Wednesday 28 April 2010

Oversimplification of sport

Last night my extended post about school, influences and looking for shortcuts sparked off some interesting comments over on my Online Climbing Coach blog. They prompted another post from me about the subtle but critical difference between ‘chasing numbers’ in sport and actually improving. Commenting on that this, Gian questioned how the two can have such different implications for enjoyment of sport, since after all “numbers are meant to be a description of difficulty”.
Simplified numbers or statements often are used these days to form the whole story about sport, and that is one of the reasons it’s so fraught with commoditization, unfairness, predictability and cheating. In big sports, a lot of money and time goes into finding ways to keep on top of drug cheats, so far with arguably little effect. In my opinion, it’s attacking from the wrong end. Attacking the incentive to cheat would work many fold better, and the weapons of war are the pens of the marketers of sport and the media that consumes it.
Numbers are an index of difficulty of a climb (or some other task), but not an index of performance. To get a fair idea of how impressive a sport performance is, we usually need two, sometimes three bits of information sandwiched together. A climbing example: 
One bit - “He climbed that E7”
Two bits - “He onsighted that E7”
Three bits - “He onsighted that E7 in the rain”
One bit headlines are always more attractive for media and they resort to it more and more in all corners of media. It’s a short term way to get more hits (and a long term route to implosion but that’s another blog post). Two bit headlines at least are needed by everyone to keep sport working. When I say everyone, I mean athletes themselves as well.
Using numbers as a one bit index of performance is drain on the motivation in the long term and an continued improvement is destined to stall big time! “I’ve climbed E7!” is not enough, because the two bit headline in the background might be “I’ve climbed E7 but it was a soft touch...or it was a fluke…or I fasted for a week...or I cheated”
For athletes, the improvement is most motivating and hence sustainable if the number is the secondary part of the headline:
“I climbed well, got over my fear, and climbed that E7”
“My footwork is much better this year after all those drills, so I knew I could get that 7a”
“I really disciplined myself to rest properly, and I’m stronger for it”
That kind of thinking shows how there’s more to taking satisfaction from improvement than the number. It’s not a lot more - just one or two extra bits of information - but crucial. Sports don’t need to be super complicated to be motivating, but rounding everything down to the lowest common denominator all the time is very toxic for motivation.

Footnote: I do a lot of headpointed trad routes, and a few people get very concerned that folk out there might not properly weight the performance of, for example, 'E11 headpoint'. Sure, a few inexperienced onlookers might not understand the significance of the second bit of that statement. I don't think this small group are really worth worrying too much about. As for the rest of us, I think people are smart enough to get their head around the idea that the number takes on a different meaning if you climbed in headpoint style.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

What school can’t teach you about climbing hard

I just did some interviews about my climbing for various publications. The questions, in one way or another, ask “what is your secret”? It’s especially relevant in my case as I can’t answer that I’m naturally strong, or thin or talented or started climbing before I could walk.
I’ve given roundabout answers for years, not understanding the underlying theme myself. In parallel I’ve tried to understand why climbers I’ve coached plateau where they do with apparently all the practical ingredients to keep improving.
Recently I’ve thought and talked a lot about school and it’s effects down the line. Sad as it makes me to say it, I learned my ‘secret’ to doing what I have when I was away from school, which happened a lot.  A lot of school is about explicitly or implicitly working to fit in. To attain the satisfactory standard of your peers and nothing more. The minimum necessary to get an A and then you can coast. But good performance is by definition not fitting in. You won’t find the solution to the technique, motivation, training, financial, practical or unexplained problem that’s holding you back, by waiting for your teachers or peers or someone on a forum to tell you.
I’m not saying they are useless - they are essential for pointing you in the right direction and supplying the initial shove. After that you roll to a stop pretty quickly unless you start producing your own momentum.
Fifteen years of learning to wait to be told what to do and put in the minimum amount of work is really hard to unlearn. Start now!
In the rest of this post I’ve given some pratical examples about how this idea helped me specifically and also some famous climbers. It’s maybe a bit technical for this blog, so I’ve posted it on my coaching blog.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Triangulation sessions in the cave

Good session in the cave today in spring sunshine. I was feeling totally wasted from working far too late for a couple of days (&nights). But seemed to pull this out of the bag despite wobbly arms and sketchy concentration. Maybe it was just too good to slip by…
Actually it was the killer toe hook that sealed the deal. I think I have seen the missing link to extent the big traverse right back into the second half of the cave. 
Perfect spring day today. PS the problem is called Triangulation and it's in the Font 8a ballpark (if not then easier, I lose track).

Saturday 17 April 2010

Some quick facts about the Sron Ulladale live climb

Today I’ve been getting some questions about the BBC live broadcast on Aug 28th. Here are some answers as far as I know them right now:
What happens if it rains, just like last time?
Two possibilities - First the Sron is just about the biggest natural umbrella in the UK. The part we want to climb stays completely dry in the foulest of atlantic weather fronts. Our only Achilles heel might be if an isolated hold or section of the route is seeping from a crack, or the top of the overhangs are too hard to climb in the wet. I’ll know more about this after the golden eagles have finished raising their chicks and I can get on the cliff to look closely. I think in all but a northwesterly gale blowing heavy rain and body numbing cold straight into the overhangs, we should be sheltered and able to climb at least most of it. I have seen some methods of getting to the top by some creative route finding if we can’t avoid wet rock at the top 50m, but it totally depends on the exact nature of the terrain we end up climbing.
But in case of a truly grim storm that really interferes with our climbing, we’ll have a ton of footage to show you from the triple five challenge which we are filming next month. The objectives are all pretty hard - E7 or harder. Naturally we have some options here for frustrating weather as well. Either way, there should be plenty of fine exciting climbing action to bring you on Aug 28th.
I can’t get BBC2 Scotland, can I still watch it?
Yes, it will be streamed live on the BBC website, and shown on the BBC HD channel too. Not doubt there will be plenty of other methods to tune in besides - more on this as I get the information from the BBC.
What will you do if you can’t climb your route?
I’ll fall off and that’ll be that! I’m expecting we’ll have a ‘living end’ standard piece of climbing to do. I’ll be giving it plenty and will be arriving well prepared, psyched and ready for a fine battle. I’m sure Tim will be too. But such is the nature of doing new things in sport; barriers can’t be broken every time. So we might fall off. We’ll all find out on the day. No pressure then…
What islands are you climbing on during the triple five week?
I’ll tell you when I see the forecast the day before we actually climb them, and if Donald can get close enough to the cliffs to land us in his boat. In other words, we have a plan, but that plan is guaranteed to change, and change again as the Hebridean weather has the last word. You’ll have to take my word for it that we’ll be climbing some stunning pieces of rock in some stunning places.

Friday 16 April 2010

The Great Climb 2010

The mighty Sron Ulladale, Isle of Harris
It’s great to be able to talk about this now…Nearly three years ago, the BBC attempted to run the ambitious live ‘Great Climb’ live broadcast on Cairngorm, with myself and a team of climbers from all over the world. We planned, rigged and trained for the big day. And then it rained. The washout was a huge disappointment, partially avenged by my ascent of my project on Hell’s Lum cliff a few days later which became the film ‘To Hell and Back’. 
Ever since, Triple Echo Productions who were behind the Great Climb project have been planning to make another attempt at a big live climbing event for the BBC. This year, the necessary components have aligned and we have a plan:

On 28th August, myself and Tim Emmett are planning to attempt a hard new route on Sron Ulladale, the biggest overhanging piece of rock in the UK (700 feet high, overhanging it’s base by 150 feet or so). As you might imagine, the prospect of this brings feelings of massive excitement, together with a fair dose of intimidation, pressure and anticipation. The correct ingredients for a fine adventure.

Harris landscape
I’d love to tell you exactly which part of the mighty Sron we will try to climb, but last week on our recce, close inspection of the cliff was out of the question due to the golden eagles, nesting on the main part of the face once again. If the eagles hatch chicks (best of luck to them!) we won’t be able to look closely at the lines until August. So until then, it’s training and waiting. Naturally, our plan is to climb the hardest possible route that imagination and finger strength allows.

Colin Wells standing at the foot of Sron Ulladale. The rock in shot above him is roughly the first fifth of the cliff height (!).
However, we have something else up our sleeves for the meantime. We’ll be doing another challenge to feature in the 6 hour live broadcast. We’ll try a triple five challenge of five new climbs on five hebridean islands in five days. Last week Donald took us around many a far flung corner of the Western Isles, showing us many a gobsmacking unclimbed cliff, geo or stack. After serial protracted deliberations in Hotel Hebrides we shortlisted the many amazing cliffs into five objectives, which we will travel between by boat, sleeping below deck, in camps or under boulders.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this as more plans emerge in the coming weeks. Right now I have to go back to training for it. More on the BBC site here.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

The last day or two on Harris

All thinking the same thing?

settling in for the spring

Donald's catch while he waited for us

Joe merging blissfully into Glen Scaladale

Force production is known to correlate to chin distortion. At least Joe's extended chin is only temporary.

Another V9 for Harris if I can get that left foot swung round


Friday 9 April 2010


Proclamation, Font 7c+ (Photo taken in the old irish tradition of lonely Hebridean first ascents; by self-timer, moments after the actual ascent). Going right from here along the rail instead of up will be at least Font 8a.
I had the pleasure of taking the Calmac ferry to Harris today for a week of discovering new places to climb, on foot and tomorrow, by boat. After tea in Hotel Hebrides (much recommended) new cafe in Tarbert, I had two hours to climb some rocks.
Niggling in my mind since my last two trips to Harris was a wee boulder problem on Clisham that had eluded me on both sessions. It had looked as though there was one way, and one way only to climb the thing. As it was a bald, rounded prow of gneiss I was foolish enough to fall for that. Of course it took me to accept that I was about to fail a third time to start using my imagination. Fifteen minutes later, I’d figured out that climbing most of it with at least one foot above my head might actually work. I had three minutes left before I had to leave for evening meetings with colleagues on our project.
So I did it. It was the first time in a while I surprised myself rock climbing and felt elated on the top of a boulder. The reason for this is a renewed hunger for the direct, hands-on grapple with rock texture, as opposed to the winter of being disconnected from the medium by the length of a pair of ice axes all winter long. The Gneiss does a better job of indulging the appreciation of rock and movement aesthetics, and the great feeling of friction underneath the fingers than any rock I can think of.
About fifteen inquisitive sheep witnessed my ascent. A few interrupted their continuous chewing motion to make proud proclamations into the evening haze in the glen. 

Thursday 8 April 2010

All the small things

A couple of days off (spent fiddling with typography and researching) was good for my arms. An unexpected cessation of rain and warm spring sunshine was plenty reason to drop drop everything and head across the road to the isles again for another sortie in the cave. After displacing a gaggle of sheep who had been in residence during the storms, I warmed up and pretty much knew it was on. First try, a little shaky, but I puffed and grunted my through to the end of the link project; ‘All the small things’, Font 8a, in the bag. Check Pete’s video above.

All the small things Font 8a. Photo: Stone Country
As always there is more to add. The link I did finishes at a logical jug in the apex of the cave. But the fun could be extended by dropping back down into the next undercut groove and heading further into the darkness. The moves on this are possible but withstood an hour trying, balancing precariously on stacked buckets to reach up and feel the tiny edges. That one will go at a large grade. Meantime I’m onto the 4* line at the cave entrance, which will be the best Font 8a+ in Scotland if I have my way.
Tomorrow though, I’m bound for the western isles for the first time this season, to check things out for later. Off to pack binoculars, sea sickness tablets and a lot of static rope...

Saturday 3 April 2010

Shortcutting failures

It only takes a few minutes to climb the hard sport route you’ve been trying, or the crux section of that mixed climb, or the anaerobic last half mile of triathlon etc… People think it’s that bit that's the hard bit - the bit that separates the ones that get to the belay or the top or whatever.
It’s not though is it? Because if that crux few minutes of the task is so important, it’s because you’ve invested a hundred failures, crap days, rehabs, and grind that gave you the fitness, the tactic you didn’t think of before or the grit to deal with the effort. A lot of folk go to great lengths to minimise or avoid failing. And that’s the reason for the ultimate failure. It’s not even endurance of repeated failure that’s the limitation - it’s not that hard to get over, really. It’s not unusual either. I think it’s just the orientation away from failure that’s the problem. 
Trying to bypass failure is the shortcut back to the start. The shortcut to the end is directly through the failures.
PS: John from Stone Country posted pics from working the project in the Arisaig Cave. For those of you in bouldering mood, we have his books Bouldering In Scotland and Essential Fontainebleau guides back in stock in the store.

Friday 2 April 2010

Spring heat

Ben Nevis, Good Friday morning!
First, wild snow storms with scary bangs and clatters outside in the blizzard all night, then glorious roasting hot sun. More of this please! Yesterday Donald and I trudged into Stob Coire nan Lochan to look at a hard overhanging new line. But after an hour or so probing about overhanging blankness I could see I was extremely unlikely to gain any more height, so we scooted across the Coire for a fairly chilled ascent of Unicorn. As I brought Donald up the first pitch, a 10 minute glimmer of spring sunshine was enough to start the rime falling from above us. I climbed the third pitch to the big ledges but and we abseiled down, both talking about the end of the winter feeling near and talking about rock climbing objectives for the coming months.

Unicorn looking in fine condition before the afternoon sun got going!

Donald only a few moves up pitch 2 of Unicorn and already having fun

Looking down pitch 3 on Donald

This morning I was off to the cave to meet Pete and John for sessions in the steepness. The morning started off dousing my car in antifreeze to free it from the grip of the deep morning frost. But arriving at the cave it couldn’t have been more different, and the sunbathing:bouldering ratio approached 1:1. Got the long link project ‘in two’ though and I’ll be going in for the kill on this next week no doubt. For a couple of brief moments today I felt like I was remembering how to climb rock.
On the way back through Glenfinnan I took a detour to have a dangle about on a hard slab project Donald had tipped me off about. The moves were done on this. But a lead might take a bit of soul searching for me. A very tenuous and committing crux about 35 foot above a tussocky landing. Either a very serious E8 7a or could be edging into E9. Cant imagine it right now, but perhaps after some more focused work it’ll feel more possible.