Saturday 20 September 2014

What have we done?

What country voluntarily votes to hand over its own independence? Mine did. Yesterday I felt completely empty and devastated by what happened in Scotland. It was a moment when you suddenly realise how easily the chance for something really special can be obscured by the fear of losing what we already have.

Lots of folk have tried to point out positives in what has happened, and I admire them for that. They’ve said it’s got the Scots engaged in politics and that it’s a wake up call for the UK political system. I’m normally first to look for a positive way to look at things, but in this case I think we have to face up to the size and uniqueness of the opportunity we’ve just wasted. Sure, we got engaged in politics. But despite all the discussion, people somehow didn’t see that this movement towards independence wasn’t about nationalism, wasn’t about isolation of ourselves. Despite all the discussion, people still focused on the character of individuals like Alex Salmond, they thought that big corporates warning us that prices would go up was them speaking for our best interests, not theirs.

And what about that wake up call for the UK’s political system? I don’t think I can bear to watch as month by month, they slowly hit the snooze button and roll over. Just as they have done for the climate change wake up call, the banking crisis wake up call, The ever increasing mountain of debt, the food industry that is making us fat and ill, the slow failure of antibiotics and all these other problems that don’t win votes to address.

For a few weeks, I almost dared to feel that just once in my lifetime, a country could be smart and courageous enough to see past all this, and that country would be my country. It was too good to be true. I tried all day to digest it and in the end, wandered outside into a warm night, sat down in the grass and cried. Not for my own selfish interests, but for what this means for us as people all across the world.

Of course I respect the decision even though I thought it was an awful one. I certainly don’t blame some people for feeling that we don’t need independence. This may turn out to be true, in a way. Sure, we can settle for what we have right now. We are one of the luckiest countries in the world already. However, this only deepens the irony that we should pass up the opportunity for life in the country to have become much more meaningful, exciting and rewarding.

I have to admit that there is not a lot I can take from this experience to improve my own life and contribution. I will remember it for my remaining years as among the most hopeless days of my life. What I will take, is the biggest reminder I think I’ll ever have that our human minds are far too full of fear. Rather than changing for the better, it seems like modern life is making this even worse. So my lesson from this is that life is too short and shit not to be utterly fearless in grabbing the good opportunities that do come your way. 

Thursday 18 September 2014

A Scottish route on Cima Ovest!

A new route through this roof? Yes, let's do it!!! Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective.

 I wrote the first few paragraphs below about a week ago in the Dolomites, but didn't post it up. Thankfully, I put them right out of date in the days that followed:

Sep 6th. I am in the Dolomites for the second time this summer, trying to do a new route. I’ve spent over three weeks here and had less than ten days on the wall. The locals tell me it’s been the worst summer in decades. Since there’s not much I can do about that, I’m trying to focus on the good stuff I’ve already done.

First, I came out for a week with Karl and started to try and aid climb through the immensely steep line I wanted to climb. That was a lot of fun, most of the time anyway. After a run of body weight placements on one section, I finally got a big bong fully into a pocket and shouted down to Karl that I finally had a good placement to settle my nerves and potentially retreat from. A few minutes later while sitting on a skyhook above the good peg, it came right out in my hand with the slightest touch.

I pressed on but eventually arrived at a blank roof with no holds for free climbing and realised it wasn’t going to happen. I resigned myself that the new route idea was finished and I’d try Alex Huber’s famous route Panaroma instead. On the last day I went up for a look at Panaroma’s top 8c pitch. From the vantage point of the big loops of static rope in space under the roofs, I spotted a potential other way for the new route. This continued to simmer in my mind while I was back home in Scotland for two weeks of film work.

I arrived back in the Dolomites on Aug 24th and got stuck straight into investigating the line on my own, while Alan Cassidy and Rob Sutton worked on Bellavista. I got a great start and managed to get the pegs in across the roofs and get a fixed rope in place in a couple of days. In the following week, we lost time to bad weather, but I still managed to complete the intense process of cleaning the spectacularly loose rock and figuring out which holds were solid enough.

The route looks utterly amazing. And now it’s ready for me to start working it. But it won’t stop raining and we only have 4 days left. Since I have decided to stop putting so much pressure on myself, I have already accepted that I will have to come back next summer to climb it. It’s just not been the summer for getting stuff done in the Dolomites. We saw Jacopo Larcher going through the same process on Panaroma, slipping off the damp crux repeatedly after hanging out here for the summer.

I’m still happy with the way things have gone. The route is well worth a return trip next summer.

4 days later...

Well it didn’t quite work out like that. Two days among an endless stream of thunderstorm days turned out to be ok. I tried my absolute best to make both of them count. On the first day I shunted up the lower pitches (6b+, 6c+, 7a, 6c+) to warm up, then quickly saw off the first roof pitch which was only 7b+. The next pitch, around 8a+ and the best pitch I’ve ever seen in the Dolomites was great fun to work on. First go up I worked out the moves, which were just brilliant. The pitch kicks off with a huge span across the roof to a flake and wild cut loose, followed by powerful, positive climbing in the most mind blowing situation. On my second go, I nearly linked the whole pitch, but had to give in 15 feet from the belay with terminal rope drag (just needed double ropes). At the belay I was so pumped I couldn’t imagine climbing anything else and was desperate to go down. 

At this point the route joins Alex Huber’s Panaroma just before its 8c pitch through the final roofs. I forced myself to go out and try the moves, since I knew there would be only one more day in the trip to try the project.
The next day I felt like I’d been given a good kicking. I belayed Alan while he destroyed an 8b+ in the valley sport crags, saw off yet another amazing pizza in seconds and then hit the sack. The forecast for the next day was good, and everyone knew it would be the last day for climbing on the project. They asked ‘What time are we getting up?’ Since my best effort on the top 8c was still basically a bolt to bolt, albeit while feeling very tired and shivering in the cold, I told them I would have a 5% chance to succeed so there was no point getting up early. An extra few hours of sleep would do more for my chances. So we rose at 8 and drunk a lot of tea.

The awesome big 8a+ pitch leading up into Panaroma. They don't come much more out there than this pitch. Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective. Incidentally, Coldhouse filmed our ascent for Mountain Equipment. I'll post up the footage when it's released.

At 11am I started leading the lower wall pitches with Alan Cassidy, which floated by without any dramas. The roof was its usual damp and slippery self, so the 7b+ around the nose felt like a wake up call and I arrived at the diving board perch belay quite pumped. I shared with Alan that I was unsure even to bother continuing since the rock was so damp. But I was just letting of steam - of course there’s no way I would waste an opportunity to try, especially as I noticed some fitness in my arms from the previous session. So, for my damp 8a+ burn, I did the only thing I could do, took out my brain and went for it at full pelt. Where the fall is scary but basically safe, I find the best mindset is to almost invite the fall by removing all inhibitions and climb with total commitment. And so, after some nervous waits at each shakeout along the way, I arrived at the Panaroma belay with a deep burning pump in my arms and stared across at the 8c. 150 metres climbed, 12 metres between me and 6c+ maximum to the top.

Staring out a wet flake on the Panaroma 8c pitch. Photo: Matt Pycroft/Coldhouse Collective.

I knew it would be wet and slippery, and I’d have to engage full on terrier mode to even have a chance. But again, what else would I do? No prizes for not giving it everything. So I shut my mind up, sat for a quiet moment in my harness, and then departed. The next three minutes were not particularly pretty. Feet pinged off wet footholds, brute force kept me on the rock and I don’t think I’ve ever had a higher breathing rate. Then I found myself hanging from a huge jug on the vertical expanse above the final roof, unable to get a word out between gasps for oxygen. After a minute or two, I’d calmed down enough to flop onto the belay ledge and grin.

So. Just two 6c+ pitches and then 400 metres of the Cassin route to go. I looked around at the sky and saw rain showers in all directions. Please don’t rain on us! It didn’t. With fantastic luck, the showers melted away into the evening as we raced higher and higher up the Cassin route, switching rapidly at the belays and speed climbing upwards. at 11pm, we strolled without our headtorches on to the summit of Cima Ovest in glorious full moonlight and a perfectly warm and still night. After taking in the incredible moonlit vista for a while and chatting to Helen and Claire on the phone, we ambled down for beer at 1am.

It was both the hardest and definitely the finest route I've climbed in my 5 or so trips to the Dolomites over the past 13 years. The lower wall free climbs the first 90 metres of the old Baur aid route (don't trust those old drilled pegs, they break!). But the best thing about it is that it climbs more or less straight up through the roof amphitheatre. As I write on September 18th, I'm hoping and waiting eagerly to find out if my country will take it's opportunity to complete it's new route and eclipse this climb as the highlight of my summer so far.

Sept 19th update: I thought of a name. Project Fear 6b+, 6c+, 7a, 6c, 7b+, 8a+, 8c, 6c+, 6c+, 5+, 6a, finish via Cassin.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Now that is a courageous statement

My friend Craig posted this up tonight. I think it‘s brilliant that he had the courage to stand in front of a camera and put his thoughts across so honestly and directly. Well done to him and everyone else who has done similar, no matter how they feel about the decision Scotland makes tomorrow.

Not only do I agree with what Craig says, and the way he looks at the whole argument, but I really felt happy to watch it - that we have people around willing to stand up and put such a clear case for something as uncool as politics. Perhaps it's partly because I know Craig from School and so the conviction of his delivery underlines how smart but weird teenagers can turn into really smart adults. He looked even sillier than me with long hair, but was pretty damn handy at playing Metallica guitar solos. I last bumped into him on his way to a MENSA meeting in Glasgow.

Tomorrow is an opportunity to do something amazing, not just for us, but for the whole world actually. To make a really huge step to change ourselves. And to do it without going to war, which will be a great example for the world. I'll jump for joy if we have the courage to go ahead and do it.

Friday 5 September 2014

Geological mapping, on your iPhone

Here is the second film we were involved with this summer. Glasgow based geological mapping company Midland Valley asked us to shoot and produce a film on Ben Nevis detailing the new app they have released for geologists to do digital field mapping. We had a great time on the north face of the Ben and learned a lot from the guys.

FieldMove Clino - Digital Field Mapping from Midland Valley on Vimeo.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Scotland - what to decide? A starting place in the decision making process

 Although this blog is primarily about my thoughts on climbing, I’m aware that the huge decision on Scottish independence is getting close, and I need to think about whether to keep my thoughts to myself, or share them with others. It doesn’t seem to make sense for interested parties to make their decision in a bubble of isolation. Why not discuss it openly? Moreover, why not make clear where the gaps in the arguments aired in the media lie, so that we may have more of the information we need to come to the best possible decision.

Unlike the way the decision is presented by politicians, I don’t feel that anyone can truly come to the right or wrong decision, where right or wrong implies prosperity of the country in the future. Either path carries considerable uncertainty. In my mind, the right decision is the one that people are happy to have made, given the information and feelings we have at the time. Even if it did turn out to make us a tiny bit worse off in the pocket, that won’t make it the wrong decision because either path could have led to that outcome.

Because of these uncertainties, I was undecided for a long time, but as I’ve thought it over repeatedly, I have now decided that a Yes vote is definitely the choice I wish to make. Part of the reason it took me a long time to reach a firm conclusion was the the disappointing level of coverage of the issue in the mass media. In the political field, each side is obliged to try to strengthen it’s case. Realistically, what else could we expect? I hoped to hear more from respected intellectuals who were prepared to offer their thoughts. Thankfully, these have appeared on the internet over the past few months.

If ever there was an issue that is not black and white, it is this. Here are some questions and ideas that have come to my mind to guide me through this decision, which I am so happy to have made. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve been truly excited to receive my ballot paper through the letterbox.

These ideas span several different concepts and issues, and all of them seem relevant to me. I hope they are at least interesting to some of you who may be going through the same difficult process.

Part 1: Power

They say that the one lesson from history is that no one learns anything from history. However, right now we have a future in front of us of being able to make decisions for ourselves. I cannot find a good reason to take a huge gamble in handing this power over to a distant government. The idea that power is never given, only taken comes to mind here. Although I do think there are some major problems with politicians, political system, and the way the media handle it in the UK, on the whole I do think that many politicians are trying to do good work under difficult constraints. However, I have a basic worry that the distance breeds complacency. I am unsure about others worries that Scotland may lose influence internationally. If we replace the ability to interfere in the middle east with a focus on the advancement of education of our own people, we will end up being able to exert global influence in much more effective ways (such as in solving many of the problems that cause wars in the first place).

I just mentioned that I felt Westminster politicians are generally speaking trying to do good work. The British political system is a somewhat archaic arrangement, which creates some  undesirable consequences and sometimes appears to reward the wrong behaviour among politicians. There have been repeated opportunities to change it, but these haven’t been taken. I fear that this will simply continue if we vote to hand our power over to a government in London.

Peoples across the ages right up to the present day have given their lives in a struggle to take their power back from distant government. All those people didn’t fight for nothing. In general, it’s because distant government just doesn’t act in their best interests. It is interested in the resources of the territory, rather than taking care of the people living on it. It’s almost unbelievable that we are being given the opportunity to take the decision without a single bullet fired. 

So why are the polls predicting that we will vote to reject home rule? Surely, it must be down to psychology?

Part 2: Psychology

Consider the scenario that we were voting for or against a union with a government in London if we had been an independent country for the past 300 years. Do you think we would vote for it? Surely, the very idea would be laughed at. Therefore, the psychology of the status quo must play a huge part in our decision making.

The current government is in severe danger from UKIP simply because of the very modest effects of European influence on our government. There is an irony that that they argue that the UK union should stay together. I also wonder how the English would vote in a referendum to move the seat of government to Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh.

Is the future status quo not an illusion? Obviously, it’s a leap of faith to vote for setting up a new government (not a country - we are already a country!). But surely it’s also obvious that it’s a huge leap of faith to enter a union with a country which has some frightening looming problems. I’m thinking here about us leaving Europe, spending vast quantities of money and lives on wars that don’t seem to have helped, killing off the NHS, failing to properly address the many issues that contribute to wellbeing of the population.

The status quo in our country is that the leading cause of death among male adults between 21-50 is suicide. I can’t see any reason to vote for a status quo where our children are more likely to wish to end their own lives in their prime than in years gone by. The status quo is not making us happy. I don’t feel that there is much to lose by letting go of risk aversion and voting to take another path.

Part 3: Wealth

Despite the fact that our current wealth (in a world perspective) has not made us happy, the data shows that the short term effects on our financial situation are most likely to swing voters decisions. There are two critical points about this.

Firstly, the predictions about whether we may be slightly better or slightly worse off are totally unreliable. On both sides, they are assumptions, based on assumptions. Economists are famous for being unable to agree on anything. And recent history certainly underlines the lack of ability to predict avoidable economic disasters. To vote based on predicted numbers truly is to take a gamble. 

Secondly, what is wealth? The most exciting piece of discussion I’ve heard in the mass media relating to the independence debate was back in May and wasn’t even being discussed in the context of independence. It’s well known that above a basic level, more money doesn’t mean more happiness and wellbeing. I’m simplifying and recommend some good reading that explores the complex picture. The media constantly encourages us to worry about GDP, despite the ever greater understanding that it doesn’t relate to quality of life. Back in 1968 Bobby Kennedy said GDP “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. Although it doesn’t make such an easy headline for mass media, the social progress index has over recent years shed much more light on what is important. It puts GDP in it’s place as one among many factors we should be concerned about. The findings, and the league table of countries makes interesting reading. Note that the UK is a lot lower on the list than some other countries that have much in common with Scotland.

I’m not saying money isn’t important. But since the numbers war averages out at a few hundred quid either side of the recent past and it’s clear that this sort of difference has only limited effects on wellbeing (that may well be countered in other ways), it doesn’t seem right to take the gamble along these lines. Moreover, an Independent Scotland, even in tough times is likely to be more left leaning than the current government and pay closer attention to those with least opportunity. For these reasons, surely the best lines across which to thrash out a decision are cultural.

Part 4: Culture

Niall Ferguson (a conservative) described in 2012’s BBC Reith* lectures why countries prosper first and foremost from their institutions rather than simply their industries. He was referring to legal and educational institutions. In both of these fields, Scotland has institutions which are looked up to around the world. He also pointed out that the accumulation of national debt is now undermining democracy since successive generations inherit the debt without having voted to accumulate it. Whether you choose to love or hate the SNP, they have been clear about their intention and proposed methods to reverse the current direction of the UK of accumulating vast quantities of debt. Although our current austerity programme is reducing our national deficit, the debt is still rising.

Very few Scots seriously question whether we ‘could’ be independent. I would urge the few that do to have more confidence! So to decide whether we should, surely we should think about what would give us a greater sense of being part of a community, greater sense of purpose and a feeling that our voice as individuals or may be heard.

This aspect has been my strongest lever towards voting yes. We are already a country, in all but government. Completing that missing piece by deciding to govern ourselves would allow us to shape our circumstances to better reflect our needs. Sure, we have absorbed so much of culture from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. There is a McDonalds in every town. We eat full Scottish breakfasts, which are basically full English breakfasts plus Irn Bru. Etc. But it seems pretty clear to me that we are different from the rest of the UK. Suitably different to benefit from having a sovereign government. That was also the view of the UK's outgoing permanent representative to NATO, expressed while she was pointing out that NATO would have no reason to interrupt Scotland's membership.

Where England is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, Scotland is one of the least. Rather than worrying about the influx of foreign talent, we realise that we need it. Where England repeatedly votes for a Tory government with a far right chaser, we have always leaned a little more to the left.

I just don’t feel the government represents us. In fact, I don’t think we are even on their radar. The independence referendum neatly illustrates this. So many in England are barely even aware that the UK is a few points away from breaking up.

It ought to go without saying that I have no axe to grind against the UK. None whatsoever. I feel that the situation we are in is just human nature. We are a tiny part of the UK, population wise, with quite different needs and ideals. And so it has come about that we have been given the chance to represent ourselves, but remain connected in the wider European Union. At a very basic level, it makes sense. I still want to do business with, travel to and consume culture from the rest of the UK, just as I do from the the rest of Europe which I regularly spend time in and have friends in. 

I do feel that taking the step to independence will do Scotland a massive amount of good. If there is one piece of Scottish culture that I feel still exists and is not our best asset, it’s lack of confidence. I think that it will make it more focused, more flexible, and especially more confident. 

So I’m voting Yes.

*Footnote: John Reith, of Stonehaven, developed the concept of public service broadcasting for the education of the people and created the modern BBC as its first director general. I doubt he would have any confidence issues with the idea of establishing a Scottish broadcasting service. He admitted that he felt he had the skills to “manage any company”. He put his money where his mouth was.

Lots of films

This summer I have been involved in many films, both in front, and behind the camera. Here is the first of them. Land Rover made this little film about me which I guess focuses on how the decision not to leave any unspent effort on the table tends to help you go home with the route in the bag. It’s a difficult concept to explain in simple soundbites. But ultimately, you need to be in a place where desire to complete the climb simply overwhelms fear of failure, falling, and any other excuses to miss your opportunities.

Bit of a bottleneck

Bit of a bottleneck

“People ask me if I’m busy, I tell them, ‘I’m so busy I had two heart attacks’. They congratulate me on this achievement.”

Ruby Wax

Over the last ten years or so I have been fantastically lucky to have one great opportunity after another. Sometimes, they’ve come all at once and I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve made a real mess of dealing with that. I’ve been awful at choosing between good things, like a toddler in a toy shop. My general approach has just been to try and have it all. Understandable I hope, but still stupid.

I’m even more ashamed to admit that going at full pelt with no off button for so long has, at times, made me unhappy, although I mostly didn’t realise it. This is because life is not black and white. I love virtually all of the activities I do in my life. In fact I can’t get enough of them. So on one hand I’ve had numerous influences helping me to enjoy and make the most of life. However, two things have pulled in the other direction - injury, and over-working myself.

From day to day, doses of things such as training sessions are such a pleasure and a boost, and are enough to counter the negative effects of another night working until 2am. In the short term at least. But sooner or later, the cost of this is evident. And I’ve realised that sometimes this way of working has starved the golden goose. I ought to know better.

I could go into more detail on the problems I’ve created for myself, but they are not unusual to me, so there isn’t any need. The question is what am I going to do about it?

Just because you wake up and see the problem doesn’t make it go away. I don’t write to do lists on paper any more but they are still there in my head and I still want to do them. My first plan is to stop beating myself up about failure to achieve unachievable goals, or goals only achievable at huge costs elsewhere. I have proven to myself that I have the dubious ability to work myself to death for years on end. Sure this approach gets projects sent tomorrow. But I have also proved, as so many others do in the western world, that it soon kills you.

I’m determined to make a better job of focusing on the priorities, saying no, or later to the rest, and deciding not to beat myself up for not managing everything.