.

Despite being more than warm enough to swim and sunbathe, there were few tourists around - most of the apartments were shuttered up and I was able to just park the van by the beach for about 10 days with nobody bothering me. With nothing to do but yoga, guitar and chilling on the beach, had I been in a better state of mind it would have been absolute heaven. As it was it was a great opportunity to recharge and reflect on the last few months, and some of the old behaviour patterns that I'd fallen back into.

It was also a great place to be inspired to get fit again - with people constantly biking, jogging and roller blading along the sea-front, and making use of the free outdoor gym. I strapped on the GPS watch, and discovered to my surprise that I'm still capable of running quite quickly. I guess the weight loss of the last couple of years helped plug the gap created by lack of fitness. If I stay at this light, it will be interesting to see where I can get to with a bit of CV training.

After Calafell, I went back over to Siurana. I bumped into Charlie and Gillie, and had a really nice day climbing with them, but back at their pad in the evening I started to feel quite anxious again - not really dealing well with being in company, so I jumped in the van and headed back up to the car park behind the goat farm where this whole trip began.

There was a really nice bunch of people staying there, and as the week wore on, I started to crawl back out of my shell. I wish I'd spent more time getting to know them. They all left for Margalef, but I hung around as Mike Reed was on his way back over from Kalymnos. It was good to see him again - we get on well and I find it easy to relax in his company and talk about the shit that's bothering me.

Next stop was Barcelona, to catch up with old friends Monica and Marco, and meet the new (to me at least, it's been a while) addition to their family. It was great to see them and get a look around the city.

After that I went back to the beach for some more me time, but the tourists were starting to arrive and the resort felt a bit less secure - one afternoon I was sat with the curtains drawn when somebody came by casing the camper. I guess it's one of the drawbacks of van life, your gear is never safe so you need to steer clear of nice spots that attract thieves.

I'd been thinking about St Leger for a while, so when I found out some more old friends were heading there for the weekend I decided to make the long drive up the Route National. It was a liberating feeling being on the road proper again, and arriving at the car park for La Baleine sector I found a lovely little camping spot. It was good to climb with Vlad and Aurelia again, and after they left I met up with a really nice French/Quebec couple, looking for a third to make it easy to look after their kid.

It was all seeming to click back into place - mentally I was feeling better and on the rock I was beginning to feel strong again. On my first attempt at La Chant Des Baleines (7c+) I'd figured out all the moves, so I got back on it a couple of days later feeling like it could be a quick tick. Nic offered to put the draws up for me so I could have a good go at the first redpoint, narrowly missing out on the onsight himself in a really good effort.

I made it through what's probably the crux for most people, but slipped off a tricky intermediate sloper on a slightly morphological move just after. I was pretty boxed, so even if I'd stuck it the chances of recovering enough for the send would have been pretty slim, but to even be thinking along those lines felt great.

After resting on the rope and carefully checking out the middle third of the climb, I made a mistake whilst trying to link the top section. After skipping a clip, and with the mists of oxygen deprevation descending, I forgot my footwork on the final hard move - stepping across and behind the rope instead of the drop knee I'd worked out before. I reached the next hold, but couldn't unwrap my feet and came off. Facing the prospect of a long inverted fall, I instinctively threw an arm round the dead side of the rope as I passed it; I succeeded in keeping myself upright but at the cost of a fair bit of skin, and as I was later to find out some muscle damage underneath.

I've spent the week since week pottering around Mont Ventoux resting, and although the arm is now back up to general duties I suspect it'll be a while before I'm able to climb hard sport routes again, so I'm thinking on heading up to Chamonix. Anyone fancy bagging a few 4000m peaks?

The beach front at Segur de Calafell
Looks like even the Face Man is a fan of the resort...
Katerina on the crux of Ruaxa (7a+)... Siurana has some magnificent crack climbing.
Physio in the evening sunshine.
Aurelia on a three star and hard 7b+ (name escapes me) at La Baleine
Vlad starting out on the super steep Malaxe (8a+)
It keeps going....