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

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Unsolicited thoughts on women in climbing - part II

In the previous post, I annoyed almost everyone for explaining why I thought the women's climbing symposium was a waste of time, and why I think I'm wrong about that. One of the examples I used in that blog post was body image in climbing. It goes without saying that I've been thinking a lot about women's bodies recently, and something struck my mind.

This image is the #1 google hit I get for "professional women surfers". It's from an article about why, to be a top women surfer, you've got to be sexy. Go ahead, spend your lunch break finding pictures of the top 10 women surfers in the world. I promise you won't regret it. They are all hot. And these are the top surfers based on ranking, and not hot-or-not ranking either. What is going on here? And what the hell does it have to do with climbing?

Sisters Ellie-Jean, 18, front, and Holly-Sue Coffey, 16, are both vying for the same spot in the Roxy Pro. Pic by Luke Marsden.
Admit it. At least half of you were betting the next paragraph would mention Sierra Blair-Coyle. Well it does, so give yourself a pat on the back and keep reading. This year I have been watching the IFSC climbing world cup avidly. It's great. The streaming is usually good and the competition has been incredibly impressive. But there are always some duller moments in any competition, and in one of this duller moments the wife and I were having one of those horrifically shallow conversations about who you fancy. It rapidly became apparent that whilst the male competitors were typically attractive (there were maybe two or three that Jules thought passable), that a very large number of the women climbers were blond and really very pretty.

So - I know what you're thinking. This result merely reflects the fact that I am a pervert and a lech. But no! It turns out that Jules also shares my opinion on the attractiveness of top women climbers, and so do the small sample of friends I have dared raise the topic with.  "OK", you respond, "it is just that these are young, athletic women with fine bodies. Isn't it natural that they'll be attractive?". So I spent some time comparing my results with the attractiveness of women in other sports, for example athletics. I did this purely in the interests of scientific rigour, you understand. It turns out that, whilst women athletes are all young, and are obviously in peak physical form, they are just as pretty as the general population. Some are, some aren't.

So climbing, like surfing, seems to have found itself in a situation where most of the top women climbers are quite attractive. How did it get here? In surfing, you could argue that you have to follow the money. Sponsorship money flows easily to those who can sell product, and in the awful male dominated society we have, that means the pretty girls. This doesn't take away from the awesome talent of those at the top, it's just that you have to be an incredible athlete and pretty, which is not something the men have to put up with. Is this happening in climbing? I don't know. I get the impression that sponsorship money is pretty meagre, so maybe it's something more subtle? How would you feel entering your first competition, and all the girls around you were tall and pretty? What if you felt pretty self conscious about your appearance to start with? Would you feel at home? Would you climb your best? Maybe we're caught in a vicious circle, where potential top climbers don't feel at home unless they fit the profile? It's the same argument that's been made many times, in all walks of life to explain why we do not see diversity, even though we arguably have equality. It has been used to explain everything from the glass ceiling, to the lack of women on University Challenge:
"Diversity is looking at outcomes. If there weren’t any women at the Ritz, you might ask whether you were making them feel welcome, as well as whether they had the price of admission."
I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I don't know if most will agree with the basic premise of this post. However I do know that I don't want climbing to go the same way as surfing, where a young girl with tremendous talent will choose another sport, because she feels shy competing in her underwear.

Unsolicited thoughts on women in climbing - part I

So, on September the 27th, the women's climbing symposium will be held in Glasgow. Let me be frank. When I first heard about the women's climbing symposium I thought it was a really bad idea. Nowadays I'm not so sure. It's certainly true that women climbers face different issues to men, and this is an oft-used justification for women-only events. The issue I have with this is that too often this makes assumptions about whose fault it is that women face those issues. In a recent, and very inspiring blog post, Hazel Findlay puts it better than I can, discussing a time she let a male climber dissuade her from an onsight attempt:
"Although I was psyched to send my hardest route, I was annoyed that I had been discouraged from trying to flash it. Of course, it wasn’t Sean’s fault; it was my fault
The reason this send was so important to me wasn’t because I don’t believe in rehearsing routes first. It isn’t even to do with what male climbers expect from the average girl at the crag. It has to do with self-belief. I know how well I can climb a lot better than a random guy I met two days ago. So why did I trust his judgment and not my own?"
 Let's call this point of view the deficit model. In the deficit model, the issues women face when they climb is their own fault. Find all-male groups intimidating? Have a male partner who assumes you won't want to lead? Then man the fuck up and do something about it.

The phrase in italics highlights the problem with the deficit model. It views male behaviour as the norm, and forcefully suggests that women alter their behaviour to be more like men. Obviously, there are alternative points of view. One point of view is that if you do have a male partner who doesn't let you lead, then that guy is a dick, and he needs his world view adjusting. Preferably with a swift kick in the balls.

I believe that, for most situations, the issues women climbers face lie somewhere in between the two extremes. My issue with most discussions of women in climbing is not that the issues aren't genuine, or that the deficit model is entirely correct. It's that the deficit model is under discussed, and anyone suggesting that women share responsibility for solving their problems can be met with strong opposition.

Hey - here's an example. Women quite often shy away from power training, because they are afraid of getting arms like Sam Whittaker. Once again, the deficit model says the answer is to man the fuck up. Get over it. After all, it's not impossible to love a climber's physique. In a great blog post on the WCS, Michaela Tracy says:

"I remember hearing about a talk about body image amongst female climbers. This was something I just couldn’t understand at all. I love having big arms and broad shoulders, really I do. For me, having the build of a climber means that I can do what I love - and I get a lot more joy out of that than finding a dress that fits me."

But of course, it's not that easy. Because women face a lot of pressure from society about how they are supposed to look. It's hammered home from a young age. Their Barbie dolls are so ridiculous, if they were real they'd have to walk on all fours. The images they see in magazines are all airbrushed to present impossible ideals of femininity. It takes tremendous self confidence to ignore all this and be proud of your amazing body, and the training that got it that way.

When I first heard about the WCS, I assumed the deficit model would be totally undiscussed. To my mind that would make it actively dangerous - it would promote the idea that women faced special issues for which they shared no responsibility. For example, it would indulge women who found all-male groups to be intimidating, and suggest they climb in all-female groups instead. On the flip-side, a WCS that discussed the deficit model might suggest trying to overcome these fears, which would lead to a more positive, and less self-limiting result.

Of course, I've never been to the WCS, and so it is totally wrong of me to make this assumption. And no-one can deny that there are many many women who face issues that men will never encounter - and these women are whom the WCS is aimed at, and who give it overwhelmingly positive feedback every year. I'm sure that once again it will be a tremendous success, and I wish it all the best. Maybe those of them who I will force to read this blog might like to discuss the issues raised? Oh, and while I'm at it I have something else on my mind, which I'll harp on about in part II...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Dear Diary

Weight: 9st 10lbs (stubborn)
Cans of Coke: 6
Middle Finger Tendon Integrity (MFTI): 0.73

I'd spent the week holed up in a posh hotel in Pitlochry, discussing Electrification in Dusty Atmospheres. It did nothing for the waistline, and Pitlochry appears to be a Highlands Theme Park so horrid it has driven out all the local Scots. However, I did get to watch super-slo-mo videos of people re-creating volcanic explosions in the lab. Those guys are in the right job.

I returned Sheff-side exhausted, hung over and desperate to go climbing. Toby has a well-earned reputation for climbing without undue haste. It's ok though, because he rectifies this by starting early. So he picked me up from my house at half-past-early and we drove, bleary-eyed to Long Wall. I don't want to say bad things about Long Wall, so I'd best not say anything at all. It's long in one direction at least, I guess. Nevertheless I did manage to have an enjoyable day here. Toby dispatched Atlantic Realm, which is apparently 7c+ now half of it has fallen down. Toby did it with great ease, or at least very statically. It can be hard to tell which. Then I managed to comfortably flash the hard climbing and embarrass myself horribly on the easy top slab. Note to self: power screaming on 6b slab climbing is never acceptable.

On Sunday I returned to Malham to continue what is definitely going to be a long term affair with Rainshadow. I also cleaned out some bird's nests from Thriller/Victor Hugo so you really have no excuse now, do you? Once again I was struck by just how strong everyone is these days. Apart from myself there was one other 9a aspirant there that day, four people trying 8c's and teenage girls getting close to 8a's. It's a far cry from ten years ago, where you could climb an 8b and spend the rest of the day basking in the admiration of your peers. This makes me sad.

I'm sadder still by progress on Rainshadow. I firmly believe that I am capable of getting through the crux roof from the ground, but there is a long move on the headwall that I fear is just too hard. I can't do this move reliably off the rope, and you've already done at least 8c+'s worth of climbing by the time you get there. I remain hopeful, but not optimistic. The only thing that makes me feel better is how bad Alex Barrows is on this route. During his epic dogging sessions which seemed to last a day each, I estimate he spent 0.34 microseconds actually holding his own weight. I can only assume his belayer has very bruised hips this morning.

Still, no amount of failure on Alex's part will constitute success on mine, so I'd better do something about this headwall move soon. Stay tuned for more on that, and an upcoming blog post in which I alienate the entire female climbing community, shortly before the women's climbing symposium kicks off.