Friday, 28 March 2008

The Arch

I stumbled into The Arch for a look ‘round a couple of weeks ago after a night out with some friends. As my shoulder was seizing up with pain at the mere thought of lifting another pint glass, climbing was out of the question. However this reckie mission provided fuel for the idea that The Arch could be The Promised Land of Indoor Bouldering.

On first acquaintance, The Arch was relatively small in size, but made up for this by having far fewer crowds clogging up the wall. This was a refreshing escape from the maddening herds to be found at the other major London walls. The place felt informal and the upstairs chilling area was almost cosy. Thanks to a huge ventilation fan, the air was very clean (for a climbing wall in London). I suppose my standards aren’t that high though since every time I visit the Castle I seem to develop a sinus infection brought on by a particularly evil combination of Victorian dust and chalk. Despite not trying any of the problems that night, just eyeing the line sparked my interest. Finally, they had a proper, grown up grading system – V grades. I think both Font and V grades have their own merits and I’m slightly partial to V grades, but in the end I don’t really mind. Either system is vastly preferable to British technical grades.

Yesterday my physio decided to cancel my appointment and in an act of rebellion I decided to give The Arch a try. Registration was straightforward and I was soon off bouldering. There were quite a few warm-up V0 - 1’s on the slab area and some on the vertical walls, however much to The Arch’s credit the place didn’t seem overly bogged down with massive jugs adorned with associated punters hanging off them taking photos for Facebook. The temperature was cool enough that tons of chalk wasn’t necessary.

Most important was the problems themselves and this is where I feel that The Arch excels. They weren’t ultra contrived slapping to abstract volumes as so beloved by a certain London wall; no these were properly thought out, interesting problems that I was dying to try. After warming up, I found a pleasing moderately overhanging V2 and a more fingery V3. Both were spot on for the grade and fun to climb. An airy V1 up and high level traverse soon gave way to a few more problems in the V2 –V4 category. I found an orange V5 problem that went up an arête which I should have flashed, but didn’t want to commit to a feet off dyno on my bad arm. I eventually summoned up the courage and cartilage; however I did feel that it was soft for the grade. The adjoining blue V4 confirmed this suspicion. In all fairness though I have to say that I was quibbling over a grade or two, which isn’t exactly the end of the world. I then flashed a Dawes V5 (Johnny being one of the current guest setters along with Gaz Parry) before retiring for a coffee and a recap.

All was going well, a bit too well actually. I haven’t been climbing for nearly two months excepting a few random sessions here and there. I am still injured so I’m very hesitant when using my right arm. Despite all of this I was still flashing most V4’s and a V5. Something is wrong here. Either I greatly benefited from a lay-off (unlikely) or the grades are soft (grrr). Being the ever pessimistic person that I am I calculated that if I had my act together I would soon outgrow this place. Where were all of the sick moves on heinous overhangs to be found? Where were the non-existent crimps, the stupidly small holds, the tweaky pockets, the willing your feet to stick, the…

To be fair, there were a few V6’s and V8’s which I didn’t try because I am still after all injured, but where was the Promised Land of Hard Bouldering? The potential built up in the easier problems fizzled out after V5. Which leads me to question who is the target audience for The Arch. I can imagine that complete beginners would feel like a fish out of water, but regulars would be left wanting more.

All and all it’s a great place with a good vibe and a lot of potential. It’s reminiscent of a smaller Southern version of The Climbing Works. However, I would go so far to say that they need to have more hard problems, with the precedent set by amount of interest in the easier problems. I can imagine The Arch might fall victim to its own success and become over-run, however I heard they have room to expand. For now it’s a great environment and I’ll be back. Even if I never find an appropriate project above V5, the problems are interesting enough to make me feel that I have come quite close to The Promised Land.

The Arch Update - 05/ April / 2008

I paid The Arch a second visit last night. This trip confirmed my initial observations about the excellent quality of the problems, with one exception. They have reset the problems on the overhanging ‘wave’ wall at the back. Wow, is all that I can say. The idea of The Arch being a soft touch venue has now been completely erased from my mind. Lots of inspiring problems up to V10 (!) were to be found.

Now if only I could get some strength back…

Tuesday, 25 March 2008


After nearly two months of inactivity, I decided that I had enough of being injured. Last Saturday I went for a bimble at the Castle to no ill effects. I was mostly trying to rely on footwork (a very foreign concept for me) and use my injured arm as little as possible. I was successful in climbing problems up to UK 4c with one arm tied behind my back, literally. I then climbed a few UK 5b’s with minimal use of the injured arm.

The game plan for today was to head to Cratcliffe, in the Southern Peak District with the aim of seeking out a few easy grit slabs. I soon ended up on Razor Roof. Best-laid plans of mice and men…

I did this Font 6b problem last summer and decided to give it another go as the day was getting on and yes, all of those easy slabs beat me (not that I’m bitter). It’s a rather poor video and done in a rather poor style. The full on dyno hurt to even contemplate and I learnt my lesson about doing mantle top-outs minus a functioning rotator cuff earlier in the day.

If you’re bored, click.

It was nice to climb on rock again.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Powerball Addiction and Injury Update

Well my bouldering might be going downhill, however I'm rapidly becoming addicted to powerballing!

I bought a Powerball based on the recommendation of a friend who suggested it as a way to maintain a bit of strength in my forearms without aggravating my shoulder injury.

The first day I got it I struggled to get a score of over 8,000 RPM. Gradually I increased my score and today I got over 10,000 RPM's. My physio reckons that Powerballing won't help my injury, but it won't hurt it either.

As for the injury itself, well it's coming along. I progressed to a new set of physio exercises and was told that I should be able to run without pain this week (oh joy).

I'm still avoiding climbing for the time being. I just recently read an article given to me by a friend from Performance Rock Climbing which said that time off from climbing can actually help you to climb better. One suggestion was that you wipe the slate clean for all engrams that you previously developed. Hopefully better ones will take their place. I have poor posture when climbing, so hopefully when I go back to climbing I can learn to engage my back more as suggested at the end of this article, more on this as and when I return to climbing.

I'm also using this time to focus on what I want to achieve in climbing and am contemplating having an actual career again.

However, I'm still quite down about not being able to climb and loosing strength. Last night I snuck in a few pull-ups on the fingerboard, just to see if I still could. Shhh - don’t tell my physio.

I'm currently undecided about when to return to climbing. I still have quite a bit of pain despite taking over 5 weeks off. My physio said that I have an abnormally painful case of SIS and I just have to keep this in mind. I don't think the pain is going to go away any time soon. However I might do some gentle climbing in a few weeks time. As per the Dave MacLeod article I don't think that I stand to gain much from a more lengthy lay-off.

I'm in two minds... I'll just see how it goes for now.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Idus Martiae

Getting through winter has always been a bit of a battle for me. The long cold nights combined with very few climbing opportunities leave me with little to be happy about. This year being injured has added to the joy. One mantra that I constantly repeat to keep myself going is ‘it will be better in the spring’. As early spring approaches, I usually begin to have pangs that it won’t be.

As I said before, it is difficult to want things. Want leaves you open to disappointment and hurt to name just a few potential problems. I believe that many times wanting something that is important to you stems from a deep seated self belief and I am now coming to the conclusion that this self belief is infinitely more complicated than want. Can you ever objectively see yourself?

I am very uncomfortable with believing in myself. I have seen myself mess up way too many times to think otherwise, yet if you ever want to accomplish anything of note, you have to. If you choose to ignore something that you want badly enough, it will haunt your dreams and wake you in the middle of the night. It’s as if your subconscious mind has no care for the trappings of narcissism. It simply sees something that you are good at and picks it regardless of the costs. Just when you start to have reservations, it stabs with a force great enough to make you realise those doubts are less important than what you ultimately want.

Unless you can truly let go of wanting, you are fated to believe in yourself.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Things I Learned Whilst Being Injured

1. I have not yet accomplished what I set out to do
2. Nor indeed, do I ever think I will feel that way
3. Try to get the most out of every climbing opportunity; it might be your last for a very long time
4. If it hurts, you shouldn’t necessarily pull harder
5. Physios cost a lot, but time off costs even more
6. Just because you’re strong, doesn’t mean you are invincible
7. I never thought I would be so happy to see a bad weather forecast
8. It’s amazing how much free time I have when I’m not training
9. It’s amazing how boring free time is…
10. The BMC should have a fund which supplies climbers returning from injury with free t-shirts that read ‘I’m not really this rubbish – I’m injured’
11. Support groups work – if for no other reason, they make you realise that it could be worse
12. Powerballs are addictive and in the interest of preventing tendonitis of epic proportions should be illegal (no, I still haven’t broke 10,000 RPMs, grr!)
13. Climbing is probably not the best medium for avoiding real life
14. But I definitely miss it
15. It takes a lot more than a few misbehaving tendons to injure your belief

Monday, 10 March 2008

Llanberis Pass 7 + 8 List

In keeping with current fashions, Simon Panton had published a 7+8 guide to the Llanberis Pass in North Wales. As with the seminal 7 + 8 guidebook to Font, this PDF documents all of the boulder problems that rate between Font 7a to 8b (i.e. V6 – V13).

Since this is one of my favourite bouldering venues in the UK, it's sure to provide lots inspiration to train harder. Cheers Simon!

Also of interest on the North Wales Bouldering website is a Topo of the Breck Road area. This newly re-developed crag on the Ormes of Llandudno looks great for problems in the V5 to V8 category.

Now if only someone would do a topo for the new stuff in Ogwen...

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Trad – An Alternative Perspective (by Peter)

Climbers on the East Buttress of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, North Wales

Given Jenn's recent thoughts on why trad is currently not her cup of tea in Does Trad Hold You Back?, I thought I would pen my alternative perspective.

I did an awful lot of bouldering in 2007. Looking at my UKC logbook I see figures of 144 boulder problems and only 20 trad routes. 2008 is not starting that auspiciously either. The figures are 7 and 10 respectively, but that is rather distorted by UKC's insistence that 5-6m problems at Slipstones above perfect grassy landings are for some reason routes (go figure!); 17 and 0 would be more accurate as the only place I have used a rope in anger this year has been Portland. In a soon to be published magnum opus, I find correlation between the amount of bouldering I have done and achieving trad grades that I had previously failed with. Elsewhere on this blog, I describe my “coming out” as a boulderer. But I suppose at heart, despite all these examples to the contrary, I regard myself first and foremost as a trad climber. Not only that, but one who has a strong affinity for the multi-pitch climbs of North Wales. This article is my attempt to explain why.

I think I still get a frisson standing at the bottom of pitch 1 of x that is different to either single pitch, or bouldering, however hard either of these are. The feelings are different, with bouldering and single-pitch; maybe the negative feelings are ones of potential failure, or worse, not even being able to get on to the thing. With mountain multi-pitch there is the ant-like complex. What lies between you and success is not a sequence of hard moves, but an awful lot of vertical space. Mountain stuff is serious; mountain Diffs are serious when you think about the consequences of failure and potential weather issues and route-finding and loose rock and (if you are anything like me – experienced hill-walker as I once was) getting lost on the way back down!

The level of intimidation – yes that is the word – intimidation, is much higher for me. I have been a lot calmer standing tied in under single pitch E-grades than under multi-pitch VDiffs. Maybe there is more of a sense of cutting loose (no not in that way), of embarking on a voyage rather than a quick sprint. Well so far, so negative. But as with many things in life, negatives have a positive element as well. Overcoming these fears and starting. Finding the first gear placement and it being good. Getting to the first stance and thinking, only five more to go. You are committed, the scenery is spectacular, the air is clean and you begin to remember that natural rhythm that only mountain climbing gives you. Maybe the moves are well within your ability, but that is like saying that because you can run 100m you can complete a marathon; it's really missing the point. Maybe the gear is not as rich as it might be, and maybe it's a long way down, but, for me anyway, I tend to experience a calmness and even a certainty in these situations that I don't get thrashing about on some 25m test-piece or 6m problem. Maybe there is just more time to get immersed in the experience, for it to take you over, for a Zen-like state to develop.

Jenn has spoken about our joint experiences on Adam Rib early in 2007. For reasons that she eloquently explains, I led all four pitches. It's an HS, but I seemed to find lots of creative ways to turn it into a VS. These mostly consisted of rather bizarre meanderings away from the jugs in search of elusive gear. At one point on the penultimate (and allegedly 4a) pitch, as I tried to get my right foot established on a high hold for the third time, with a somewhat speculative purple Camalot as my most recent piece 20 feet below, I remember thinking “if you don't latch this soon, then you are going to fall”. However the thought was rather less immediate than on a single pitch climb, maybe detached even. A positive way of taking this is that I didn't panic or let the problem get to me, I wasn't overwhelmed by the situation as maybe I would have been closer to terra firma on a single-pitcher. I got my foot up on the third try and moved up smoothly to a bit of a ledge.

It is moments like that that stand out in my mind with trad. Things that I remember when other details fade. A bit like recalling today what it felt like 20 years ago to effortlessly raise a slightly leg-side delivery up and over mid-on and one bounce into the picture window of the pavilion. I get more of those moments with mountain multi-pitch than any other form of climbing. Mountain trad sticks with you.

And then of course there is the main event – topping out 100m or 250m up and realising that you have done it. Which of course then leaves the problem of finding your way back down the other side to the campsite, but that's another story.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Does Trad Hold You Back?

A Dream of White Horses, Cemetery Gates, Comes the Dervish, Left Wall… actually Right Wall for that matter.

When I began climbing back in 2004 all of these routes were dreams of mine. Each one held a special place in my mind and represented to me the pinnacle of what was a reasonable achievement for me. It seems as though I was not alone. Indeed, looking at the UKC logbook summary these routes factor highly in the top 20 Wishlist Climbs.

Onsight trad was the ultimate to aspire to and I viewed other types of climbing (sport and bouldering) as just training for the ‘real thing’.

Jenn at the belay on the top stance of Slab Climb on the Gribin Facet, North Wales

I believe this opinion is held by a lot of the UK climbing community primarily due to the prominence of ‘trad ethic’ which in turn stems from the nature of the prevalent rock types (gritstone, rhyolite, granite, etc. which tend to have naturally protectable weaknesses, as opposed to continental limestone). Also, I suppose the history of climbing plays a part in this romanticism as well.

While all forms of climbing have an inherent risk associated with them, trad can be one of the most dangerous, especially for beginners. It makes sense to take it slowly with trad and gain a lot of experience on ‘easier’ climbs before branching onto harder stuff. I certainly learned this the hard way. After a few months of trad climbing I had a bad accident which left me in the Emergency Room questioning my motivations for climbing. I tried something that was technically well within my ability, but not within my experience of placing gear.

However is it possible that ‘the leader never falls’ mentality becomes more of a mindset which ultimately ends up holding you back?

The reasons why I chose to stop trad climbing are manifold; however the primary one was that I am more interested in the physical challenges of bouldering, rather than the mental challenges of trad. I always felt with trad routes I had to be climbing well within my physical limit. Bouldering came to be the opposite for me. It wasn’t fun unless I was pushing my complete limit and barely able to do the moves.

Surely there is room for all types of climbing, but I feel that trad is held in such high esteem in the UK for two additional reasons. First is possibly a lack of inspiring mid-grade sport routes. There is always Portland, but it doesn’t come close to venues such as the Costa Blanca and Kalymnos. Places like Malham and Kilnsey in the UK are meant to be world class, but few people climb within the grade range on offer. I’ve come to the belief that the best lines in the UK that mortals can aspire to are mostly trad lines. Surely if the UK had more inspiring and approachable sport routes comments such as “sport is artificial” would be less widespread.

The second reason is maybe that bouldering is by nature hard and this can be off-putting for some. If you weren't naturally strong, I could easily see how a beginner would get despondent. Again, there is a lack of venues with a large concentration of bouldering. While the Peak District may have a plethora of ace problems across the grades, they tend to be spread out. Indeed it is arguable that there is no one area in the UK with a critical mass of boulders to rival somewhere such as Font.

I guess in the end it depends on what you want out of climbing. For me, I find it boring spending days (years?) building up my gear placing skills on climbs that are well within my technical ability and as a result will probably never feel confident with trad. I’m much more inspired to get as strong as I can and be able to pull off moves that I thought were impossible in a relatively safe environment. So nowadays I’m inspired by Pill Box Wall, Lickety Split, Simple Simon, Lightning Strike and actually Soulslinger for that matter.

A Font 6b problem at Cratcliffe, Peak District