Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Rock Snobbery

I'm a rock snob, I admit it. I look at gritstone and say to myself “why are all these crags so short? What is the point of climbing here compared to somewhere like Pentire?” Conveniently I forget that Pentire puts the fear of God in me and perhaps if I felt more comfortable highballing on slopers I might actually get on Darkinbad instead of just staring at it. The truth is that when I say to myself that climbing on gritstone is pointless what I mean is climbing on gritstone is hard.

‘They’ say that grit is God’s own rock if this is true God really hates me, you see climbing wise I only have one strength – I can hang on to small holds – a hold type that is recognisable by its absence on the grit. My climbing weaknesses are many and varied and occur on just about every route in the Peak: slopers, smears, arĂȘtes, slabs, heel hooks, rock-overs, dynamic moves, powerful moves and of course the dreaded mantle.

Also a lot of grit boulder problems and routes seem to fall into that awkward middle ground of too high for me to boulder above pads without the (probably over-exaggerated) fear that I might break my legs and too short to ever climb out of the ‘danger zone’. The danger zone is that section of a climb that no matter how well you protect it if you fall off, chances are, you’ll hit the ground. Whilst on a 40m route the odds of the hard move being in this danger zone are low, on a 10m route the odds are shifted considerable towards the breaking your legs end of the scale. This combined with the conviction that I'm going to fall off every move means that the concept of venturing any distance from the ground is an alien one.
Rob Greenwood on End of the Affair, Curbar

To me this rock type with its subtle balance of hard and scary has never really appealed which is fair enough considering that the Peak District is a 4 hour drive away, enough time to get to Pembroke or be well on the way to North Wales. But today I climbed a handful of problems at Curbar and though in terms of grade the problems I climbed didn't do much to soothe the ego and though I didn't attempt anything even remotely high I did a load of different moves on gritstone. I climbed an arĂȘte and I stood on smears and I held slopers and I topped out via something that could be described as a mantle. You know this grit stuff isn't as bad as it looks, it might just catch on...

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Pet Cemetery

Life’s about good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. If I’m lucky the bad days and weeks will slowly fade from my memory but I hope some of the best days and weeks – those filled with climbing, exploring and learning; with bright sunshine; with perfect climbs and good mates – will stay with me for life.

I came back from the BMC International Meet in Cornwall keen to get back on some unfinished business at Anstey’s Cove – my home away from home. After a week of long walk-ins with a rucksack, long sunny days at the crag and long evenings drinking mead and making friends I was feeling fit and well rested.

First session back at the Cove and Pet Cemetery was feeling good; the fitness that I had built up on the starting section meant that I could arrive at the crux feeling relatively fresh and I had got my head around the intricacies of the crux section – which for me involves hissing “crimp, crimp, crimp” at my right hand for the duration of the move. All that was left was getting though the crux with enough beans left for the top 7 moves.
The crux. Photo: Justin Timms
Soon I found myself eyeballing my right hand mid crux and slapping with my left, I hit the hold and swung onto the jugs for a ‘rest’. This was a new high point for me and I was trying, and failing, not to get too excited; the route was by no means in the bag and I had failed on this the top section of Cider Soak back when I was trying that route. A few moves later and I was slapping, with rapidly fading strength, for the finishing jug. My fingers hit the back of the hold but flatly refused to close and my body transcribed a perfect arc through the air with the marks of scraped off chalk on my right hand the only memento of my redpoint attempt. The rest of the day was a lesson in diminishing returns and my next session at the Cove nearly a week later was a lesson in how badly I can climb first day on. Rest days are the devil’s work I tell you.

Then I had some good days – a two day coaching for coaches course with Neil Gresham and his Masterclass Coaching Academy. The course I was on, courtesy of The Quay, was Module 1 of MCA’s coaching scheme focusing on technique and learning structures of teaching technique to intermediate and experienced climbers. Learning more about climbing, the science behind it and better ways to teach it is always a fascinating experience and when you combine that with learning alongside some of the best climbers and coaches in the South West and being taught by a top climbing professional who exudes psyche it makes for a very good day indeed. Day two of the course was even better than day one with a focus on routes as opposed to bouldering and we spent the latter part of the day filming ourselves on onsight attempts at our limit and reviewing the footage as a valuable coaching tool.

I left The Quay to make my way to back to Anstey’s buzzing with psyche and vowing to follow Gresham’s advice that I needed to train power. It had been a great day and there was one thing that could make it a perfect day but I was too psyched to worry about success or failure, I just wanted to climb stuff. With a brief warm up and the luxury of someone else putting my clips in I was soon chalking up at the bottom of the climb. A small eternity of climbing later and my hand fell into the top jug, with the grip of someone trying to strangle a lion I clipped the final draw and relaxed.
The Jugs! Photo: Justin Timms
A great day but that’s enough of this sport nonsense, sea-cliffs are calling.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Avon Day

Last Sunday was ‘Avon Day’ arguably the best day in the year to climb in the Gorge because though the routes are always absorbing, whether technical and balancy or steep and pumpy, for me they are let down by the continual roar of the traffic from the Portway down below. For one day a year, however, the growling rumble of the cars and lorries is replaced by the patter of thousands of be-trainered feet and the gasping pants of 20,000 pairs of lungs as Bristol Half Marathon closes the Portway for a few precious hours.

Early on Sunday we parked on the downs and walked down to the road just as the leading runners passed by, we wandered on as the foot traffic increased from the first few athletes to the many body of the race, a colourful mass of humanity stretching back as far as we could see along the Portway. We wandered up the Ramp to the short steep climbs that waited there, the Ramp as always twisted the mind turning from a steep walk into a terrifying slope and then back again in the blink of an eye.

I warmed up on New Horizons II which was as delightful as ever and then turned my attentions to Arms Race a route which, on the last attempt, had seen me dangling from the metal spike runner as I lacked the strength of mind to resist its tempting call. This time however I was determined to ignore it no matter how pumped my arms would get (which, judging from my last encounter with the route, would be a lot). It’s always hard getting on a route after a spoiled on-sight; I had no useful information about the route, no idea about the best sequence or where to rest or which wires to place but I had no illusions about how much my arms were going to hurt from the constant effort of staying on the route.

Maybe my mind had made the memory of the route more pumpy than it was, maybe I had warmed up more thoroughly, maybe in the intervening 6 months I had got stronger or fitter or maybe I felt better knowing that the thousands of people running below me were in more pain than I was. Whatever the reason the route felt ok, I felt relaxed enough to rest properly, to only place gear where I needed it off good handholds (not every 10cm off poor crimps as before) and to take in the world around me, the sea of runners interrupted by the occasional jogging banana or hotdog, the efficient volunteers at the water station and the slowly growing sea of blue bottles in the gutter. When I passed the spike I felt no desire to reach up and hang onto it, I didn’t even clip it, smiling smugly at my past self I climbed on, placed a cam and carried on up to the ab station. Job done.

There’s nothing like the smug glow of self-satisfaction to remove all desire to climb hard routes so as a result I spend the remainder of the day belaying and observing the last few runners jog past and the clean-up operation begin. I did persuade myself to climb Mirage, another brilliant Ramp route which is pumpy but short-lived, before relaxing and watching the road sweepers sweep up a few thousand bottle caps. All too soon the road was clear and the cars began to filter noisily past once more.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Passing through Ruby Country

My trusty van chugs through the heart of Devon countryside passing lush green verges, fields of ripening corn and hedgerows where the trees are showing the first hint of autumn’s arrival. We travel onwards through the heart of Ruby Country passing Bradsworthy, Grimscott and Stibb to arrive at Duckpool where our progress is temporarily halted by a farmer moving his ruby-red North Devons up the road to pastures new. As we wait for his cows to arrive the farmer and I converse about cattle and cliffs before he starts again up the road shaking a bag of feed and calling over his shoulder to his herd.

The tides have necessitated an early start so we arrive at the magnificent fins of Sharpnose and abseil in before 10am as the sun slowly begins to dry the grease off the base of the cliffs. Alexis starts up Finesse and I belay watching limpets track their way impressively fast towards the safety of the cracks in the rock. These molluscs are pretty cool citters with reliable internal clocks to track the times of high tide; a good sense of direction, or memory, to find their way back to their home fissure and a suction power of up to 80psi.

But back to the climbing... Dispatching the route with no real difficulties Alexis lowers to the ground and I pull the ropes and lead it on his gear creating a sport-like mental and physical warm up. For my lead I choose Sunscape, a good looking line left of Pacemaker, that doesn’t disappoint. The route zigzags steadily upwards in typical Sharpnose style as the pump in my arms slowly increases until I reach the first crux where I stall. The moves look hard and when I try them they feel hard, I faff around trying to rest on footholds that are all in the wrong places and look for more gear as a way of delaying the inevitable. I don’t find anymore gear and run out of reasons to hang around and so force myself back into the crux.

Pulling with all my might on two small handholds I try to step my feet up, one foot skates of the smooth rock and I convince myself that I’m going to fall off but my fingers squeeze the holds with a strength I didn’t think I had and I reach up. My left hand sinks into a pocket-like hold that offers relief until I reach the layer of sand and shale at the bottom, I grab something with my right and try to relax as I brush the detritus out of the hold.
I know I should place some gear at this point but there’s nothing for my feet and my hands are threatening to open out so I scuttle on up until holds and gear placements are more obviously available. I join Pacemaker briefly and leave it again heading left up the break until a line of small holds point the way to the top. 

Mercifully I find some jugs, place some gear and relax my body. Above the climbing looks hard and doesn’t relent until the top of the crag is reached but it’s only a few metres away, I hang off the jugs, shake out and weigh up my situation. I know that I don’t have much power left for hard moves but my arms feel rested from the shake-out; the gear here is good and I can’t see any obvious placements before the top even if I had the energy to place them; I'm running out of chalk and with the sun beaming down on my back I can’t afford to waste any at the rest, forcing me to fight the engrained pattern of chalking up each time I shake out. I decide to leave the rest, chalk up and climb to the top in one go, I don’t need any more gear and if I climb up and down again to the rest I’ll run out of chalk.

For someone who struggles with anything approaching a bold start I happily leave the gear below my feet and embark, unfazed, on a series of powerful moves off small holds until the lip is within reach and I can sit on one of the best spots in the world – the top of the ridiculously narrow middle fin at Sharpnose.

Back on the ground we just make it around the fin before the tide cuts us off, Alexis climbs Spoils of War while I edge further and further away from the base of the route, helmet firmly on my head and a wary eye trained on the loose looking ground above. Seconding it, barring the loose rock in the middle, it’s an absorbing and sustained climb. With the tide still lapping its way up the beach we hurry over to Out of the Blue and I lead up it revelling in the size of the holds and the delightful nature of the climbing. At the top I haul the bags up the ab rope and belay watching Alexis perform exaggerated dyno moves between massive holds.

The tide may be in but it’s not yet 3pm so we eat a leisurely lunch before heading for home passing our new friend The Farmer at work in the fields on the way.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Anstey's Cove

Above me quickdraws swing in the gentle breeze and some distance to my right gentle summer rain patters down on the verdant foliage. While my brain searches for internal peace and calm I tie in to the rope hanging down from the first clip and wipe the red dust off my shoes and onto my leggings. Seconds later I stand at the base of the climb, chalk up and set off. I try to climb smoothly and efficiently, I try to climb fast, I try to remember to breathe and I try to stop thinking. My hands follow a precisely prescribed pattern; my feet perform a continual dance of tiny subtle foot-moves that are vital yet entirely subconscious; my body twists and turns, core muscles contracting for each move and relaxing allowing a gasp of air into my lungs.

I sense my fingers slipping slightly on each hold and bite down harder, my left foot steps up and my body automatically turns – a sort of half drop-knee move – allowing my left hand to reach up to a crimp. I squeeze all four fingers on and grip the edge with my thumb pulling hard enough to dig the nail of my thumb into the side of my index finger.

The next move, however, is one that can’t be overcome by subtle changes in body position or by climbing quickly or slowly or smoothly. The key to the move is simple  - keep pulling on the crimp, don’t allow your fingers to open even when it feels like it they will rip from your hand. If I manage that then a quick snatch will see me to a good hold and further series of moves that seem both powerful and delicate will set me up for the crux. From there if my right hand pinches hard enough and my legs power me up and left enough and my left hand reaches out fast enough, with enough strength left to latch the hold... then the route could be over.

My thoughts drift on ahead of my body, removed from the stubborn battle between hand and hold. I press down harder with the fingers of my left hand, will them not to open as I reach my right hand across. The fingers on my right just manage to curl around the tiny tufa ear when the crimp under my left spits my still-crimping fingers off into space and a split second later my body follows, falling backwards until the rope comes tight.

Anger and frustration bubble up inside me threatening to explode; months of wet holds, of 100% humidity, of stalled progress steal my composure leaving me swinging on the rope seething.

That I will return is a given, that I will keep bashing my head against this particular brick wall is a certainty. Maybe if I could forget about this route, if I could no longer see the moves in my mind’s eye, no longer know the feel of each hold under my fingers... maybe I would give up but I know that I can’t.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Sunshine on a Rainy Day

Gnarly mountain man Steve and I
To climb during the Great British Summer you need, more than strength, power or endurance, an optimism unhampered by reality. Yesterday in the company of two suitably optimistic climbers I walked to Blackchurch Rock to find the tide in, the cliff seeping and the sky bestowing us with rain. We turned and walked back to the car, drove down the coast and began the whole process again; this time, however, we found dry rock, scary slabs and a beautiful sunset.

Vicarage Cliff

The guys had a lead each on a pair of cracking culm slab routes as the sun shone and the tide turned and slowly began to head towards the beach, there was however enough time and sunlight left for one more route. The route in question was Harpoon and, while Vicarage Cliff may not have any routes harder than E2 and only one of those, Harpoon packs a bold and committing punch. My tendency to steer clear of any routes that get a fluttery symbol in the guide or that are described as bold, scary or exciting has lead me to identify a weakness in my climbing which can, in part, be corrected by getting on E2s and E3s of this nature. And there’s no time like the present.

The climbing on Harpoon never stretches much past F6a in difficulty but the gear, or absence of it, in the first few metres easily makes up for this. A steady head, careful tapping of the footholds and remembering to forget about the back-breaking boulder below all helped to reach the first good gear. From there the climb bimbled on with enough gear placements and holds to keep me happy before depositing me at the crux with good gear but no holds (not unless you count the array of hollow-sounding footholds that flexed when hit). After much time spent attempting to move and even more time spent convincing myself that I didn’t need handholds to stand up on a slab I stood up. 

Soon I had reached some holds, fiddled in some poor gear and carried on when a stern internal voice told me to climb back down to my gear and make it better. Sheepishly I did just that and set off again reminding myself that gear isn’t just there for decoration but is actually supposed to stop me in the event of a fall – a simple but significant mistake.

I arrived at the top and the 360 degree views of wild culm coast that it afforded as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon casting a soft glow over everything. Our optimism about finding dry rock had paid off leaving us three happy climbers to pack our bags and head off to the nearest fish and chip shop.
Photos by Mark Bullock

Friday, 15 June 2012

June: A Month of Contrasts

The wind buffets me incessantly, a constant assault on my mind and body, stealing the heat out of my fingers and the joy out of climbing. I'm back at Anstey’s Cove, back on Tuppence and although I have been making progress, slowly, over the last few months today it feels harder than ever. Each move feels at my limit, hampered by numb fingers, poor coordination and the unrelenting easterly that tears along the coast and hassles me as I try to climb or try to rest.

Only a day or two ago but a world away it was too hot for shoes, the dark rock underfoot scalded my toes and the sun warmed my back as I sorted the gear and the ropes. Stepping into the shade I glanced up once more at the climb, scoped out the route and set off, insecurely at first, on rock still wet from the retreating tide. Two hundred yards away tourists licked ice creams, bought tat and paid an extortionate price for parking but here at the Land’s End only the sea and the seals kept us company.

I sit on the rope eyeballing Tuppence’s top crux, I can do the move but only about 20% of the time – today is the other 80%. I pull on, slap the right hand up to a hold that looks and feels like half a marble and try to persuade my left foot to step up. One pitiful attempt at the move and I’m back on the rope. Figuring out this move is like trying to work out a lateral thinking puzzle with too much going on at once, maybe I should stand up more on the right foot or possibly I haven’t got the right hand correctly, would the left foot benefit from being a bit further right or do I just need to man up... Usually I have the patience to try and work out what I'm doing wrong but today all I can think about is the wind and how much I wish it would stop.

Above the slippery start of Antenna the rock was dry and cool, I squinted left into the sun to work out where to traverse and then set off on crimps and fragile looking ledges. I tested each hold with the diligence of the truly paranoid; bigger holds I treated with more distrust and jugs with downright suspicion but nothing wobbled or snapped when I hit it. Halfway across the traverse I fiddled in a small wire to encourage me to continue and ignore the potential safe but swinging fall. Soon I reached the main crack line that led the way straight up the slab to the top; gear and holds appeared in each set of horizontal breaks prompting big balance-y moves between them.

After a couple more goes I give up trying to climb and instead belay wrapped up in as many layers as I can find; with my back to the wind I’m almost warm... that is until the rain starts. Big droplets of water strafe the cliff; the roof of rock over our heads offers no protection today as the wind carries the stinging raindrops right in to the base of the cliff.

A few metres below the top the horizontal breaks ran out leaving an absence of the big holds that I was getting used to. I climbed up a bit, saw some hard moves, scuttled back down to place more gear and then headed up again – I then repeated this process a few more times before I ran out of possible gear placements and had to get on with the route. A couple of thin moves led to a pop to the top and the relief and disappointment that comes when a wonderful climbing experience is over. On the top the sun shone and the bright pink thrift flowers waved in the gentle breeze.
Purple Sea Thrift Flowers - By Mike Coates
Alexis finishes climbing, strips the draws and I lower him to the ground. Inanimate objects and the wind conspire to make packing away a challenge and lost in my own world I pull the rope, shout below and give the rope one last tug... nothing happens. I look up to see a knot in the rope stuck in the bolt, it seems a fitting end to the day.

It was too nice an evening to stop climbing so we abbed back in for another dose; Alexis led up New Editions and I belayed and waited for my turn to climb whilst watching the light from the sinking sun play on the spray thrown up by the sea.