Thursday, 19 April 2012

Oh and it's raining again!

Loud on your car like bullets on tin, open the door and pulling me in.

Rain is good for catchy songs, not for multi-pitch on giant collonets!

The last two weeks in Sardinia have felt more like climbing in England than the Med! We have had rain more often than not, usually only a little each day, but all those littles add up to a lot, and with the addition of two recent days of torrential downpours, every tufa on the island now seems to be wet!

At first we got pretty lucky, climbing 2 of our projects in surprisingly quick time (you can read more about them at ). Both Mezzogiorno di Fuoco and Amico Fragile rely heavily on collonets in their hard pitches, with Mezzogiorno’s crux pitch being a full 55m of humungus tufa fun. There were a few wet holds here and there, but the weeks of great weather prior to our visit meant the initial downpours had little effect. In fact, we climbed the crux pitches of Mezzogiorno in a violent rainstorm, fortunately sheltered by the overhanging wall above, listening to the rush from the curtain of water just 10m from our backs.

Caro looking up at the imposing Amico Fragile (230m 8b max)

As the days went on, things became slowly worse. Firstly we found El Viaje de los Locos (250m, 8b+) pretty damp, but being stuck in the ever shady Gorropu, I wasn’t so surprised. The hard low pitches were climbable in their current condition, and I managed to free the 3rd (crux) pitch on my first redpoint try. However, the wind in the upper wall was un-real – never have I climbed in anything like it, and we were forced down from the route before making it to the top. The wind was so strong it would literally knock you off the wall! Ok when close to a bolt, but becoming dangerous when 4 – 5m above your last gear, on the ballancy and technical 8a+ slab!

Aria was a route on our list from the beginning, thanks to the glowing testimonial of its loving creater Pietro Dal Pra. The numbers of Aria all add up to make a tough challenge, but it was the photos and description of the crux pitch tufas that made us desperate to give it a bash. Aria is located on Punta Plumare, a giant overhanging cliff directly out of the ocean, a little down the coast from Cala Gonone. Access to the cliff is via either a 2 hour overland hike or a 30min boat ride, and as a result feels rather exposed and isolated even before you start climbing.

Punta Plumare. Aria is the only route up the overhanging central section!

Pietro seemed keen to repeatedly inform us this would not be sport climbing, and that we should approach the route with an alpine mentality. In short, this meant we needed to be prepared for an adventure, and know how to rescue ourselves should any mishaps occur. The reason for this is Pietros strong ethics and even stronger courage when it comes to opening a new multi-pitch. He only equips from the ground up, preferring to run it out to the next obvious clipping point, than place awkward, difficult to clip bolts. As a result, you can climb Aria with only 6 quick draws, which when you do the math, means for a few rather large runouts. For example, the two crux pitches are both around 45m, each containing 6 bolts. With equal spacing, the bolts will be 6 to 7m apart, yet when you take into account the closer spacing of the first few (nobody enjoys falling on their belayer) you have a recipe for some BIG air should you botch the upper sections.

After a refresher lesson on rescuing an unconscious/hanging second, and some very useful other tips from Pietro, we all set off for Aria in a little rubber boat. Pietro wanted to accompany for a number of reasons, including friendship, a wish to revisit a special place, and a desire to keep Caro and I as safe. As we racked up for the first pitch, he told me not to worry, as it was 7c, but with good holds you can really hang on to – in other words, steep, and most likely pumpy. He also told me that the bolting was not too bad, but that I must not fall whilst clipping the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th bolts as he wasn’t sure he could keep me off the floor – great!

Spot the local...

The first 5 pitches passed as expected – no major drama as long as you kept a cool head. After a few hours we arrived at the start of the first 8a+, ahead of schedule and full of energy, things were looking good for a 1 day ascent, possibly even on-sight. Well they would have been, had the pitch not been a waterfall!
From the floor Pietro had checked out the collo’s through his binoculars and warned us that one or two could be a little wet. What we actually found was a dripping, slimey mess, with almost every inch of rock running with water. Hopes faded in an instant as did my desires to go any higher, yet as Caroline and Pietro joked that they were happy it was my turn to lead, it was clear that I was expected to!

With pride winning out over fear, I pulled on my shoes and searched for the first bolt. Every point of contact was soaking, morphing what would usually be a steady traverse towards juggy tufas, into a sketchy, slippery battle against a fall onto the belay. Each new bolt found me breathing a sigh of release. Each new bolt found me struggling to dry ever wetter hands, feet and clothes. Each new bolt found the anxiety growing as I searched for the next and the methods to climb to it.

As I arrived at, and made it through the first crux above a scarily big run-out, I started to think I might actually be able to make it after all. However, the hardest moves lay just above, and as I struggled to rest on the damp holds, chalk now a little better than paste, it came as little surprise when I slipped off just 2 moves higher.

The last section of the route is the piece of climbing that makes Aria so special. Two parallel tufas one meter apart, beginning from almost nothing, becoming deeper and deeper the higher you climb. You start slapping up either side until the pint when you can switch to the inside, literally chimneying up between the two until you reach the belay. Words can not describe the wildness of this final section, wedged between two bottomless tufas, your ropes disappearing to the last distant quickdraw, with nothing but air between your ass and the ocean 200m below!

Sunrise from the base. Just one of the many magical things about this route!

The next 8a+ was significantly dryer and I was able to on-sight it with a giant fight to reach the chain. With almost all the route in the bag, it was tempting to go back to try the first 8a+, as it was probably possible to climb it in those conditions. Yet, despite the possibility of success, the certainty of it being a horrible, uncomfortable, disgusting experience outweighed everything else and we decided to lower off, and come back another day. With routes as beautiful as Aria, they deserve to be treated well. I would rather return to climb the route in the dry, enjoying the pleasured of each pitch, than bear the thing into submission, only to arrive on the summit. Sometimes, the experience is worth way more than the tick!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Food, my favourite thing!

Moving on from my last blog, I wanted to talk very quickly about one of the most important aspects of big days on the rock - nutrition. The first thing to say is don’t underestimate it – good nutrition is vital and can make the difference between success and failure. Whilst it may work to go to the sport cliff with just water and a pack of cookies, this approach simply doesn’t cut it on a big wall Secondly, this is not a science (well technically it is, but let me try to explain what I mean). Every body is different, and therefore each person will react differently to different foods. Whilst one person may feel the benefits of munching on dried nuts and fruit, the next may love pouring down powergell, and another may swear that jellybabies and chocolate milk is THE solution. Placebos can be just as strong as the real thing and if something works for you and makes you feel good, stick with it! I don’t mean to start preaching about the rights and wrong, the good and bad. I would just like to share some of the things I do that seem to work for me, in the hope someone else my find the information helpful.

The Stash!

The basic principle behind multi-pitch food is small and light. Whatever you take needs to be packed into your bag or pockets and carried up the wall. Small and light is not technically correct, a better choice of words would be nutritionally dense – to pack a big punch in a small packet. A great example of this would be a Power Bar – scientifically engineered to provide you with lots of fast acting, long lasting energy, all from a bar half the size of a Snickers. Power Bars come in lots of different types and flavours and so you can custom design your supply to work through the day – perhaps some fast acting Power Gell before beginning the crux pitch, with longer lasting slow release bar for the final upper pitches.

Power Bar has come a long way in the last few years and most of their products taste reasonably good. However, there is no getting away from the fact they are designed in a lab, and after a few hard pitches, I often find myself craving for something, well, a little more natural.

Eat Natural is a little company from the South of England, and they pride themselves on making great tasting snacks and cereals full of natural ingredients. “Packed with good wholesome stuff and nothing dodgy” is how the company describes its products - something I would have to agree with wholeheartedly. Eat Natural has been supporting my climbing with their bars and cereals for a few years now and they are something I enjoy every day, both at the cliff and at home. However, it is on long multi-pitch routes where the bars are truly worth their weight in gold.

As I said above, it is hard to argue with the scientific way Power Bar has designed its products to efficiently deliver the nutrients your body needs, but science is not everything, and the power of great quality comfort food should not be underestimated. Eating something healthy wholesome and tasty will not only give your body some of the fuel it needs, but will also make you happy – and the power of a smile can be very strong indeed! I tend to take a ratio of around 2 – 1 Eat Natural to PowerBar with me on a route, eating roughly 1 bar every 2 pitches, which seems to keep me going for most of the day.

The perfect Bivy meal... I wish!

If I am on the wall for more than one day, in the evening I try to eat as much “real food” as possible, often in the form of rehydrated soups, usually followed by a few bars for desert. In the morning, I usually take cereal and coffee. One useful little tip for saving weight and volume is to pack some cereal and some powdered milk together into a zip-lock bag - simply add water and you are good to go, no need to mess around with extra bags and bowls.

Ok, cool... Now its off to Sardinia to test out if any of this actually works!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Turn The Volume Up!

The 2nd part of our multi-pitch training I wanted to talk about revolves around volume. Not the volume of your music on the crux pitch, but the number of routes you can do in a day before your body says “no no no!” This can be split into a further 2 parts, muscle and skin. Luckily, both can be trained by one remarkably simple method... go forth and climb, climb as many routes in the day as possible, going past your usual stopping point, to the place you really need to dig deep to complete the routes.

The difficulty of the routes should be dependent on your personal level, and the level of the multipitch you want to attempt. The closer together these two numbers are, the more training you will need to do. Try to imagine the route you would like to climb andre-create it from pitches at the cliff. Dont just choose hard pitch after hard pitch, try to mix up the level, as well as the style, including some easier pitches for the rests, and don’t forget to include something tricky at the end of the day, to simulate that heart breaking sting in the tail.

After a few weeks of this you will notice significant improvements. The routes will not only begin to feel easier as your general fitness increases, but you will find your decrease in ability as the day drags on becoming less and less. The one thing this method wont prepare you for however, is the hours spent sitting in a harness. Being able to lower off and walk around makes an incredible difference to your recovery rate between pitches. Apart from getting up in the air on some easier longer routes, there is not much you can do to work this aspect – I think we would all agree spending your day clipped into the first bolt at the sport cliff would look a little strange. I suggest you invest a little money in a very comfortable harness, or even better, a belay seat.

Before I sign off, there is one last thing I would like to point out. Dont take things to destruction, it is not as beneficial as you might think. If you continue climbing (and manage not to split your skin) there will come a point where your muscles glycogen supplies run empty. You will know when this happens, it is the point when even pulling on the biggest jugs feels close to impossible, when even after resting on a bolt, you feel completely pumped after 2 moves.

When you deplete the glycogen in such a way, it takes the body much longer to recover than if you had stopped earlier, perhaps only one route before. Try to learn your body’s signals, to know the difference between working hard, and doing too much. Finally, after each session, try to eat a good supply of carbohydrates as soon as possible. There is a small period of around 2 hours where your muscles re-uptake of glycogen is twice as efficient as normal – take advantage of this time to give your body the best chance to recover for the next session.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

France – its just a better version of Spain!

Morning light at St Guilhem le Desert

This was the quote of the evening from Andy Mann during our farewell dinner last night. Whilst the few bottles of red may have helped to elevate his mood, I like to think he was genuinely high on the French life, sharing a feeling I have had for some time.

We met up with Andy by chance in Margalef and arranged to all meet up again in France once our respective work commitments had finished. This was Andys first time in Europe and he had taken the brave step of travelling alone, just a start and a finish planned, with everything free in between. Caro and I wanted to share with him a little bit of our heaven, and we tried to cram in as many special things as possible into too few short days.

Sunset over St Guilhem

The best bakery in the world, buttery golden light at St Leger, laughing with friends over great food and wine in a language you don’t understand, secret waterfalls on the way to the cliff, hanging hundreds of meters up from old rusty pitons, Souvenir du Pic! The result was exhaustion but was totally worthwhile, and based on the above quote, I feel like we did France proud.

End of the day in St Leger

You might have noticed the reference to old pitons in the last paragraph. Old pitons are certainly not the norm in these parts of the world, nor does their presence guarantee a great experience. However, the old pitions in question happen to be part of La Cadaire, a 4 pitch mixed multipitch in our local area of St Guilhem, and when combined with everything else the route throws at you, they offer a day out you won’t forget.

After finishing our projects in Spain last month, Caroline and I began preparing for out next trip to Sardinia. We have our eyes set on a few hard multi-pitch on the island (no, not that one!) and to give ourselves the best chance, wanted to practice a few little things before jumping in to the deep end.

I had on-sighted La Cadaire the year before and felt like it would be a great route for Caroline to practice dealing with exposure and her fear. The route is around 150m tall, and gently overhangs for its entire length, culminating with the crux pitch at the very top, a boulder 8a through a roof. From the base of the wall, the ground falls away steeply to the valley floor a further few 100m below, and as a result, you feel pretty out there as you cut lose at the lip of the roof, especially as the only gear is rusty downwards pointing pins! I wouldn’t say the route is ever dangerous, as there are a lot of pitons that despite their sketchy appearance actually hold weight. It is however far far away from your average day at a sport cliff – a great way to practice for the long runouts we are sure to find next month.

The amazing gorge of St Guilhem

Caroline dealt perfectly with the challenge, climbing smoothly and keeping a cool head for the entire route. Andy was swinging around on the static the whole time, capturing amazing pictures and video that we hope to be able to share soon. As we approached the top of the wall, the day finished better than we could have ever dreamed as two bas jumpers lined up and dived out over our heads!