Sunday 30 July 2006

Not bad for plan B

Anti midge tactics at Steall hut crag, Glen Nevis. Officially recognised as the midgiest crag in the known universe.

Redpath and myself were hoping for some new route action on the Ben, but dark clouds meant plan B (Steall Hut Crag and the unrepeated Arcadia E7 6b) was swung into action. The anti midge hoods were out before we even left the car park. Steall is the ultimate crag for hardcore climbers. Lets face it you have to be pretty inspired to suffer the midge blitz. Thankfully, the routes are good. I'd already done the 2nd ascent of the right hand of the criss-cross E7 cracks (Leopold 8a+) and never seemed to be at the crag when the left hand one (Arcadia 8a) was dry. Arcadia was Gary Latter's creation from '93 and I've not heard of anyone repeating it.

Steall was Scotland's 'futuristic' sport crag in the early nineties. It still is!

I headed up it first and spent ages re-cleaning the holds and taking out the manky dangerous in-situ wires. Second time around I set of with my trademark "this isn't a redpoint but..." and enjoyed a good fight. After the two cruxes it inevitably became a redpoint, but with some badly fumbled clips and poor warmup the elbows and eyeballs were out and 'I feel like chicken tonight' was ringing in my ears on the finishing moves. Redpath never shouts "go on Dave!" unless I'm really messing it up and I'm sure I heard it at least twice. So Arcadia was bullied into submission. But who cares, it was fun.

Notes: Steall anti midge tactics - Most feel the only option is to climb with jumper midge defence on, but this only leads to severe overheating at 30 feet and falling off in a midge/heat screaming abdab rage. Ric's tactic was to wear a wooly red balaclava all the way up Leopold (first ever balaclava ascent of an 8a+?) but then Ric wears driving gloves! My tactic is definitely best. Climb with T-shirt on to first shake out, rip off T-shirt and slap one's body with it furiously to fight the little blighters off your pale flesh, before jettisoning and forging on midge free at correct working temp.

Bring on winter.

Saturday 29 July 2006

Antagonist training #2

Now I'm still getting my head around this business of blogging, so forgive me. I thought after posting below about training antagonists that I should have explained a bit more what I'm talking about for those of you new to common practices in training for rock climbing.

When we climb a lot or train specifically for climbing (often one and the same) we are building up and/or stressing particular muscle and joint structures. In the case of elbows as I mentioned in my last post we tend to develop brachialis, bracioradialis and biceps (the elbow flexors) a lot, but dont use the extensors (triceps) as much, not to mention many other assisting muscles and structures. This tends to cause an imbalance across joints affecting the stress on connective tissue. Build up of stress translates to injury in various forms. Thats why it's important to spend a litle of your training time developing the 'lower priority' muscle groups so your body stays in balance with its differing strengths across different areas.

In planning your training it's important to keep in mind that developing anything in a big way is likely to have knock on effects somewhere else. These sometimes need some careful thinking (or outside advice) to predict. This applies to all aspects of training.

Friday 28 July 2006

Training antagonists - be thorough and it pays!

It was comforting to be back on the fingerboard again just then after a few weeks out climbing mountain trad (which involves a lot of walking/faffing and precious little climbing if you are doing new routes). I was mega fit (for me) in June after a long stint of daily training, so it was frustrating to see it slip away. Anyhow a thought just appeared in my head; 'no elbow pain!' Bad elbows have kept a lid on my training for 6 years and are constantly there nagging after hard sessions. This spring I made a determined effort to work the antagonists (the humble press up sufficed) and I must say it's been like a magic wand. 5 sets a day worked into my standard sessions, and not a single ache for three months. A good feeling.

Working antagonist muscle groups is one of those training chores that is so easy to skip. Don't skip it!

Thursday 27 July 2006

Grades #2

For those who like to spend much time discussing grades (are they so interesting?) here is some further comment on the grading of top trad routes. Grades are generally given for an onsight ascent. However, the many new routes above E7/8 have all been opened after abseil cleaning/inspection and/or top rope practice. Therefore, prediciting what it would be like to onsight E10 is stupid and rather pointless. Who knows what that will be like? no one at the moment anyway. We can only give grades bases on a subjective feeling of increments of overall difficulty we experience. Grading can work perfectly well that way, although it is subject to the same complications it always had (hyping, sandbagging, new sequences etc...). A. B. Hill (writing in 1965 about the structure and significance of scientific research) says it better than I could:

"All scientific work is incomplete - whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is likely to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, or postpone action that it appears to demand at a given time"

I see that many people want to view other peoples grades through the straightjacket of their own mental models. For example comparing the number of days it took me to climb different hard routes and using that to question me (while not in posession of enough information!). People also assume that grading systems are a mess just becuase they either don't understand how they work or do not take into account the subjectivity of grading and influence of other factors.


Point Five Gully area, Ben Nevis 25/07/06 The north face cliffs are a perfect place to escape the heatwave
Coire na Ciste, Ben Nevis. Many a new route to be done here, summer and winter

I never tire of stepping out of the CIC hut in the morning and soaking up the view of the north face

A teetering block looming at the top of my project about to be trundled. This bad boy made a BIG noise after having 90 metres to accelerate towards the slabs below. It was a stark reminder of what would happen if I were to fall of the climb.

It was last summer that I started to visit Ben Nevis again with an eye for new routes. In between trying Anubis I wandered around and felt more and more overwhelmed by the possibilities for amazing new routes at all grades. It takes a massive amount of work to climb just one hard route on the 'big bad Ben'. The routes are long and cleaning of loose rock and lichen is hard going on very steep rock. To overcome this feeling, I decided to come back this summer and work only on the best looking line I saw; a huge and unbelievable line which would require many superlatives to do it justice. Everything about it is massive, the line, the exosure, the difficulty, the logistics and the danger. I just came back stiff and sore from 4 days intense work on it, It's clean and the moves are done. But I'm not sure if I will do it. All of the hard climbing (and it is hard!) is unprotected. So now I am back to feeling overwhelmed again. I will try it, but must be ready to walk away if I still feel it is too serious. Much preparation is needed now. The first task is to get my endurance back. Now I am working on hard mountain routes again I am remembering why it is hard to do the 'all rounder' thing. After two weeks of carrying big sacks and racks up mountains, jugging ropes and brushing holds, I have done very little actual climbing. Next time up the Ben I can get down to business though.

Anubis and The Italian Job are my only successes on this mountain, among many failures and scary epics. Nevis will always be a humbling place, but I would still like to redress the balance a little.

Friday 21 July 2006

More Ireland photos

Slieve Binnian, the Mournes, Northern Ireland, with the line of Divided Years clearly catching the sun

Diff - filmaker just turned pro! Jugging into position to film Divided Years. As you can see it's quite a steep route

Shaking out at the slot before finishing the hard climbing (Hotaches Images)

Just a few more moves and you're on jugs (Hotaches Images)

Next stop, Ben Nevis...

Grades - again!!!

I apologies for this post in advance as I know, like me, many people find that arguments about grades get boring after a short while. However, I read with interest some feedback about my Irish climbing last week on the internet and see that much of the feedback centres around my suggested downgrade of divided Years to E8. I guess it's good to get some discussion on it. You never know there might even be some progress. Grades at the top end of trad climbing (especially for mountain routes) take a very long time to settle down because very few climbers do the routes. Whether this is due to lack of ability, motivation or simply that headpointing is a little out of fashion I'm not sure. It certainly does take some motivation to climb E8 or above in the mountains, there are plenty who have the fitness, I wish more of them would be arsed to go back and lead these routes to get more of a consensus.

People seemed rightly surprised as to the big downgrade of Divided from E10 to E8 and the physical difficulty from 8c to 8a. People keep asking me why John Dunne gave it 8c. I don't know! I am not John. Physical difficulty grades on top trad routes were always given very loosely and not taken very seriously, maybe now that has changed? Well if it has, I should point out that F8a on trad gear on a mountain crag is still pretty hardcore, and is maybe underrated in it's difficulty. F8c is an astronomical grade to climb on trad, even more so on a mountain cliff. Do any climbers in the UK have the form to do it? Hmm maybe but I suspect you could count them on one hand. We joked in Ireland about the narrator in John's 'Big Issue' video stating proudly that Buzzard's Roost 'is 4 miles from the road' as if this was terrifying in itself. It isn't of course, but climbing F8a on Buzzard's or similar situations probably means you have to be an F8c climber, as well as being good at trad and walking 4 miles. Otherwise you are in for a long haul with a lot of walking, gear carrying and understanding belayers! Finding someone to belay you for 15 redpoints on divided years might well be E10. Basically what I'm trying to say is E8 6c on a mountain cliff is still pretty hard - hard enough.

I would rather sidestep the whole argument and take the E10 ticks (hey can I really climb E10 faster than anyone else on the planet??!! I don't think so). But unfortunately we need climbers to be bold enough to be honest about their grade opinions to have any chance of accurate grading. Could you imagine where science would be without the scrupulous and unforgiving 'peer review' of research?

My grade opinion is just as questionable as anyone else's on its own, but like real science, weight of certainty is added with more similar opinions. So I encourage the other climbers who have been on or have an interest in repeating Divided Years to get to the Mournes and make it happen. If DY and Breathless end up as E10s then Rhapsody might be the first E13. If I repeat all the E10s in the UK and they are all E8, I'll bring Rhapsody down to E9 or 10. Grades are not fixed they exist only in climbers heads, they can change.

Wednesday 19 July 2006

Divided Years

Divided Years - Stunning place, stunning climb (photo: Hotaches)

Laybacking above the crux

Well finally I have some climbing to speak of. I’ve been waiting for years for a chance to head across to the Mournes of Northern Ireland and repeat John Dunne’s stunning looking Divided Years E10 7a. I’m psyched on repeating some stuff again having poured so much time into the hard work of first ascents. Divided was the first E10 in the world so that only adds to the draw to go and climb it. After Rhapsody I’m keen to tour around a bit and repeat other peoples ‘Big Es’. I spent my late teens repeating stack loads of E7s and E8s in Scotland and on Gritstone so it’s really nice to be doing it again. I forgot how much easier it is repeating stuff than putting it up! Its also nice because the very hardest ones have so much mystique attached to them, partly because of the legendary reputations and backgrounds of their creators. It’s pretty thrilling to have the form to go and experience these famous routes for yourself and find out whether they really are how you imagined.

So the Hot Aches team, Fiona Murray and Kev Shields were all psyched to sample Mournes granite and last week we finally booked our ticket and went. Divided was every bit as good as I expected it to be. We got straight to it on the first evening and I had enough time to quickly get the moves done and suss out the gear. My big ambition was to make the first ascent placing all the gear on lead. John’s ascent used a peg and a couple of pre-placed wires and Dave Birkett’s second ascent last summer appeared (judging by the photos in the mags) to have several pieces in place at the crux. This was because the climbing is really steep and physical and its difficult to stop in the middle of hard moves and fiddle in wires. The route had lots of wires in place in various states of decay. For me though, placing gear on lead is part of trad climbing, headpoint or not. The headpoint style is nothing more than a rehearsal for a ‘real’ lead. For me, if the gear is pre-placed then it might as well be bolted.

I was psyched to lead it on the second day but after linking it first go on the top rope the midges descended and it wasn’t to be. On the third day it all went smoothly and I climbed it solidly placing all the gear, first try. The crux starts at a roof about 20m up with lovely moves on undercuts with weird footwork. I found a perfect toe hook which meant I could place the crucial wire to protect some pumpy moves on crimps up to a flared slot. It’s tricky to layback the edge of the slot and get a bomber cam in, then after that it’s pretty much plain sailing with awesome exposure. The top half of the route is easy so I could just relax and enjoy the rest of the climb.

The route was originally given a toprope grade of F8c which is a ridiculously hard grade to climb in a trad situation on a moderately remote cliff. But I had been warned by Tim Emmett (who’d had a day on it but was rained off before he could lead) that F8a might be nearer the mark. I’d say Tim was bang on with his assessment. F8a but quite hard for that grade placing all the gear. As for the E grade? Well it would be easy for me to say nothing and take the tick, but if ascentionists aren’t up front and honest then accurate consensus on grades for these things will never happen. So, like Breathless from last year, I would have given it E8 6c if I’d done it as a first ascent. That could be totally wrong, but at least I’ve gone and repeated it and improved on the ascent style before commenting. Dave B commented that he thought speaking on the grade might discourage people from making the effort to come across and repeat such a fantastic route. A very good and valid point. Well take it from me this is one of the best single pitch routes I’ve ever seen or done. You will NOT be disappointed! If you are in any doubt you can see the video and photos shot of it by the Hot Aches boys (

It was a great inspiration on this trip to see the raw keenness of Kev (who has only one hand) smoothly lead a scary E2 and solo like he was going for a stroll in the park.

I’m hoping to get some more big trad stuff in now I’m in a position to go climbing again. Can’t wait. up and running!

Right I've got my main site up now. It's got lots of stuff you might like to see related to climbing - photos, articles about climbing, injuries and training, info and details of the coaching I offer and lectures coming up. Enjoy. Give me any feedback if you have it - I'd appreciate it!

I'll have it updated regularly with more articles and of course photos and video of climbs I get up to. If you have any article requests (climbing improvement or whatever you like) drop me an email or a comment on this page, which I'll use to update new stuff.

Thanks Ronan and Simon.

Tuesday 4 July 2006

Training notes #2

Starting out at Craigmore, 1994

These notes are related to ‘sealing in’ your motivation…

If you realise that because of your reasons for climbing, you will get more rewards if you improve (by breaking your own barriers etc), you might be put off by the feeling that you have set yourself depressingly huge task! On my first ever day of climbing, I saw a climb that really inspired me and I decided I was going to climb it. Then I read a guidebook and found out it was the hardest climb in the country. So it might seem that the things that inspire you (it might be E10, HVS or just climbing better than your mate) is a long way off and your progress towards it is painfully slow. There is quite a simple way of looking at (and solving) this aspect of motivation.

Basically, our brains really aren’t wired up to understand amazing things, even though we are capable of them. Look at your own body – it’s a bloody miracle! Think about the billions of cells all doing what they are supposed to, your brain reacting and planning in milliseconds etc. You are so complex and amazing its unbelievable really. So how is this possible? Amazing abilities that seem so improbable are the result of the accumulation of a large number of small, probable steps. In the case of the creation of our bodies, it was a lot of small steps in evolution, each one unremarkable, but laid end to end, amazing.

Climbing hard or getting extremely good at any skill is exactly the same. Its difficult to comprehend and it amazes us that anyone can do things like E10. The reality is the E10 climber has just made a lot of small improvements over a sustained period. Anyone is capable if making a small improvement. If they stick at it and make a many more, they WILL get to a high level. With the exception of circumstances we can’t control, and there aren’t many of those, its inevitable.

So for the climber starting out on what seems like an impossible task, don’t think about the whole task in one. Accept that your brain isn’t designed to deal with it that way. Break it down into small steps, like doing one more route at the wall or spending five minutes watching the footwork of a good climber, and the steps will accumulate into something amazing.

Sunday 2 July 2006

Going round in circles

Dumby circuits wall - somewhere I know too well
Life is simple at the moment. Get up, work, do many pullups, walk to Dumby, get very pumped, many times, go home and refill my forearms with glycogen... ad infinitum. It shouldn't be long until I have the resources and fitness to venture out onto some crags again and climb. It's very reasssuring how fast the endurance returns. I didn't get pumped for 6 weeks after Rhapsody and it's only taken 2 weeks to go from lactic acid agony to beating my circuit PBs. My hard circuit is about 7c+/8a (French) one way and 6b to go back to the start. I got round it 6 times the other day. 40 minutes continuously on the rock either recovering or grunting through hard moves is good for the composure. Might even carry the weightbelt round it tomorrow morning.