Wednesday, 27 February 2008


I’ve been so down lately that only now that things are slightly picking up can I see just how disheartened I have become.

When I first read The Old Man in the Sea, none of it made sense to me. I’ve never been good with letting go and therefore the inherent meaning of the story just seemed bizarre.

For those who never read it, the general gist is something like this… an old man, who makes his living from fishing in the Gulf Stream off the shores of Cuba, finds that his fish stocks are drying up. It becomes more and more imperative for him to get a big catch as monetary pressures mount. He is convinced, driven by blind faith in his fishing instinct, that he can turn things around and land the biggest fish known to man. He does indeed catch a huge marlin, but the battle takes everything out of him and leaves him practically broken. On account of the strife, his small skiff, which was built for coastal waters, drifted out into the open ocean. As he struggles against the waves to try to make his way back to shore, various carnivorous fish eat away at the enormous fish that he caught. The fisherman is so weakened by events that he cannot pull the fish on board and by the time he reaches shallow water only bones and gristle remain. His dream has become a gruesome banner, warning against trying to make the impossible real.

The fisherman believed so strongly in his ability to win, that he became blind to the notion of failure; even when it was more than evident to the reader. He wanted something, and wasn’t about to give up. He couldn’t let go.

Want is inherently risky and leaves you open to all sorts of problems, but equally, what are we if we don’t want anything? Why does anyone endeavour to improve their lot? It is hard work and often goes wrong. Isn’t it easier to just bimble along with our heads down? Of course it is, but it’s not what makes me happy. Since I’ve been depressed, I’ve not aspired to anything. I’ve just wanted to give up – what’s the point if for every step that you take forward, you end up two behind? Even hope was too painful.

Surely this is not the state to be in either? I feel that I often define myself by what I want – what drives me. I always want something else, something more. Where would civilization be if we never sought for things to be different? I suspect we would have all died of a horrid disease a long time ago. I guess there does however come a point when this motivation can get the better of you. Obviously some things aren’t meant to be.

The trick is in choosing what to want. However want comes from belief and belief is rarely based on rationality.

I’m starting to think that want is good, but not always. Maybe I should also consider what I have a bit more.

I never thought it was going to be an easy life...

Friday, 22 February 2008

Bishop Redux (by Peter)

I think I said everything that needs to be said by way of background about Bishop in my Gravity article, which covered our first trip there in March/April 2007. I also touch on some details about our October 2007 trip in my post about eventually getting Green Wall Essential. Take a look at either of those articles if you want to know more about Bishop Bouldering or check out Wills Young's helpful blog.

This post is really just an opportunity to show some of my favourite photos from our second trip. More of these can be viewed out our respective UKC photo galleries; view Jenn's here and mine here; you will need to register to view them full-sized.

Jenn on Sunburst Seahorse (V2) at The Happys

This is an overhanging problem in the Tom Peter's slab area of The Happy Boulders (page 94 of The Bishop Bouldering Guide - all page numbers will refer to this excellent publication, if only it had an index of problems at the back! - UPDATE: an index for the guide is now available to view, or download as a PDF, at Bishop Bouldering Info so the guide is now officially perfect). Jenn flashed this, I couldn't get it on the day.

Peter on a V2 on the back of The Tut Boulder at The Buttermilks

This montage is of me on a nice V2 at The Buttermilks (page 210) which has an interesting lay-back/heel-hook move at the start and then quickly eases. Note I am climbing in the shade, it was too hot to contemplate problems in the sun.

Jenn on Bourbon IV (allegedly V0) at The Dreamers

Bourbon IV is one of the classic problems at The Dreamers (page 47). It seems to have attracted every grade between V0- and V1 in various guidebooks. I think anything below V1 is a bit unkind. It's a really nice problem, which is deceptively simple. You have to wind about all over the place and it is one of those climbs where you maybe have too many options for hand and foot holds, but only certain specific ones that work. The top-out into the groove is a little interesting as your best hold is a shallow, dust-filled divot just over the crest. You need to pull on this to get to a juggier hold on the left-hand side of the groove.

Peter on The Space Suit (V3) at The Sads

The Space Suit is in the Kung Fu area of The Sad Boulders (page 146). It is probably a bit unfair of me to have a picture of me on this shown first, as I worked the problem and Jenn flashed it. Saying that, I virtually had it first time. You start at what is described as "an absurdly low start" at the back of the cave and haul your way up "the underbelly of the suspended boulder" onto the face and to the top. I had started to shred my right had slapping for a sharp hold on the arête, once on the face and was getting rather despondent about it until Jenn suggested taping-up my hand. It went first go with a protected hand.

I had never realised that my arms looked like that climbing until I saw this photo - it almost looks like I have some idea what I am doing.

Jenn also on The Space Suit (V3) at The Sads

The same problem, but from a different angle. Jenn is one move below where I was, when she brings her left hand up, the position will be identical. I tried taking my shadow out of the photo, but my PaintShop Pro skills weren't up to making it look natural. The landing wasn't great, hence the double mats.

Peter on an unnamed V2 at The Sads

This V2 is towards the back of The Sad Boulders canyon (problem 8 on page 164). For a change, this is something that I actually flashed. The key (as in the first part of the triptych) is establishing on the initial hand-holds and popping from there to a decent hold for the right hand (centre image). You can do a sit-start at V4, but as the guidebook says, this is "kinda stupid".

Peter on Heart Prow (V1) at Dale's Camp

Heart Prow is in the eponymous area of Dale's Camp (page 309). The final image is a nice photograph in my opinion. The light was quite notable that day. However there is a story behind the image. The previous day I had fallen off of the final jugs of Slight Inducement (V1), in another eponymous area of The Happys (page 132). I think this was mostly through fatigue and the shutting down of normal mental processes that accompanies this. Sadly, I managed to helicopter and miss the mat, falling heavily onto what was thankfully a fairly boulder-free part of the canyon floor. I had cuts and bruises all over, with various bits of my body tattooed with grains of Volcanic Tuff and my top shredded. This was my first really heavy fall bouldering and I was pretty shaken up.

Which brings us back to the above image. It was another V1, maybe not high-ball by Bishop standards, but high enough and with the ground sloping away at an awkward angle. I had a few misgivings going for the final hold and then topping out, but it also felt good being "back in the saddle". It is nice to have an image to capture this positive memory.

Bishop Bouldering - A Journey of Discovery (by Peter)

For all other Bishop-related information on this blog (inlcuding this article), please click here.

[This article and the accompanying photographs originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of (the now defunct) Gravity Magazine]
My name is Peter. I write climbing articles. For the past three years I've been travelling around the world with some OK climbers, trying to capture the spiritof our sport and some of its fairly average moments. Between trips, I'm here in London, tied to a word processor, torturing myself with photos of all the amazing climbing out there.

In late March 2007 I got a call from Jenn. She was spending the Spring in Bishop, California, working her way through all the low- to mid-grade projects. On the ‘phone she said she was "really psyched", so I bought my ticket. One thing I've learned about Jenn, if she says she's "psyched", something is going to happen...

OK I can't keep up the accent, but Jenn and I had always been intrigued by the prospect of climbing around Bishop. Watching DVDs, from Josh and Brett Lowell's Dosage series (apologies to Big UP Productions for the intro.) to Paul Dusatko' Soul Cal, had whetted the appetite, if not quite convinced us that climbing in bandanas was that cool. Surely we would quickly follow in the footsteps of Sharma, Rands, Graham and Barnes and be flashing high V-grades within only a few days. Well there was only one way to find out. This is the story of our journey of discovery.

A faint moon rising above the Peabody Boulders

Bishop lies in the Owens Valley in the central part of Eastern California, close to the border with Nevada. The valley is something of a geological wonder; a graben, or rift valley, bounded on the east by the Sierra Nevada (including Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest point in the contiguous US) and on the west by the White Mountains. The mountain ranges are still moving slowly upwards and the valley floor slowly downwards. In the early 1900s the area was caught up in the water wars that were the inspiration for the Roman Polanski / Jack Nicholson film Chinatown. At that time, much of the water rights in the valley were bought up by the city of Los Angeles, sometimes by dubious means, and a giant aquifer runs from the area to LA. Today, partially enforced judicial orders mean that a trickle of water is again allowed to flow into the Owens River, tingeing some surrounding areas green, but much of the rest of the Valley remains a dustbowl. The local feeling about this is reflected in stickers such as "LA sucks! the Owens Valley dry", which appear in many places. Bishop itself has a population of around 3,300 and is at an elevation of 4,000 feet. For many people it is just a place to stop, rest and buy gas while on route US-395 going to or from the ski resort of Mammoth Mountain; something that is reflected in the number of motels and fast food stores. For others, it is one of the very best places in the US for all sorts of outdoor activities, not least climbing.

Cossaboom Bang Bang (V0) at The Catacombs

Twelve hours is a long time to be cooped up in a metal tube, it makes the East Coast transatlantic travel we more frequently do seem pretty trivial really. A night's sleep (or as much as our messed-up body clocks would allow) at a hotel near LAX; pick up the rental car the next morning; a five hour drive with lots of opportunities to say "hey, another Joshua tree"; and we arrive in the mule centre of the world and small-town America (to use the phrase from Wills Young and Mick Ryan's excellent Bishop Bouldering Guide – printed by Wolverine Publications and available at all good bookstores – well Wilson's Eastside Sports at least). The views of the Eastern Sierra on the way were pretty stupendous, rearing up from the edge of the Owens Valley as if some one had drawn the demarcation line between horizontal and vertical world with a very fine pencil. Lots of Alpine fun to be had up there, but we had our sights set somewhat lower.

The author with the Eastern Rim of the Happy Boulders and The White Mountains as a backdrop

As we were going to be in Bishop for two weeks, we had booked into a motel with self-catering, there are lots to choose from we went with the Best Western Creekside Inn; see any of the Bishop guides for alternatives and camping. Having checked in and unpacked on the evening of our arrival, we still had some daylight left and decided to see what all the fuss was about. A short drive out of town and onto some unpaved roads deposited us at the foot of the Happy Boulders canyon; a shallow ravine carved out of the thick layer of volcanic tuff that covers much of the area around Bishop and chock-a-block with boulders. Our first surprise was how hard it was to force oxygen into your lungs at 4,500 feet while toiling upwards through unhelpful sand and gravel on the approach path; no high-altitude mountaineers us! We managed to make it as far as the first boulder in our guide and, after collapsing for long enough to recover our breath, found a fun V1 to play on; the name – Paranormal in the West Country – conjuring images of Devon and Cornwall. There is in fact a distinct anglocentric feel to much of Bishop bouldering, and the credit / blame for must surely extend beyond the occasional itinerant ex-pat from Blackburn.

Jenn cruising Grant's Christmas Present (V1) at The Happys

Bishop volcanic tuff; now how to explain this? Well in the world of friction, Bishop volcanic tuff is to Grit as Niagara is to Kinder Downfall; but that doesn't really cover the other characteristics of the rock, from giant wind-blown huecos to razor-sharp finger pockets. It is rather like someone put the pumice stone from your bathroom into one of those mad scientist machines that causes objects to grow exponentially; taken the output and somehow twisted different parts of it through implausible angles to create the standard tuff boulder. It has also been described as climbing on coral. Whether the problem is easy or hard, the holds often seem to be quite a way from each other and there is a real gymnastic feel to the moves. And talking of things being quite a way from each other, the foot of the climb and the top-out seem to mostly fit into this category. Over half of the documented problems are what would be described as high-ball in most of the UK. It seems like a problem is not worth recording unless it is at least 6 metres high; and many of them are twice as high as that. This took rather a lot of mental adjustment and also the hiring of a second bouldering mat (thanks to the nice people at Wilson's Eastside Sports again – that's two name-checks so far, surely that qualifies for some free gear!). In fact my main recommendation for many Bishop problems, at whatever grade, is to have as many mats and spotters as you can manage.

Basin Mountain and Mount Tom rearing above the Soul Slinger Boulders

But I am getting ahead of myself. After getting a couple of problems before sun down, we returned, rather dusty, to our motel, retired to the local sushi bar and plotted the rest of our campaign. The plan was to be sensible about our climbing; take it easy; have rest days between bouldering days; go and check out Yosemite; see some Sequoia and Bristlecone Pines; wallow in the natural hot-springs; and get involved in the many other attractions of the area. Well the passes to Yosemite and Kings Canyon were buried below 30 foot of snow, which didn't help, but even if they hadn't been we probably wouldn't have taken them. In our 15 days in Bishop we did have two rest days, if hiking at 10,000 feet (to see the aforementioned Bristlecones) and in 100°F temperatures (in Death Valley) count, but were much too excited by the climbing to rest much on the other 13. This kids-in-a-sweetshop approach was perhaps a bit OTT and we would do it differently next time, but it led to a lot of fun; albeit at the expense of a commensurate amount of skin-loss.

The view down onto Heavenly Path (V1) from the Western Rim of the Happys

Over the next two weeks we were to return to our original venue of the Happys (and the adjacent Sads) a further five times; it is the sort of place that you want to go back to again and again. On three days, we visited the climbing Mecca that is The Buttermilks; with its giant boulders and bullet-hard quartz-monzonite ranging from rough to glassy in inverse proportion to the characteristics you want the next hand or foothold to exhibit. At first it is really difficult to take in the size of these outsized glacial moraines that have been dragged down from the Sierra by long-receded glaciers. We mostly got cricks in our necks trying to make out the distant final moves of death–problems like Evilution (V12); it's tough doing this when the top holds are obscured by cloud and circling condors.

Jenn flashing Monkey Hang Traverse (V3) at The Happys

The Happys and the Buttermilks are both world-famous bouldering areas and we did focus most of our energy on them. However, at other times, and especially during the weekend invasions (mostly from Portland – Oregon, not Dorset – to judge by the SUV number plates), we cast our net wider to encompass such Bishop esotercia as The Dreamers, The Catacombs and Pocketopia; all at above 7.000 feet on the Sherwin Plateau but geologically akin to the Happys. Here, rather than tripping over other people's mats and bumping into Lisa Rands as we had at the Buttermilks (I had to get the name-dropping in somewhere), we spent our days surrounded by just really tall boulders and really tall pine trees. Most days we were undisturbed by any other human beings. Finally, by way of variation (and also seeing as we had bothered to drag our harnesses, rope and quick-draws with us to the US), we even spent a day tackling some sports climbs in the Owens River Gorge.

Jenn on Pirate Booty (V3) at The Happys

So how did we get on? Well selecting from my extensive list of climbing-related excuses: no. 145. we were both pretty weak going into the fortnight after illnesses and a lack of training; no. 204. the rock was rather different and took a while to get the hang of; no. 481. as mentioned above, we never really let our bodies recover in between sessions; and no. 18. (an old, reliable favourite) it was way too hot, at around 80°F about 10-20°F higher than normal at that time of year. On this last point, the Bishop bouldering season normally lasts from October to April. While winter can be cold, this season sees some of the hardest ascents. The area is essentially on the edge of a desert and summer temperatures of 90-100°F mean that this is a time for mountaineering (or chilling out at the Black Sheep espresso bar behind Spellbinder Books) not bouldering.

The author warming up at The Catacombs

Despite these major challenges we managed to do a ton of stuff, get a lot stronger and even resurrect long-forgotten and deeply-buried climbing techniques like drop-knees and flagging. I have never been happy with pinchers, but you can't avoid them in Bishop and now I treat them the same as any other hold, progress I guess. Regarding specific problems, Jenn sent V3s like Rendevous with an Alien, Pirate Booty and Monkey Hang Traverse (flashed) at the Happys and Problem 2 at The Alcove section of The Dreamers; the V4 Impulse Control, again at the Happys (which she nearly flashed); and came close to V5s at both the Happys and the Buttermilks. As per normal, my own achievements were rather more modest, but you know some of those VB's were really, really hard. Climbs that stood out for me included Grant's Christmas Present (V1) at the Happys – if I could transport that to London as a training aid, I'd be very happy – Bourbon IV (surely harder than V0-) at The Dreamers, Doubletree (V0) at Pocketopia and Cossaboom Bang Bang (V0) at The Catacombs.

Jenn searching for lines at The Dreamers

However, perhaps one of my most abiding memories was only tangentially related to climbing. As I was spotting Jenn on Hero Roof (V0) at the Buttermilks, I heard a strange rattling sound behind me. The volume was increasing and seemed to have a certain urgency to it. Some vestigial memory of watching Westerns as a child returned to me and whispered "rattlesnake". I conveyed my suspicions to Jenn, now back on terra firma and we cast our eyes around to find a brown and black checked "rope" coiled round in a crack in the boulders behind us; a "rope" with eyes and who wasn't very happy with the two of us. We now know that Panamint Rattlesnakes hibernate, apparently in some numbers, behind the Iron Man Traverse area at The Buttermilks. They are normally asleep in March / April, but the unseasonably warm weather seemed to have woken this one up prematurely, either that or it was the smell of boulderers. It was quite a small snake and we weren't too freaked out until it decided to wriggle down to join us a bit later. That evening, back at the hotel, we read that the bite of a juvenile Panamint Speckled Rattlesnakes is about as bad as rattlesnake bites get. We aren't entirely sure whether it would have been better or worse to have known this beforehand. Anyway, I guess the rattlesnake wasn't too impressed with our climbing skills and it slithered off under a more distant boulder, but not before stopping to pose for some photos.

Beyond snakes, I suppose what sticks most in my mind are two things. First the climbs I almost sent, top of this list is Green Wall Essential (V2) at the Buttermilks, described as an old-school technical test-piece. I had the final jugs in my grasp twice only to rather lose it both times and fall rather a long way. Second I remember the problems I looked at and thought I'd come back to. The perfect arête of The Church of the Lost and Found (V1) at The Catacombs, the crimpy high-ball of Jedi Mind Tricks (V4) at The Buttermilks and many others. I guess if you did everything you wanted on a trip, you would have no reason to return and I am delighted to have many reasons to want to return to Bishop. Now all I have to do is to wait for the temperature to drop low enough to be bearable – I'm thinking September 2007 maybe.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Dealing with things that I don’t want to deal with

My shoulder injury has left a cavernous void in my life forcing me to deal with stuff that I don’t want to deal with – namely my career (or complete lack thereof).

It’s no coincidence that my climbing progressed when my career became basically non-existent. I saw climbing as a means of achieving something when it felt like all other avenues were shut off. It provided a potent distraction. Now, I’ve lost even that.

Everyone always asks, ‘so why aren’t you working’. I always struggle with that one because there is simply no polite, terse way of saying it. My life has been rather horrendous at points and my career has suffered as a result.

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to work in science. For various reasons, mostly to do to my nationality (grr…) I have not been able to continue my education. I have been out of the game for quite some time now, so I thought that the best way to get back in would be to do a short course. So that's just what I'm trying to do at the moment.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Rotator Cuff Impingement

And I wonder how I hurt my shoulder...

I finally went to see a physio therapist about my shoulder pain, only four months later! I had a bad experience with a physio in the past and because of this I thought they were all a waste of time. However my shoulder wasn’t getting any better so I decided to try a practice recommended by a friend.

I don't remember specifically injuring it, rather, it began gradually after a lengthy day of bouldering at the Buttermilks last October. On the same day I stopped my boyfriend's backwards tumble onto the crash-mat but he hit my bad shoulder on the way down.

I kept climbing on the injured shoulder since it wasn’t that bad, but this led to climbing in an off balance manner, since I was unconsciously trying to ‘protect’ the injured and painful muscle. This in turn led to a rotator cuff impingement. The physio was very thorough and went through a ton of movements with me to see what hurt and we both noticed that I have a very limited range of movement in my right (bad) shoulder. I can't believe I never noticed it before! My pects are stiff but nowhere near as bad as my 'chronically tight' back muscles, which seem to be at the root of the problem.

She wants me to lay off climbing for at least two week while we work to re-align my shoulder through stretching and massage. I'll then have to start exercises to build up the weakened muscles. Hopefully it won’t take too long.

Now where did I put those running shoes…

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Before We End and Begin Again

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. My shoulder injury is hurting again and life in general has me rather down. I’ve been questioning my motivation and self belief, in climbing and other areas.

Why do I push myself so hard? I’m not seeing much progress, the opposite actually. I keep getting ill and injured. Is it worth it? Should I just give up? I don’t feel like I want the same things that I used to want. When is it time to let just go?

Why did I ever think I could change things; what was my basis? I though a look back might remind me where my notions of climbing were born from. Maybe they will give me what I need to persevere.

I’ve had a very odd relationship with climbing. I started indoors and progressed fast. I lead a few easy climbs outdoors, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted more. I wanted to be able to do moves outside that challenged me as much as the ones indoors, but given the pre-eminence of trad in my mind, this could only ever lead to one conclusion.

Climbing was a logical progression from hiking / hillwalking / scrambling, bits of which I have been doing for most of my life. My ultimate goal was actually to get into mountaineering. I enjoyed being in the hills far away from the noisy, polluted city that is my home. Even the relatively small mountains of Wales and Scotland seemed grand and majestic to me. I enjoyed being in their company and the reassuring feeling of insignificance helped to put the difficulties of my life into perspective.

I decided that a good foundation in rock climbing would serve as a basis for bigger and better things. Since I lived in London miles away from rock I went on an indoor climbing course at the Castle in November 2003. I quickly progressed through the grades and I remember clearly my first UK 5c top-rope one month later in December 2003. Shortly after this I top-roped a UK 6b slab on the first try. Looking back at it now, I realise that this period gave me a sense of confidence and reinforcing self belief which made climbing out to be the first sport I actually enjoyed. However, this initial period of progress also had a dark side that was about to make its self very clear. I soon grew very tired of top-roping and signed up for the next available leading course at the Castle in February 2004. Shortly after the course I led indoor routes up to UK 5c.

I've won the Boulder Ladder at the Castle so many times, I've stopped counting
That Easter (2004) I went to Portland for my first taste of outdoors and managed a few low grade routes. A desire to combine my new found climbing skills with my love of being in the mountains led me to take a week long trad leading course at PYB in April 2004. Shortly after the course I went on to do a few Welsh mountain classics. In June 2004 after trad climbing for 2.5 months I decided to tack on a bit of climbing after visiting my parents in the US.

The rock at the Gunks in New York state was nothing like the Welsh rhyolite and dolerite that I had experienced before. The rounded, horizontally broken rock was much more akin to gritstone and mostly protected by cams (which I hardly ever used before) and tricams (of which I had none). However, I liked the delicate face climbing. The features suited my style well. I did a few warm-ups and shortly afterwards wanted to jump on something more challenging. I chose a 5.8 (normally about HVS, but later I was to learn that the grades are ‘traditional’ and date from when 5.10 was the hardest grade) that I liked the look of and quickly started up. I had spied from the ground a crack, where I thought I could place a nut, however I got to it and realised that it was too shallow for gear. I continued, confident in my ability and assuming that I would find some gear soon. The crux came and I only had two dodgy cams placed near to the start. I did the crux moves, but then freaked out after realising there was still no gear to be found. I made the decision at about 35ft that I was now risking serious injury and decided the best course was to down climb. I managed to reverse the crux and made it down a few more feet to where I did a rock-over on tenuous edges. I now know the move was nearly impossible to reverse and I fell about 20ft directly onto the back of my head. The last sound I heard was my cams popping. I lost all of my vision and went through the usual ‘this is it’ type moments.

Eventually I came round and managed to walk out, however back at the hotel I became violently ill and decided to go to the hospital, where I was not surprisingly diagnosed with a concussion and received various comments along the lines of ‘we hardly ever treat women with massive head traumas – it’s normally (American) football players’.

My head CT

Very soon after, I tried to do some leading and managed a few climbs indoors and some ridiculously easy stuff at Portland in attempt to say ‘look, I’m fine’. I wasn’t though. After my accident, I got stuck in a cycle of not living up to my potential and being demotivated about climbing. I spent years getting scared on VDifs and trying to force myself to do the moves when all that I wanted was to be back on the ground. It also led me to question myself; if I can’t lead a VDiff what kind of a climber am I? I thought that if I got enough mileage at an easy grade I could slowly build up my confidence. Wrong. The easier climbs didn’t inspire me in the least and they even served to make me feel worse about myself.

Almost by chance I decided to go on a bouldering trip to Font with a few friends. I was really rubbish at bouldering (I think I managed a Font 5 on my first trip). Nonetheless I had fun and I was doing much more enjoyable moves on a Font 5 problem than I was on a VDiff route. But that was just a holiday abroad, what I really wanted to do was trad – or so I thought. I went on to do some leading indoors and made a huge amount of progress culminating in redpointing a F6c+ indoors last December. I also got a lot stronger by keeping up my bouldering.

Having fun in Font

Last spring I wanted to spend some time in the US and thought it would be great to combine this with climbing, but I didn’t want to have a repeat of my last trip so I decided on a bouldering holiday and Bishop fit the bill. As with my first trip to Font, I was nowhere near stellar, but managed to struggle up a V4 and a few V3’s. However what I did find was something amazing, something that had been shut off in my mind for years. For reasons way too lengthy to recount here, my career was basically put on hold and for a long time all that I had as a means of measuring progress in my life was climbing, but even that hadn’t been going well. I never felt that I lived up to my potential and it was very dispiriting. One day at the Happy Boulders I was climbing in a dusty cave working a V3 and I soon realised that I couldn’t span all the way across the roof to the lip, but I tried it anyway. I somehow managed a backwards dyno into an iron cross and stuck it! As is the nature of bouldering, I of course fell off the next move.

First trip to Bishop

For once I thought – maybe I can do this! Back in the UK on the first bank holiday weekend as per normal I went to North Wales and tried to do some leading. As was now the norm, I again fell to pieces on a run-out VS. This time I gave up. I finally realised that I wasn’t happy at all. While I loved being in the mountains, I hated feeling scared all of the time, looking for my next piece of gear and doing moves well below my limit.

Something just clicked and I decided to say good bye to trad for the time being at least and got semi-serious about bouldering. I started to find boulder problems that were pretty near to my limit, but just possible. When I sent them this just feed that old confidence that I hadn’t felt since I started out all of those years ago. I wanted to see just how far I could go with it. How strong could I actually get – how far could I push myself – what could I achieve?

I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I’m not inspired by things that aren’t a challenge. What attracted me to bouldering was the ability to work at my very physical limit, but by its very nature this doesn’t come easily. I’m not happy bimbling around on VSs. It’s not my personality. I sometimes wish it was different. I sometimes wish that I didn’t always want (or need?) more.

I’m constantly hard on myself. I don’t really know any other way to be. Early on I thought that it was within my abilities to achieve a few things for myself with climbing. It’s proving to be more of a struggle than I could have ever anticipated, but what else am I supposed to do? Give up? No, I’ll keep fighting, because that’s the only other thing I know.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


Jenn sending her first Buttermilk's V5

It is just a grade. It’s not a particularly good grade. It wasn’t even a nice line. But it meant the world to me. It was the day I found out what working at your limit meant and climbing for me was never the same.

On my 30th birthday, I started working a V5 that I spied on a prior trip to North Wales. The line wasn’t great, but it was my type of problem, small but positive holds on an overhang. Wow, this might just be possible, I thought.

When I actually tried the problem I started to have doubts. Was I strong enough? The holds were minuscule and caused every muscle in my body to hurt. I had an imprint of one of the crimps I was trying to hold branded into my finger-tip, beneath this blood was beginning to well up. I began to think to myself, do I actually have any business trying this problem? Am I hurting myself too much? I didn’t know the answer to those questions, but still I persisted. Something was driving me. I had to have an exact sequence. One foot in slightly in the wrong place would result in too much energy wasted and ultimately cause me to fall off. I was so tired, but yet I kept on trying with only a few minutes rest in between attempts. It was an all out struggle for me. I never had to battle with something like that before.

I did eventually get the problem and it was amazing, but as with most good things, it wasn’t without its negatives. At that very moment, climbing ceased to be solely about having fun. When I realised that I could accomplish things by pushing the boundaries of what is possible for me – that old demon of wanting more appeared again.

However, the most amazing thing happened when I came back to the same problem a few months later. I got it on the first go. I didn’t remember the correct sequence. My feet were all over the place. I wasn’t feeling particularly good, but I still sent it and the difference was amazing. My limit was no longer my limit. I got stronger.

My first V5 was a major breakthrough for me. However it left me with a double-edged legacy. One part of this was the hollow question of how far I could actually take things. I've been looking for the answer ever since.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

"Getting burnt-off by your girlfriend" (by Peter)

Peter bimbling at Neddyfields, Portland

I hear this quite a lot, I guess it's just a piece of banter really, but something about it always grates with me; but maybe not in the way that you think.

As can probably be ascertained from these pages, my girlfriend is a pretty strong boulderer. There are many problems that she can do that are beyond me (whether this is entirely a physical phenomenon or partly a mental issue for me I haven't quite worked out as yet). The gap between us is perhaps narrower in other forms of climbing, but I'll stick to bouldering to try to make my point.

OK, with respect to bouldering, my girlfriend is certainly a better climber than me. She does indeed burn me off on many problems. What strikes me as odd is that anyone would think that this is an issue for me. Is it meant to be against God's law and the nature of things that a woman climbs harder than a man? Is it somehow threatening to my manhood, or (perhaps more pertinently in this case) manhood in general? Is this the beginning of the unravelling of the very fabric of society?

There seems to be an assumption that I would much prefer the situation to be reversed; let's make this clear, this is 100% not the case. Do I want to become a much better boulderer?, yes of course I do. Am I competitive by nature?, you bet! But do I measure my climbing success against other people, and in particular my girlfriend?, not really. Looking at it the other way, what sort of boyfriend would wish that their partner failed at something that they were committed to, just to salve some out-dated concept of their own masculine prowess or to sustain gender stereotypes?

So when I'm in the process of being burnt-off (generally spotting at the same time), am I secretly wishing for her to fall? When you put it like that, how could I be? Instead I'm probably urging her on to the top and just as pleased as she is when (as is normally the case) she sends something that I can't even pull on to.

Come on guys, maybe we should all feel a bit more secure about this. If Wills Young is cool with Lisa's achievements, why can't we all be?

Monday, 11 February 2008

Problems That Don’t Suit You

I don’t trust friction and I have scars on my knees to support this statement. I hate holds that only appear in cold conditions on two days of the year. I hate rounded arêtes – how are you meant to stand on something round? I hate problems where you have to contort yourself so that your right knee is at exactly the same point as your left ear. If I wanted to play Twister, I would do so. I believe that any hold on grit is a figment of the climber’s imagination.

Basically grit just doesn’t suit me. I just spent a weekend flailing in Yorkshire. However, it wasn’t all a waste. I like to think that enduring the worst that grit can throw at me is good for my moral fibre. At any rate, it certainly puts me in my place.

I need rock with actual holds on it, even the most minute crimp would suffice. I think grit is very technical and no one will ever accuse me of being technical. I guess that’s why we don’t get along. I also have to say that technical isn’t what attracts me to climbing. No, I like an all out strenuous battle, not some ‘ooohhhh, will my foot stick long enough to reach that break’ type of problem.

I think working your weaknesses is good, but to a point. Learning to deal with grit slopers won’t easily see me into the next grade, unless my chosen target involved slopers (which I can guarantee it won’t!). I believe in training your strengths first. I’ve made the most progress when I decided to increase my power by campusing. I wasn’t exactly a weakling to begin with, but I found the extra confidence gained from the ability to latch holds more dynamically to be very encouraging. I could easily see where my future was.

However, there is something to be gained in a battle with something that doesn’t suit you – that thing is your dignity. At Slipstones I came across the most frustrating V1 ever, Question of Balance. On first acquaintance, it looks like a romp up the most gentle slab ever imagined, however when you get to the final crimp and realise how high your foot has to go you start to realise this is no pushover. I first backed off of it saying ‘it’s just grit nonsense, who cares’, but I was annoyed. I got on it again later in the day and managed to get my foot high, but the break was literally centimetres away. I fell off and skinned my knees as I slid down the slab. This of course meant war!

I muttered a few more comments about disliking grit (just in case I couldn’t actually do the problem as I didn’t want others to think it meant that much to me!) It’s a V1 for heaven’s sake – there was no way that I was going to let it win. Back on the problem, grab the crimps, pull down, right foot high, push down with the left hand, now rreeeaacchhhhhh… reach more, nope a bit more, for the love of god put everything into this, just a bit more – finally I got it.

All that for a V1 that didn’t suit me, shesh.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


Tonight I got further on the hardest problem that I ever climbed indoors. It was the black problem in this video. I figured out a new sequence just before the move where I fell off in the video:

It consisted of twisting, bringing my right foot over to the left and finally letting go with my right hand and bringing it over to the crimp on the left. Holding the barndoor off the sidepull with my lefthand was the technical crux. I stepped up, got the next hold and the one after that, but then my foot slipped and I came off of the wall one hold away from victory. I managed to pull myself back on but it was too late. I was off. My heart pounding and when I finally came to I realised there was a round of applause. That’s certainly never happened before :-)

I’ve said it lots, but I think it bears repeating. I really have to want to do something at my limit. Earlier in the night, I was rubbish, falling off problems that I sent before. I find the contrast striking. I was climbing so weakly and then almost immediately afterwards I did the hardest moves that I have ever done. The only difference I can think of is that I wanted it more. It’s something deep inside, way beyond tiredness, even muscle strength. If it’s really what you want it goes deeper. Nothing else matters.

When I started working that problem the dyno earlier on was my limit. This still does stop me often, but now I’ve progressed to falling off the top. The move that was my limit is no longer, however, there are a whole set of moves that are now stoppers for me. I guess it’s just the nature of the game. I guess it’s what drives me.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Plan of Attack

After succumbing to yet another cold, I had a bit of time on my hands so I decided to put together a list of all the problems I want to do this year. It’s 5 pages long and contains over 100 problems from V1 to V9 (one guess as to which V9 it is!).

I can easily see how it might appear as if I am taking a bit of fun out of climbing, distilling it down to a list of problems and grades, but given that I live in London (far away from rock) and in one of the rainiest countries on the planet, I don’t get to spend nearly as much time climbing as I would like. I’ve found that in past having a targeted approach maximises time spent on worthwhile problems. Of course I also have days of aimlessly wandering around trying whatever problem catches my eye, but this list isn’t for those type of days. This list is for the odd day when I’m actually feeling strong.

Also, my list gives me a bit of focus - my goals solidified rather than amorphously floating around in my head. Knowing what you want is sometimes half of the battle. I can then adapt my training tactics to stack the odds in my favour.

Monday, 4 February 2008

A New Direction?

The desperation for dry rock took us to Portland last weekend. I’ve never really gotten on with the place before and decided that a completely new approach was needed if the weekend wasn’t going to be a waste of time.

We decided to work a (soft touch) F7a instead of trying to flash something of a much lower grade. The experience was quite interesting and definitely gave me pause for thought. I was able to do every move except one reachy one just before the lower off. I felt engaged in a route for the first time. The effort that I put into working out the best sequence seemed to be leading to something worthwhile. My biggest concern was dealing with the pump I had after just a few moves. I guess not surprisingly I need to work on my endurance.

Sadly, the winds picked up the next day and we weren’t able to go back, but I definitely want to project a (relatively) hard sport route. Although my first love will always be bouldering I think there is something to be gained from doing the odd route here and there.