Monday, 26 March 2012

Feeding the Mouse

The pinky hook; that’s got to be the last desperate recourse of a trad scoundrel.
It’s not that I wanted to be half wedged in a pod of Scottish schist with my little finger curled round a slight protruberence in the back of a damp recess as I desperately tried to reach round my back for the cam I needed. I’d just sort of ended up there, and my little finger was the only part of me that wasn’t too boxed to use. Eventually the cam went in and I readjusted my position, finding a more comfortable rest about a foot further up.
It wasn’t quite comfortable enough, though, because I would’ve had to stay there about two days to make any sort of a meaningful recovery. I know this because my ascent of Rat Race at Dunkeld was yesterday and I’m still aching now as I write this.
So on I forged, little by little, placing as much gear as I could handle because of the fear of being pumped and perpetuating the problem in so doing. No cam or nut placement is ever good enough for a man who is being destroyed from the inside by the pump, the pump, oh the dreaded pump that feeds the rat of paranoia gnawing at your mind and telling you that it could fail, could be knocked out or pulled up, probably has already, will certainly rip. And so it was with me.
I emptied my rack into the route when I should have poured my heart in and the punishment was physical and immediate.
Only when I got to a ledge full of soggy owl pellets did I get a real rest. I would have sunk my face in if that’s what it took to get my arms working again, but fortunately it called for a foot. My head pressed against the roof jutting out above was enough to keep me in balance. That was where I had to go.
I didn’t want to. Who would? I’d climbed the grade’s worth with the first pitch and was running the two together for practicality more than anything, yet to bail now, even to follow the more logical exit of a route given a similar grade, would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. For victory this was to be, though that might seem a strange accolade after such a battle.
This had been a war of attrition, a degenerate struggle with every tactic used within the rules of what we call the on-sight. It should not have been so. I had known how to climb it long before, when I read the guidebook description and first considered conquering it. I had envisioned myself surging through its lower defences, placing a quick cam in the obvious slot and clipping an old peg beaten deep into the rock on my way to a quick rest at the pod. Still fresh, all I would have needed were a few shakes of each arm and then onwards, the belay, more good shakeouts and I’d be a the niche, much as I was now, only in considerably better shape.
Instead I’d climbed it like a punter, retreating to back up the peg from the key section where confidence was, indeed, needed, and letting the rat do its worst. Still, the cheese of victory tasted all the better for it. That’s the beauty of being a mouse, I suppose.
I swung through the roof and the day was mine. I won’t kid myself I crushed it, but that cheesy taste will keep me going though the long week in the office. When I look out the window and see the sun and it’s only half past three I’ll smile and savour it and know I’m a climber. And the all-over body aches will remind me to man up and run it out next time.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Disillusioned Screw Machine

You haven’t have heard from me in a while because I’ve had a break from climbing. In fact, I’ve mostly been screwing.
I’ve also done a fair bit of sawing, hammering and drilling. Moving into a new flat has launched me into a world of DIY, and it’s been satisfying to find that a lot of what I lack in skill and equipment can be made up for with raw finger strength.
Hacking through kitchen units and cutting a breakfast bar to fit were more like body power exercises – the latter pretty extreme and requiring the top off. But my crimping skills really came in when I had to counter-sink some screws.
Finding I lacked a thick enough drill bit, I shot over to B&Q and thought I’d picked up a bargain 9mm bit until I got home and found it didn’t fit the drill. Sick of not having a work surface for the kitchen or a table to eat off, I just grabbed the bugger and twisted it into the wood by hand, gouging the holes for the screw heads in no time.
I also found that this worked up a good forearm pump, so I went mad training and drilled holes all over the place. I made that last bit up, but you could, if you had a spare piece of chipboard, design a pretty decent training routine.
I quite enjoyed the DIY – it’s not as good as climbing but then it was winter. However, I didn’t get much kudos from the better half. Mrs Anti-social Climber looked down on me as I sat sweating and in pain, blooded fingertips and arm muscles cramping, and just assumed I was doing it for fun. I tried to explain the difference between the exhausted satisfaction of a well-fitted worktop and the exhausted satisfaction of a vanquished overhanging jam crack, but trailed off half way – perhaps I should learn to love the sensation regardless of how it comes about?
Having got the fitness bug, one more thing I did do with the drill was set up a fingerboard, as endorsed by Dave McLeod – just one strip of wood. I had to use a power drill for this one, as I’m far too weak to crank on a masonry bit, although |I’m sure Dave would have done it by hand.
Anyway, like the great man says, the important thing about a fingerboard is that it gets used, so I’m trying to build a few sessions into my week. Combined with getting out on the crags now the flat is fixed up and the weather is getting better, that seems to have given me a flying start to the season. A couple of weeks ago I was cruising last year’s testpieces at North Berwick, then last week I made a decent start to the trad season with Grasp the Nettle at Linmekilns. I wasn’t too surprised to find it given E2 everywhere except the Lowland Outcrops guide but hopefully it was still a portent of greater things to come.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the woodie beckons.

Monday, 2 January 2012

New year, same ambitions

The year that life got in the way. That’s how I’ll be remembering 2011, in climbing terms at least. (Other terms are available, I’m told, but I’m not sure I like them.)
What I climbed last year could be written on the back of a postage stamp, but since I can’t mail you all, and you wouldn’t be able to read it anyway after I’d liked it and stuck it on an envelope, I reckon I’ll save myself the embarrassment and stick to making a few recommendations based on my best discoveries.
They are: Dove Holes, a great little bouldering spot in Northumberland; climbing Five Finger Exercise and Fern Hill one after the other at Cratcliffe; the Tissington Spires in Dovedale; Fun and Frolics at London Bridge in Torbay; and Fastcastle near Edinburgh.
That’s not as much as I’d hoped to be reporting when I moved to Scotland a year ago, so I’m going to pretend 2011 never happened and pick the list of ten Highland routes I made back in April as my New Year’s resolutions for 2012. They’re as good a list as any for getting to know Scotland and scaring myself shitless in the process so I’m going to paste them back in here and people can hold me to account by mocking and heckling should I fail to get them done.

The battlefield in the fight between the forces of climbing and real life is motivation. Motivation to get out of bed on a Saturday morning early enough to go to a distant crag. Motivation to organise yourself during the week, get a partner and spend some money travelling to the climb. And motivation to get on a big scary lump of rock that looks like it might hurt you.
Now is the depth of winter and I’m working strength, but in mid February the true training will begin. I’m going to get up at dawn every Sunday and hitchhike round Edinburgh’s ring road three times before breakfast. I’m going to burn £20 and go and sit under a boulder in Holyrood Park in the rain two evenings a week – and I’ll persuade someone else to join me. And I’ll be locking myself in a room with a candle and burning my feet over it while/until I can crank 20 pull ups.
By the time Spring arrives, I’m gonna be psyched, man!

Here are those routes from the ten main areas of Gary Latter’s Scottish Climbs vol 1 again:

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

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.