Monday, 11 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.