Sunday, 21 June 2009

Cubby's arete went down

Mid crux on Kolus E8 6c, Torridon (click on the images for a large pic)

It’s a funny thing, that just because it’s thought of as being remote, there’s still not that many people that know how good the north west of Scotland is. I suppose it’s a good thing, for those that know. Torridonian sandstone is one of the finest rock types I’ve ever seen. It’s very similar to Gritstone and, sometimes, Northumbrian sandstone, but better on the whole, than both.

Dave Cuthbertson told me years ago about a really outstanding quality arete project he’d been trying that would be E8 7a at least. He spoke about it several times, and eventually told me where it was and to go and try it. I knew by the way Cubby talked about it, that when I finally went there, I would kick myself for not going much earlier. And so I did.

If it was on grit, the arete left of The Torridonian on Seana Mheallan would be one of the hailed true grit classics. But it’s in Torridon, so it’s sat there quietly, just being perfect on it’s own, with hardly any climbers knowing about it.

Yesterday I had a chance to go there with Jamie and Claire, feeling good, with a cold wind forecast. At first we thought it might be too cold to even get warmed up. Fully baltic! Gritstoners should try this place out rather than be starved of friction over summer in the English heat.

During the past three months, nearly every time I’ve gone climbing I’ve felt guilty because I’ve been so behind with all my work because of the volume of it and other things going on. But now finally I’m getting within spitting distance of catching up with overdue work and after a good 14 computer screen hours the day before, I felt justified in going climbing for a whole day without worrying about late work. I want more of that!

I got a bit of a fright snapping an important pebble foothold off at the crux on my last toprope practice. Scary stuff. Thank god it wasn’t on the lead. Jamie said he got a bit nervous when some really big gusts of wind were whipping around the arete just as I was heading for the crux on the lead. It was really windy but it amazed me how the second I started climbing, the wind didn’t even register in my consciousness. For me, everything was completely silent until I was holding the jug on the lip of the slab.


Beautiful Glen Torridon

After my lead was done, we went off to try two more amazing projects, possibly even better in quality, with quite exquisite moves on grit smears. One of the routes, I’m hoping could get led on the next visit, the other is E10. Enough said.

If the summer can keep producing routes like this, I’ll be a lucky man. Claire shot these photos. But we also shot a little footage of the hard part of Kolus with the camera just running on the tripod. I’ll post up a wee youtube shortly.

Jamie sorts out ropes

Mid June in the sunshine. Still baltic!

Andy Kirkpatrick DVD released in my shop today

Today, the When Hell Freezes Over DVD of Andy’s famous side splitting lecture is released. It’s available in my webshop now for £11.99, with as ever, my ebook How to Climb Hard Trad that I’m still giving away with all my DVD and book orders. It is indeed a right good laugh. 

Andy’s lecture was filmed live in Stornoway last December and even Andy forgets that he’s meant to be talking about climbing in Patagonia. He’s too busy making us laugh, for 110 minutes.

If you fancy it, it’s in the shop here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The search

Although I am doing some more onsight climbing again this summer, I’m feeling more and more strongly that I’m missing a hard project. I’ve written about this before here, but it never fails to surprise how big an effect on me this has. Many people ask me after lectures if I feel pressure from outside to do more big new routes, because this is what I’m ‘supposed to do’. But this pressure is nothing except a need from within, and an extremely strong one it seems.

This strength of feeling to find a hard project to focus my efforts and bring the best out of me can feel like a magic feeling when you have a project. But when you don’t, it can feel like a source of insipid torture. In a nutshell, right now I feel kind of restless, but at a level rather more than I can just shrug off. To be perfectly open, it’s getting me down a little.

Naturally there is one simple way out of this; to go out and find a project. This is a search I have been intermittently starting over the past month and will be doing a lot more of in the next couple. But this is not as simple as it sounds. I often feel that it should be, given the abundance of unclimbed rock about. But it doesn’t seem to be so easy to find the right projects. Perhaps this is why they are so captivating when you do find them. Achemine, Holdfast, Rhapsody, Sanction, Metalcore, Ring of Steall and Echo Wall were all examples of perfect projects and I was so lucky to have them. But I have to admit that life without this drug is difficult for me - I need to find more.

This thought was brought into my mind after talking with Arnaud Petit while at a film festival in the Pyrenees last week. Arnaud recognised how hard it is to find a project that is impossible at first acquaintance, in order that it forces you to reach a new level, but ultimately possible to make progress and maybe eventually climb it. This and with good quality rock and line too. It’s rare. We saw this with Rhapsody which is a brilliant and rewarding climb in many ways,  yet imperfect. Echo Wall is probably the most perfect project I’ve found yet, hence I could give more to it than ever before.

Now I am searching the crags for something bigger, harder and if it’s possible; better than Echo Wall. I might find it next week, it might take years. Doesn’t matter too much I guess. The longer it takes the keener I will be when I find it.

Looking west from Binnien Shuas past Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor. Maybe somewhere out there is a really hard project?

Maybe it's Glen Torridon? Turns out it's not. Spent a couple of of days here and found a brilliant E7, E8 and E10 to do, which hopefully I can do sometime soon. But nothing harder found so far.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Earning the raspberry cheesecake

For the past two and a half years, Morrisons in Fort William have stocked a delightful looking raspberry cheesecake, placed according to the conventions of supermarket choice architecture, right in my line of sight as I head for the milk. I can’t miss it, every time.

I love raspberry cheesecake, but as a climber who isn’t naturally light enough for the grades I want to climb, I feel that I must set limits, and something like that - an out and out treat - is the most obvious target. This is why I’m two stones (28 pounds) lighter than I was at 16 years of age and can climb many grades harder too. Don’t get me wrong, I eat plenty (and I mean plenty!) when I know I’m using the energy. 

Since I first spotted it, I’ve been tempted every time I’m in there to buy it and munch it. But I didn’t. At first I thought “when I do the Ring of Steall Project, I’ll buy that cheesecake”. I sent the project, but not the cheesecake. Then, I thought, “when I finally top out on Don’t Die, I’m having that bloody cheesecake out of Morrisons”. But I didn’t. Eventually, it was “When I do Echo Wall, this time I’m definitely eating the cheesecake”, and then “when I’ve edited the film” etc. You get the picture.

I’ve picked it up at least four times, and had it in my basket and put it back twice. What’s going on here? Nothing seems to be big enough to deserve the damn cheesecake. Today I picked it up and stared at it again, and put it back, unable to think of anything I’d done that even remotely deserved to break the previous cheesecake denial.

What the hell do I have to do to earn the cheesecake?

I’ve done this more and more over the past 8 years. When I did my first E9 in 2001, I went out with my mates from Uni, got steaming drunk, went clubbing and woke up to a brain melting hangover the next afternoon. Later, when I was repeatedly throwing myself from the last move of Rhapsody, my mate Steve Gordon speculated that the only celebration worthy of doing the world’s first E11 would be to go out and take 11 E’s. We negotiated it down so that I would settle for 11 pints and he would take the 11 E’s. But when I did it, I stayed at home for three months and learnt what HTML was and built up this website.

Richard told me if I ever managed to drag myself up a 9a, we were definitely, definitely hitting the town for a hardcore night. But there was training to be done, and good conditions and bla bla.

You may ask yourself, am I going somewhere with this? The answer I’m afraid, for the moment, is not really. This post is an open question I suppose: Just what deserves the cheesecake??? 

I’ve echoed the thoughts of many others before in stressing the importance of the process of what you do and finding enjoyment in that, rather than the result at the end. So in one sense, celebration of successes is a bit meaningless. Why celebrate when the enjoyable part (the thing you are celebrating) is over. Celebrate by finding the next thing. Obviously that only counts for certain types of things - especially very individual successes like in certain types of climbing. Where things are about people sharing or collaborating, it’s different!

So maybe I’ve got my thinking the wrong way round? Is the finding of a new hard project worthy of the cheesecake, rather than the completion of it? In the next month I am going to try a project I expect to be quite a lot harder than Echo Wall. If that proves the right thing for me to dedicate myself to, should I head for Morrisons? I might have just persuaded myself…

Full disclosure: I looked at the cheesecake today not so much for me, but as I was buying food to make Claire a nice meal on her return from a trip tomorrow. Now before you accuse me of letting my own weird and eccentric ways spill over onto those around me, I should stress that after returning the cheesecake to the shelf, I bought a packet of Rice Krispies and a big pack of no less than eight Mars Bars to make Rice Krispy squares (both our favourite).

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Thinking about meditation

Several people over the years have asked me if I meditate (as training for hard and bold climbing). I always used to say ‘no, I don’t think so’. I certainly didn’t sit down in a field and deliberately try to meditate. But more recently when I was asked again I knew the answer. Yes, I do. But I do not meditate, and then go climbing. The climbing is the meditation. I didn’t realise it for a long time.

A lot of people will squirm at the sight of the word meditation. It carries a lot of hippy connotations and seems pretty far from most peoples every day lives, including their sport. But, like other words I commonly deal with like ‘training’ or ‘risk’, it’s the baggage that we’ve attached to the word that seems weird or uncomfortable. The activity itself is quite simply to focus the mind.

It takes a lot of effort to get a true meditative experience, whether it’s by finding the time to sit still and managing the shrug off all the noise that modern life throws at us, or having a really pure, highly concentrated effort on a climb. I really think that you get what you put in here.

I think that sports in general could be a lot more rewarding as activities and especially as therapy to recover from the shit we have to go through in ‘real life’ if this coupling of meditation and sport was better recognised, and people were better at tapping into it.

Note to self: think about this more for coaching climbing...

In the footsteps of…

One of the cool things about climbing is that when you read or hear good stories about climbs that inspire you, those climbs are there for you to go and actually experience. Whether it’s a nice boulder problem your mate raved about, or a big mountain epic shrouded in legend from it’s first ascent stories. Many other sports don’t have this. You hear about football fans standing on the pitch and using their imagination to feel the intensity of big games played out by the stars on the same spot over the years. Not much to go on really, is it?

But if you are a climber, you can have more than this. You can go and repeat the very same routes, pull on the same holds, make the same movements on the rock and feel the same fear, just as in the story you read about as a youngster. With every move you make up the route, the 

first ascent story takes on a new illumination. This is pretty lucky I think.

I just had this experience tonight, onsighting the second ascent (??) of Chairoscuro E7 6b in Glen Nevis. This climb was put up with great determination by Kevin Howett and Andy Nelson in 1988, with Kev’s lead being his hardest ever.

left: Kevin Howett

I read Kev’s account of his first ascent just after I’d started climbing, and just after I’d had a bit of a defining moment in my life visiting Glen Nevis for the first time with Claire when I was 17 and being totally inspired by the place and the multitude of climbs there. Kev’s lead sounded unbelievably bold, taking a huge fall from near the top of the blunt arete of Chairoscuro onto an RP1, and breaking his ribs on the swing in. But he returned soon after, taking more falls from the same spot until he nailed it.

This sounds crazy enough just reading about it, but it’s something completely different to actually be there yourself, wobbling and gibbering through off-balance rockover onto a sloping rail after 35 metres of E7 climbing, when that RP1 is so far below you can’t even see it.

This would have been a great climbing experience for me if I knew nothing about the route. But to be there knowing Kev had fallen from that move and come back for more added a whole other dimension to it. You don’t get this when you turn up at a crag in Spain and look at a bunch of lines on a topo with a number attached. This is the depth that trad climbing has, that other types cannot match. Of course their qualities lie elsewhere - thats fine.

This route was also a personal score settled. I had previously gone to have a try at the route onsight with Niall McNair about seven years ago. At the time we were both onsighting stacks of E6s and I had a couple of E7 onsights under my belt. We tied in and started up Chairoscuro feeling confident. Too confident it seemed. After 4 metres (count them!) we went off route and immediately ran out of holds or any gear and reversed down, confused.

It was strange coming back several years later. It really hit home how different the rock looks with experience behind you. It took me five minutes to spot a sequence through some unobvious quartz knobbles we had completely failed to spot last time.

With that in mind, when I finally committed to the section where Kev fell, I reminded myself as I rocked over, wobbling that I had a lot to throw at the next few moves - experience, experience, experience, and a bit of raw crimp strength too I guess.

I hope it’s nice for Kevin to know that his creation back in 1988 was something that bubbled away in my head for some years and imagined many times what it would be like to be alone up on that arete, onsight and scared. It was just as good as I hoped.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The last six weeks in pictures

Regular readers of my blog will know that I'm just back online after a couple of months away from my normal routine of blogging. It's strange for me to think that I've been writing this blog since mid 2006 and especially when I meet people who tell me they've read it regularly all that time. I still think that starting it was one of the best decisions I've ever made, and it's contained some of the best work I've produced as a person.

However, a break is always good to rest and refresh the mind, and although I quite enjoyed my daily routine not involving a computer for a little while, I must admit I've been going through a serious crisis of confidence in my blogging. I'm not worried about it really, It's a good thing to question whether you could improve or take what you do in a different direction. I'm sure the time to reflect a little on what this blog is, and could be, will be exactly what it needs to become something better.

Anyway, now my house is in order, I can put down the hammers, spades and screwdrivers and start hammering the keyboard again. To fill in a little of the last six weeks while I was offline, fixing stuff around the house or off around Europe giving talks, here are some pics from my iphoto... (click on them for a bigger image)

Drew makes the top out

And thank god for that.

Scary rope after falling off an 8c in Siurana

Bloc with a view. I climbed a lovely new V10 traverse here in April, with a V13 extention in the project book for the autumn. the topo is on page 129 of the Scottish Bouldering guidebook

The Ben looking pretty on a March morning

Puss puss attempted an ascent of our chimney and paid the ultimate price (a bath)

Claire attacks the garden before it attains rainforest status

Ready to plant my tatties

Fingers crossed I'll for a fine harvest this autumn. Tatties, carrots, cabbages, lettuce, celery, onions and, of course, broccoli ; )

Enjoying the space beneath your feet on Angel Face E2, Far East Wall, Beinn Eighe

Blair heads off into the Sky on Moonshine E4, Beinn Eighe

PS: is it just me, or has picasa's jpeg compression on it's blogger image uploader got worse?? Anyone else noticed this on their blogs? Does anyone have any good recommendations for photo upload sites with decent compression?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Another King line...

Blair 5 metres in to the big traverse project, just 25 to go. (click the pic for a big version)

After I bagged the E8 Donald King pointed me at the other night, I gave Donald a bell to say thanks for the tip off. Always a man for knowing what’s out there, yet seemingly right under our nose, he came back with another recommendation to look at.

This time spoke about a long limestone crag with potential for a very hard and long traverse along the overhanging base, again something that might ‘have my name on it’. A limestone crag, with good friction, with a 30-40 metre overhanging traverse project that might stay dry in the rain, half an hour from Fort William??? If it had been anyone else I would have told them to pull the other one.

But it wasn’t. So today Blair and myself went to check things out. It was even better than I expected! I spent four hours working out the moves on the massive rising traverse, often on big burly undercuts with absorbing technical but really powerful climbing. Brilliant stuff. By the time I’d made several short links along it, I was ready to lie down and sleep in the evening sun.

I think this one will come in about route grade 8c or 8c+. Every time I tried to link I was thinking more 8c+. There’s my endurance training through the rest of June right there!

I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Thanks again Donald, thats two pints I owe you.

Dream Holds review

My friend Scott emailed recently looking for some pictures for a brochure he was putting together for his new range of holds. He already runs a business making climbing walls but this is his first venture into the area of manufacturing climbing holds.

I mentioned I might buy some holds from him for my soon to be finished board and he offered to give me a load to try out! I told him I’d get a review up on here to share my thoughts on his range, since they are a bit different to what you are probably used to pulling on ‘down the wall’.

Scott has done what many people have attempted over the years, right back to the earliest climbing walls - mimic real rock. The reason? Well, there are two separate reasons really. Firstly, real rock formations are clearly more varied and aesthetic both in the shapes they form and the movements that result from them. The other quite obvious reason is that if you are training to climb real rock, training on something as close to it as possible is a rather good idea.

But so many hold manufacturers have moved away from ‘rock-like’ shapes and gone for highly synthetic smooth shapes in recent years. I guess this reflects how indoor climbing has separated a little more from outdoor climbing for an ever greater proportion of climbing wall users - perhaps mimicking real rock hasn’t seemed so important as indoor climbing has become so much more of an activity in it’s own right?

All fair enough of course, but where there is a lot of ying, some yang often makes a pleasant change. Scott’s Dream Holds are definitely full strength yang.

There is another fine reason why hold manufacturers have gone down the smooth and sleek route with rounded blobs in abundance; they are kind on the skin and body. Smooth, rounded and fine grained holds are definitely easier to train on for a long time before sore skin sets in. But this comes at a cost. The movements these holds lend themselves to are predictable, often fast, and basic (in certain aspects of the movement at least). Ever noticed that your grade indoors is waay higher than outdoors? This is the most common reason.

So, Scott has gone fully the opposite way and provided an alternative, making no compromises and taken moulds directly from our finest rock types, from chunks hand picked for their loveliness/evilness (these may be interchangeable terms for lovers of training for rock climbing).

What has come out is a range of holds with a true variety in every aspect, just like you’d get visiting a different rock venue on a road trip. There is glassy smooth, there is Gabbro cheese-grater rough, there is spiky sharp, massive, tiny and just plain weird. Exactly what you find on the crag.

To climb on, you have to slow down a bit overall because it’s not obvious at all how to take the hold on first acquaintance. There is much more udging, adjusting and matching hands than you normally find on indoors, exactly the types of moves indoor climbers often fail to spot when climbing outside. These minor adjustments, you could call them ‘components’ of whole moves that you get so commonly on real rock are what provides much of the pleasure in rock movement; the feeling that a small adjustment made such a huge difference. For sure this will be good for those who climb indoors for the purpose of training for outdoors. 

But even for those who don’t, these will be a very welcome break from the mundane blob pulling experience that is rather too common these days. Every climbing centre should have at least a few routes of these I think. In fact I think these holds will be at their best on F6 to low F7 graded routes on more friendly angles that make up the bulk of what climbing walls must set.

My personal experience is a little different from most, given that my indoor training is purely strength training since I get a fair bit of time on real rock. My requirements are very much something skin friendly enough to pound away for hours on a 45 degree overhang and be limited only by muscle fatigue. But even though Dream Holds are sometimes a little hard on the skin for high end training sessions, I’d still have many of them on my board as it’s just not possible to source manufactured holds with certain grip positions these provide. 

Good work overall by Scott and I’d expect to see them in most climbing walls in a year or two. The range still needs a bit of expanding - more pockets and super incuts please! But these are only just off the first moulds so plenty of time to develop more.

Scott has made a couple of neat patents with some technology to stop the holds spinning or breaking, but I’ll let him explain these on the Dream Holds site. Currently available in Gabbro, Torridonian Sandstone, Gritstone, and Gneiss, with Dumbarton Basalt, Mica Schist and granite on the way. 

Dream Holds are here.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

No substitute

Inimitable E8 6c, Styx Buttress, Glen Nevis

A couple of weeks ago I had a message on my phone from my friend Donald King of Abacus Mountaineering. Donald is always a psyched man and a very positive person to be around; training sessions with him in the ice factor are particularly hard on the abs from laughing too much.

Anyway, Donald was on about a new line in Glen Nevis he’d tried with the steely fingered Ewan of Glen Coe. “Way too hard for me buddy, but it might have your name on it?” the message said. Before I left for a festival in France last week I took a wander past it. A classic hard grit style route, 30 feet of F8a with a couple of wires just too low to feel useful as you slap your way into a rounded scoop, iron-crossed between distant sidepulls.

Last night, bleary eyed after the return trip from France, I rendezvoused with Kevin for a crack at it. We laughed as I abbed down it about how messed up it is that we might think “excellent, the protection is even worse than it looks”.

After some tries the moves came together, but I was a bit tired after an hour or so on it and we hung around, slowly being eaten by the midge as the cool wind dropped and was replaced by midgy warm, still humidity. Just what you need for a solid E8 lead.

I was about to sack it off but on the way back from a wash in the river to get rid of the nasty anti midge cream (together with creamed midges), the wind suddenly reappeared for a moment. All I needed was ten minutes of breeze. 

I threw my harness on, swallowed hard and launched up past the RPs with dilated pupils and Roosevelt’s quote “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself" ringing in my ears.

That was all fine until I got to the crux move, Feet not quite right on the smears, hands not quite right on the crimps, bum sagging and the realisation that I’m probably looking at a broken leg in three seconds time.

There is no substitute for this feeling. Real consequences, right now, no chance to think about them, only to react instantly to your last second of chance to save yourself. This brings out the best in ability, in creativeness, in excitement and in satisfaction. I threw for the hold and arced back, sure I was falling off. Kev was turning to run. In that split second I was able to think and understand what this meant and that I had to dig deeper. So I did. 

That last bit is the crucial bit for me - If it wasn’t for the real consequences, I would have fallen. The real danger was essential to the experience. There is no substitute.

The new facility

Quite a few of you were asking if I would post up some pics of my home board as I built it. I was planning to blog as it happened, but sadly I was still sans internet connection so it had to wait.

It’s all done and dusted now and I must say I’m pretty chuffed with it and wearing down the holds already. I filled the room with as much 45 degree board as possible, with a small roof at the end for extended circuits. As well as some of Scott’s Dream Holds (review on the way) and Entreprises crimpers, I enjoyed making some holds out of wood although I’m no skilled woodworker let me tell you. My wood crimps are quite nice creations though. 

The board ended up being about 47 degrees and It’s pretty amazing how such a small angle change makes a big difference to the training effect. I really noticed a gain in body power in a few sessions, and after returning to my familiar 45’ problems at the ice factor, found myself noticeably stronger on big powerful moves.

It’ll take a few months to get used to the board and set a cadre of nice problems, tweak hold positions etc. But it’ll be super interesting to see the longer term effect on my climbing. I’ve waited a long time to take this experiment!

How nice is it though, to have things exactly as I would want them. I spent several years nagging Glasgow Climbing Centre and then the Ice Factor to install a simple fan to keep conditions for training cool and dry to conserve finger skin, but they never went for it.

I’ll keep you posted on the effects of the new facility, and hopefully get some more hold reviews up etc..

making a mess

puss puss oversees the drilling of the panels

DIY'ed out

Feeling like a kid in a climbing hold shop

What do you think?

Monday, 8 June 2009

Getting Connected

Finally, after three months on a waiting list, we are connected to the internet here in Letterfinlay, albeit rather shakily. It’s really a bit of a relief. However, I still don’t even have a stable enough connection to run a software update.

Our ISP is a London company called Avanti Communications. We need to get out connection via satellite here since we are too far from the telephone exchange to get any useful connection. That said, I’m beginning to wonder if it might have been just as good? Avanti were awarded a contract to supply houses in the remoter parts of the highlands with broadband via satellite by the Scottish Government. We get free installation, they get the customers. But it’s turning out to be more of a winner for Avanti than for the customers I think!

We put ourselves on the waiting list for installation as soon as we were committed to buying our new house, back in early March. We figured we’d have the connection up and running in plenty of time for moving in at the end of March. But March, then April, then the first half of May went by before Avanti ‘were in our area’. 

When the man came to bolt our satellite dish to the house in mid May, he announced it still wouldn’t be connected until the start of June because Avanti were upgrading their own equipment.

What a mission. I’m told from various sources that we don’t have much choice to find another provider that can get us a more reliable broadband connection, at any price, never mind Avanti’s £60 a month. But if anyone knows of something better we can do, we’d love to hear your beta!

Thankfully we can just about get by with a slow and shaky connection to run our respective web businesses. But I sure wouldn’t like to try setting up a business in the highlands that needs anything like a fast connection by city standards.

Anyhow, for now we are just going to enjoy being connected at all.

[UPDATE] After returning from a film festival in France and turning on the computer again. Our connection is seeming rather more healthy, thankfully. Still slower than our old connection via telephone line in the city lights of Fort William, but enough to update some software and post pictures to my blog. Wahay!