Monday, 27 July 2015

A short bouldering weekend in wet Wales

Llanberis Pass
I had never been bouldering in Llanberis Pass. I've been to the Pass. I have climbed Snowdon. I have eaten at Pete's Eats. But I have never bouldered in the Pass. That's a poor show. So I set about remedying the situation with a quick weekend escape to the Welsh valley with Leigh-Anne.

It's safe to say we enjoyed a wide variety of weather. Upon arriving it was raining - consistently. It barely stopped all day, meaning we had only one option: climb on Jerry's Roof or don't climb at all. The runoff from the lip even started creeping under the roof, soaking holds that it shouldn't be getting anywhere near. Nonetheless, I managed to link it together up to the undercuts before, normally, you would throw out to the lip and was satisfied with a good workout.

We camped in the van that night and awoke the next morning to the sound of a drill sergeant-type force feeding weary hikers bacon sarnies and tea at 7am after a two-and-a-half hour Snowdon march. We assumed they were scoffing before a long journey to either Scafell Pike or Ben Nevis.

A few coffees and a banana later, we found ourselves once again sat under Jerry's Roof. The lip and top out had dried enough over night to give it some effort but the early start, van sleep, lack of solid breakfast or wake-up time - who knows; pick your excuse - zapped any motivation or energy I had for the climb. The baltic morning conditions weren't helping matters, as I struggled to warm up and, by the time I had negotiated the moratorium on muscular activity, I ran out of energy. Middle of July and it felt like December.

We walked the 250m back up the road to try some easier climbs on the big roadside block with Diesel Power on it. We didn't try that. We struggled on some small holds and then the sun burst through the clouds; like it had pulled its bed sheets off, lept out of bed and yelled to the world: "GOOOOOOOD MORNING SUNSHINE!" Welcome relief from the cold.

It suddenly went from baltic to hot with barely an in-between. Off came the layers and on came the smiles. We were able to stand around without shaking. I managed to climb a little 6C arete and then a 7A+ traverse line that started at the bottom of Diesel Power and drifted rightwards, around the aforementioned arete and connected with a 5+ Ramp feature that Leigh-Anne climbed. It was fun and short lived.

We decided to go for a hike and looked across the road to the Wavelength boulders. They didn't look too far away, so we ladened ourselves with pads and bags full of water and set off. We soon realised it was steep, boggy and lacking in any formal path. We negotiated little streams, puddles and mud-traps and eventually found ourselves under Utopia. We wanted Boysen's Groove. I dropped the pads and shot up the hill, feeling light unburdened. I nearly walked the whole mountain without seeing the Groove so I turned back. I went the wrong way. How? 

Having consulted the guide, we heaved the luggage back onto our aching backs and continued the plod upwards. Eventually arriving at the Groove, we collapsed with exhaustion. I put my climbing shoes on, stood up and nearly fell over again - dizzy. I pulled onto the starting jug and wondered whether it would snap under my weight - it's thin. I couldn't bend my arms I was so tired. Leigh-Anne faired similarly so we sacked it off and went to Pete's Eats for chips. 

The next day epic amounts of rain were forecast so, instead of hanging around, we programmed Sheffield into the Satnav and left the Pass for another day. I'll be back. A good trip to Wales.     

Friday, 10 July 2015

Timings for British Bouldering Championships 2015

Cliffhanger weekend is upon us. 

Photos of the British Bouldering Championships competition wall sprouting out of the ground at Millhouses Park have been spotted on social media channels. 

From @HeasonEvents Twitter

Competitors' Instagram & Twitter feeds are full of training photos with captions along the lines of "last session before the British Bouldering Championships this weekend - can't wait!"

And the rest of us are busy planning our weekends around when to drop into the park. Some will camp out there all weekend. Some will bob in when they can. And some will plan around the BBCs schedule. For the latter group, here are the timings:

Saturday, July 11

11:00 - Male Qualification begins
13:30 - Female Qualification begins
17:00 - Male & Female Qualification ends

Sunday, July 12

10:30 - Semi Final begins
12:45 - Semi Final ends
15:30 - Final beings
17:30 - Final ends

For more information on the nitty gritty of the schedule, take a look at the BMC website, where it states: "The timetable is subject to change at any time." Keeps you on your toes.

Here's a previous blog with more general information on Cliffhanger.

Finally, visit the Cliffhanger website for ticket information, programme of activities, visiting advice, photos, testimonials and a whole heck of a lot more.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

British Bouldering Championships back at Cliffhanger for 2015

The British Bouldering Championships (BBCs) is returning to Sheffield's Millhouses Park next month. It is once again the star attraction of Cliffhanger, following a sojourn to the Climbing Works last year

The country's strongest plastic pullers will bear down on a World Cup standard wall, fighting through the qualifying stages to make finals. Like the ancient gladiatorial battles of the Colosseum... only without the gory parts or weapons for that matter. Just mano a mano - or womano a womano - for the crown of British Champion.

Many will recollect the big top tent of former years (above). Gone are the days of the BBCs' circus resemblance and, this year, there will be a purpose-built open-air structure to replace it. A canopy will keep the July heat (or rain) off the competitors while the rest of us bask in sunshine (or rain) in awe of the athletic performance.

“If you’ve never experienced the thrill of watching a live bouldering competition before, it’s the Blue Riband event of the climbing world, like the 100m sprint at the Olympics with the added drama of competing up a five metre high vertical wall, without a rope.” That comes directly from the mouth of the Cliffhanger Festival co-organiser and mastermind Matt Heason.

If your climbing appetite isn't satiated by the BBCs do not despair! For there are numerous other activities for those vertically inclined. The world famous Foundry Climbing Centre will bring a wall with them to Millhouses Park - not the Wave, for those of you wondering. The Foundry's shop, Crag-X will have its usual one-minute pull-up challenge (pictured above). And Wild Country, now synonymous with the Wide Boyz and their crack climbing endeavours, will host a crack wall for those wanting to emulate Tom and Pete.

But wait! You're not tired yet? How can this be? No worries, there's plenty more where that came from: a ladder climb, zip-wire and slide, zorbing, scuba-diving, kayaking, bike polo, disc golf and duck racing, outdoor theatre, bushcraft and forest school sessions.

If you need a breather after racing those ducks, be regaled with stories of adventure in the Alpkit story tent, sup on a cold brewski in the beer garden (only if you're old enough!), do a little shopping in the trade stalls or stuff your face at the food stands.

As a born and bred Dee-Dah, I'm proud my home city hosts the "UK's biggest outdoor event for outdoor people". It's always been a cracking day or two out, despite that little wobble one year with terrible weather. Organised by Sheffield City Council in conjunction with Heason Events, the event now finds itself in its ninth year and long may it last. 

Of course, Cliffhanger's longevity comes down to the visitors and the event's sponsors, so it would be remiss not to mention them: Reward Health, XScape, Skydive Hibaldstowe, Haybrook, Heart and Decathlon. 

Right then... time to go buy some factor 50 sunscreen in anticipation. See you there!

All the essential information for Cliffhanger 2015

When: Saturday July 11 and Sunday July 12

Where: Millhouses Park, Sheffield

How Much: £6 for adults (free for under 16s accompanied by an adult). Discounted early bird tickets will be available to buy online from Friday 5th June for £5.

More info: 

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Bouldering in Burbage Valley - Zaff Skoczylas (7C)

Spring is ending in England and Summer is coming. It's been rather mild since our return from Spain but the temperatures are definitely on the rise. Mid-teens still feel cool after you've spent a week hiking in the high twenties, however.

A day after landing in Manchester airport, we were still psyched for climbing on rock. And so the following day we found ourselves climbing in Burbage Valley. I managed to get up a relatively new boulder problem called Monochrome, which is a gem. I wonder why it hadn't been done a while ago, in all honesty, as it's a pretty obvious looking line and good fun. It's graded 7B but it felt easier to me as I finished it rather quickly after finding the right place to put my left heel hook.

The rest of that session was spent working a significantly harder climb called Zaff Skoczylas, which I had played on in previous years. I was never strong enough for the burly moves before, never managing to link the first, overhanging section together, but I found myself climbing through to the easy finish fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I ran out of juice every time I got there and dropped the last two moves three or four times. 

I decided enough was enough for that session and left it for a week. When I returned 6 days later, on a much warmer and sunny Saturday afternoon (the last Saturday of the Spring), I managed to finish the problem fairly quickly. A really good power test of a boulder problem. The mini-compression moves require a good amount of squeeze and this is followed by a big throw for a slopey edge off a very shallow one finger pocket that you can stack your fingers in. I got some footage of the climb here if you're keen to try it and want beta...

The rest of our afternoon in Burbage valley was spent enjoying the sunshine and climbing on some easier classics. There was a nice 6C called Solitude, hidden under a small canopy of leaves. It starts off very low (try to keep your butt off the floor!) and leads into a nice rock over and pleasant finish. I also climbed Banana Finger Direct, another 6C, for the first time, which was great fun. Banana Finger is a classic 6A that I'd done about 10 years ago. It's a must that everyone should climb if you're bouldering at Burbage North. But I'd never done the direct version, so this was a treat.

All in all, a brilliant couple of days at Burbage North. Burbage Valley is possibly my favourite place to climb in the Peak District.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A trip to Montserrat mountain in Catalonia, Spain

Describing our trip to Montserrat, in the Catalonia region of Spain, as a sport climbing holiday would not do it justice. Not by half. The first time we visited, in 2014, we were drawn to the area by beautiful photos, descriptions and the rich history of the multi-peaked mountain. And, of course, the sport routes. Little did we know the adventure that awaited us.

This year, the trip was no different, except that we had a better understanding of what to expect. We went to experience something new. We went for the adventure of exploring somewhere we haven't been before - and there were many areas of the mountain that we had yet to visit. We went for warm weather, cold beers and the best olives in the world. We went to relax and forget, for a while, the responsibilities that awaited us back home. And that's exactly what we got.

Montserrat is Spain's first natural park and part of the Catalan pre-coastal range. It has long been a pilgrimage site, with Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey attracting millions of visitors from all over the world, many making day trips from Barcelona, just an hour down the road. Shrines are scattered across the mountain and walking the paths between them you can almost imagine yourself shoulder to shoulder with Benedictine monks.

The rock climbing is unique, following pebble and pocket strewn lines up the conglomerate spires and faces of the mountain. Single pitch, multi-pitch and trad routes are abundant in 12 sectors - you just have to take your pick. With 6 days on the previous trip, we managed to see 3 or 4 of the areas. This trip we had 8 days, so we attempted to get around as many of the others as we could.

This was not about trying hard routes, this was about exploring and that's the spirit we embarked with every day. Indeed, the walk-ins were as memorable, if not more so, than the actual climbing - click here to see what I mean.

Hour long walk-ins give you a sense of remoteness when you reach your end point, the wall you wanted to climb that day. The climbing areas tend to be quiet. You won't see hundreds of other climbers, or even dozens, in the majority. You probably won't even see one during weekdays. And the abundant flora and fauna give you a sense of wilderness. Pushing through a thick thorn bush to emerge the other side face-to-face with a hissing wild mountain goat can be quite startling, as I found out.

We enjoyed the climbing immensely, of course. I've always found sport climbing hard going, however, as maybe 5% of my climbing career has been spent on a rope. Naturally, falling is scary unless you do it a lot and teach your head to reject millions of years of evolutionary conditioning and trust in your belayer and equipment. I do not do enough of it, falling that is, therefore I am not good at it. I tend to over squeeze holds and get pumped very quickly. I try to statically lock off everything and keep precarious moves to a minimum. Despite this, getting scared can be fun too, in moderation.

We also took a bouldering pad this time, for those days we didn't fancy tying in. Only 20 minutes away from where we stayed (see below) there is Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, which is home to a bunch of conglomerate boulders very similar in geological makeup to the sport climbing. The problems are powerful, with slick pebbles and edges reminiscent of the limestone back home. While there isn't enough at Sant Joan to keep you busy for an entire trip, we had a good couple of days there.

Of course, picking your season is vitally important when climbing anywhere. When temperatures reach 30 celsius rock climbing can get very difficult. You also need to lug around a water supply sufficient for a rugby team if you're out all day. It has been an unseasonably warm May this year so we were a little unlucky in that respect, but you can always climb early/late in the day or find shaded walls.

If you're thinking of a trip to Montserrat (I would highly recommend it!), you might find the below useful.

When should I go?

I would aim for early Spring or late Autumn, when the temperatures aren't too high. Having said that, it's Spain, so take your sunscreen whatever season you're flying out.

What about travel?

Barcelona-El Prat Airport is the easiest to fly into, with frequent and cheap flights from the UK or elsewhere. From here, you will need to hire a car, as Montserrat and its surrounding villages are an hour's drive north. Even if you get the train, you'll need a car to get around the mountain's various sectors.

Where should I stay?

I cannot recommend Mas del Puig highly enough. Located in Castellbell i el Vilar, this converted 13th century farm house sits atop the hill overlooking the village and boasts one of the best views of the mountain. Wake up early to see it when the sun rises - you won't be disappointed. It has three converted apartments (all self-catered, of course) with the Hen House perfect for two people. 

What climbing guide do I need?

We used Montserrat - Cara Sur Volume 1 as it contains a wide range of single pitch sport routes. But there are other guides available to cater for your taste. I'd recommend this website for further information. 

The bouldering guide for Sant Joan appears to be out of print, so we couldn't get hold of one. However, with some online research, we pulled together enough information to both locate and climb many of the area's problems.

Anything else I should know?

If you have any questions about rock climbing in Montserrat I will do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction. Just leave a comment below.

A mini Montserrat adventure

Adventure and exploration is what I love most about rock climbing. This can range exploring some untrodden region of Amazonian jungle to ascend a dirt filled, spider infested tepui or simply going to a crag down the road to climb routes you've never tried before.

Our recent trip to Montserrat, in the Catalonia region of Spain, had many adventurous aspects but most days ended up with us reclining into sun lounges, cold beer in hand and bellies full of local food, reminiscing about the day's exploration of the mini-mountain range. I'd like to say our holiday fell somewhere in the middle of the adventure spectrum I described above, but really it's much closer to the comfort end.

Adventure is subjective, however. Subject to the participant's previous experiences. What I constitute an adventure I'm sure would only register as a relaxing weekend for Ranulph Fiennes. I can only dream of undertaking similar exploits to one of Britain's greatest adventurers - more's the pity. But that won't stop me using the label for my own experiences.

There were many such experiences during our recent holiday but here's just one. After walking uphill in 28 celsius heat for around an hour, we found ourselves facing a nigh on vertical wall of loose pebbles with a big blue arrow on it, pointing the way to the real climbing (by real, I mean bolted routes). We stood, considering the "walk in" for a moment, wondering if we'd taken a wrong turn. 

Our minds raced back over the path previously trodden, but nothing leapt from our memories of an alternative direction up the mountain. We consulted the guide book, flicking through the pages for Collbato, trying to decipher the drawings to see if there was another way to the areas imaginatively labelled 7 & 8. Alas, we drew a blank.

A quick glance into the sky revealed an endless sea of blue. Not a whisper of cloud danced across the sun's path to give us respite, however brief, from its unforgiving rays. Backpacks full of rope, quickdraws and other climbing equipment, food and water weighed heavily on our shoulders as we decided to push on, up the vertical path to find what we had come looking for, new routes on Montserrat.

I lead the way, attempting to find holds that would propel us ever higher. Even big handholds felt wet under my sweaty skin and footholds needed to be large enough to accommodate my trainers, as the climbing shoes remained in the bag. We soloed our way through a series of three 10-15ft walls, gaining ever more height but only to be disappointed when we faced yet another nigh on vertical face.

The fourth stood looming above me. I had ploughed on ahead to see if the way got any easier, as a tumble from one of these walls could lead to a long drop and the nerves had started to get the better of us. I tried to keep a brave face but I couldn't continue to recommend we push on without putting our safety at risk, and so we reluctantly decided to abandon areas 7 & 8 and make our way down.

The descent turned out to be more nerve jangling than the ascent. Looking down, the footholds seemed to disappear, hidden by the nature of the rock, pocketed and blind from above. As with all climbing in Montserrat, finding holds can be a tricky business. Even though what we were doing constituted an apparent walk-in for the area, with not a bolt to protect you from falling, many of the skills acquired through years of climbing had to be applied to make my way across the tricky terrain. 

I found myself clinging to a pair of finger tip pebbles, stood on loose, crumbling rock above a 10ft fall into a bush growing from the cliff face. Below that flat ground would not appear for another 20 or 30ft yet. Suddenly, as I attempted to traverse for better holds, a pebble snapped and went plummeting below. Just at the moment, I stepped onto a rounded platform, a natural crevice that allowed me to take the weight off my hands.

My heart was pounding, but I turned to face my partner with a smile, hoping to alleviate any tension my close escape might have inspired. I promised to get the rope out of my bag and throw it back across so she could tie in and traverse safely as soon as I reached a 3ft wide  pedestal break before the next section of the descent. I could tell she was hiding sheer terror with a forced smile of her own, doing the same as me, putting on a brave face. 

As I progressed, I found an alternative, higher but easier, traversing section to where I now stood and my partner embarked without the rope. Carefully she progressed and reached my low point without trouble.

One last 15ft down climb and we'd be on the ground, with only a downhill walk back to the car. A large crack in the rock provided the majority of the holds. The occasional thorn covered branch clawed at my bare arms and legs but the pain was easily ignored when put in context. A scratch is better than a broken ankle, my brain rationalised without thinking, as I pushed harder in the direction of the branch. Roots had levered an opening in the rock perfect for my foot and the pain was a fair payoff. 

The section was more of a slab, but a tumble could still end badly, so I progressed slowly, checking every foot and handhold for loose rock. Finally, after what seemed an age, we both reached safety and shared a nervous laugh. I chastised myself for not using the rope, setting an abseil or attempting in some other way to make the down climb safe. This was quickly washed away with a tide of adrenaline, which passed just as quickly, leaving me tired and hungry. 

We downed a litre of water and quickly marched back to the car for lunch. After crackers, cheese and ham, followed by a few squares of chocolate, we consulted the guide. "Where to next?"

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Exploring new grit stone crags - and the Eastwood Traverse (video)

Eastwood Traverse, Amber Valley
Technology has made it very easy to get beta for practically any boulder problem on the planet. Camera phones and the internet have taken the mystery out of rock climbing, to an extent. And, for me, that has taken some of the joy out of figuring out a boulder problem for yourself.

Of course I'm guilty of the same thing. Especially when you've travelled hours to reach a crag. You want to be able to get the most out of it. And if that means watching a stream of poor quality and terribly edited YouTube films so I can get up a series of problems faster then, sometimes, that's what I'll do.

However, when I head into the Peak without plans and end up at a crag I had never intended on visiting, I can find myself staring at an amazing looking boulder problem with no prior clue as to how it climbs. I suppose that's why first ascents are so alluring, although I've yet to do much of that myself. But I can understand the attraction of exploring new crags with lines that are not chalk saturated and obvious. Figuring a sequence of moves out for yourself adds another layer of satisfaction when the eventual send does arrive - making it all the sweeter. A watered down version of that, I suppose, is going to a crag to get on boulder problems you've never seen or heard of, even if they have been climbed before.

This occurred on the recent bank holiday weekend. Due to poor weather beforehand, I had climbed indoors two days running. Things had improved for the Saturday and I got a call from a friend wanting to climb. Driving out into the Peak, aching from both bouldering and lead climbing sessions, I had no plans, no expectations. I just wanted to get some fresh air and maybe try to climb a little.

So we sat down to a cup of tea and a peruse of the old guidebook and decided to go exploring crags we'd never encountered before. First on the list was the little visited Bradley Edge. In all honesty, we didn't realise this was even in our guides. My friend had seen a large boulder on a hillside and wanted to go check it out, so we did. Only after we arrived, seeing some chalk (not a lot) on some holds did we realise it was not virgin territory, so to speak. I also vaguely recollected one of the lines from a Twitter exchange with Peak District bouldering pioneer Jon Fullwood. And then later we found the crag in two separate guide books.

Armed with zero knowledge at the time, however, we started easy on a couple of aretes towards the bottom of the crag. Then we moved onto a slightly overhanging wall full of crimps. And finally onto a small roof climb - the best looking line at the crag. We had no idea of grade or how to climb it, so began the usual pull on and try whatever came to mind. It was good fun, but the warm made it hard to hang the lip holds and after a short while we decided to visit somewhere new. The roof climb, which latterly we discovered was called Swingers Party, was the best of the bunch here, in my opinion. A lot of the other climbs seemed quite brittle, even chossy in places.

Next we decided to try a lesser known area near the small village of Ashover, called Eastwood Rocks. As we later read in the guide book, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO CLIMB HERE. Permission has not been forthcoming for over 30 years now, apparently. So it was by chance that we found it. There are no signs in the vicinity of the crag or the approach path to say access is forbidden, so how were we to know? 

We came across a fantastic buttress and it screamed out to be explored. One line in particular, the least impressive to look at, incidentally, had coatings of chalk on all the major holds, so it had clearly seen some action. That's the line that firmly grabbed my attention. I had to try it. The line of which I speak is a traverse that I later discovered was called Eastwood Traverse, a mega classic that has been dubbed "The Powerband of Grit Stone". It's much better than Powerband, in my opinion, because a) it's not limestone and b) it doesn't have a dirty, dirty mono on it. There are also more moves, a greater variety of holds and it's in a much better setting. If anything, Powerband should be dubbed "The Eastwood Traverse of Limestone". It probably would be if access to Eastwood hadn't been an issue for so long.

Well, as I talked around at the start of this blog, I began the joyous experience of working out how to climb this boulder problem. It broke down into three distinct sections, with the middle section being the crux. It wasn't only the crux to climb but also to figure out. It took over an hour for me to realise there was even a knee-bar! Idiot, I hear you cry. But how often do you find a knee-bar on a gritstone climb? I can't say I've had to break that little move out of the box frequently. There are also an assortment of other little tricks to learn: finicky heel hooks, double hand bumps, matches and swings. Like I said, it contains a huge variety for a 20ft long traverse.

After spending time working it out, I was wiped but thoroughly satisfied. The aforementioned ache had multiplied and I was now in need of a fish & chip recovery dinner. I had to return one evening after work a few days later to put all those moves together and finish Eastwood Traverse - it was one of those I just couldn't leave alone until it was done. Thankfully I pulled it out of the bag on my third go from the start on that trip. Below is a short video of that effort. (Expand it and increase the quality - blogger has the annoying habit of importing these videos incredibly small.)

So, if there's a moral to this blog (does a blog need a moral?) it is to stop watching YouTube and figure out how to climb something for yourself! But not at Eastwood Rocks because, once again, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO CLIMB THERE. That, of course, is very rich coming from someone who has just added a YouTube clip to this blog. So you can ignore all of that if you wish. Do what you like. See if I care. 

Ta'Rah (as we say in Yorkshire).