Friday, 9 May 2014

In Praise of Alex Barrows

I think we've known each other long enough to be honest. I'm Alex Barrows' biggest fan. Ok, he's a ridiculous looking, freak of a human being. And admittedly he has ruined climbing in Parisella's Cave forever. And, since you bring it up, the "Climbers Against Barrows" T-shirt was rather funny. And his little poodle is quite annoying, but there's more to Alex Barrows than this.

I think it's time to acknowledge that Alex is a nice guy. He's cheerful and friendly and doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone. Reading for a PhD in Physics suggests he's at least moderately bright. Unlike me, when confronted with a different opinion he genuinely tries to understand why it might be right. He's helpful to other people at the crag and has a infectious, bounding enthusiasm more climbing. I genuinely struggle to think of someone I'd rather go climbing with than Mr Alex Barrows.

More than this however, it's time I admitted that he's actually quite good at climbing. Having now climbed 3 8c+'s his sport climbing track record is pretty much as good as it gets in the UK. Alright, two of them were boulder-problem traverses of dubious worth but we have to respect difficulty wherever we find it. Moreover, word on the street is that he has just onsighted not one, but two, 8b's in Rodellar. In typical modest fashion he didn't let anyone know about this (apart from posting on Facebook and updating his 8a.poo scorecard from the crag), so I'm telling you now. In short, Mr Alex Barrows is one hell of a climber.

In summary I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologise to Britain's hardest climbing Will Ferrel look-a-like and say - Alex Barrows, we salute you.

Monday, 5 May 2014

They shoot horses, don't they?

My connective tissue is rotting. I think it's a standing joke amongst other climbers that I'm always injured. Certainly when I meet people I haven't seen for a while, the first question they ask is 'are you injured?'. Currently I am nursing: one finger injury, occurring on the day after F-BO; torn knee ligaments, occurring on the day after the CWIF; and a sprained ankle, which came on during a gentle walk. All this makes me feel pretty decrepit. There's nothing like being old to make you feel old.

The *good* news is that all my aches and pains are manageable enough to begin training once again, so with a Coach-Randall-Approved Rehab™ plan I'm hitting the campus board again (don't worry Mum - feet on and open handed) to get fit and get awesome. By Saturday I even managed to reduce the swelling in my ankle enough to get a rock shoe, so I hobbled into Malham for a session on Rainshadow.

There was a good scene at Malham on Saturday, by which I mean that the entire sodding world was on the catwalk, strutting around as if they had as much right to be there as I did. Rainshadow is going well, although progress is incremental. I'm getting more solid on the crux moves, and got some good beta from Ryan P, who is looking very tidy on it. Probably because he climbs the crux bulge in seven moves, where I take twelve. For me I still need to take it easy and not try big links, in case they break me.

On Sunday the wife and I went to the Barn, for their amusingly-named 'Barn Wars'. Because it was May the 4th. Ha ha. Jules wants to get in as much comp practice before the British championships as possible so local comps like this are an excellent chance to refine strategy and learn to work sequences etc. Obviously I would have won, had people who were better than me not turned up. Nathan Phillips won, who is injured - though clearly not as injured as I am. Dave Barrans didn't win. I hope this makes him angry enough to try hard at next weeks World Cup in Grindlewald... Jules won the ladies comp despite being tired from a load phase of her training, and won a very generous £200 prize which she spent on shoes. Typical girl.

Then, since it was a bank holiday we spent monday shopping in Sheffield and doing a bit of gardening, and then had a nice evening watching the World Cup on YouTube and making Ravioli. Which was nice. And that's about it. Stayed tuned for more blog posts, in which I sustain more injuries and not much gets climbed.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Opening the account

For about three years now I've had one particular route in the back of my mind. That's because it's the best hard sport route on UK limestone, bar none. To be honest, many of the hard sport routes in the UK are minging - the holds are too small and nasty, or the rock is a bit poor. Some of the best climbing are on traverses (like Dog's Dinner) or arbitrary link ups in Parisella's Cave or the Tor, but it's hard to get psyched for them, unless you are Alex Barrows.

The exception that proves the rule is Rainshadow. Steve Mac put up this masterpiece in 2003, and it's seen two repeats since then. It is flipping amazing. The rock is damn near perfect and the moves are funky. Most importantly all of the holds are nice - no grim crimps here!

Steve Mac on Rainshadow. Screenshot from Gresham's Training DVD.
The route climbs Raindogs (best 8a at Malham) to a poor shake below a Font 7c+ boulder problem through the roof, with burly 8a/8a+ climbing to get to the belay above. It's a BIG step up from anything I've done to-date. Together with Tom Randall I've been basing my training over the last three years around getting into good enough shape to do this route. To be honest, a lot has gone wrong over that time period, and I had to sit out almost all of last year, and a few months of this one, due to finger injuries. Maybe that will prevent me from realising my goal this year, but the time has finally come to start trying, and see how close I can get.

This weekend I spent three days on the route. It's amazing, but so, so hard. The roof boulder problem is so beta intensive, it took me the whole weekend to work out a sequence. I'm using Steve's heel-toe sequence, which no-one else uses, but after trying several different pairs of Sportiva shoes I've got the knack and think it's the way forward. Raindogs at least is easy, but there's a heartbreaker move at the very top that's got me really worried. The whole deal may be too hard, and perhaps my ego has written a cheque my body can't cash. Too bad. I'm supposed to be back at work, but I can't think of anything else. I see Rainshadow holds in my cup of tea. I load google to search for work papers and somehow find myself watching Rainshadow videos. For better or worse I'm committed to this project! See you at Malham...

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Things I Will Remember About Oz

Gritstone is nearly perfect isn't it? All that friction, the fluid motion. A shame it's so small. Wouldn't it be amazing if there was somewhere with massive grit crags. Somewhere with a bit more variety; multi-pitch grit, steep grit, sport grit. A place like that would be all the rage, wouldn't it?

I've just returned from a two week climbing trip in the Blue Mountains. Alright, it's not Stanage, but the rock is as close to quarried grit as makes no difference. I'm sure geologists would quibble, but this is grit in all but name. Originally I had planned to write a few blogs whilst I was there but it turns out Australia isn't a civilised country and it's really hard to find coffee and wifi after 5pm, so I didn't bother. Instead I am blessing you with this summary of things I remember about the trip, in a handy list format.

The Blueys. Great rock, lots of trees. And a whole heap of rain.
  1. The Scenery
    Look out from Centennial Glen and gum trees recede into the distant haze, whilst black cockatoos screech from the branches. On the walk in we've navigated waterfalls, leeches, snakes; if a pterodactyl flew past I would be only mildly surprised. Charles Darwin was unimpressed, finding the scenery "exceedingly monotonous; each side of the road is bordered by scrubby trees of the never-failing Eucalyptus family; and with the exception of two or three small inns, there are no houses or cultivated land". Pff. What did Darwin know? He didn't even see a Kangaroo - which brings me to number
  2. The Wildlife
    Kangaroos, Snakes, Echidnae, Wombats, Cockatoos, Kookaburras. The wildlife in the blueys was probably the best thing about the whole trip. And the sounds of the birds from our campsite in the morning added to the whole 'lost world' vibe of the trip. Even the ravens sound exotic to british ears; their loud caws trailing off to a sigh, as if they've been punctured and are slowly deflating.

    Roo spotting in the Megalong Valley
  3. The Weather
    Hmm. Less enamoured here. For the two weeks we were there we had two days without rain. And we had all sorts of rain. We had drizzle. We had bowel-shaking thunderstorms, which we got to watch from an enjoyable distance and a disconcerting proximity. We had monotonous downpours, sudden squalls and even one very isolated shower, when it rained from a 100ft patch of cloud drifting past us in an otherwise perfect cobalt sky. When it wasn't raining, we were treated to gritstone climbing in 20 degree heat and 100% humidity.

    Still, thanks to the impermeability of the rock and general steepness we still got to climb every day we wanted. Which brings me to number
  4. The Climbing
    It was steep, it was rough, it was tough. There were rock overs, massive sideways dynos, the crimpiest crimps that ever crumped. I absolutely loved it. I also got completely and utterly shut down. I didn't climb anything harder than 29 (8a), didn't onsight anything harder than 27, fell off a few 24s. Worst performance ever, but some stellar routes made it a great trip. My favourite was probably Super Duper Goo - the route in the previous blog post. I didn't quite get the beautiful light that Steve Mac is enjoying in that photo, instead I swung through the roof in zero visibility and a raging thunderstorm, but it was epic and memorable nonetheless. Other favourites were the mega-steep The Way of All Flesh and Don't Believe the Tripe, and everything on the gorgeous and subtle vertical walls of Porter's Pass.

    One taped finger for each day on.

    The Tube, Centennial Glen - 24
  5. Sydney
    Probably one of the only cities I could imagine living in. We had some lovely days out in Sydney, with the only downside being the assault we received at the hands of the Seagulls in Manly. 
So - that was Oz. I'll definitely go back as soon as I can afford it, and just hope that I won't get such a spanking next time!

The morning view from our tent. It rained 10 minutes later.

Classic connies at Diamond Falls

The in-aptly named 'log of death' at the Freezer

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Weather on other worlds

It's not all climbing you know. The last 40 hours I've been travelling to Sydney to do some observing on an old favourite telescope of mine. Over the last few years, various astronomers across the globe have been working hard to directly measure the brightness of planets orbiting other stars - so called exoplanets. This is relatively 'easy' at infrared wavelengths but is incredibly difficult in optical light, where the planet is much, much, much fainter than the star it orbits. This matters because the best way of measuring the planet's brightness is to look for the minuscule dip in brightness of the combined light from the star and planet, when the planet disappears behind the star.

The dip in brightness is so small because the planet is so faint - the often used analogy is that it's like trying to see the change in overall brightness when a firefly disappears behind a searchlight. Nevertheless, over the last few years we have honed our techniques and we are starting to routinely measure the brightness of exoplanets in optical light - like the example below.

Light vs time for the exoplanet system WASP-12. The dip (a fraction of one percent) is caused by the planet disappearing behind the star.
The thing is, as we have more and more measurements like this, a puzzle is starting to emerge. It's becoming quite common for different groups to disagree on the brightnesses of exoplanets. An example is shown below - look at the furthest left datapoint. There's two measurements of brightnesses for the same planet by different groups, and they don't agree.

Brightness of planet as a function of wavelength. The furthest left points are two measurements of the optical brightness
There are only really two possibilities here. The first is that we are not as good at measuring the brightness of exoplanets as we think we are. The apparent disagreement in this case is caused by us overstating how confident we are in our measurements. The second possibility is that the planets really are changing in brightness over time - or, to put it another way - we could be seeing weather on the surface of planets around other stars. My money is on the first explanation - but there's a really obvious way to check. That's to measure the same event from many different telescopes. Since it's the same event all the different telescopes should give the same answer, and if they don't then our techniques are not as good as they thought they were.

That's what I should have been doing tomorrow night, but looking at the weather it looks like I might be watching movies on iTunes instead. Now, Sydney is a long way to come to work one night and find it is cloudy, but I'm not too depressed because I'm taking a two week climbing holiday afterwards, so if the science doesn't play ball I've got this to look forward to...

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Do you CWIF?

In 2011, buoyed by a run of great results in the Foundry winter bouldering I entered the CWIF. My first international comp since the early 00's. I tanked hugely.

In 2012 the same thing happened. After a winter of handing Will Atkinson's ass to him on a silver plate I entered the CWIF once more. Will scored 221 and narrowly missed the final. I scored 198 and narrowly missed every hold I jumped for.

In 2013 I was injured.

In 2014, following a great result in the F-BO bouldering comp I entered the CWIF once more. You can see where this is going, can't you?

CWIF problems need technique, balance and nonchalance. And a cuppa. Nick Brown shows how it's done.
Every year I expect something different, and every year I go home surprised by how much of climbing doesn't depend upon campus strength at all. On Thursday before this year's competition such was my prowess on the Foundry campus board that the locals were awed - I genuinely thought Mark Tomlinson was going to make me a marriage proposal. And then on Saturday I watched climbers who couldn't 1-4-7 to escape a sleuth of angry bears, smoothly negotiate volumes and rock overs that spat me off repeatedly. In the end I finished with 205 points - my best CWIF performance to date, and enough for a mighty 66th place.

You'd think that I'd be crushed and dispirited. Then again, you'd think that after three years I'd have learned to expect it. The truth is that the weekend has got me completely psyched for competitions again! Performance aside I had such a great time on Saturday. There was a great and friendly scene and the problems were excellent. Really and truly amazing - if those problems were outside on a single font circuit it would be the best circuit in font. As usual they required gymnastic strength, subtle footwork and impeccable route reading skills in equal measure. Of these attributes I possess none, but determination I possess in spades. So I'm going to stretch a bit, do a lot of push ups and enter the British Bouldering Championships for the first time in over 10 years. With a bit of luck I might not even come last...

Team Midget Gems at the CWIF: L-R Mrs Littlefair, Mr Littlefair, a pack of midget gems, Ella Russel, John Dudley

Monday, 17 February 2014


After all the excitement, did F-BO14 live up to the hype? Is that even possible? The original FIBO international comps at the Foundry were the reason I got into competing in the first place, and led to a brief and ignominious career at the world cups. With the title of King of the Wave once more up for grabs I was desperate to put a good showing in. For the first time in a while I actually didn't sleep well before a comp, such was my excitement level!

The day itself was fantastic. The routesetting team of Napier, Bishton and Feehally had done themselves proud and the qualifying problems were butch and bizarre in equal measure. Other people have blogged about the comp in detail including the Foundry themselves, and competitors Ethan Walker and Gracie Martin, and there's an excellent set of photos on the Foundry's Facebook page. Slackjaw Films even revisited their seminal Hard Plastic, and made a short film of the event. In the end I was extremely lucky to get to climb in the final. Not only did Ben Moon retire after crushing qualification, but I scraped my way up the harder problems in qualifying by the skin of my teeth. 

90's legend Richie "fragile" Patterson holding it together in qualifying. Credit: Paul Bennett

In the final it was a similar story. The strength wasn't there to enable me to do well and other climbers were definitely stronger. At the end of the first two boulders I'd barely managed to get off the floor and was feeling well and truly beaten. 

Shut down on P1. Credit: Paul Bennett
In the end, however, I had some luck on the last two problems and managed to scrape my way up them. This was good enough for third place and a generous prize, thanks to the Foundry. Martin Smith and Ethan, in first and second respectively, were much much better than me on the day but let's not dwell on that. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about what changed after the first two problems to allow me to get up anything at all.

Getting angry on P3. Credit: Paul Bennett
The change can be summed up with three little words. A-ggre-ssion. I went back into isolation after the second problem and gave myself a bloody good talking to. And I came out and tried the third problem a different climber. It's so important in comps to come out and really want it, but how can you do that when things aren't going your way? Everyone has their tricks (I got Graeme Alderson to give me a punch in the chest), but I reckon the U.S ski team are on to a bit of a winner.

Until Dec 2013, Pete Lavin (aka 'Baby Huey') was employed by the US ski team to stand behind skiers at the start gate, and shout at them. Loud. Don't believe me? - check out Bode Miller on the receiving end...

With the CWIF just around the corner, it's worth pointing out that Huey is probably available for hire, since he left the team following the appointment of a new austrian coach. Failing that I'm sure I could hire Grimer to stand on the edge of the mats shouting encouragement. I'm going to be unstoppable...