Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The point of climbing in the UK

Interesting recent comments from Stevie Haston, back on form (and very inspiring) in his climbing, and also in his habit of taking a shot at just about anyone on the radar in the sport. He does it in good spirit though! This time he was defending himself against his own detractors of his recent excellent climbing performances of 9a and a new E7. What triggered this post was Stevie shrugging off our poor weather and citing it as a reason not to come and try a route like Echo Wall.

It’s an age old feeling among some climbers. English climbers I’ve met say they won't come to Scotland “because it’s wet and midgy all year” and international climbers mostly just about consider the grit because it’s roadside and there’s only 10 metres of it to climb before the next shower.

I totally understand this feeling. About one quarter of the year, I have it myself. I live in pretty much the wettest place in the UK, and sometimes I just think ‘what is the point of having to wait and wait for the climbs to be dry? Why not just go somewhere where they always are’. So, a couple of times a year, I do. Most likely to Spain to sport climb in the Catalunyan winter sun. It’s great - a lot of metres of rock get climbed I two weeks, and my sport climbing standard goes up very sharply.

Sure, the climbs in on limestone are hard. You have to be fit. But then, getting fit here is not hard. You just turn up, uncoil your rope, give 100% on the rock (the rate limiting step) and you can’t fail to get better at climbing. The reason that a climb like Echo Wall is so much more of a challenge than the most difficult sport route I’ve done (either Ring of Steall or A’ Muerte) is that not being able to just go and do battle with it when you like is the tough part. The patience for it’s awkwardness is the rate limiting step.

It’s nice that climbing is accommodating enough to satisfy those who would say “life’s too short to wait for good conditions, I’m off sport climbing” and those who would feel that the fact that they did have to wait patiently and choose the right moment to strike was a large part of the enjoyment.

Does it make sense if I say that sport climbing trips are pure pleasure, but not that fulfilling? The idea of my next sport trip gets me psyched, but not excited. The idea of my next trip to Orkney fills me with unease but gets me very excited.

When I wake up in the morning on a sport trip, I pretty much know what’s going to happen. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll onsight some good routes and get a tiny bit further on the redpoints. I’ll enjoy every minute of it. It’s predictably enjoyable. When I wake up for a hard trad day in Scotland I think “what is going to happen today?” If I do the route, I’ll love it. If I fall, I’ll probably love that too after the event. If I just get caught in an atlantic storm and spend the day marvelling the forces of nature, I’ll love that too. It’s unpredictably enjoyable.

Some people need one or the other. Others, a mix of both, including me.


  1. First ascents of hard limestone sport routes go in one ear and out the other.

    By contrast, the image of a man shovelling a snowpatch off the Ben so his route will dry out is unforgettable!

  2. "Does it make sense if I say that sport climbing trips are pure pleasure, but not that fulfilling?"

    In a word, YES!

    Just got back from 5 very enjoyable days of clipping bolts in the sunny south of France. Loved it.

    Not one route compared to the feeling of elation and completeness of experience on onsighting a trad route at my limit though.

    Vive La Differenfce!

  3. It's a ten hour drive for me to boulder on the wild mountains of Applecross and Torridon, well worth it!
    Scotland has so much to offer a climber

    Great article Dave

  4. Great article Dave.

    Personally, I'd rather have access to lovely dry sports climbs all year with the option of heading to the Alps when I fancied an adventure though!

  5. Good point Dave. Something similar struck me on a spanish sun-rock holiday recently. If climbing was just pulling on yet another perma-dra, super polished limestone sport route I think I'd quit right now. Wheres the soul? The sense of adventure? Give me the possibility of a dry day at Fair Head over a week in Ceuse any day. Personal opinion of course, but its a broad church and theres room for many! :-)

  6. Excellently well thought out and communicated Dave! Taking the time to think about it from different perspectives reinforces your point. No need to force a point down some ones throat - just lay it out in front of them so they see the answer for themselves.