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).

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Rock climbing on Bank Holiday weekend

The British bank holiday...

Leading up to it, everyone watches the weather forecast like hawks, making at least two separate plans - The Good Weather Plan & The Bad Weather Plan.

In the week before, you usually commit. "We'll go with Plan A", we state in our best leadership voice (bring it down two octaves). 

However, this bank holiday weekend gave us a mixed bag to play with. The weather man went crazy at the meteorological pick'n'mix and just grabbed a handful of all sorts. 

The week leading up to Bank Holiday weekend was wet and miserable. I swear I saw some snow. Hail. Lots of rain. Wind and cold. It was bitter. Mean, even.

The first day of the Bank Holiday - Friday - and this mean streak did not abate. Instead, it rained. And it rained. And it rained. It wasn't especially cold anymore, but it was wet.

We climbed anyway, taking to the ropes at Awesome Walls Sheffield, in a peremptory strike on poor endurance ahead of our planned trip to Spain in 6 weeks. We don't need nor want to climb hard, we just want to be able to reach the anchor on at least half a dozen routes.

Saturday was much improved. It stopped raining. But the previous day's weather had planted a seed of doubt in the brain. Would anything be dry? Is it windy?

We made a break for the Peak District, if only to explore new crags for a drier day. To my surprise, lines were dry. And it was getting dryer. By the afternoon, the sun was out and we bathed in UV light. 

I also found a great climb at a crag I've never been to before. It's not much to look at, being a traverse, but it has great movement. It's power-endurance focussed and it's hard (for me). I won't disclose as I didn't finish it.

Easter Sunday was even nicer - the sun shone and the warm enveloped the country like a blanket. I took it easy, climbing a couple of things in the morning and then sleeping on my pad for much of the rest of the day.

Monday simply copy and pasted the weather from the day before, except with added warmth. Temperatures soared, for this time of year, and many took to beer gardens and BBQs.

I wanted to get back to the Traverse (henceforth dubbed until completed) but only managed three attempts before the sun hit the holds and made climbing nigh on impossible.

I left rock climbing there for the weekend and went off to enjoy the sun like the rest of the populace. Any bank holiday packed with rock climbing is a good bank holiday in my book.

When's the next one?

Monday, 30 March 2015

Climbing the classic Big Jim in Fontainebleau (video)

Here's a short clip of me climbing the classic Big Jim at Petit Bois in Fontainebleau. Thanks for the footage Steve Helmore!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Fontainebleau - the best bouldering destination in the world?

Cuvier Rempart, Fontainebleau

Fontainebleau is the best bouldering destination in the world. That has become a cliche, not so surprisingly, considering the consistency, variety, quantity and quality of the problems there. However, for me, that phrase is one that I have refrained from emitting from my own mouth until now. Not because the forest and I did not get along - the truth is the opposite, in fact, I've always enjoyed climbing there immensely - but because of my love for my home, here in the UK. I was reluctant to place a foreign climbing destination above that which I cherish - The Peak District.

Even now I umm and ahh over whether I can actually commit those words to virtual paper. Hardly written in ink, I suppose I can come back and delete them if I so wish. But really, I will commit them now as I am free to chop and change my mind as I please. Next week I might say something completely contrary.

Baslow, Peak District

This week, having returned from Fontainebleau only recently, I am calling the famous French bouldering arena the best. I have to qualify that statement: I have not climbed in every bouldering destination in the world, in fact I've only sampled a very small number, so it's actually rather redundant as a statement anyway. It would be more accurate to say that right now Fontainebleau is my favourite bouldering destination. A subtle but important difference. The former does have a more controversial tone, however, as it pretends to supersede the opinions of all others, but that is not my intention. For now, assume that when I say "best" I actually mean "my personal favourite". 


By next week, having hopefully spent some time climbing on grit stone, I may return to this virtual soap box and espouse the virtues of the Peak District, claiming equal footing on the ladder as Fontainebleau, or possibly even several rungs between them. Although, the biggest single issue letting the Peak District down may delay such a proclamation, as the weather has not been kind over the past few months - at least to my memory and experience - and this may prevent such an excursion.

I once sat down at a dinner table with two of the UK's strongest contemporary boulderers, when I stated the Peak was equal if not greater to Fontainebleau in my mind. They looked visibly shocked at my statement and began explaining why the opposite should be true. A friendly debate ensued, but now, looking back, I'm inclined to retrospectively agree with their way of thinking. This only springs to mind because of the change in perception I'm currently admitting to.

Stanage, Peak District

What brought about this sea change, I don't hear you asking. Well, I'll tell you. My recent trip to the forest did not yield a long list of difficult problems ascended under my own hands and feet, therefore fuelling a false and short lived adoration. No. In fact, the majority of my week in Fontainebleau was too warm for my hands to cope with, my skin soft and sweaty, sliding over the smooth, textured sandstone surfaces as easily as a greased water wheel around its axis. I struggled with this lack of friction and sheered far too much skin off my finger tips to recover from and take advantage of on the only two days cold air blew in from the north and temperatures dropped more than 10 degrees. On these days, I did attempt hard boulder problems - at least, hard for me - but to no avail.

So on the warmer days I tried to climb things quickly, sampling a lot of boulder problems at grades I could and should flash consistently (not that I did on all occasions). But what I loved about this approach to bouldering - a style good for those with a lack of patience, such as myself - is you get to try a wide variety of the climbs Fontainebleau has to offer. Angles: slabs, walls, overhangs and roofs. Holds: crimps, slopers, jugs, pockets, cracks and side pulls. Length: one move wonder, two move power problems, ten move power endurance, and twenty plus move endurance. Styles: dyno, dynamic, delicate, compression, technical, thuggy, and combination. Between these far too simplistic categories every person's preference is catered for. Mother nature's infinite imagination has sculpted these rocks in such ways as you couldn't fathom if they were not presented to you, framed in a beautiful landscape.

Elephant, Fontainebleau

It is not just the multifarious climbing, however, but the rock composition itself that I admire. It feels solid but soft, the friction is there but it does not tear your hands to pieces. It is uniquely and multitudinously textured, from turtle shells and sharkskin rough through to bowling alley slick patinas with fingernail thin razor edges. There are shapes and lines that just scream out to be climbed - world class problems in every sector.

If, like me, you look at the smorgasbord of rock climbing and fill your plate with bouldering (maybe with a few small sides for variety every once in a while) then how can you not love Fontainebleau. As well as the aforementioned cliche, I have heard, although much more infrequently, the chilling "I hate Fontainebleau" escape the icy cavern of climbers who did not get on with the place once and have therefore condemned it to their own personal sin bin. But what I would say to those climbers is they simply need to give it another go. Try different areas, different styles, different holds, different lines, and I am absolutely, 100% sure you will find something to love about the place.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Rock climbing. What do you mean "rock" climbing? You mean plastic, right?

I'm off to Fontainebleau on Saturday and I'm very much looking forward to that. 

Rainy day activities last Fontainebleau trip

The Climbing Works International Festival (CWIF) took place on the weekend just gone.

We were The B Team at CWIF 2015

I've been extremely busy with work, as a freelance communications and PR professional.

These are not my hands

I have managed to climb at least one grit stone boulder problem since the start of 2015 - during what has felt a supremely wet and miserable winter season.

Staring at Low Rider on one of the wasted trips up the hill

And all of this has meant that I haven't climbed outside much lately. Fontainebleau will change that, though... if the weather is kind!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Climbing Low Rider (7C+) at Stanage North

Checking out Low Rider at Stanage North
Today I climbed one of the Peak District's best boulder problems. That's a great statement to be able to make. And I am able to make it because today I climbed Low Rider - located in an area that I call Far, Far Left Stanage. I believe others call it North Stanage.

After trudging up the hill, you are confronted with an amazing roof. It grabs your attention straight away. Although I suppose I'd be more inclined to call it a horizontal prow, as it's roughly the width of a double fridge, with both sides exposed, and reaches out for 8ft or so, before leading into three upwards movements to a large pocket jug.

Walking up to Stanage North in the sun rise
Low Rider, which is graded 7C+ (or V10 for those of you across "The Pond") climbs in many different ways and finding "your" beta - that is, beta that works best for you - is half the fun. I ended up doing a cross-over to a very bad slopey dish and a lurch to the jug rail at the end of the roof, getting the horizontal bit over in as few moves as possible.

Crossing over to the slopey dish on Low Rider
Reaching for the "jug" at the end of the roof on Low Rider
The crux for me, however, was actually the end. Not because it was the most physically demanding bit, but because my mental ability to calm down and dispatch was rather lacking every time I got there. I must have dropped the last hard move (matching a slopey break just before the jug pocket) about a dozen times. 

However, on my fifth try today I was able climb Low Rider to its conclusion. And let me tell you, that was a great feeling. What a great boulder problem.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Rock climbing & international news - do you want more?

The climbing community coming to grips with the increasing popularity of the sport is a curious thing. While many, including myself, have for years observed the slowly growing numbers of people cramming into climbing centres and littering the countryside with their presence on the weekend, rock climbing popularity has taken a lurch forward over the past few weeks after being thrown into the brightest of limelights.

Anyone who turned on a television, browsed an internet news service, flicked through a newspaper (that archaic practice) or skimmed over their Facebook news feed will be aware of #DawnWall. Therefore, I'm going to assume you know all about it. 

What is curious about #DawnWall (forever prefixed with a hashtag) is the sheer amount of publicity it garnered and the reactions this invoked not only in the climbing community but the wider, world-wide community. Indeed, it did elevate rock climbing into the entirety of this sphere, for once not confined to media catered solely to the lonely few who frequent dusty old factories converted into shiny, brightly coloured playrooms for adults. 

The world finally saw the cutting edge of climbing in a form they could understand. Forever have non-climbers thought vertical movement could only happen with large, jug sized holds, spaced like ladder rungs up a flat or slab cliff face. #DawnWall showed them the difficulty rock climbing can reach at the cutting edge - with TV news casters literally sticking matchsticks and American quarters to a wall to demonstrate the teeny weeny size of some of the holds on the crux traverse pitch of the leviathan of a route that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson can now proudly declare themselves the first ascensionists.

This clamour to report their three week epic resulted in news channels world-wide carrying daily updates of their efforts. Indeed, the most powerful man on the planet, the President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama himself, took 15 seconds out of his day and got one of his aides to snap a picture of him stood next to an old and wonky oil painting of Yosemite valley and post it on instaweb. If rock climbing never reaches that pinnacle again, we can all die happy.

Seriously, though, rock climbing was well and truly given global attention for those weeks that two men "wasted their time" on the "pointless exercise" of attempting to scale a previously unscaled route up a natural monolith, which has hundreds of established routes on it already. Those quotes are paraphrased from various hilarious comments left on news articles around the internet. They are not my view - I think Tommy and Kevin's achievement was marvellous.

That was the reaction of the aforementioned "wider-world"... but what did the climbing community make of their efforts? It is safe to say the vast majority of the climbing world were proud to see their sport getting so much attention. Many were so enamoured with Tommy and Kevin they watched the live broadcast of them topping out #DawnWall. Here, in Britain, there was a healthy mix of fascination, interest and, as the weeks advanced, a growing sense of "get it over with already!". Indeed, this culminated in many furiously ruminating  on Twitter over the press conference that Tommy and Kevin conducted (probably under duress) and the ongoing TV stints on massive American talk shows that no one knows anything about on this side of the pond. Who is Ellen DeGeneres? Just joking - she's famous for that selfie with all her famous pals, right?

Indeed, on this, the 11th hour of climbing's short-lived (and everyone knew it was going to be short-lived) stint in the psyche of the world, climbers took to Twitter to sarcastically belittle that popularity. Like the jealous kid in the corner of the canteen watching the popular kid get the attention of the pretty girl. In the weeks, months and years previous, for almost as long as I've been climbing myself, I've listened and joined in conversations about rock climbing's lack of funding and wages for top athletes. Why o' why can't professional climbers get enough money to support themselves to train and compete internationally? 

The kind of publicity and interest #DawnWall brought to the sport is  what is needed to ensure climbers eventually get similar remuneration to other sportsmen and women who spend hours and hours toiling away in a gym, sculpting themselves into athletes. The kind of publicity that joining the Olympics would bring. The kind of publicity that some climbers are attempting to generate by themselves - through their efforts on social media. Social media, that channel giving many an outlet when the TV crews pack up their stuff, turn their backs on climbing and head off into the sunset, towards the next shiny subject to catch their attention. 

Top climbers need to work hard to get themselves in front of that camera - metaphorically and, hopefully one day, literally. And I'm not just talking about working hard in the gym. They need to put themselves out there, write blogs, interact on social media, start a vlog... whatever it takes. If they want to be able to support themselves climbing, they need to make it a full-time occupation and work at it. Don't expect a few hours in the gym each day, the odd hard ascent and a single obscure, blurry photo posted online each week is going to ensure you don't need a 9-5.

I read an interesting blog from a very talented American writer called Andrew Bisharat this morning. He wrote about Sierra Blair-Coyle. Who, you ask? Don't kid yourself... you know who. Indeed, that article sparked this blog, as it got me thinking about how some climbers get themselves into the public eye. On the one hand you've got two of the world's best climbers completing the world's hardest multi-pitch in the world's most famous big-wall arena and on the other a blonde bombshell with a fanbase to rival Justin Bieber. OK, her fanbase is not quite that big, but for the climbing community it's HUGE. 205,000 Likes of her Facebook athlete page. In comparison, Tommy has 74,000 (still impressive - no doubt given a boost by #DawnWall) and Kevin has 37,000.

Of course, measuring fame via Facebook Likes is a little nonsensical - I mean, has Sierra ever had a congratulations from Mr.President? No (I'm guessing). And a large proportion of those Likes are likely from individuals who just want to ogle the 20-year-old in her hot pants. But does that matter? The fact that people are looking at those photos in their thousands means she is a walking, talking billboard - and, therefore, she can make money and will likely be making money off climbing for a long time yet.

These two examples are extremes and maybe, for the average athlete climber, especially British athlete climbers, they need to find a middle ground. Mix the climbing achievements with a healthy dose of self-publicity. 

The British proclivity for understating our own achievements - much happier to play the humility card than shout from the roof tops - is a natural barrier for self-aggrandisment. Therefore, maybe we are happy working our 9-5 jobs and climbing on the weekend, at whatever level we currently call ours. But if you want investment in climbing and athletes and training and the British junior and senior teams then be prepared for climbing and climbers to be taking their turn in the limelight more frequently, even if that limelight is self-generated via the internet or thrust forward because of Olympic inclusion. And make sure you fully support whoever is front and centre when it happens.