Tuesday 29 June 2010

The Indian Face

“It’s just a bit of rock”. Tying in to lead The Indian Face
Yesterday, I climbed the Indian Face. After a couple of sessions on it last week on a flying visit with Claire, I was eager to go back and get it led. So this weekend Claire and I started the long drive south again, gathering Diff and Tom on the way to film the deed for a wee film we’re thinking of making together.
On the way, the forecast got worse, the crag was covered in clouds and the rain started as I was abseiling down the wall to chalk the holds. I took this as a negative sign. However, the burst of rain eased back to spits and spots and this teasing as I uncoiled ropes and briefed Claire of the flight plan saved me from the nerves of anticipation.
A hurried tie in and go was much better that a drawn out moment of commitment. I stopped briefly at the top of the arch 10 metres up to guess if the leaden sky would give me another 20 minutes and then started into the groove, talking to myself (inwardly) about why I was there. The distraction resulted in a left foot that wouldn’t stop rolling off a smear while I fiddled with tiny RPs on big screamers. I stopped, spreadeagled and rested my toes alternately. That was nice; After 10 minutes on the wall I finally stopped reminding myself to be scared, and accepted that I wasn’t scared and should start thinking about the climbing instead.
The next bit up to the good hold before the crux went much better. Stood there I tried to feel the aura of the route to tell myself I shouldn’t be there. But after a few minutes I still wasn’t scared and felt I ought to be getting moving on sore feet. I looked down. Claire was yawning. I felt thirsty, and noticed a fly buzz past. Time to go.
I was tight, aggressive and ready for trouble moving through the crux bulge, but it didn’t come and I woke up three moves from the jug with lost concentration and a misplaced foot on a smear. On a move left I felt both ropes swinging below, unhindered by runners. Get the jug!
I only had time to let Claire know I was holding the jug when the announcement came back that the rain had arrived. A speed climb up the final corners landed me in the wet grass ledge just in time to avoid a rescue epic. A miserable wet trudge down the hill for everyone was a reminder of how lucky and privileged I was to have the opportunity to be here.
This morning we spent a nice morning chatting to Johnny Dawes in Pete’s Eats about our feelings about the climb, and bold rock climbing in general. I can’t wait to read Johnny’s book when he finishes it. What a talented and creative guy!

Doing the business. Diff on the rope filming.

Claire MacLeod - not fussed by belaying Indian Face whatsoever, apart from that it meant getting soaked to the skin and freezing cold.

Coming Back

I had previously had a play on the Indian Face in 2007 but in the end decided to do something else on that trip. It was quite interesting for me to do that, and also afterwards to experience a lot of questions from people at lectures and comments etc.
I decided not to lead Indian Face on that visit for a few separate reasons. First of all, a hold snapped on me while toproping it which made me acutely aware of an objective danger issue not under my control. As routes go, it’s really quite solid and lovely rock to climb. But the small crimpy flakes do occasionally snap. In one way maybe I was unlucky that one snapped on me but I was certainly happy it happened while not leading! So I worried about this at the time. One particular foothold in particular worried me. But it turned out I had gone slightly too far right near the crux and after watching Alun Hughes’ Indian Face film realised I didn’t need to go to that hold.
The other reason was that my feet are, in general, very weak and I seem to suffer more than most from foot cramp and always have a painful first month of the trad season. That spring I’d been working on the first ascents of Metalcore 8c+ at the Anvil until late May so had been doing nothing but dangling from roofs. My feet were bloody killing me on Indian Face. So I figured a trip later in the trad season would be a better idea (which I never got round to). 
The third reason was a bit more subconscious and not necessarily about the Indian Face. I’d just had a year in which things had changed a lot for me, I’d just opened the first E11, repeated two E10 graded routes, done my first 8c+ and gone from beavering away by myself on these projects to talking about them to hundreds of people on lecture tours. I got a bit worried about all this. I worried that I might not be able to keep in tune with the inner voice that keeps you safe and making good decisions on cliffs and routes without much gear. Whether I had anything real to worry about or not is irrelevant, the point is it’s a healthy thing to think if you spend your life sketching about a long way above gear. 
I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could be a bit more relaxed about climbing routes and be able to just walk away and leave them. My concern was that I might slip into an unthinking routine of doing one after another, without taking time to reflect, and in so doing, walk blindly into a climbing accident. So my decision was to leave Indian Face alone until further notice. 
Further notice arrived last week after some dry weather and a month of doing a lot of trad on my weak old toes. So I went back down and did it. All of this is no big deal, is it?
But my surprise was that folk didn’t seem to quite get the difference between trying a route like Indian Face and project at the limit of today’s standard. Even though Indian Face was at the time 2 grades below the maximum level of trad climbing (and now even more), it still kills you if you break a hold, or just make a mistake and fall off it. To climb very poorly protected trad, whether it’s VS or E12, you have to respect the fact that you might get killed doing it. I mean, properly respect it.
The harder the route, the smaller the margin for error, and the more important it is to be completely full of inspiration, focus and love for that route. To be worth it, it’s got to be damn important to you. On a route like Echo Wall, it had a high level of personal meaning for me in lots of ways. So I was willing to increase my level of acceptable risk. Indian Face is a lovely route, but it doesn’t hold that level of meaning for me. So it just didn’t make sense to do it with unfit toes and not enough time to work a sequence around the worrying looking foothold. I spent the last day of the trip doing Trauma instead.
I’d totally recommend this process of deliberately breaking your routine of doing anything that’s risky once in a while, so you can step back and be sure you’re having a clear conversation with yourself about that risk. If people taunt you for ‘bottling it’ in a macho and idiotic manner, all the more reason to hold off until the absolutely correct moment comes around.

Tom and Diff, ready to head back to Pete’s
This spring has been good for injecting some sanity into the comparison between the hardest trad routes. I know I didn’t help much by not bothering to grade Echo Wall, but then it was hard for me to find a good comparison, and still is. I’d concur with Johnny’s original grade (in the scan from the new routes book in the Cloggy guide) of soft E9. In it’s time (the 80s) it was I’m certain the hardest trad route in the world until Dave Birkett put up If Six Was Nine in 1992, which is probably half an E grade harder, just as serious and much more demanding of fitness. ISWN is the benchmark E9 in my opinion. Holdfast is nearly a full grade harder than Indian Face. And it was great to see Dave B repeat The Walk of Life, confirming it at E9 and that there is actually some method in the grading system.
Things have come quite a long way since Indian Face in trad. The hardest route I’ve done, Echo Wall, is either two, or three E grades harder, I can’t really decide. But a direct comparison between them is kind of silly; Echo Wall is about 8c (IF is 7b+) and has poorer protection than Indian Face and is considerably harder to spend any time trying. The experience of climbing both routes could not be more different. After about 15 climbing sessions and I only ever linked Echo Wall on a toprope twice. I think the only time I ever actually fell while working Indian Face was when the hold snapped. Predicting the chances of survival in a fall from poorly protected routes is a highly dubious game. Let me tell you that falling off either route is a seriously bad idea. But if I had to choose I’d rate my chances a lot higher falling off Indian Face onto those RPs than onto the nuts in that wobbly tooth under the Echo Wall roof.
It might seem laboured reading all these details about the grades - it feels like that writing about it too. But the myth about the difficulty of Indian Face has built up to an embarrassing level. As Dawes said to me this morning - “There is so much bullshit written about that route, you would think a Welsh dragon is going to swoop in and get you at the crux”.

Great Wall after the rain came. Thank god I didn’t hang about any longer before leading...
When I’m back in Lochaber, I’ll post up some video stills from the ascent. If you are psyched to see the footage, I’m sure you will later in the year. Thanks to Claire for suffering another singleminded mission to the other end of the UK, a minging sodden trudge down Snowdon in the rain and for saying “It’s just a bit of rock, get it led”.

Johnny and Nick describing Indian Face and where your head needs to be to climb it!

Sunday 27 June 2010

Cloud Mist Rain Drizzle Fog and bird poo

Michael and myself on the Longhope route, just before the cloud and rain ended the day’s play.
The crux pitch linked, I headed back to Hoy with Michael, Claire and Diff for a shot at a redpoint of the route. Time was limited, and weather and work appointments gave us one chance. The day before I walked in with Diff and we rigged ropes out in space above the crux pitch, coming in a various angles to get stable for filming. Before we left, the rain came out of nowhere and we sat in the shelter of a cave before walking out, with the sinking feeling in my head that the sea-salt encrusted cliff would be absorbing all the dampness and conditions would be too poor for the 8c pitch.
Nonetheless, we set off early from our doss the next morning into rain to have a look. It was still raining at the foot of the route three hours later. But we sucked it up and started going up pitches. Michael was doused in bile twice by the evil fulmars, myself only once, but the grim yellow slime ran down my neck as I wobbled onto a ledge. Things kinda went from bad to worse. A belay on an arete in the wind had my teeth chattering once again and higher, while having an discussion with a razorbill stood on my thread runner on the vile crack pitch, I noticed the clouds overhead dropping. They were whizzing over the top of the wall, and quickly obscured the top 100 metres of the wall. The damp air had turned the thick coating of lichen covering the vile crack into viscous goo, adding a tinge of green to the yellow fulmar bile already spread over my clothes. The writing was on the wall.
As we made our abseils, the sight of Diff 300 metres above spinning in a whirlwind of mist and space above us as he stripped the filming ropes was quite a sight.
Timing good conditions, partners and the fitness needed for this climb is damn hard to pull off. Back to the waiting, and training game.

Michael, still looking cheery after a long day

Claire feeling the chill after 8 hours on the edge of the cliff in a gale, filming our ‘progress’.

Diff - it was this big?

Monday 14 June 2010

Interview in Gory magazine

Couple of pics from an interview in Gory magazine (Polish) this month. It was good fun taking all these shots in different kit in the studio with Lukasz.

Still shivering on Hoy

Thanks for the thought

Mmmm, inviting! After a long session on the wall, I was too late to make the last let-in time for the fantastic hostel facility in Moaness. I was hoping Fay would volunteer to open the hostel and let me leave money out for her, but sadly not, so it was a shivery night in the pier building for me. Some ridiculous sessions of aerobics every couple of hours through the night were required to keep the shivers at bay.
Among other things, I took a couple of days to venture back onto Hoy by myself to spend a couple of sessions on the crux pitch of the Longhope project. I had underestimated how dialled I had it when I was having sessions last summer and the effect of one or two of the smallest holds wearing down a tiny bit and just tipping the difficulty in the upward direction.   
The pitch is definitely feeling like F8c. I feel like I have to be climbing at least ‘90%’ to redpoint 8c. What I’m not sure about is if I can walk in and climb 420 metres of pitches up to there and still feel 90%? The two other big problems with getting this route done are the temperature and the bloody birds. I hoped that by now summer might have edged up as far as Orkney, but yesterday I was still climbing in full winter mountaineering clothing and duvet jacket with completely numb hands in the relentless wind. On the crux 50 metre pitch, there is good gear most of the way apart from a long runout early in the pitch up to a break with a hole in it. Most unfortunately, a fulmar is poised right in the back of the hole ready to puke it’s grim stomach contents right into my face right as I would take a 70 foot fall with some nasty ledges within clipping distance. The next gear is a long reach off the hole (the break is too sandy and rounded to take anything else).
So there are still fitness and timing problems to solve. But at least good links have been done and I can get on with rounding off my fitness on some big mountain trad days in anticipation of my nest Hoy venture, whenever summer arrives there?

New Chainsaw

Interesting neuroscientist’s fiction

I was listening to an interesting discussion by a bunch of neuroscientists as they talked through some fictional stories about afterlives and how consideration of the idea of an afterlife causes us to see some interesting perspectives on real life. One brought up a film called ‘Afterlife’ where people were asked to think back on their life to a favourite moment or memory, which they would then be allowed to take with them to the afterlife and could live in their favourite moment forever more.
All very far fetched, right… But the interesting thing was that the memories that people in the story picked were often the most seemingly banal moments - sitting doing nothing in a particular place, simply being with someone special in a totally ordinary setting etc..
It was funny for me listening, while on a long walk out from a session on a hard project and in the process of psyching myself up to try and finish it. The most memorable days trying hard projects in the past have not generally been the day I did them, or even days of good progress. To pick one of my hard climbs as an example, my best memory from doing Rhapsody was late night runs around Dumbarton, simply enjoying the feeling of having done several hours of training that day and winding down with a run. 
This is not to say that having the projects to work towards is therefore not important - quite the opposite. They are essential as the catalyst for the experiences gathered along the way. Without them, life would be emptier.  The flip side of this is that being dependent on success on them closes off the link to those experiences along the way - the ones that will really be memorable long after the project is just a number in your logbook.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Another highland day, another new venue

I met up with Michael and Tom to get the tour of the routes they’ve been working on Ben Narnain at Arrochar. Last year Michael was full of tales of his new route Machete E6 6b - a big wall climb, big runouts, crucial cam slots, and wasn’t sure if it could be edging E7. After lazing in the sun watching Michael clean his next project, I went for the flash with Michael sending up encouragement and the odd bit of information to help decode the rough blank expanse above me. When I hesitated, he assured me holds were on the way. When he warned they were slopey, I was glad of the heads up before I wobbled within reach of them. 
It didn’t help that I took all the wrong gear up the route and made a right mess of placing what I did take. Consequently, climbing it like I was soloing provided a nice workout for body and mind. It all felt a bit tiring by the time I was driving northwards back home and had to stop for a cup of tea to keep my sleepy head functioning for a final hour before collapsing into bed.
Tomorrow, weather permitting I’m on a solo training trip for the Longhope route again.

Climbing with Emmett

A week spent rushing around the Hebrides attempting E7s and 8s with Tim Emmett, under the constant scrutiny of a camera team was a good learning experience. Even more so as we rounded it off with a rather soul searching set of interviews with Edi Stark (who has won a lot of awards for her ability to dig deep into the motivations of her interviewees). 
Any time spent in the company of athletes like Tim is fascinating. Through our own chats, seeing each other in action and talking with Edi we could see some big differences in our approaches to hard climbing. It’s clear to me that there are several ways to skin a cat when it comes to sport performance psychological strategies, especially when you take into account the interaction of a particular strategy with a strong personality.
Today I was reading an interesting idea about nostalgia for the future, and it got me thinking about Tim’s approach. Successful athletes are by definition, driven. It’s that extra they can give that everyone else can’t that inspires us to do at least a little better. But folk like Tim do a LOT better. The guy broke his ankle late this winter and was in plaster just a handful of weeks ago, but did Wales’ first E10 on Sunday. That’s impressive, but from him, not surprising.
Everyone enjoys nostalgia about the past, but I must admit I’d not thought of the concept of nostalgia about the future. We like visualising what the future will be like (usually like the present but a bit nicer, like with your latest project in the bag). Folk that visualise some quite big things and get attached to the vision they’ve created. When failure to realise the vision stares you in the face, it’s painful. And the pain, or fear, can bring out the best in you. It can make you swallow your fear and go for that hold, or get up earlier and train, or rearrange your life to make it happen.
Explained like that, it sounds a bit negative. And sometimes it can be. There are a lot of unhappy sports people out there, elite and non-elite. Sometimes it’s ok to feel this pain in a negative way and use it as a tool, so long as you can stand back afterwards and see it for what it is. Not everyone can.
If you are really a master of goals and following them, you can use your attachment to your vision of the future as a great tool, but never be dragged down into regret.
It seems to me that Tim is a master of this game. Making big goals, facing the potential for failure absolutely head on, feeling the fear and using it as a tool. But how does this square with being happy and relaxed about life? It’s an apparent paradox.
The answer is that the master of goals has the ability to become deeply attached to an ambitious, even improbable outcome, like climbing an E10, yet drop that vision and move on at a moment’s notice without regret if it doesn't work out. I’ve always marvelled at Tim’s ability to set ridiculous goals, tons of them, one after the other, in different sports, and manage so many of them. But no athlete ever manages all their goals. Hence so many are unhappy when they retire from them.
Being a successful athlete implies a deep dissatisfaction with your immediate performance. It’s the only thing that produces enough motivational momentum to realise big changes in performance, year after year. The ability to quit those goals held so dearly as quickly as possible, and without lingering regret is both the secret to achieving many of them and to avoiding turning into an unhappy zealot. Easier said than done. If you get the chance, go to one of Tim’s lectures for a lesson from an exemplar.

Hot Aches Boxless set until the end of June

Just a heads up that the ‘boxless’ set of the Hot Aches productions archive of DVDs is only available until the end of June:
E11, Committed 1, Committed 2, All Mixed Up and Monkey See, Monkey Do for £50.

If you like the look of the offer, now is the time to go here and get it.
This clip is of me on the Hurting from Committed 2. Btw most of Hot Aches film are now available free in short sections on their You Tube channel here.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Triple 5 challenge

Enjoying a wall of immaculate Gabbro on St Kilda
In preparation for The Great Climb on August 28th - our live Climb on Sron Uladail, Richard Else from Triple Echo set Tim Emmett and myself a separate climbing challenge to attempt.
5 new routes on 5 Hebridean islands in 5 days - the Triple 5. The parameters were totally fixed. No second chances, no extensions, no workarounds. I was fairly skeptical to say the least that we could pull it off. Sometimes I’ve barely managed to get five new (hard) routes in five years in the hebrides due to it’s fickle weather. The idea of turning up by boat each morning on a different island, rigging ropes for four cameras and coming away with new hard rock climbs back to back seemed a tad far fetched. 
And so it turned out. We had rain, problems with boats, gales, soakings by waves, breaking holds, falls and violent sea sickness. In amongst all that we had some surprising successes. Obviously to see the outcome you’ll have to tune in to the BBC on your preferred platform on August 28th. How much you’ll see of our adventure will depend on the action happening on our Sron Uladail attempt. If it’s all guns blazing on the Sron then our Triple 5 adventure might be shown a little later. We’ll have to see…
Here are a some pictures to give you a taster of a week that all of us will remember for a long time:

Tim eyes up the Shiants as we approach.

Lonely cottage on the Shiants.

The 30 foot roof on Creag Mo which I fell off three times.

Interested locals watch us on Galta Mor, The Shiants.

Tim enjoying the wildlife packed sea lochs on Lewis.

A moment of concentration as precious cargo is carried aboard.

The Cuma waits patiently for us in Village Bay, St Kilda.

Lewis local. Didn’t say much..

Tea and frantic planning for tomorrow on the boat.

Nice Brian, nice.

Gary takes us across Loch Seaforth after a long night aboard. On the journey to St Kilda I was the most violently sick I've been in my life. My fulmar impression was only matched by Cubby. The nausea failed to wear off as we prepared for our new route on the island. I nearly fainted on the 'high street' of Village Bay. What a state.

Joe enjoying the tour of St Kilda.

St Kilda’s stacks blew us away.

A magic sight of St Kilda’s spiky surreal skyline.

Me, and a team of people who are quite amazing at what they do. It was a pleasure...