Measuring physical strength is easy – how much can you lift, and how many times? I’m sure there’s an awful lot more to it than that, but in my simple, pink and fluffy world, that’s really all there is to it. So, in terms of strength, last nights trip to Hatfield was a resounding success – I climbed/belayed for three hours without having to back off any routes due to being knackered. I’m not sure how many routes I completed (it was either eight or nine, and I’m guessing the wall is thirteen or so metres high) mostly around 4c/5a. Which technically doesn’t sound that tricky, but I’m more than happy with that, thank you.

Mental strength is a different kettle of fish though. How do you measure it in respect to climbing? Well, I had a good test last night. We’d been climbing for a couple of hours, and I was wondering what to do next when Kev spotted a route up a well featured arete that neither of us had ever tried. It looked possible, so I decided to give it a go. About 1/3rd of the way up, I was thinking that some of the holds were a little crimpy, but that things were going well, and I should be able to get up without too much drama. Then, out above the penultimate bolt, things went wrong. The holds, which from the bottom had looked so inviting seemed now no more than crimpy little smeary marks on the surface. The one good hold was an undercut, which I couldn’t get into a suitable position to use. My left foot was slipping. All in all, it was not a good place to be, and I started to panic a bit. Now, a couple of months ago, at this point I would probably have just let go, taken the fall, and put it down to experience. But I didn’t. Despite being in physically a very uncomfortable position, I still had enough composure to take stock of the situation, steady myself, make a plan and get out of trouble. OK, it meant I took a hold on a neighbouring route, but it did mean I could reach the safety of the last bolt, and from then up to the lower off. And for me, this was a far more important test (and result) than the physical ability to climb strongly. When I later checked the grade it was a 5b, which is really a bit above what I know I can climb at the moment anyway, so I’m very happy that it went so well.

It’s worth noting that although my description makes it sound like an epic onsite attempt at Indian Face, I was in fact, about nine metres up with two metres of runout and obviously in no danger at all.  I don’t care though – in my own little world it was an achievement of note, and that’s what counts for me.


General waffle

Hmmm, seeing as I have a ‘general’ category I guess I’d best write something to put there. This could be put down to destiny, kismet, karma or some other such new-age bollocks. Or it could be in an attempt to actually write something here rather than having another unloved blog festering away on a server somewhere, clogging up someone elses disk space, another momument to the uncommitted.

So, what’s been happening then? Well, I’ve got a lovely new computer (thanks Freecycle), and have just had tea, so there is an awful lot to be cheerful about. And the first signs of spring are appearing in my garden, which is also nice. On the climbing front though, all is not so rosy… Firstly, I’ve done something irritatingly painful to my left elbow. Secondly, due to a recent change in working hours by my wife, it’s been increasingly difficult to actually find any time when I can get out with my usual climbing partner. Option B is just to trot down to Cambridge and get on with some bouldering, but in all honesty, I’d rather contract syphilis. So, in the past three weeks or so, I’ve only managed two outings, which is a little disappointing. However, in the process, I have made my first ventures East to the frozen wastelands of Suffolk and the Stowmarket climbing wall. And it’s actually rather nice. Not too high (about 7 metres at the highest I’d guess) but nice and friendly, with a good selection of routes – some slabby, some overhangy, some with big bulbous knobbly bits, some with little evil crimpy bits and cracks. All in all, a good find for me. Far closer than Hatfield, and far nicer than Cambridge. And cheaper than either of them.

Here’s a question: Why can’t climbing walls standardise on one grading system? (Or, in the case of Cambridge, why can’t they have a grading system, other than “can climb that one” or “can’t climb that one”?) Hatfield uses a UK technical grade, while Stowmarket seems to use Font grades. While I don’t want to get hung up on chasing numbers, it’s bloody irritating for a newcomer to turn up, and not really have a clue what’s what. Still, looking on the bright side, I now know that I can managed a UK grade 4c without too much trouble, or a Font 5+ with a little bit of swearing and a bruised kneecap. Lord only knows what grading system they use at Bear Rock, Warwick, as when I went there a few weeks back I skipped up a 6a without really much of a problem. Or perhaps gravity just isn’t as strong there.

On the ‘things to look forward to’ front, there’s a couple of things coming up – firstly, a trip to Birchen next weekend. My first attempt at trad lead climbing.  So looking at things pragmatically, unless I write something else before then, there’s a chance that this could be the last blog entry, and my last act on this earth will be to make a small crater at the bottom of a bit of gritstone while wondering what went wrong with my cam placement. Secondly, I’m off to Spain in a few weeks for a few days sunshine and climbing in the Montserrat Massif. Which will be tremendous fun, apart from one thing – I am terrified of flying. Gulp.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Have I already made it quite clear that I really don’t know what I’m doing with regard to climbing? Yes? Good. As the following is an admission of complete idiocy on my part.

I popped into the local wall in Cambridge a couple of days back for an hours climbing before going to the panto with my family. (Cinderella at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Highly recommended if, like me, you’re still a child at heart). I’d noticed a few nights ago that the soles on my shoes were no longer black, but more of a hazy grey colour (or gray color for our transatlantic friends). I didn’t really think much about this, but I just cleaned them up with a damp cloth and dried them to bring back the previous nice black colour. I was, to put it mildly, rather surprised when I skipped up a climb that only a week ago I’d fallen from three times when my feet skidded off from a little smeary patch.

Nobody had ever told me that you need to clean the soles of climbing shoes. I’m not sure exactly what I expected (magic climbing pixies that come out at night and look after my kit for me or something) but that’s something else learned. See? Told you I really don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s a mind game

Indoor climbing seems to come in for a lot of stick from the ‘purists’ who like their rock, well, rocky rather than plastic. Which is fair enough, but seeing as I live in the The Fens, if I want to go climbing during the week without taking a holiday, I have no choice but to climb indoors. My local wall (Cambridge) is quite frankly shocking. It’s about 6 metres high, smells of old socks, with no ropes, no facilities for leading, and as far as I can tell, the routes have never even been cleaned let alone changed. Quite honestly, I probably get more enjoyment from climbing my local trees.

Next nearest ‘wall’ that I can find is the outdoor activity centre at Mepal. This isn’t so much a wall. It’s a tent. And while the wall is taller than Cambridge (11m), and has facilities for leading, it only seems to be open about three times a year. Next up is probably Stowmarket. I’ve never been there, so can’t comment.

So, given that the local facilities are so desperately appalling, the prospect of a 120 mile round trip to climb at Hatfield isn’t so bad after all, even if it is ruinously expensive in terms of time and petrol. At least I get to play on a sensible wall, with good facilities, and a cafe. Which is exactly what I did last night. My normal climbing buddy Sol was on babysitting duty, so I arranged to meet up with Kev, another friend and ex-bike racer, who is also a dead handy climber. The goal of the evening was just to get back on a wall after the Christmas break, and see just how badly all that booze and food had affected my ability to climb, so I wasn’t expecting to achieve much really. After a bit of bouldering to warm up, Kev decided to launch straight into my nemesis route – ‘only’ a 4c [1] but with a thuggy overhang above a ledge which while not technically taxing, for some reason really freaked me out. To the point where I could top-rope the route with ease, but had backed off three times on lead attempts. So I held the ropes, and watched him whizz up to the top without too much trouble, other than a bit of a shaky leg half way up. So it was my turn… I didn’t get off to the best start when I nearly slipped off a simple mantleshelf onto the ledge, but I put that straight behind me, probably being due to me carrying an extra 3kgs or so after Christmas. Ooops. Next up was the crux – pulling up under an overhang, a couple of strong moves, then back out onto the main face. This is the bit I’d failed on three times before, despite being able to do it when protected by top-rope. This time, however, I didn’t even think about it – I clipped just under the overhang, pulled up, got my legs up, and with a bit of grunting and foot shuffling, found myself above the crux and back on the main face. I was so surprised to find myself up there, that I noted the bolt to clip to was now below my waist, which was less than ideal. Still, the bolt was clipped, and the rest of the route was climbed without too much trouble. Woo! Happy.

The rest of the evening was spent climbing a selection of other routes, and generally having a very enjoyable evening. Another 4c was going swimmingly up until the very final move to grab the jug next to the lower-off – as I moved up my hand slipped, and I was forced to grab out at the nearest hold which wasn’t on the route I was climbing. Dammit. More chalk next time. (I’ve always thought of chalk as primarily a psychological aid. This time, however, I absolutely needed it. Another lesson learned).

So, while I’m not obsessed with chasing grades, it’s good to finally have an idea of what I can acheive as a starting point. Currently 4b I can walk up without thinking about it. 4c makes me work, but I can do them. And at 5a I fall off. But that’s OK, as Kev fell from the same 5a twice, and he’s a far better climber than I. The only downside to the evening was that I got so carried away climbing that I failed to notice the cafe closing at 10pm, so I never did get that cuppa.

[1] Hatfield grades it’s routes with UK technical standard.


Blimey, what’s this? A blog? I’ve never had one of these before – I’ve always written diaries instead. However, I guess it’s time to admit that technology has moved on, and the HTML I used to use to publish my online diaries is, quite frankly, crap. So here we are. A blog.


Well, it all started a few months back. And rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s something I wrote back in September 2007:

Some time back in 1997, I had one of my dafter ideas. I wanted to go motorcycle racing. This isn’t the kind of decision to take lightly, or without due diligence and consideration. However, that is exactly what I did; I woke up one morning, decided to go and race bikes, and it pretty much took up my life for the next 8 years. At the end of 2005, I decided to call it a day. I was skint, I wasn’t getting any younger, and I wanted to spend more time with my family.

For about a year or so, everything was fine. I obviously spent more time with my family, and I spent a bit more time tinkering around with some other hobbies. But there’s the catch – they were hobbies – and didn’t give me the same rewards that racing had done. I was missing something in my life. I didn’t have a drive to achieve anything, or to challenge myself in any way. And this in turn made me irritable, lazy, fat and dull. I could see it happening, but didn’t really do anything to change it, as I was too dull and lazy. At some point in this period, someone or other suggested going climbing. I can’t remember who, or when now. But the idea was that it would get me out of the house for an evening, meet a few friends, and I might be quite good at it as I’m the right kind of build. (Apart from the aforementioned bit about getting fat…)

I hated it. Everyone was better than me, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt scared, incompetent, and entirely out of my depth. My arms ached, I fell off the wall numerous times, and while other climbers were gracefully making the most improbable moves with apparently zero effort, I was clumsily making awkward little moves and falling off again. I went home in a foul mood. And then I started thinking… Here was something I could improve at. Something to get me fit. Something to help set some goals to achieve. It may help overcome my edginess of high places. Not something I’d ever take seriously, of course. Not at all. Just something to do every couple of months on a slack night when there’s nothing good on telly, and I don’t fancy sitting around idly fantasising about my next plan for world domination.

So I went a few more times, just to get out of the house. And then, one evening, something strange happened. I suddenly realised that I was moving over the wall comfortably. It’s really very, very difficult to explain without resorting to tired old analogies, so that’s exactly what I’ll do. It’s almost like an out of body experience – it felt like my mind was hovering outside my body, watching me make moves on the wall without my making conscious decisions. My body was making almost imperceptible adjustments of position to maintain grip and balance in the face of the overwhelming force of gravity. Something inside me had flicked on like a lightbulb, and I suddenly could understand the wall, the challenges it was presenting me, and my own responses to those challenges. Eventually, of course, gravity became the dominant force once again, and I fell from the wall. But for a few moments, I had realised the secrets that could be revealed to me.

It’s now about nine months later, and I’m absolutely consumed with a passion to climb that easily matches the passion I experienced about motorcycle racing. I spend large parts of every day thinking about the next climb, and what I can do to get the most out of it. I try and get in at least two sessions a week at the local climbing wall, and am cycling furiously around The Fens trying to lose the fat I gained in my wilderness years.

So, where next from here? I want to climb outdoors. I want to lead climbs outdoors. To this end, I’ve taken a short introductory course in leading, and have read a few books to help me with the theory. But it looks like another diary is shortly to grace these pages. (I refuse to call it a blog. I’ve always written diaries, and I’m not about to change that now).

As you can see, at least one of the things listed previously turned out to be a wildly innacurate piece of wishful thinking, in that I obviously do now have a blog. The rest of that passage still holds true however, and I can be slightly more specific about my immediate ambitions, now I know a bit more about climbing: I want to lead something graded S 4a or S 4b by the end of the year. This may well prove to be beyond me, time will tell. But there’s no way I will ever reach that goal without trying, which is part of the reason for this blog – I’ll try and make a record of my training, and the numerous setbacks I expect over the course of the next year while I try and reach my goal. The main idea behind making this lot public is that it will give me some encouragement to get off my lazy arse and do something.

I guess the first step in reaching that goal will be to get outside and actually climb on something other than my local walls. This is easier said than done, as I live in the middle of The Fens. The nearest hill is about 4 metres high, and could hardly be described as tricky to negotiate. To this end, I shall be attempting to pop up to Birchen or somewhere over the next few weeks with my climbing partner Sol. Why Birchen? Well, in the absense of any inside knowledge, a quick flick through the Rockfax guide seems to list quite a few short climbs of Diff/VDiff that might be a useful introduction to trad climbing.

But before I do anything else, time for tea. I rather think that tea will feature prominently in this blog.

Of course, I may decide that I don’t have the head for trad climbing, and that I’m better off sticking to bolted routes. Or that I’ve made a dreadful mistake, and my next blog will be appearing at stamp collectors weekly or whatever.