Friday, 23 January 2009

The Walk of Life

This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I don’t really have too much to say about this route that has not already been said.  When I read Dave’s blog report on his repeat a few weeks ago, the thing that shocked me most was not his proposed downgrade (I actually found this amusingly predictable due to the current bout of downgrade fever), but how quickly he had repeated it.  I remember all too well how that route made me feel and the things I had to go through to get it done; so to get it done in only 4 days is absolutely amazing, but I guess that’s the sort of things we should expect from a truly world class athlete like Dave.

From comments I have heard from friends, it seems like a few people out in cyberspace still think my proposed grade came out of thin air, with nothing to base it on.  In response to this, I guess I need to repeat what I said at the time of ascent – I graded this route based on my feelings, and my past experiences, which included trying Rhapsody.  All of this information can be found in detail in some of my previous posts including this one but in case you don’t have the time to trawl through the archives, here is a small section describing my initial foray Rhapsody:

On my first attempt at Rhapsody (on a toprope), I flashed the first half of the headwall, falling due to an incorrect foot placement. I then flashed each individual move to the top.”

I found the moves on Rhapsody to be straightforward, and this was ‘the E11’. I watched other climbers take the fall that they described as “nothing”, comparing it to bigger lobs that they had taken sport climbing.  Accordingly I compared this to my experience on TWOL and graded it with Rhapsody in mind (and I appreciate the two routes are different styles).

After recently returning from 3 weeks of no climbing, my endurance was fairly low.  I was getting tired quickly on longer boulder problems during my training and decided something needed to be done with the obvious answer being a spot of bolt clipping.  I am not a naturally fit climber; endurance is something I have to work hard at and it drops off quickly if I stop, so I was not particularly looking forward to starting back.

To cut a long story short, I managed to on-sight a couple of long 8a’s during my first bolt clipping session of the season, which came as a pleasant surprise.  After returning home and filling my belly, I began to ponder how strange and subjective climbing can be and thought about something else Dave had written in his blog regarding the French grade of TWOL being 8a/8a+ and not being strenuous at all.  This couldn’t be further away from the experience I had.  I didn’t know exactly how hard the climbing was, which was why I chose to not offer a French grade, but I know I found the route very strenuous and had to put a lot of time into getting fit. So much so, that the period when I made the first ascent was one of the fittest of my life. 

How is it possible to find a slabby 8a/+ so tiring when you are fit, yet be able to on-sight a couple of 8a’s when unfit.  This is a question that I really don’t know the answer to this.  What I do know is this - I don’t agree for a moment that The Walk of Life is anywhere near E9 and that’s my honest opinion.

The Groove

During the onslaught of team America, it was reported that Kevin had repeated The Groove, but a little later the report was altered after Kevin said he had only climbed the bottom section.  This was pretty confusing; did he or didn’t he?  I guess there are still quite a few people who don’t really know either way so I hope the following will clear things up.  Like everything, this is not black and white and you will need to come to your own conclusion.

Kevin began to try The Groove and made remarkable progress on the bottom groove (lower crux), managing to link it very quickly.  He had more trouble with the upper crux, and after 4 days of working, felt it was “impossible”.  After deciding he could not climb the upper crux, he lead the bottom groove, traversed off, and then back on to join The Groove above the top crux, and continued to top of the wall.

The Groove is shown by the red line (17), Kevin’s alternate line is shown in black (14)


Scanned from my Rockfax Peak Grit East

Climbing is a very personal thing and you should not feel bound by existing lines; climb wherever you like.  But it is my feeling that if you want to repeat an existing route (and take the kudos from it) then surely you must take the line that the first ascentionist chose?  “The Groove” takes a defined route up the left wall of the Owl Gulley at Cratcliffe, and for reasons discussed before, this was the most obvious and logical line for me.  Whether anyone else agrees with my logic is actually irrelevant; by not following this line, you have not climbed “The Groove” but simply an alternate way up this wall.  This new way may seem equally, or even more logical to you, and after climbing it you then have the joyous task of naming the route and presenting it for approval in the public domain, if you so wish.  If a route is good, it will be remembered; if not, it won’t – the powers that be will decide.

It is my opinion (and I stress the words “my” and “opinion”) that Kevin did not repeat The Groove, but climbed an alternative line.  It is up to Kevin whether he wants to name it as a new route, and up to history to decide which will be remembered.

Moving onto the subject of danger; anyone who has seen Committed Vol II will have seen the sequence about testing the fall off the low crux of The Groove.  We set up the rope system exactly how it would be on the lead, and paid out just enough slack to allow me to stick the dyno and not come tight on the swing.  The belay plate was then locked off, and I was lowered on toprop to the ground, arriving before the rope even began to tighten. 

Now this was very different to how dangerous Kevin reported the route to be, in fact he was so confident he would not get hurt falling from the break; he tested the fall on purpose by hanging from the break and dropping off, leaving him hanging on the rope a few feet above the floor.  These two accounts are pretty different and yet both are true and documented on film, so what could have caused such a difference?

Copyright David Simmonite Photography

The move at the top of the lower groove is a long slap of bad hand and foot holds and the difference between success and failure is very slight.  On a failed attempt, I would normally get my hand into the break, but not far enough back to hold on and slip out almost instantaneously.  From a belayer’s point of view, this is an utter nightmare.  You need to have enough slack out for the climber to execute the move and the following swing without any contact with the rope, but you also need to minimise the slack to have the best chance of keeping the climber off the floor.  From the belayer’s perspective, they would see the climber’s hand going into the break and then have the smallest amount of time to decide whether they had been successful or not.  If the climber sticks the move, but the belayer thinks otherwise, by running to take in the slack, they risk pulling the climber off the route.  But if the climber fails, and the belayer does not move, the climber WILL hit the floor.

When I tested this, I wanted the setup to be as accurate as possible to give me the best Idea of what would happen in the event of a fall.  After all, if the test does not accurately represent the lead situation, then what is the point of testing at all?  When Kevin tested the fall, he hung from the break and dropped. The belayer could take in the rope as much as necessary before hand, and also know exactly when Kevin was going to let go, meaning they could move back at the perfect time.  I don’t think this test is an accurate representation of a lead fall.  This may seem like I am being picky, or trying to split hairs.  The reality is that gravity moves you very quickly, and when the difference between hitting the floor and not, comes down to a few feet of rope, a split second of almost unavoidable hesitation makes a big difference.

The other big difference between Kevin and I’s approach was the use of one rope vs two.  I chose to use two ropes, to spread the force on the micro wires and hopefully control me a little better in the air.  However the reality was my left rope kept getting caught around my leg in test falls, effectively flipping me upside down.  For whatever reason, I was unable to see the obvious answer of only using one rope (as Kevin did) and persevered, trying to work out ways to position the rope on my left leg to minimise the risk.  In hindsight, one rope is the obvious choice and without the fear of being flipped upside down, the consequence of failure would seem a little less dire.

The Promise

By now I hope you all have an idea of how I climbed The Promise, and why I graded it E10 7a so there should be no need to go over old ground.  The Promise has now been repeated by 5 people and the grade seems consensus seems to be around E8 7a (KJ E8 7a, AH E8 7a, PR E7 7a, BB E8 7a, JR E8 7a).  Ignoring for now that all other ascentionists used bouldering pads to protect the route, where I did not, the gear placement has been tested and has surprisingly (to me) held many falls from the crux of the route.  I believed this runner to be only psychological and thus perceived the danger to be pretty high.  By turning out to be pretty good, the actual danger of the route is much lower and so the grade should change accordingly.

The use of pads on this route makes a huge difference.  Believe it or not, I originally thought about trying to highball the route above a mountain of foam but gave up when I couldn’t get enough people psyched.  If you have read my last post entitled “Actual Danger continued... A.K.A. ‘the effect of pads’you will know how blurred the line between route and highball can become based only on the use of pads, which is why I don’t think I can say exactly that using “x” amount of pads makes The Promise “y” grades easier, but it is obviously not as scary.  I’m sure someone will pipe up and say something along the lines of “if the gear is good, then pads don’t make a difference”, but I would have to disagree.

Now despite what has been written by others about the gear being bomber, I still struggle to believe it.  The gear must be ok, and this has been proved by it holding falls, but bomber to me means a rock 6 in a deep slot, not a shallow no.1 slider in a tiny gritty pocket.  Also according to JR, the placement is now looking a little worse for wear and a bit saggy – “I wouldn’t be surprised if the next size up fits now...”  If the placement has been enlarged through repeated falls, how many more falls will it take before it is enlarged just enough for the gear to pop?  After all, the expansion range on a no.1 slider is not that big if my memory serves me correct.

If anything is certain, it is this placement seems temperamental; on one hand it has held multiple falls from the crux of the route, but on the other hand it has both been pulled out by me from the floor whilst testing, and kicked out by JR whilst on the lead.  I think describing it as “bomber” could send out misleading messages and I would hate to see someone get hurt.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Actual Danger continued... A.K.A. ‘the effect of pads’

To avoid all the issues regarding gear (will it/won’t it hold) let’s just imagine the route in question is a solo. Its 25ft, sketchy landing of rocks, earth and turf- you get the picture? -A typical Gritstone horror. Let’s say this route was original climbed in the late 80’s without pads as they were not available at the time and it was graded E5.  Over the years it has seen a few falls without pads, resulting in broken ankles and heels; so is clearly quite dangerous.

Bring in the bouldering pads......

·         It’s the mid 90’s.  Person A decides to climb the route and uses his new bouldering pad to start off.  It is 90cm square and 3 inches thick; not much by today’s standards but enough to protect the tricky first moves. E5? 

·         It’s year 2000, mat technology has come on a little and person B climbs above his new pad (1.1m sq, 4 inches thick with new firm foam.  Person B falls from around 10ft, landing on his pad and is fine. He gets back on and climbs to the top.  E5?

·         Its 2004, everyone pretty much has pads.  Person C wants to try the route and goes out with 3 friends, each with 2 pads.  They stack them at the bottom, making a large landing zone.  Throughout the course of the day they take numerous falls from up to 15-20ft, until finally pushing on for the top.  E5?

·         Its 2009, highballing and grounding-up are the order of the day.  A group of friends carry a load of pads out including a couple of monsters over 10in thick.  They carpet the base of the route, making falls from the top perfectly possible.  E5?  Where does it end?

I always thought mats made a difference and because our trad routes are traditionally graded without pads, I refused to use them.  Having recently seen very fast repeats of The Promise, where one of the main differences was the use of pads (remember we’re excluding gear for now), I decided to try them out for myself to see if I was making a fuss over nothing. 

After carting some up to a route I have been trying, I was truly amazed.  The difference was more than I would ever have imagined; turning a very scary route, into a tall boulder problem.  It was the difference between going for the lead and walking away – I knew I could comfortably fall off from the majority of the route, with almost zero chance of injury, so it was worth a shot.

I believe it is this mentality and approach that has fuelled the recent fast repeat fever we have all witnessed on the grit.  Starting up a route from a pile of pads puts you in a completely different head space, than stepping off some pointy rocks.  The whole way you view a route change; it stops being a tiger ready to rip your head off and becomes more of a tabby cat.

I think refusing to use mats is pretty stupid- without a good reason for it.  Mats reduce the danger, making injury less likely and your climbing life longer.  My reason always seemed good enough to me to justify the risk; trying to repeat and put up new routes in the same style as they had always been (and please let’s not get into this headpoint vs onsight debate, lets save that for another rainy day). This was my attempt to make an already confusing system slightly less confusing. 

From where I am sitting it seems impossible to have a grading system that is based in part on danger, yet “allow” the use of a massive variable like pads.  The protection mats can offer is in theory limitless and so the amount that they can affect the grade must be relative to this.  Mats are not just new technology as friends, or sticky rubber once were - you can only place as many friends as the rock allows, and the friction won’t get better if you try to put on more than one pair of shoes.  Every other piece of protection is limited, mats are not. 

I could go on for hours about this subject, but I’m sure you will be getting bored so I will try to wrap things up. 

Fact – Mats make climbing “safer”

Fact – The more mats you use, the “safer” climbing will become

Fact – If the climbing is “safer”, then the route is not as “dangerous” as when it was originally graded, and thus the grade must change accordingly.

But how do you decide how much difference these pads will make.  What about one pad, how about two; did someone say ten?  What about old pads, what about new, what about red pads, what about blue? Maybe we should have a pad grade rule book, so people can cross reference their make, model, age and number, then plonk them in a formula and bob’s your uncle?

In a world where people seem very concerned with making sure their peers are claiming the correct grade, this seems awfully confusing?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Interesting points and questions I ask myself.

Why such a difference between experience

Unless you live on a desert island, it will have been hard to avoid the kerfuffle caused by recent repeats of some of my routes.  People were incredibly swift to jump on the bandwagon and I was quickly labelled as a publicity seeking overgrader.  Whilst I can categorically state that this is untrue, I can see why people could jump to this conclusion, namely that not one, but 3 of my routes have received proposed downgrades (despite only 2 of them being repeated), and also that I am a sponsored climber who indirectly makes a little money from media coverage.

Most people who read this will have never met me, let alone know me well enough to be a good judge of my character, and so saying “I am not an overgrader” is fairly meaningless.  For all they know, I could be a compulsive liar, who enjoys robbing old ladies pension books and regularly steals candy from infants of all ages.  But I am not an overgrader, nor did I purposely overgrade my routes.  I gave an honest opinion of how it felt to me based on the information that was available and my experience at the time.  However, it is also true that other people found the routes easier than I did, for one reason or another, but why such a difference between experience?

The following sections are meant to highlight some of the issues that a FA faces when grading a new route.  These ideas have been buzzing around my head for a while, so I decided to put pen to paper (so to speak) and share them with you.  I am not offering definitive answers, just sharing my thoughts.  There will be more specifically on the use of pads, The Groove, and TWOL in following posts, but I thought I’d give you this to chew on for now, since typing is not one of my more developed skills.  Thanks for being patient.

The Facts



No of days working the route

Felt ready to lead after “x” days

Linked on TR after “x”days

How “hard” did it feel on a scale of 1 to10

How “scared” was I on a scale of 1 to10







The Promise






The Groove

~12 over 4 years




4 or 5


25+ over 4 years


Never tried on toprope, only abseil and never linked full route




The above table is meant to give an idea of how much mental and physical effort was required from me to climb each of my routes (with Equilibrium in there to act as a guide).  Hopefully you will be able to see why I graded the routes as I did, simply because each felt far harder than the one before.


Escaping from the messy minefield that is the E grade, talking about boulder grades should be a breeze.  However, actually dishing them out doesn’t seem quite so simple, especially on funny old gritstone.  Now we all know that grit is a bit conditions dependant meaning things feel a little tricky on certain days, and also body shape plays a part, and sometimes if you have had a little too much to drink the night before, things might feel a little tough, but all in all, the grades work out...  This is how I used to think in times gone by when everything seemed so simple, but on reflection, I have to disagree.  In my opinion, conditions, body shape, style etc etc make the difference between moves being easy and impossible, with the biggest factor being conditions.  Normally this would not be a problem; you climb the climbs, succeed and fail, then laugh about it with your mates.  No big deal, where’s the fuss?  However, when you start being called a liar and an overgrader because you offer a grade to a piece of rock based on your experience, and then “x” person comes along on “y” day and said piece of rock feels easier for them, then things are not so cool.



The Promise

The Groove (lower section)

The Groove

(upper section)

James Pearson

Days to link boulder section on rope





Boulder Grade





Kevin Jorgeson

Days to link boulder section on rope

Not linked after 7 days effort



Not linked

Boulder Grade





As you can see from the table, both Kevin and I’s grades line up fairly well with the amount of days we spent on each route.  For myself, Equilibrium was the benchmark to rate all others against and since The Promise took me considerably longer, and The Groove longer still, I graded them accordingly.  Another thing to ask yourselves, is why did Kevin have such an epic on Equilibrium and the top of the groove, yet cruise The Promise and lower groove?  Body shape perhaps, I don’t know?

The Promise has now been repeated by a few people, with 7b+ to 7c being offered as a boulder grade, depending on who you speak to.  With such a strong consensus it is obvious I was out with my original grade, but I strongly defend the fact that I did not overgrade the route as 8a is genuinely how hard it felt to me at the time! 

Why was this?  I have not had chance to get back on the route this year to see for myself, but my suspicions lie with the conditions.  In early January 2007, conditions weren’t so good to say the least, and so the amount of days and effort needed to climb the route may have been way more than should necessary and hence felt considerably harder.

Actual, or Perceived Danger

Should a route be graded for the actual (what happens on average when you fall) or the perceived (what you think will happen if you fall) danger that you are in when on the lead?  At first the answer seems obvious – grading something based on what you think may happen is surely silly and will vary wildly depending on different people, so we grade things for the actual danger.  What then do you do as a first ascentionist, for unless you have actually taken the ride on the lead (which is usually unadvisable on bold fa’s) you are grading based on (hopefully) well thought out judgement of many different factors.  Sure, you can test gear by pulling/bouncing on it but it is never going to be under the same strain as on a lead whip.  The other option is to do simul- falls (lead falls backed up by a toprope) but these are often not accurate/possible for a number of reasons leaving you back at square one. 

Even after the fa and a few repeats, the route may not have been fallen off and so the grade is still based on perceived danger.  Only when some brave/unlucky soul fails to make it to the top, will this perceived danger become actual.  If the kid lives, then let’s all throw stones at the FA for being an overgrading bastard.  If they die, well, time will tell...  One way of avoiding being labelled an overgrader, would be to purposely undergrade all your fa’s by a grade or two, just to be safe.  The only trouble is, when this brave/unlucky soul pops off a new E7, which is actually an E9 and ends up dead, whose conscience is it on.

Just another few things:

1.       Person A climbs a short grit route graded E”x”.  It is a solo, the landing is flatish, but with lots of small protruding rocks, perfect ankle snapping territory but fine with a few pads.  Person A decides to solo the route and refuses a pad offered by his friend, wanting to climb the route in the original way for the E”x” experience.  When person A is mid crux, his friend is worried and chucks a couple of pads underneath just to be safe.  Person A is unaware of this, and climbs to the top, feeling really happy and proud. 

Question – did Person A still have an E”x” experience (and please, no wisecracks about grit not being proper climbing) due to his perceived danger, even though the actual danger was significantly reduced by the pads?


2.       Person B is practicing a classic, but polished fr”xx” at Ravens Tor.  They have been falling off all morning at the crux, but after a break for lunch they feel a little refreshed, time for a few more tries.  They set off up the route, unclipping the rope from the draws as they go and smoothly climb through the crux, arriving at a rest at about 45ft.  On looking down they realise they are not tied in, panic, and quickly clip into the closest bolt.  On the climb, person B was completely relaxed due to perceiving they were safe when actually they were in real danger.  Does this mean they have just soloed an E?


Theres more to come soon but my eyes hurt too much to continue tonight. 

Thanks for listening, you’ve been a wonderful audience.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Bonjour mon petit pampelmousse’s

Its been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you, but times up, Im sorry I kept you. 

I spent the Christmas and New Year period away from home, first in Devon, and then in Chamonix and a wonderful time was had skiing in with good friends.  In time gone by, I used to be petrified by the thought of taking a few weeks off of climbing, but nowadays I realise there is much, much more to life than just hanging off of rocks, and also that you can have too much of a good thing.  It’s good every now and again to take a break and do something different.  It tests your mind and your body in different ways and I always return feeling refreshed and ready for the next step.

I read a few interesting books recently which have helped to focus and organise some ideas I have had over the last few years, and in cases, throughout my whole life.  I have been trying to, and hope to continue to implement these ideas into my day to day living and by doing so live a fuller, happier, more content life, and enhance the lives of the people around me.

About a month ago, I gave a lecture in Belgium at their national bouldering championships and had a great couple of days hanging out with friends old and new.  One afternoon, over lunch, one of my oldest friends said something to me that really struck a cord.  He told me that he had recently stopped looking at and posting on internet climbing forums because he gained nothing positive from them.  He said the things that other people are doing (or more precisely saying) mattered little to him, as he was mainly interested in bettering himself and his personal journey. 

I was quite surprised at first, especially considering how much of his time is spent in front of his computer ;) but had a lot of respect for his decision.  I thought about this a little more over the next few days and it made so much sense.  When I weighed up the pros (contact with friends, updates on news) against the cons (lies, bitchiness, nastiness, stirring, uneducated opinions stated as fact etc etc) I began to see clearer.  When I then worked out the amount of time I was spending on forums (keeping track of threads, replying to questions, justifying decisions etc) I realised the utter insanity of the situation.

I was wasting my life, doing something that caused me more pain than not – so I stopped!  As simple as that, I went cold turkey, I haven’t looked on the internet forums since, and it’s great.  My time is now spent doing the things I enjoy, and I feel so much better for it.  I imagine there are still things being wrote about me and I guess people may even be annoyed about my apparent absence, possibly feeling like I have buried my head in the sand, especially in light of the recent repeat of my route in Devon, but I hope after reading the above you now realise this is not the case. 

Incidentally, I have my views on this repeat, but here is not the place to discuss them.  If you want to read my thoughts and feelings on The Walk Of Life, I wrote a series of blog posts on the subject shortly after I made the first ascent in September, just take a look back through the archive, my views are still the same.

I like to think that I learn from my past experiences, and also that I have no regrets.  Things happen, you do what you think is right, and you move on, you keep living.