Practice makes perfect

One of the downsides of living in The Fens is that, for a climber, it’s pretty uninspiring scenery. For a watercolour artist I’m sure it’s breathtaking, and it’s pretty handy for my cycling exploits. But it must be said, as a climber, it’s pretty dull. Any climbing involves travel. And if I want to climb anything more than a single pitch, it means lots of travel. This means that I’m woefully unprepared for climbing anything more than about 30 metres high. Which is a bit of a pain, as I’m hoping to climb a few things considerably higher in the next couple of weeks in the Gorges de la Jonte.

So, last night, Sol and I decided to have a crack at setting up some belays, leading through, lowering off, all sorts of technical stuff that involves ropes, knots, hardware and general confusion, all of which we’ll need to face in France next month. We both figured that it would be better to practice this kind of stuff in the controlled environment of the wall at Harlow, rather than finding out while dangling 30 metres up a French cliff face that we’d forgotten something vital. The team at Harlow were as accommodating as usual in allowing us to clog up two of the popular beginners routes on a busy night, and were even happy to shout up advice from the ground. Admittedly, the advice amounted to “keep it up, that looks about OK” but it was friendly all the same. And, somewhat surprisingly, we managed to achieve all our objectives with very little confusion, no swearing at all, and only one comedy moment where I dropped my belay plate and caught in with my foot.

All in all, a very successful evening, and a few hours well spent. Can’t help wishing that they’d open the cafe a bit more often though. It’s getting to be a right pain, driving 50 miles to get there, only to find that there’s nowhere to park and I can’t even get a cuppa.



I’ve been very lucky in life so far, as far as fitness goes. I’ve broken a few bones here and there, and had a small problem with CFS that has dragged on for a few years, but really I’ve not got anything to complain about whatsoever. However, I fear that middle age is finally starting to creep up on me… I first noticed this a few months ago, when it appeared that all my trousers were simultaneously shrinking around the waist.

Now, obviously, carrying a spare tyre isn’t going to help my climbing at all, so I made a plan to do something about it, and then forgot all about it and carried on with my lifestyle in exactly the same way. And so, the spare tyre remained, and my motivation for getting rid of it kind of fell by the wayside. Until, that is, I booked my trip to France, as mentioned previously. If I’m going to all the trouble of getting myself down to the Gorge de la Jonte for a long weekend, I want to be in a position to make the most of it. And so, for the past few weeks I’ve been a lot more careful about what I eat, and have been cycling & walking everywhere I can, including trying to get about 10kms cycling in when my lunchtime schedule permits it.

The end result is that my trousers now fit properly, and my climbing has gone up a grade just because my fingers are now pulling about 5kgs less. The only time I’ve ever really worried about fitness before now was when I started stamina training for a 24hr motorcycle race (which in the end never happened). So to suddenly start thinking about it again is a sure sign that I’m more motivated about climbing than I have been about anything else for a long time. It also shows that I’m starting the gradual descent into middle age that will doubtless end in Radio 2 and a nice comfy pair of slippers.


A few weeks ago, a new climbing centre opened at Harlow, which while hardly on my doorstep (it’s 50 miles away) was still sufficiently close to be worth investigating. And I’m glad that I did, as it’s a very nice place indeed – quite high (about 13-14 metres I’d guess) with a nice mix of climbs. Some technical, some easy, some impossible, some thuggy and steep, some delicate and balancey. Very nice. But that’s not the main reason for writing this. No. In my visits to Harlow, something strange has happened…

For my first visit, I was pondering which climbs to have a go at, and just generally playing around. And according to the published grades (which it has to be said are a little inconsistent at the moment) was climbing about 5a-5b or so. After a couple of visits, for some reason I had an epiphany – I slipped high up on a route and didn’t actually die. In fact, it was a nice little lead fall, with a lovely little bounce and a giggle as I was caught by Kev. And suddenly, I didn’t mind falling. At all. In fact, I started to find it quite liberating, to have a go on a route that was so far out of my reach as to be laughable, but fall off it and see what happens. And, what happened is that in three weeks I’ve gone from an OK 5a climber to being confident on 6b, and happy to have a crack at 6b+

The grades themselves are immaterial. It’s the knowledge that with a bit of confidence, I can climb far harder than I previously thought. So to celebrate I’ve just been and booked up another weekend in Montserrat with the chaps at ClimbCatalunya – which I’m looking forward to greatly. You can, of course, expect my new found confidence to evaporate at the first sight of a sportingly bolted Spanish route, but for now, I’m enjoying the moment.

Getting ready for the summer weather

eBay impulse buys are, at the best of times, dangerous things. I’m not really too sure how well my latest one will turn out; only time will tell. Whatever, it will be fun finding out. You see, I’ve just brought what was advertised as an ‘indoor climbing wall’. OK, it’s a bit of a grand title for what is effectively a sheet of 8×4 ply with loads of T-nuts and a bucketful of holds, but hopefully it could turn out to be very useful. As far as I see, there are three main advantages to having a small wall at home:

  1. No need to pay to climb at Cambridge any more. My wall is nicer, doesn’t smell as bad, and I don’t get charged for using it. In fact, I’ve worked out that if I use it five times rather than go to Cambridge, I’ll have saved enough money to cover the cost.
  2. Easy to get some training in quickly without having to drive anywhere. I’ll still be doing my weekly trips to Stowmarket/Hatfield – but I’ve worked out that really, I need to climb at least twice a week to keep my fitness up.
  3. It means I don’t have to spend another evening away from home. It’s already kind of difficult to get out twice a week during the evenings. This should mean I don’t have to.
  4. If this summer is anything like last summer, it means I can climb without having to worry about drowning. 

(Dammit, that’s four. I should learn to count). The original plan was to put it up the outside of the back of the house, but this was discounted after about 2.7 seconds proper thinking, for a multitude of reasons. Mainly involving men in stripy jumpers with bags marked ‘swag’ over their shoulders. So, plan B. The garage. I’m lucky, in that my garage has a pitched roof, so I can get about 5 metres height on the wall, and also a nice overhanging section. I need to have an enormous clearout first, as there’s about 6 years accumulated rubbish in there. ¬†Also, it means there’s enough scope for a bit of an expansion should the idea prove good, and I save up enough for a few more holds and some plywood.


Much as I hate to admit it, I am rather a control freak. I don’t like being placed in situations where my actions have no bearing on the outcome of the event. This is why I’m so terrified of flying, yet will happily go out and race a motorcycle. Obviously, statistically, I am far safer on the plane, but I feel far safer on the bike, as I have a direct input into what is happening. It’s one of the things I like so much about climbing – I can put myself in situations that are inherently scary and very exciting, yet I still retain control of that situation. Do I want a bit more risk? No problem – just don’t place any protection before the move. Do I feel scared? Again, no problem – protect the current situation [1], take five minutes to recompose myself, and work out a plan.

Last night, however, something happened that I think a few months ago would have had me in real trouble, shouting for help and hanging on desperately while I wondered what to do next. I had lead to the top of one of the panels at Hatfield, not a technically difficult route (5a I think) but quite physical. Certainly physical enough that when I clip into the screwgate at the lower-off I breathe rather a large sigh of relief. Last night, however, I reached that lower-off and the screwgate was jammed solid. Nothing I could do to it with one hand would get it open. I could have just abbed back down from the last bolt, but that would just have left our quickdraw there and passed the problem on to someone else. So, a plan was hatched. Climb down to that last quickdraw (I didn’t have any spare on my harness), remove it, climb back up (not as tricky as it sounds, as it’s only about a metre below the lower-off), clip myself to the lower-off chain and rethread the broken screwgate. And, in complete control, that’s exactly what I did. No shaky legs. No swearing. No drama at all. Luckily I carry a spare screwgate on my harness for exactly moments like this, and for the first time it was pressed into service. I was rather pleased with myself when I got back down again – firstly for completing the climb with no trouble, and secondly for remaining calm and composed when I was presented with a bit of a surprise problem at the top of the route. I know that in the grand scheme of things it was a pretty trivial problem when placed against some of the things that can go wrong while climbing, but I’m still happy.

In fact, I think I probably deserve a cup of tea.

[1] I know, it’s not always possible. At my level it certainly is though.

Compare and contrast. A small epiphany.

Climbing, it seems, is about more than hauling ones bulk up to the top of a wall/crag/mountain and getting back safely again. There is also a social aspect to it which I had never considered. From the strong bond of trust forged between a climber and his belayer, to the meeting up of loosely associated groups of people on a regular basis who have nothing in common other than a desire to climb, there are always people around a climber. This is one aspect of climbing that I struggle to deal with to be honest, as I am a miserable surly git at the best of times, and am very uncomfortable in large groups. So when I arrived at the Stowmarket wall last Thursday evening to find it so full that there was only one rope that didn’t have a small group congregated at it’s base, I was, frankly, rather dismayed at the prospect of spending an evening accidentally bumping into people and apologising to them. Happily, in the end, it was a good evenings climbing. The crowds dispersed after an hour or so, and left Sol & I virtually alone in the place to get on with it. Very good.

Compare that with Saturday. I had arranged to travel up to Birchen to meet up with a few friends for a day on the gritstone. Birchen is a three hour drive away for me, so it was an early start, and I arrived just before 9am. The car park was empty, which was a good sign. So I picked up my gear, and walked up to the crag. And I had the whole place to myself. Not just the crag. The whole valley stretched out around me, and there was not a soul to be seen or heard. So I fired up the Trangia, made a cuppa, and just sat there, listening to the birdsong and revelling in the tranquility and solitude. Really, it was the most pleasant half hour I’ve had for a long time. And the creeping realisation that I would be doing a lot more of this in future filled me with an optimism that I will be carrying with me for a long time to come.

Blimey. Almost seems trivial to talk about the climbing after that, but climb I did, and ticked off another grade – an HS 4a was chosen as my first route of the day (Stoker’s Hole), and after a little struggle to get the first move, the rest of it went swimmingly. Comedy moment of the day was when we eyed up the next route, Trafalgar Wall, a highly rated climb. We looked at it, scratched our heads, and both fell off the starting move before giving up, heading left and wandering up Trafalgar Crack instead, which proved to be very enjoyable. I’ll have another crack at Trafalgar Wall next time I’m there, hopefully with someone who has done it before so I can get a bit of information about how to get off the ground. I don’t particularly care about not being able to claim it as onsight, but I do want to have another go at it. Final climb of the day for me was Yo-ho crack which I chose just because it looked like a nice line, rather than the grade. I’m not sure what I screwed up, but I really found this one a struggle at one point – I just couldn’t work out what to do with my feet. In the end I just pulled myself up on a rather uninspiring hand hold and used a couple of smears to gain height, which felt a bit precarious, and certainly not in keeping with the character of the rest of the climb which was lovely. Again, I’ll have another go at this one at some point, as I’m sure it’s a lot easier than I made it.

A grand day out. And made all the better by that 30 minutes of solitude at the start of the day which I will remember for a long time to come.

Fear and Loathing in Hatfield

(Before I start, an apology about the title of this entry. I know it’s a tired old cliche, and a quick search reveals literally millions of “fear and loathing in <placename>” web pages around. My excuse is that it’s Monday morning, I’m a bit tired, and in desperate need of tea).

Any road up. Last Friday was another trip to Hatfield, to meet up with Sol and Kev. I may have to start limiting my trips there because it’s costing me a fortune in petrol, which is a shame as I thoroughly enjoy climbing there. But, onto topic one of todays drivel: Fear. I noticed something odd while attempting a new route on Friday. I got about halfway, up to the crux which was a couple of balancey moves to grab a hold around an overhang and pull myself over. Nothing that I’ve not done before on other similarly graded routes, but I got up to it, looked at it, tried it, came down, looked again, came down, and pondered. In the end I realised that I wasn’t going to get it, so I bailed out, and Kev whipped up to the top to retrieve the gear I’d left behind. While he was on the move that flummoxed me, I watched carefully and closely, and when he got down, I told him to leave the top rope up and I’d try it on top rope now that I knew the sequence of moves I needed. While I won’t say it was easy, it really did get me wondering why I couldn’t work out the sequence on the onsight approach. And the more I thought about it, the more it confused me, for one main reason. I’m normally pretty good at making on sight choices regarding risk and action. When I raced bikes, I could pretty much guarantee that on the first race on a new track, I could get a top three finish while everyone else was struggling to learn the circuit. By the end of the meeting I’d be back in my customary midfield obscurity as all the proper racers learned the track and used that knowledge to good effect.

So, why can’t I apply this ability to climbing? My theory is that it’s easier to rationalise falling off a motorcycle than falling off a cliff, and for that I blame evolution. Falling off a cliff is a much more primal fear than falling off a motorcycle, and so the brain is harder to retrain to accept and rationalise the risk. I rather think the only way I can overcome this little problem is actually by falling off a good few times and attempting to get used to it.

Loathing? The cafe closed up early and wouldn’t sell me tea. No excuses, no apologies, nothing. Don’t they realise how important a good cup of tea is to the modern climber? (Well, to me at any rate).