It’s a Long Way to Longridge

I’d only just left the village, less than two miles from home and i couldn’t help but wonder – and please excuse the language here – what the fuck am i doing?!

What was i doing? Embarking on a two-and-a-half hour drive to Lancashire to go bouldering. A 250 mile round trip. On the face of it, it was ridiculous, expensive and completely unnecessary. After all, how many outstanding crags and venues was i about to sail past before arriving at a piece of rock to clamber around on? Literally dozens. And while others have often waxed poetic about the magic of Craig y Longridge, purchased by the BMC back in 2007 after a dispute with the landowner, i personally never really saw much of an appeal for a seeping scar that i’d visited before such problems circa 2004.

The answer is that there is a huge amount of context to offer explanation to the insanity: a quick revisit after unfinished business two weeks prior; meeting a friend somewhere i knew he’d love; exorcising more demons from those formative years; and a need for new venues to hit that magic 1000 problems goal.

Another Triumphant Return

A mere two days following my New Year’s post, I had the opportunity to attack one of the goals for the season when i was asked to drop my dad off in Blackburn. Realising that Craig y Longridge was only round the corner, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

And so, after a faffy start where my urgency – i had to be back for work at 5pm – was not clear, i pulled up somewhere that evoked a mix of memories and emotions. Craig y Longridge is often thought of as another of those hardcore British venues, encapsulated by this passage from Niall Grimes’ Boulder Britain:

Wars are not won or lost when one side kills all of the other. What happens is that when level of pain – casualties, moral or financial – is inflicted on one player, they capitulate. In the same way do climbers fall off at Longridge. Watch them, see their faces after they drop, a scene of horror and agony stretched across the face, the look a mixture of disappointment and phenomenal relief. Were it a war then Longridge will alwas be the one who drops the atomic bomb on your forearms.

Grimes, N. (2020). Boulder Britain. Ape Index

As such, much as with other North West venues of the Bowderstone and the Shleter Stone at Trowbarrow, Longridge was somewhere where my delicate self-assessment during my undergraduate years refused to allow me to partake. I’ve talked before about exorcising the demons from my youth, both on this website and as a guest writer for Chalkbloc, and there aren’t that many left now. Longridge wasn’t in the same bracket but certainly felt like somewhere i was most definitely not good enough.

However on arrival, i couldn’t fathom out why this place had put me off so much in the past as i was immediately confronted with a series of 4s on which to begin, not to mention a long series of problems in the 5s and 6s; a fact made all the more baffling by the fact that i have actually visited before. It’s amazing how preconceptions can colour one’s view of reality.

Things have changed and more than somewhat. On that sole visit, the much-documented access problems were yet to reach fruition and the land had not yet been sold and developed. Back then, the scar faced a view across Lancashire countryside and towns in the distance. Not any more, as i arrived not to the view of fields, flora and fauna but of new build houses and a woman in her kitchen doing the washing up. Now, i feel i’m intruding into someone’s back garden (you very nearly are at Longridge, with only the briefest of fences keeping the boundary) in the oddest of settings imaginable.

Still, Longridge is not the destination of choice if you’re after a nice view and never has been. A man-made crag that has always lacked the aesthetics of countless others, you come to Longridge for the climbing; either straight ups or long traverses, whatever your poison. Not being a huge fan of sideways climbing, i was here for the former. And i managed them aplenty.

Despite the short amount of time (i’m not actually sure how long i had but it was not measured in hours) i quickly climbed a whopping 16 lines, up to 7a and had a very good stab at Grow Wings sit start 7b; which would’ve fallen had i had just a little more time. And therein we find the planted seed that drew me back so soon, despite multiple other options that would have ticked almost as many boxes.

Round Two

It seems that Grimes’ description doesn’t take into account the change in style of rock climbers over the past twenty years. Where old hands like Grimes and myself are more accustomed to climbs that challenge us technically and mentally, now there exist a crop of young heavyweights skilled in what is oft called “gym climbing”. And oddly, the steep boards that have become standard fare for climbers worldwide these past few years have trained climbers exactly for venues like Longridge.

It struck me that my friend and bouldering superstar Jack Pearce would love the place. Not only that but on form, he’d mop up, more than capable of climbing all but a small handful of lines. And so i told him, touted the idea of a return and a small crew of cohorts keen to win some ‘easy’ ticks somewhere new.

Only he wasn’t around, being away in Scotland sampling the unknown joys of bouldering north of the border. I put the idea to the back of my mind, only for him to contact and suggest a meet on his drive south. Hesitant at now having to foot the fuel bill alone, i threw caution to the wind and agreed. We would meet at Longridge.

I was early but that gave me chance for another blitz of easier lines and surge towards that 1000 problem goal with another 16 climbs taking my fortnight haul to a scarely believable 32 problems and a huge step towards my goal. This time, though, was slightly more substance over simple mileage and where my first foray included 11 problems up to 5+, the increased time available meant only three of the same grade or lower this time around. What’s more, where before i made it from the left end to Grow Wings, this time i made it to the end of the crag. And there are some cracking lines there!

Sadly, both Jack and myself were nursing finger injuries, rendering our chances severly dented and blocking either of us from properly committing to the moves. What’s more, and is probably more irritating, is that despite perfect conditions in March, the crag was seeping in all the wrong places in April; again meaning many of the problems became at best significantly harder and at worst, impossible to try.

Even so, i came back having found some outstanding movement on a rock type i have not played on in many years, with circles around Big Marine, Push to Prolapse, In Excess, Fertile Delta, Delta Force, Ping and Missing Link to add to the sit start project from round one. It would appear that the more i go to Longridge, the more i find to go back for. Just a shame it’s a five hour round trip. Not that i think that will stop another return in the not too distant future.

Important Note

I would be remiss not to mention the specific access conditions to climbing at Craig y Longridge. The following has been copied from the BMC Regional Access Database (RAD):

“The BMC purchased this crag in 2007 and climbers can now enjoy unhindered access. However, a code of practice has been agreed to prevent disturbance to the houses below the crag. Please respect out neighbors and follow the crag code of conduct:

  • No access before 10am or after 9pm (or sunset if earlier)
  • Take your litter home with you
  • No vehicles on site
  • No dogs
  • No radios or music
  • Do not use the area as a toilet
  • Respect our neighbours
  • No activities other than rock climbing
  • Fixed equipment for the rarely climbed routes on the right side of the crag has not been placed by, and is not maintained by the BMC. Climbers should excercise their own judgement on whether fixed equipment is reliabile, as on any other crag.”

For further information, please click here

Happy New Year: March 2022

For those who don’t know, my new year runs from when the clocks go forward, giving a much better point of the year for resolutions and goal setting. There is also a Solstice when the clocks go back. For more information, click here.

It’s been a funny few years for us all but the nature of these seasonal goals seems to have accentuated the effect. The Brexit vote from back in 2016 has slowly changed the country. The pandemic then shut the world down and affected us all. Now Russia is flexing her muscles in an attempt to expand the old empire; a fact that is and will continue to have consequences for us all here in the West of Europe. And that’s not even to mention the escalating and absurd cost of living and the countless other life-changing events of the last few years.

And yet, life seems to be slowly coming back to what we would once have known as normal. While i don’t wish to get in to a huge social commentary, nor to become too narcistic and focus the world around myself, both the global situation and my own personal circumstances are completely intertwined; as is true of all of us. The trick is to understand the relationship and how to use it to move forward productively.

And therein lies the key. Pay it too much heed and the news will engulf you to the point where you simply hide, such is the horror of humanity. Pay it not enough and any plans, dreams and aspirations and doomed to failure from the offset.

Of course, any look forward should begin with at least a glance behind; just think of driving lessons! But where before any looks to the future were hidden behind a cloud of uncertainty, now the path is clearing. So let’s have a look at the past season, before coming up with a plan for the future.

Season Review

For one reason or another, i seem to have spent almost the entire winter season indoors. I mean, they’ve been good reasons – weather, competitions, the desire to earn money to be able to afford food – but either which way, it’s meant i’ve not really got out much. Hence the lack of blog posts (or that’s my excuse and i’m sticking to it).

That’s not necessarily been a bad thing. The first and foremost reason for my hermitude has simply been work. When my part-time joinery job finished for the winter, there was a worry that i’d not make ends meat but i managed to land a position as a research assistant for an upcoming publication called Climb Smarter, alongside freelance instruction and private coaching. When that was submitted just before Christmas, the worries came back but as December became January, the freelance work exploded and i found myself working indoors more and more. Then last month, all of a sudden, my private coaching work went through the roof. All of which meant i spent a vast percentage of my time this winter in the indoor wall.

That being said, i have escaped a few times and already, my average for the year isn’t looking too unhealthy. There was nothing new ticked at the back end of the year, after some failed attempts at Rock Atrocity Wobbly Block 7c+ but the start of 2022 saw James Slater tempt me over to North East Wales and Ruthin Escarpment for some limestone action. Incredibly productive, i climbed ten different lines, up to and including Cassius Clay 7a+.

Other nice little sessions have included on the shores of Llyn Ogwen and PMT 7a+ as well as a short little hit in Cwm y Glo to climb Choo Choo 6c, Platform Dau 6c+ and Station Arete 6b flash. Climbs i’ll remember forever? No but good to build that bit of momentum and transfer that indoor time back outdoors again.

Looking back at it now, that’s been incredibly useful for my seasonal goals.

Previous Season Goals

  • Goal: 8a
  • Average 85% aggregate completion
  • Yearly Average above 7b
  • The Process Book
  • Develop Prowess Coaching
  • Swim

How Did It Go?

Let’s start with the positives. As the previous section alluded to, developing the Prowess Coaching business suddenly went very well indeed. Some brief calculations showed that, excluding people geographically incapable of doing so, 70% of people who booked one session booked a second; a phenomenal return. The reputation is burgeoning, both of the business and of myself and i’ve found several people wanting to shadow my sessions.

To be honest, it got to the point where i was wondering whether to sack off all the other work and try this full time but in the end, i’ve opted against it. Contrary to popular belief, most of my work is indoors and i’m still not sure how a good summer season will go. I’ve got some CPD workshops in the pipeline for Mountain Training and possibly even the British Mountain Guide Association on teaching outdoor bouldering so we shall see where we stand next year.

As for the bouldering aggregate, i totally nailed it. 85% is easily doable, possibly even a little low considering the grades and my abilities but it is deliberately set at that point as it only takes one small injury or a week away and suddenly any higher becomes unobtainable. What’s more, that added pressure can lead to injury if you’re not careful and even without going too mad this winter, the sheer volume of climbing has led to some overuse niggles. I mean, it’s something absurd like 800 climbs completed since the start of October. That gives an overall percentage of 93.2%.

Can’t complain at that! And while i’ve repeatedly stated that i’m not in it to win it, i’m not gonna complain if i do… and it looks like i will. For both. Updated ranking tables have not been forthcoming lately (and often aren’t reliable when they do, given people often don’t update their sheets regularly) but from the info i have, it seems i’m mostly out of sight of any competitors.

Then it starts to get a little less enthusiastic. I have written for the book but if i keep on at the rate i am, it’ll be decades before it’s completed. A more concerted effort is required. Likewise with swimming, i did give it a good go but work appeared on Thursday evenings meaning it simply wasn’t possible. I’m hoping to pick it up again but it’s very much a wait and see job. Nothing i can do about that.

As for averaging 7b last calender year, despite a late rally to get the grade up, the climbs i tried didn’t relent and i came up short. Circumstances may have conspired against me – including the global situation at large, he says sounding very melodramatic – and the situation may well be perfectly reasonable; i pushed myself much closer to the 1000 problems mark for example. But i’ll forever look at that dip on my annual grade, see the lowly 7a+ and feel a little disappointed.

And then there’s Goal: 8a. This is the most mixed of the results. While it’s been in the back of my mind this season, it’s not really affected the way i climb or train at all; the training has pretty much exclusively been mileage through the aggregate. In this respect, once you apply the SAID Principle, it’s not been good training at all and i’m no closer than i was six months ago.

However i am stronger, fitter and, fatigue aside, better prepared to attack my long term project head on now. The aggregates may not have given me much in the way of specific strength gains but as Dave Noden said to me, they give a good base level of fitness. The trick now is to take that and build on it.

Next Season Goals

It’s time to really go for it on Goal: 8a. I’m kinda feeling that it’s running it’s course and while there’s clearly no end date on a project like this, there does come a point where it’s simply not gonna happen without committment. Writing it down every season is one thing but if i really want it to happen, i’m gonna have to actually try.

With that in mind, i heard something very interesting on the Training Beta podcast recently. I’m not norally one for these types of thing but i listened to two recently, the latter being on goal setting. The sentence that struck me went something along the lines of:

Do you want to do it? Or do you want to have done it?

It seemed like such an epiphany. For much of this process, i’ve wanted it to be done but haven’t engaged in the process. So now is the time to actually commit to training specifically for this. I’m going to recruit some help to set up a six week strength training programme to target the weaknesses i have to climb Sway On.

But at the same time, i still want that average higher and still want to hit that 1000 problems. I’m so close, it would be a shame to ignore it. In order to hit both of these, i need to resurrect the white board of projects.

All that being said, i really don’t want to lose the momentum gained through the coaching business. As above, i’m still not sure what the summer will hold and unusually, mine seems to be a climbing instructional business based primarily indoors, not out. Still, i need to keep it in mind and build where i can. And of course, keep writing on the book! If i haven’t got any clients, at least i can further the business this way instead.

There’s talk in the house – very promising talk – of a summer Font trip and, whisper it quietly, even for my birthday. That would be a real coup and wasn’t even my idea! I knew i was marrying the right woman.

Finally, the kids have shown enormous enthusiasm for climbing lately, especially Hannah. And they’re good, they’re really good. Climbing on the kid-friendly elephant recently, Hannah couldn’t quite reach the jug hold so instead crimped on the edge of the hold instead. And if that wasn’t enough, when bumping her foot up, did a textbook smear on the wall. And i didn’t teach her that! So either she’s been having some expert coaching on the side or she’s really developing amazingly on her own. Knowing her as i do, she’s found it out on her own.

  • Goal: 8a and a six week training plan
  • Ressurect the White Board of Projects
  • 1000 problems
  • Continue to coach, including bouldering workshops
  • The Process book
  • Font trip
  • Take kids climbing

It’s not quite now or never (it’s never never) but i feel like if i don’t give these goals my all this season, it might be time to take a different approach. So let’s give it everything and see how well i can actually do when i try.

Happy New Year!

Progress

The glorious weather has returned to North Wales and just in time for me too. After a couple of false starts to this year’s outdoor bouldering season, this week saw me at Clogwyn y Bustach with a very mixed session that didn’t exactly yield the return i was hoping for but did have some major successes. And right on cue for New Year’s as well.

A Mixed Session

With New Year’s this weekend, i’ll keep this post nice and concise. That said, i would’ve felt remiss if i hadn’t posted about my latest outdoor excursion of the season before a fresh start. Especially as it’s set things up nicely from here on in.

Finally, this week, I had a day off with good weather. After a meeting in the morning, the sun was beating down and the temperature unseasonably high. A day in the sunshine on a day like this would’ve been quite intense and as it had been like this for a few days, i knew that many of the usually wet spots would’ve dried out by now. Thinking i was being clever, i opted to neglect my recent stomping grounds of the Ogwen and Carneddau and head a little south to Clogwyn y Bustach and some sheltered woodland to keep me shaded.

What i forgot is that despite the summery conditions, this Spring is still young; so young in fact that there are still no leaves on the trees. So no matter how many trees there are – they are all deciduous in these woods – there is still very little shade. The Bustach, for once, offered no more cover than any other mountain crag.

Still, the aspect remained favourable and the face i had in mind did indeed find itself largely in the shade. I’d managed to rig up a new system to allow me to carry in even more pads. I’ve had early season sessions at the Bustach before and struggled with the topout so the extra pad would certainly come in handy. And of course, the new rig, while very heavy, was a coup in of itself.

Climbing Things

In the end, i left with only the 6b+ warm up and Fagin 7a as retro flashes and a speculative version of Rudder’s Wall 7b ticked off in the guidebook. The decription is fairly clear in that it defines the starting holds and says to go straight up, trending leftwards slightly at the lip to top out. Instead, i ended up with a big crossover move for my right hand before heading further left to finish off. There’s no doubting i didn’t complete the original route, instead completing some kind of Rudder’s Wall-Bustach Gut hybrid and if i’d done the extra first move (which isn’t significantly harder than the other moves) i’d probably be slightly more satisfied. That said, i’m happy enough.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The old worries of the topout on Fagin – not to mention recent struggles committing to moves on Bombshell at the Milestone – were not repeated and i clambered over the top of the boulder with confidence multiple times. It wasn’t the smoothest topout i could’ve managed and i’m slightly nervous to watch the video back to see me gibbering around a bit but on the whole, i was more than happy with the fear levels. It’s amazing what difference a well placed pad makes.

The other win: I pushed myself on something new and indeed did come away with at least one new tick. Meanwhile, I recitified what had been the softer and slightly easier 6c+ start to Fagin by doing it properly. And if it hadn’t been for fatigue, i think Bustach Gut 7b would’ve gone too.

All in all, it was a mixed session but one that carried much more weight than either of my previous two days out in recent weeks and hopefully sets me up nicely for a season of sends.

Milestone Malaise

For long time readers, no this isn’t a return of the Milestone series, this post relates specifically to a nearby venue, Milestone Buttress and the bouldering to be found therein. It’s a crag I’ve been to a couple of times recently and one which has yielded, well, next to nothing for me. Last week wasn’t a great week.

The Milestone Buttress

First let’s take a quick look at this specific crag. Situated at the foot of iconic North Walean mountain, Tryfan, the Milestone juts out on the west face of the mountain among a mountainside of craggy terrain; it would be easy for the uninitiated not to realise it’s exact position. Steeped in trad climbing history, the routes on the crag proper are well versed in heritage and quality and while they don’t see the traffic that the mountain’s north ridge will find, still sees plenty of traffic throughout the year.

Nestled underneath is a boulder field and herein lies further quality for the pebble-wrestlers among us. Yet despite three-star lines such as Marilyn Monroe 7a, Harvey Oswald 7a and Tormented Evaporation 7a, the bouldering here is oft overlooked. The first edition of Boulder Britain – the excellent nationwide bouldering guidebook by Niall Grimes – didn’t see fit to include the Milestone Buttress boulders among the hundreds of crags (although this oversight was corrected for the second edition released in 2020).

Much of this may stem from the typical problem facing most North Wales’ bouldering venues: the problems are simply too strung out. And yet while this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Wavelength circuit or Sheep Pen, scrabbling through the talus field at the foot of Tryfan seems to be a little too much for some.

And it’s a real shame. In the Pit alone, there exist a dense collection of excellent lines between 6c+ and 7c that rivals anywhere locally and there’s always the allure of a growing number of satellite problems too. After years of falling into the same trap of heading anywhere but the Milestone, it was these satellites I wanted to explore last month in the hope I’d missed some secret stunning lines; especially given the quantity of climbing in the most recent North Wales Bouldering guidebook from Ground Up Productions.

All of this is perception, of course, albeit not without some evidence; the idea that the bouldering at Milestone Buttress isn’t worth bothering with is at least in some part linked to previous sessions that have yielded very little in the way of climbs i’ve either enjoyed or wish to return to. Nevertheless, it is always wise to challenge long held and negative perceptions periodically. If the perception proves right, it becomes more cemented in one’s mind but if it was wrong, it can open up whole new worlds. It was because I didn’t like Italians back in 2010 that I wanted to go to Italy, to challenge that preconception and in so doing, I did indeed meet some fantastic people. So perhaps it was time to give the Milestone another go.

Some Company From an Old Friend

That all makes it sound like some well thought out plan but if truth be told, the impetus for this venue choice wasn’t entirely my own. A friend had asked to come and shadow some coaching sessions of mine and with some time to spare, we decided to meet at the crag. He suggested the Lunar Bloc.

Yet I decided to arrive early and wander the crag to check out the satellite problems near the more established Marilyn Monroe/Pit areas. After having a wander but not pulling on to anything, not to mention noticing the time and realising i needed to go meet Jay, i traipsed across country to head for the Lunar Bloc. It would’ve paid to read the guidebook closer…

After a long period of fighting through heather, uneven ground and awkward rocky scrambles, it eventually became apparent that i was better off going back to the van and starting again. In truth, it was lucky that i did, as that’s where i bumped into Jay. From there, with time ticking on, we trudged up the correct path this time, in search of the Lunar Bloc.

We eventually found the Orion Bloc instead… which is much higher up the hillside than we’d intended. Committed and determined, we dropped back down the hillside, Jay taking a slip and getting a wet backside in the process, before eventually finding the Lunar Bloc fully equipped with it’s own private stream running right under the landing. With around an hour left before we needed to depart, we gave it our best shot even if some routes were impossible due to holds so dirty than fingertips were covered in mud on the crimpy handholds.

At one point, Jay fell from the first move of one problem, missed the pad whereby his pointed toe nosedived into the mud up to his ankle. It was at this point we decided we’d had enough fun for one day.

Take Two

My next opportunity to get out actually came about a week later and not wanting to be shut down too much – and having seen some tempting lines on the previous wander – i went back for a second bite at the cherry. Erm, yeah, it was much the same…

  • Tormented Evaporation 7a was tempting but required more pads than i had ideally and didn’t qualify for the “try something hard condition” i’d put on myself beforehand
  • Jack Pearce’s new addition by the road, Last Dregs 7b+ looked very exciting but much like the Lunar Bloc, has an incredibly soggy landing. It has gone on the list though
Video including Jack Pearce’s new line Last Dregs 7b+
  • Both Hustled 7b+ and Fiddled 7c up and left of the existing boulder problems drew my attention but both seemed brutal and the landings did not look appealing for a solo session
  • The Prow 7b just out the back of the Marilyn Monroe bloc really grabbed my attention but after a concerted effort at looking confused, appears to be missing a hold and thus is now considerably harder than 7b. Or at least that’s what i’m telling myself after studying the guidebook and hanging with my feet above my waist wondering where the fuck to go from there

Thrilled by the prospect of another session with zero reward, i figured i’d repeat Bombshell 6c+ and perhaps even tick off The Troll 7a; the direct finish through a fierce right hand crimp. And yet, on pulling on to the wall, i found myself getting nowhere. Even repeating old easy lines was proving impossible and my morale was plummetting. Fairly quickly, i realised the issue was psychological and that my feet were coming down before my hands were realeasing but try as i could to commit to the moves, it came to no use. Even pulling on the finishing moves with the prospect o an enormous jug to hit wasn’t enough to get me to actually fly; my mind continually shut down by the landing.

In my defence, the landing is sloping, rocky and i only had one pad but nevertheless, this is a weak argument at the best of times. More likely, i’m simply rusty and this was a poor place to get back into outdoor bouldering after a winter primarily spent indoors.

To add insult to injury, after admitting defeat on a lowly 6c+, i thought i’d try Einstein 7b on the boulder below… only to find i couldn’t do the first campus move. With a grand total of three climbs all either 3 or 3+ all day and a tail firmly wedged between my legs, i trudged off home. But at least the dog got out for a walk.

All About the Long Game

Sometimes you can’t hide from who you truly are. Three hours to spare, glorious day outside and what do I find myself doing but sat in a windowless room, eating my lunch and watching a climbing film. I felt like I was 21 again, not sure in a good way or not.

It turned out to be exactly what I needed to see, in so many ways.

The Situation

Three hours to spare might be slightly disingenuous, as I was ever so slightly captive. Yes, I could get outside if I was desperate (and organised, which I wasn’t) but having just finished one session at the Beacon Climbing Centre, with three hours before my next, going climbing outside seemed illogical. Perhaps not even my 21 year old self would’ve been that keen! Either which way, my plan was always to climb inside in the gap.

I hadn’t anticipated the weather though and the conditions could not be more perfect. I’ve written somewhere of the strange British trait of social pressure to be outside whenever possible, even if you don’t particularly want to, and the guilt that comes when you choose to do something else. City parks on sunny days are a perfect example: throngs of people hunkered in the shade under large trees. They’re not enjoying the sunshine, they’re fulfilling an obligation (not all obviously but some). That’s the situationb in which I found myself.

I’d opted for comfort; a nice chair and a desk. In need of sustenance and with the rarity of a pre-made lunchbox, I neglected my book or anything more engaging and figured I’d stick a climbing film on. I had my laptop with me after all and have been wanting to watch some for a while but struggling to find the right time. Now seemed as good as any; especially once I looked on the hard drive and found one that I’d been meaning on watching for some time but hadn’t had the right chance.

The Film

We watched Reel Rock 15 like so many other climbers around the world: live streamed online. However wanting to support them – and having antiquated ideals about possession of items – I paid for and downloaded a copy too.

I’m guessing not that many people will have done as I did, because Reel Rock had included two extra films to the download: The Perfect Season, featuring Janja Garnbret winning every bouldering World Cup over a season; and Born Among Boulders, about Giuliano Cameroni from Ticino, realising that despite all his travels in search of perfect bouldering destinations, it was actually in his back yard after all.

When you’re born in a place, it doesn’t feel special. It’s just normal. But when i started travelling, and then coming back to Ticino, I really realised how special it is.

Giuliano Cameroni

Cameroni gives the now typical story given by any featured climber on a film of this type of his childhood: getting into climbing; being exceptional; rising through the grades. On it, you hear him talk about the old Dosage films, with Dave Graham (his idol) and Swiss Gneiss in Dosage IV and Return to Swizzy in Dosage V. I too remember these films vividly and seem to have been similarly captivated.

Only Cameroni is from Ticino. And he’s younger than me. And much better. He set his sights on repeating Off the Wagon 8c+/V16, one of the most famous boulder problems in the world. Yet, despite the obvious differences, i felt a parallel with this young stalwart. What sets aside the Pro films these days from myriad other climbing films online is the story that accompanies it and (spoiler alert) while it comes as no surprise that Cameroni succeeds in his quest – very few of these films don’t see the protagonist get to the top by the end of the film – it is the quest over six years that proves the captivating factor. Spending that long on a project to push the uppermost limit of one’s abilities sounds somewhat familiar.

The Progress

This August will be four years since i started on Goal: 8a. Disrupted by Covid, work and other committments, it’s difficult to know how i’m getting on. Project specific training has been few and far between but despite this, the project has always been in the back on my mind.

Covid-disrupted preparations have meant that last Spring it was not feasible but this year, the insane mileage brought on by both the Beacon and Indy aggregate competitions means I’m hoping this may just be the end of a long journey. Yes, the niggles have started to appear but resting seems key, my fingers are coping well. Even the weather has turned nicer. In short, optimism is high.

There have been disappointments along the way. Given the aforementioned disruptions, last year became more about mileage than difficulty and while a tremendous success, meant my Top Ten Yearly Average saw it’s lowest figure since 2017; the year Rosie was born.

Yearly Average grade for ten hardest routes per year, redpoint in red, flash in yellow

As much as i know looking at it now that the dip was a consequence of different tactics and life distractions, i will undoubtedly forget that in the future; the context will be lost and i will forever look at that dip and sigh. However the curve looks familar, similar to the super-compensation curve. Yes, the time scales are wildly different and i’m not suggesting that the practice works over the course of years but even the idea of the similarity was enough to spur me on.

Super Compensation graph, recovered from https://science4performance.com/category/sports-science/

These films and sport science are clearly so far removed from my long term goal that they should probably be forgotten. But someone asked me what the mitigating factor was when trying projects at this level. My answer: it all has to come together. It’s not just a case of being stronger, of having the right conditions, of being mentally focused, at this point (compared to my existing sends) everything has to come together. If these arbitrary concepts help, that can only be a good thing.

A Near-Christmas Update

Usually at this time of year, if the blog has gone quiet, it’s often because there’s not much going on; lost in a sea of indoor trudgery, slowly trying in vain to tick off another climb on the aggregate comps. This year, however, has been quite the opposite.

Overwhelmed with various different work committments – as well as my parental duties, which have increased in recent months – coupled with the usual Autumnal/Wintery weather (i.e. wet) there’s been scant chances to get out on rock proper; although it has happened. Still, such large amounts of time in the wall has seen unprecedented strength gains, coupled with enhanced technical skills through repeated coaching sessions. There’s even been cross training in the pool for the first time in a long time.

Overall, it’s been well worth writing about. If only i could’ve found the time!

Aggregate Achievements

Work at both walls means climbing at both walls. Climbing at both walls over the winter meant the obvious: competing in both aggregates. Ambitious? Yes but so far so good. In fact, more than so good.

As posted in my Solstice post, my goal is to achieve 85% completion of all problems across both aggregates and one major benefit is that the maths is fairly straightforward; i can keep calculating my percentage as i go through the year and try and keep the averages at the right point.

I really wasn’t expecting these levels of success. I remember the first time i completed an entire face at the Indy and the unbridled joy and pride in what i’d achieved. Now it’s becoming commonplace. So far, eleven climbs have been removed without seeing me on the last hold. That’s out of roughly 400 being sent. Yes there are still some up that i haven’t finished but there really aren’t that many; at the Indy, i’ve currently got eight while at the Beacon there remain seven projects.

The numbers are currently staggering me and not what i expected at all. Not just that but i’m getting bigger and bigger grades too, so it’s not just a case of mileage. Already this season i’ve ticked a 7c+ (something i haven’t done for several years) while Friday gone, my session included 2x7c, 1x7b+, 2x7b, 1x7a+ and 1x7a, with many of these being flashes. Granted, those grades will likely come down substantially but none will be less than 7a and seven 7s in a night is impressive (for me) no matter what!

With such large volumes and high difficulty going on, though, it is leaving me a little susceptible.

A Weary Eye on Injury

Pain comes, generally, in two forms: acute and chronic. While no pain is good, acute pain (short term and generally sharp) is typically a warning sign and in sport, often comes from something going bash, bang, twang or other such noises. It’s relatively easy to deal with by resting out the injured body part until the pain goes away. It’s the chronic pain (long term and constant) that really should make us worry; while still a warning sign (all pain is our body telling us something isn’t right) it is far more complex and harder to deal with.

The type of pain can then be married with the severity of the pain and there are lots of ways to do this, depending on how technical you want to get. However we can easily make it simple by classifying pain as Mild, Moderate or Severe. For me lately, i’ve managed to get myself a severe acute pain in my left knee and a mild chronic pain in my fingers. Dealing with these will likely determine not only my short term success but potentially the future of my climbing for the next however many years.

With so much climbing going on, i’m finding the niggles are creeping in and these are the mild chronic pains. They’re constantly there but mostly ignorable, never reaching the point of severity where i need to stop and rest substantially. The thing that, not so much worries me but makes me cautious is the idea that mild may turn to moderate and that then becomes weeks or months of treatment rather than a couple of days of rest. These niggles are easily manageable with care and a strong reminder to do some antagonist work [see this fantastic example from the ever-wonderful Eric Horst on Effective Forearm Antagonist Training for Climbers].

This is on top of one of the worst falls in recent times; a severe acute pain. Trying some silly eliminate on a V3, i was clamping the arete between a poor hold (right foot) and a smear (left foot). With the right hand completely solid around the arete and the left on a terrible sloper, the smear slipped, barn doored and cracked my left knee on two holds on the way down, landing (i think) on my left knee and left shoulder. It was one of those falls where everyone stops and looks at you.

Driving home was a challenge but the next day was pure endeavour, cringing, wincing and whining with every press of the heavy clutch pedal. I couldn’t walk properly for a week. Thankfully, after about ten days, it eased and other than some gentle bruising, is now largely healed.

These two episodes do highlight the importance of staying fit and healthy over the course of the season. Winter aggregate training is great in so many ways but needs to be sustainable. Keeping track of your body is often overlooked but is vital to coming out of the winter injury free.

A Brief Note On the Outside World

As much as my indoor achievments are certainly making me happy, it is outside where i really measure my success. I won’t remember a really good night at the Indy in years to come but a single 7c+ will live long in the memory.

Thankfully, the weather has turned a little nicer and coincided with a downturn in work around Christmas. It has meant i can start getting out again.

A few weeks back, i’d managed a sneaky session at Parisella’s Cave that hadn’t quite gone to plan (more on this on my next post). Yesterday, i was back, determined to give a really good go at Rock Atrocity Wobbly Block start 7c+ and for once, i got my tactics spot on. Everything went well, i warmed up well (a brisk walk into town only spoiled by a seagull nicking the last of my steak slice and biting my finger in the process) and worked each section to completion. Sadly my fingers waned before i could get that elusive full link but everything seems promising for the next opportunity. Watch this space.

Merry Solstice: Winter 2021

For those who don’t know, my new year runs from when the clocks go forward, giving a much better point of the year for resolutions and goal setting. There is also a Solstice when the clocks go back. For more information, click here.

It takes me a little while to do my seasonal post. Some years, i can spend a couple of weeks drafting it, reviewing the last season and looking forward. Other years, i leave it until the last minute and have to rush through it very quickly.

This season, i’ve been writing this seasonal review over the course of the week leading up to my Solstice and it’s very much changed the way i’ve been thinking. The family have been away so i’ve had the house to myself and i’ve realised that i’ve been taking my amazing life for granted.

Climbing has been my life for nearly twenty years now. It’s been my heart and soul, has seen me realise my dreams of travelling the world, has kept me sane during fallow periods, given me companions and great friends when i’ve been alone. And now i’m not alone, i have a wonderful family of the most fantastic partner and two amazing little girls. And to top it all off, i get to share my passion with people for a living.

The nature of these New Years posts is twofold: to make sure i’m looking back and appreciating what i have achieved and to look forward to the future. My life philosophy says simply that when i get to the end, if i can look back and say “that was worth it” then i’ll be happy. That means i can’t rest on what i’ve done before, i need to keep going, keep doing amazing things and keep striving for more.

But that doesn’t mean i should lose sight of the first part of my seasonal posts. Looking back, i have achieved so much, done so much and have much to be proud of and i shouldn’t forget that. Yes, it’ll never be as much as i wish it could’ve been but that’s life. I often say “anything is possible if you want it enough” and while i still think that’s true, everything comes at a price. Do you want it enough to sacrifice everything to achieve it? Sometimes there are more important things. The trick is finding that balance and the balance is how we view the world as much as anything else. Focus too much on what is ahead and you lose sight of what is happening right now. Dwell on the past too much and you never move forward. There’s the balance: between the past, the present and the future. And right now, all three are looking pretty sweet.

Season Review

This section always puts a smile on my face. Suddenly, you realise what you’ve actually done and remember things that have slipped from your memory. At first glance, i thought this has been a pretty fallow season but looking back now, it’s been more than a little full.

The reason it feels swayed is because of a summer break from climbing. It’s clouded my judgment, making me think i’ve done nothing. But the truth is that break only started in late July, four months after the change of season.

Early April saw me continue to develop new areas before we took advantage of the travel restrictions in Wales (Cymru) and took a short trip just down the road to Trawsfynedd. Most people drive to Coed y Brenin from Llanberis for the day but we booked a cabin for a few nights and had a getaway, focusing mainly on biking with the kids but with a quick evening blast at Carreg yr Ogof where i could successfully tick off 14 more climbs to aim for the 900 goal. A good start to the year!

The up and down nature of the season meant i didn’t really get out much again until mid-May, when i confused several locals at Pex Hill by driving there from home. Their shock makes perfect sense – why would anyone drive from Llanberis to Pex Hill to go bouldering?! – until you realise two important points: first, that i was on my way to Birmingham for the weekend and second, that it was raining all the way there and Pex was the only dry rock i could find. Nevertheless, a very successful and enjoyable little session.

Then came the big one of the season. With the kids safely packed off to grandparents for the week, Em and myself carried on down the M5 to Dartmoor; pitching camp near Bovey Tracey before exploring what rock the moor had to offer. It had genuinely been ten years since i was there last and this trip made me realise that too hot is just as bad as too cold. One day i might get there when the conditions are just right. I don’t think Em will be that psyched to follow me around various different bouldering venues though.

That was early June and was about as close to the birthday trip as i was likely to get. The fact is i have dependents now, who have school to attend and i need to be here to support them. Anything is possible, yes, and i could make it work if i really wanted to. But at what cost? It would be a collossal dick move to my family to do something so selfish.

Instead, i managed a great day at Pantymwyn, thanks in no small part to Jack Pearce. I’ve climbed with Jack this season more than anyone else and he is great company, his enthusiasm highly infectious and i’m very grateful for his support, that day more than any other. Not only did we come back with plenty ticked off but they were substantial grades too; the best i’ve managed all season. It might not have been abroad but it was new, different and awesome.

And then for another trip away. The kids had been so good at their grandparents that they were invited back, and while Em didn’t accompany on my long weekend away, my old friend Jay did and it was great to reminisce. Yet again, it was a little up and down but did involve a fair bit of climbing at four venues over three days.

But it was supposed to be four days. In an unprecedented move, i came home early. It was simply too hot – remember that heat wave at the end of July? – and i was left asking myself “what are you actually achieving?”. And that was the point where i said enough is enough and i took a break.

Looking at it now, i can kinda see why. I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve in bouldering, measured by some metric or another, and sooner or later it gets a little too much. For several weeks after that Lakes trip, i didn’t climb a thing, indoors or out.

That is until mid-September and aptly enough, back in the Lake District again.

Once back into the swing of things, i started to look at the numbers again and realised that all that low-grade mileage had impacted on my high-grade sends. I.e. there weren’t any. My Top Ten Yearly Average was as low as 2017, the year Rosie was born when i got out very little. Time for a change of tact.

Sadly though, the weather has had other plans. I’ve managed a few successful sessions since, including sends of Higg’s Problem 7b (finally) and Soothsayer 7b and now my focus has turned to pushing that average back up. Annoyingly, Tuesday gone i cancelled a trip to Parisella’s Cave in the afternoon, only for the weather to turn nice and for me to be committed. Such is life, the psyche is coming back and hopefully i can bump the average up a bit before 2021 is out.

Previous Season Goals

  • Goal: 8a
  • 900 recorded boulder problems
  • Continue to develop new venues
  • At least three weekends out of North Wales
  • Ressurect the Birthday Tradition
  • Finish projects and focus on climbing movement theories

How Did It Go?

Considering the summer break, it went remarkably well! In hindsight, the goals i set probably reflected the fact i was in need of a break more than being wildly optimistic of having a high-achieving season only to rapidly step back. I’d clearly decided on a change in direction than my usual climb-hard goals and it worked.

A try-hard goal would be something like Goal: 8a, which has now been going for a couple of years and has developed into something that sits in the background. On the face of it, zero progress was made but again, all things considered, it was never gonna happen. To complete Goal: 8a will require specific dedication and training and that is simply not conducive to what occurred last season. It continues for another season.

Instead, the focus turned to two things: mileage and travel. Two of my goals were in this vein and both were accomplished with aplomb. At first reflection, one might say that hitting 900 problems was too easy, as i currently sit at 920 but this goal was always going be smashed or totally missed. Effectively it all hinged on achieving the other related goal of three weekend’s away; if i managed the latter, i’d likely get the former too, on the condition i didn’t get sucked in to trying some knarly Lakeland 7c for example.

But i didn’t get sucked into hardcore climbs far away. I took my chances where i could, made the most of my available time and got climbing in places i’ve either not been before or not been in years. And that wasn’t lucky, that was by design and due to effort. Looking back, it feels very satisfying and isn’t that the whole point of goals?!

Sadly this didn’t extend to the Birthday Tradition. Granted the world still hasn’t quite opened up properly yet but nevertheless, i may have to get used to the idea that foreign jaunts in termtime June simply aren’t going to happen any more. Which is very sad. That said, i did make the most with a jaunt to Pantymwyn with a reputable stack of ticks too and perhaps need to adjust the tradition to “a new venue every year”? I’ll see the lay of the land next year.

Of course, “new venue” is new to me and not new to everyone and i haven’t been developing anywhere near as much as i should. I need to pull my finger out and get on with this, as i have committments to people to deliver on.

And finally, i have indeed finished off a load of projects and am becoming free from some of the other committments i’d started during various lockdowns. But that doesn’t mean i’m any less busy and time is still never spare.

Next Season Goals

After many years away, thanks to a change in our weekly routine, the last few weeks have seen me back in the pool, swimming with Arfon Masters again. As much as it may not sound that related, swimming compliments my climbing in so many ways: it’s great antagonist work; it’s great for developing power and strength; and while swimming up and down the other day, i found myself running through the moves of Sway On in my head…

My initial bout of competitive swimming coincided with my most productive period of climbing and a step up to the next level. While i’m not expecting to go several times a week like back in 2012 (or even every week, as has been made abundantly clear by Em) any sessions at all may be the difference come next year.

We’re now coming into a winter season and that means the focus now shifts from achieving outdoor sends to indoor training in preparation for Spring. That being said, my Top Ten Yearly Average still isn’t that great and I’d like to bump it up a little more. Right now, it sits at 7a+ so it would be nice to get it up to 7b; the same grade as last year.

Goal: 8a rolls over again but this time, more as a view to training routines. Any time on training apparatus should be focused around this with the hope that come next April, I’m good to go to finally put this to bed and climb my highest ever grade.

However if there’s one thing i’ve learnt over the past few years it’s that i’m shit at training. I don’t enjoy it, don’t feel engaged with it and simply don’t try hard enough. Fingerboards and campus rungs may work for many people but not for me. Instead, my training works around mileage on the wall and thankfully, both the Indy and the Beacon (my two local walls) have just started their aggregate competitions again; ideal fodder for me to get strong in the past.

The flip side is that i don’t actually know how much climbing i’ll actually get in this season. Yes, i’m in the wall regularly but how much of that involves me working hard on projects remains to be seen. As such, i’ve opted for the realistic goal of 85% completion between the two. Whether that is enough for first or fifteenth, i don’t really care.

Finally some work related goals. While i’m very grateful to be teaching people Intro courses and taster sessions, it’s the 1:1 coaching that really gets me inspired. I’ve been running Prowess Coaching for two years now and, given the circumstances over that time, it’s going very well. Now it’s time to develop it further and that will take effort; hence it becoming a goal.

One way to achieve this will be to spend some time writing my book. This again will take time and effort but will be a fantastic achievement if i can make it work.

  • Goal: 8a
  • Average 85% aggregate completion
  • Yearly Average above 7b
  • The Process Book
  • Develop Prowess Coaching
  • Swim

After a mild crisis of faith last season, this coming season is more a point of bringing things back together. As the post began, it’s important to value what you have in life and climbing still makes me happy. So let’s have some fun again and achieve something awesome in the process.

Merry Solstice!

Resurgence Continues

Things seemed to pick up quite quickly once i got back from that last Lakeland jaunt; not that i can remember much of what’s happened in the interim period (a subtle reminder to blog a little more often perhaps). Work has increased, meaning more time in the wall and more training sessions and while opportunities to get outside haven’t exactly been easily forthcoming, they have been reasonably productive.

It hasn’t exactly been revolutionary and this isn’t going to be the type of post where i wax poetic about a string of super-sends but that’s not really the point. This is a case of rebuilding; both physically and mentally and it’s not going to be a quick road. But i’ve started down the road and so far, so good.

Getting Out Again

While the social aspect of bouldering is often a big motivator for many climbers, it’s never been something that particularly drives me and i’m more than happy to run off on my own. Apart from anything else, it’s actually quite hard to arrange free time with such a hectic schedule. That being said, when the chance to be climb with others does present itself, I’ll not pass it up.

So after chatting with Jack, i realised i had an evening available to head out to check out some new boulders he’d been developing. There were some established lines there but much more to be added, including a sweet looking face with some fierce lines both on the right arete and on right up through the middle. But first, there was some nice little traverse lines to add to the mix. None of them were particularly difficult but they were indeed great fun. Slightly annoyingly though, they remain unnamed and ungraded.

The new line through the middle was fierce and vicious and my soft skin wasn’t entirely convinced. In the end, it was split tips that drew an end to my evening, although in fairness darkness had closed in by the time we got back to the truck so we probably timed it quite nicely.

A mere four days later, i was out again, this time snatching a super quick solo session at Parisella’s Cave. I went straight from work and while i had most of my kit with me, i forgot both my camera and a guidebook, instead having the current North Wales Bouldering that covers mountain crags but not the coast. It meant that, while could possibly try and figure out some other options, it meant i was very restricted and so opted to simply try to work on the project from the back end of last year: Rock Atrocity Wobbly Block start 7c+. The desire for my camera was to try and get some more footage for another Seven 7s film – the original of which is linked at the bottom of the page – but i always knew it was wildly unlikely i’d have managed to get anywhere near a send.

What’s interesting in the aftermath is how i inadvertantly applied some new academic research without really knowing it. The week afterwards, i’d been reading about an alternative to SMART Goals called Open Goals. The research from Hawkins, Crust, Swann and Jackman (2020) suggested that those who are “insufficiently active” are better with more Open Goals and those that are sufficiently active need more specificity to their goal setting. They had laid out some criteria for sufficiently/insufficiently active but if you consider them as specific to the task at hand, it transpires that when i arrived at the cave to try Rock Atroicity i was insufficiently active to complete it. As such, unbeknownst to me, i adopted some Open Goals: get on it and see what happens. What transpired – despite some ludicrous unfounded optimism – was to be expected: largely abject failure. However once i’d finished and knew what needed to be done, almost once i’d dragged myself out of my malaise and become sufficiently active to the project, i left with some very specific goals indeed.

So now Wednesday evenings are directed as fingerboard training specifically tailored to the grips i’ll need for this project. I’ve messaged the lead author, who has graciously replied and i’m intrigued to see if i can pursue this thought process to other areas such as returning climbers from a break. A further article is in the pipeline for that too, following a hefty response from some Facebook threads. If nothing else, that evening got the bit between my teeth and gave me some psyche again.

Measuring Progress Indoors

As mentioned, i’m getting more time indoors now, at both the Beacon and the Indy, meaning i can try my hand at projects in both walls. At first the going wasn’t great but i’ve rapidly found that i’ve been achieving some respectable grades. What’s more, the length of time to complete each of them is coming down as well.

I’ve always been sceptical about using indoor grades as a measure of ability but over time, they can give a reasonable measure of form. For example, in early September, anything above 7a+/V7 was tough going but soon enough, they became straightforward. Into October and i was regularly ticking off V8s and V9s in the Beacon within a session; and doing them well too. One pink problem on the steep wall graded V9 and spitting off most of the few that attempted it fell easily within a session and was repeated on the first go of the following session while wearing a weight vest.

Meanwhile at the Indy, while a couple of 7bs continued to be stubborn (one of which still resists my best attempts) i quickly found i was getting other 7b, some 7b+ and even some 7c in a single session. I wasn’t just donig one, i was stacking them up. I don’t record my indoor ascents but i do recall several fridays coming home and giving a little list of grades that would’ve made me smile at any point in my climbing career. And again, i’m doing them in good style as well.

I’m not about to get too carried away with my indoor achievements but with aggregate competitions starting soon, it’s pleasing to be hitting some form.

Some Actual Tangible Success

While, as i say, i don’t record indoor climbs, i’m fastidious in recording my outdoor ones. As much as my focus this summer has been on quantity rather than difficulty, a quick glance this week reminded me that this calendar year i have a measly 7a+, 7b and 7b+ in the bag, as well as a stack of 7a. Not exactly breaking any records. Yes, i’ve smashed the seasonal goal of 900 recorded ascents and am edging closer to 1000 but still, i felt i needed to bump things up a bit.

Back at the start of the year, i’d started trying Higg’s Problem 7b by the Marchlyn reservoir road. Yet, for a variety of reasons, it had thus far eluded every effort: fear of the topout with too few pads, onset of darkness and an urgent but pressing need to use the toilet. Several sessions had come and gone but no send had been forthcoming.

So, on Friday gone when i unexpectedly found myself with a free evening with good conditions, i figured it was time to finally put this climb to bed. Knowing i’d got a little freaked at the top out last time – being as the route traverses to the left quite a bit – i opted to take as many pads as i could lay my hands on; which meant two trips from the truck. No matter, it wasn’t that far and it was much easier than slogging my way up the hill with a full rig.

With the landing now comprehensively covered, conditions perfect and a pre-trip visit to the loo now all complete, i was out of excuses. Thankfully i didn’t need them. It took a while to get everything firing but less than an hour to find the jug that completely negated the need for the extra pads. Even the topout that i thought would worry me slightly felt like a walk; something i’m putting down to early season jitters.

The only downside was a sneaky and wide heel used for the first move. It was well within reach and isn’t outlawed in the guide but felt disingenuous and left me wondering whether my send was legitimate. With time in hand, i figured i might as well try the more direct version done by Tim Peck in his Instagram video.

My send looks totaly different and will hopefully feature in my next Seven 7s film. I’m counting it but there’s a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. You never know, one day i might head back up there and have another blast, maybe even trying the sit start too.

In the meantime, i’m going to concentrate on getting that Top Ten Yearly Average up to be a little more respectable. Rock Atrocity certainly won’t hurt!

Bookended By Lakes

Back in July, free from parental duties for a week, i took a long weekend up to the Lakes (see posts here, here and here). It seemed pretty obvious at the time that it wasn’t going to be a big-tick kinda trip and while it was just the tonic for my beleagured soul, it made me realise i needed a break.

I’ll discuss this more in my next post (so please subscribe to the blog to catch the latest updates) but suffice it to say i needed to stop for a while. I buried myself in woodwork projects, took on a couple of mammoth household jobs and generally enjoyed not having the self-imposed pressure to perform. The psyche was slowly returning as we saw out August and the country slowly came to grips with the pandemic but life was getting in the way and i couldn’t manage to find that time to get out again; things kept popping up and getting in the way.

Then, last weekend, we had a family trip booked to the Lake District, of all place. In recent trips, i’ve based either the family or just myself further North towards Keswick, this jaunt was to be out of the National Trust campsite in Great Langdale. It is a site i know incredibly well, albeit not one i’ve been to for a long time. This was where i would spend my Wednesday nights during my undergraduate degree in Lancaster and the Langdale boulders were my common haunt.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

On relaying this to my brother-in-law James on the drive to the boulders, he apologised, saying he didn’t realise, possibly thinking i’d rather go somewhere new. I hadn’t meant it as a criticism in the slightest and was really looking forward to heading back to my most visited venue during those formative years.

Much of my recent Lakeland adventures (those over the past couple of years) have seen me exorcising demons from those years of youthful naivety and this was another example; having a good session, being strong now and willing to try any of the climbs therewithout a fear of the grade. More importantly, though, it seemed an apt finish to my summer break away from the rock.

We started on the lower block, warming up and getting some mileage in, flashing a few easier lines and completely honestly, i didn’t remember a single move. I barely remembered where the climbs went and spent as much time scouring the guidebook as i would at any crag i’ve not visited before. As such, while i may well have climbed these lines way back when, i’ve classed them as a flash for the records, as they were effectively completely fresh for me.

The main event at the Langdale Boulders is definitely the upper block though and it was here that we were both keen to have a blast. James was far more keen than myself, content with having a short break and watching him enjoy himself on The Crack 5+ that i really felt no need to repeat as i was certain i’d climbed it a very long time ago. The Overhang 6c+ though was a different prospect. I’m pretty sure i have done it but nothing came back to me. So i tried it again.

James had already shuffled the pads and had a couple of attempts so the starting beta was there ready and waiting. I’d even watched him up to his crux move and figured out the top he’d not reached yet. Sure enough, my coach’s eye proved effective and soon enough, i’d cruised through the lower section and had one move left to slap the top. In that common way that boulderers tend to do, i forsook the technique that had got me that far, leapt for the slopey top and latched it successfully. Then immediately regretted it.

Had it not been my flash attempt, i think i’d probably have reversed a move or two and dropped off. With my body flat against the rock and my feet seemingly stuck under the overhang, i did the only thing i could think of at the time and tried a high heel on top of the boulder. However i couldn’t swing my feet up against the friction of my body on the rock and it ended up as a marginal toe hook… Now horizontal high up on the face, i managed to stay out of my own head enough to match feet (so now all four limbs horizontal on the top of this high boulder!) and switch to a heel, much to the wide eyed amazement of James underneath me. Eventually i clambered my way over the lip and stood on the top, shaking and glad it was all over.

Not that it stopped us and James valiantly kept on at the stand start, fighting through the nerves that prevented him from committing to the higher and trickier moves. Meanwhile, i tried to link the super-comfy sitting start into the vein-busting stand start. Eventually, after much grunting and effort, we moved on.

The Pocket 6c+ seemed to be the polar opposite to The Overhang. Less strenuous, possibly more technical and scary but on the way up the face, rather than the top which was (apparently) much easier. While i succeeded on the first climb, here it was James and his trad head that came good. The technical starting moves are knacky but not too bad but the crux is simply committing to standing up straight on the starting hand hold. Half way through this move, there’s a little voice that appears in your head to say “this is the point it feels really high, you know?”. Where James was able to overcome this and finish it off, a send eluded me. Meh, i’ve probably done it before anyway (he says, tongue in cheek).

Back To It

And so, where my climbing had ended in the Lakes at Sampson’s Stones, it has now begun again a few short miles away. The temperatures have now dropped, our new routine is settling down and i’m hoping this is the start of some good sends.

I will have a closer look at that summer in my next post and will hopefully look at writing an article on the topic of coming back to climbing after time away in the near future. When posting the question on several Facebook groups, i was inundated with responses and so have a stack of data to trawl through. Again, keep an eye on the site for more details in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, i have to get ready. I’m going out bouldering again.

Reflections of Climbing’s Olympic Debut

The phrase “climbing makes it’s Olympic debut” has been getting up there with others such as “unprecedented times” so far in 2021, such has been the clamour over this addition to the Olympic roster; and rightly so. Olympic climbing has been a long time coming, has been hugely anticipated by many but also derided in some quarters. Now, after a one-year delay due to coronavirus, in the first week in August in Tokyo, the very first climbers took their place to challenge for the very first gold medal for the sport.

Yet, it’s not been entirely plain sailing. Setting aside the fact that many traditionalist climbers do not agree with the sportification and olympification (these are genuine academic terms for a non-typical sport being adapted for a sporting competition and to becoming an Olympic sport, such as has already occurred with other adventure sports such as snowboarding and kayaking) of climbing and many comments on social media have been to simply reference trad climbing, there has been strong criticism from competition climbers alike. Two famous quotes floating around have come from Shauna Coxsey (“like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles”) and Adam Ondra (“anything would be better than this combination”) and there were many more in the lead up.

But has that been the only take home? Has climbing been well received? We already know it is set for inclusion in Paris 2024 (more on that below) but how has climbing’s bow on the greatest sporting stage gone?

The Competition

First let’s start off with the simple bit: what actually took place. After all, as eluded to above, many climbers are not accustomed to competition climbing and may not have actually watched this competition. So let’s run through the format, the competitors and the eventual winners.

Forty athletes from around the world competed in Tokyo 2020; twenty male and twenty female. As was discussed at length before the competition kicked off, it was a combined format where all competitors were required to compete in all three disciplines on display: speed, bouldering and lead. More on that in a minute.

The forty climbers all took part in qualifying with the top 8 going through to the final two days later. Men’s qualifying was first on the Tuesday, women’s qualifying the day after on Wednesday before men’s finals on Thursday and women’s finals on Friday. What was particularly interesting was with Bassa Mawam. Bassa tore a bicep muscle on the lead climbing qualifying and while he made it through to the finals, was forced to pull out with injury. However, instead of allowing Alex Megos (German superstar outdoor lead climber who finished 9th) through in his place, the men’s finals instead only had seven participants. Given the scoring system in use (again, more on that in a minute) it seemed an odd move.

There were other subtle differences between qualifying and finals. With the variance in the number of competitors, qualifying for bouldering consisted of multiple climbers attempting their respective problems while the finals saw one on the stage at a time; something few seem to have commented on so I’m unsure which was preferable, although to the best of my knowledge, this is normal for competition climbing. While the lead contest was consistent across the week, it was the speed contest (yet again) that proved controversial.

Speed in qualifying rewarded those with the fastest times. In the finals, it was a straight race between two at a time, becoming effectively a round robin with quarters, semis and a round-final with a repechage to determine places 5-8. That meant a simple slip – of the many that happened with non-speed specialists – could have drastic consequences to the eventual podium placings.

For each discipline, climbers were ranked 1-7/8. Then, their scores were multiplied together to give a total; lowest takes the prize. And therein lies one of the biggest complaints.

Results table for Sports Climbing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Those placing first in any discipline are shown in bold

Analysis

One thing is for sure: Olympic climbing certainly saw it’s fair share of coverage. From featuring heavily on the BBC Sport page and other pages on the Guardian, climbing also saw coverage and analysis from America, Australia, India, Japan and France, to name a few. And of course, coverage was extensive across the climbing media. Across both climbers and non-climbers, there were indeed some common themes.

The Scoring System

The scoring system proved to be one of the biggest talking points. Climbers derided it as not giving a true representation of the best climber, many people simply claimed it was far too complicated and even those that liked it commented heavily.

Ironically in the men’s category, given that the format was designed “to find an all-round winner” (see i Newspaper issue 3,340) the scoring system actually ended up favouring the specialists: all three medalists won one of their disciplines as you can see from the Table above. The women’s was less so, although Garnbret’s dominance (winning two disciplines outright) changes the maths substantially. Nevertheless, the scoring meant that any climber who won a discipline was effectively multiplying two numbers instead of three. This is highlighted by Noguchi landing the same score as Miroslaw who claimed a world record speed ascent before finishing last in the other two disciplines.

Every commentary i checked commented on how ineffective the scoring system was. Facebook group threads were awash with criticism of it. And there has been substantial talk regarding Adam Ondra’s distinct lack of podium while being widely regarded as the best climber in the world; almost along the ‘bees can’t fly argument‘. Ondra is the best and finished sixth, so the system must be wrong, or so the argument goes. And much of this comes back to the complaints over Speed climbing.

Speed Climbing the Big Evil?

Immediately once the decision to include sport climbing in the Olympics was announced, there was fervant criticism to have one overall medal for all three disciplines and much of this focused on Speed climbing. Petr Klofac voiced a popular opinion stating “it’s not real climbing” and much commentary since the Olympics – both in the climbing and mainstream media – has agreed that Speed is too different to be included alongside bouldering and lead.

However attitudes towards this honesly popular discipline have been mixed. The decision to only have one set of medals available aside, some climbers are starting to come around to the idea of speed climbing, such as this piece from Climbing magazine in the States. Burgman raises some excellent points that this author has been saying for some time: speed is the oldest competitive discipline dating back to the Soviets in the 1930s; speed ascents on the Nose or the Eiger get massive attention with climbers; it is still actually climbing. The fact is though, for many climbers, speed climbing is the ultimate in sportification, and for those with an academic bent, is the ultimate in the application of Darbon’s systeme sportif into a hitherto adventure sport and that rubs against the grain.

The real travesty vis a vis speed climbing actually comes from before the qualifying round. With athletes needing to be proficient and to qualify across all three disciplines, there was no Olympic place for Iranian speed specialist Reza Alipourshena for example (see Reel Rock 13, episode Up To Speed). While much has been made that speed has stumped many of the major forces in bouldering and lead, the combined format worked both ways and robbed us of the chance to see holders of world records compete on the world’s greatest sporting stage.

It is impossible to deny it is the speed discipline that gained the most traction amongst non-climbers. It is by far the easiest for non-climbers to comprehend, being a race like so much of the rest of the Olympics and despite Australian sports news stating the race “was over as quickly as it started” (hard to deny, surely being the quickest Olympic record out there at sub-6 seconds), received the most exposure on BBC Sport, was the only world record available and achieved quotes such as “What’s not to likeabout spider-people scampering up a 15-metre wall in twos as fast as possible?” (i newspaper, number 3,340). The one constant through all of this: the format did not work.

The Controversial Format

This was the major talking point in the lead up. I’ve mentioned it above but it almost became overbearing in the years leading up to the Olympics among anyone in the discussion: Speed should be separate. This point has been made abundantly clear.

What we’ve now seen is the mainstream media and anyone else watching saying the same. Speed climbing remains divisive, the Marmite of disciplines, and should be left separate. However, here we need some more context. The IOC only offered one set of medals per gender for Tokyo and so the IFSC decided to take it, not wanting to ignore the established speed climbing competitions. The idea was “primarily to establish climbing and it’s three disciplines as Olympic sports; changes to the format could follow later” (see Wikipedia, Sport Climbing at the 2020 Summer Olympics).

The fact is that the changes had already been agreed before Tokyo. Climbing had already been announced for Paris 2024 back in December 2020 with the IOC stating that they were offering a second set of medals to each gender, as can clearly be seen here on page 4. The fact that both climbers and non-climbers alike said exactly the same thing that both the IOC and IFSC had already agreed to change actually vindicated everyone.

The IOC were always going to be hesitant to throw too much in too soon. But the way it has all played out, everything is starting to come together.

Indoor Climbing

Of course, climbing’s profile has been growing in recent years anyway. Climbers feature more in advertising, on I’m a Celebrity and such programmes, or featured in newspapers as potential activities for people to try. A climbing film even won an Oscar.

Names such as Alex Honnold have become true celebrities in their own right but what has been interesting over these two weeks is how little his name has actually come up. In recent years, to tell someone that you’re a climber has been to endure instant questions about Honnold and Free Soloing (a term even many climbers can’t explain properly). The Olympics has presented a new crop of names and while their exploits are equally as superhuman as Honnold or Tommy Caldwell, they are infitely more accessible to anyone who wishes to try the sport.

Free Soloing the Nose is something that no-one will ever attempt, save for a handful of experts. Climbing on an artificial wall though, is something nearly everyone in the UK can do within an hour of their home. Yes, the grades and times may be wildly different but replicas of the exact Olympic speed route abound aplenty and anyone can have a go themselves. Many traditionalists fear Olympic climbing may seem the crags overwhelmed but it may be more likely that this new breed of climber remains indoors in the setting to which they recognise. More climbers on more climbing spaces all seeing the collaborative and ethical nature of climbing; a true legacy indeed.

Verdict

It is difficult to truly assess how well climbing has done from my little desk here in North Wales as our extensive coverage is primarily dominated by sports with involvement by British athletes (fair enough really). Given Shauna Coxsey failed to make the finals, and with no male counterpart, other sports were always going to dominate such as skateboarding with Sky Brown. Plus of course there are my own biases to seek out climbing over other sports; i only caught the beach volleyball, which i love, on the penultimate day and have missed many sports over the past fortnight. I’ve had to spend a lot of time searching foreign news sites to see how much has been covered abroad.

However, with that being said, the coverage of climbing in the UK has been extensive, British involvement or not. Traditionalists aside, who were never going to be happy one way or the other, climbing has been a big hit overall. Various decisions on format, for example, may have been criticised but have effectively been vindicated. Overall, Olympic climbing has proven a great success.

There is still need to be cautious. While climbing is scheduled for Paris 2024, it is still an exhibition sport and not technically part of the full roster of sports just yet. But just as the IFSC wanted it’s foot in the door, now they’re sneaking their way in. With Los Angeles 2028 and Brisbane 2032 already confirmed as hosts, we can only hope that we continue to see climbing come back time and again and if it does, the teething problems of this first games will soon become distant memories of stepping stones to truly great things; not only of shiny medals but of a more inclusive and diverse set of participants. The Olympic finals already look more diverse than your average weekend at Stanage, not to mention the equal interest placed on both the men’s and women’s categories, and with climbing showcased to a significantly wider audience – as well as indoor climbing becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end as it has previously been viewed – Olympic climbing could well be the point where our sport really becomes one for everybody.

Finally a huge congratulations to all 40 climbers who featured in Tokyo and of course to all medalists. Thank you all for a fantastic spectacle and for being true ambassadors of our great pastime in all it’s guises.

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