Thursday, 23 February 2012

Pigs and Pixies

It’s 7.45am and I prise myself out of bed; my body aches and my mind protests against movement after the 13 hours of work yesterday and the four days of climbing before that. I stop making excuses and get up.

I step outside and the warm air feels strange and unnatural, the ground is wet and condensation could well be a problem but I’m only heading to Pixies’ and it’s worth the 10min drive to find out. The world-famous Pixies’ Hole is a squalid cave at Chudleigh which epitomises all that I need to improve at. The angle, somewhere between vertical and Ferocity Wall steepness won’t succumb to my usual technique of turning sideways and throwing in a drop-knee instead you need to climb square-on using strength, power and accuracy, three of my major weaknesses.

I park up and walk in, the crag is silent and deserted which is unsurprising as it’s 8.30am and the whole crag is dripping with condensation. Pixies’ is normally festooned with bright white chalk marks but today it’s dark and damp and slimy.

Climbing is clearly out of the question but I can’t bring myself to turn around and head back home. I dump my bags and wander on down the crag, past Pixies’ where many a happy hour has been spent in the company of good friends, past Combat where I scared myself silly 1st time round and Tendonitis where I felt calm and collected despite dropping some crucial gear. I pick out lines I’ve led, lines I plan to lead and lines I haven’t noticed before. I look up at Hot Ice and remember top-roping it many years ago and hoping one day I’d be brave enough to solo it... then remind myself to get on and do it. Past Cow Cave, past some of my first climbs nearly ten years ago, Wogs and Barn Owl Crack, exciting outings that I loved and that got me hooked on climbing. I look up at Black Death and White Life and mentally bump the latter up my to-do list of climbs for this year. I wander on past Scar and The Spider and Great Western, so many climbs and so many memories of great days out.

Turning away from the crag I meander back through the trees breathing in the warm air and the scent of spring, I see snowdrops pushing their way through the mossy soil and watch ravens soaring and cackling overhead. The smell of the woodland and the sight of the old twisted oaks remind me of walking through the wood on my parents’ farm, following dear tracks and disturbing magnificent stags. I remember being sent with a bucket of pig food to find an adventurous pair of pigs that we brought for the autumn; the pigs where free-range throughout the whole farm but had a penchant for exploring and finding gaps in the boundary fence.
As happy as a pig in...
I walked through the wood calling and rattling the bucket until eventually there was a rustling in the undergrowth and the two pigs trotted over for some food and a good scratch. On the way back I disturbed a pair of stags fighting in a pond in the centre of the wood, the image of them is framed in my mind with sunlight streaming through the trees and catching on the droplets of water thrown up in the air.

Back in Chudleigh I see no deer or pigs but the wood is beautiful nevertheless and the morning spent wandering around a damp crag doesn’t feel wasted at all.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


For some climbers training is the bane of their lives, a torture they endure occasionally and only when circumstances force them to. For others it’s the reminder of a climbing lifestyle in an otherwise busy life, an escape from their commitments for a precious 30 minutes spent hanging off a fingerboard or training wall, memories of past climbs and future plans are all the motivation they need.

For my part I enjoy a good training session, I love turning up to the wall with a plan and sticking to it, I love walking away 4 hours later with tired and aching muscles and a very real sense of achievement but most of all I love the focus it requires.

I warm up at The Quay, traversing and climbing some of the easier boulder problems then I head to the 40 degree wall and work out a ten move problem that’s near the limit of my ability. It’s strange to be climbing in a busy climbing wall instead of at a quiet crag, people and their conversations distract me; I climb the problem for the first time, feet skating everywhere. At the last hold I jump off, a 30 second rest and a quick chalk up and I’m back on the board. This time the concentration comes more easily, my footwork is more precise, each move is carried out more efficiently.

Jump off, rest, chalk, climb.

The third go and I start to feel tired, the pump in my arms won’t shift and I feel like Popeye just without the spinach habit. Fourth and fifth goes are a trial, the last move nearly gets me each time but I stick it, just. Five bolts stand in a row by the entrance to the boulder room, each one symbolising a go on the board and an inability to count whilst tired.

I take a rest then head to the other boulder room and repeat the process on the roof section then back to the 40 degree wall for round 3 on a new 10 move problem. Time for a break and some food and renewed psyche from an old edition of climb magazine.

Back on the floor I warm up again and head on to the auto-belay for laps on some longer routes. A slopey 7a is perfect for the challenge, only one positive hold on the route and hard moves requiring locking off and reaching. Five goes later and I don’t want to stop, my arms are tired but the moves are so absorbing that I don’t seem to mind. In the break between goes my mind wanders, in the lull between focusing hard on the route it explores the reasons why; why I’m training, why I enjoy this, why I keep coming back.

Sanctuary Wall - it's time to get strong!

I think I’m addicted to the feeling of moment, of freedom, of pain and resistance, of power and strength, of muscles working to their limit and my mind fully focused on each hold, each move. The beauty of it is that while my mind is full of climbing it is empty of everything else. The absolute commitment to each move requires rules out thoughts of anything more, of life and people, of the ever-changing future or the unchangeable past.  My life, and all of existence with it, shrinks to a heart-beat, a burst of power from my muscles, a single focused thought.

At the end of the session when the outside world returns to crowd out my mind I miss the feeling of being lost inside a move but the memory of it is as powerful as a drug, calling me back time and time again. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Early-Morning Blues

I wish I was still in bed...

My thoughts are slow and sluggish but it’s 7.45am, I’m at the cove and it’s one of those days when everything feels like hard work. I try and wake up by getting on the traverse but after yesterday’s dawn session at Chudleigh my skin feels like it’s on fire. I move round to the sloper traverse in the hope that it won’t hurt as much and that I’ll warm up, which I do, slowly.

... my skin hurts...

Though it's gloomy over Anstey's the view out to sea takes my breath away; a container ship sits out in the bay silhouetted against the early morning sunshine that breaks through the layer of cloud in rays covering the scene in a soft orange glow.

... it’s beautiful here...

Under Ferocity Wall the cold easterly wind whips along the base of the cliff stealing the last of my psyche and body heat but we set up anyway as there’s not a lot else to do. I put the clips in Tuppence trying to link sections of the route but the moves feel hard today, especially compared to my last session. On Sunday, back on the project after 3 weeks away I felt fit and strong, possibly the strongest I’ve ever felt on the route; today, however, every move is a challenge.

... but so cold...

After a stint of belaying I’m climbing again, trying to ignore the pain but each hold bites into my skin like a piranha, if my fingers pop off a hold the pain increases leaving me hanging on the rope cursing quietly but the move at the bottom of the route is the worst. The big slap to a razor sharp hold requires all-or-nothing commitment, I settle for neither and my fingers catch but don’t quite hold the edge...


Thought it feels unusually hard and painful today, somehow it’s still worth it; every move I try and make with tired arms and worn-out skin will feel easier next time, at least I hope it will! Despite it all it feels great to sneak in a climb before a full day’s work, like I’ve manage to cheat the system just a little.

... I wouldn’t miss this for the world.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


I’ve just returned from two weeks in El Chorro climbing sunny sport climbs, absorbing a much needed dose of Vitamin D and accidentally believing that summer had come and winter was over for the year. My return to England and its rain, snow and sub-zero temperatures quickly disabused me of that notion.

We stayed in the Olive Branch, the perfect hang-out for any climbing bum, and our time there fell into a regular pattern; days spent at a local crag either baking of freezing depending on its aspect, evenings spent in the strange improvised dance that happens when half a dozen people attempt to cook in the same kitchen.
The highlights of the trip were:
 ·         Bouldering in Malaga Airport with John Mcshea, we found a traverse around a pillar which involved wide spans and then matching on sloping side pulls. We got a few strange looks from the other tourists but it was worth it for our first bit of Spanish climbing.

 ·         Climbing in Poema de Roca, a massive cave in the side of an immense expanse of rock that puts any cliff in England to shame. We went there on our first day as, much to our disgust, it was raining (and there’s me thinking that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains). The routes in the cave vary from wall climbs to tufa-laden endurance routes to horizontal, and frankly ridiculous, roof climbs. I had a go on Swimming Through a Shark Attack partly because it looked crazy and like nothing I’d ever climbed before and partly because it had the draws in as I didn’t fancy the logistics of stripping a nearly horizontal route on petzl bolts. The route consisted of swinging between stalactite blobs, finding knee-bars and leg-locks and trying not to become disorientated in a world that is 90degrees away from the norm. I had a few goes on the route but didn’t get further than halfway, I’ll save the route for another day when I have learnt how to roof climb and have the endurance of a chimp.
Redpointing La Villa Strangiato in the Poema de Roca cave.
Climbing high above the cloud inversion at Desplomilandia
Justin figuring out the crux of Arabesque at Escalera Arabe

        ·         Visiting Desplomilandia, a shady, north-facing venue perfect for any sweltering climber unsuited to the temperatures of the Spanish Winter. We spent most of our time on the El Triangulo crag, the angle was just what I am used to (cheating really) but some of the routes were 25m long, approximately 10m longer than my stomping-ground Ferocity Wall (and to be honest I spend most of my time there sitting on the rope or possibly linking 2 or 3 moves). Good days were spent there trying the moves of the marvellous Mar de Ortigas which consists of 25m of pocket and tufa climbing – exactly the sort of route I came to Spain for.

John on Mar de Ortigas at Desplomilandia
Amongst all this bolt-clipping I did have a yearning for some trad climbing, a yearning which was at least partially sated by our ‘rest-day’ climb Africa. Just the approach to the climb was an exciting and nerve-wracking affair; after walking to the start of the gorge you embark on El Camino del Rey, a dodgy concrete and metal structure that traverses the entire gorge made somewhat safer by the via ferrata set-up that accompanies it, although the locals bimble along the walkway with the nonchalance of a French Guide we edged our way tentatively expecting it to collapse at anytime. The base of the climb is then reached by crawling through a tunnel and abseiling 50m down the side of the gorge to a committing position where escape is either up the cliff or an abseil into the river below. The route is partially bolted and gets 6b+ in the guide which makes it easy to forget that you’re embarking on a 4 pitch E3/E4. The route was great though our route-finding towards the top wasn’t and as rest-days go it wasn’t particularly restful leading me to take another rest-day just to get over the first one.