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.

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