Saturday, 26 July 2008

Where do I start...

I am sat in Exeter at Emily’s Dads house, drinking tea, having just eaten the most amazing bacon, sausage and egg sandwich. It is all rather surreal, and seems just like any normal day, but occasionally I get a shot of pain from my heels that remind me of the day’s earlier goings on.

My alarm woke Emily and I at 4.15 and we rolled out of our sleeping bags to force down a bowl of oats and raisins, drenched in sour soya milk. Yes, this really is living the dream. Daylight slowly appeared on the horizon as we finished packing the car and headed to the crag. Even at this early hour, the temperature was more than pleasant; I silently hoped that it would not get too much warmer.

Conditions near the top of the wall felt reasonable as I made my final practice attempts and it felt like today could be the day. I racked all my gear in the order I would place it and made my way to the base of the wall to practice the bold start one last time.

The holds felt very greasy and after practicing it a few times my head was in a mess and I started to feel sick when I imagined being on the lead. I tried to convince myself that there was a chance of walking away from a fall, but deep down I knew the truth, even If I didn’t want to accept it.

I wandered off along the beach to try to order my thoughts and instantly felt a little better. I decided to have one final practice then make my decision. All went well, the climbing felt hard, but I managed to switch off my rational brain and calmly keep moving up. As I lowered to the floor, I knew it was on.

I began to slowly prepare myself, probably trying to delay the inevitable, but suddenly realised the tide had crept in to almost half way and if I didn’t start soon, there was a chance Emily may get very wet feet! My earlier worries were replaced with a sudden urgency; I stopped being scared and got on with the job.

The climbing was terrifying, possibly the most harrowing experience of my life. I don’t really want to get drawn into grades for specific sections of the route, but in hindsight, I feel those 15 meters are amongst the hardest I have done, so make of that what you will.

The deadly part was over, but there still remained almost 30m of hard, sustained climbing to go and whilst safer than the start, it relies on tiny gear in soft rock and so the chance of monster falls is pretty high. I slowly made my way up the wall but the higher I got, the worse the conditions became until I was having a real struggle to stay attached to the wall.

I arrived at the beginning of the crux section of the upper wall. The next 15 moves is the most sustained section on the whole route. There is a little bit of gear, but it is difficult to place at the best of times and would be almost impossible in today’s conditions. I decided my best chance was to run it out to the next good hold, hoping that by not placing the gear, I may just be able to make it through. The gear that I hope will catch me if my gamble fails is a Wild Country Zero 3, the smallest cam in the world that is rated for passive protection. Fingers crossed.

I went for it and gave it everything I had. Each move felt desperate with my hands and feet feeling like they would slip at any minute. I arrived at the crux of the section and stretched out my left hand for a flat crimp. My pinky slipped off and fingers opened up, I fought with all my might to hold on. I re-formed the crimp and placed my foot on a high 1mm edge, locked off my left arm and found the distant finger-lock with my right. It hurt, but I didn’t care, as long as it was jammed I wouldn’t fall, which would give me precious more seconds on the wall. I made a strenuous blind foot sequence and moved my left hand to a reasonable gaston but I know I need it in my right hand. With two moves to go to the good hold, the end is in sight but at the same time seems an eternity away.

I need to swap hands and so move my left hand to a poor intermediate. It is a constant battle against all the things that are pulling me earthwards but I won’t give up. I throw my body inwards to generate positive momentum to counteract the negative that I know will happen as soon as I release my right hand. My body moves outwards as my fingers find the hold. I tighten up all my muscles and let out a grunt as my body stops for a split second...

The split second is over, my fingers grease off the hold and I am airborne, I scream.

The fall goes on and on. All I am aware of is I am still screaming, I stop... still falling... and scream some more. Finally the rope takes me and I am back in the world. I quickly check myself and I am not dead, the gear held. 50+ ft onto a Zero 3, not too shabby. Then the disappointment kicks in and I hang my head in self pity. Lower me...

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

From one extreme to another. Last trip it was raining, today it was roasting. It felt like the hottest day of the year and conditions on the wall were grim. I sorted out all of the gear placements and finalized my sequence but the individual moves felt as difficult as they ever had. Deciding to call off my attempt was a difficult decision, but when your life is on the line, you need to be 100% sure that what you are doing is the right thing.

Unfortunatley the forecast for tomorrow is much the same and so things are not looking great. I don’t know, English people just love to moan. Moan when its wet, moan when its hot, moan, moan, moan...

I think drastic measures may need to be used, unfortunately that means getting up really, really early. It’s a good job the route will be worth it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

It has been a great first day back on the route. I will have to be brief to conserve my battery power as am currently in my tent, using my phone as a modem to publish. I arrived at the crag at around 3pm and everything seemed perfect, the tide was out, it was dry, not too hot, not too cold, not too windy... I wasted no time in setting up and quickly abed in, chalking and cleaning holds as I passed, re-familiarizing myself with the holds and gear.

Once I arrived at the bottom, I spent a short time practicing the low dangerous crux until I was fairly happy with the sequence. I climbed through this and decided to press on up and see how far I could get. 45 minutes later, I topped out feeling tired but contented, having just linked the whole route for the first time.

If the weather holds for tomorrow, I think my chances are looking ok.


Monday, 21 July 2008

Sorry to disappoint but this will only be a short post as I am very tired and want to go to bed. On Friday I finished a week long shift at work, which is always a great thing. I caught a lift back to Manchester and had a meeting with Dave Turnbull, the big boss of the British Mountaineering Council to discuss some exciting future plans. More information will follow over the next few months, but it is safe to say the meeting wet pretty well.

I rushed home, packed my bags and jumped on a plane to Switzerland. I had been asked to give a presentation at The North Face booth at the Outdoor Show in Friedrichshafen but due to my manic schedule over the last few weeks, I was not as prepared as I would have liked. I did my best to put something interesting together on the journey over, and during any spare time I had at the show, until 4.30 arrived and it was time to go on.

Thankfully it went really well, and I got a lot of great feedback, making all the stress and nerves worthwhile. Actually, I found the whole show quite overwhelming. The sheer scale of it is just immense and the party that night was no exception. I don’t know how many thousands of people there were, but most looked to be having loads of fun, dancing into the early hours, which is what a good party is all about.

The following morning, I was back on a plane looking forward to a good night’s sleep in my own house before setting off again for the south of England to spend more time on my project.

I hope to be able to find internet access whilst I am away so I can keep you updated with daily blogs so watch this space.

Right, I am off to bed.

Night night

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Devon Days

Day 5

Surprise, surprise. The rain stopped play. As Saturday slipped by, Sundays forecast got worse and worse until the radar showed almost continuous torrential rain all day. I woke feeling sad and disappointed but quickly checked my computer in the hope that something may have changed overnight. It was worse than ever, not a chance for climbing, nothing to do but pack up and head home.

Dave and I said goodbye to our friends and started on the long northwards drive. I was in a pretty low mood for the journey and an sure that I was not the best company for Dave but he did his best to cheer me up.

I feel like I could have climbed the route today but have been held back by forces out of my control and this is very frustrating. What's more frustrating is that due to other factors that are out of my control (read work!), I wont be able to get back on the route for almost 3 weeks, which right about now, feels like an eternity away.

As most obsessive climbers will know, projects get in your head and under your skin and if it is particularly big or important project, it is difficult to focus on anything else. You wake up, go about your day, and go to sleep with the moves and sequences whizzing round your head and as usual happens when you are focused on a specific point in the future, the present seems to go on for ever.

But deep down I know time will run away from me as fast as it always does and there are plenty of things I need to do. For one, I need to work really hard on my fitness for the next 4 days, because as soon as Friday comes I will be locked away, with no climbing for 9 days and I don't want to feel like a sack of spuds when I finally get back on the route.

So James... Chin up, quit your whining and get on with life!

Now, doesn't that feel better... ;)

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Day 3

My toes were still sore and the prospect of another long day standing on tiny edges was not a pleasant one. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on perspective, the weather forecast showed heavy rain moving in at midday and so I decided on spending the morning focusing on two short sections of the route; the bold start, and the sustained upper crux. The reasons for practicing the bold start are fairly obvious, but I also wanted to make sure I had the most efficient foot sequence for the upper crux to make sure I have the best possible chance of succeeding on the unrelenting hard moves to the top of the wall.

I set up the fixed ropes as simply as possible and packed up the remainder of my gear to allow for a quick escape in case of sudden downpour. As I stepped over the edge, the now familiar feeling of being very insignificant flooded back to me. The wall feels so vast. I have spent a time climbing on much bigger walls but these are all split up with belays, ledges, or other features and somehow don’t feel quite as massive. This wall on the other hand is featureless, there is nothing to take your attention from the fact you are very small, and utterly alone.

I slid slowly to the bottom of the wall, checking out potential gear placements and pulling on holds trying to warm my fingers up. After donning some comfortable shoes to ease the pain on my toes I pulled on to the first moves of the route and began to climb. The moves felt surprisingly hard and I juts managed them, move by move by the skin of my teeth. I went back down to refine my sequence and started to fall off most of the moves. The rock felt really greasy and the moves felt uncomfortable, I imagined myself on the lead and the thought was frightening. One move in particular sees a long reach, to a “wrong way slanting” edge, off a “wrong way slanting” foothold. As you stretch and reach over yourself, your foot is less and less on the hold and you pray that it will remain in contact long enough to allow you to get a precise hold on the wrong way slanting” edge. Blowing this move will see you falling towards the boulders, 10 meters below, flipping forwards as you fall.

I continued to practice the moves and decided on a favoured overall sequence. I gave the whole sequence an attempt to see if I could manage it, despite the bad conditions, if I dug deep and gave all my efforts. I made it to the good holds and the first good gear with a couple of minor slips. It felt hard but it gave me confidence that I could do it if I tried hard.

Here is a short clip of the very bold first 10m. The ground is about 3m below my feet at the start.

I abed back down and walked to the top of the crag. Fine droplets of rain had started to fall and HotAches had already packed up. I wanted to look at one last section before I called it a day so I quickly abed back in. I lowered myself to the start of the upper crux, trying to memorise the holds and sequence on my way past. I started to climb and steadily made upwards progress. I had a lot of excess gear on my harness, acting as a kind of weight belt and wore my comfortable boots because of my sore toes. Even with these hindrances, I remembered the sequence and successfully linked to the top with a big smile on my face.

Quickly I packed up my equipment and walked back to the car. On the way I considered my thoughts and feelings about my progress on the route. I am happy with what I have so far achieved and feel that with a little bit more work on one specific section on the upper wall I may be ready to get on the sharp end on my next session.

Unfortunately, the rain looks set to stay for today and tomorrow but at the moment, Sunday looks good. I am going to head back to Keith’s house for a rest day and to make plans. If all stays as it is now, then I will return on Sunday for a possible lead attempt.

How exciting...

Friday, 4 July 2008

Devon Days

Day 2

After a very lazy start we finally made the long journey from my friend Keith’s house to the west coast where the weather was glorious. HotAches were already in-situ on the route so I waisted no time in setting up my ropes and dropping in to join the party.

I made my way down the wall, placing gear, cleaning slots and re-familiarizing myself with the moves. On reaching the bottom of the wall I decided to start off climbing to see how high I could get. Unfortunately, I fell in the middle of the low bold crux which is possibly the worst thing that could have happened. I tried to push this mistake out of my mind, but fell off again, and again.

This was a big worry. Falling here is possibly the worst place to fall on the route and will almost certainly result in broken legs, of worse. I need to be confident that I will successfully climb through this section to have any chance of being able to focus on the momentous task that lies above. I managed to climb the lower section a few times but never felt really comfortable; I think more practice tomorrow is in order.

I gradually worked my way up the wall, section by section, finally making it to the top. My toes were on fire and my muscles were tired. It was now around 2pm so it seemed wise to take a break for lunch, giving my feet a well earned break. After eating, I wandered down to the beach to look at the scenery and the other climbs. This gave me a chance to gather my thoughts and feeling and try to sort them into a manageable form so I could begin to make progress towards my ultimate goal. Due to the sheer scale of the climb, I was finding it incredibly difficult to psyche myself for the eventual lead. Normally, the routes I do are less than 15m and it is fairly simple to remember the sequence and visualise myself climbing the entire route and successfully topping out. However with almost 50m of climbing, it’s hard to know where to begin and the thought of being on the lead, for the moment, is overwhelming. For a few minutes, a Kestrel hovered perfectly motionless about 20m away from us, level with the cliff-top. We sat watching this fantastic bird, transfixed by its beauty until it dived out of sight.

My feet felt a little better so I set off to the bottom to attempt to link as much as possible. By this point the wakes were crashing at the base and the spray had soaked the first 10m. I started from here and began my long journey upwards. Right from the start, my toes were on fire but I pushed on and tried to block out the pain. Slow and steady is the only way to go, keep moving up and you will get to the top. I didn’t feel as pumped as I had been expecting and I found I could actually remember a lot of the moves. Towards the top of the route, my legs began to cramp but finally I topped out into the fading evening light.

I was very happy with my performance and had managed to make some very big links, suddenly the prospect of being on the lead seemed a little more plausible. However, my feet felt like they were in pieces and I hoped that 1 night would be enough for them to recover.

We left the crag and put up our tent. It is the first time I have used my Trailhead 6 and it sure is comfortable. Later we met HotAches down on the Quay for a short interview and some other incidental shots. We finished shooting as the sun went down, headed off for some food and went to bed. Dreaming of pain free toes.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Devon Days

Day 1

The weather forecast was looking a little iffy but If I know anything, it’s that you can’t trust the forecast in England. We bit the bullet, forked out for a tank full of fuel and headed down south to the Shire. After a really quick journey myself and David Simmonite arrived at The Mill climbing wall to say hi to friends and grab a bite to eat. Earlier that day, the guys at the mill had experienced the most torrential rain they had ever seen, so heavy in fact that it had flooded the shop! Things weren’t looking great, but there is no point in letting things get you down, you just have to hope for the best and make the most of what you have.

Blue skies appeared as we drove westwards forcing smiles onto our faces but these quicky faded as the sky turned to black and the heavens opened. We parked up and listened to the rain fall on the car. After calling the HotAches crew, who had also driven down today, we decided to wait for them to arrive and then chance a visit to the cliff if the rain stopped.

HotAches arrived and the rain seemed to stop. We headed to the wall trying to avoid the stream that was where the track used to be. It was useless and after a short while I accepted that my feet were going to get wet and just got on with it. The rain came again as we arrived at the route, big fat droplets that soaked you to the skin but everyone’s spirits were lifted on seeing the wall in all its glory. Dave from HotAces seemed particularly impressed and excited by the wall. After showing the others where the line went, and planning out shooting locations we soggily walked back to the car, making plans for tomorrow, hoping for a dryer day.