Saturday, 21 February 2015

Giving myself credit

It's something I've never been very good at; when I was in counselling, my therapist must have got sick of pointing it out.

When it comes to my climbing, I've always said "I'm not a strong climber, I'm not a super technical climber, but I am good at giving it everything I've got." I've voiced this a few times recently, or at least tried to. First Sam interupted me before I got to the "but", to question what I was saying. Then Mike interrupted me before I got to the "but". Then Nicole interrupted me before I got to the "but".

I sat one evening and thought about this - the most credit I could give myself was to add an addendum to my self-criticism. Everyone else seemed to think those criticisms weren't warranted. I resolved to put a lot of energy into believing in myself and my climbing ability. The next morning, I did an exercise in positive re-inforcement - something I hadn't done for a while.

We went round to Las Chorerras, and climbing with a Bristol lad, Toby, I was having a great day. We were onsighting 7a for fun and having a right good laugh. The line of Super Cantina Marina (8a) caught my eye. I heard the voice of doubt, saying it was too hard for me to get on, and decided it could fuck right off. I cruised up the first 15 or 20 meters, then fell off what turned out to be the lower of two cruxes. I plugged away, and some time later I'd done all the moves and reached the chains on a sustained 40m 8a with a technical crux.

Since then I've been climbing more relaxed than I ever thought possible. A second go on Super Cantina Marina improved the crux sequences and identified a knee bar rest between them, then I decided to take a break and get on some other stuff. I found a bouldery 7c that really wouldn't suit my style (Los Mercenarios at Parade de Enfrente), and worked out all the moves first go. I jumped on the more suitable 7c+\8a Ramalla, and at a hands free knee bar at about 25m had the onsight firmly on my mind, but not the choking desire that usually accompanies it. The crux proved too much, but again I figured it out and felt the line should be very doable.

With my finger skin getting pretty thin, I decided to have one more go on Super Cantina Marina before taking a longer rest. I went fully "A Muerte" and was climbing really well until a sequence error sent me head first and backwards down the crag - thanks Stephane for a superb soft catch to keep me in one piece. After that, I linked from the rest below the bottom crux to the top of the second - although as I reached for the jug at the end, my skin finally gave way on the other hand and I slid off. Two tips were clean through and pissing blood, but I didn't really care. I knew I was rolling the dice when I pulled on, and I may have lost the skin but I'd found more than enough confidence in my climbing to make it worth while.

So I am a strong climber, I am a technical climber, and to top it off I've got a fucking good head for getting the most out of that. If you hear me saying otherwise, you have permission to slap me.

But to give credit where it's due elsewhere, I owe a big thanks to my new found friends in the Chulilla car-park. Coming off a bad depression it has been hard to find confidence, and whether you complimented my climbing (or my singing!), popped into my van for a chat on a rainy day when I needed it the most, accepted some decisions I had to make without any ill-feeling, or just welcomed me into your circle, you've helped me back onto my feet more than you'll probably ever know.

Joris on (I think) Richer Line (7a)
Stephane on what he thought was a 7b line at Las Chorerras (athough on UKC it looks like there's only a couple of 7cs where he was climbing) 

Nicole getting into a knee bar high on El Ramallar (7c+)

Relaxed - this was right before I pulled on to go "A Muerte" at Super Cantina Marina (8a)

Focussed - but still relaxed... I never knew climbing hard could feel so simple.

About to go for some upside-down airtime... forgot to move my left foot before I tried to stand up. Thanks Per for the photo to remind me not to do it again.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Team Scotland

After three days of rain, we were itching to get back on it, and I formed Team Scotland with Mike to return to Sex Shop.

Warming up on the polished 6b+ felt I felt strong, so I decided to go straight at the line to the right, which I had a feeling went at 7a (the guidebook is out of print at the moment, so a lot of us are flying a bit blind). I had to really pull hard through a technical crux, but I managed the onsight of what turned out to be Eco dildo (7a).

I was going well so despite intending to get back on Dale Duro Negro, when Mike fancied a go at Happy end (7c), I decided to join in.

Mike went first, and took it sensible redpoint style - conserving energy, resting to look at sequences and then completing them with minimum fuss.

I went with my usual not-so-sensible "a muerte" to see where it got me - the answer was not very far into the hard moves of the upper half of the route, but I was still very pleased with the effort. My head is in a good place, but it's not yet on a solid enough foundation for complacency.

I dogged my way to the chains, and lowered with a smile - I'd done all the moves, and that meant I could do the route. I've never had a first go at a 7c go so smoothly.

Mike dispatched it second go, and I decided to just go for it again. I made the chains with only two falls, which I was very happy with. After finding better footwork where I'd fallen, I think I'm already in with a genuine shout of the redpoint next time I pull on.

As the next day was Saturday, we decided to walk round to the quieter far gorge. It was a fair slog, but worth it. Beautiful scenery and stunning walls, with a lot more steep sections and tufas. After a not very finger friendly "warmup" at Oasis we walked along the crag a bit to find a gorgeous 6b+ tufa climb that was almost 40m and finished up practically inside the rock.

As we finished, a French lady was lowering off Catherine Panzeta Jones (7a) and whooping with delight. "That was good then?" asked Mike. "That was better than good, like an orgasm, you know?" came the reply. Obviously I had to have a crack. It was indeed a fantastic line... by 30m I had a grin plastered across my face despite the pain of the pump, and after a slightly desperate lunge, I clipped the chains for another 7a onsight. I was starting to feel like it's something to be expected.

Mike wanted to have a go at Sendero luminoso which goes at 7a+ for pitch one, and 7b if both pitches were strung together. He onsighted pitch one easily, but didn't have enough draws to carry on. I wasn't sure exactly where it finished, but I racked another 8 and set off. The French lady (who we now knew as Lilly) was climbing next to me, and we chatted for a while on the way, which helped keep my mind off what I was trying for. I was climbing relaxed, and the first anchor came surprisingly easily, but then I was on my own. I tensed up a bit and it turned into a real physical battle. I also started to get distracted by fears of an epic descent - if the rope wasn't long enough to lower back to the first anchor, it was far too steep for me to abseil, and I was running out of quickdraws. I skipped two bolts, and it was just as well - I finished with none so the top would have been very run out, and there was one final hard move just below the chains. That move almost snatched the onsight from me, but after a desperate reversal I found some better footwork and reached the finishing jug.

I was properly spent, but elated... my first 7b onsight. I know these are Spanish grades, but I've spent enough time on Spanish rock before without getting these numbers so it's still a sign that I'm climbing at my best.

Mike's a strong climber, and I'm sure there's a lot I could learn from him, but the thing that struck me the most was that his route reading is light-years ahead of my own. On my first attempt at Happy end, every time I got stuck, he gave me the perfect beta; even when I didn't believe it was possible, he was right.

If I want to take my climbing to the next level, this is obviously something I'm going to need to work on. But other than logging the hours on the rock how do you do that? I guess the first step is to keep a more open mind to what's possible, but what then?

Answers on a postcard please (c/o The Top Car Park, Chulilla, Spain), or in the comments below :)

Team Scotland colours nailed to the mast...
Can't beat breakfast in the sunshine, under a lemon tree...

"We go this way, right?" "What ze fuck are you talking about?" Joris, Mike and Stephane on the walk to the second gorge

Worth the walk though...
Stephane embracing the tufas on Magic Line (7a+)
Mike on the "Orgasmic" Catrin Panzeta Jones (7a)

Monday, 9 February 2015


For my "something a little more difficult" I headed up to try the Sex Shop sector. After warming up, I decided to go for Dale Duro Negro, as it seemed similar in character to Blue Agave - an easy angled start leading to a sustained upper section, that hopefully wouldn't have any stopper moves - and at 7b shouldn't be pushing the boat out too far.

The line was pretty much as I expected - I climbed through the bottom half clean, then fell after mis-reading the crux. Some time and two more falls later, I made it to the chains with arms like footballs and fingers that no longer seemed able to translate the messages coming from my brain.

Back on the ground, I thought about what I'd just climbed. The second fall was largely down to a loss of motivation for suffering with the onsight gone, and the third my hand just opened on a fairly large hold below the chains. All three were only a couple of moves from a rest, and each time I pulled back on and completed the sequence second go.

It dawned on me that not only should this route go quickly, with a little bit more fitness it would have been eminently onsightable.

Even at my fittest, I don't think I've ever had such a thought about a 7b, and a quick look on UKC shows that most think it's fair for the grade. At the moment, it seems like every day I'm pleasantly surprising myself.

The car park's other resident Scotsman, Mike, on Dale Duro Negro (7b)
A technical little 6a+
The Enfrente wall, taken from the top of the first pitch on the sensational 6c crack climb La Diagonal... hand jams, fist jams, finger locks... on polished spanish limestone???

Sunday, 8 February 2015

It's all about the systems

After our rest day, we headed to a slabby crag round the far side of the village, by the old fortified walls.

I decided to up the ante with the falling practice, and took some long whippers on a 5c slab to start the day. This made a big difference to my climbing, as nothing else I faced could hope to be as terrifying. However, with fear of falling out of the way I was free to notice some performance anxiety. Sloppy footwork cost me the onsight of a really nice technical flowstone line, but behind the bad technique was too much desire to onsight it's grade of 7a.

The next day we went back to Parad de Enfrente and after warming up (complete with the now customary whipper) I decided to get on Blue Agave (7a). I knew it was soft in the grade, and so the onsight was again on my mind. I started a little internal mantra of "It's just another route... it's just another route..." and by the time I'd made the first few clips, I was relaxed and climbing well - not caring too much about the result, despite the crowds there to witness my success or failure.

It's just the sort of spanish limestone route Ramon taught me how to deal with - long and sustained but with good rests everywhere if you take the time to look, and before long I had pulled through a pumpy section to the last bolt. I was feeling boxed, and despite a decent rest position I didn't seem to be getting anything back. I could almost hear the catalan cranker shouting up "just wait there then!", so I did.

Eventually, refreshed, I made the last few moves with ease and clipped the chains. It was indeed soft in the grade, but since on paper it's my first 7a onsight in some time, I'll take it.

As someone once said, climbing is all about systems; I seem to have systematically worked my way back into good climbing form - loosen up the body, deal with the fear, then deal with the ego - far faster than I could have hoped for when I crossed the channel.

There's a few days of rain forecast, starting on Tuesday, so perhaps tomorrow I should open an account with something a little more difficult...

Climbing under the old walls.

Pinchtastic flowstone on the gorgeous line of Smegol (6c)

Weekend + Sunshine = Not The Quiet Crag We Got Used To. Ah well, nice to be looking forward to Monday mornings ;)

Friday, 6 February 2015


Siurana was beginning to freeze. The conditions for climbing still seemed OK through Scottish tinted lenses, but Hanka wasn't enjoying it, and she doesn't have the benefit of blown air heating at night so it seemed fair to head south.

It turned out to be a great decision - an afternoon's driving took us to Chulilla, and it is a stunning place. A beautiful village, situated at the end of a valley lined with imposing limestone walls, with angles from vertical to pretty steep. Sunshine is on tap all day if you move around, and the closest route from the dossing car park is about 3 feet away, with just a 20 minute walk down to the valley floor and back up to the massive Parade de Enfrente wall.

We had embarked in the middle of a mass migration - a few vans already in the car park were recognisable, and those who arrived after confirmed the sense in the move; the next morning there had been two inches of snow.

The cold winds had followed us south, and the first day at the crag was a little chilly, but warming up on some quality 40m 6b routes at Pared de Enfrente it was immediately obvious that this is a place to get the rock fitness back. After climbing three of them, I had also warmed down.

Yesterday we went back for more of the same (but this time with no wind and shirt off at last!), including a satisfying onsight of El ramallito (6c). It showed me that I'm climbing reasonably economically and recovering well. I was feeling nervous of falling though, so on my warmdown I took a victory leap from the chains... guess I'll have to get back in the habit until I'm climbing at ease.

I'm trying to work myself back in to climbing sensibly, so another rest day today, but perhaps tomorrow it's time to start on the 7s that this place is famous for...

The view of the village at night that greeted my arrival

The town square
The start of el Parad de Enfrente as seen from the carpark in the morning... it goes on for some distance
Look up in any direction from the village and you'll see rock...

Tops off for Power! No that this scrawny body has much right now...
The less glamorous side of van life... still, beats chucking it in the washing machine and heading in to work ;) 

Clearly cycling produces a lot of dirty socks...

Monday, 2 February 2015


After a few days catching up with people in London (if I didn't catch you, please don't think it means I don't love you... I didn't have long after finally getting the van in order) I finally got on the road to Portsmouth last Monday.

I had a ferry booked to Bilbao in the morning to save me driving through France again, but on the way down I got a text to say it had been cancelled due to "unforeseen technical difficulties". I was pretty annoyed initially, but after switching to a crossing to Caen, and hearing that the seas further south were getting uncomfortably rough, I realised this might be best anyway.

After an evening parked in a pleasant little carpark with views of the city at night, I slept in the ferry port and boarded at 7am. The ferry was empty and the sea millpond flat, so after a while enjoying the view, I did a couple of hours of yoga, then had a siesta in the sunshine. All felt good in the world.

The weather turned again, and the drive through France was damp, dull and largely uneventful, but upon crossing the Pyrenees the sun came out, and I cruised down towards Tarragona with the windows down, reggae blaring, and a huge grin.

I came to Siurana to meet Hanka - another nomad who I first met in Finale over the summer, and who's climbing partner had unfortunately (but luckily for me) decided to go back to the rat race. At the end of a glorious sunny day, I found her bunkered under the trees in a very cold and windy Siurana... the forecast I'd seen the week before had been rather optimistic.

Next morning it was raining, so an enforced rest day before I even got started, but the following day conditions were perfect... sunny but cold and maximum friction. We went down to Grau dels Masets Cami, a nice little south facing sector, down the hill a bit and sheltered from the wind.

Immediately on arrival, one line caught my eye... short but sweet, 17m right up the centre of a pretty blank looking slab. It turned out to be a fairly recent addition to the crag, a 7a called Festucs first climbed in 2013. Initially I told myself to leave it alone and concentrate on getting some lower grade mileage, but by the end of the day it was winking at me in the late afternoon sun, and I had to give it a go.

I fell half way up, but after a few more goes I'd worked out the sequence for what turned out to be the crux, and climbed the rest clean to the top. Up to the crux was crimpy, and I decided not to risk my fingers on the redpoint, but left with a real sense of satisfaction to be climbing so well this early, particularly on such a technical route. It seems I learned some of the lessons Finale was willing to teach me.

The other thing that was particularly exciting; although I felt weak on the lower graded steeper routes, when I got on the slab I felt lighter and more limber than ever - and with good reason. I've never tried to control my weight for climbing, but since leaving work last May I've been on a wholefoods diet, and slowly and consistently loosing weight as a result. Last check, before I left Scotland, I was down to 57kg - 8kg below when I left London. I've also improved my flexibility tremendously. I'm quite intrigued to see how this will play out when I've got some rock fitness back :)

It's forecast to get even colder here, so we might head further south for a while, but my first little taste of Siurana will leave me wanting much, much more.

Festucs (7a) in the centre of the slab, the chalked holds to the left are Suape (6b) - another worthwhile line, if a little polished.