Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Dusk Till Dawn E8 - Flash

The Bottom of Terminal Twilight looked like a river, which seemed to put an premature end to my plan of flashing the beautiful “Dusk Till Dawn”, an E8 established last year by Dave Pickford. Hopeful that the slimy torrent was simply the result of rain before my arrival, I asked Dave about his experience on the route, only to find out he had been forced to wait until late summer for the beginning to dry in order to make his ascent. Merde!

Dusk Till Dawn (traverse in from the above the orange thread on the left) and the full line of the project (begins from the low right chalk)

I remembered hearing a rumour about a potential direct start, so with some time to kill one day I decided to lower down the wall to look for myself. After lowering past the existing section of DTD (I still had dreams to flash this route so trying it was off bounds), which looked even more beautiful close up, I began searching out the holds from the featureless rock and was surprised to find a complete sequence. The route would begin up The Black Lagoon for the first 13m, and as the rock changes from murky grey into pinky white, move directly up the wall to join DTD at the end of its initial traverse, 10m above. From here, one simply has to climb directly into the crux of DTD, without any of the bomber gear, and finish up this route to the top of the cliff.

The moves were hard but all possible, and the start was in slightly better condition than Terminal Twilight, making the whole line seem very possible given a little concentrated psyche and effort. The only thing that held me back, was the fact I still wanted to flash DUD, and by devoting myself to this new line, I would be throwing away that chance. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that there was a serious runnout during the hard section, which would quickly turn out to be a very serious runout if the rusty old peg I planned to tie off turned out to be as unreliable as it looked. Scary!

A few days passed and still no rain, I hoped and prayed that TT would be dry(er) but from the cliff top, all seemed the same. I decided to lower in to the leap anyway just in case my long sight was deceptive, it wasn’t. Water was still running down the cliff, but over enough “big jugs” that I thought things might be possible. Caroline joined me at the bottom, this would be her first “real” experience of belaying hard trad and I wanted her to feel as comfortable as possible. I gave her a quick briefing of what I planned to do, where I expected it to be hard, and where I planned to place protection, gave her a quick kiss and set off, trying to appear as relaxed as possible.

Copyright David Simmonite

Unfortunately, the bottom of the wall was still dripping from its recent submersion, and despite how positive the holds were, the 6b moves right off the floor came as quite a shock causing a few grunts to escape my lips. After prolonged shuffling up the wet rock, which was a little spicy at one point due to the demise of 2 pegs , I finally found myself at the junction with Dusk Till Dawn, a good rest and bomber gear.

From here the route moves right for a few moves into the centre of the wall, after which it climbs directly to the top via a series of strange holds and good rests. I tried to remember everything I had seen in the video of Dave Pickford (Psyche 2), internalising the sequence of moves whilst focusing on my breathing. A quick thumbs up told Caroline I was ready, and I stepped right with a long move into a two finger pocket. I will not go into too much detail, but will say the climbing on this section is some of the best and most enjoyable I had done for months. Perfect holds, pleasant interesting moves, and bomber gear – the only thing missing (according to Caroline) was a section of steep tufa! I guess you can’t have it all…

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Daddy Cool E8 - Flash

Years ago I remember seeing a picture of this route in an old copy of Climb. I recall a mirror like wall, a solitary climber looking longingly at an even more solitary looking peg, and all above a horrible stepped rocky landing. The route looked great, yet horrendous at the same time, and I was fascinated, intrigued, but also repelled.

My first hard traditional routes were usually bold and insecure. I was too weak to climb hard routes any other way, but after coming very close to slipping from a dangerous slab route in the Peak District shortly after my 18th birthday, I told myself from that day forward I would try to avoid insecure death slabs, and only climb dangerous routes when there were actual holds to pull on. I needed to know that my physical level was higher than the climb, so even if something went wrong I could dip into the reserve tank and pull a little harder to get out. You can’t pull harder on smears – if your foot slips, you are gone!

The weather in South Pembroke was a little damp and so to salvage the day we decided to drive north to the miniature city of St Davids. Flicking through the guide, we decided on Carreg y Barcud as it was possible to climb a lot of the routes at all tides, and it just so happened that Carreg y Barcud was also home to “Daddy Cool”.

After the successes of the last few days my confidence was pretty high, but at the same time I felt very intimidated by the description of the route from the guide and the internet. “Protectionless slab”, “increasingly thin moves”, “first gear at 45ft and the landing is pretty shocking” were just a few of the descriptions running round in my head. I didn’t like the idea of top-roping the route, but perhaps going for an onsight/flash was a little reckless as I was completely unfamiliar with the style of this wall and rock, nor had I climbed any slabs, let alone dangerous ones for many years.

As I popped my head over the top of the wall, I got the fear! From the top it was difficult to gauge the size of the wall, all I could see was the lack of features, the lonely peg, and the crashing waves far below. Abbing in was a different story, as to the left of the static was a line of perfectly chalked edges. Suddenly the wall changed and became much friendlier, the wall seemed smaller, the holds looked great, and I instantly found myself in a much happier place.

After un-coiling the ropes and sorting my gear whilst waiting to be joined by the others, I looked up again at the previously friendly wall, only to be greeted by terrifying blankness. I could not see a single trace of chalk, not even tell where the route lead, as all of the holds were now perfectly disguised with their surroundings. This place was like a hall of mirrors, making reality morph and transform depending on how you looked.

After warming up I began to feel more comfortable as my familiarity with the wall grew. I climbed a line to the left of “Daddy Cool”, which offered fantastic and hard climbing well protected by good wires, and was spoiled only by a tiny bit of vegetation on the upper wall. From this line, I could see some of the holds on Daddy cool and they looked ok. I remembered something Charlie had said about the moves being quite easy up until the final move to the break and started to feel a little bit more confident about my chances without pre-practice.

The line of Daddy Cool!

As Keith was taking a rest day and I wouldn’t have the comfy option of watching him try the moves, I abed back down the route to clean and chalk the holds as at least I would be able to visualise the moves better from the ground, and also be certain that the holds were free of lichen. The definitions of on-sight and flash seem clear at first, but on closer inspection become very grey areas. I believe it comes down to personal judgement and common sense, which is always going to leave room for abuse, but should also excuse us the ridiculous task of creating strict, finite criteria for an infinite number of situations.

For me, abseiling down a route to clean a holds sits somewhere between the two. As long as you don’t touch the holds/try the gear, you will receive more information than an on-sight, but much less than a good flash, where you learn the sequence, the holds, the correct gear, and many other useful little titbits.

I set off with an idea of the sequence that turned out to be around 50% correct. The other 50% was made up on the fly, which was fortunately not too taxing as there were several good crimps where you could stand a lot of weight on your feet. After placing a psychological friend in a vertical flared crack, and having a mini-moment with an “about to break off crimp, I arrived at the crux. A series of 3 awkward moves, the last of which was the most awkward of all lead to the sanctuary of the mid height break and much needed gear. I calmed my breathing, climbed to the last crimp, placed my right foot uncomfortably high on an uncomfortably small edge... and 2 seconds later, I was safe.

Rather than clip the peg on the right, and then traverse for a few more meters rightwards to the easier E6 6b, I chose to skip the peg, and climb 2 moves left into the harder E6 6c. The line seemed a little more direct, and avoided the use of (what seemed to be) the only piece of fixed gear on the wall, plus the climbing is fantastic, hard, and quite sustained which made for an overall great continuous route. The obvious challenge of the direct finish remains, but will be one hell of a piece of slab climbing!

Point Blank

Keith had previously revelled about his experience on an E5 called “Out of my Mind”, that last year he had tried and backed off from after getting out of his mind with fear and pump. The tide was in, “Ghost Train” looked even wetter than before, and so warm up routes were in short supply – time to get a little out there...

The first challenge of the day was to access the belay stance, involving a timed dash across a wave washed platform. At times the waves were mellow, barely covering your feet, but then all of a sudden a huge mass of white water would roll in, and roll out again as a giant frothing waterfall – scary. Once crossed, we racked up, flaked the rope and set off. The sun was shining intensely on the wall, glistening off the shiny limestone making things difficult see. Thankfully, I had sunglasses, unluckily Keith did not, and by the time I has slowly wobbled my way to the top he was complaining of sunstroke – poor baby!

I had forgotten how slow Trad climbing was, and by the time we had finished the warm up, it was already time for lunch and a lie-down in the sun. Today was not as windy as yesterday, which made relaxing all the more pleasant, but worried me slightly in regards to conditions on the route. Luckily, the west wall of the ford is in the shade for most of the day, and so by the time we lowered into place, the rock was pretty cold – no excuses... time to roll...

After extending the peg on “From a Distance” I surveyed the line of holds leading diagonally left and began to asses my options. When the rock in this cliff is free from chalk, its exceptionally difficult to see even a few holds ahead of you, and so on-sighting here comes down to staying calm, thinking quickly, and a good helping of luck. The first section went pretty well, with only a brief pause to find the best crozzle to crimp in an otherwise slopey hold. After a few more moves on better edges, a long reach lead to a very good one-hand slot and a bomber no.0 friend, which allowed a short rest and chance to plan the moves through the impending run-out.

After a few minutes, I admitted to myself that I did not have a clue! All I could see were the double barrel pockets 6m above, and as my only other option involved staying where I was for an indefinite period of time, I decided on pushing upwards, a little blind but full of hope. After a lot of feeling around and a few awkward moments, I found enough small edges and slopers to reach the twin pockets. Whilst good enough to relax a little, they were not jugs, nor did they take any easy gear, and so onwards I pressed until the sanctuary of the top break finally came – perhaps 10m from the last friend.

Point Blank Photo Shoot - Lucy Ham

Even more so than being happy with my fitness level, I am happy with my head and how it responds to being far above protection. I was worried about the getting the shakes, which makes for a fast and heavy pump, usually quickly followed by a fall, but luckily it has not been the case. The gear here tends to be very solid, and once I have the correct piece placed, I treat it exactly the same as a bolt. There is no worry that it might come out, the only concern is the climbing, and not falling simply to avoid failing.

Developing my sport fitness has changed my climbing more than I would have ever imagined. Apart from the obvious act of no longer falling off after doing more than 5 hard moves, I am approaching climbing in a different way to before. After a frustrating plateau period, climbing has become exciting again, as I can now see a path to where I want to be. The path is not going to be easy, in fact it is full of rocks and very steep, but it is a path none the less.

When I viewed life wearing the blinkers of a UK Trad climber, on-sighting E8 was something I considered as almost godly, but now I realise it is far, far away from what is possible even at this current time, let alone in the future. Sure, there are many E8’s that I wouldn’t dream of attempting in this manner, climbs that whilst perhaps technically easy, are so insecure in a deadly place, that I personally can’t justify. However, there are just as many E8’s and above that are well protected but physically hard, that become possible once ones physical level surpasses a certain point. You just have to be able to hold on...

Sunday, 17 April 2011


Believe it or not, I have never climbed at Pembroke!

With hundreds of 3* routes, loads and loads of amazing e6’s and 7’s next to one another, usually with good pro and good holds, Pembroke is without doubt one of the best trad climbing areas in the UK, if not the World. However, there is one small problem, at least it was a problem for me in the past...

...because of all the good holds and good gear, the routes here tend to be quite pumpy for the given grades! Trad climbing for sports climbers – if you can place wires and are fit, there are few places better. The trouble was, being a predominantly a grit climber and boulder, fit is something I definitely was not, and so I avoided it like the plague.

When I first moved to Austria in 2009, my original plan was to develop my sport endurance to improve my trad climbing for my scheduled return in 2010. The move to Bristol never happened, but my original idea remained strong and for the last year and a half I have been beavering away in foreign lands waiting for a time I would be inspired enough, and feel ready enough to return.

Late 2010 brought me the inspiration I had waited for, and all that remained was to put in a few month graft to get in good shape. With the help of someone cute and French, my sport climbing progressed faster than expected, soon surpassing the level I have hoped to achieve. With 2 months still to go before my planned departure date, it suddenly dawned on me that my distant plans made 2 years before, could actually materialise. All I needed to do was not get injured, and then not get scared...

With a couple of weeks to go, I felt it was a good idea to re sharpen my pro-placing skills and so spent a day in Cadarese climbing some sport cracks on trad gear. You can read in detail about this day in an old blog post, but for those short on time, I will sum up the day by saying I was surprised at how different the same route feels when you climb it on bolts or gear. Even with solid, regular protection, the route is an entirely different proposition, and the overall difficulty increases significantly. This concerned me a little, and left me wondering how I would cope with fiddling in small wires and then running it out above...

We raced down to St Govans on Friday afternoon. Even with a potential 15 days to spend here, I was so excited to get on the rock we literally ran to the cliff to make the most of the final hour of daylight. “Ghost Train” (E6) was to be the route of choice, but as we neared the top of the ford, things looked a little soggy. I wasn’t exactly sure of the line and hoped that on closer inspection I would find the wet patches just off route. Sadly, the wet streak began just above the infamous runout, and continued down the wall to just above the first big threads soaking everything in its path. The holds looked big and so I considered my chances anyway as Keith abed in. It was a momentary case of excitement overruling common sense, but Keith raised his concerns, which was enough to convince me it was a bad idea.

The next morning dawned sunny and warm. On arriving at the cliff, the route seemed to be dryer, and so once again we set up the ab rope and lowered in. Holds at the end of the runout were still wet but the section below seemed almost dry and I decided the light was green. Wow, its a good old way between those two threads and the final holds were a little wetter than expected! Fortunately I was very happy to find myself fit enough to relax and treat them with care, as I cautiously made the final slimy moves to safety. “Ghost Train” is such a fun route, and with all those threads it is “practically” a clip-up. One wire in 45 meters is not too bad – I highly recommend it.

After a pleasant E5 with Keith and a break in the sun for lunch, the time again came to drop into the Ford for the final route of the day. “From a Distance” (E7) looked like a good route to try for a sport climber as it is well protected by nuts and threads, but at a suggested sport grade of 7c, has the potential to be quite pumpy.

On sighting is always much more difficult than other styles when sport climbing, but when trad climbing it has the potential to be even trickier. Not only do you need to find the line of the route, which is not defined by a series of shiny bolts or perma-chalk, you then need to find the correct holds, the gear placements, and then the correct piece of gear. Even before setting off on the climb you are faced with complex decisions of what protection, and how much of it to take. Unlike sport climbing, it is nearly impossible to look at a route and judge what protection is required. The last thing you want is to run out of a crucial piece at the end of a long run-out, but at the same time, setting off with an unnecessary 10kg of surplus gear is far from helpful.

I guessed “From a Distance” had not been climbed in a while, as the route was completely free of chalk. The few tatty threads gave me an idea of where to go, but apart from that, climbing the route involved lots of feeling around and searching for the right holds, resting in awkward places only to discover a jug two moves higher. The route was quite a journey and packed in a lot of different styles throughout its length, from a bold lower wall, to a well protected boulder problem, awkward to read shuffling, a technical slab and ballancy run-out upper wall.

I was psyched to on-sight it, but more psyched to feel comfortable climbing tricky moves above my own gear. Whilst I still feel I lack a little speed in selecting and making placements, once I have good gear in place, I am completely confident about climbing past it and am able to focus entirely on the climbing. This is a good starting point to be at, and I am hopeful things will get better and better over the coming week.

One final thing, just before I go, is to warn any future repeaters about the loss of holds from the crux. This occurred under the heavy hand of Keith whilst attempting to second me. I’m not sure how much it affects things, but he seems to think it was quite a big piece of rock. I guess I will find out tomorrow when I try to on-sight “Point Blank” (E8), a wild looking route just to the left, sharing the same start.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Tricks of the Trade...

The life of a climber is often not as glamorous as people think. Travelling the world can be tough, waking up every day in a beautiful place, with fresh air and great friends quickly gets old, and the well defined physique we get without any real effort is not as magnetic to the opposite sex as you have been lead to believe...

Ok, ok, so the life of a climber is actually pretty cool, and we are essentially gods amongst mortals. But there is one down side - we are naturally stingy with our hard earned cash. Deep pockets and short arms can find us in some uncomfortable situations, but fear no more, because here is one of the best, to show you how to play it like a pro!

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Oh I do like to be beside the sea side, oh I do like to be beside the sea, however I’d rather be 4 hours further up the road sat at my parents home than waiting in a cafe in Ramsgate for my car to be MOT’d and serviced so I can legally drive again on UK roads, oh I do like to be beside the sea!

England, I thank you for not raining on me, if you could keep it up for a few more weeks I would be very grateful! A few weeks too much? How about a few days at least? No? Ok, then back to crossing my fingers...

First stop (not counting wonderful Ramsgate) is my parent’s house to store some of my belongings, tidy up a few loose ends, and perhaps say hi to my Mum and Dad if I get the chance. Regularly seeing the old King and Queen is one of the few things I miss about living in England, and so I always really appreciate my little visits back home, even if it is a constant battle to avoid being over fed. After a few rest days to recover from the drive and last phase of my training, I hope to get in a day or so of gritstone, before leaving once again for pastures new and my project.

I feel in good shape, in fact, the best shape ever (hopefully this doesn’t sound too narcissistic or over self focused) but one of the exciting things about climbing is how specific each route can be, and so one can never really know how they will feel until the time arrives. I tried to tailor my training to be specific to my goals, climbing similar moves, similar length, similar style, but all the time being wary of not being too narrow minded, as it is amazing at how good you can become in a specific exercise without actually improving your level.

Whilst we have been training lots indoors, both Caro and I know the importance of maintaining an affinity with real rock and so we try to make one or two outside sessions per week. Two of these recent sessions have been pretty interesting for me, and it is to these sessions that I will dedicate my next few blogs...