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

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.