Friday, 30 January 2009

Rehab notes

Since my elbow rehab trip to Devon I’ve been continuing to tread the careful line of training as hard as my complaining elbow will allow. As often seems to be the case, I seem to be climbing quite well in training and feeling strong, getting through my set problems on the Ice Factor’s wall a lot faster than expected. Soon I might even be able to move back up to 5 days a week training. Fingers crossed.

Late evening cold water treatment over games of scrabble has been starting to really help too. It’s hard not to get excited, especially as the weather seems to have turned in the past few days from continuous darkness and horizontal rain of a Lochaber January, with sightings of patches of sunshine, ice on the Ben and dry boulders experienced yesterday.

I don’t feel in good enough shape for a shot at my winter project yet, but getting closer for sure, perhaps the imminent easterlies will galvanise the psyche. That’ll have to wait till later anyway. This weekend I have to go and watch Claire jump out of a plane.

Between rehab bouts I’ve been attempting to find time to work on a book – desperate! There are too many things to do.

Echo Wall observations

I’ve talked a bit recently about my experiment in not giving my hardest route, Echo Wall a grade.

I was interested last year to see if the UK’s climbing magazines would report the ascent of Echo Wall, as they do for almost all routes that break a new level of difficulty. I expected them not to since I didn’t grade it. I predicted that saying it was the hardest thing I’d done wouldn’t be enough.

I thought my prediction had been borne out but Climber magazine actually reported on the route for the first time last month with this entry:

“Enraged at the Sassenachs’ incursion over the border and climbing his routes, Dave MacLeod dons his kilt, retreats to the mountains and climbs Echo Wall on Ben Nevis. Tired of the media hype, he doesn’t give it a grade in an attempt to dissuade sponsored heroes from repeating it. Fat chance of that because the Sassenachs hear it’s more that fifteen minutes from the road and go to the Climbing Works instead. MacLeod comments, “I don’t know what to grade it, but it’s definitely harder than problem three in Fort William Climbing Wall”


Monday, 26 January 2009

Study, work and going climbing

Bouldering with students from the Adventure Tourism degree UHI

The other night I was talking to students on the Adventure Tourism Management degree at the University of the Highlands & Islands base in Lochaber College. Although we mainly talked about the finer points of adventure and risk and reward in the mountains, the night got me thinking about what I’ve learned and still learning about balancing sport, making a living from sport, and contributing to sport. All the students are mad for outdoor sports of one type or another (usually any of them). But the challenge is always how to align work and play in these sports so you don’t end up far off the path you wanted to follow.

It took me some time to figure out that greatest progress in all three comes when they are closest to being one and the same, rather than conflicting objectives. It takes constant attention and very careful planning to get even close to this situation, never mind maintain it. It will be a constant source of hard work and application for as long as I’m still standing I think.

The biggest things I learned were that making a living from climbing would follow on from contributing to it. I started off writing this blog without really knowing what it was useful for. I had no plan, it was just fun to do. Now, it’s still fun to do but I have a clearer idea about what it can do. I write it both for you as a contribution of ideas or information, and for me as a record and crystallisation of thoughts and memories from whatever I’m doing.

A stretch on the green traverse

The formula that brings actually doing your activity and paying bills closer rather than further apart is going to be completely different for different people, depending on what they have to offer. What has worked for me (I’m not saying I’m there yet – far from it!) won’t work for the next guy and vice versa. There are only four common ingredients I think – educating yourself to find the options that are out there and add more, hard work (as always), smart thought (could be lumped in with hard work) and the attitude at the starting place. The attitude I’m thinking of is of course to wonder what you can contribute, rather than what is owed to you, just for being there or even for being talented or smart. Nothing is owed to you. Nothing is owed from you either, but if you give up time and effort freely, much comes back your way, and things work out.

Talking to students got me thinking of my own time studying and thinking ‘what will I do after my degree?’. At the time I couldn’t answer the question and just kept focusing on what I was learning at the time. I didn’t realise that this was actually the right thing to worry about anyway. If you keep getting better at offering good things to other people and can change the point of delivery as times and circumstances change, turning this into a living should rarely stay the highest hurdle for that long.

After talking for a bit, we went bouldering, and spent time battling with the green traverse.

Pics from Dan Morgan

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Deliberately dangerous II

Just to re-state from the previous post - I completely agree with James' point on his blog that bouldering mats make a huge difference to the overall challenge of the climb on grit crags, and that hasn't been recognised properly. In fact, its been rather underplayed.

My post adds to this that because of the problem of mats on grit routes, they are not that useful for understanding e-grades.

Simple as that really.

I don't agree with the guy who commented on my post that if you use lots of mats you might as well toprope - the buzz of highballing a long way above mats is very different to toproping and has a quality to it that is worth something.

James Pearson has taken a gutsy personal stand by doing these routes without any mats. I admire him loads for doing that, especially when that effort has seemed to be dismissed or ignored by others. But ultimately it shouldn't matter if the choice was made primarily for his own climbing experience. It's normal that setting a strong example won’t necessarily bring many followers, either because they simply disagree with the direction, or they want to take the easier option [of mat use].

If everyone who climbed on grit suddenly took James’ example of no mats there would be some stressed out doctors in Sheffield’s orthopaedic unit next weekend I’ll bet. Not everyone has the same level of skill and control that James does! But neither does everyone want to spend their Saturday evening getting a plaster put on their ankle – they’d rather just use mats, make it safe and enjoy the moves. The flip side of this is that some of the grit e-grades will become meaningless.

So this is how the argument plays out – hence my point about looking to all the types of cliff to argue about upper end e-grades, not just the shortest routes on one rock type.

These discussions get a little tiresome in climbing, unless offset by beer. It’s a necessary evil I guess.

Falling from the last move of Kaluza Klein circa 1997, mats at the ready and Rich turning to run. I landed flat on my back (not on the mats, again) and whacked my head off a rock. Thankfully I had my fleece hat on to pad out my head. What grade would it be with a fleece hat on? I felt a bit dizzy for another go…

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Deliberately dangerous?

I was just reading an interesting post by James Pearson about the use of mats on Gritstone routes. If you’ve followed the climbing scene in Britain lately you might know that James did a first ascent of a very short climb in the peak district called The Promise. On lots of these Gritstone routes which often lie in the range of 15-35 feet high, using a pile of bouldering pads at the bottom is enough to change them from ankle/leg/life threatening undertakings to exciting and perfectly safe boulder climbs.

Given that lots of these big E-grade climbs are seeming more difficult to compare than ever (or is it that folk are more impatient to compare them??), this issue is simmering underneath some of the arguments.

James’ route The Promise was downgraded from E10 to E7 by some climbers who used mats where James didn’t. It’s obvious this made their climb a bit safer.

I can totally understand why they would want to use mats even though James didn’t – it’s only natural that climbers want to make the climb as safe as possible. It’s a paradox isn’t it – We as climbers want to put ourselves under potential danger for the enjoyment of dealing with that situation, yet we want to avoid needless danger, for example a spiky rock that you could pad out with your bouldering mat.

I climbed a lot on grit as a teenager, doing about 20 or so grit E7s and E8s. It’s quite funny that this period in my climbing pretty much ended after a 6 metre fall onto a very thin and pretty much useless bouldering mat after a pebble I was pulling on snapped off. I spent three months in plaster with a badly broken ankle which still complains eleven years later. My friend baggy Mike used to have this futon mat in a zip up bag that let the air out like a bouncy castle. It was the best mat I've ever used. We could jump off the top of the highballs in the peak rahter than bothering to walk back down. I remember spotting Mike when he fell off the last move of Piece of Mind (E6) at the Roaches. I watched in horror as he fell in the wrong direction, away from the air futon. But he landed like a gymnast on a tiny rock ledge beside it and burst out laughing. After that I discovered the potential of Scottish new route climbing and forgot about grit!

So for me looking on this debate about hard trad routes it seems sort of silly that grit is used so often as a yardstick to make benchmark E grades, when sometimes it’s barely high enough to warrant them at all (with modern mat protection, and abundance).

What to do? Like many people, when I think of grit climbing I think of it’s most famous son Johnny Dawes in the Stone Monkey film. I can’t remember off the top of my head exactly, but he described it’s character something like:

“just enough to interest and intrigue, without becoming tiring, or awkward”

Dawes being Dawes, he could have been referring to any manner of things, but I take from his statement that he felt grit climbing was playful, fun and centred much around the kinaesthetics of body movement, with the seriousness rather more in the background. This makes common sense – the peak district’s edges are quite a gentle and non-serious place, compared to some of the other places Johnny later focused on (Cloggy or ‘the big stone’).

I’ve thought this over a lot, and although I’m quite often in favour of making climbing on the harder and more demanding where possible (just because I like that!), I think that ultimately the best style is the one that is the most fun. When the route is 6 metres long and would be a good ‘highball’ boulder problem above mats – so boulder it.

If you are looking for a truly soul searching lead, go somewhere that lends itself to it. If you are looking to understand what E-grades mean, Gritstone is pretty much the last place to start.

Strone – the big stone – somewhere where E-grades will make more sense

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Walk of Life video

Here is a montage from climbing the Walk of Life. There was just the two of us there, so the footage of the lead was shot "press and go" from the tripod on the beach while Claire belayed, but it's funny to see it started raining halfway up!

Some of you will recognise the track 'Stoater' from Echo Wall, by Katy MacLeod. Incidentally, the full list of music featured in the Echo Wall film is on the Rare Breed website here.

Coaching sessions resume

After a break of several months to make the Echo Wall film and work on a couple of other projects i'm starting to run one to one coaching sessions and write training programs again. Thanks to everyone who's emailed in the last few months to ask about these and encouraging me to start coaching again. Hopefully I can help more of you get to a higher level of climbing this year!

The details of my service are on my coaching page.

While I'm at it I've also published some new lecture dates for this spring. Full details are on the lectures page but here are the dates:

Feb 22nd The Cragg, Stowmarket, Suffolk 01449 674980 (lecture and technique masterclasses)
March 20th Leuven, Belgium

Monday, 12 January 2009

More thoughts from Devon

We just got back from Devon and back to real life. Some folks had some more questions about the Walk of Life and my blogging about it. Some folk asked me about the protection I used, specifically suggesting that maybe I found the route easier than it’s suggested grade because I had more trust in the sliding nuts that James used on his recently downgraded routes. Actually I didn’t use any at all on the Walk of Life, just standard wires and friends.

Folk also picked up on my appeal not to make a big deal about my different opinion on the grade. I get frustrated when people blindly assume that climber do climbs for exposure or sponsorship rather than just because they are looking for challenging climbs. I also get frustrated when the grade of the route becomes the centre of the discussion. Mick Ryan from UKclimbing says “I laugh when I see a top climber saying that grades don't count and aren't important - its sheer bullshit.” I can’t think of anyone who has, but even if they did, perhaps they might just be attempting to get some kind of balance from the media which is always focusing on them above the other important things. When there is such a leaning towards this view of cutting edge climbers, I think it’s natural that they will rail against it and move closer to the opposite pole.

Things are not so black and white. It’s not that grades are all important or not important at all. The truth is that they are a small part of going climbing, which has many important aspects. This is why I didn’t offer a grade immediately for Echo Wall. Yes, it’s the hardest climb I’ve ever tried or done by a mile. Yes, that is important, but it’s not everything. The effort, the appreciation of the climb, the location and the skills needed to climb it were more important. This is not some hippy, wishy washy idea, it’s real. It’s what made most of us want to start climbing in the first place and it’s still why I go climbing now. I felt the only way I could take control of that was to not offer the grade from the start. I’m pretty glad I did.

These days I get asked at nearly every lecture I give if I feel pressure to perform or to produce big grades from sponsors. Sometimes after spending an hour talking in great detail about my motivations for climbing, I figure I have not explained myself very well. I can see that this cynicism is engrained and that in some cases, external motivations for doing climbs are assumed from the start. Some healthy cynicism is definitely good, but there is a large patch of middle ground between engrained cynicism and being sycophantic.

At times during my sports science degree studying the history of sport and drugs in sport I became fairly close to being utterly dejected with sport after seeing what a mess of drug cheating exists in a lot of mainstream sports. I have no smart solutions to offer here. But it is my opinion that constant scrutiny by the media on comparisons between athletes and the external rewards and recognition that sporting success can bring can reinforce the problems as much as it can be useful in exposing negative aspects of sport.

When the columns are filled with comparisons, medal counts, and dishing dirt this creates an image that this is normal – what it’s all about. Young people coming through believe this, and so it goes on. It doesn’t help that some athletes and media are caught up in the idea that the competition is the end, rather than just the means. It also doesn’t help that a minority of website users who post on discussion forums think that this medium absolves them of responsibility for the words they post and the effects they can have. That is why athletes blogs can be so interesting and popular, because the people themselves get to talk freely about what makes them tick, which is usually the thrill of breaking personal barriers and pushing themselves and the adventures along the way.

This is part of a much bigger problem that ‘getting ahead’ is thought to be a worthy goal in life and will make people happy. Naturally it’s projected right onto sport. Climbing has held out from this for a long time, but it’s in danger for sure.

The reporting media (be it editors or site users) could lead here, instead of always going for the lowest denominator. It might seem like poor commercial sense in the short term – controversy will always receive a peak of interest. But a calmer approach will help bring people on board to collaborate and tell the real stories better, rather than athletes and media suffering from mutual wariness.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


On the Walk of Life, Devon

I must admit at Christmas I wasn’t feeling my best. Various things were lowering the morale level, one of which was the progression of an elbow injury I picked up in Spain, ripping off a wet hold. It’s quite amazing how big a part of my life feeling strong and fit is. When something compromises it and leaves you worrying about grabbing a hold to aggressively or lifting a heavy bag, it can really put quite a big dent in your confidence.

I needed some therapy.

Dealing with an injury is as much about the psychological aspects of adjusting to the new reality as implementing a course of physical rehabilitation work for the tendon. The fact is, tendon injuries, if you get them, are probably going to be with you for a bit. So like it or not, you’re gonna have to get used to it. I’ve tried the other two options (burying head in sand and making the tendon worse, or going cold turkey, and making the tendon worse as well as going completely crazy), they don’t work. The only way to turn an injury woe into a positive is to think up a plan of action that will allow you to keep challenging yourself at the same time as giving the injured strip of collagen some gentle stimulus to reform some steely tensile strength. The best thing is to go somewhere/try something completely different and new.

First off I cleared up all my work (well, almost all, as always) for the rest of the year and headed to Glasgow for an excellent Christmas. My old ten mile circuit run from my mums before Christmas dinner instantly helped and got the ball rolling. Just before new year, Claire and I left our families in Glasgow heading south...

Physically I felt unfit, creaky and worried that I’d forgotten how to move well on the rock altogether. In hindsight I was just super tentative with my elbow. But it was actually nice to try climbing using very little aggression. Of course it wasn’t very effective for climbing hard, but it still taught me new things about my own climbing technique.

As ever, the good old British weather dictated the obvious rehabilitation climb to do. A massive high pressure due to sit over the UK for at least two weeks was going to be crap for winter climbing (no snow) but kinda cold for rock climbing in Scotland. Why not head for a big slab climb in the warmest corner of our isles; Devon.

Last Autumn James Pearson made an inspired first ascent of The Walk of Life on the North Devon coast, a well known line I’d been told about by a few people over the years but never got round to doing myself. By giving his new route the gobsmackingly high grade of E12 7a, James made a strong statement that he felt he had broken into an entirely new level of world class rock climbing. I couldn’t wait to try the climb and find out just how impossibly difficult an E12 would be.

But although the grade indicated it was the hardest climb in the world, it was still a slab, and even if I could just do a few moves on it, it would be inspiring and good learning for me, but not too stressful on my elbow.

By Hogmanay I was abseiling down the huge blank sweep of Dyer’s Lookout, seeing the size of the holds on ‘The Walk’ close up. They looked better than I thought! The atmosphere of the cliff makes a big difference to how you feel too and It felt very chilled to be out in nice winter sunshine, with lots of dog walkers and families out walking past the crag for a new years stroll. But as soon as I put my rockshoes on and climbed a bit on the route, my focus changed from having a non-committal play on a sick hard route, to psyched up and planning my lead. How easily I slipped back into normal mode! I was pretty shocked to find I could do all the moves on my first try and didn’t actually fall off any moves, just rested on the rope to scan the rock for the next tiny dinks for my feet. On new years day I hung on the rope and fiddled with gear, finding I could get 25 runners in the route’s 50 metres - not bad. On the third day I linked the entire route first try for my warm-up, and it was on.

Warming cold hands before the lead

I needed more gear, I had been so sure the route would be too hard I hadn’t brought my full rack of small gear from home, so a quick visit to Bristol to get a couple of bits was in order. “It’s a long way to go for a small pecker” Claire said. Quite. Especially when it was probably too cold to consider a lead anyway. But visiting Bristol made me think of Tim Emmett (a local there). What would he say about all this? I found I had started to fill my head with reasons why I couldn't just do it; It’s too cold, I’ll get numb fingers and toes. The wall’s too damp this time of year, It’s probably much harder on the lead etc...

I knew fine well what Tim would say if I were climbing with him - ‘Get it led mate!!!’ So i headed back to Devon for the fifth day with that statement in my mind. It was simple really, I knew I could do it, I just needed to forget about all the hype that it was so hard and trust my own experience.

Midday the next day brought the heady heights of +2.5 degrees. Balmy. A slight change in the breeze had dried more of the winter dampness off the route than before and I was repeating ‘get it led mate!’ in my head and imagining Tim laughing his head off at my lack of confidence.

So I warmed up with a few pull ups off a boulder, tied in and led it.

Leading the Walk of Life E9 6c

After the first crux I spent twenty minutes standing on my heel on a good hold frantically rubbing numb hands and wiggling chilly toes. But this farcical situation of standing on one leg in the middle of a huge blank wall waving limbs about broke the tension nicely for the upper crux. I was placing more gear than James, but very nearly blew it right where James took his fall by clipping a runner with the wrong rope and only realising it when the rope drag suddenly became rather terminal and I had to reverse a move and wobble around fumbling to get the right rope clipped.

As we started the long drive north again, I felt really happy to have shored up my confidence and to have enjoyed a great climb (thanks to James) that I would otherwise have missed out on. Injury rehab is always a right rollercoaster of emotions.

Warming cold hands, again.
The Walk, completed.


Now, as far as the climbing and personal experience is concerned, thats enough about that for now. But I know that the first question that I’d get asked about this climb by many climbers is “What grade did you think it was?”. regular readers will know that I’ve pleaded before that this needn’t be the such an important part of the story. However, for many, it is. So the best way to deal with the lingering question is head on and with some detail to help you understand where these thoughts come from.

So if grades are your thing, sit down with your favourite tipple and follow me on some E-number crunching. 

Lets start with the bottom line; In my opinion The Walk of Life is solid E9 6c.

Why is it not harder? Well basically it’s just nowhere near hard enough to be E10, never mind E12. In the current climate of big e-grades flying about E9 might sound a tad undeserving of a fat headline and magazine splash. But this is not true. A solid E9 ascent is still an incredible feat of rock climbing skill and, yes, it’s still world class. In my opinion it’s still waaaaay harder to live in Britain and climb E9 regularly than to hang out in Spain and knock off 8c+s back to back (thats why no-one has achieved it yet).

And another thing is that a first ascent of a trad route at this level deserves extra respect over and above repeats. For James to come to this blank canvas of a wall and have the courage to see past all the uncertainties and unknowns to make a route is a brilliant achievement. But although trad climbs truly deserving of E9 and above are still very few and far between in the world, there are some, and they’ve been around for a while. The Walk of Life stands among these routes, not above them.

The first reason the walk isn’t harder than E9 is there is no requirement to be fit. It’s possible to take both hands off on almost every move (not that you actually would, but the point is it’s not at all strenuous). Apart from the start which is rather sparsely protected, the remainder is pretty safe with many pretty good bits of gear, right where you need them. It’s also on a very non serious outcrop which is easily accessible with no logistical hassles. It’s kind of hard to give it a french grade but I would say about 8a/8a+ but I’m pretty sure there are harder granite slab routes in Switzerland and the US which are given lower numbers than this.

Slabs are a weird one. On rock, I’m no slab expert to say the least, but I’m used to three or four hour leads on winter pitches of a similar angle and character. It’s a particular type of progressive climbing you get used to and eventually good at. Certainly the walk felt about the same as leading VIII or IX onsight and was an easier and much shorter battle than Yo Bro a few weeks ago. When I did the walk, I had Julian Lines and James McCaffie in my mind. They are the masters of this genre. I’m thinking now that Andy Nisbet might well be right when he commented in the Cairngorms guide that Britian’s hardest slab climb might be Icon of Lust.

So what about comparisons to other routes? Well, The Walk is definitely not as hard as the benchmark E9 from way back in 1992, If Six Was Nine. It’s about the same difficulty and character to my own route Holdfast in Glen Nevis, but much easier than To Hell and Back and a couple of grades easier than Rhapsody to lead. Please understand that these comparisons are for me only. They fit with my skill set, my background, my strengths and weaknesses. There are so many ingredients to hard trad, hence these climbs feel pretty different to different climbers.

The only way these grades will settle is with consensus, and that only comes when climbers make the effort to repeat each-others climbs and contribute to the refining. That takes a bit of commitment. Sonnie showed it by coming back and finishing Rhapsody, The American team showed it by cleaning up gritstone. 

It might seem as if I am a harsh grader, having downgraded a few trad routes now. But the fact is it’s my opinion some of them have been overhyped when they are not as hard as others hard routes that have been there for a good while such as if6was9 or Widdop Wall. At the end of his blog post on the first ascent of The Walk of Life, James Pearson said “do the walk”. Walk the walk before talking. I know my picture of which routes are the hardest and where the current limit lies is different from some others, but at least it comes from direct experience of going out there and repeating all these climbs before comparing them.

I don’t think it’s such a surprise that some that have been given the highest grades aren’t actually the hardest. There are too many aspects of human nature at play, never mind the fact that no-one has gone round and repeated them all. Climbers used to do this. Maybe they should do it again. It would be a shame if our hard E grade climbs, which really are great masterpieces of rock climbs and stories, implode into a black hole of sensationalist rubbish headlines and witch-hunts on 

At the end of the day, the grades are just numbers and keep climbers in idle chat between real experiences. What’s left are the climbs and the stories. A huge thanks and congratulations to James Pearson for his brilliant effort of climbing The Walk of Life. To climb this route as a first ascent is among the finest ever trad climbing feats. And I, and everyone else who cares to click in his direction owe him a huge debt for sharing the story of it’s first ascent in real time on his blog, through failures and the grinding effort of making something like this happen. I read, and was inspired. And for every one who tells you they were James, there will be another hundred who don’t. But they are there. I enjoyed doing the walk tremendously, and I wouldn’t have had that were it not for James’ effort.