Tuesday 28 June 2016

Return of the King

High on Return of the King, E9 6c, Scafell. Photo: Steve Ashworth/Lake District Images

Over the years I’ve repeated several of Dave Birkett’s excellent hard trad routes in the Lake District - If Six Was Nine (E9), Caution (E8), Impact Day (E8) Dawes Rides a Shovelhead (E8) and John Dunne’s route Breathless (E9). But I’d never got myself up to Scafell where Birkett left a trio of E9s that looked fantastic.

To me, Return of the King looked the most appealing line to try first. Last Tuesday I headed down and drove round to Wasdale for the first time. Lovely place! Having observed lots of ‘Vote Leave’ and UKIP banners in many of the Cumbrian villages on the drive round from Keswick, and having overheard several conversations in cafes and shops en route, I walked in with a head full of contemplation about the UK and its future, which at the time I still hoped would be to choose to stay in Europe. With the realisation that the bubble of ‘remain’ support I came from in Scotland was evidently not widely shared in the north of England, the enormity of the week and the prospects for my daughter’s life began to dawn on me.

So my first session on Return of the King was a little distracted. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself. I sussed out the line, give it a quick clean and top roped it first try after trying the moves once. I was aware that both the previous ascents used preplaced gear and I could see why! The crucial small wire placements were right in the middle of the crux sections. So placing them on lead would basically be the crux of the route.

I had a bit of a cold so decided to take a rest the next day and go up on the Thursday to lead the route. On my rest day I bumped into Steve Ashworth who decided to pop up with his camera, hence the nice pictures!

Next day I dropped Alicia off north of Ambleside for a long run on her Bob Graham round preparation and drove round to Wasdale, with the agreement that we would rendezvous at Scafell and I would do Return of the King. Alicia arrived just as I was having a quick warm-up shunt on the route and I got on the lead straight afterwards.

I’ve only been bouldering and some winter climbing for some time now. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the sharp end on an E9. So I did feel that my normal routine of getting into a very psyched-up mindset for blasting off up a hard route with only a couple of RPs clipped to your harness. It did definitely help that I still had a bit of strength in my arms from the bouldering season. The moves of the route were feeling fine. 

The crux was placing the first crucial RP. I had found a heel hook that allowed me to hang the crimp long enough to get the gear in and clipped before my right arm started to melt. I have a low volume heel and found my left Muira was slightly more secure than my favourite boots (the Otaki). I only have one size of Otaki at the moment but a tighter pair would have worked just fine.

Placing the crucial wire on Return of the King (E9 6c), Scafell. Photo: Steve Ashworth/Lake District Images

The wire went in just fine although in my bubble of psyche I managed to clip the wrong rope into it which meant I had to reverse back down a move or two and sort ropes out. The rest of the pitch went really smoothly and I had plenty in the tank. Placing the second wire on the traverse left wasn’t as hard as I expected. Nice feeling to have some results from my training once again.

I did write a conclusion to this blog post referring to my inevitable linking of this climbing experience to the EU leave. But since I feel rather depressed right now with things outside of climbing, I deleted it. Right now, I will just get on with being alive.

Mid move on the second tricky section of Return of the King (E9 6c), Scafell. Again, the hardest bit was stopping mid moves to place the fiddly wires! Photo: Steve Ashworth/Lake District Images

Sunday 19 June 2016

New sponsor - La Sportiva!

Training in my new La Sportiva Otakis earlier today

I’m delighted to say I have joined the athlete team of La Sportiva after meeting the guys at Lyon Equipment last week. I don’t think it is news to any readers of this blog that I am pretty obsessive about the details in pushing my climbing and in optimising every aspect of it. So if I’m obsessive about climbing gear in general, when it comes to footwear, especially rock shoes, I take it to another level.

And why wouldn’t you? In rock climbing, the shoe on your foot becomes part of the machine. Your climbing style changes to match it. Anyone who's read 9 out of 10 and Make or Break knows my views on how important it is to get this right. But even if you follow good practice with choosing your rock shoes (trying on many pairs until you find something that fits your feet well) there is still the issue that individual models sometimes change, and your favoured model is no longer around. However, one lasting rule is that expert shoe manufacturers, with a long track record of designing and constructing high quality shoes can be relied upon to keep producing great designs.

I’d been deliberating about linking up with a footwear sponsor for some time. La Sportiva was the manufacturer in my mind to speak to. I got a great delivery of La Sportiva shoes earlier this week and obviously couldn’t wait to try them out. Over the past few days I’ve been climbing on very steep ground, first on a boulder project and then some sport climbing. I tend to prefer stiffer shoes than most, but I also like a good downturn. My favourite shoe so far for this type of climbing has been the new Otaki (I’m wearing in the pics) which is just out. They are brilliant for applying huge amounts of tension through a tiny foothold on steep ground and feel very compact and responsive on my feet. The overall ‘feel’ of a rock shoe definitely influences how you move on the rock and these feel secure, precise and just incredibly powerful on the vertical to 45 degree terrain I’ve climbed on them so far.

Although I still didn’t quite manage the boulder project I tried on my first outing with them (it is super hard for me!), they did feel fantastic and I could nearly do the project with some different foot beta I’d previously dismissed because I couldn’t get enough weight on my feet. The next day I did Remember to Roll (8b at Creag nan Luch) first redpoint in them and it felt pretty easy! Pretty good start.

Today I did a big training session on my board in them and they felt top notch on my entire cadre of hard problems and circuits on the 45 board. I’m always hesitant with hyperbole, but they did feel like I was getting a bit more body tension on these problems I know well than any other boot I’ve tried. You can take that with a pinch of salt since it’s a subjective comparison. But on the other hand, I know my board well, and I’m pretty sensitive to the differences between my many different rock shoes I’ve trained in over the years.

Obviously I’m also looking forward to climbing in La Sportiva’s winter boots this year, especially the Batura and Ice Cube. And I also feel a little coy about getting excited about new hillwalking boots. As a Scottish climber, my hill boots live in my car and I pretty much spend my waking life in either those or my rock shoes. If they are not super light, super comfortable and keep my feet nice and dry, my life would be a lot worse. I walked into my project on Skye in my new Trangos and know I will be a happy man pounding the Scottish hills in these.

The athlete team I have joined is rather humbling for me. It's quite a list. I better step up!

Thursday 9 June 2016

North By North West, direct

Racing ahead of my chasing pack of midges to arrive at the roof on North by North West direct (E7 6b). From here you swing wildly left along the lip and get cracking on the big wall above.

Last week I decided to teach myself the lesson for a third time that boulder project season is over. I know, I’m a slow learner. However, to be fair I still almost pulled off my project. Since then I have been trying to get my endurance off the floor. One place on my project list was The Bonaidh Donn near Torridon, not an often visited crag I don’t think. Which is a shame because although it’s quite far from the road it’s really good. 

There is one hard route there - an excellent sounding E7 of Stork’s called North by North West. It does a 5c first pitch and then traverses out above a roof to enter this wild finger crack soaring up an overhanging wall. I guessed a direct entry through the roof could be a good project. I went up and abseiled down for a look. Unfortunately the roof was blank. But there was obvious potential to come into the line along the lip of the roof from the right making a more direct single pitch version of the climb, probably at the same grade.

I went up on a super hot day with Alicia to have a go. After doing some other routes the midge appeared and the conditions were ridiculously bad. We sat with our hoods on and I contemplated the futility of trying it in full midge and heat. But I just don’t like going home without the route in the bag. So we went down and I tied in. In order that I didn’t melt, I was forced to take my midge hood and long sleeve top off to start up the initial wall. This provided about E7 6c midge factor scraping tons of midges off my arms while trying to get a first runner in. Things thankfully got more breezy by the roof and I was able to immensely enjoy the rest of the route, which didn’t feel too hard.

Great start to the trad season.

Alicia following 'Stoater' (Severe). The wall of North by North West can be seen in the background.

Alicia trying not to feed the midges

High on North by North West. Great line.

Good sunset beyond Loch Maree and the Minch