Friday, 20 December 2013

Dolerite Days - The End Of Two Eras.

Warning, this is even more long-winded, over-opinionated and anal-retentive than usual. To help read or more likely avoid some parts of it, I've highlighted some paragraphs as below:

[Æ] - analysis of ethical issues
[ß] - beta alert
[¢] - climbing report
[Ð] - dishing out the pain on idiots


1. Wally 2, Ratho.

One of the temporarily retro-bolted and thankfully repaired routes that I'd always wanted to do but at the time of bolting....

    ...I haven't done it because I've been exploring the rest of Scotland and have saved it for a short local day.

[Ð] One of the most farcical moments in the whole debate was when one of the pro-retrobolting / anti-consultation / anti-trad protagonists - let's just call him The Liar, not least because of his fictional claims to "enjoy both trad and sport" (well demonstrated by doing sport 90% of the time) - somehow claimed that I was making this up. Well that's an impressive way to sabotage one's entire arguments by somehow contriving to disbelief a truth so obvious and self-evident. What next, doubting someone who claims "I go climbing indoors when it's raining" or "I go on sport climbing trips in winter when it's cold and dark in the UK" or "I like going to the west coast when it's windy to keep the midges away"??

Suffice to say the truth of my statement came to pass the other day....a short local day when I wasn't exploring the rest of Scotland. Cold but pleasant around Edinburgh, wet in the west and too little daylight to go further east. I'd actually been for a look at this route a fortnight before: I'd got on it just before dusk, got pumped placing the gear, reversed down for a rest, then the sunlight went off the wall and my fingers got frozen, and I backed off. So I was itching to get back on, and a sudden skyhook revelation had restored my confidence in the otherwise minimal gear at the start. Gear? Yes, gear. A young kid in the area had led it when it was a sport route without clipping the bolts, and claimed:

    Wally 2 is a solo when climbed without the bolts. Best left alone?

[ß] More falsehoods that hardly encourage sensible debate about a route's trad merits. Of course as a pure trad solo it would still have merits and not warrant retro-bolting, but in fact it is quite a steady lead. I got 11 bits of gear in, ran out of quickdraws *and* RPs - the total tally being: Tied down skyhook (easy to place), RP0, HB0, HB2, Camalot 0.25, Camalot 0.75, HB2, RP1, RP2, Peenut 1, Camalot C3 00. The Camalots are very obvious from the ground, the RPs are very obviously crucial if fiddly gear. A solo?? Errrr. No.

[ß][¢] Anyway it is a great route that I really enjoyed leading in very crisp conditions. Bouldered up to place the first gear, bouldered down to rest and tighten the skyhook, back up and straight into the steady run-out moves up the fine groove to good holds and good cams at mid-height. Explored up the wall above past innumerable RP placements to a steep finish, reversed back down for a rest, committed out right into pumpy but steady moves onto a nice clean top-out. As sensible and normal as trad gets. Then we both did the new sport route to the left which was also good up another elegant groove - a worthy addition that compliments the trad on this wall.

[Æ] So that should be the end of a sordid but ultimately satisfactory saga. There is one more retro-bolted route that I'd like to see repaired, the Slow Strain arete, but that seems less likely as no-one else is campaigning to have that fixed, and it was done with the first ascentionists blessing (although that is only a necessary factor, and by no means sufficient). Given the relentless stupidity I and others have faced when arguing against the retro-bolting, I doubt this will be worth more hassle. Aside from that, that situation is very good: Classic trad routes have been cleaned and re-climbed, Pettifar's has a useful lower-off, there are good new sport additions in-between the trad, and there has been excellent tree and path clearance, the quarry has got more publicity, and with the state of the Ratho wall roof, it's probably drier than the indoor wall!

Victory for the forces of righteousness and justice, then.

And I've done my main inspirations in the quarry....but then again I do like the climbing there....and thinking about it there's a few more things to go back for: Blue Rinse, Alopecia, Slow Strain boltfree, Oroborous Direct, Strongarm, Rebel With Claws, This Septic Heil. Well it's useful to have some inspiration for short local days...

2. Nijinski, Auchinstarry.

And you thought the previous entry had too much ethical waffling on. Oh dear...

[Ð] So Nijinski, THE line of the Central Belt. The Edge Lane / Master's Edge / Archangel of Kilsyth. Sort of. It is, for a lump of rock jutting into a ned carpark in an urban quarry on the bend of a busy road, a beautiful bit of rock. A beautiful bit of rock with a beautiful reputed climb -delicate arete climbing a long way out from small and tenuous RPs. Thus a quintessential lead challenge, the sort of experience one is either ready for or isn't, one either does or walks away in acknowledgment. The one thing one NEVER does is to non-climb the route by top-roping it. Top-roping a route like this is of course is the most utter sort of failure, both a failure to even try the route, and a failure to engage with or even acknowledge it's true quality.

[Æ] I led it, just about onsight, but with a slight impurity that leaves me pondering. I did pretty well: I deliberately didn't do Bladerunner first, I didn't watch anyone on Nijinski in any style, I didn't ask for specific beta, I didn't abseil down to clean it, I didn't watch my mate when he abseiled down for me, I didn't use a pad on the bouldery start. But neither did I just read the guidebook, get syked, and blast from the bottom to the top.

[Æ] Firstly, I had attempted this route before, been up to the crux, been unsure about the line and quite sure it was too warm, reversed down and escaped up the Nijinski Is The Hunter link. Reserving to the ground is normal procedure for me and for many people pushing their onsight limits - cleanly backing off a route under one's own steam and trying it again later. Standard procedure and of little interest. Trying a harder route that breaks out of an easier route, reversing and finishing up the easier route, also fairly standard and also of little interest. Think starting up The Mincer to try Smear Test, getting half-way along Smear Test, not liking it and reversing to finish up The Mincer. Or Pebbledash/The Swan or whatever. So far, so normal - especially in a situation like N where you hang around on the massive resting Triangle before engaging with the full arete.

But in this case, NITH is not a particularly established route - it doesn't appear in the guide, only on UKC, and only with a few ascents. So is it a contrived cop-out that makes a mockery of trying Nijinski onsight?? Is it something no-one would ever do except to escape Nijinski if they are not good enough to do it nor reserve to the ground cleanly?? I'm not sure, but in it's favour, NITH is the easiest line that goes all the way up the frontal slab, and links an highball E3 5c start into a bold, reachy E2 5b finish, by delicate E1 5a climbing, and thus is pleasingly continuous and more balanced in difficulty than DITH (E5+ in to E2) or N (E3 into E5-). It would probably be one or even two stars in it's own right, and a worthwhile climb in it's own right. Would it be a contrived cop-out to start up NITH with the idea to give N a look, and continue up NITH otherwise?? Maybe not...

[Æ] Secondly, while the line of Nijinski is obvious, the line of the climbing is less so. You start the arete on it's right, but above the Triangle, mostly climb it on it's left....but there is one crucial point teetering on a slim quartz ripple whilst blindly grasping a pocket around the corner, where it seems natural to fall rightwards around the corner and layback the arete on it's right. This is where the holds lead, but then seems to bring you into Bladerunner, or at least the Bladerunner holds, for a couple of metres. It looks possible to layback the arete purely on the left, this would be a cleaner line but obviously much harder. Given this sort of route is at my limit with no margin for error, I couldn't continue on my previous attempt without knowing the default way, and I didn't want to get on it again without finding out.

So I asked around. A couple of friends said "yeah you swing rightwards". But they hadn't done it. A few people on the internet said "No you stay on the left all the way". But one person had only top-roped it, and the other two didn't elaborate. A video of someone doing it on YouTube showed them swinging rightwards (I very carefully only skipped through the video quickly to see what line they ended up on, and didn't get any beta). But this was only someone shunting. Someone else on Facebook said they "reached around to the right then up direct". But it was a decade ago and their picture only showed them above the crux. Typical Scotland - hard to get clear information even about a roadside mega-classic! Finally I had a good chat with Alan Cassidywho remembered the situation well "yeah there's that hold around the corner, you swing around on it, it's well sketchy, that felt like the crux". Okay, something that makes sense from someone who has done it recently enough.

[ß][¢] Finally, on to the route. Boulder up the arete, it's harder now the lower block has gone and I have to pounce for the Triangle. Trot up to the gear seam, it's muddier than before, but I have a wee kitchen knife taped next to my nutkey. Scraping around, hard fiddling and firm tugs, and I have my nuts resting in the dirty crack. Nice. As before I have placed loads and two of them are just about good. This time I have a new slider but the bugger still doesn't fit. Perfect thin parallel seam, it annoys me so I step back down to the Triangle. Shake my toes out, and up to the ripple of doom. Hmm it's a bit thin, did I really get on this before and reverse it?? I guess so, because I do again....and again. The second time feels even more precarious, I'm teetering, flicking glances left to the gear (which I feel happy with), right around the corner to what little I can see (not much), down to the minimal footholds (gulp). I very nearly committ then - either I will fall off and at least I won't be on this fucking ripple any more, or I will do the moves.....and at least I won't be on this fucking ripple any more. I reverse by the skin of my teeth for another rest. 3rd time lucky, well it has to be: Firstly I realise the top of NITH is wet so I can't escape again. Secondly I throw down by bodywarmer (but not my £1.69 beanie, today it is matching a purple t-shirt and I'm not giving up THAT advantage), so I can't reverse as I will freeze solid. Onto the ripple, right hand in the pocket, change my geometries and fall around the corner, smearing my left hand as I go - it is a brilliant move, very much a poor man's Kaluza Klein (see 5:45 here). Layback the arete, reach good holds up and right, cruise to the top.

[¢] So I did the line in accordance with the slight majority vote, in accordance with someone who described it clearly, in accordance with the line of least resistance, and in accordance with something that had bloody great moves on it. After all the faff and escaping and enquiring, the moment that really mattered was that swing around, the moment of mid-motion and smearing my hand to control it. A beautiful manouvre for a beautiful line.

[Æ] If Nijinski is supposed to take the eliminate line letting go of, or ignoring, the crucial pocket and staying purely on the left, sobeit. This would be a worthy alternative for a guidebook footnote and perhaps best named "Nijinski Direct", and still worth 3 stars. If the line of least resistance I took is an easier grade, sobeit. With enough gear in the crack, it felt easy for the grade for me anyway.

Now I can move on.....Bladerunner/direct, Surface Tension, Gold Bug await....


Saturday, 14 December 2013

To pad or not to pad...

...that is not the question. Any more than to cam or not, to RP or not, to chalk or not, to Stealth rubber or not. Pads are default, de-rigeur protection, I use them and so does everyone else...

I'm still standing on the slopey ripple, as I have been for over 20 minutes. I could reverse down and jump off at any time. I could retreat and walk away at any time. I could bring the pads over and boulder it out. I look across at them stacked beneath Tris. He is getting close to Sithee Direct, pushing through day 6 tiredness from the undercling to an overhead press, a brilliant move. It provides a welcome distraction whilst my brain refines the sequences above, slotting together information gained over several tenative forays. Left foot edge - no. Right foot smear - no. Left hand gaston - no. Left hand over to top sloper - no. Right hand to sidepull pebble - no. Exploring options, discarding dead ends, running out of excuses to not do the remaining optimised moves.

The conditions are pretty much perfect - hovering around zero at dusk after a fresh sunny day - and the rock feels great. My skin feels less great. My tips went numb at first, now they are glowing and rippled from the grit grains. Each time I'm surprised I can stick onto the top slopers without pinging straight off - I have no intention of doing so and need to get this right if....when I do it. I look down at the flat pile of my rope bag and down jacket. My tips are still sweating so my swiftly-discarded hoodie adds a few millimetres of cushioning. I keep my beanie on, I just got it in the Hope Spar for £1.70 and it's muted stripes would go well with grey, purple, or blue. I'm wearing a blue t-shirt so the beanie gives me confidence.

A couple of climbers appear with several pads to join in the fun. Would I like their pads thrown down beneath me? No, I want to do this the way I had always desired. They happily pile them beneath Torture Garden, but I don't want to hold too many people up so get back into the crux position with a few percent extra motivation. Smear my hands on the slopers, dig my foot into the pocket....and this time take the handbrake off and step up into the subtle left foot pocket. Calm and committed, left hand into the flake, right hand to the good edge, left foot onto the flake and scamper with glee to the top. The climbing is delightful as is the pleasure of doing it in this way, it's possibly the highlight of several days and a dozen good routes on the grit.

So I did an easy micro-route without pads, just like a million climbers before me in the bad old days. So what?? Except for me, it IS a challenging style of climbing. I'm short and sweaty and sketchy on smears and slopers, I land with the grace and impact of a pissed hippo and the skeletal resilience of a balsa model. I also had the very sensible option to do the climb as a highball with good pads and spotting - which in my experience makes a lot of difference to my safety and confidence - just like a million climbers do in the good current days. Except I chose not to....


Or maybe:

Was it more enjoyable at the time doing the climb in that style than doing it in a highball style??

That's an easier question because the answer is a simple yes. The increased focus, the precision, learning the moves, dealing with the mental challenge by becoming increasingly familiar with the physical situation - all were more enjoyable for me than if I'd felt safer and more comfortable above pads. The sweaty skin from a lot of up-and-downing wasn't but that was a minor detraction.

Is that justification in itself??


But at the same time I'm always interested in the issues of motivation, and the issues of climbing style. Highballing is the new, normal climbing style. Micro-routing isn't. Pads are the new, normal climbing protection. It takes a particular effort to conciously ignore and actively avoid using them. So why would anyone bother to choose the harder, more dangerous, more time consuming option?? When the convention seems a very natural approach to shorter protectionless routes, increasing the safety yet still retaining some of the feel and committment required, it seems ridiculous to fly in the face of that convention - even when top climbers like James Pearson do it (from what I understand his motivation was partly to have clarity about the nature of the challenge in comparison to other grit trad challenges).

For me personally, I take all the opportunities I can get to deal with trad challenges, and I take my protection rack of C3s, RPs, Peenuts, Superlights, Ballnuts, HBs, Tricams on most bolder routes. So why don't I put the protection of pads beneath my feet??

It boils down to inspiration (god, not THAT again!) - how I was originally inspired to do a climb. Most of my inspiration is old inspiration - I'm a crap climber so it takes me many years from first desiring a route to actually feeling ready to try climbing it. Old, deep, entrenched inspiration. If I was inspired by a climb in the old red-spined Stanage guide, then chances are I'll still be inspired by it now (and might have avoided it for decades due to being too scared). If I was inspired by a route as a micro-route and/or a bold solo, chances are I'll still be inspired by THAT challenge and THAT style now. Which means although it will be harder and scarier, it's how I actually want to do it - for the reasons of the enjoyment listed previously.

I have quite a few routes I have always wanted to do in this way. I might relinquish my inspiration and throw a load of pads down in a month, or a year, or a decade. Or I might stick with what I want and do them without. Or I might never do them, I might just accept I can't do them how I want, and just walk away. Is it silly to deny myself the climbing?? I don't know, I've got a couple of decades to change my mind if I want to. Conversely there are many similar climbs I was never previously inspired by that I'd get inspired by now purely as highballs, and never consider doing them in a different way.

There is no conclusion to this, there is no point I'm making, as the issue can be as simple as it first seems: It's now a rare and esoteric choice to solo rather than to highball, but it is still a genuine choice and can be undertaken for genuine reasons.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Peak Practice.

It's taken me a good 4 years to get over the horror of gritstone climbing and get some syke back for it. Living in Sheffield for many years, doing over a thousand routes on grit, continuously battling the slopey, rounded, frictional, reachy, pumpy and utterly committing climbing than plays exactly to my weaknesses, ensured that I didn't miss it one bit. Until this winter when I haven't shaken off my trad syke - bored of bouldering and still utterly revolted by the very idea of ""Scottish Winter Climbing"", the prospect of coming back down to play on the optimal winter rock suddenly became appealing. Plus I'd missed the slabs and aretes and technical delicacies that are very sparsely spread in Scotland, and well-established, well-climbed routes with clean holds and clear lines that are also often a rarity in the barren wastelands up here. Finally I had a card up my sleeve - the confidence I'd gained from falling practice was still lingering and I felt inspired to try to put into action of some committing but hopefully not dangerous grit routes.

As it happened, we had to battle the weather as much as the climbing. Chasing the "panic about tidal surge" hurricane down, we left Glasgow on a glorious crisp pre-dawn morning, hit gloomy cloud by Preston and swirling hill fog and sleet leaving Glossop. In the ensuing days, the weather slowly perked up through mizzle, clart, murk, haze and finally crisp sunshine, all driven across the edges by punishing breezes, meaning our crag visits went something like this:

Shining Cliff - great nick when it was sleeting at Stanage and showering at Curbar.
Curbar day 1 - damp in the morning, then okay nick....until it rained.
Curbar/Froggatt day 2 - bone dry at Moon area but too strong gales to climb. Froggatt not as crisp but dry enough and at least survivable.
Roaches - glorious sun, decent breeze, and almost entirely green and sodden. Only bits of the Skyline and HD were in decent nick.
Stanage High Neb - almost perfect nick on the rock but again a howling wind limited feasible route options.
Stanage Popular / Plantation - absolutely perfect nick with a cold morning and evening, glorious sun and cool breeze in between.

...restricting both crag and route options, meaning my mini tick-list was downsized to this:

Flyaway E1 5b * - steep, steady, and fun
Marathon Man E2 5c ** - good fun safe cruxy climbing
Lazy Day F6b+ *** - great line and good climbing but an odd experience with the old aid bolts
Four Pebble Slab E3 5c * - a bit eliminate but a nice run-out with pure friction moves
Shortcomings E1 6a * - an unexpected pleasure that I never thought I'd bother trying, I was tall enough to place the gear but short enough to have to reach the flake the hard way
Hunky Dory E3 5c *** - excellent route, the perfect blend of powerful bits and committing bits
The Beautician E3 5c ** - with the blindingly obvious en-route runner that's 18" left of the hand-holds you start the crux slab with, safe and steady but good proper slab moves
Pig's Ear V3 ** - a rare occasion for me to keep the pads down, worth it for a fine wee highball
Fate E2 5c * - another unexpected pleasure which I had tried but backed off, I'm not sure how as this time I did it at dusk in about 3 minutes
Stanleyville E4 5c ** - perfect morning just as the fog lifted, good committing crux
Constipation E4 6a ** - took quite a bit of up-and-downing to find the sequence, proper grit trickiness
DIY E3 6a *** - onsight no pads, amazing conditions with just enough skin left, great committing moves and really rewarding

Ones that got away: The Bear Hunter (hurricane conditions), King Kong (too cold and unbouncy for the mantle), Wolf Solent (escaped off the super-safe crux with cold hands and the easy chimney 2' away), Comus (brutally hard and reachy, backed off).

The last day at Stanage showed just how much cool stuff we could have done if the weather had been more amenable - but then again I'd have probably run out of fingertips in a couple of days!! So not so many spectacularly challenging routes, but a nice blend of fairly classic and fairly tricky routes done fairly confidently, and minorly tricky routelets done with a surprising minimum of fuss. Slabs felt very steady, bulges felt bloody awful (maybe due to the relatively humidity on open rounded holds?), and I certainly need more hospitable weather, more warming up, and more beefing up to tackle anything steep down there. At any rate it was mighty good fun when we got on dry rock and my next return visit might be in 4 weeks rather than 4 years...

Grit sport climbing at it's best on Lazy Day

Enjoying a tasty mini-runout on good ripples on Hunky Dory. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Why so serious?

It might look crazy from the outside. Someone goes out on a nice warm Sunday afternoon in December, tries a really cool looking climb, does the hard bits fine, gets tired and nervous on one easy move before a rest, rests on the gear and lowers off. A seemingly insignificant event, but his reaction to this is as follows: firstly swearing and shouting, then upon abseiling to remove the protection (and confirm the situation was as easy as expected and it was his failing not the climb's difficulty), briefly loses his temper and throws several bits of climbing gear around, then collects them all in a cold hard rage. He maintains enough composure to explain and apologise to his climbing partner, who is thankfully human enough to understand the emotional stresses of climbing, and belay him on another route. After this his anger stays seething all the way home, and he even has a couple of rare drinks to try to calm down. Later on it just about subsides to crossness and disappointment but takes another night and day to fully dissipate.

So that was me then and this is me now, trying to make sense of it.

Why so serious? Why does it matter so much? Why such a strong reaction to something so trivial as failing on a climb? After all it's not like I broke my legs, or crashed my car, or came back to find my flat broken in to, or had a family member diagnosed with cancer, or had a helicopter drop on my head when I was out for a casual Friday night drink... Why so angry?

(Although when I was lying in hospital with multiple DVTs due to an unknown cause, swollen legs and a massively spiking CRT, and scarcely able to walk to the toilet, I wasn't angry at all, just resigned.)

Some people understand, some people don't. Sometimes I don't feel I understand, but all I know, contrary to how it might seem to some people, the feeling is completely natural and totally genuine. It's not made up for effect or exaggerated for drama. It's not chosen or contrived. It is real and it is how I really feel. No amount of "why should you be angry?" / "it's only a climb" / "aren't you overreacting?" / "think how lucky you are" will change that. No amount of realising it's counter-productive and not wanting to be so angry will magically switch it off. If I had a Control Emotions switch I wouldn't be human.

So it matters, it is serious, it is a genuine response.


Because climbing is a brilliant and fantastic activity that I am passionate about, so I invest a lot in emotionally because that's how it works for me. For some people it's just a hobby, just a bit of fun, just....whatever. For me it is that, but it is more - and it engages me BECAUSE it is more. It's serious because this much fun is a serious business, this is what really matters! The downside to the emotional investment - the inspiration, the dedication, the passion, the excitement, the satisfaction, the engagement, the fun, the physical expression - is that if I betray or sabotage that, I can be as upset with myself as I am excited with myself when I do it well.

Most of the anger is that the route I failed on was very good, it would have been a very nice, interesting, enjoyable, exciting, stimulating experience to climb it all. It was a precious and positive experience that I engaged with and then chose to throw away due to giving in to my own inadequacies. I had something great and then ruined it for myself - and in the area, that is a limited resource. If it had been something less inspiring, more trivial, more common (there aren't so many good climbs at that standard in that style that are accessible to me), less special as an experience of pleasure, then I could walk away a lot calmer. But abseiling down I could see just how much pleasure I would have got from continuing and completing the climb. Throwing away a really good climbing experience....that is why I was angry.

The other most of the anger (yes, there was THAT much) is that it was my own lack of determination that let me down. The route is not a very hard route, and besides I had done the hard bits. If I fail on something because it is genuinely hard, because I get beaten fair and square, because I am just not good enough, then I could walk away a lot calmer. On this route I was good enough, but for a moment I chose not to be, I chose to give in to the pressures of pump and nervousness instead of fighting through them, even when I was so close to just doing it.

The one thing I can perhaps take from this experience is a reminder that it does matter to me, that it is serious fun, and that I will get really pissed off if I mess it up for myself. Maybe because I haven't done much of that this autumn, I've got complacement and forgotten how pissed off I can get. So next time keeping the consequences of failure in mind might give me that little bit of an edge when my positive desire for success and enjoyment gets blunted.

Hope this makes sense. Posting now because I'm fed up of trying to write/edit it!