Tuesday, 15 November 2011

First Steps

Rummaging around in my parent’s garage the other day, I stumbled upon a treasuretrove of memories.
A dusty bag full of books yielded the guide I used to hitch around Baja and the map of Fontainbleau I bought on my first trip to the forest. They are little more than a decade old but seemed like relics of a distant past.
As always when finding a cache of books, I abandoned the task at and started leafing through pages, reading extracts and annotations. Then I delved deeper into the bag to unearth the next strata of my personal history.
I was rewarded with pure gold: a copy of the Yorkshire Limestone guide, in glorious hardback and with a young John Dunne “creating a breach of the peace” on the front cover with a riotous cut-loose. This was a doubly auspicious find, because it was the first guidebook I bought and yet remains functional for a climbing area that is coming back into my sights.
I found the Kilnsey pages to see what it made of the routes I did there last year, themselves already distant memories. There was no mention of Wysiwyg, a late addition to fill a gap, but my eye was drawn to a date in faint pencil, denoting my outdoor lead debut. That day I can remember clearly, although why three schoolboys chose one of Britain’s most hard-core sport crags for their first trad outing escapes me. Maybe Jacko’s dad had seen it from the road and noticed the climbers one time, because he gave us a lift out there.
While he waited patiently in the pub, we three went off on an adventure up Inaccessible Gully. It was a short walk but whoever carried the rope - Baz I think - got a raw deal. The hideously bulky old 11mm contrasted with a rather lightweight rack of six hand-me-down hexes on wire and as many quickdraws.
I racked them by clipping one on wire on each extender and set off up the 25 metre pitch, enjoying the new buzz of the sharp end. I don’t remember feeling any fear. I’d read about this sort of thing and was confident I was doing it right.
I always think of the mid-nineties as the heyday of the climbing mag, I guess because that’s when they meant the most to me. We even used to argue about which was best. Baz was a High man and I was an OTE enthusiast.
We used to get all our information from the magazines, which seemed to be full of the bolting debate in those days. Reading the lofty editorials and Ken Wilson’s fire-and-brimstone contributions to the letters pages left no doubt in our impressionable minds that we must take sides. Randomly, I picked trad, and decided I would be the purest of the pure.
So it was that I advanced up what is quite a steep HVS that day, delicately placing the hexes in slots without weighing them in the slightest, even to test or seat them. Thus protected primarily by my own sense of righteousness, I confidently advanced to the halfway belay, which was fortunately at a large tree. Had it required the placing of gear, I doubt I’d be writing this today, because all by other protection had fallen out behind me. This was pointed out by the lads later, as it had never occurred to me to look down and check.
Baz clawed his way off route on the second pitch, clinging to steep grass without the luxury of any gear, an experience which may later have led to his becoming a boulderer. But I was elated with my lead, although a dawning understanding of the dangers meant it would be a few of years before I lead HVS with as much confidence again. Perhaps if I look hard enough I can find my teenage sense of invulnerability in and old trunk somewhere as well - it would come in handy.

- As a writer I want as many people to read my blog as possible, so if you like it, please tell you friends, post it on your favourite social media and ideally design and print some flyers to hand out in your local pub or climbing wall.
Cheers, Dom.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Choss Monkeys and Champions

The MC’s excited commentary made it hard to get psyched for a trad climb up the steep and notoriously unstable walls of the quarry. Neither did the cheers of the crowd spur me on, even though a good few dozen people seemed to have gathered to watch the climbing.
They hadn’t travelled out to this god-forsaken place to watch me, of course. They were watching the British Climbing Championships in the indoor wall 50 yards away, while I was in Ratho Quarry contemplating an E2 as my stomach dealt with the after-effects of a Saturday morning fry up.
I ought to have felt virtuous for being on rock when others were pulling on plastic, especially on a marginal weather day. Instead it just felt bizarre.
While the young athletes cavorted to more cheers inside, my stomach grumbled further as I bridged around a ledge. It was basically a heap of rubble so I didn’t fancy treading on it much. I climbed some nice flakes, ruined by an anticipation of difficulty that never arrived, taking an age to arrange gear only to find a better slot above, then another.
I cursed trad climbing, making one of my regular promises to cast off my rack. Deep water soloing, that’s where it’s at. If I lived in Devon, I’d sling my trad gear into the sea and never burden myself with such artifice again, climbing only pure and naked on the fused limestone of the Rainbow Bridge.
Mind you, you’d want to keep your bollocks clear of the sharp stuff near the high water mark.
Back to reality and I scramble to the top, half expecting to belay on a tied-off Ford Escort on bricks. Instead, some gorse and a fence post oblige. The view is of the hangar that occupies the other half of the quarry, though not through into the hall where the British champions are cavorting. I can’t even make out the commentary, not that such things interest me.
Later we look around the quarry for another route to do, but nothing fits the bill. In one dank corner a cracked 40 foot wall of slippery black rock provides some temptation based on the ever uninspiring Lowland Outcrops guide.
This Bible of central Scottish quarry dwellers has to be the worse guide book I’ve ever used, its dull descriptions coordinated only loosely with the rudimentary crag diagrams. Admittedly, the authors didn’t have the best raw materials to work from, and by their own admission they didn’t revisit the routes at Ratho after the indoor arena was built and blasting for a motorway extension de-stabilised some of the walls (I kid you not).
The grades and stars are therefore guesses, and looking up at the black wall of Wally 1, E2 5c ***, I get the impression they might have been a tad optimistic. Either that or the route really is every bit as good as Left Wall or Regent Street. I wouldn’t know, because we decided to pass on it.
At that stage, we probably should have just gone home, slinging our wires and the Lowland Outcrops guide into the canal on the way past, but instead my mate decided to get a lead in and picked a tottering pile of choss. To be fair to him, that wasn’t immediately apparent.
It became a bit apparent when we had to put one of the footholds back so he could use it, and then a bit more as he arranged an early array of gear before committing to a shaky spike, but I had still to grasp the full magnitude of this route’s deficiencies as he scrabbled to enter a dirty groove at 20 feet. I kind of got the idea when he fell, unzipped the gear like a stripper’s pop-away pants and landed on his back at my feet.
But even as I looked down at him on the awkward series of jagged ledges were he lay, crumpled wires and twisted cams at his waist, I still underestimated the sheer crapness of the route, and offered to have a go myself. I know, I should have known better by then. I barely dared to tiptoe up to the start of the climbing proper, such was the danger of starting an avalanche, before backing off and heading for the pub. At least we got there before the champions.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The best route in the world

Thirty feet above the crystal sea, my feet skitter on the steep, smooth rock and I cut loose, but I don’t care because my hands are in the most beautiful sinker finger pockets I’ve ever felt.
Even so, it doesn’t do to linger, and I force myself onwards through smaller crimps to an edge on the lip of the overhang. I’m powered out and the next move is a slap. I glance down, but I’m committed now, a decision was made 45 seconds earlier and now there’s no way back to the safety of the groove. I set my feet and lunge upwards.
I reach the pocket with the tip of three fingers. It’s slopey. My hand peels off backwards and my body follows. Splash. My attempt at Rainbow Bridge ends like all the others, this time with the added spice of a really low tide.
Rainbow Bridge at Berry Head is the best route in Britain. Most of the people who doubt this simply haven’t done it. But I’ve never done it either because every time I get to the end of pitch six (in old skool terms), the siren call of the Barrel Traverse lures me onto harder territory. It’s lucky that the Barrel has such a soft landing because I’m simply incapable of turning away from it. This gorgeous sweep of wave-worn limestone teases me along its perfect line of pockets, then demands that I throw myself into a baffling crux sequence with all my vigour. If the penalty for failure were certain death, I doubt I could exercise the control to turn away from it – just to feel those pockets once would be enough.
Even when I lived in Devon, I only got to Rainbow Bridge occasionally. It’s kind of a special occasion route, to be done when the planets align in a particular combination of no bird ban, the right tide and a hot sunny day. This was therefore my third attempt at the Barrel in as many years, and now that I live 500 miles away I don’t suppose they’re set to become any more common. That is also part of what makes it my favourite route in the world.
Back in Edinburgh, I had an inspiring afternoon at the city’s Mountain Film Festival. I watched The Prophet, a well told tale of rock star Leo Houlding’s ten-year quest to climb a new line on El Cap. Again, this reinforced for me the potential of failure on a route to create a longer, deeper relationship with it. We’re talking about a really good route here, and not a redpoint but one that’s just that bit too hard but well worth going back for, training for even. A route like that stimulates mind and body and inspires more climbing in anticipation of the day we can go back and try it again.
It could be said that the themes of The Prophet are obsession, failure and eventual success, of which I’ve only known two on the Barrel Traverse. Interestingly though, the slightly forced Holywood ending is a weakness in The Prophet, and probably cost it the prize of best climbing film at the festival. The film appears to end following a tainted ascent in which Houlding tops out after a three day push, but fails to climb the A1 Beauty pitch clean. That was clearly not in the script because tacked on at the end is his return two months later for a clean ascent. I don’t resent the guy his success, but somehow it’s a bit tedious, whereas the earlier “ending” captured much more of the man and the great spirit of climbing that propels him. I’m reliably told that the postscript, plus Houlding’s “silly hat”, cost the film the prize. Leo, if you’re reading, I liked the hat.

• As a writer I want as many people to read my blog as possible, so if you like it, please tell you friends, post it on your favourite social media and ideally design and print some flyers to hand out in your local pub or climbing wall.
Cheers, Dom.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Souter

I went climbing the other day and I loved it. Beautiful place, inspiring lines, great bunch of people.
I’ll even tell you a little about it later, but first, I’m going to have a moan, as usual.
Why oh why do Edinburgh climbers never talk about Fastcastle? These sea cliffs, including the sea stack of The Souter, are less than an hour’s drive down the coast and offer a far better climbing experience than any of the other central belt venues I’ve so far visited. They’d be even better with a bit of traffic to clean the routes.
Like pancakes or banana bread, nobody seems to be making enough of Fastcastle. I know the Highlands offer great climbing, but the weather is so often crap and from Edinburgh the good bits are at least three hours’ drive away. People keep telling me how good Diabaig is. I’m sure it’s great, but I’m tempted to reply that Siurana’s got some pretty decent climbing too, and it’s easier to get to. Anyway, back to The Souter.
My visit was a flying one as we were late leaving, had to be back early, and a wrong turn made the walk in three times longer than it needed to be. Don’t do that, is my advice. If you go there (and you should, but I think we’ve established that by now), walk pretty much straight down towards the sea from the farm, and allow yourself all day - you won’t regret it.
The sea in this part of Berwickshire is crystal clear and the rock architecture inspiring. It’s basically similar to the Culm Coast in Devon, and the main climbing area around The Souter is kind of a poor man’s Lower Sharpnose, with fins of rock sticking out into the drink. The rock is similar too, a little snappy on the surface but basically solid.
On our whistle stop tour, I chose to jump on a route called “Take it to the Limpets” because I liked the cut of its jib. Finger holds and the guidance of a pair of faint cracks led to a half height jug, which I luxuriated on while contemplating the blank, lichenous wall above. Ali pointed out that an E2 variant went left, saying “go for the line, not the grade”. You can’t argue with that, so I arranged some quantity-based protection and took a pretty straight version between the two so-called climbs. It had a rather pleasing committing reach for an undercut on it.
Then we jumped on The Souter itself, via the original route, which for situation and all that has to be one of the best HVSs in southern Scotland. At the top you feel like you should hang around and take in the view, savour being on the tip of this giant geographic phallus, but we had to get a car back to someone’s girlfriend so we just abbed off and left. If you do want to hang around there, it’s probably best to take some sandwiches up, because it could get a bit boring if you’ve nothing to do.
So there you are, don’t just make pancakes once a year. They’re cheap, they’re easy and they taste good. I like mine with some fried banana, tossed in the same pan with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. Try it. And climb The Souter.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Zorba the climber

When I was young the books I read went to my head like a drug, throwing my life off course like a sparrow tossed in a hurricane.

On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Slate: A Climber’s Guide all had a profound, although not always long-lasting, effect on my malleable juvenile mind.

I remember reading Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and throwing all my possessions into a suitcase in the middle of the night. I don’t know where I was planning on going, but my girlfriend waylaid me and I ended up in a mad flight from the Czech Republic a couple of months later after receiving my last wages in cash, before I could be fined for vomiting down a concrete tower block and after the agency found Dave’s cannabis plants which I think is all something Jack would have approved of.

The funny thing is, Kerouac seems almost unreadable to me now. My literary tastes have become as staid and sedentary as my lifestyle, perhaps as a defensive mechanism to avoid that kind of madness.

But one book I read then has been coming back to haunt me recently, and that’s Zorba the Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis’ great creation didn’t particularly throw me off track back when I read it, but it was one of those books that was passed around my climbing set at the time and well regarded. Perhaps that’s because Zorba’s style fits what climbers aspire to, living life hard and in the moment, with full commitment to whatever task is in hand.

The eponymous hero is getting a bit long in tooth, and although he has accumulated nothing materially he is rich in experiences and retains all his vigour and lust for life. Maybe Zorba is Kerouac for the more mature gentleman, because I recall a friend gave his dad a copy and then worried that it seemed to have brought on a mid-life crisis.

I think I’m due to read Zorba again, because the other weekend at Limekilns I pottered about like an old codger, doing routes too far within my limits. I hadn’t climbed for a while so a warm up through the grades was excusable, but once it was evident I was on form and the venue suited me, it was time to pull out the stops and get on something that scared me. Instead, I opted for the rock climbing equivalent of a drive in the countryside with a stop at the National Trust tearooms.

After I cruised the excellent Elgin Crack, E2 5c, I should really have manned up and got on an E4, but instead I hedged my bets on the appropriately named Going Through the Motions, tough but safe at E3 6a. I didn’t regret doing it at the time because it was a tremendously enjoyable lead, but neither did I walk back into the office on Monday feeling 12 feet tall, with a buzz inside that could carry my soul through the duller parts of the day and fuel the build up of passion that might have spurred me onto greater things the following weekend.

Instead, it was a slightly cautious business journalist within me that decided it was best to top rope Duncrankin at Roslin, and to be fair, he had a good argument. Looking at the 15 feet of vertical wall that made up the meat of the route, it was obviously going to be tricky for E4 6a, no gear was visible, and who knew if a few crucial holds weren’t hidden under the lichen.

As I popped for the finger-edge to nail the crux, I was convinced I’d made the right decision. The gear would have been below my feet, the fall would have involved bouncing off a big sloping ledge, and the move had felt like 6b. But the victory was hollow. Here was a grotty little crag of filthy sandstone, which we’d hacked through near vertical mud and undergrowth to get to, and through the miracle of British trad it had offered an experience on a par with the finest cliffs in Europe. On lead, committing to that slap would have marked itself indelibly into my being, whether I hung the hold or not. As it was, I didn’t even fancy the headpoint.

Of course, it can be quite an art to pick something that’s hard enough to be a real challenge without ending up looking like the kind of idiot who gets on a route he lacks the ability to climb. Chances are if I’d tried to lead Duncrankin I would have gone up and down from the gear like a yo-yo before finally lowering off. Chances are it’s the mother of all sandbags and well worth E5. That’s why it’s so hard to be Zorba, and most of us end up being one of those new men the lad-lit set write about who cry over their mortgage payments and think having a kid is an adventure.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Being the Birdman

How many times can you do a boulder problem without going mad?

Ten, twenty, a hundred? Whatever the answer, I’m probably getting there on the Black Wall traverse at Salisbury Crags. It’s the obvious piece of training for the man who doesn’t like going to the climbing wall – at least not in summer – but I’m getting to know it so well I could probably do it with my eyes closed.

As you get familiar with a problem, you get smoother and faster and have to do it more to get the same amount of training. But the more you do it the faster and more efficient you get. Soon, you’re racing across the wall, arms and feet a blur, back and forth, in something more akin to choreographed dance than climbing.

I don’t see many other people doing this, so I guess I’m becoming the Birdman of Holyrood Park, and people will soon watch me with the same combination of awe and pity as I once felt when I watched the original Birdman in Joshua Tree blasting up and down the Gunsmoke Traverse.

I remember hearing rumours of a man who could climb this one problem amazingly fast, back and forth many times, and then seeing him in action one day. You could be in no doubt.

Andrew, a quintessential hippy and stalwart of the West Coast scene who was mentoring my US crack addiction, had stopped in his tracks as we approached, as if he had indeed seen a rare bird. He pointed and in a whisper, so as not to disturb this fleeting creature, he said: “That’s the Birdman.”

He didn’t even add “dude”, so I knew he was serious and we stopped and watched this incredibly skinny guy climbing very fast and precisely. Later we chatted with him, but I don’t remember what he said. I don’t think he was much of a conversationalist, to be honest. He was just fixed on the Gunsmoke Traverse, and every time we gave it a go, he would leap back on and reclaim it, firing the whole 40 feet or so there and back again in about a minute flat. Then he’d step off and nod, not even looking pumped.

That’s the bit I was reminded of the other day when I was chatting to Duncan, who says he’d like to hear my anecdotes from J-Tree days. Funny thing is, what with the ravages of age and the fixation with the Black Wall, my addled brain is struggling to dredge any up.

Josh is more of a feeling really. A feeling of getting up with the sun and basking on a rock while your water thaws out; of clambering through endless shady gullies in the Wonderland of Rocks in search of climbs (never was anywhere more aptly named); of getting far too high on lush California green and racing through the high desert barefoot by starlight, somehow managing not to step on a cactus.

Above all though, the feeling is of endless camaraderie, lots of people living in the moment, a true, free, climbing community which forms among the rocks of the Hidden Valley every Autumn for a few weeks when the days are not too hot and the nights not too cold.

Although I did over 100 routes in the park, what I remember the most are the nocturnal expeditions – the shenanigans we got up to during the long evenings. Despite having been shown the amazing Space Station, a cave in the rocks overlooking the campsite that is only accessible though an improbable squeeze through the cliff face, I still had my doubts when a new guy on the site, Steve, started going on about the Chasm of Doom. I mean, that’s bound to be an anticlimax, right?

Still, one night Steve gathered everyone together, maybe twenty people or so, and we set off into this gully. He then told us we had to go into a crack in the rock, one by one, with each person showing the one behind what to do. It was pitch black in there and with a good few people in front and behind, there was no room for manoeuvre. Soon me were crawling on all fours, to a point where we had to show each other how to squeeze through a gap with head held sideways. At one point we emerged to do a bit of chimneying about forty feet from the desert floor.

The whole thing went on for about three hours as I remember it, although I don’t think anyone had a watch, and ended on the top of one of the rocks. We had barely exchanged a word between us apart from the stream of instructions that had to be issued back along the file, most of us just about coping with the ever increasing craziness.

Afterwards, the whole thing felt a bit like a dream, and I could never work out which rock we had been in. It would be a nice aside to add that Steve had disappeared without trace the next morning, but it seems a bit unfair on the chap: in fact, he was still in Josh supping his “crag sodas” when I left.

I reckon I need more Chasm of Dooms and less Black Walls. Variety is the spice of life.

Review: Black Diamond Spot headtorch.

Strangely, I never used a torch of any kind in Joshua Tree. I suppose the nights were very clear and my eyes were ten years younger. More recently, however, I’ve become a bit of a fan of headtorches, especially LED ones which I think are a revolutionary piece of climbing equipment, dramatically extending the season.

Every year, they seem to get better. Not just a bit better, but a lot. Take the Spot from Black Diamond, which they were kind enough to send me during the winter and which I’m only just getting round to writing about. One button allows you to choose two small red LEDs, two small white ones, or one big one, all offering different levels of light. And this is packed into a device the size of a large strawberry! With the batteries, mind!

As if that weren’t enough choice, the power of the individual lights can also be adjusted.

I’ve used the spot for everything from night-climbing to scrubbing out the oven during my headlong retreat from Devon at the start of this year, and not only has it never failed to do the job, it’s also still on its first set of batteries.

The main beam is more than strong enough to go trad climbing with, while the lesser lights are perfect for reading in a tent.

Most of all, I used the Spot for walking my dog in the snowy woods during the cold season, allowing me to get out after work and enjoy the winter wonderland.
The Spot is a spot on design. It should be issued to anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Yes, I enthuse about kit I like. Other headtorches are available.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Corduroy Fetish

It’s funny how proper preparation for climbing can make you taller.
I don’t mean doing a lot of stretching, although that might help too. But the other day I had a banana and some cold coffee before heading out for an evenings bouldering, and then did a full warm up, and suddenly I’d gained an inch.
I realised that either my legs or my arms had grown when trying a problem I’d almost given up on because I couldn’t make a reach. Suddenly it seemed within range.
I pulled up and really stretched out and my fingers tickled the edge. I couldn’t hang it but buoyed by my improved stature I made the jumped and held it comfortably.
I have now decided that I should provide my body with real stimulus and nourishment before going rock climbing rather than relying on superstition.
“Superstition?” I hear you ask (you’re always in my mind, dear reader). “Does he paint himself in wode and sacrifice a goat before trying to on-sight a 6c+ at the local wall?”
Well, no, you can’t get the livestock these days, but I did make my own chalksack the other day.
That’s not particularly superstitious in itself but I should say that I only made it as a way of resurrecting my favourite climbing trousers, so that they may continue to climb with me wherever I go.
And then I decided to take it with me on my trip to the Peak, and wouldn’t take my old one because I thought it would show a lack of confidence in my own abilities. And confidence, on grit, is everything.
Anyway, it turned out fine because the homemade chalksack, despite having no firm rim, worked well and didn’t fall apart even though it’s held together with a hairband.
In fact, it’s pretty dapper even if I say so myself, and of course it reminds me of my favourite cords, which had worn so thin as to be almost see-through in all the wrong places.
So, as you’re all wondering, I’ll tell you how it was made.

I took my old climbing troos and cut off a leg at around the knee, giving me a tube of corduroy. As it’s only cord on the outside and I thought it would be a nice material for the inner as well, I turned the trouser leg inside out, then bound it tightly in the middle and pulled one half over the other.
This gives you a sort of doubled skinned cup, with cord on the inside and out - the rudiments of a chalksack. I used an old hairband to tie off the middle.
Now make a hole in the outer layer where the drawstring will go, and sew the two layers together slightly below that - you don’t need to stitch all the way round, just at two or three points to keep the string in place. Drop your string in between the layers and pass both ends through the hole. Stitch it to the point furthest from the hole, ie the back, and tie a knot in the loose ends.
Now sew the two layers together along the top. Ideally, you could take a nice seam from somewhere on your beloved trousers and incorporate that to make for a firm rim that will hold the bag open nicely, but that means sewing it will be hard work.
That’s pretty much your chalksack, but I finished it off by cutting a couple of belt loops off the trousers and sewing them on to the back, so that it can be attached. I used another elastic hairband tied tightly around the drawstring to enable it to be fastened shut. Surprisingly, it worked.

I improvised this entire process one rainy evening as a way of doing something climbing related when I was feeling frustrated, so I’m sure countless improvements can be made. As to my climbing, I can't say it's really helped, but then it hasn't hindered me either.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sweet Sixteen

I’ve just been on holiday and I feel half my age – the only trouble is, it’s not that great being 16 again.
With no car, I had to carry all my stuff in a rucksack and walk to the campsite, and when I got on the rock I found I had no stamina and no head for leading. Plus I was living off cold pies and bacon butties from the cafe, making rookie errors and wondering why I failed.
In fact, it’s not the holiday that made me shed the years, it’s the working. It’s stealing my soul, strength and personality so that soon I’ll be a baby again. It just took a holiday in the Peak District to highlight the fact to me.
Going back to old haunts, I should have known that the grit commands respect at the best of times; that until you’ve really run yourself in, picked up the knack again, you have to drop your grade by a fair bit. But over-enthusiasm and a desperate need to achieve something on rock this year saw me hurl myself at one of the ambitious target routes I’d set myself, without so much as a warm up, let alone a build up through the grades.
Rock gods can do that. I can’t. Soon I was slumped on the peg in the middle of the imposing wall of High Plains Drifter at Lawrencefield, trying to work out if I really had to cut loose on a finger edge. It wasn’t especially hard, but it took me about four attempts before I was able to commit to the move, and even after that I found the top section terrifying.
And what happened to my stamina, the product of many days training on the Black Wall traverse at Salisbury Crags? It went the way of all bouldering-based gains when faced with a proper route: burnt away with excessive grip in the first five minutes, it skulked for the rest of the holiday, waiting for a nice little traverse it knew well to show off on.
It wasn’t so much “come on arms, do your stuff”, as “where the hell are you, you bastards”, as I thrashed myself against classic lines in the baking hot gritstone quarries like a demented salmon trying to ascend a dry waterfall.
By the end of the second day I was crushed, psychologically and physically. Never mind 16, I felt like a helpless child, until an unlikely ally came to my aid.
I have never been one to enjoy the rain before, but this time it gave me the break I needed, the chance to step down a few grades and recover some of my mojo.
I couldn’t have asked for a better setting for a showdown than Dovedale – why is it not more celebrated as a climbing venue? It hadn’t rained for an hour so I chucked myself on George, an E1 up one of the Tissington Spires, magnificent fingers of rock in an otherwise quintessentially English valley.
Forty feet up, the heavens opened, but determined to succeed I held on, taking the full force of the downpour while hoping for a break. After twenty minutes or so, it became clear it was no passing shower and I lowered off. Almost immediately, the rain stopped, and after a few false starts, the rock was dry enough for me to get back on. This time I made it to the top, but as Matt tied in we heard the first rumbles of thunder.
He raced up as best he could, as the storm approached, and made it to easy ground as it engulfed us. We abseiled off in a hailstorm, feeling we’d beaten the gods for once, my spirits recovered.
For the next three days we climbed almost constantly, dodging the rain, defying it, claiming classic lines with a good excuse not to get on anything too desperate. We got wet countless times but dried off in the sun just as often. I slept like a log in my tent, and started to feel weather beaten and lean, the moves coming naturally at last.
And then, of course, it was time to go home. I wonder when I’ll next be allowed out to play?

Monday, 30 May 2011

Meeting Marlene

Oh, Marlene, Marlene! Or is it Marlina? It’s never a good idea to cry out for another woman in your sleep, but that’s probably what I’ve been doing because I’m obsessed.
Not that my other half is likely to worry – she knows were my guilty pleasures lie.
Anyway, after weeks of weather induced frustration I decided it was time to make a start on the list come what may and even found someone else crazy and optimistic enough to drive me an hour north through vicious rain and wild wind to Dunkeld and go searching on a wooded hillside for Upper Cave Crag, and the fabled Marlene.
Happily, the rock was as dry as we’d hoped. Astonishingly, not a single hold was damp on the 50 feet of climbing to the chain, and despite regular showers throughout the day, Kris and I set about besieging her.
One thing was apparent from the start – the wonderful schist was riddled with holds but not many were particularly good or facing the right way, making for an excessive number of possibilities. If we were to bag this route in a day, it would be a case of getting a sequence quick and going with it.
Unfortunately, the second thing that became apparent was that Marlene was no woman of easy virtue. In fact, 7c seems to be a consensus grade, not 7b+ as I’d thought, so I was also going to need a large dollop of luck.
When I lowered off after my first bolt-to-bolting, I was pumped and felt I’d learned nothing, but watching Kris gave me a few more ideas and on top rope I managed to start working things out. I knew were I was going through the steepness, but the route then dog-legs to follow a crack – scarcely more than vertical, but more tenuous and tricksome in nature. I diligently worked out a sequence along those final 15 feet of the route, but in the back of my mind I knew I was just going through the motions, on the very bit where I had to be most certain.
I decided to give it one redpoint attempt, knowing it was an outside chance. The start is bouldery and I managed it more smoothly that before, with the second half of the steepness easing somewhat. My forearms were feeling it after ten feet but I kept going, aiming for good holds at the junction with the crack. I stretched and got them, keeping things smooth and allowing myself a quick shake of the arms. Then it’s up and into a powerful cross over and...
I can’t reach the hold. I can. I tickle it. I can reach it but I’m knackered and I can’t twist my body back to face the other way and use it. I can’t even remember how I did that. Balls. I’m off.
I just wasn’t prepared enough and now I’m really blasted. I can barely batman up the rope. I get a rest and work the crack, bit by bit, and when I finish, I still don’t have a sequence.
I know when I’m spanked, and I guess Kris does too, so we head off, stop for tea, have a drink and get some nosh. We forget about Marlene.
Except now she’s come back to haunt me and I know there’s only one way to lay her to rest. My attempts to write an article about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Chinese joint venture flounder amid thoughts of tactics, training, and ways to do that crack, especially when I Google her and find an excellent blog giving detailed beta for Marlene. It’s good to know someone shares my obsession, and good to know you should milk that shakeout. I could do that. And good to have a different sequence to try on the top crack, even if I’m not quite sure if the footholds I’m thinking of are too high or too low.
Maybe they’re perfect. I’ll be back to find out.

Reviews: Paramo Mountain Vent Pull On and Torres Sleeves

When I asked Paramo for some more kit to review, I was really hoping they would offer the Mountain Vent. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s basically a sweatshirt but is just made of wonderful stuff, hard wearing and warm. It’s also a perfect cut and a great cobalt blue colour, and has some very useful zips.
The Vent is so named for the under-arm zips that can be opened to give your armpits an airing and thus cool you down. These are probably the least useful zips on it, but are still a handy thing to have. Even better is the nice big neck zip, which can let lots of heat out or trap the warmth in, as the Vent has a high neck almost like a scarf. Finally, there’s a very handy chest pocket, ideal for your keys, card and cash.
The Vent is reversible, but I’ve never seen much need for reversing (and it’s not always all that practical to do so either). If you want to feel cooler, much better to roll up the sleeves, which have a button that means they’ll stay were you want them to. This garment was designed to go under one of Paramo’s waterproof jackets but I find it a bit heavy for that, and prefer to use it on its own in all but the coldest conditions.
The Vent takes some beating as a thing to wear, being very versatile for comfort in the ever changing British weather, and has become my climbing and bouldering staple.
Now, for those of you who think I only give nice reviews and therefore that one was meaningless, let’s move on to the Sleeves. When I asked Paramo for some kit to review, I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t send the Torres Sleeves. Basically they just seemed silly, and they’ve done little to change that impression in the last six months.
The Sleeves are exactly that, a pair of sleeves you can pop on quickly over whatever you’re wearing for a bit of extra warmth. Paramo says warming the arms alone is a “speedy and hassle free” way of warming the whole body and especially keeping dexterity in the fingers, and it should be said that the Sleeves are made of absolutely lovely material – very light and very warm.
However, I’ve taken them out in a number of conditions ranging from the chilly to the downright cold, and I’ve always wished I had the whole jacket, or even better, a snuggle suit made out of this wonderful insulator. Basically, if I’m feeling cold enough to want to put an extra garment on, I’m ready for the whole thing. Like fingerless gloves, the Sleeves just make your back and chest feel all the more exposed. If you’re cold when resting or belaying, you might as well put a nice big coat on. I tried bouldering in the Sleves and whereas they did no harm, I can’t really say they did anything for me. It would seem to be a product for those who like a very nuanced control of their temperature. Also, you will have to be prepared to explain what you’re wearing to quite a few people – and you might find yourself struggling to do so.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Creaming of my favourite climbs

I have blogged before about the relative difficulties of extreme climbing and hard cuisine, but nothing prepared my right arm for the blasting it got tonight.
No, not even my teenage years.
The story begins a few days ago, when, at a charity bookstall in the New Town I acquired a booklet of fine desserts published by Australian Women’s Weekly.
It was full of exotic flavours and enticing photos, and I’m afraid I became a bit obsessed. In my excitement, I could never quite be bothered to follow the recipes to the letter, but the sheer inspiration led to the reawakening in me of a little knowledge I once enjoyed, for professional reasons, on the techniques of making sweets.
Some natural caution deep down made me build up to the tougher dishes gradually: I started with a Nutella cake, simple in conception and physically undemanding. All that was required was to whip some cream, fold in some molten hazelnut spread and cool it over a biscuit base – a doddle.
Then we had a magnificent day’s walking along the Water of Leith, a trail through the middle of Edinburgh that must rank as one of the finest walks I’ve done.
From pebble dashed suburbs this walkway follows a trickle of a stream and offers up surprises at ever turn, from verdant corridors of green to skate parks and industrial archaeology, allotments and cricket matches to modern art by Antony Gormley.
When we got home we were knackered, and made calzone, but just in case these towering immensities of stuffed pizza were not enough (and yes, because I harboured a desperate, unfulfilled, unfulfillable yearning for freshly made sweets) I also made a plum clafouti. That was another easy one physically, just a bit of mixing and then the whipping of cream. My energy was flagging but the radio obliged, I kid you not, with a spot of classic Queen to bring about the final firmness.
I could have done with that calibre of whisking music when I took on the ultimate challenge tonight, which left me cooling my biceps on a bowl of half frozen apricot mix but still leaping onto my pull up holds at regular intervals.
Because there’s nothing like making meringue by hand to bring out the savage masochist in a climber, who is inclined to strip naked and do sets of ten between increasingly desperate attempts to attain the fabled stiff peaks of success.
But meringue by hand, ultimate challenge that it is, was not enough for me. No sir. I decided to make apricot ice cream as well. And yes, that involves beating. Oh, what a beating.
Thing is, I’d promised myself an ice cream maker if I could succeed in making ice cream without one, and the meringue, well that was just a silly idea because I had two egg whites left over and I can’t bear waste.
Did I succeed? No idea, it’s nearly midnight and I’m still beating, baking, pulling and bulling. But who cares, I’ve got enormous arms and I’m as tired as if I’d spent a week climbing, and at some stage I’ll have something to eat.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Mac the Chisel

Fortune, as Blackadder would say, vomits on my eiderdown. Or perhaps it was always to be expected that plans made in the heady days of spring’s early blossoming should come to nowt once the Scottish weather returned to its grim unpredictability.
So I’m left high and dry, with a week off and no-one to climb with, and though it was a complex series of events that led to it, it feels like I only have myself to blame.
I’d been looking forward to the chance to get up to some of the more exciting crags for months, carefully trying to bottle my enthusiasm but allowing some release because if not I knew I’d explode, and of course by last week my mind has been on nothing except the rock, the rock. How it haunts me still.
That said, as I write this I’m happy because I had a great day’s climbing on Saturday, and that goes a long way.
I didn’t quite get up to the wild lands of the north, but I did find my way to Cambusbarron quarry, which has some pretty good climbing in it. It’s also quite a friendly venue to kick off the trad season proper, which I did by bagging a naughty little route called The Chisel.
According to the guide book, this manufactured line up a fine slabby wall was first climbed as late as 1993, although whether that was when it was chipped the manual does not record. If so, it seems strange that use of the eponymous instrument should still have been considered acceptable in the year that my own climbing career made a tentative start.
Indeed, use of the chisel seems to have been fairly commonplace in central Scotland at a certain time, and wielded by some fine craftsmen at that – I’ve already enjoyed some excellent cranking at North Berwick Law where the quarrymen’s rough work has been finished by the delicate hand of someone who enjoys a good lock off.
But The Chisel itself, well that’s something else, because the handiwork of these stonemason-climbers surrounds what would be one of the finest finger cracks in Scotland, had it been left alone.
Still, that was but a passing thought as I got on the route, the first really testing climbing I’d been on for more than six months. Even with the ‘extra’ holds, the climbing around the crack at the start is the hardest bit and had me desperately scrabbling to get gear in as my toes, of all things, suffered from a flash pump. I guess I hadn’t been training the little buggers hard enough.
Once I’d got two pieces of gear in, I suddenly felt comfortable, realising I was basically on a slab and could chill out there for as long as needed – a sure sign of early-season nerves, because I should have known.
The Chisel really does have some very fine climbing, with a bottle testing move higher up that actually left me wanting a second pitch. At least there were plenty of other good routes to tick, and a thoroughly good day was had.
On the food front, I haven’t quite managed to get my supply lines as short, or as much to my satisfaction, as they were in Devon. And realistically, there’s nowhere for my neighbours to keep pigs, so it’s not going to happen.
What I have got on my doorstep is a plentiful supply of gorse, so there’s a batch of wine flavoured with the scent of Holyrood Park fermenting away in the spare room. Gorse seems to be one thing Scotland can produce in abundance.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Lust for Life

Inspiration can come from strange places and wears a variety of guises.
On Saturday, it turned up at Auchinstarry Quarry half cut and wearing a tracksuit to give me a much needed kick up the arse.
I’d just lost my Scottish rock virginity, but as is often the case, my performance had been nothing to write home about.
Auchinstarry has to be one of the least impressive places I’ve climbed, and after my first route I moped around wondering what to do next.
I was with a nice new bunch of people so could easily have drifted into an armchair role, chatting and maybe seconding a line or two, but just then over came this ‘yoof’ with a can of lager and the usual tedious banter about how he could climb up that and did I scale buildings like Spiderman.
Not feeling up to an Alain Robert impersonation (central Scotland doesn’t really do sexy high-rise anyway), I indulged the lad with a layman’s explanation of the ethics of climbing, and was surprised by his enthusiasm.
He pleaded for a go on a toprope on a robust HVS, and something in the way he was clearly prepared to put his street cred on the line in front of his mates persuaded me that he was up to it. I helped him squeeze into my harness and tied him in, and he set off up a layback groove.
I say layback, but seeing as he was wearing an old pair of trainers that elegant technique wasn’t really an option for him, so instead he propelled himself upwards by sheer bloody-minded determination, wriggling up and sliding down until he could finally clamber onto the half height pinnacle: where he found the energy I shall never know.
The stout fellow then made an airy traverse before being confounded by a hand crack just feet from victory, conquered his fears to rest on the rope, and finally made the top. His mates heckled him mercilessly for taking more than ten minutes.
After watching that, I felt I should go and do some climbing, so spent a pleasant afternoon battling with the logistics of a waterline traverse, hanging belay and a groove coated with a winter’s worth of grime and mud befitting the seepage line it obviously was.
Some might have been disappointed, but I had a good time and made some new friends - it’s always worth making the effort.
That’s something I’m having to remind myself of now that quality rock is no longer on my doorstep.
I’ve had a massive lifestyle change and need to learn to approach climbing in a new way, setting aside a finite amount of quality time to hit my targets. With a new country to explore, that shouldn’t be too hard.
But faced with vast acres of curvaceous beauty, it can be hard for a young man to know where to start. I’m told in these matters it’s best to be open minded and willing to experiment, so I’ve been poring over Gary Latter’s excellent guidebook to the highlands and islands, and set myself the target of doing a route from each of the ten main areas covered in volume one by the end of the year.
I’ve actually been sad and made a list, but I’m not sure if I should make it public.
I’ll tell you what, I will, on one condition: anyone who also fancies a bit of the action can get in touch and we’ll make a date and go and do a route.

They are:

Arran: Vanishing Point E4 6a
Arrochar: Osiris E4 6a
Mull: Ring of Bright Water XS 5b/c S0
Glen Coe: The New Testament E4 6a
Ardgour: White Hope E5 6a
Ardnamurchan: Heart of Darkness E4 6a
Glen Nevis: On the Beach E5 6a
Ben Nevis: The Bat E2 5b
Central Highlands: Marlene F7b+
Cairngorms: Voyage of the Beagle E4 6a

They may be preposterous, I may get spanked, but I hope that by going off and finding them I will get to know Scotland and a few of its people, and maybe rediscover the fun and adventure of my early climbing days.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Notes from Nowhere

If you’re wondering where the hell I’ve got to, the answer is that I’ve slipped out of existence for a few months to lie up in a state of stasis.
A climber is measured by his achievements on the rock, and mine have been few and far between recently. Therefore, I have disappeared, even though I have carried on with other aspects of my life (if you can call it that).
In physics, this is called the climbing anthropic principle.
Anyway, it turns out that this netherworld of non-climbing can be quite interesting. As I assume most readers are not familiar with it, I shall include a few notes for your amusement.
Before moving to Edinburgh I thought it might eat me alive, as one hears of happening to country boys who move to the big smoke. But actually, life is quite easy because there’s lots of shops and bars and everything’s in walking distance.
There’s lots of people around, too, but the daily walk to work lacks the easy conviviality of a mooch to the crag, where people might reasonably be expected to pass the time day by sandbagging each other into preposterously dangerous undertakings in a spirit of happy bonhomie.
People in this shadow world eat something called haggis. It’s like a spiced sausage with barley mixed in, and it’s pretty good. Obviously I long for a more rustic approach to cooking, but my paella pan has already got me into trouble and barbecuing in the park attracts gangs of smelly, unintelligible men who have climber’s haircuts but even worse fashion sense.
There is also, in Edinburgh, a place called a climbing wall, that allows you to keep fit while in a state of stasis (ascents made indoors do not count in the climbing anthropic principle.) Anyway, the people who go to the wall are mostly climbers, so you can keep up a semblance of a social life while being unable to get to a crag.
The walls of the bouldering facility I’ve been frequenting are extremely steep, and I’ve been making the most of every visit because you have to pay to go there, so I now have the body of a gibbon. When I was younger I used to think this would make me climb hard outdoors, but now I know that it will just mean my trousers are too long.
Still, going to the wall has kept me sane, by giving me access to a little bit of the world I know in this otherwise strange place.
As you can see, I quickly run out of things to talk about when I haven’t been climbing, but fortunately I have now moved to the edge of a park, in the middle of the city, which has a big crag running along one side.
On an evening, you can wander up to a nice spot next to a sign saying climbing is forbidden and boulder out a small traverse. I did it the other day, with my dog who I’ve recently been re-united with. At the end of the session I sat in a sort of stunned condition of bliss, almost overcome at the joy of linking the half-dozen moves on polished rock. I’d almost forgotten the feel of rock under the fingers and breeze in your hair, the thrill of trusting a smear or slapping for a hold without knowing what it will be like.
Which is weird, because I’d had a brilliant day at Bowden Doors a couple of weeks before.
Still, most people think bouldering doesn’t count towards the climbing anthropic principle either (some schismatics say only t’grit counts) so I’m still in stasis - for now.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Last Huey out of Buckfast

I told people it would be like the Saigon embassy but they didn’t believe me.  
In the end, all the panic and chaos was there, only instead of people it was household appliances. We’d been burning papers for weeks, and some of our possessions had already been moved out for safe keeping. They were the lucky ones, because no matter how much you prepare, it’s always going to be a scramble for the last Huey off the roof, or the last three cubic inches of space in the boot.
You might have gathered by now that I’ve been on the move, and it was a big one. Moving from Devon to Scotland, there’s be no going back for stragglers. Anything that couldn’t be found space in the car faced forceful redistribution to charity shops.
We made a start on New Year’s Eve and at first, the cleaning seemed like fun. But by the third day of scrubbing, binning and packing, it was like a battle zone. And boy, was it hard work. I know I haven’t been climbing for a while, but I was amazed at how many things get you pumped. And I mean really pumped. Scouring the oven shelves was worth F7c twice over, as I required many a rest and unscheduled shake out.
On the fourth day things came to a head. We’d cleaned ourselves into a corner and I’d packed more than I ever thought possible into a Renault Laguna, while still ostensibly leaving room for two people and a dog. Around the door to our cottage, laden rucksacks stood importantly while clocks, glasses and jackets jostled for position. I crammed ever more in, but some had to be cruelly rejected.
My partner argued everything’s case, like a house clearance version of a UN human rights lawyer, but there comes a time when you’ve got to call it a day and get the hell out of Dodge, and at three we were ready to leave. I stuffed a clock radio into a side pocket in the door and rammed a rucksack behind a headrest, and we were on our way. A frying pan clung desperately to the wheel arch but was pushed away, brutally, by a golf club, and fell to the ground. An ancient Black and Decker drill, old enough to remember the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong and NVA, sat squashed under a trunk and sweaters and sheets packed every last air space in the car, while a set of elegant wine glasses drifted around on the doorstep, unable to believe they had been left behind. They might still be waiting for another car now. It won’t come.
And so, my life changes. At least in all the outward aspects. Dartmoor receded into the distance in the rear view mirror we drove north on one of those journeys that make you realise how small England is. In five hours we were north of York.
Needless to say, my climbing gear was given preferential treatment and lives to fight another day. But I can’t let this opportunity pass me by without saying a few words about the people I met in Devon, especially all my colleagues at The Herald and all my climbing mates. You were all great, and I hope to see you all again soon. Ciao. And to all of those who warned me it would be cold in Scotland – you were right.
This blog is a continuation of one that started life at http://dominicjeff.blogspot.com/ courtesy of The Herald in Plymouth.