Friday 27 July 2012

A scary lead on the Caldera slabs

Eyeing up the crux, no going back now. Pallor E7 6b first ascent on the Caldera slabs, Ben Nevis.
Since my elbows finally got healthy last autumn, I’ve been on a mission to get strong and fit after three years unable to really train. I’ve been unleashing my keenness mainly the bouldering and sport climbing disciplines and although I’m still only part way through the process of getting where I want to be, I’ve had some good milestones. Part of a grand plan? Well sort of. Partly I’ve just missed pulling really hard on holds at my limit and now on a year long indulgence! But partly I know that to build my climbing to another level it has to start with bouldering, then sport climbing, then I’ll have a good foundation to do something good on trad.
With all this building a new base line I’ve not really climbed an unprotected trad route for ages. In fact I can’t really remember the last time. Yesterday we went to the Granite slab. I was just going to belay Kev and have a play on the routes. But I still took my helmet and a pair of jeans, in case.

In the end, I decided I might as well lead the first project on the slab. It feels rather hard for E7 given the height and absence of gear, but climbs just a little too easily to be happy to give it E8. So E7. I clipped some cams three moves up to stop my body rolling to the car park if I did decide to fall off and headed upwards. 
In the absence of recent trad experience I fluctuated in and out of the right mindset, having conversations with myself and becoming distracted (relatively speaking of course!), then popping back into the flow for a few moves. Thankfully I flowed properly at the crux and watched myself carefully smear through and creep my fingers onto the finishing ledge. It was nice to remember why I do bold trad. It’s a demanding passion but excellent when you make the investment to do it right.

I wondered if the good vibe would help me on my Steall project today. It didn’t. I wasted a fine chance with a belayer and a cold wind by fumbling the same move on two consecutive attempts and failing to get back to my highpoint. I can climb it in overlapping halves every session and nearly every try and even in not so great conditions. I’ve been here before - 95% good enough but exhausted all the easy channels of progress. I think I’ve hit a wall. My patience for acting like an amateur has run out. It’s time I got to grips with addressing the hard components influencing my performance that I’ve been avoiding.

Kev working on the line, Steall gorge behind. Nice place eh?

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Triassic boulders on Raasay

The most I knew of Raasay was Sorley MacLean’s famous and rather haunting poem ‘Hallaig’ in Martyn Bennett’s album Bothy Culture. It brings alive a sense of the ancient and now abandoned remote communities across the island and how what seems like remote exploring for us today was once home to generations of MacLeods and Macleans until the Highland clearances. I especially liked these lines;
Between the Leac and Fearns
the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning,
and return from Clachan,
from Suisnish and the land of the living;
each one young and light-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.

Approaching the crux of Screapadal Prow 7C+
After last week’s recce with Michael I returned to finish the giant prow. Both of us were very excited just to climb on it, whether we succeeded or not. It’s a mega piece of climbing and one of the best lines of it’s grade in the country for sure. I cleaned an extended start first of all - a 30 move F8c route to come back to. 
Then I set about the standard start; still 23 moves with the crux being the last few. After one go I reassessed my initial estimate up to at least Font 7c+. Tired and a bit worn down from a long week of training, I knew I could only have three good goes, which were all lost to various footwork disasters. “What an amateur!” One of these ended painfully in a hole full of razor sharp blocks adjacent to the 5 mats we brought. Sporting my war wounds, I messed up the tired 4th go as well. Oh well, next trip it is then…

Michael working the moves
The last go was the formality, just to finish me off. I didn’t think I’d even drag my expended arms to the crux. But of course, on this try I managed not to make any mistakes, and leapt for that finishing jug with full commitment. The walk back seemed even more scenic. A classic not to be missed if you climb the grade and you like exploratory Scottish climbing.
Doing a new climb here is something special. It’s not the same as a good session at your local crag, or down the wall. For me it’s an order of magnitude different. It’s an experience that really does inspire and last. The distance to go there, and the risk of wasting a day or two in the rain is nothing compared to what you have to gain if you get to walk this coastline past Screapadal and the sandstone towers and find amazing lines hidden between a jungle of rocks, some unclimbably soft, some perfect.

Caldera crags

Kev checking out some future very scary granite slab climbs on Ben Nevis
On the outer rim of the Ben Nevis volcanic caldera is a ring of granite surrounding it’s andesite centre. The granite is the stuff that gently baked the mica schist of Glen Nevis, giving it it’s honeycomb texture that makes it so great to climb. But not much of the granite is exposed as crags unfortunately. I’ve often passed small outcrops of the stuff on various approaches to the Ben and thought it would be nice to find a good crag or boulder made of this stuff since it’s some of the nicest rough granite I’ve ever seen. 
One place I kept meaning to look were the obvious slabs high on the slopes of the Ben, directly above the car park for Steall. I say high - they only look high because of the savage slope leading up to them. They are actually only about 6/700m altitude. On last week’s run I went past one of them and found an immaculate 15 metre slab of granite with four routes to do on it and an even bigger slab above. Two lines in particular stood out as the best gritstone style E7/8 slab climbs I’ve seen. A bit like the classic Cairngorm E7 ‘Firestone’ but with even better rock.
Kev and myself couldn’t resist checking them out and so we slogged up and had a play on them. As suspected, a pair of fantastic but very bold climbs to be done there. An E7 6b and E8 6c. Something to go back to when feeling rather confident. If I'd remembered my helmet, the E7 line may just have got an ascent. But probably best to have to go back with a strong mind anyway.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Mystic Stylez 8C video

Video of me doing the repeat of Daniel Woods problem Mystic Stylez in Switzerland a couple of months ago. The clip comes from the Polished Project’s film about my reflections on climbing which is on the way.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

The Nevis breakfast, again

Finally needing a climbing rest day I went for another fasted run before breakfast. The weather was fine so I opted for Ben Nevis, straight up the slope from the Glen Nevis road end in a brutally steep glycogen burning continuous climb straight to the summit. Going as fast as I could, I could start to feel the glycogen tank emptying after only 45 minutes, motivation to keep slogging dying off and being replaced by a strong desire to lie down and sleep.
Having a few of these runs in the bag recently is meaning I can now keep going a fair bit better once the tank is empty and I’m making glucose out of body fat. The next 45 minutes to the summit felt predictably hard work, but some good tunes got me through it and all of a sudden strolling over the plateau to the observatory. 
I sat down in the cool breeze among the crowd of summitteers, for a few minutes. I couldn’t stay though, I was pretty damn hungry and the sound of many sandwiches being munched all around me was deafening. Get moving!
My legs felt worked but were still strong to bounce back down the boulderfields in a good run and off into Coire Gubishean and onto to upper Steall. Running through Steall I could really feel I was burning fat and stopping running even for a moment to clamber over rocks on jelly legs gave me an overwhelming urge to lie down. So I cruised on happily down the familiar path back to my car and an egg roll in town.
Today, I’m 34. Birthday itinerary: Swimming with the girls, book writing, feeding midges at Steall.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Raasay recce

100 metres high, the grey stuff is good sandstone, and it goes on for miles along the coast. Running out of new rock in the UK? Aye...

For ages Michael and myself have been keen to go and look at the huge Triassic sandstone cliffs on the east coast of Raasay and scope out what potential there might be. After a hard day at Steall we decided now was a good time for a day trip and sped up there.

First up we checked out this huge slot of Sandstone. Beautiful rock formations and good stone. But maybe a little too sheltered to get dry enough very often. I could be wrong though. You’d get some lovely E8 and upwards 25 metre solos in here, or some great sport routes!
Then we headed along the lovely coast past Screapadal and the now long abandoned crofting communities that existed in this remote spot. As we expected, there was a TON of rock. Towering sandstone cliffs over 100 metres high with only a handful of the very easiest lines climbed, and the slope below covered in countless boulders.

Mega boulder, 20 metres high. Unfortunately made of cheese.

Both the cliff and boulders were a little dissapointing on closer inspection. The main face routes would make one of the best sport cliffs in Scotland, or some death defying barely protected trad which didn’t really inspire me too much (maybe it’s just not St John’s Head?!). We spent ages looking round the boulders finding countless problems in the V0-V3 range that looked great, but not much for ourselves. But finally we stumbled upon one line that changed our psyche - the biggest, baddest Font 7c/+ roof in Scotland!

It looked simply awesome. But we were now counting down to run for the ferry time. The landing was full of big holes so we moved rocks for an hour and built a mega landing. I got the holds clean and moves done rapidly and then looked at my phone; we should have left 20 minutes ago to catch the last ferry! There was time for one try.

It was 22 moves long, pretty techy and a little scary at the end. I unfortunately caught a hold wrong near the end and didn’t get it. I cursed, but there was nothing to do but scrabble to get trainers on and spend the next 30 minutes running at 180bpm to catch the ferry, which we did. So there is something to go back for. I’m glad in a way. It’s such a lovely piece of rock, and although I’m pretty sure I can do it in an attempt or two, It’ll be worth the day trip to enjoy it properly...and then try the left hand exit.

Another Steall milestone.

Michael gears up for another scrap with Steallworker (8b), a cloud of midges above. Get tied in, whirr your jacket around a few times to disperse the midge pack, rip the bag off your head and go!

The other day I completed a new 8b+/c at Steall. ‘Irn Age’ climbs pretty much all of The Fat Groove (8a) to the roofed groove and then pulls right to climb pretty much all of Maxwell’s Demon (8b+). Although it has two no-hands rests on it low down, it’s still a good test of stamina and a mega trip up the crag with a tough finale. I certainly felt I needed to be quite fresh for the crux of Maxwell’s Demon which is right up near the last bolt after 35 metres of climbing.
After I got a nice sequence on the crux I did think Irn Age would be 8b+ and Maxwell’s Demon could actually be 8b. But Michael pointed out that it is way harder than any of the 8b+s or even the 8c’s I’ve done abroad. A classic case of a route feeling easy when you do it. Too many of the routes at Steall are my own and there’s noone repeating the harder ones them despite attempts, so I don’t have much info to go on to figure out what grade everything might be. Moving on...
Finally I can feel the effects of my circuits in my arms, climbing The Fat Groove without getting a pump and actually recovering on the better holds high on the route. Although it’s obviously miles easier than my 9a project just to the right, it’s still a confidence booster that these routes can go despite wet holds, bad weather and the odd midge.
I’ve put in the hours on my harder project, so I have the moves really smooth. I’m feeling 85% there fitness wise. But I think the real issue might come down to conditions. Last week I had a brief go on it again and just couldn’t even hang the two crux edges. Unless it’s cold and windy the tiny crystals just cut my skin. The northerlies of this week have turned out to be way too weak to be of any use at Steall.
So there are still some hurdles, but I’m making enough progress to want to keep at it for now.

Out jogging

Looking back down the lower slopes of Leitir Fhionnlaigh, my house near the bottom right and Meall na Teanga across Loch Lochy.

I rounded off yesterday’s rest day with a jog in the hills around my house. Straight out of my back garden I can go straight up with a continuously steep slope to 600m altitude. If I go at high heart rate up this it’s a good primer to burn some glycogen and then go for a cruise along the ridge at the top. Actually it’s not really a cruise at all thanks to the huge peat troughs lining the plateau above the leitir. Every ten metres or so you jump 6 or 8 feet down into a trough and jump and commando roll back up the opposite wall. So it’s a bit of an assault course! All quite good fun, especially in the rain. Getting cold, wet, muddy and burning some energy at a fast pace.
Since I’ve not had too many mountain cliff days out so far this summer, I’m keen to do some more runs to keep me in shape. Generally my preference is for fasted long distance hill runs at a gentle pace for 2-6 hours. It is sometimes hard to find time to fit them in though, especially when I’m doing endurance work in my climbing training so I’m doing wall circuits every day and need to be careful to eat lots to fuel the work. I could probably manage to time it well to do both and indeed I might be getting fit enough now to start experimenting with that.
Ideally I’d run pretty much all morning, then work, then eat, then climb. My biggest limitation for making it happen is probably disciplining myself to go to bed early. I do find that it’s nice to have some late evening relaxation time after training and family time during the day. Plus, being a night owl it’s all too easy to stay up late. I need a coach to remind me how important it is to get some rest. I’ve spent a lot of the past years on 6 or 7 hours sleep a night which for me just isn’t enough to progress in my sport. The ideal amount would be 10 hours. For that I’d need to be well disciplined!

Friday 13 July 2012

Wet season training

If you’re reading from the UK you don’t need me to tell you the weather has been grim. The rain has been one thing, although you can usually get round that in Scotland given our abundance of steep crags which aren’t seepy limestone. High humidity and light winds (i.e. Midge weather) have been the stopper. Actually, our rain has been very light and although there haven't been too many lovely days, the crags are in general very dry.
I could go cragging I guess, which might be good for the head. But it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do for some reason. Training feels right, or at least did feel right. 
I have been doing my circuits night after night. Some strange things are going on though which I can’t put my finger on. I’m definitely getting less pumped per circuit. I’m even getting a reasonable amount done. Yet for some reason, I don’t ‘feel’ fit.
When warming up I’m feeling rough and starting from a low base. And even once I’m going I feel heavy. I’m guessing it’s just one of those periods you have to go through every so often. So I’ll carry right on, until my body decides to wake up to the message that I need it to get fitter and stronger.
To be fair, I do have a hunch that I was actually losing fitness when I was having all those sessions at Steall just on the one route. I’ve had that before and it can be quite marked. So I probably am starting from a low base! It’s quite early days too - 2 or 3 weeks on plastic after a long time away from it. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that it feels like a bit of a shock to the system. We’ll see how things go for another couple of weeks and if the conditions are still poor for Steall I’ll decide whether it’s best to train more or go out and do some trad new routes. My bias will definitely be to train more. Doing trad new routes is always what I do in summer and although I love it, it might be a nice time to do something different and really make a 100% effort to do the hardest piece of climbing I’ve done.
There’s no doubt that there will be good conditions at some point during July and August. But even if it takes until September, at least I’ll have some endurance to speak of! When deciding like this I guess you have to really weigh up what success on the project would mean for you. For me, it would be the most important climb I’ve ever done (quite apart from being the hardest for me personally since it’s not my style). It would be such a great milestone to move on to something fresh.
Quite a strong argument to train like hell..