Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Wheel Of Life

"Are you going to try The Wheel?"
"Na, it's probably too hard and I don't want to spend my whole trip projecting in a cave."

I had similar conversations to that with a number of people before coming to Australia. In many ways The Wheel Of Life was an obvious target, being both the world classic of its genre and one of Australia's hard 'must-dos' for any aspiring wannabe (the other obvious ones being Punks, Groove Train and Ammagamma). It's also about as 'me' as you can get - a long, endurance orientated boulder-route in a cave known to contain plenty of 3D trickery like kneebars and toe hooks. 


 
Working on The Wheel (Photo: Ella Russell)


Even a week ago I didn't plan on trying it, although the seed had no doubt been sown in the back of my mind by doing other linkups like Pretty Hate Machine. The Wheel links together 4 problems* to climb the entire length of Hollow Mountain Cave from the small window at its lowest point all the way out through around 70 moves on lovely sculpted rails and edges. Ella and I had already found ourselves spending quite a bit of time up there: partly because it's a good place in showery weather, which seems fairly common here; partly as I'd been keen on trying a few of the sections of The Wheel on their own, as well of some other problems in there; and partly because Ella picked up a pulley injury whilst climbing on Serpentine which meant that steep stuff was the order of the day. 


Working on The Wheel (Photo: Ella Russell)

Heading up to the cave earlier in the week I'd reached the point where I felt like I was getting done with the place and keen to head elsewhere more, but Ella was close to a problem she'd been trying there so I figured I'd play around on things or head along to another sector close by. Having spent half an hour scrambling around on sketchy rock pinnacles trying in vain to find Ground Control Caves, I returned to Hollow Mountain figuring I might as well try the earlier sections of The Wheel which I'd previously been less keen on. At least then I wouldn't fall off a cliff whilst scrambling around a ridge line with pads on (I realise that might have pleased some people, sorry about that).

Quickly enough I managed to find a way around a heel hook which had put me off initially as it felt tweaky for my leg, and by the end of the day I'd unexpectedly climbed from the end of the 7B+ up which The Wheel starts to falling off the final crux at the exit to the cave. From here it was on and now I certainly wasn't done with the place! Sections were dialled and rests were tweaked with some funky upside down kneebar plus toe hook combos together with an awesome rest just before the final crux where you shake out by using the sole of your foot as a hand hold whilst it's toe hooking.


Novelty resting (Photo: Damo Taylor)

Four days after not even really considering the problem, I found myself nervously pulling through the last few moves of the world famous Wheel of Life...

In some ways it was strangely anticlimactic. Not having been planning on trying it there was minimal build up and minimal mental stress; having done so many links on it already there was no last-move-itis or realising that my beta didn't work on redpoint; unlike on big projects from past years like Era Vella or Rollito Sharma Extension there was no dream-like surrealism in climbing through the last few easier moves having not fallen. Don't get me wrong though, I'm fucking psyched, and the deep down contentment of doing a problem which I'd heard of for a decade but never dreamed I could ever climb until the last few years, and never expected to climb until the last few days, seems likely to stay around a little while... at least until I find the next project anyway :)


Out of the darkness and into the light... Sending The Wheel. (Photo: Damo Taylor)
For now it's onto a rope and some more bouldery boulders...

*For anyone interested, The Wheel links Extreme Cool (7B+) into Sleepy Hollow (8A) into Cave Man (7C) into Dead Can't Dance (8A). I used beta for the last section similar to the vid of Ian Dory on The Wheel, which some purists won't like, and you're god damn right i gaffa taped knee pads on and rinsed the fuck out of all the rests I could find.


Riding the Giant Emu on the way to The Citadel

Golum gets prepared... (Photo: Ella Russell)

Real bouldering, American Dream (7B+) (Photo: Ella Russell)


Toe hooking out of the cave on Pretty Hate Machine (8B) (Photo: Ella Russell)


It's not my fault, the guidebook told me to use my knees... So You Think You Can Dance (8A) (Photo: Ella Russell)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Sandstone Season Part 1: The Grampians



I would start by apologising for not blogging for ages... but realistically you'll be pleased to have avoided feeling the need to read my endless pontificating about ancap, aerocap and whether my fingers are fixed or not. Unfortunately for you I'm back and your dopamine receptors need a hit.

 For those who don’t know, now that I’ve finished my PhD it’s time to take some time off to climb J. Ella and I have thus embarked on a 7 ½ month trip which, despite both of us normally being limetone climbers, basically involves going and climbing a shit load of sandstone (with the occasional bit of something else thrown in). Our first stop is Australia – The Grampians, Arapiles and The Blue Mountains. After that we’re off to South Africa and then America.

After flying for longer than I even knew planes could fly for we finally made it to the Grampians… and Groove Train. Snaking a 50m line up a beautiful part of Taipan Wall, a number of well-travelled climbers have claimed that this is one of the best sport routes in the world. Ethan Pringle rumoured that it might be more 9a than 8c, the video of Ben Cossey on it is some of the best footage around, and the bolts on the upper section are freakin’ miles apart, all of which rather add to the aura of the route.


Well, fortunately it turns out that everyone was right, and it is totally awesome, but that Pringle was wrong, and it’s nowhere near 9a. Unless you’re a midget in which case the first 7c+ (going on 8a+) pitch is probably 9a in its own right. After the slightly ‘educational’ lower section the upper wall is glorious crimping on perfectly sculpted, if a bit skinny, holds. There are good rests, and a bolt next to each rest… but none in the hard sections between the rests. With no chalk on the headwall and talk of various strong people resorting to abbing into the route to tick up the holds it was much to my relief that I found that a clipstick, some tactics and some lank allowed me to avoid the faff of having to work out how the hell you’d even manage to get to the chains to lower in. After a few days working out the links and overcoming my terror I found myself on redpoint on the last moves of the top runout, screaming my head off like on the video, only for my forearms to fade as my fingers ticked the jug that marks the end of the hard climbing. Cue falling half the height of Taipan whilst getting my leg caught behind the rope, flipping upside down and having long enough before stopping to ponder how the hell this was going to end up and whether I was about to smash my head open. Thankfully the fall was big enough to take me down to a point where I swung into the cave feature on the routes to the right and I escaped the experience with only some mild rope burn. Despite the overwhelming temptation to bottle out of having another go that day I manged to unexpectedly summon the mental fortitude to embark up it once more and put the daemons to rest. I normally hate falling, especially big falls, but the experience of doing the route was undoubtedly better for having taken the ride!

The Grampians is broken down into two real areas: the south and the north. The north has Taipan, lots of bouldering and a few other crags generally with easier routes. In the south there are a number of steep sport crags together with a lot of newer bouldering (so long as you don’t mind walking uphill with a pad for 45 minutes). (There's Arapiles just round the corner too, but so far we've only been there for a quick hit for me to do Punks.) Slightly against what I’d been expecting, whilst the Gramps has some world class sport routes, like Groove Train, it doesn’t actually have a huge volume of them. Taipan is fairly limited, and half the routes on it require pieces of trad gear here and there. A lot of the ones that don’t are on the shorter ‘Spurt Wall’ on the right hand side which is, frankly, miles from being world class. The crags in the south feature steeper climbing and more normal bolting, and again there are some world class routes, but there still isn’t a huge volume like you’d have in Catalunya or Provence. It’ll be interesting to see what the Blue Mountains is like in comparison – so far I’d recommend the area for picking out some real gems but not if you just want a trip to smash out a shit load of sport routes in a convenient setting.


[I would upload a photo here, but the internet connection is shit, so you'll have to wait...]

Anyway, as well as the route climbing in the Gramps there’s a big chunk of bouldering and we’ve been spending quite a bit of our time on that. Some of the rock is magnificent, and I’ve been tricking my way around hard moves as much as possible on some of the classics using a combination of knees and toes. Ella's had a bit of a finger injury which has meant no crimping, and I'm always psyched to spin around in a cave, so we've been spending plenty of time in Hollow Mountain Cave, home to The Wheel of Life. Today the time I've spent working through some of the problems in there really came to fruition, and between rain showers I surprised myself by managing two hard link ups: Cave Rave (8A+/B) links Cave Man (7C) into Dead Can't Dance (8A, but maybe easier with my magical beta) and was my goal for the day. After a more efficient than expected tick, I figured I should have a try on the link of Cave Bitch, an 8A+ that ends at the same place that Cave Man ends, into Dead Can't Dance. Called Pretty Hate Machine, this link gets 8B/+, and reacquainting myself with the lower section I was surprised [read: fucking psyched] to find myself pumped and pulling around the top of the cave!

Photos to come when the internet stop being so shit! For now it's time to get back on Taipan and get scared again...

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Optimise Climbing 2016

Despite being a training nerd, I don't normally do any coaching. With my PhD thesis submitted, a nice 3-day per week schedule working for my research group's spin-out company and having recently started writing training plans for both The Queen of the Wave and Mina this seemed like a good time to change that. In a couple of weeks time I'll thus be running one of the four sessions at the Optimise Climbing day that's running at the one and only Foundry.. If you're interested then have a look here or on the facebook page.

Meanwhile I'll get back to trying to make my finger better without getting too weak!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

In Praise of Climbers

In mid-September I was pulling hard on the Keen Roof undercut when I felt something go in one of my fingers. I stepped off and my DIP joint on that finger stayed hyperextended. Over the next 2 weeks I did my normal rehab - gradually do more, try not to do too much. It felt ok after that to the point where I could crimp again, and I returned to manage my hardest ever boulder problem, and gain vengeance on the hold that had hurt me, by tricking my way up Keen Roof.



Keen Douche (8B) (photo: Ethan Walker)

Unfortunately, the very next day it seemed to re-injure itself all over again. Cue starting the rehab again, only this time it didn't work so well. 4 weeks later and my finger was still was prone to looking hyperextended. Strangely there was very little pain or swelling, my finger would just be pointing in the wrong direction! Getting worried I went to see the hand centre at the Sheffield Northern General hospital. Their diagnosis was an injury (probably a tear) to the volar plate and they advised splinting that joint 24/7 for 4 weeks. This surprised me a bit, so I started asking around and it's here that I want to praise the climbing community for being so helpful and quick to respond to questions, thanks especially Ru Davies, Volker Schoeffl and Dave Macleod for their help.

The finger is now in a splint to stop the DIP joint hyperextending, and I've now got a new training strategy which involves a shit load of core, some more core, a bit more core, and then a shit load of back 2.. and a few index monos just to make sure I'm properly injured. My uninjured, weaker, hand might have time to catch up with the other one too. Fingers crossed for being back in the game with abs of doom by 2016!

Back to Black, 8A (photo: Mark Tomlinson)
With rather unfortunate timing some shiny new Organic Climbing pads just arrived as well, thanks to Organic and Mountain Boot company for these, pity I only got to use them once before being incapacitated! The brief try I did have with them left me impressed however - they're well nice to fall onto and great to sit-start off without feeling like all your energy from an ass bounce is being sucked up by the pad!


Happy (9a climbing) Hippo
Ella on Paint it Black (7C)

Keen Roof (photo: Ella Russell)

Trying Badger Badger Badger (photo: Ella Russell)

Ella testing out the new pads on Piranja Start (7A)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Kilnsey Main Overhang

Earlier this year I noticed a new line of draws heading through the main overhang at Klinsey. From the top of Hardy Annual they blasted into the steepness, swung right along an obvious break line and then once again blasted out to the finish of the classic Mandela. It quickly transpired that this was a project of Neil Gresham's that he'd bolted the year before. I got on with getting Progress done, and then got sucked into weddings, stag-dos, failing on Northern Lights and bouldering for a while. Despite the weight gain associated with the former two, I was chuffed to manage my first flash of a 7C+ boulder with Corridors of Power in Llanberis Pass.

Flashing Corridors of Power (7C+)
Around this time Gresh managed to make the first ascent of his new line, naming it Freakshow and grading it 8c. I was immediately keen to get up to Kilnsey and give it a crack, but first up I needed to have a flash or onsight go on Mandela before I blew the chance by doing the end section as part of the new route. After sourcing some beta 21st century style (via facebook) the climbing turned out easier than I'd expected but I was still really happy to flash such a historic and memorable route. (Fortunately there's no need to haul you belayer up nowadays - just climb on 2 ropes and drop one before questing out on the roof to reduce drag.)

Mark Leach on Mandela back in the day
Now it was time to get stuck into Freakshow, which turned out to be as good as I'd hoped. At the top of the 7b there's a great no-hander in a kneebar, almost facing out down the valley - lovely spot for a quick breather! Then it's off up a few jugs and into the crux section, which is probably something like a 7B boulder. The break provides good holds but awkwardly high feet, and after a quick shake-out on a toe hook you plough on out into Mandela, via some really cool moves, joining it at the crux and finishing up that route. I found some really nice kneebar beta for this second crux - easier than Neil's method but brilliant! After a couple of days sussing the moves and beating myself up trying to find inventive rests I returned for the repdoint, and with a bit of a fight made it through to below the last few moves. Pulling into the final slap I let my mind get the better of me and lost belief momentarily; one of those times when you feel like you've fallen before you have and your mind whirs inexplicably quickly through thinking you'll fall to lambasting yourself for thinking like that to thinking you might be ok... fumbling the final hold I even stopped the fading lock for a split second as I was pulled earthwards, just enough to know that I hadn't really given it everything and could have tried harder. Despite feeling like an idiot and a punter, I couldn't help but smile whilst hanging on the rope. I much prefer falling off the top of something after a good fight than off the bottom, especially on a good route! A few days later I was back and everything went a lot more smoothly allowing me to make the 2nd ascent, I even managed to dry out the final wet rest while on route in a little homage to tales of Simon Nadin drying out holds on his onsight of Urgent Action years ago.

Shamelessly stolen photo of Gresh on Freakshow
Having had such fun getting pumped in the roof I decided to stick with it and moved on to try to make the 2nd ascent (as far as I know) of Epic Adventures, put up by Jordan Buys last year. As a line this is just as good as Freakshow, blasting out and leftwards from just before the end of Hardy Annual all the way to the lip. The climbing starts out fairly steady, then gradually gets more tricky and more pumpy until a cool sequence with a heel and some final thugging leads you round the top roof. Overall it's probably not quite as good as Freakshow due to being a bit more reliant on sika, but for sure it deserves more attention as the climbing is well fun and the positions are great. Jordan originally gave this 8b+, then changed his mind and upped it to 8c. For me I'd say that Epic felt like the lower half of 8b+, but I did leave my feet low on a few moves so it might feel trickier if you're not as tall. Freakshow felt probably bottom end 8c to me, similar in difficulty to something like Bat Route. Anyway, they're both well fun if you like getting pumped and climbing steep things so get on them and enjoy!

Posing like a clown after doing Freakshow




Monday, 22 June 2015

Enjoying the Ride

After coming back from Spain I was involved in making a few training related bits of media. Firstly I had a fun interview with Neely from TrainingBeta, which can be found here:

https://www.trainingbeta.com/media/alex-barrows/?portfolioID=3838
If you've not listened to the others in the series and you're interested in how people train then they're worth a listen whilst you're pootling around doing aero cap or similar.

Next up was a video on endurance training for the Depot Nottingham (who've got some rather good looking boards for bouldering on, though I didn't get the chance to test them out much):



So, having basically told everyone about how structured and dedicated I am, I promptly decided to spend a while being unstructured and doing - almost - whatever I wanted with my climbing. I'm now planning on switching back to being a little more planned in my approach, but for the past couple of months I've been really enjoying spending a bit more time doing what I want to be doing instead of what I 'should' be doing! In between pondering more important questions like "When's Liam L going to fight Sheffield Rumours and who's going to drive him to hospital afterwards?" and "Now that I've stopped my facebook feed filling up with fishing photos, how do I stop it filling up with dog photos?" this meant spending my weekends going to Malham, a crag which I typically go to at the start of the year, get psyched for, and then don't go back to for some reason.

I was going to put a photo of Malham, but I don't have one, so you'll have to make do with a shot of my fly wheels instead. Speakers in the front with the bass on krunk. (Photo: GVG)

This time around I've managed to get up there a fair bit, working my way through some of the glaring omissions from my logbook. First up was the classic and popular Bat Route (8c), which features a wonderful series of tricky sections between good rests. Next on the list was Cry Freedom (8b+/c), which whilst perhaps not quite the same quality of line as Bat Route, has just as good climbing and features a fine excuse to gaffa-tape a piece of rubber to your leg (as if I need an excuse). Highlights on this one include falling out of a no-hands kneebar like a douche. Good thing there were no superstars like Ben Moon at the crag to laugh at me that da... oh bugger. More importantly, I got to discover the secret of champions when it turned out that Mina's pre-redpoint psyche-up routine involved biting the head off a young Housemartin as a sacrifice to the Yorkshire Lime Gods.

A clown in the sky on Progress (Photo: GVG)

Over the last few weekends I've been mixing it up between local bouldering (read: failing) and heading up to Kilnsey to try Progress, a Jerry Moffat 8c+ on the brilliant North Buttress, which seemed like a good way to find out whether my finger was fixed for hardcore crimping, and to re-injure myself spectacularly if it wasn't.  Fortunately it seems like the former has, finally, happened, so whilst I can't do too much volume of crimpy stuff it was fine to try once a week. Progress is a pretty power endurancy style - a little intro (7A?) straight into a long crux section deposits you at a good hold (7C/+ from the floor to here maybe?). Unfortunately, the route setter fucked up, so the good hold is only big enough for one hand. After a quick chalk there's another long boulder section where it helps to be a lanky bugger, a quick shake on small crimps, where it helps to be a lanky bugger, and then a final section to the first real rest on the route, where it helps to be a lanky bugger. From there things ease, though there's a butch move in the roof you've got to be sure to have some guns left for! Anyway, it's ace in my opinion, really nice climbing and flows well. I knew the final section on the lower wall, moving towards the good rest, was where Tim Palmer fell a lot before doing it last year, but I kind of had it in my head that I'd be ok there. In these situations, until you get there on redpoint you can never tell whether thoughts like that are totally naive or just having faith in yourself and what suits you. Fortunately it seemed to be the latter and on Sunday I managed to stam my way up the thing. The moral of the story? Trust yourself.

"How can it be 8c+ if your belayer can take a photo when you're on redpoint?" (Photo: GVG)

Friday, 24 April 2015

Margalef Take 2 - a tale of a trickyish route of an unspecified difficulty which may not may not be hard for other people depending on who you talk to

Era Vella - big and steep

For those who didn't already know, a few weeks ago I went to Spain and did my project, Era Vella. I tried it for 3 weeks in October, got my ass kicked, came home and trained for it all winter, went back for a 5 day mini-trip in Feb, then headed out for 3 weeks in March/April to do the deed. Fair to say I was pretty chuffed to get up the thing this time around! Being a clown, I decided to start the trip by repeatedly falling off below my previous highpoint, and thus endured a short period of depression, despair and self-loathing before pulling myself together and beginning to really enjoy each redpoint try on it as my highpoint crept up the wall. I rested a lot, which can be kind of boring, but means you're excited to have a go each time you head back up, and that's just the mindset I need to be in to stay motivated on a long project like this. As I've found before, and as Tom tells me is almost standard protocol for his coaching clients, the reduced expectations and pressure of a few bad sessions actually helped in the end too. Sometimes accepting the likelihood of failure is just what you need to open the door to success. (Don't worry, I'm done with "inspirational" quotes now.) In another example of stupidity, I also had to relearn the same lesson I've learnt multiple times before on long redpoints - climb faster. Fortunately, something Tom Bolger had said about his experience on the route reminded me of this, and cutting down on time spent at the rests once again proved to be key to staying fresh enough for the upper wall.

It was fun to hang out at the crag with Team America too, kid crusher Kai Lightner and his groupie Shane, who has the 'loudest' jacket I've ever seen - Adidas meets Europop chic. It's going to be taking over in the near future. Thanks to Will, Nic, Sam, Eddie and Tom for all the belays!

Did I mention it's big and steep? Photo: Nic Duboust
After managing to get up Era, I decided to indulge in a type of climbing I've been missing recently: onsighting! God I love onsighting stamina routes. I really, really love it. In terms of pure enjoyable days out it might well be my favourite style of climbing. It also provided yet another reminder of how low expectations can be good for you. On my last day I felt mediocre waking up, felt weak warming up, then pulled out one of my best onsight performances ever. Like the cynical, grade-chasing dick that I am (see below) I selected an 8b that people seemed to think was soft and sounded like it would suit me - La Trencatranques up at the magnificent crag Espadelles. [Useful knowledge: Despite what the guide says, this crag gets some morning shade in Spring, especially towards the left-hand end, so with a reasonably early start you can get a few routes in.] It was just what I wanted - good holds, big moves, burl, and a fight. The lack of expectations meant fast and decisive "go big or go home" climbing rather than the slow ponderous approach that works well when operating within your comfort zone but can be the death knell of onsights at your limit.

Replica time Photo: John Dudley
Returning to the UK karma decided that I was a little bit too happy, and so subjected me to 3 days of running experiments in a big metal box near Oxford, including night shifts and general sleep deprivation. I'm not even an astronomer damn it! On the bright side, I think we got some good data, so I might actually finish my PhD one of these days...

Crux section Photo: Sam Harvie
Things I learnt from this experience:
- Projecting is totally shit and totally brilliant all at the same time. (Not actually at the same time, usually it's shit and then brilliant. Or maybe brilliant-shit-brilliant.)
- On redpoints try climbing faster and spending less time in the rests
- Have goals, but try not to have expectations
- Ain't no-one does pre-try music like Phil Collins and Bonnie Tyler
- Rock climbing is awesome. Not that I ever forget that one.
The view from Espadelles sector

Grades, Grades, Grades and Honesty
Grades don't matter. It's about the experience, it's about enjoying the process, it's all about the line, it's all about the moves etc etc.. But let's face it, to many of us, grades DO matter. They're not the be-all and end-all, but they are a not insignificant aspect of what we do. There are some grades which I log feeling a little cheeky, e.g. my first 8c+ in Loup, a couple of my harder onsights, shit like Revolver at Anston Stones - I know that if they were given the lower grade in the guide I'd just log that, note 'hard' and not really be that surprised. Sometimes I probably wouldn't even mark it as hard. Ironically, for Era I had no similar feelings. It felt hard for me.
The approach to the crag in February. It wasn't hot and greasy.
Still, since a bunch of people have done the route recently, Jens has been on the downgrade warpath on 8a.nu. Apparently some people have said to him they think it's not 9a. That doesn't surprise me that much. It's an enduro route, which means that if you're above the required level for it it's likely to feel pretty steady (e.g. the 7c+s at Cascade Sector, Ceuse work in a similar way - feels like 7c+ to the 7c+ climber, feels like 7b+ to the 8c+ climber). For some reason, these people want to remain anonymous (or Jens is spouting shit). First up let me say this: you can't have your cake and eat it. Taking/reporting your ascent as 9a but then emailing the one man in the world most likely to start a grade debate to tell him you think it's easier - thus enabling you to put dibs on an inevitable self-congratulatory downgrade and keep your sponsors and groupies happy at the same time - is pretty whack in my opinion. It's also not 'keeping out of a controversial grade debate' it's just keeping your name out of it.
Anyway.. Siegrist did it, though it was piss, and said so on his blog. Fair enough. Now if he thinks it's 8c, I'd love to see what grade he thinks the 8cs in Loup or Santa Linya are, or the longer UK routes like True North or Mecca Ext. But hey, whilst he can tell me 8cs he thinks are harder than Era, I can tell you 8a+s at the tor that I think are harder than 8cs at the tor. And that's on the same crag as each other! That shit just happens with grades - they don't really work that well all the time, especially if you try to compare different styles. Is it 8c+? 9a? Being possibly my first 9a (except Pilgrimage, which is clearly not 9a with my sequence) all I can justifiably say is that, for me, it's the hardest thing I've done by a notable margin. I won't tell you that that means I don't care whether it's considered 9a or not - I'd like it to be that consensus is 9a and I'd be talking bollocks to say otherwise - but it does mean that even if it's 8c+ I'm still happy, still glad I put the time and effort in, and I still think it's a great route.


Ethan onsighting the classic Sativa Patatica (8a). Not a shit route.