Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Bouldering trip to St. Bees Head

I can hear the waves lapping at the coastline. Fulmars, herring gulls and guillemots float through the air above, emitting squawks and squabbling over the sight of a fish or the dominance of a perch. The sun beats down on my back and warms my muscles. A breeze dances between the boulders, blown in from the Irish sea, and soothes my sore hands. It is peaceful here.

As far as bouldering settings go, you can't get much better than St. Bees Head in Cumbria. On beautiful, clear days like those experienced over the recent bank holiday weekend, it is the most stunning venue in which to indulge in a passion for grappling with powerful boulder problems. This was my first trip to St. Bees and it exceeded my expectations as a seaside climbing arena in many ways.

Leigh-Anne enjoying the views at the top of St Bees Head

The first time you climb over the fences, designed to keep the general populace of weekend walkers and bird watchers from danger, and descend over the cliff edge towards the ocean, using ropes and steps carved out of rock and mud, it can be a little overwhelming. Packs of food, water, climbing shoes, chalk, guidebooks and a bouldering pad weigh heavily on your shoulders and legs when the only thing keeping you from a 100ft plunge is your grip on a fisherman's old rope, lashed to rusting bolts and chains screwed and glued into rocks that feel precariously loose on weather beaten and crumbling cliff faces.

This is not a climbing destination for those prone to attacks of anxiety or fear of heights. A sure foot and strong nerve is needed to reach the boulders worth your attention. But be assured, your efforts are rewarded with a good day's climbing on world class boulder problems. 

The descent is not the only concern, as merely moving between sectors such as Apiary Wall to Fisherman's Steps can be a balancing act in itself. Early in the morning, when the sun has yet to breach the clifftop and shade still covers the rock platform at its base, a sheet of moisture and slime covers the ground and makes every step precarious. Make a wrong move and you'll be upended, as I was on several occasions, rubbing sore arms and legs after crashing into the floor. Practice makes perfect, it seems, as I slowly made my way through a jumble of boulders known as the Old Buoys Club, looking much like Bambi on ice, only to be overtaken by an overweight fisherman wearing army boots and hauling seven or eight rods and a bucket of bait, carrying himself across the seaweed and barnacle covered patinas with the confidence and grace of a ballerina.

As I said, though, it's all worth it when you're standing on top of a conquered sandstone boulder problem, comforted by the experience of figuring out a sequence of moves and then executing them with precision, dragging your body across a series of hand and footholds. It's a strange old sport.

Squeezing juice out of the left hand start hold on Headbanger at Apiary Wall, St Bees Head

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St. Bees. It was a fantastic trip for a number of reasons, but chief among them being the climbing and, importantly, my successes. Indeed, I don't think I tried many boulders that I did not complete, which is a nice feeling in itself. But then again, there were many harder (and easier) lines that I neglected to even touch, with time, energy and skin being finite. 

For those interested, my tick list is as follows:

  • The Arete (6C), Fisherman's Steps - Climbed the tall person's way, hence the 6C grade. To watch how it should be done, see Leah Crane in action.
  • Headbanger LH (7A), Apiary Wall - There are two versions to this steep and powerful problem, both with the same crux… the first move. This version leads into an easier 6Bish top section, whereas…
  • Headbanger RH (7B), Apiary Wall - This version leads into more precarious and powerful climbing, gaining the hueco on the right and climbing into a pocketed pinch and an edge just below the top.
  • Problem 4 Bloc L (6A+), Apiary Wall - Looks rubbish but climbs better than it looks, thankfully. 
  • Slopey Arete (6C+/7A), Apiary Wall - Some say 6C+, some say 7A. I'm inclined towards the former, especially if you compare it with Headbanger LH, which is much harder.
  • Problem 5 Bloc K (6B), Apiary Wall - Nice sit down start moves into a heart flutter of an odd-mantle into the scoop. Worth doing.
  • Problem 4 Bloc M (6B+), Apiary Wall - A little bit boring, as it's shuffling along the lip, but worth doing to warm the forearms… if you're a proper boulderer you'll get a mild pump.
  • Phat Arete (6C), Apiary Wall - Another one that climbs better than it looks. Two powerful moves get you into jugs, from which you can top out or…
  • Phat Ramp (6C+/7A), Apiary Wall - Traverse right on slopers and poor feet, through the groove, before reaching the top. It's hard if you power through after reaching the jugs at the end of Phat Arete, instead of stopping for a cup o' tea.
  • Apiary Arete (6A+), Apiary Wall - A classic for good reason. Hard if you can't lock it off, as the footholds at the start are rather poor.
  • Problem 1 Bloc L (4+), Apiary Wall - Try calling that 4+ when the lower wall is covered in slime. 4+ it aint.
  • Problem 2 Bloc L (5+), Apiary Wall - A nice problem worthy of getting the climbing shoes on for a warm up.
  • The Rail (6C+), Apiary Wall - The bottom of the wall was wet, so I avoided putting my feet on it, and the Rail, when I finally reached it, was slimy. I slipped my way up and VERY precariously rocked over the top. Terrified, I was.
  • Bow Wow Prow (7B), Fisherman's Steps - A superb problem that initially looks like a fridge-hugger and actually climbs like a roof arete with a dyno finish. Felt hard - the hardest problem I climbed on the trip.
  • Fisherman's Dyno (6A+), Fisherman's Steps - A lovely problem, with a powerful campus start followed by a nice rock over and jugs to a high finish. 

Of course, there are a few problems I did not try and would like to in future - chiefly Hueco Crack (7A), which was recommended to me by more than one person. Unfortunately, this was wet and slimy all weekend, and a fear of snapping off holds as well as spending too much time waiting and trying to dry it kept me from dwelling beneath this fine line. Another would be The Dark Side of the Moon (7C) which was crustacean covered for most of our stay - finally being cleaned by some patient soul on our last day, but I hadn't noticed until the end of that day, when energy and psyche had long since departed.

I would recommend all of the above boulder problems, however. I could not find a single bad line between them. That's not to say the entirety of St. Bees offers superb climbing, though. There are thousands of boulders strewn along this stretch of coastline, some chossy, some tiny, some hit twice a day by the tide, some grim and slimy, some providing a home to the tiny creatures of the sea. Even established areas can be hard to reach and not worth it (in my view) but this is down to your personal preference. We spent hours walking (and attempting to walk) to certain areas and find certain boulder problems but we eventually had to call it quits and stick to what we could reach relatively easily. That's not to say any of it is easy to reach. It's not like getting to Trackside at Curbar. But there are some areas (Apiary Wall and Fisherman's Steps) that are far easier to find than others. Maybe you can put that down to my map and route reading ability. But paths are hidden and some non-existent. Add to that the constantly changing coastline, with landslides and rockfalls, as well as the powerful ocean changing the configuration of the boulder field at whim. All I can add is go with exploration and adventure in mind and you'll have a grand old time. I did.

If you are planning a trip, here's a few hints and tips:

Where to stay

We stayed at the Seacote caravan park in St. Bees. A tent bigger than one man will cost £18 a night, but the facilities are excellent. From here you can drive to Sandwith (pronounced Sanith, in case you're interested) within 10 minutes by car. Or you can walk to the different bouldering areas.

The Seacote Caravan Park, St Bees, Cumbria

Where to park

Tarn Flatt Hall farm in Sandwith has kindly given access to a small parking area not too far from the bouldering - saving an additional 30-40 minute walk in. Make sure you pay £2! The box is just inside the main gate, next to the front door. 

Access to the crag

As described above, it's not for the faint hearted. I would not take children or dogs. Saying that, we saw more than one person at Apiary with a four-legged friend. Also, please take heed of the bird restrictions. Full details can be found on the Fell and Rock Climbing Club website. I won't go into detail, you can read approaches and access in the guide book.

Guide book

There is a brilliant, free guide to the St. Bees Head bouldering on the LakesBloc website. The website also has loads of other useful info.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Four days... yes, FOUR days... on real stone. I am blessed.

Finally, in what feels an age, I've managed to have a good few days climbing on real stone in the UK. Since the start of 2014 it's all been a bit sporadic; a day here, a day there. Weather, illnesses, work, and more have all conspired to whittle away at motivation and time in roughly equal measure.

However, the recent trip to Fontainebleau, followed by a spate of good (if a tad warm) weather in and around the Peak District, has helped to bolster the dwindled motivation. Therefore, four days on the stone have been procured since Font. FOUR! I know, crazy. I know what some of you are thinking... students, part-time workers, part-time climbers... 'four aint that many... haha!' Well, it's a lot to me! And others... family people, commuters... 'what I would give for four in ten days on real stone!'. You have my sympathies.

Anyway... the four days went like this: two days bouldering on limestone at an undisclosed location (due to access peculiarities... it's not banned, but it's not actively encouraged with guidebooks either), one day sport climbing on limestone at Horseshoe Quarry (plus a little bouldering at Tom's Cave) and one day on grit stone at The Roaches in Staffordshire.

It's been a good four days too... with lots of ticks metaphorically going in the book (I've never actually ticked problems off in my guidebook). 

All feels a bit cloak and dagger, but I'll start with the undisclosed location. I made my first trip here after work one day, a few days after the Font trip, having heard about it before but never been. I'd been told of nice, long traverses with too many holds, where you can make up sequences and train power endurance. So I was keen. The first trip started with making stuff up as I went along, and repeating a few bits and pieces Leigh-Anne and friends had conceived. We then moved to a steeper area with more established problems, where I began working a 7A+. I had hoped to make short work of it, but the fingery nature of the problem (and all limestone problems) thwarted my efforts. I quickly ran out of energy and shifted onto the easier 6C variation, climbing it first try.

When we returned (yesterday) I had that 7A+ very much in mind. A sole objective for the trip, having just two hours after work once again. I warmed up, then sat underneath it and immediately greased off the sidepull, the soft skin on my hands rolling on the sharp holds. Try again and much the same. Heart sank. The other end of the crag was shaded, so I continued warming up, keeping the muscles going, waiting for the sun to descend. I did a 6A+, some pullups, touched some holds, spotted, and waited. Patience wearing thin, I tried another 7A+ problem and completed it 3rd try. Confidence boosted, I got back on the main objective. Half an hour and a 5 degree drop in temperature (yes, it fell that fast) and the holds felt completely different. Three or four tries later (I forget exactly how many), I made it past the huge lock-off on a two finger pocket and latched the crimp above. That's the crux - the rest went without too much difficulty. 

I tried a 7B+ but the sharp crimp was biting my skin and, with a bank holiday weekend trip to St. Bees coming up, I decided to Save The Tips (new charitable organisation?). To wear down the arms, I repeated two 6C+s in double quick time and made a dash for the car, the sun now almost completely gone from the sky. 

The sport climbing excursion to Horseshoe was a few days ago. It was mostly to teach and learn, rekindle the lost skills and memory for sorting out a belay and stripping a route of quick draws. A trip to Montserrat, near Barcelona, is nearing and so a few more days on the rope will be necessary. Anyway, nothing of any difficulty was ascended, being a day after the epic at The Roaches n' all. 

Speaking of which, The Roaches! Love that place. We went for a friend's birthday and never found the friend, so just climbed all day. Brilliant. I had no objectives and just went with it. Firstly the Greener Traverse down (6A) and up (6B+) was dispatched to warm the muscles. Then to the upper tier, where short work was made of Calcutta Traverse (6A) followed by the Black Hole extension (7A). We then wandered over to the Too Drunk boulder, where I dispatched its namesake problem (7A) and Not Drunk Enough (6C+). Then back to the main section of the upper tier, where Nadin's Traverse (7A) fell after some work and then Cooper's Traverse (6B). Then The Rippler (6A) and it's sit variation (7A). 

All this work necessitated a tea cake break, so after a short walk we made our way to the Roaches Cafe. Noticing the clouds quickly turning black and ominously blanketing the sky, we made a dash up the road to the Newstones/Baldstones crag. A re-warm up on the classic foursome of The Grinding Sloper (6A), Varicose (6A+), Wall and Mono (6A) and Square Cut Face (6A) was just completed when the rain started - light but definitely raining. I wanted to show Leigh-Anne the Baldstone's Traverse (7A+), so we started walking. I got distracted by Sly Stallone (6B+) and jumped on that before moving on. 

The rain started in earnest while walking across the Moor, so I had no hope of actually getting on the Traverse. We arrived and it was bone dry - temporarily. We threw the mats in the mud and I got to work. First go got me through the crux I had so struggled with when I was younger. I was surprised. Unfortunately, my surprise quickly turned to annoyance when I realised I hadn't left enough room for my big, fat hands. So I came off, reassured that it wouldn't take too much effort. The rain was getting heavier. The next go I forgot the sequence towards the end, where a little power is required, and I came off. Next go, I missed the jug at the end (a 5+ move) and came off again, a bit aghast and bewildered. I sat down, cursing my luck, with the rain lashing, drops hitting the holds, soaking my shoes and mat. Sod it. I chalked my hands and made one final push. I made it through to the last hard move again, almost dropped it, but just about kept my tired body on the wall. I eyed up the 5+ move, the memory flash of failing it just minutes before quickly wiped away, and latched it, ending an excellent day totally wiped out.

While there is nothing amazingly hard in that list of boulder problems, it was all amazing fun. And hopefully good training for St. Bees this weekend. Bring on the sandstone!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

April bouldering trip to the Forest of Fontainebleau

There are different kinds of Fontainebleau trips - although this is true for any climbing trip. If, like the average climber, you only have a finite amount of time in that place, you can approach your week or two weeks in one of a few different ways. You may be like a kid in a candy store, jumping on every boulder problem you lay your eyes on and tearing through your skin in two days, spending the rest of the trip managing what thin tips you have left. You may have a single, hard boulder problem in mind, and return to it day after day to piece it together bit by bit, until you either send it or go home disappointed, with a tick list as short as a gnat's arm. Or you may, like me and fellow Font-trippers Leigh-Anne and Mike on this latest trip, work a handful of different problems every day, ensuring they are satisfyingly hard but easy enough to climb relatively quickly.

Our lovely Gite in Poligny
We only had a week - 6 days worth of climbing after you factor in the travel. That's not a great deal of time, really. And if you spend two days travelling, you want to see a lot of the place you are travelling to. We visited 10 different Fontainebleau areas during those six days. And I climbed 19 different boulder problems, all of which were brilliant. That might not sound like a lot to some, but it felt like a lot of climbing to me, especially after factoring in all the effort put into those I didn't complete. Some of them were flashes and some took a few hours to work out. One or two I had to return to the following day, finding them after a hard day's slog and only having the energy to work the moves. However, what was important was that I came away with a real sense of accomplishment and a deep desire to return to the Forest.

Coming toe-curlingly close to latching Smatch (7B) on the last day
Normally after Font trips I come home with spent tips - a few of them harbouring flappers - and elbows that throb with repetitive strain aches. However, the 20+ degree heat we endured, and the 95%+ humidity, meant that lots of patience was needed during the week. It also meant that it wasn't worth putting in the effort on really hard projects, other than to find them for next time. I tried La Gaule (7C) for 15 minutes but after each move my hands were slipping from the relatively good fridge hugging holds, leaving dark brown sweaty stains on the rock as I crumbled to the floor. Therefore the majority of the week we spent in the 7A-7B range, ensuring quick sends and completing projects I had tried when I was younger.

Hanging around in Fontainebleau
Some of the highlights include:

  • Hibernatus stand (7B) - Dame Jouanne. Starting with the left hand side pull and right hand pocket, stab at the slopping jug. The 8A version (matched left side-pull) is one to go back for.
  • Uzbek (7A) - Dame Jouanne. Given 7B in some guides, but the internet consensus seems to be on 7A. I'd agree with the latter, having climbed it 2nd go, after fumbling footwork on the first go.
  • Zen (7A) - Roche Aux Sabots. One I'd been keen to try for a while. It's a lot of moves (for a boulder problem) leading through a roof, into a techy arete. Very hard for the grade - felt more like 7A+, especially compared with Bioethique right next to it.
  • Plastikman (7A) - Franchard Isatis. I really struggled with the last move here, but the bottom felt bomber with a solid knee-bar (which destroyed the skin on my knee). Hard one for me.
  • Extorsion De Fond (7A+) - La Canche Aux Merciers. Some say 7B but I think more 7A+ as it only took 2 goes. My kind of thing, though, being a bit of a powerful one move wonder.
  • Beatle Juice (7A+) - Franchard Cuisiniere. I tried this when I was younger and really struggled, so it was nice to go back and finish it. See the video below (apologies for the footage quality).

  • Science Friction (6A) - Apremont. A hot and sweaty send of this classic slab. Still 6A in my book, at least it is with a stiff pair of shoes. Climbed it many times now.
  • Vin Rouge (7A) - Isatis Centre. Felt quite easy to me, but I do like a good dyno. It's not a very long one, but coordination is king, as you're jumping off smears and two large undercuts.
  • Surplomb Gauche (7A) - Isatis Centre. Another toughy for me, being as the top out is a true Fontainebleau scramble, if you finish left (no foot jugs!). My only tip, don't wear shorts! Ouch! Did the 6A+ to the right as well, which is well worth it. Start low though, on the good slopers. Starting high on the pocket and jug makes it 5B.
  • Voiture A Beas (6A) - Isatis Centre. This is a lot more fun than the book has you believing. The top out is quite scary in the warm, with hands sliding precariously off the good, sloping edge.
  • L'Oblique (7A) - Roche Aux Sabots. It was raining this day but this boulder was miraculously dry. All the moisture in the air meant it was a little touch and go for the top out, but a good climb. Also did the 6C+ traverse underneath and the hardest 6A+ in Fontainebleau (Rien De Bon), which took more goes that L'Oblique.
Mike on Deux Faux Plis En Plats Reel and some guy pouting in the foreground
And that was it for me. I did a few easier bits and pieces. I tried a few harder ones, including Magic Bus (a 7B+ roof) and Deux Faux Plis En Plats Reel (a short and powerful 7C), but I found the heat difficult to overcome.

I was mighty impressed with my comrades for the trip. Leigh-Anne has been battling illness for several months now, but still managed to push into 6C territory, with a couple of sends in the grade, including No Mojo, at Roche Aux Sabots, and La Nez, at Canche Aux Merciers. She also made a very impressive flash ascent of one of the tallest boulders in Fontainebleau, Dalle A Poly at L'Elephant. She completed her entire tick list for the trip, with an impressive 19 sends to her name.

Leigh-Anne cruising another great 6A at Franchard Cuisiniere
Mike also had the Font trip of his life, pushing his grade into new territory and ticking off a few boulders that thwarted me, including Fleur De Rhum (7A+) at Apremont and La Coquille Stand (6C) at Hautes Plaines.

For those of you planning your own trips, I would highly recommend all of the above boulders. We had meticulously picked and chosen our problems for the week, so as to get the most from it, and each and every one had great movement and was a joy to climb. 

Psyched for the next trip now!

Second blog with lots of great photos from Mike coming soon!

Friday, 28 March 2014

UK bouldering star in the making - the Nathan Phillips interview

Towards the end of 2013 I fired over a few questions to Nathan Phillips, the former GB Junior Bouldering Team Captain. The Q&A took place following a highly successful junior competition season, Nathan's last before moving up to the Seniors, when he'd claimed a gold in Laval, France. Read his thoughts on competing, climbing outside and what the future holds.

The Interview 

Tell us a bit about who you are.

I'm a keen boulderer from Huddersfield. I've been climbing since I was 6, so 13 years now. When I was younger I was always climbing on everything instead of using things the way they were meant to be used, such as goal posts. My dad took me to Huddersfield sports centre to try out climbing and I've been doing it ever since!

How long have you been competing for? What was your first competition and how did you do?

I've always loved competing! Ever since I entered the Youth Climbing Series at age 7. I can't remember where I placed, but I just really enjoyed it. I love the fact you can compete alongside other great climbers in your local area, country or even the world.

Had you taken part in international competitions before joining the GB Junior Bouldering Team?

I was in the Senior GB Bouldering Team for a couple of years before the Junior Team, as this is the first year there has been one. Whilst in the senior team I competed in The European Youth Bouldering Cup for 2 years. In my first year I only did one round and placed 8th. In the second year as I moved up an age category, I placed 10th overall.

Nathan competing at CWIF 2014

What's it like being a member of the team - training, traveling and competing together? What are your duties as Team Captain?
The team is like a second family to me. Everyone comes together and supports each other in training and whilst competing. The training days are really helpful and also good fun. We get to try out comp specific blocs in a competition format, which is really beneficial. We also get tips on how to train and when to train.

The trips are a really enjoyable experience. We are all relaxed and have fun in the lead up to the comp and then when it comes time to climb, the game faces are on. The main reason why the team is doing so well is because of the support we give each other, including the team managers and coaches.

As a team captain I do sometimes have to step in when I don't think someone is behaving in the right way but this is very rare as the team are so mature. I also try to help out management as much as I can without affecting my performance.

How do you feel the 2013 season went? What is your highlight?

The 2013 season has been amazing. We've had a list of great results throughout the whole team. In terms of my own performance. I started off not too well in Grindelwald as I had been ill for 3 weeks leading up to the competition. I put in the training and came back stronger and better than ever. I feel like I climbed well in all 3 rounds of the cup but the highlight by far has to be winning the last round. It was the best feeling I've ever felt.

What are your plans for next season? I'm told you're keen to compete in the World Cups? And will you continue to work with the junior team?

Yes! My first aim is to get selected to compete in the World Cups next year. This means putting a lot of training in over the winter and doing well at senior team training sessions. If I did make it to the World Cups, my aim would be to make a semi-final. (Gotta aim high).

Next year I plan to keep working with the junior team as a coach. There is so much talent in the team, and if I can help them progress in any way I would feel happy.

Enough on competitions - what's your CV like on rock?

A lot of people are shocked by this but I have never done any sport or trad climbing outside. I much prefer bouldering and trad doesn't really appeal to me at all. It seems unnecessarily dangerous... (don't get mad).

I've done two 8A's, Zoo York on the grit at Caley Roadside and Sale Gosse Assis in Fontainebleau. Other than that I've done a couple of 7c+'s and quite a few 7C's.

Favorite place to climb outside? Favorite boulder problem or route?

As everyone says... my favorite place to clime is Font. My favorite problem... hmm... maybe Magic Bus at Buthiers, Fontainebleau. I know it's not that hard but it is a really fun problem.

How do you find a balance between training for competitions and getting out on real rock? Or do the two complement each other?

It can be quite difficult sometimes. I find if I'm training and not going outdoors I get really strong but my technique suffers, and if I'm going outside but not training, my strength suffers. I have to try mix it up a bit and get out when I can but maintain my focus on training. As I work in a wall, I can train before and after work and get outside on my days off which seems to work for me.

Anything you'd like to add?

I'd just like to thank my sponsors, ROKT Climbing Gym, Scarpa, prAna, and Metolious.

Also thanks to Tom Greenall for taking on the role of Junior Team Manager in such a friendly yet professional manner.

Thanks to Euan Noble at ROKT Climbing Gym for funding my trips.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

ShAFF Review: The Last Great Climb & Heaven's Gate

Dedicated to Sean "Stanley" Leary, the secret star of many Posing Productions movies, including The Last Great Climb, who sadly passed away recently. 

The Last Great Climb

The great snaggletooth of mother earth, Ulvetanna stands at almost 3,000m in the snow covered Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. Only recently found and summated (the first ascent being 1994) one of the Peak's greatest lines remained untouched, the North East ridge, which runs for around 6,000ft with a vertical mile of elevation. 

This frozen wasteland, described as "the second remotest place to get to after the moon", conversely lit a fire under Leo Holding and team. Followed by Alastair Lee, of Posing Productions, and his cameras, Leo assembled the crack team of Britain's "manliest man" Jason Pickles and "the world's nicest psycho" Sean "Stanley" Leary, as well as workhorse and quartermaster Chris Rabone. Their goal, the North East ridge of Ulvetanna. 

As always with Posing Productions' movies, the production values are exceptional in The Last Great Climb. Raising the bar for climbing movies once again, Alastair's documentary style sees numerous interviews with the Peak's first ascentionists, great mountaineers of our time and others to set the scene. We know that climbing a mountain in sub-zero temperatures is going to be hard, but we need to be told just how hard by the likes of Sir Chris Bonnington to understand fully, as well as understand the motivations behind wanting to undertake such a frozen adventure.

Suitably stoked, the fire of ambition carries our mountaineering heroes to the icy planes of Antartica, where they spend more than a month establishing camps and sieging Ulvetanna. There's a suitable amount of drama, with glorious weather quickly turning to -30 temperatures, howling winds, frozen hands… and more than one dribbling nose. 

Breakfast consisting of coffee, prepared by dogsbody Chris, alongside "dehydrated porridge mixed with Mars Bar," as Jason describes, gets the team up in the morning. They then proceed to push their high point ever nearer the spiky summit, clad in the finest luminescent mountaineering gear going, standing out against the backdrop of brown and white.

Yosemite veteran Stanley, who seemingly takes on all the toughest pitches, gets stuck finding a way through the steepest part of the route, which the team christen "the roof of despair". After completing his more than an hour long battle, he returns to base camp, shaky, shattered and frozen, declaring "it was so grim it's actually funny". That's the mentality you need to undertake these missions and succeed.

As Jason describes, life on a mountain is much simpler than "real life", where he struggles to remember to pay bills. Here, among the snow and peaks, he's able to concentrate "on the little things", such as staying alive. "When you're as manly as I am, which is pretty manly, it's good to boil [life] down to its manliest parts," he says.

I won't reveal anymore. I wouldn't want to spoil the ending. But if you want a high-value mountaineering documentary at ShAFF this year, there's no substitute for The Last Great Climb.

Heaven's Gate

As if skydiving wasn't scary enough, they invented base jumping. And as if base jumping wasn't scary enough, they invented wingsuit flying. And as if wingsuit flying wasn't scary enough, they invented what Jeb Corliss does.

Wingsuit flying ensures the base jumper remains airborne for minutes rather than seconds before pulling their parachute. They glide through the sky like birds at speeds well in excess of 100mph. However, after a few hundred jumps it seems the daredevils who undertake such an activity don't get enough of an adrenaline rush, so they began trying to get as close to the downward slopes of the mountains they were leaping from as possible. Taking this one step further, Jeb wants to fly through a hole in a mountain side, which gives this ShAFF film its name, Heaven's Gate.

Jeb's amazing sponsorship deal with Red Bull allows him to travel to such far flung places as Tianmen Mountain, in China's Hunan provence, to attempt such tom-foolery. As you'd expect, this doesn't go quietly. He doesn't just walk up the mountain one day, fling himself over the edge and glide through the hole before going home. Weeks of prep with fellow wingsuit veterans ensues. And being Red Bull, this is all exceptionally well publicised. 

Even the event organiser is blown away when eventually the national Chinese media, as well as international outlets, pick up on the stunt, and before Jeb knows it he's got an audience of half a billion. No, you didn't read that wrong. This 2 minute stunt captures the Chinese media's imagination, and more than 500,000,000 people tune into the live broadcast.

How does someone not buckle under such pressure? Imagine: you're already trying to conduct one of the most death defying stunts going and now you've got more people than you can possibly imagine glued to their TV's waiting for you to either glide through Heaven's Gate at huge speed or squash against the side of the mountain like a fly on a windscreen. It would be enough to make anyone quake in their boots. But Jeb doesn't seem the type to shake with fear, more likely from the excessive amounts of his sponsor's product he seemingly quaffs. He speaks as fast as he flies, bounding from one sentence to the next with hardly a breath. He speaks like a 10-year-old given a coffee and let loose on Christmas day. Enthusiastic is an understatement. 

When the big day comes, does he make it? I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to watch it at ShAFF and see.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

ShAFF Review: DamNation and Zembrocal


Forgive my ignorance but I did not know dams could be such a highly emotive and divisive subject. DamNation is a fantastic depiction of just how damaging millions of tons of concrete and steel poured into a natural scar in the earth's crust can be.

Stunning photography, a harrowing and at times uplifting score, personal stories of tragedy and triumph, and the battle of people against government and corporations all makes for an exceptionally powerful film. 

Admittedly, I started watching DamNation expecting to be a little bored. I knew broadly what it was about and I wasn't particularly interested in it. However, the absolute opposite occurred and after only a few short minutes I was hooked, enthralled and captured by this magnificent production. 

Pretty much every river in the US has been damned at some point - that's around 75,000 dams. That figure astonished me. Then I remembered how big America actually is (I spent a month driving 9,500 miles around it once - big and diverse doesn't begin to describe it). However, despite best intentions to harness an apparently limitless power supply (in the sense that it will never run out), damming rivers causes significant ecological damage.

The film tells the story of destroyed communities, decimated fish populations and ruined natural wonders. On the other side of that coin, it tells the story of the fightback and reclamation of lands that had been flooded by dammed rivers.  

Whilst not an extreme sports or adventure film, at least in the traditional sense, and certainly different from what I've seen at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival before, I would highly recommend you include this particular cinematic feature in your roster for the ShAFF weekend.

Unfortunately, I have been informed that DamNation is no longer planned for ShAFF!!! This is disappointing news. However, I am reliably informed that it will be at a Cycle to Cinema event before too long, so keep your eyes peeled. If you see a screening of DamNation anywhere else, firstly let me know because I want to watch it on the big screen, and then book tickets.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. But if that hasn't convinced you, take a look at the trailer below…


Zembrocal is the story of Caroline Ciavaldini and the rock climbing on her home island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean. Just 200km east of Madagascar, this intriguing place couldn't be much further away from France itself and, as Caroline explains in the film's opening few minutes, it has a diverse culture and population. The interesting demographic is matched only by the island's topography - with beautiful forests, mountains, seascapes and, importantly, cliff faces.

The plan, or the film's main storyline, is Caroline's goal of establishing a new multi pitch route on the island, with the help of boyfriend James Pearson, rock climbing guru Yuji Hirayama, Sam Elias and Jacopo Larcher. However, it wasn't going to be a cakewalk and the route quickly escalates in difficulty, not only in terms of the actual climbing but also the cleaning of loose rock to find a viable path beneath.

Beautifully shot, expertly matched with uplifting music, and overlaid with narration from the film's protagonists, Zembrocal makes for excellent viewing, whether you're a climbing expert or not. The climbing is thrilling to watch, particularly Caroline's battle up a flaring chimney, where she seemingly loses it several times, and there are interjections from her past, showcasing the island and giving the film a personal touch.

It is an excellent film revealing an island I knew little of before and I would certainly recommend you go see it. And if you want to know what Zembrocal actually means, visit the ShAFF website.

Or if you want to watch the trailer, visit Vimeo (which unfortunately I can't embed, because this is blogger).

Sunday, 2 March 2014

ShAFF review: Wideboyski & The Road from Karakol


Everyone knows what to expect from the Wide Boyz these days - their movie about Century Crack has been invested into the pantheon of Great British climbing films. Their American adventures were shown at last year's Sheffield Adventure Film Festival and so as not to miss out again, the Boyz have got two new gruelling, crack fighting escapades committed to celluloid for this year.

Credit: HotAches
I had the opportunity to review the shorter of the two - Wideboyski - which covers the charismatic pair's pursuit of Polish and Czech sandstone towers. To add a little spice to this eastern European crack-attack - as if wrestling with off-widths wasn't spicy enough - Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker had to learn to use knotted ropes and slings as protection. Trusting a knotted rope to hold a whipper takes some cajones. 

"One in three who fall break a leg," Pete nervously laughs at the start of the film, recalling conversations with the locals.

Credit: HotAches
The scene then changes to Tom testing their new "gear" - a series of different sized knots in ropes. Most of us get nervous trad climbing; throwing hard moves, getting pumped, greasing off the holds, our minds flash back to that last piece of gear we placed, several feet below us now, and we try to find comfort in how solid it felt when we wiggled it in. Now imagine it wasn't a nice new friend, securely wedged into a bomber position, but actually a flexing ball of nylon. Now you've got some idea of why one in three who fall break a leg.

This film is not just about local ethics, scares and off-width battles, however, but also a showcase for the local areas. The settings in both Poland and the Czech Republic are stunning - huge trees surrounding towers of sandstone, seemingly remote but warm and inviting. 

Credit: HotAches
If you enjoyed watching Tom and Pete travel the US and climbing our colonial cousins' hardest and best cracks, you'll enjoy Wideboyski and I would hazard a guess that you'll enjoy Wide Boyz II - Slender Gentlemen as well. I'd also book onto Tom and Pete's lecture, to hear about their adventures first hand. I'm certainly hoping to go along.

The Road from Karakol

All epic adventure films normally have one thing in common - a team of people working together to overcome the challenge, usually becoming much closer in the process. This is where The Road from Karakol stands apart - as it's one man's travelogue of several weeks on the roads, back roads, dirt tracks and no tracks of Kyrgyzstan. He is solo, only his bike and his camera to keep him company.

Kyle Dempster did what most of us would find terrifying. He decided to cycle around a former Soviet satellite nation in central Asia completely alone, while climbing as many of the region's impressive snow covered peaks as possible. Terrifying at first, knowing that should anything go wrong rescue would be very far away or not coming at all, but it quickly becomes liberating, throwing away the shackles of every day life and simply going on a big adventure. 

Kyle's journey starts with a culture shock: families carving existences out of yurts in the foothills; vast, old, concrete soviet installations crumbling in the distance, abandoned and forgotten; army checkpoints manned by vodka sodden soldiers who demand another drinking partner before granting passage; and once well-travelled roads leading to derelict towns and eventually wilderness, petering out on the edge of civilisation.

At this edge, when the tarmac ends and is replaced by stone, dirt, fields and rivers, Kyle doesn't stop, turn around and find another way, he just keeps on going. He picks up his bike and carries it on his shoulders if he has to. He gets naked and wades across rushing rivers, taking his life into his own hands and occasionally throwing it open to fate. He sees that mountain in the distance, the one that was once just a pin on a map, and he has a singular, simple purpose and he executes it with smile, no matter what the road, weather or circumstances throw at him. 

Apart from the fascinating country, what keeps this film entertaining, interesting and emotional is the protagonist and his relationship with his camera. Not only to film the beautiful scenery and the people of Kyrgyzstan, Kyle uses his camera as a diary, narrating his day's journey and hardship, his enjoyment and freedom, to make us all jealous but also so we can understand why he's doing what he's doing. He is a funny and honest narrator, catching you off-guard with his witty observations and fresh perspective. While you might begin thinking Kyle is a little nuts, you finish admiring the man and his journey.

I'll end this blog with a quote from the man himself, and then you can decide if you want to go and see The Road from Karakol at ShAFF…

Here are the facts.
I chose a bike over a partner.
I chose a road over a base camp.
And that's what made all the difference.

Here's what I believe.
Real adventure is not polished.
It's not the result of some marketing budget.
There's no hashtag for it.
It burns brightest on the maps edges but it exists in all of us.
It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous.
You have to have faith.
It will find you there.
And when it does, you have to remember… 
there's just one question.
In this life, when the road comes to an end, will you keep peddling?