Monday, 27 October 2014

Taming the Storm at Burbage South

Burbage valley, before logging commenced
I'm no geologist. When I hear climbers waxing lyrical about the origin, history and general makeup of a climbing area's stone, I lean towards an equal measure of scepticism and jealousy of their apparent encyclopaedic knowledge. Said scepticism usually results in a retort: "Where the hell did you read that?", with their response more enlightening than the initial diagnoses of the stone.

If someone has done their homework and their knowledge appears sound, with appropriate references to reading materials and learning, I do find the history of a climbing area fascinating. And I'm not talking about some Joe climbing a crack in his walking boots in the fifties (although that holds its own fascination), but the complete geological makeover of the area, through glacial shift, tectonic movement and whatever else Mother Earth once deemed appropriate behaviour during an age that makes Methuselah look like a whipper snapper.

What I find even more fascinating is the difference between stone that is geographically very close together, referred to under the same banner and widely regarded in my part of the world as "God's Own". Yes, I am referring to the Grit Stone found in numerous areas across Yorkshire and Staffordshire (those I am most familiar with). It is an acquired taste, but once you have spent time fondling its surface, you eventually see past the veil of a singular name. You don't even need eyes to grasp the difference between Burbage grit and that of Rowtor, as an example.

In this particular instance, I am going to dwell on Burbage South, which feels different to me than the stone just a few hundred metres up the path, at Burbage North or West. I'm sure someone will tell me this difference is nothing to do with Mother Earth and her destructive powers, but more likely the much more recent destructive powers of man. For the south, quite obviously, was quarried at one time, and the boulders strewn adjacent to the main edge no doubt resulted from said quarrying. It feels harsh, heavy grained and pebble strewn. The surface is much rougher than Rowtor, which is very fine grained, soft, velvety even.


The superb 7 Ball (6C) at Burbage South - credit: Leigh-Anne Lambert
Burbage South grit has pores like a golf ball, and I'm not referring to those created by rifle wielding soldiers from another but much more recent bygone era. They are large, obvious pores that, to my hand, create a surface much less grippy than the finer grit found elsewhere. In fact, compared to other areas around the Peak District, I find the Burbage South grit boasts the least cohesive surface of the lot. Again, please, if anyone believes different I implore you to leave comments, as maybe I have always embarked on a Burbage South bouldering session in mild and humid conditions. Maybe my hands are just not suited to the surfaces provided in this area. I have had many trips to Burbage South over the years and each one I have found difficult.

My "bogey problem" from last year was called Violence, a mere 7A in the bowels of the second of Burbage South's two main quarries. I don't say "mere" as a derogatory term, I'm simply attempting to sarcastically imply that I thought it was much harder than the grade assigned to it in the guide. My fat hands struggled with the small crimps at the start of the problem, the body position put me off balance before I could even get my butt off the floor and the sloping shelf in the middle of the wall always felt slippery, slimy even. Each of the four key moves required for me to top the problem felt hard in their own right, and stringing them together before I split my right forefinger tip was as much a physical effort as mental, as I'd be required to remember the subtle movements quickly, dredging them from the memory banks of the last session, which was usually some months previous as after each failure I'd swear never to return.

However, I eventually climbed the problem, on a bitterly cold day, when even the enormous walls of the cavernous quarry could not keep the wind at bay; swirling, howling air rushing in and out of the gaping scar on the landscape. The friction finally felt halfway decent. This level of natural intervention is seemingly what I require on every trip to Burbage South, if I want to reach the summit of any long standing blot on my tick list. Blot is an offensive word to use towards an inanimate boulder problem - I'm sure some people love these lines and problems. I, however, find them extremely frustrating.

The thing about bouldering: the most frustrating lines can be some of the most rewarding when you finally do finish them. And it is not since Violence that I have found a line so rewarding to finally complete, knowing the struggles I had with it. That is, until I finished Electrical Storm (7B), also at Burbage South, on this most recent weekend. I have had some battles with this boulder problem. While I'd say it falls into the mid-length category, it is really over after the first three moves - the final traverse being no harder than 6B. It is with the first three moves I have always had the trouble, and I knew the first time I completed them I would finish the boulder problem. And the trouble I had with these moves all came down to friction. I have felt strong enough to do them for a long while, but my hands would slide from the sloper in the middle of the lightning strike feature no matter how hard I squeezed. The friction on this sloper has always felt heinous, and no matter how much stronger I felt I could not make my hands stick. Simply matching it was a task in itself.


Electrical Storm is line 27. Photo from the excellent Peak District Bouldering guide from Vertebrate Publishing
I returned on Sunday, October 26th, with the sole purpose of conquering this nemesis. In an effort to keep perspiration to a minimum, I opted for shorts, and immediately regretted that decision upon embarking on the trudge across the moor. It was windy… and I was freezing. Upon reaching Electrical Storm, I threw the pads down and started doing laps on the finishing traverse to warm my hands and muscles. After ten minutes, I began yet another siege on the first three moves from the sitter. Pulling myself off the floor, I reach my right hand through to sit on invisible dimples on the edge of the offending sloper. I push hard with my left foot to bring my left hand to join the party and then, contrary to many people's solutions, I all-out throw for the sloping rail above with my right hand. For each of these moves, I find my hands in a constant battle for friction, and the real crux is remaining attached to the wall, rather than completing the movements in themselves. They are not massive and they are not immensely powerful, they are just finicky and slippery.

After maybe 45 minutes, I had to concede, as after a few attempts at throwing for the sloping rail I had started to fail to even match the hold in the middle of the wall. I tried my best to stymy frustration, but one or two expletives may have escaped my lips. We packed up and wandered over to a problem Leigh-Anne wanted to try, called Sitting Duck (6B). She obliged my requests to try the problem with her, after she had given it a few good efforts herself, and I managed to flash it. After several aborted efforts due to fear of slicing large slithers of skin off my unprotected, shorts-clad pins, I then proceeded to complete The Grazer (6C+), a variation of Sitting Duck that requires a deep lock off to a small pocket in the middle of the large slab overhead.

Leigh-Anne also wanted to look at Attitude Inspector (7A), a so-called Dyno I first climbed a couple of years ago. I say "so-called" because I don't dyno it at all, using my span and a heel hook around the arete to reach for the finishing jug. This method is more inline with a 6B grade, in my opinion, and I have never felt the urge to try the double dyno - or "flying dyno", as the guide describes it - to the painful, pebble filled finish. I demonstrated the problem to Leigh-Anne but she decided (rightly) that her span was not sufficient to enable her to use my beta, and the double dyno did not appeal. 

We then got her established under her own nemesis problem, Tiger (6B), on the aptly named Tank boulder, located below the main crag, part of a superb circuit of boulders. This is a single move off two opposing side pulls and poor feet to a flat rail above. It has rightly been upgraded from 6A to 6B in the latest edition of the guide, as due to its short stature the move is actually quite hard. In an effort to keep warm, I repeated Tiger and Panzer (6B+), taking my time on the latter traverse to enable warming lactic acid to pulse through my forearms, pushing blood into the closed capillaries in the ends of my fingers and warding off the fast-approaching Reynards Syndrome I struggle with in cold temperatures. 

Once lunch had been consumed, while we sat stationary under the adjacent block to The Tank, we both felt the cold creeping into our bones, the wind blasting at our faces and eyeballs. We decided to call it a day and began the slog back up the hill towards Fox House. On the trail towards the edge, we walked straight past Electrical Storm and I could not help myself but have another go before we left. Leigh-Anne kindly and surprisingly enthusiastically agreed, despite being cold and fully aware of how frustrated failure on this problem made me.

Once again, I threw the pads beneath the lightning strike feature, squeezed my icy toes into icebox climbing shoes, put my hands under my pits and did the warm dance - which involves jumping from left to right foot, stood stationary and hunched, while muttering something along the lines of "why the hell do I do this to myself?". After a minute, I pulled onto the wall and failed yet again. After ten minutes of this, I found a very subtle change in my body position that allowed me to match the crux sloper consistently and slightly more comfortably, setting me up for the dynamic throw for the rail above. I started getting closer and closer, sliding off the rail with increasingly more palm shredding pain, which meant the necessary surface area to keep me attached to the wall was finally hitting the right spot. It's a good barometer of approaching success, pain, as it is obvious, sharp and hard to ignore or miss. Eventually, I latched it and walked the rest of the traverse with relative ease, an anticlimax to the moves I had found so hard at the beginning.


Attempting the starting moves (the crux) on Electrical Storm (7B) on a previous trip to Burbage South
I am not normally one for letting out great bellows of joy after ascending a boulder problem, usually restraining myself to a simple, throaty "Yes!" if I'm particularly pleased with my efforts. However, after finishing this nemesis, I let myself go just a little, and shouted just a bit louder into the abandoned valley below. There were very few people about, so I indulged. I thought I would feel immense relief, as the problem had repelled me for so long, but relief was only a small part of what I felt. Physically, it is not the hardest boulder I have ever climbed, but the tenacity it required, the constant failure that needed to be overcome, and the lessons it taught me felt extremely rewarding - and, therefore, the usual relief at having finished a project was overwhelmed with glee. I am still smiling after climbing it and, almost 24-hours later, I still whisper to Leigh-Anne: "Guess what… I finally climbed Electrical Storm!" before breaking into another smile.

Everyone say it with me: I Love Rock Climbing.