Tuesday 29 December 2009

Going for a look

First light in Surgeon’s Gully

Yesterday early doors myself and Donald took a wander across the river Nevis to see how frozen Surgeon’s Gully on Ben Nevis was. Sadly, despite just about everything else in Scotland being frozen solid, in the depths of this impressive ravine there was still water moving earthward. It actually seemed to have an amazing micro-climate in there - warm and sheltered. Not good for ice gullies. 

So after climbing some pitches and coming down, we deferred to messing about. First, we did some nice ice bouldering with no crampons. And then danced across some thin ice on the river Nevis (don’t worry, it was only deep enough for wet feet underneath). Wee youtube below:

North West wanderings

Blade Runner Pitch 1, Sgurr a Chaorachain

Peter and myself missed out on our traditional Christmas eve climb due to the combination of work overload and my illness. But today we ventured out which was a good way for me to see if I was feeling healthy enough to look at a mountain again. To be honest I still felt pretty rough, but keen air, crisp snow and a stunning view from the Bealach na Ba raised the psyche levels for a bit of ice bashing on Sgurr a Chaorachain.

I’m lucky enough that the amazing winter cliffs of Applecross are about 90 minutes drive from my new house and I’m keen to throw myself at them more. I know a lot of people glamourise long walk-ins in Scottish winter climbing, but I have to say I’m there to climb hard, not make a lot of potholes in the snow, so I’m loving the stroll across to the quiet cliffs from the top of the Bealach na Ba.

With no snow on the rock on the cliff we went to, options were limited to ice but we climbed the excellent Blade Runner IV,5. Excitable Boy also looked formed and no doubt both of these will stay that way for the foreseeable. Getting moving on the ice and mixed again feels good but strange after several months of hard bouldering. I’m trying to get my gear setup tweaked just right for trying my project later in the season. Several new additions to my winter kit are proving themselves invaluable.

New years resolutions

Richard McGhee swims up a gully in the Mamores

Nearly every year these days, things come to a head...cold. It’s the third year running I’ve done almost exactly the same thing. I work way too long hours, try to train on top of that, and then on my first winter climbing day of the season, make myself ill.

And so oops I did it again. Idiot. After a nice first day out in the snow with Rich I got ill and have spent the past week blowing my nose 10,000 times per day and shivering. The work has been worth it, even despite running myself down in the short term. Sometimes it is better to break yourself for a while, so long as you take the recovery afterwards just as seriously. 

After this routine of hard work, results and consequences around Christmas time, my new years resolutions always take the schizophrenic form of resolving to do more things, but work myself less hard. Will I ever solve the balance?

Patience and impatience in equal measure seems to be good for long term health and making good things happen like hard climbs done, books published and good times enjoyed. The trouble is that impatience is my default setting.

Friday 18 December 2009

Scottish fresh snow

Meall na Teanga looking nice with its fresh coat of snow yesterday from my house. Hills looking great right now and a cold forecast for Scotland.

Reviews: Progression, Welsh Connections, Winter Climbing Plus

I’ve been meaning to post up reviews of quite a few important new items I’ve been enjoying/using over the autumn. So below are some short reviews of the Progression and Welsh Connections DVDs and Winter Climbing Plus. We’ve just added Winter Climbing Plus and Neil Gresham and Libby Peter’s Get out on rock DVD to the shop. We figured it makes sense that we sell all the best resources for improving at climbing out there. Get out on Rock has all the skills and techniques knowledge you need to go from beginner level and gain entry to leading on trad and climbing safely and confidently on trad cliffs.


Starting off with the biggest climbing film release of the year, I was very impressed with Progression. In fact I think it’s high in my top five climbing ‘content’ films I’ve seen. When I say content, thats all I can think of to describe the Big Up climbing film style. There is no story, and no thread worth mentioning that draws the different climbs and climbers together, except they are all giving it everything. Lots of people call the Big Up films ‘climbing porn’. It seems unfair to call this one pure climbing porn. There are a handful of momentary interesting snippets where we see a little deeper than tanned muscle pulling down. Watching Patxi Usobiaga slip and lose out despite the gruelling training he shows us affirmed in me why competition climbing has never interested me. Yet his dedication and athleticism is brilliant to watch. We even get shown a tiny bit of Chris Sharma showing a human side of frustration and pressure. Although it would have been more convincing if we’d have seen more. The sport climbing action, especially of Adam Ondra and Sharma in Spain is brilliantly filmed and inspiring to watch. This will always be the highpoint of the Big Up series. Seeing more of Adam Ondra and a little less of Sharma would have been even better. Go on Big Up, be bold next time round and show us a little more fresh content in with the mix! The DVD extra of Ondra was superb despite it’s simplicity. A real education in fast agressive climbing. The worst aspect of the film is it’s predictability, the same folk on the same crags. There is more going on in climbing than this. However, it’s a commercial product so I guess it’s hard to break too far from a safe mould. Bishop highballing just doesn’t seem that interesting, but that’s maybe personal. Despite losing out on depth it could have easily explored, and a touch of predictability, it’s still a must see and there are very few climbing films that rival it except previous Big Up works. Highly recommended. It’s in the shop here.

Welsh Connections

Dave Brown and Lywen Griffiths have obviously worked hard to bring us a snapshot of the spectrum of Welsh climbing and it’s cutting edge right now. Like about a third or so of this type of climbing DVD, that brings us a selection of climbs from one country or area over a year or so, it would probably have been much better if they’d made it over two or three years instead of one. However, thankfully Welsh Connections is worth getting for it’s highpoints. It has a couple of really special moments in it. The bouldering sections were most disappointing with not much memorable action, not helped by some irksome music. I most wanted to see Pete Robins on Liquid Ambar (sandbag 8c). This was interesting but the filming angles weren’t fantastic. The trad, as you might expect was far and away the highlight. McHaffie was great to watch, gripping with runners falling out and loose rock at Gogarth. Shame there wasn’t more of him and to see more of the person as well. The best moment of the film goes to the Emmett who absolutely lives up to his own ‘go for it’ ideal. Tim’s adrenaline junkie, ever laughing gun blazing persona is certainly larger than life. But as Muhammad Ali said “It’s not bragging if you can back it up” and he certainly had our DVD watching team out of their seats and oooing and ahhhing at the gripper lead he goes for in Hunstman’s Leap. Worth the watch just for that. Outside of the local climbing population, it might have been more consistently good if this film had been given time to grow into something with more hard hitting chapters. A good effort and a good watch nonetheless.

We just got our second batch of stock of it for the shop here.

Winter Climbing Plus

I was in Ian Parnell’s car on the way to Torridon at the end of last winter when he was telling me about how much work he’s put into his and Neil Gresham’s new book on winter climbing skills, tactics and technique. I’ve just got my copies in for the shop here and I’m very impressed with the book. As is normal for the Rockfax publications it’s a very colourful book with absolutely loads of pictures that make it a very inspiring book to flick through as the winter season gets going. It will really fire you up as well as inform you. Speaking of the information, it’s ‘dead-on’: succinct, down to earth, highly practical but fairly comprehensive at the same time in dealing most aspects of the entire winter climbing challenge. I’d say there must be very very few winter warriors walking the earth who don’t have something to learn from the combined experience of these two authors.

Black Diamond new Fusions review

I doubt if there is any piece of climbing equipment more readily drooled over than whatever  newest model of ice tool is released by Black Diamond. It’s no accident that for decades their ice tools have not only been hands down the most effective on the market but also aesthetic ‘things of beauty’. Everyone in the chain of ice tool design, from the athletes team providing feedback like myself upwards simply love talking about, appreciating and improving ice tools.

The first generation Fusion was the definitive leashless tool for several years. The ice climbing community has been waiting with baited breath for the new model which has been extensively revised and looks quite different to the old orange model.

Arriving home from training in Spain, one of the first pairs of the new ‘greens’ was sitting on the floor of my training room. I’ve only had a chance to try them out dry tooling on a board so far, but hopeful in a matter of days I’ll have them out on the real stuff and will update this review. 

The new model has a series of additions that neatly solve the limitations of the old version:

A detachable spike on the end of the shaft
A rubberised top handle
A more angled upper shaft for more room to hook over bulky ledges and ice bubbles
lighter than the old model and better weighted for swinging in ice

There also some more subtle changes that will make the tool more durable such as a one piece beefy head with small fixed hammer, a metal tipped upper handle nose and a nicer arrangement to extend the lower handle with spacers for bigger hands. For the trad climbers one potential downside might be that the heavily angled upper shaft might make it a little more difficult to place pegs. But overall I’d still prefer it this way due to the greater space to hook over bulging features. It’s great to see the tool a little lighter too. Weaklings like me got a little weary after clearing snow and rime for hours on end overhead with the old tools.

So how do they feel to use? Brilliant. Comfortable for the hands - some other tools like the Petzl Nomics are a bit brutal on long steep bouts of climbing. The handles seem a good size for holding with little energy, the axe feels great to wield and accurate in fast and neat placements. I’ve yet to notice any bending on super high leverage sideways torques which is reassuring. The only negative thing I can think of to say is it would be nice to have a small patch of ‘grippy’ rubber extending over the inside of the hook at the base of the lower handle. That might add a bit of cost to manufacture?? But it would make them perfect. I’ve never seen or used a better ice axe.

In summary, the new Fusion is yet another thing of beauty that sits rightfully at the top of their range, and therefore the rest of the ice tool market. They will be the pride and joy of any ice climber’s kit.

Saturday 12 December 2009

9 out of 10 climbers has arrived

Stock of my book has arrived with us and we are dispatching it now. Hope you enjoy the read and it helps get you to the next level in your climbing!

Some of you commented on my last post asking how long copies take to arrive in the US. We dispatch by Royal Mail (via airmail if it’s outside the UK). Their estimations for delivery times are here. They quote within 3 working days for Europe and within 5 for the US. It’s always an estimation of course. We are dispatching same day right up to Christmas.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

9 out of 10 is in the post to us

Our of stock of my book 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes has been shipped and on the way to us, with any luck the DHL man might be at our door with a pallet soon. Thanks to all of you who pre-ordered already!

(click on the pic for a bigger image of the cover jacket)

After I posted the contents list a couple of days ago, various comments on the post were curious and eager for me to give more details on what a couple of intriguingly titled sections were about. Briefly:

To anonymous commenter - The book is definitely about climbing, but improving at climbing goes fastest and farthest when the climbing fits well with many other parts of life. A lot of improving at sport is about setting up the right circumstances, attitudes and approaches to clear the path in front of you. So I wouldn’t say the book is about life, but it does make several observations about the elements of life that lead to good performance in sport. Some them are extremely subtle or small, but have huge effects. So many books on training, sport science, coaching, sports medicine and other aspects related to sport miss what seemed to me the biggest single thing I learned from 6 years study of sport science - that the athlete is a person, and to improve in sport there is no area of the person’s life that does not influence the performance.

To second anon. - ‘The first thing to understand’ section is about change in any aspect of your routine, be it massive (like your career or base) or miniscule. It describes how climbers and people in general deal with change or the possibility of it, and how this accelerates or stunts their progress.

‘The truth about famous climbers’ section is clears up a massive misunderstanding about top climbers that is extremely easy to make without seeing more than we normally get to.

‘Fingerboard rules’ is a comprehensive run down of good practice, routines and common errors in using fingerboards, who they help and in what circumstances, and how some simple errors kill off the potential benefits.

‘How to get light without pain’ refers to the correct way to lose weight to reach an ideal body composition without the constant hunger, frustration, dejection and ultimately failure that accompanies most attempts to adjust weight downwards.

Haston is a very old (in athletic terms) climber performing at world class level and Oddo is an extremely young climber performing at a similar level. This doesn’t happen nearly so much in other sports. I’ve explained why it’s this way in climbing, and how you can take advantage of this.

Siurana pics

A local attempting the famous Kalea Borroka 8b+, sector El Pati, Siurana. This large overhang has been my battleground for the past week or so. On Sunday I did a simply gobsmacking new 8b+ called Dogma that breaks left out of Kalea and heads way off into the sky above with cruxes and bat hangs a-plenty. Tomorrow it's battle day with an equally brilliant 8c just to the left.

Sport climber’s breakfast for me, mountain guide’s breakfast for Donald. What about Ewan? My guess is he finished his ages ago.

Harold the bug. Keeping us company on rest days in the wendy house. More pics on Gaz's blog (of Siurana climbing, not Harold, that is).

Crawling along

Endless sport climbing - hard not to improve!

Sport climbing trips out here in Spain or France have been a staple of my yearly climbing diet for nearly ten years. I come for lots of reasons, to relax the mind (these days), to replenish the body in a less harsh climate, to enjoy the climbs here also. But mainly I come here to train.

Trying to achieve a very high level of rock climbing fitness in Scotland is very like being pinned down in a game of chess - lots of potential options, but all of them blocked. We have a world class climbing facility at Ratho, but those who could really use it the most can’t afford to train there enough. We have a handful of wee sport crags, but not enough to make a platform for the best climbers to step to the next level (this idea is called a pyramid progression). 

For a while, cheap flights made it easy enough for those at a medium level to put a patch of fitness in their game a couple of times a year. Maybe this day is already passed. Some more bolts in local crags might work out better environmentally than the carbon footprint of a twice yearly migration of the sport climbing population. On this trip, I’m coming round to thinking that this migration might be losing it’s appeal, both in terms of cost, and effectiveness.

It worked to get me from 8c to 8c+ and even helped me scrape into 9a. My current goal is to get 9a+, both for it’s own sake but also to assimilate this level and apply it in my mountain trad and winter climbing. Training strength in Scotland is no problem. With some good training I’ve got strong enough to do 9a+, but endurance is a stumbling block.

I’m not saying it’s impossible. I intend to personally prove otherwise. Rastko said those who crawl cannot be brought down. So I’ll keep on crawling my way to 9a+ and the resultant E11s and winter projects. Some changes might help break into a walk though. Some ideas:

Scotland’s rock climbers would really benefit from another sport crag or two that really works for training - steep sustained and often in condition. There are crags. It could be time to go and open them. Even just one sector like El Pati in Siurana could be enough to kickstart some exciting things in both sport and trad. I know that I couldn’t have done Echo Wall without the bolts on Steall Crag in Glen Nevis where I put down the foundation of fitness on Cubby’s old ‘controversial’ project.

A lot of the other things are potentially terrain where our sport’s governing body - the MCofS - could help with. If there was a special membership package that included free entry to any climbing wall in Scotland, I’d certainly be buying that as a christmas gift for a teenage son or daughter who’d recently discovered climbing. Parents would be gifting access to the world of climbing safety and environmental advice and training etc plus unlimited access to their new pastime/obsession.

As a 16 year old I managed to get my three sessions a week in the Kelvin Hall because every third visit I’d pluck up the courage not to buy a ticket and keep an eagle eye for the attendant all through the session. It’s rarely so easy for the young and keen to increase their training volume with this method these days.

Out here in Spain, we keep finding ourselves saying ‘it’s hard not to get good at climbing here’. In Scotland it’s a lot harder, so we better make it as easy as possible.

Monday 7 December 2009

9 out of 10 climbers is here (soon)

Our stock of my book 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes is printed and currently being shipped to us. So in a week or so (our highland address always seems to bring out the worst in delivery companies) we’ll be sending copies out. We’ve just put it up for pre-order in the shop now. I know some of you are after a copy in time for Christmas and so it should be in plenty of time. We are dispatching around 11.30am every day until Christmas, worldwide.

I’m very happy to see it out and I’m pleased with it as a representation of much of what I’ve learned in 16 years of study in climbing improvement. It’s always been a big satisfaction in my climbing life to take what I’ve learned from sport science and half my life observing, experimenting, and measuring every last thing that makes climbers climb better. I’m expecting that the ideas in it will polarise a few readers. It does attack some of the fashions in the sport of climbing, and the wider world of sport and improvement that are working in the wrong direction for improvement. Engrained habits die hard and folk don’t let go of them easily. So I’m quite direct. Expect some further discussion of the details of the book over on my climbing coach blog as the reactions come in.

Some more info on what’s contained in it is on it’s page in the shop and you can get an order in here now if you are keen to read it. For now though, here is the list of contents so you can get a feel for the information thats in it.

9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes: navigation through the maze of advice for the self-coached climber


9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes
Barking up the wrong tree

Part 1 - Creatures of habit
Stuck on the basics
The first thing to understand
The first thing to change
Fail, and prepare to succeed
If only I knew now what I knew then
Too embarrassed to climb?
Is this grade a success or mediocre?
The first generation was the freest
Starting from scratch
The truth about famous climbers
Know your enemy - your tastes
Don’t get stuck
Creatures of habit

Part 2 - The big four: movement technique, finger strength, endurance, body mass
The biggest lesson from sport science
You cannot break the laws
How to learn technique
Record, replay, review
No one does drills, right?
The structure of climbing technique
The need for momentum
Types of momentum
The issue of height
Don’t just push with your feet!
Counterintuitive aspects of climbing technique
Precision really matters
Trying to make the hold bigger
Don’t overrate strength
Bouldering is number one
But I don’t like bouldering!
How to boulder to show off, or get strong
Board heads
A good bouldering session
Fingerboard rules
To crimp or not to crimp
Making sense of Haston and Oddo
Making sense of Ondra and Sharma shapes
How light do I need to be?
How to get light without pain?
Steps for losing and maintaining a lower weight for climbing
Who needs to pump iron to climb hard?
To the wiry
To the beefcake
To the tall
To the lucky little ones
When you really can blame your tools
Campus boards hurt almost everyone
Climbing is not a cardiovascular sport
Where is climbing endurance?
Endurance activities
Understanding fatigue symptoms
Endurance rules

Part 3 - Fear of falling: the real problem, probably…
The only way
Falling technique
Practice indoors
Practice on sport climbs
Building falls into your daily climbing diet
Practice on trad
When you just can’t fall off

Part 4 - The other big four: attitude, lifestyle, circumstances, tactics
I’m young, spoon-feed me!
Why mid-teens drop off the radar
“I can’t do that” he said, mistakenly
Too old to improve?
To find time, make your time work harder for you
Do you really want to be an athlete?
Tactics often trump training
What the warmup does
Tuning in and out
Managing the ‘psyche’ level
Do you really want it to be easy?
Be thick skinned at all times
Does flexibility really matter?

Part 5 - What’s next coach? Planning your improvement
Think curves, not lines
So jump off that plateau, if you can bear it
Regimes - how much can you handle?
Over-resting or under-recovering? 
A kid’s regime
A student’s regime
A family/career hustler
The wannabe pro
The confused and disillusioned
Same old routine, same old results
Cracking bad habits is tough
Rules of the training day
Rules of the training season
Annual rest and recuperation time

Summing up

Saturday 5 December 2009

A tentative start to the winter

Ahhhh! Hot refreshed elbows after hot & cold treatment. Feels good.

Right now I'm in Spain, at Siurana. The purpose of the trip, apart from enjoying some outdoor climbing after the Lochaber perma-rain of autumn, is to recharge batteries and get ready for winter. As usual for late autumn, I'm strong from three months of solid bouldering, but my endurance is poor, and joints are complaining from the punishment.

Long routes are the answer for both, with a little more dedicated recovery time than I'd normally manage at home due to work. Rest days between attacking the hardest routes of Siurana are restful in one sense, but busy nonetheless. I've just spent four hours on rehab activities for my elbows. They are complaining after I overdid it with training during November. After one of these sessions the tendons feel great, going from a creaking mess to a steely strip of hot working collagen. I've posted more on this subject on my training blog here.

Yesterday was a little brutal on the body. First I narrowly avoided a long fall that may have involved contact with the ground. I went for a big link on a project I'm trying, and after skipping a bolt (they are spaced anyway!) my foot slipped just at the last move of the runout. I was holding an undercut with one hand, and a small intermediate edge with the other, but managed to stay on from that instantaneous hit of nervous tension you get from a slip at a bad moment in climbing. That might have been it over, except Michael thought I was off, exploded into a backwards run and fell over onto his back facing downslope. A comedy moment followed of me dangling desperately against a tight rope trying to replace my foot on a smear while Michael righted himself beetle style and resumed paying out rope. All was fine except I struggled on for a few more bolts until arms melted.

Later I dragged a wasted body up for a work session on a massive new 8b+ called Dogma. With two bat hangs and overhanging about 15 metres in it's 45 metre length it should be the kind of full body workout I'm needing just now. The short days of December mean I'll have to wait until tomorrow for more action on this.

BTW - More news on my book during next week.