Friday, 6 May 2011

The ecstasy of completion

(Written 06/05/2011)

Completing anything that takes a great deal of effort, time and commitment always comes with a mixed bag of emotion. Relief. Elation. Satisfaction. Wonderment. Confusion. Happiness. Ecstasy. Despair. Bliss. Joy. When you finished your dissertation or coursework, did you feel pleased, happy, content? Or did you feel concerned it wasn’t good enough? Confused as to why it took so much effort and time? Disappointed that you didn’t put in as much effort as you could have done?


Rock climbing comes with the same mixed bag – the same pick n’ mix. A project, a boulder problem, a sport route, a trad line, they can take a great deal of time and effort, but when one’s mind is set on completing the project, nothing will dissuade one from doing so. If a climber’s heart is set on single line, you can bet that they will finish it eventually – or get seriously hurt trying and be forced to quit out of no decision of their own but that of fate.

I haven’t found many boulder problems that I have come back to time and again. To be perfectly honest, returning to the same spot in the Peak District, to the same bit of rock, doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal and the thought of it is deeply unmotivating. Travel, new places, new people, new settings, new things, they are what I seek from climbing… I enjoy the exploratory aspect of it and that’s what keeps me doing it. But then again, this is an occasional aspect of my climbing career, because work tends to be the dominant feature in my life, so on a more usual basis I return to the same areas over and again – The Roaches, Baldstones, Newstones, Ramshaw – just for time, convenience and simplicity’s sake. I’m sure most people are the same. Once upon a time, when I lived in Sheffield, it would always be Burbage, Curbar and Stanage. However, I would get bored. I would head to these places and warm up on the same problems, and then go off to try something at the tip of my ability for an hour or two, before going home in failure and disappointment. The disappointment, however, was usually subdued by its familiarity – failure had become the norm on these problems and therefore I had come to expect it – therefore it ceased to feel so disappointing and more of an accepted reality. In this rut I rarely finished anything new, because there was no belief that I would – and belief is key.

One such problem was the Baldstones Traverse. It is a moderate problem, nothing especially high up in the grade scale – 7A+. I’m not sure, but because it’s a traverse, it probably translates to a 7A boulder problem. And bloody hell it is hard for the grade. At least, I believe so, but from many I have spoken with they claim it is not so bad – so maybe it’s just me. But I have climbed many problems at 7A and 7A+ and nothing took as long or as much effort as the Baldstones Traverse.

When I was a student, especially in my third year of study (2007/08), I would travel up to Baldstones and Newstones as well as The Roaches on an almost daily basis – weather permitting. I would travel there because it was convenient, as previously mentioned, and because I had a circuit of problems that I knew would give me a good workout. In all, I would do most of the 5s to 6B+s on the Lower and Upper Tiers of The Roaches and at Newstones – and I would do them all three to five times, depending on how energetic I felt. I can’t remember for sure, but it resulted in somewhere between 50 and 80 ascents. And then on top of this, I would usually go and have a bash at a 7A or 7A+. One of these was the Baldstones Traverse.

I first tried it, if memory serves, at the end of my second year – after I had completed a few other 7As (The Nose, Burbage North, and the Greener Traverse, Stanage, among others) and believed I needed something harder to progress.

When I approached the traverse and saw it for the first time, I can’t say it was truly inspiring. There is a definite line, a prominent line, that leads from right to left on a slightly overhanging wall – a nice rail and a series of crimps are the first and most obvious holds, usually chalk saturated due to the overhanging nature of the wall, which would protect it from the cleansing rain. There was also the added disappointed of the ground usually being covered in sheep shit. It’s not their fault; the wall provided a natural cover from the elements, and they generally slept there and shat in the night. But it was a bit gross and I definitely didn’t want to fall in it. Or put my mat in it at first. But I persevered and threw my mat down on the crap. That was the start of my 4-year-long slog with this problem.

Now, I have to state straight away that I didn’t go to the traverse every day for 4 years – that would be ridiculous. In fact, there was probably a year or 18 months in the middle of that period when I didn’t try it at all. It was a sporadic attempt here and there, now and again, when I found myself at Baldstones. This was quite often during my university years, but once I graduated I moved away and, as I said, didn’t come back for quite some time.

I did come to love this boulder problem, however. And then I came to hate it. And then love it. And then hate it. This all depended on my mood at the time. The issue was that I had every move wired within the first two sessions – all except two, a small crux sequence, smack in the middle of the problem. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do these two moves – it was a nightmare… because the rest of the problem became easy.

Basically, you start on two crimps before moving out and matching a huge, juggy side pull type thing, and working your feet along some really obvious but relatively small edges. Then there’s a good crimp for the left hand before crossing the right hand over to the biggest jug on the planet. Now here’s where I kept coming off. Moving the left out to a slopey rail that’s behind you, and shifting your right foot onto the greasiest, grimiest of footholds, which just so happens to be about hip height, with your left foot flagging in no-man’s land, you have to let go of the jug and slap onto the world’s worst sloper. From here, you lower your body until you feel comfortable on the left hand sloper and then you have to match that rail. And sure as the sun rises, I would fall off here time and again. But almost every time I would get straight back on, matching the rail, and complete the problem. I just couldn’t come out from the jug to match the rail and move off it. It was two moves and it was killing me. I tried tweaking my beta in so many different ways – using so many methods, from the cut loose campusing to the crazy head height heel hooks to the insanely stupid and desperate dynos.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter if you couldn’t follow that, I had to describe it to exorcise my demons – my point can be made without you knowing exactly how the problem climbs.

It wasn’t a strength thing. The problem felt well within my capabilities. It was just two moves that I couldn’t figure out. I just couldn’t do it. I believed it was a short man’s problem. I believed it must be easier for short people, who can use the greasy foothold by their hip without shoving their ass so far out from the wall that coming to the sloper felt like reaching for the moon – impossible. However, I must have tried the traverse a good few dozen times before I left it for a year or two.

When I came back I fell from the same position a few sessions more – not trying it more than two or three times a session before realising why I left it in the first place. And then I went back again, after work one day at the start of May 2011.

It was a warm day but by the time I got to Newstones, at around 6:45pm, it had cooled quite considerably. I did my warm up, a 6A traverse, 4 lowballs ranging from 5 to 6A+, and two 6Bs – all three times each – before meandering my way across the moorland to Baldstones, where I found myself in a familiar situation, staring at the prominent line of handholds on the Baldstones Traverse. There was very little sheep shit, and what was there was dry and squashed into the soil so as to be barely visible. A good sign, I thought. I threw down the mat and squidged my feet into climbing shoes, chalked my hands and quietly whispered to myself: “come on… this time…”

I pulled on and did the first few easy moves – nothing harder than 5+ - and got to the jug. I placed my left hand on the sloper, moved my right foot up to the greasy foothold, slipped my right hand down to the awful sloper, let out a grunt, lowered my body till my left arm was almost straight and my weight under the palm, and then brought my right hand out to match the rail… where I duly fell off. Shit. Not again…

I gave myself a minute, and then pulled onto the jug so I could work the crux sequence that had been thwarting me for so many years. I decided I was going to try to match the best part of the slopey rail. Now, the best part of this rail isn’t exactly large, but there’s a really nice three-finger pad section in the middle. My idea was to get my index finger pad on my left on this section and then bring my right over and get two pads on from that hand before moving out further left to a really nice juggy sloper (if that makes any sense). Anyway, the point is it worked and I moved through that section… for the first time EVER! I had never done those two moves before. I jumped off and felt elated. I had figured out the only part of this problem that I hadn’t previously been able to complete. This was an epiphany moment. I squealed with excitement. I jumped. I’m not going to lie. Slightly embarrassing recalling it now, but I was excited. I knew then and there that I could do it.

I pulled onto to the starting holds ten minutes later and fell once again trying to match the rail with my new hand sequence. I tweaked it slightly and started again, knowing I could do it. My adrenaline was pumping and I was psyched… as psyched as I had ever felt. I moved through the start quickly and confidently. I got the rail and matched it quickly and easily. A small leap and I was at the juggy sloper. I was excited and breathing hard but I told myself to relax and took a couple of really deep breaths. I moved left to smaller, slopey crimps. Then I brought my left hand really low, to a nice but awkwardly placed crimp. All squashed up now, squatting on my hands and feet, I shifted, let out a power scream and threw my right hand up to a really positive side pull. I knew I had the problem here, but there were a couple of simple moves to finish and I really didn’t want to screw it up so I concentrated. I shifted my left to an upper side pull before throwing for a positive crimp rail with the same hand. Moving my feet higher, I grabbed the finishing jug with my right hand and moved up to a huge rail over the top of the overhang – I had finished the problem.

Four years on and off effort had come to a crescendo of relief. Overwhelming of the relief, however, was ecstasy – and I was surely glad for it. Instead of feeling like an idiot for having spent so long failing on this 7A+, I felt joy having put together all of the moves in a beautiful sequence. And it is a beautiful sequence. A really nice series of moves, that when put together makes for an exceptional boulder problem. It may not look like much but by god it’s good.