Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Pinnacle of Success

So yeah, I did a thing and climbed a route. That was aeons ago now. I should have written a blog about it, but after I'd vomited all my thoughts about it onto the internet, I couldn't quite face it. Most importantly, having triumphed over adversity, etc, I could relax and start to enjoy my climbing again...

Life after Rainshadow, in which piglet goes climbing

Montserrat South Face
So there we were in Montserrat. It's not a trendy place to go, but for a long time now I'd had an idea in my head. Fly to Spain, hire a van and tour round Catalunya enjoying the "vias largas", the classic multi pitch routes found throughout the region. It would be the perfect way to relax after Christmas; long, easy routes in the sun with Jules and a guaranteed room with a view. So far, the plan was unfolding perfectly. We'd hired a van from Cargoling that was new, well equipped and comfortable. We'd done a nice easy slab in the sunshine, and had our multi pitch heads on. Time for a classic Montserrat outing.

"the rating is spicy and the distance between bolts is hot rather than spicy, but let us not forget that we are in Sant Benet, the temple of sandbagging..." - Montserrat Free Climbs
So, ok, the guide was a little off-putting, but Toby had recommended this route - Brown Sugar - to us before we left. It climbs a direct route up the Momia; one of the classic Montserrat towers up above the monastery and it's only 6b+. We'd be fine...

La Momia (right). Brown sugar climbs the wall just to the right of the LH gully.
Reader, I shit myself. 

The first pitch is 6a+. Twenty metres. Four bolts. This is ground I should be quite happy soloing, but honestly, the rock in this part of Montserrat is like nothing else. It's like climbing blindfold. It's slabby death. Every foot of rock contains a thousand pebbles. Every pebble looks good. Each pebble is a worthless, rounded, polished son-of-a-bitch. Basically every move is the same; pick a pebble you think your foot might stick to and stand on it. Now feel around - there are quite a few pebbles to choose from so this might take you some time. Eventually, you'll find a rounded piece of shit that's just bad enough to allow to move up an inch, where you can start the whole thing all over again. So, even though this pitch is 6a+, I'm stood about 100 feet above my first bolt, and not only can I not see how to do the next move, I have no idea if I'm even in the right place. Honestly, three feet to the right it looks the same. Three feet to the left is f*cking identical. A million feet above me is the next bolt, smirking. Somehow, there has to be a route through all this to safety, but I'm buggered if I know what it is. The only thing to do is to pick a pebble...

Pick a pebble, punk....
An hour later I lash myself to the belay and try not to hug it. I do have a rep to uphold. Jules follows me up with what I will refer to as her "concerned face", which is the one she wears when I've talked her into something and she's not 100% convinced I can get her out of it. We have a little chat, where Jules suggests we may have bitten off more than we can chew and I, possessing the memory of a goldfish, persuade her it will be fine and we should at least have a look at the crux pitch, described as "intricate and bold". Which is just my bag. 

We won't dwell on this pitch, except to say that I made it up somehow, and that I made it up the next pitch as well. Eventually we fell into a rhythm of smearing and searching and guessing and trying not to think about how far you were above the bolt, or how far it was to the next one. We were making progress and had made it to the point where the guide suggested "from here the gear improves". A good job too, because each pitch was taking its toll; eroding a tiny piece of my cool and winding me up a little bit tighter. I didn't have much left before I'd snap. No bother, only two pitches left.

The next pitch was a joy. The pebbles had got bigger, the angle steeper and the bolts closer together and I swarmed upwards in the sun, loving the position, loving the climbing, loving life. After a short while I found myself at the bottom of a small groove with a hard sequence at the top, leading to easier angled rock above. The hard sequence would take me away from the bolt, so I dithered a bit - my earlier nerves returning - before clenching my jaw and smashing on through. With a bit of udging and some fancy footwork I found myself balanced on the slab and facing disaster. 

I couldn't see any holds. I couldn't see any bolts above. Every direction above looked blank and hostile and unprotected. The last bolt, a quintillion miles below me, was also out of sight; buried in the back of the groove. I was stuck, I was scared and I did not know which way to go.  I could feel the panic welling up. There was only one thing for it. I rested my head on the rock and screamed my little heart out. It must have helped because when I looked back up there was the belay, a few feet to the left. How about that? One easy pitch more and we were up at the summit, enjoying the views to the coast in the last light of the day. We abbed off and walked home in the dusk, with the evensong bells tolling clearly out below us.

Me and Jules on the top of the Momia. I have my traumatised face on.
After this, we moved on. We did some other routes around Catalunya but nothing else was quite like Montserrat, so we found ourselves back there towards the end of the trip enjoying easier, gentler outings and some truly outstanding single pitch routes. I'm not sure why Montserrat is so quiet; Margalef and Siurana were heaving (and freezing), but we barely encountered other climbers whilst we were there. The place has it's devotees for sure; Chris Craggs loves the place (nowhere's perfect). However, it doesn't see the attention it deserves, if you ask me. A new guidebook will help. Montserrat Free Climbs is written in English and details routes on the North and South side of the mountain. It has single and multi pitch routes, both sport and trad and contains advice on the gear for most routes. This is pretty crucial; two routes the same grade can be very different days out, depending on whether the pitches have one, or twenty, bolts! It's also an inspiring guide, with great photos and tempting descriptions. Buy it, and head out here for a week or two. You won't be disappointed, although you might get your arse kicked!

Jules on top of the Momia

Jules at the Monastery

Abbing off Escabroni Escapullini at Can Jorba; delightful easy slab climbing on perfect rock

Selfie! Above the road at Villanova de Meia
Top notch single pitch climbing at Vermell de Xincarro

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Things which are dull

I read Moby Dick once. The whole thing from cover to cover. It's supposed to be a classic, but I'm too lowbrow to get it, I suppose. It was quite the dullest thing I've ever read. At one point, Melville abandons all pretence of keeping the narrative going, and spends a few pages simply listing things which are white.

I mention this because about the only thing I know which is duller than those pages is ballooning around on jugs endlessly, hoping to get fit. This evening was gorgeous; one of those pure azure skies that stretches forever. I left the office in a t-shirt and cycled to the wall with a heavy heart. Sometimes it sucks to go indoors. It helps to be honest with ourselves. It would be more fun to go out, and bathe the soul in sunshine. But something compels me not too. I am sacrificing my happiness for the sake of my ambition.

I know it's worth it.

Today's training session was brutal. Hours of fingerboarding leaves the fingers screaming. Endless reps on two fingers, massive iron plates dangling from my harness. Joints, skin and muscles all scream alike. At least the core exercises give my fingers a rest.

And then comes the real drudgery. Half an hour on the wall. There's barely anyone else here of course, so I can climb where I please. Nevertheless, I loop round the same overhanging section; a hamster in a wheel. When the timer beeps I allow myself five minutes rest and then it's back on. Another half an hour.

A list of things that are white. John Major. Grocery shopping. Endless bloody stamina training. The only thing not dull is the pain. Weakness leaving the body. I hope so. Barrows had a poster on his fridge. "Nothing tastes as good as 9a feels". He's an idiot. But this is my sacrifice. This drudgery. I pray it will pay off. But (whisper it), even if it doesn't I won't be too sad. I'm kind of having fun...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Weight: 61.5 kg (for you euros out there)
Bottles of Pepsi Max: 56
Finger Tendon Integrity (FTI): 0.72

This was a mistake. 

Jules and I huddled together in our tent for warmth as the gales drilled the rain sideways. Earlier still we had gazed into the hollow eyes of the only other team fool enough to stick it out on the Catwalk. And, before that, a text from Toby - "If you're heading to Malham, turn round now". Not an auspicious start to our 2 weeks holiday in the Dales. The following morning revealed the full extent of the damage; Malham had soaked up the rain like a sponge and sulked with a black face at the head of the dale. In the pub we checked flight prices, EU breakdown cover. Too expensive. Time for plan C. We packed the sodden tent and went home. 

Take 2: LPT. Different crag, same scenes. We try to press ourselves into the cliff face to escape the showers and icy wind that is howling round the bay. If we could summon the energy to look up it would be clear that Welsh climbers are a hardier lot than their Yorkshire counterparts. Every dry route is adorned with a suffering climber. It's too much for us, so we head back upstairs to the relative shelter of Parisella's Cave. Between the wet streaks are some damp holds, and we manage to warm up for the first time in several days. I get some nice ticks by performing extended hikes from one random point to another. Apparently, this passes for a boulder problem in the cave*. It's clear that my strength and fitness is on the up! Later on, Caff emerges from LPT to show us what real men are capable of - quietly confirming he despatched his 8c+ project despite the damp holds and arctic weather. We head to the Bangor Travelodge for some sleep, then bang out another Parisella's session the next day. It is wetter. We go home again. 

This holiday is becoming a farce. It's clear that something radical needs to be done. But what? We look at buying a house in Spain, or giving up climbing, but in the end we decide to go Trad climbing. Once we've managed to find our rack we drive down to Pembroke and our punt pays off - we pass the Gower to emerge blinking into the Sunlight. The strange warmth of the Sun on our faces is like the best food or drink I've ever had - enthusiasm and energy floods back into me as we sit in the tent, waiting to go climbing. 


I'd forgotten I'm the worse trad climber in Britain. I kick off the weekend with an attempt to romp up the classic "Get Some In". My body doesn't quite know how to behave. I try to dance lightly up the rock but my arms are locked rigid and my hips are fused by nervous tension. If this is dancing, I'm listening to Kraftwerk. In the mistaken belief that I can banish my fear by sacrificing my wires to the crag, I empty my rack into the cliff. Nut after nut vanishes into the depths. Unsurprisingly I become pumped, and climb down to the ground to stare meaningfully out to sea until the pain subsides. Then I repeat the whole shameful exercise, only to run out of wires entirely shortly before the crux. Any resolve I have disappears with my last wire, and I lower to the ground. 

Jules staring meaningfully out to sea. This is what Pembroke is all about.

Thankfully, the brilliant thing about trad climbing is that it's brilliant. So I spend the next few days climbing classic E1s and E2s in the sun, and remembering how gear works, and what ice cream tastes like. Jules outdoes herself. She used to have the worst trad-sport differential imaginable; failing on VS in the same month as climbing 8b. This weekend she takes it all in her stride and leads her hardest trad routes in all environments, multi-pitch, tidal - you name it. By the end of the weekend we are emptying our racks into routes of the same difficulty, so she's officially better than me now, since my sport onsight grade is higher. It's the best bank holiday weekend in ages, and ages and ages. But you can't just spend all your time having fun, can you? And Malham must be dry by now. So we drive north with tanned faces and smiles that run deep.

Enjoying the Malham sun in our massive tent

Malham is dry. And hotter than Venus. A cruel twist of fate - the heat we prayed for a week ago has undone us. But heat at Malham is only an issue for those without patience. We drink coffee and lie in; waiting for the sun to drift away from our projects. Some mornings we enjoy our newly discovered love of trad by sampling the crusty classics on the right wing. The evenings are reserved for Rainshadow efforts. It is going well; I feel strong on the crux, and easily better my best links from last year. 

Malham in the evening sun. Ellis-Butler Barker finds out that Bat Route is longer than Anstey's Cove

When we were living through the ice-age at LPT, Caff and I had been chatting about Rainshadow. He said he'd be red-pointing if he'd done the links I had. The thought squatted in my mind like a toad. So when Saturday came and the mercury dropped I squeaked my boots and set off from the ground for the first time...

...and promptly fell off. 

Actually, I did alright. There are two really hard moves on the crux - an optimistic lunge for a tiny RH pinch on the lip of the roof, and the following snatch to a much wider pinch above. I managed the first hard move, and fell of the second. In theory only one hard move lies between me and a chance to break onto the easier upper wall. However, progress towards that move can be measured in a million tiny increments. On my first RP I had about 500,000 tiny increments to make up. My second and third RPs were much worse - I barely managed the first hard move at all.

But we're away! I am officially on RP. I'm also starting to lose finger tendon integrity (FTI) on the crucial finger, so attempts are going to have to be few and far between, and I'll try and make them count. Because if that lanky clown Barrows can climb 9a, then anyone can...

*only kidding Parisella's. I love you really. 

Monday, 9 March 2015

CWIF 2015

Weight: 9st 10lbs (ground zero)
Bottles of Pepsi Max: 1
Finger Tendon Integrity (FTI): 0.78

Every year I write an entry about the CWIF. I don't really know why I bother, since you could basically cut and paste the one from the previous year. Great problems, blah, blah, cool atmosphere blah, blah, insert excuses, very psyched, watch out for me in the BBCs, etc, etc. I always have a great time at the comp, and always do terribly due to a lack of flexibility/talent/skin, but never actually enter the BBCs because I always go climbing the Sunday after the CWIF and get horribly injured. 

I don't know what to write this year. 

For a start, I'm not sure I did that terribly. Yes, I came way down the rankings, and Vladimir Putin has as much chance of winning the Nobel Peace Prize as I did of getting to the semi-finals, but for once I didn't fall off all the easy problems. Even my flexibility didn't let me down too badly, since I have discovered the miracle of squats. In all honesty I wasn't fit enough for 30 problems in an afternoon, and I did about as well as I could have hoped. I even achieved my lifetime's dream of beating Southern England's Nicest Climber, Gavin Symmonds - a pyrrhic victory given the amount he's been climbing this year, but I'll take it!

Also, since my wife insisted on a strict "no climbing after comps" rule, my battered old frame is moderately intact, although the RH middle finger which gave me so much trouble last year is grumbling ominously today. Thankfully I had scheduled in a couple of easy weeks before Rainshadow training starts in earnest. With a following wind, and a bit of sense, I might get to enter the BBCs this July after all...

And so the comp season is over. The endurance training is about to start, and today I begin the unpleasant and unwelcome campaign to get down to fighting weight. Let's see what the spring brings!

Monday, 2 February 2015


It's clear to even the most casual observer of our sport that footwork ruins climbing.

Whatever type of climbing you do, from alpine gnarl fests to Lancashire lowball grovel-problems, we're all just big kids farting about. With that in mind, go watch kids at play; swinging about on the monkey bars, signalling their glee with that mixture of laughter and high pitch shrieking unique to the under nines. You see how much fun they're having? You see them using their feet? Exactly.

Those nice chaps at beastmaker understand this. Which is why they organised the BIFF; the beastmaker international footless festival. The strongest climbers from all around were invited to take part in an evening devoted to the subtle art of campusing. With the climbing works playing hosts and the money raised being donated to CAC it was always going to be the comp event of the year.

As one of the elder statesmen of footless showboating I was both flattered and pleased to receive my invite, and immediately undertook a gruelling training schedule of 50m vertical Spanish stamina plods as preparation. All of which prepared me perfectly for last night's mayhem.

The format was thus; there were 15 footless problems to sink your teeth into, and you scored 30 points for a clean ascent, regardless of how many goes you took. For the true thugs, who were overwhelmed by the technical nature of actual climbing, there were also a series of foot-free challenges, including a pull up contest, a dead hanging sufferfest and a baggy hand crack. Quite rightly, success on these pure feats of strength could win you quite a few points. I fared poorly on the powerful problems (see below), but my honour was saved by the crack, which allowed me to put my fleshy spade-hands to good use. I was less impressive on the minuscule slopey dead hang edge; collapsing after 30s in awe of the steel fingered mutants (Davies and Barrans) who stayed on for around a minute!

What a night! Everyone was there: we had the original pocket power midgets Roddy Mackenzie and Ru Davies, and their modern equivalent Dave Barrans. Sam Whitaker had chosen a tasteful yellow vest to properly display the biggest guns in showbiz. Dave Mason was not to be outdone with his shiny gold pants - a look that Jerry would have been proud of. Pleasingly, there were plenty of women present too; notably including world champion Jule Wurm and Michaela "strong as fuck" Tracy. The evening also introduced me to Louis Parkinson - eventual winner and genuine mutant. I have seen the future, and it has no feet.

Throughout the night there was plenty of liquid refreshment to be had, and the commentary/barracking from Percy Bishton and Martin "king of the wave" Smith kept anyone from taking things too seriously. The anarchic atmosphere was helped by the fact that bonus points (in the form of colorful stickers) were being handed out by the judges for any reason that took their fancy. This was a brilliant idea, though I was not really helped by the two stickers that ended up covering both lenses of my glasses.

The end of the night saw the grand finale, with the best deadhangers invited to take part in a highball deadhang duel to the death. This was a contest which saw some astonishing displays of savagery from people I'd previously considered to be fine, upstanding citizens. The event was "won" by Dave and Michaela, but also notable was Tom Newman's brutal roundhouse kick to the chest of a barely prepared Ru Davies. Expect a court summons in the post soon, Tom.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

In which I get comprehensively pumped and scared

Chulilla - New Year’s Eve

Let’s clear one thing up once and for all. I am not world renowned for my delicate footwork, flexibility, stamina or cool head. It is therefore with a certain sense of dread that I booked a two week holiday in Chulilla - a venue that seems to consist almost entirely of 30+ m routes on vertical tufa, crimps and flowstone. I am pleased to announce that my fears were entirely justified! It’s almost as if someone purposefully designed Chulilla to frustrate and confound me. It’s flipping brilliant.

Every route is a similar experience for me. I begin with cat-like precision and focus, stepping from flowstone smear to small edge on the tippiest tip of my toes and breathing smoothly. At bolt one we can detect a certain tension in the legs and a smidgin of irregular breathing. By bolt two the wheels are visibly coming off. By bolt five my legs are vibrating visibly. Bolt ten sees me as a gibbering, violently shaking lunatic; feet spasming in the direction of footholds, forearms like balloons. By bolt eleven I’m silently muttering “Oh god, oh god” under my breath. At bolt twelve, if things are going really poorly I might let out a high pitched whimper. By bolt thirteen I am pretty much always hanging on the rope, unless by some chance the climbing eases before then.

I can see why this place has become so popular. The routes are extremely good. Sure, there’s some dodgy rock, but there’s so much of the stuff here there are plenty of absolute pearlers. The routes are loooong, which works well with the angle, as shorter vertical routes can often be insecure nightmares. Here the routes are technical, but not desperately thin. They are surprisingly continuous - rests either have poor hands, or poor feet. Basically, it’s sport climbing for trad climbers.

Which explains why I am rubbish. The game plan was to start on some 7c’s and 7c+’s, and get my eye in before moving onto harder fare. Sadly, my eyes have been so far out on stalks on these easier routes there’s little hope of moving onto anything harder in the near future. But I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun getting shut down on a daily basis. Basically, Chulilla is brilliant.

Which explains why the whole world is here. I must remember not to grumble about this, as I am as much a part of the problem as every other climber here. However, I would strongly recommend coming slightly out of season. At the crag yesterday every single route had a queue on it, with the exception of a desperate 7c that only Ted Kingsnorth could love. It does make climbing a very sociable experience...

As a result it was nice to get out of Chulilla today and explore the countryside a bit, and feel like we were in Spain again. We visited a quality roman aqueduct just outside Chelva, with impressive tunnels cut through the limestone, and ate Serrano Ham sandwiches by the river. Tomorrow, we return to do battle with more sketchy 7c+’s. At least the bolts are close together...

Jules in the tunnels, proving the Sun really does shine out of her arse.

The Peña Cortada Aqueduct, near Chelva

Thursday, 23 October 2014


There's a tendency for, ahem, older sport climbers to reach a point where they feel they've got one last hurrah left in them. At this point, the Last Big Siege begins. If they're lucky, the last big siege only lasts a couple of years but for a few it becomes a true epic. Those hardy few who make it successfully to the other side of the Last Big Siege become part of folklore and legends. Those for whom the Last Big Siege is a breaking point face a different fate. They become folk stories of a different kind. Bogeymen with which to frighten young redpointers. "Finish your project, young lad, or you'll end up like...". No names - you know who you are.

I often wondered how you ended up getting sucked into the Last Big Siege, but now I realise how frighteningly easy it really is. In the last few weeks I've become increasingly worried that I was on my way to becoming the next Malham bogeyman. A fixed point to write route descriptions around: "Ten feet to the left of the short old man falling off the crux of Rainshadow, is a classic short route...". However, in the last few weeks I've found a few, tiny, reasons to be optimistic.

Gurning through the crux. Credit: Adam Jeeworth.
I set myself a goal for this year of linking from the rest on Raindogs to the top of the route. I figured if I could do that whilst injured and unable to train I could probably do the route after a winter's training. Last weekend I made some serious progress towards that goal, linking from a few moves into the roof to the top. I can't over-emphasise how far this is off doing the whole route; the link I've managed is probably 8b+ or so. However, it's the biggest link I've managed by far, and the first time I've linked any number of moves into my bogey move on the headwall. The full link from the back of the roof might be on this year after all. However, even that link is probably only hard 8c, and it's a big step up from there to the full route. Maybe I am kidding myself after all. All I ask is that if I'm still on the route in three years, someone takes me aside and has a gentle word.

The hardest part of the crux roof. Credit: Adam Jeeworth