Monday, 13 October 2014

A wet weather Fontainebleau trip - eking out dry boulder problems

The weather is a mercurial thing. And sometimes even more so than usual; switching from rain to sun and back again in the space of an hour, or even several times in a day. It might be glorious sunshine one week, as it was the week before we arrived in Fontainebleau, and pouring with rain the next. It is certainly safe to assume, to the best of my knowledge, our recent trip to the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau endured some of the most atrocious weather I have ever had the displeasure of camping in. 

Our saving grace during a damp Fontainebleau trip
Yes, on this occasion, being as the party consisted of just two, we decided to make use of the area's best campsite, in Grez Sur Loing. I've been camping a fair amount since my youth, when organised adventure such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award gave me the opportunities to trudge through the Welsh countryside in yet more delightful British weather, and since then I have grown to dislike it more and more over the years. However, the daily toil involved in dragging yourself out of a warm sleeping bag into the dim, grey and cold world presented each morning has begun to regain its appeal. Accidentally scraping your back along the inside of the tent porch while trying to put your shoes on generates a stream of icy rainwater to trickle down your back; it is certainly one way to shake the haze of a terrible night's sleep, but it might not attract many. Certainly, I can understand those who choose the comfort of a B&B or a Gite over a sodden campsite, as I have been a member of "those", but the latter  has its rugged charms. Having lived in a tent in terrible wet conditions last week, and now being back home, I can oddly say that I miss it somewhat.

Typical Font rainy day activity - look around the palace
The location and the climbing no doubt play their part in this infant nostalgia; a post holiday blues that defies logic, considering the unpleasantness of camping in persistent rain. And indeed there was some climbing to be had, despite the temperament of the weather. The occasional patch of dry would push its way through the cloud cover, if only for a couple of hours. And then the final 36 hours of our most recent Fontainebleau escapade were as dry as an ancient Egyptian mummy. As if by magic, on our last day, we actually managed to climb all day, and leave the magical forest with the familiar sore, pink fingertips, aching elbows and a handful of good boulder problems under our metaphorical belts.

The "top out" on a very hard 7A called Lamentin, at L'Elephant
With regards to climbing successes, I indulged in no illusion as to be returning home with a tick list as long as my arm. I had actually wanted to use this trip very differently to previous trips, and get stuck into a handful of hard boulders at my limit, as opposed to moving around a lot, trying loads of different lines. Unfortunately, like always, nothing goes to plan, and the weather demanded you climb on whatever you could find dry or don't climb at all. And therefore, while I did manage to put in an hour on one project and two on another, this was not nearly sufficient enough time to find the elusive success. Therefore quick ticks were the order of the week - and I managed to make short work of most of those I reached the top of.

Happy having done Magic Bus (7B+) first try
Below is said list, with a few words on each, as much for my own records (as I don't maintain an scorecard) as anyone else's. I hope some find a problem they might want to try themselves next time they're in Fontainebleau.

The Tick List


  • La Moreau (6A) - A brilliant little introduction to Fontainebleau bouldering at a friendly crag.
  • La Voie Michant (6C) - One of those I had failed on in earlier years, but ascended first try this time. Quality.
  • Le Lepreaux Direct (7A) - One big move off two slopers to reach jugs above… soft, but a nice introduction to Font 7A.
  • 24 Black (6A) - A good problem, hard for the grade, and a little tucked away.
  • Lamentin (7A) - Brilliant juggy undercutting climbing with rubbish feet. More like 7A+/B IMO.
  • La Barre Fixe Directe (7B+) - Dynamic and powerful movement on good holds, suiting me to a tee. Took less than 30 minutes. Video below…

Bas Cuvier
  • Charcuterie (7A) - Very much 7A IMO, either way you do it. Big reach, core tension and easy top out. Classic.
  • Unnamed 6A adjacent to L'Abattoir boulder - Nice moves and just enough of them
  • Unknown 7A not far from Marie Rose - toe hook, sloper slapping and oddly pumpy despite being quite short.

Franchard Cuisiniere
  • Unknown 6C - obvious arete visible from the path you walk in on. Really good quality, tenuous arete climbing.
  • A Bras Plat A Bras (6C) - Nice, steep traverse with one tough move followed by an awkward top out. Opposite above arete.
  • Bizarre Bizarre assis (7A+) - did the stand (7A) in a couple of tries and the assis was a whole new kettle of fish, taking a little longer to figure out the connecting moves.
  • 5 Red Traverse (6A) - A really nice, really tough for 6A traverse that leads into big finishing moves. Worth doing.

Franchard Hautes Plaines
  • Surplomb De La Coquille (6C+) - Having failed on this last year, I was keen to finish it off. Did it first try, at the end of a long day.
  • Surplomb De La Coquille assis (7A) - Wanted to add this separately, as I managed it first try, having done the stand first try as well. Shows training is working, as I failed the stand last year.

  • Retour Aux Sources (7A) - Great line, great moves. Had one proper go before it started raining, went back the next day and did it first try. Worth noting, it dries very quickly due to exposure, so it was getting a lot of traffic while we were there, as it was one of the few dry lines in the forest for most of the week.

  • Magic Bus (7B+) - Having failed to lock the crimp last year, I did the problem first try this year, having warmed up on it as well. Another indicator of training working.

Petit Bois
  • Remise A L'Heure (6A+) - Delicate traverse into an arete.
  • Quelle Conque (5+) - Quintessential Font top out in an amenable grade. Classic.
  • Envolage (6C) - Nice rising traverse into a green, mossy top out. Scary, so I was pleased I flashed it.

La Roche Aux Sabots
  • La Porte A Faux (6A) - Having once again failed on the adjacent dyno, Smatch (7B), I did this to make myself feel better… and it worked! Good problem.
  • 14 Red (6B) - The. Hardest. 6B. In Fontainebleau. Last problem of the trip, so bad skin, sweaty, wet conditions and sore muscles all conspired to make it VERY difficult.
Hot cup of tea and a French flan on the night before travelling back to England - doesn't get much better!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Two classic boulder problems from Kyloe woods - video

We spent a couple of days in the County this weekend - time to recuperate. The sea air, fish and chips, Bamburgh castle, beautiful countryside… it all makes for a rather relaxing place to stay for a couple of days.

Of course, I can't go to Northumberland without a little climbing as well, and so I indulged. As with everywhere in the country, Saturday was a bit of a write off. It rained until around 2pm and then the sun came out and the humidity really set in. Trying to walk around was like wading through treacle.

Sunday was much improved, so we set off to Kyloe in the Woods bright and early. I had wanted to return to Kyloe for a couple of classics for a long time. They are two of the County's best boulder problems - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (7A+) and The Yorkshireman (7B+).

Working the moves on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Of course, the Kyloe woods crag has some of the best problems of every grade range in the country, in my view, which made warming up great fun. Before I got onto the two aforementioned problems, I needed to get the tendons and muscles warm. Bad Company (6A), Badfinger (6A) and the sit start (6B) all did nicely. Brilliant boulder problems and really worth the visit if you're operating in the 6s. 

Anyway, onto the main meal for me, and I had hoped to knock Hitchhiker's on the head pretty sharpish. The boulder problem is over in two moves, really, and those two moves are a subtle combination of power and balance. This made it a little trickier than I was expecting, and therefore it took me a little longer too. What a brilliant couple of moves though and a thoroughly enjoyable climb - easy to see why it's a classic.

Then it was onto The Yorkshireman, which also proved troublesome in it's own way. For a while I was trying beta that wasn't working for me, and then eventually I realised if I turned my left hand in the crack I could reach the crimp above with my right. I then had to hang this crimp so I could match… and it's a touch sharp. I crushed a nerve ending in my right hand middle finger, but eventually I reached the top.

I then set to work on the sit start, after a short break, but we didn't take any food with us and I was starting to tire. Definitely one to return to when my legs aren't wobbling like Elvis Presley's. 

There's some footage below of both problems. Apologies for the letterbox filming. I'd recommend watching it on YouTube rather than here - click the little logo.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The hardest 7A+ in Britain… the video

Following my last post about "the hardest 7A+ in Britain", I thought I'd follow that up with the actual send footage. 

It's horribly edited and there's no music. I've learned never to use iMovie stabilisation software again, and that my torso is so pasty the iPhone camera can't cope with the glare. 

Having said all that, Ousal Low is probably the best traverse I've ever done, if absolutely nails. The moves are as brilliant and varied as the holds. Without waffling on too much… here's the footage… for what it's worth.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The hardest 7A+ in Britain… in my humble opinion

A rather bold statement to make, but the internet allows me to do that. I haven't climbed every 7A+ in Britain, obviously, but I have climbed a fair few and this, Ousal Low, felt the hardest of the lot to me. As a matter of fact, it felt harder than quite a few 7Bs I've done as well.

Located near Alton Towers, in Staffordshire, Churnet Valley is a beautiful little climbing and walking destination. Two paths lead away from the Ramblers Retreat cafe, the left and the right. If you take the latter of the two, you'll soon end up at Ousal Crag, which has two main lines, both traverses. 

If you're a fan of traverses, you're in for a treat, as both stand out as some of the best of their grade - again, I can only speak for myself. The high traverse is graded 6B+ and the low is apparently 7A+. There are several "up problems" as well, but they're hardly worth the visit. Other areas of Churnet Valley have much better up problems - go to Gentleman's or Wright's for examples.

Anyway, the low traverse has thwarted me on a number of trips. Around 6 months or so ago (it might have been sooner, but I'm taking a guess), I had another go and failed once again at the end… the very last hard move. The last six feet of climbing on the traverse would weigh in at 7B in my book. Maybe it's the way I climbed it, but I wasn't able to figure out any other good methods… at least, not with my big, fat hands.

The traverse, being fairly long, breaks down into three parts:
  1. Six feet of 3+  climbing, where you basically walk along a big ledge
  2. Around 10 feet of 6A/+ climbing to a semi decent rest
  3. Then another 10 feet of climbing weighing in at 7B (IMO)
The moves are brilliant, they flow really nicely on good, sculpted holds. The real difficulty of the whole traverse is that the hardest move is, practically, right at the end. There's a cluster of pebbles you need to squeeze with the left hand to move the right hand to a pocket, meanwhile maintaining body tension to keep the feet on. In itself it's a hard move. But you have to maintain core tension and keep the pump at bay following 15-20 feet of climbing to stand a chance. Sport climbers will waltz it, I'm sure. A sport climber I aint.

Anyway, there was an attempt at editing some footage of me climbing the thing, but it all went awry during the upload process. So you'll have to sit there and imagine me climbing it. Took two minutes, so you shouldn't be there long. Close your eyes. Good. See you in two minutes.


I was good, wasn't I? Thanks for watching.

If you have any other contenders for hardest of their grades in the country, please do comment below.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Finished Quine (7C) at Rowtor, Peak District

This evening I shot back out to Rowtor to finish Quine (7C), the little blighter of a dyno that had thwarted my efforts the other day and left me with a gaping hole in my palm. I mentioned that gory detail, and even gave you a lovely picture, in my last blog

The evening of the palm shredding, we went to a friend's birthday BBQ and I was regaled with the advice Alex Megos had given to a friend of mine. When looking down at a hand full of split tips, blood dripping from your knuckles, and red, gaping flesh, don't give up; just get back on the wall and ignore the pain.

So, with those words firmly in mind, I went back the next day to finish Quine (this was Sunday). Unfortunately, just as I was getting the measure of the dyno, it started raining. In a mad panic, I had a flurry of six quick attempts, barely resting between them, rain hitting me in the eyeballs, but got progressively worse on each go. I threw my shoe at the wall. I look back at that little episode with a pinch of embarrassment.

However, having come so close, before the weather decided enough was enough on progress, I was determined to get Quine in the bag before we left for Spain on Friday. And this evening, Wednesday, I did it. Not only once, but twice. After warming up and getting the measure of the problem yet again, I managed to dispatch the dyno without too much difficultly. Thankfully, I arrived just AFTER a lovely rainstorm on this occasion. And also, mercifully, it was short enough that the top out wasn't too wet - nothing a dab of the jumper and a little chalk didn't fix. The starting holds are too far under the roof to get touched by water falling from the sky, and only the worst of precipitation would touch the sloping pinches. 

Suitably stoked, I did Yoghurt Hypnotist (7A+) next, for the first time, in only a couple of goes. And then departed a happy boy, a couple more minor holes in my right hand. 

Psyched for a non-climbing trip to Spain now, to repair my aching body. A little dip in the pool, good eating and a wedding in the sunshine. Sounds like a good holiday to me.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Flapper disaster - be warned... gory

Well that was a disaster... not a total disaster, I suppose, as I did make progress, but progress on a dyno is hardly consoling. Grit stone 1 - Sam 0

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Finishing a project at Bowden Doors, Northumberland

We found ourselves in Northumberland over the weekend. I say that like we were lost and all of a sudden, there we were, in Northumberland. No… it was planned. We were there to spend the weekend with my parents, specifically at a special dining experience on the Farne Islands, held in a tiny chapel with only 16 other diners. Unfortunately, the meal was called off due to rough seas, which turned out to be not so rough in the end, as the impending ex-hurricane that was supposed to be buffeting the country didn't materialise until a day later.

Despite having spent many a happy childhood holiday in Seahouses and Bamburgh, racing my brother along the sea front, running up and down sand dunes, exploring amazing castles and fortifications of other varieties, one of the key draws for my continued pilgrimage to this part of the world is the world class bouldering. Fantastic, powerful boulder problems litter the inland section of the county. It is a different style of climbing to gritstone, and so it comes as a welcome change of pace every now and then. I must have been on three or four occasions just for the bouldering now. This latest trip was not entirely for climbing, but we managed to squeeze some in all the same.

Being as time was finite, we chose to visit crags we already knew, and projects we had left behind. For me, this materialised in one particular boulder problem. It's a strange addiction, bouldering, and this problem is a perfect example of this. It is an eliminate. A little squashed in. The moves are rather painful. And I had given up on it several times before, largely because I was not enjoying climbing it. The last time I gave up on it turned out to be the day before I actually, finally, completed it, on Saturday, August 9th.

The problem of which I speak is called Transformer LH, which weighs in at 7C. It follows an obvious, overhanging prow feature, with a perfectly sculpted pinch/undercut jug hold in the middle. Unfortunately, there is a back wall within reach the whole way, but this is eliminated at this grade. If you use the back wall, this is called Transformer Direct Start and gets the grade of 7A. Finally, if you start to the right of these two, on huge jugs, and just do the final two moves following an initial set up, you can claim a stiff 6A+ tick with Transformer. Confused? I'm not surprised. 

Anyway, I had done the other two problems on previous trips but had always had difficulty with the hardest of the three. The difficulty revolved around a single "move". You don't actually move anywhere, but turn your hand from a pinch to an undercut on the key hold in the roof. On paper, it sounds easy. In practice, I found it bloody nails. The rest of the problem felt fine. I could set up for the hand switch almost 100% of the time, however after half a dozen goes the core strength starts to wane and the crimps start to cut. More than once have I been left with a deep but small split in my left hand forefinger tip. Every time you go to turn that hand around, you have to excessively weight the crimp and squeeze every muscle in your body to keep you on the wall for that split second longer. It takes .5 of a second to turn your hand, but you'll be on the floor in .3. It was frustrating, to say the least.

After an unsuccessful and brief session on the problem on Friday, I decided to give it a miss and walked over to the cave with Leigh-Anne, where she had her sights set on The Cave RH (6B+). On previous trips, we had noted that a huge jug in the centre of the roof was wobbly - like a biscuit that had been dunked in tea one too many times and was about to crumble. We let the problem be on that occasion, hoping that it would dry and stabilise. However, on our return on the weekend, we saw what we both had predicted, a big, light sandy coloured scar where the jug once was. This was disappointing, to say the least. And what has always been a little stiff at 6B+ had become that much harder. Leigh-Anne was put off, but I wanted to see if it had become loads harder. I repeated it without the aforementioned and now deceased jug, and confirmed it's difficulty is roughly the same, or a little harder. I always thought it stiff at 6B+ anyway. Maybe a 6C upgrade is in order.

Following this, we continued heading left along the crag, until we came to The Crescent Flake, a pleasant looking 6A with a wickedly hard first move. Pull your ass off the floor on thin side pulls and smeary feet and throw for a sloping shelf. If that move was in the middle of a problem, it would get a huge upgrade. My first go resembled someone who was desperately trying to soil themselves, as I grimaced and got no where. I readjusted my feet and did the move second go. Sandbag at 6A, for sure. After a few laughs, Leigh-Anne was keen to see me pull the same expression trying a sloping mantle problem cleverly called The Mantleshelf (7A). After a few stalled attempts, and the loss of some skin on my knees, I finally pulled over onto the top and sighed with relief. 

Next up for me was an appealing wall with scattered sloping crimps up an undulating face. It's name, Scooped Wall (6B). Two goes and I was on the top, having given Leigh-Anne the impetus to follow suit. She dispatched it in two or three tries and we both shared in the conquest of a boulder problem.

Lunch was beckoning so we had a quick stop off in Wooler, at the Terrace Cafe (highly recommend!), where we devoured jacket potatoes with beans and cheese, washed down with coffee. Look up the cafe online and you'll see we're not the only ones who'll speak highly of this lunchtime establishment. Lovely staff, delicious food. What more could you ask for?

We then started our wanderings through Kyloe wood, missing the turn off for the crag, and spending around an hour hiking with pads and bags in 20+ degree heat and humidity that only a living, breathing forest can produce. Finally, arriving at the crag, we dropped and sucked in air, trying to cool off while watching some young guns attempt the classics. It was rather busy at the main crag and we were both wiped out from the walk. It felt a little ridiculous to go back to the car straight away, without climbing a single thing, so we headed right, past the main section and into a "new" area. Not new in the sense that no one has ever set foot there with the intention of climbing, as there are loads of established problems, but new for me and seemingly new compared to the main crag, as the walls were not as scarred as its neighbour, and moss grew in abundance across vast swathes of it.

I glanced at a few of the harder problems but I could not bring my skin or energy back into being. Both had left me somewhere on the track, somewhere in the forest we should not have been. And so a long, technical traverse was what I settled on. It was graded 6A - a grade I seemed to have levitated towards on Friday - but again it proved exceptionally hard for the grade. It had some very thin, razor sharp crimps, and the crux section at the start would weigh in at 6C for me. I probably climbed it hideously - I'm not known for my slab/wall technicality - but even so, it was a sharp experience in pain. I managed it… just.

The following day, rain was falling from the heavens in the early part of the morning, and large puddles awaited us as we left the cozy confines of my parents' caravan. Climbing was off… or so I thought. The meal we had travelled to Northumberland for was in the evening, so we had a day to enjoy the countryside in the only other way I know how… walking. A five mile hike to Craster and back. A lovely walk, encompassing roads, fields, woods and beaches. You couldn't pack much more in. When we got back to the car, it was bright, warm and sunny. The puddles had dwindled in number. Climbing was back on!

We only had two hours, however, and it was a half hour drive to and back from the crag. That gave us only one hour of climbing and, despite having written it off, there was only one problem on my mind. Transformer LH, that squashed in eliminate, was calling me. We shot out and went straight to the prow. There was already a dozen or so people out trad climbing, so I assumed all was well and dry. Wind was blowing strong and the rock was sticky like velcro. I repeated the 6A+ variant. Then did the end of the 7C I was there to conquer. I shook my arms and sat down at the start, knowing that I only had a short window in which to find victory. The first go ended as all the others had, with my feet hitting the floor as I tried to turn my hand. I decided to work the move, and a more deft heel placement allowed me to turn my hand and catch the undercut jug for the first time, with my body still on the wall, and I ran through the rest of the problem to the jug before the last two, reachy moves. I knew it was on and tried to keep my calm. 

A short rest precluded that familiar feeling, the one you get when you know you are about to send. It doesn't always present itself and a send, more often than not, seemingly comes out of no where. But on this occasion, I had a good idea that this was the go. The move had felt relatively easy with the slight change in heel placement and I knew I could repeat it, if only I would stick to the crimps as I had done before. Thankfully, it all came together and I reached the jug before the finishing moves with relative ease, wondering what all that fuss was about. For what it's worth, the unedited footage is below.

I said bouldering was a strange addiction before, and I wasn't joking. I had made a one hour round journey to squeeze in 45 seconds worth of climbing. Including warm ups and rests, we were at the crag for no longer than 30 minutes. Was it worth while? Yes it was. Leigh-Anne showed my Mum the footage she took on my phone when we returned to the caravan and her response was "Wouldn't you prefer to read a book or something instead?". I don't know what it is about climbing I find so appealing, but that feeling of completing a problem you battled so hard for is unique. It's exhilarating, in its own way, and I couldn't take the smile off my face for the rest of the evening. If I look in the mirror, I might still be wearing it now.