Friday 18 December 2009

Nine out of ten

I work alternate weeks at the mo, and the way I like to think about it is this: five days on, nine days off. Throw in a lucky early finish on friday, and that week off makes for ten chances to get out climbing. Last 'week' was great - I only missed one.


 Nige Kershaw on Narcissus, E6 6b. Pads help, but the hard bit is at the top...

At the base of Froggatt's Downhill Racer is a grassy hollow in the boulders. The crag is generally a better suntrap than most, and this one of the best spots, on a windy day trapping one of those pockets of stillness that often form right against the base of a crag. By mid-morning I was tucked in it, pad forming a comfy sofa, watching the wind and sun dry the rock and the land come bright again. The signs of the last six weeks' deluge were still around; long streaks down Great Slab, the brook a leaping torrent braiding through the trees. I go through the normal drill - slow start, a couple of problems on Joe's, then Long John's, Downhill, Heartless, Artless. By the end I'm flowing nicely, the freshly dried rock giving great friction. Downhill again, this time direct, then again in my trainers. Nige does Narcissus, I don't, we move onto Toy Boy and fail into the darkness. A magical autumn day. Finally.


Despite a slow start, its still damp when we get to the crag. Despite the conditions, Bransby does The Joker with his mum spotting, then skips off back to Hathersage. We sit and chat, drink from our flasks, as more folk arrive and the day brightens.

Later, we're up at Shirley's again. Still a grey sky, but cold and now dry. I expect I'll lose the gift to climb this slab well before I tire of doing so. Today I get to induct another five folk into its secrets; a good haul. The start is guarded by an unpleasantly sharp pebble - the trick not to pull, but to push. Understand that, and it should stand you in good stead for the rest of the route too.


Dan Varian on Careless Torque, highball font 8a

I don't believe in routes having auras that prevent ascents, but I do believe that at some point the little bubble of collective knowledge about a piece of rock reaches a critical mass and explodes into the consciousnesses of the many. Today that happened with Careless Torque. It was clear, bright, and for me far too warm for those starting slopers. But not for the others; Dan falls off the top, then gets his tick, Caff works out a new sequence for the short, and gets to the top move, whilst Mike and Ned run laps on increasingly ludicrous font-style links. Mike almost manages to make it look easy, and the others certainly don't make it look hard. What has changed? Well not much, but there is now a choice of well-established sequences to start, and a list of ascensionists of increasingly varied height. And often the most powerful beta is simply knowing someone who has done it. Ben's effort on The Joker is a good example - despite previously thinking himself perhaps too short or too static, he also that knows on crimps, he can burn me off anytime. Once I'd done it, it was just a matter of time.


 Mike Adams on Toy Boy E6 7a/ highball font 7c

The valley is grey. Mist fills the floor, and above it hides the edges too. Between, a layer of clear air. The vapours build, meet and part, flow softly west. The woodland drips. At Froggatt the rock is dry, almost, the lichen glowing green. Despite drier options we stay, and try Toy Boy. Folk come and go, but no one really gets anywhere, save for Mike, who can reach past the crux. After Sunday I thought it would be a formality, but I don't mind failing.


I wander round the Plantation with a hangover, do a few problems, take a few photos. Nothing remarkable, but the beauty of the place on this crisp winter day is intoxicating, and surrounds us on our circuit.

At dusk I throw my pad under Careless torque, try the start alone in the fading light, and feel at home. I wonder if I can draw myself into the previous week's momentum and get myself up it. But no. Its been a few years since I was doing the start regularly, and I need everything to be perfect. Today they aren't quite, but I don't let that impact this lovely evening.

It would be nice to climb it. But, it would be nice too never to climb it, and just fail forever. What's important is just to be here and feel the wonder of just being alive. There are many doors to perception, but for me, for now, this one works about the best.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Peak appeal

Mountaineer Andy Cave has just finished his 2009 lecture tour. After his life-changing trip to Changabang, Andy returned home bewildered and unsure about his continuing motivation for climbing. Ultimately the gentle beauty of his home landscape drew him back in, and he found some catharsis through the simple joy of movement on the boulders.

To try and illustrate this in his slideshow, Andy got in touch with me to put a selection of images together. Andy Kirkpatrick added some suitable music and some nifty fades, and the result is what you see below. There aren't any captions, but if you want to know more about any of the photos drop me an email. I think it works well - great places, great times.

Peak slideshow from Adam Long on Vimeo.

With the weather finally taking a turn for the better this week, the above also seems a pretty good advert for the charms of The Peak right now. I've been out six days out of the last seven, and whilst there's been a certain amount of searching out dry rock, the rewards have been rich. The scene seems very healthy and with an amazing amount of talent about, things really feel to be moving forward. I'll write a bit more next week when the dust has settled, but suffice to say that whilst today was a fair milestone in the history of the Grand Hotel, it only felt like a warm-up.

Friday 27 November 2009

Our Lot

I'll not dwell on the past few weeks, suffice to say the weather in the Peak has been as bad as I can remember - wet, dull, windy.

That's My Lot - originally E8 7a, now 7c+/ 8a?

Nige took his weather frustration out on lichen. One route in particular - That's My Lot at Rivelin quarries. A perfect twenty-five foot quarried edge, slabby on the right but leaning out on the left. A few footholds to get started, then nothing, just the square edge and smooth iron-plated smears. No repeats in ten years, since Nik Jennings' visionary scamper immortalized in A film by some climbers. After doing the sequence once on a top-rope Nige set to work improving the landing - a fallen tree across a rocky slope. With the stump tidied and the holes filled, things looked a lot more encouraging.

another good go from Ryan - even hitting the hold wasn't enough

And so yesterday, at last, the rain stopped, and the team assembled. Crisp sunlight filtered through the woods, a fresh breeze dried the air, and life was good again. I'm not sure I've ever been at the crag with such a strong team - Varian, Feehally, Pasquill, McHaffie just to name the big guns. A pretty good selection of folk currently pushing the Peak highball scene, and a good vibe. After a brief warm-up on the deceptive Sex Drive, it was on to the main event. The start was fine, getting established okay, then it was shut down time. Teeter, creep, lean, off. To cut a long story short, after three hours no one had done it and it was going dark. Testament to the quality though, was that nobody gave up. Only Nige and Ryan were making serious inroads, both tickling the jug. For a second it was over - Ry stuck the jug only to swing straight into a solid bridge across the corner, feet on a huge ledge. Cheers turned straight to laughter and hoots of derision. A perfect illustration of how arbitrary these problems can be, but it wasn't diminished, and the challenge remained. Next go there were no mistakes - Ry sucked in, extended like a leech, and snagged the break static.

Could Nige come any closer? Maybe if he wasn't wondering if he'd left the cooker on...

Even with our foam pit, nobody entertained Nik's original running scamper method. Chapeau!

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Font video

Char has put his film of our trip to font up on vimeo. There's a fair bit of me climbing in it, and although I get up a few problems I look rather petulant. All down to Char's editing, amazing what they can do eh? I was made up really...

Some Mid-Grade Classics from alexander char on Vimeo.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Lookout - egg chefs!

I spent last week in Fontainebleau with a few friends and the weather was perfect, too good in fact. A full day's bouldering can be hard on body and skin - five in a row is debilitating. The first two days were spent at rather open crags enjoying the warmth of the sunshine, doing the kid-in-a-sweetshop thing which is hard to resist. With conditions on the fine-grained sandstone are less temperature and more humidity dependent than on grit, it was plenty grippy enough to get on some fairly hard problems. 

Back when I was an impressionable twenty-year old, I went to Glastonbury festival. Despite the rain and the mud, it was better than I could ever have hoped. Even so, I remember at some point feeling I was missing something, and left my mates and the big-name acts to go off alone in search of 'the vibe'. Font is a lot like that. Its very easy to get blinkered into only paying attention to the headline acts, despite my best memories always coming from seeking out the sideshows.

But day two saw me wasting rather too much energy failing on Rubis sur l'ongle, for which I'll use Daniel Woods' excuse of it being 'my anti-style'. The it was onto Hotline, which should have been better suited, but by the time I'd exhausted the other options and resigned myself to the only hard move being a disgusting pull on a tiny crimp, I was goosed. Consequently there were few beans left in the bank come colder weather at the end of the week... after climbing poorly at Isatis and Bas Cuvier, I got my mojo back at Cuvier est by finishing a 7a+ arete I'd tried last year, and then flashing Watchtower up at Rempart.

On the last day I finally got to climb at a couple of the best venues - Rocher Greau and Buthiers. Had a great day doing some superb highball aretes, pretty much all second go; frustrating to miss out on the flash though. Attention Chef d'oeuvre was one that got a team tick, though no one could translate the name - I've used one suggestion as the post title. On the ferry home I happened to be reading a review by Will Self, he of the giant vocabulary, where he happened to use the phrase chef d'oeuvre and the context made the meaning clear. Oeuvre doesn't seem to have an english translation - we tend to use the french - but I guess the closest would be genre, but as applied to an individual or group's body of work. Chef is simply chief, so the chef d'oeuvre is the chief of the genre - the one masterpiece that embodies everything about the genre. Applied to the boulder problem - a true classic of the forest - it makes perfect sense. I doubt I'll be lucky enough to find a new problem in the Peak worthy of the equivalent name - Uber classic alert maybe? I can imagine some dirty block in a woodland near Birchover becoming Lookout, egg chefs! though...

Thursday 8 October 2009


The November issue of Climb is now out with my Grand Capucin article as the headline feature - including Caff on the cover leading the second pitch. I'm pretty chuffed, its pretty much the most you can hope for after a trip, but was a bit surprised as I would never have picked this out as a potential cover. The main reason being, I suppose, that although its a tough pitch he's actually on fairly steady E1/2 terrain. Plus its pretty much the first climbing shot I took on the trip, and in my mind a classic 'out of options - shoot arse view from belay'. For comparison, the one I had got down as having the most cover potential was this one :

Judge for yourself! My choice ticks all the standard boxes - dramatic, mid-move, on crux pitch, good (hard-won!) high camera position. Though looking closer, there are obvious problems such as shaded face, and perhaps more importantly, none of Caff's three points of contact to the rock are actually visible. Climb's choice of course doesn't suffer from these, which just goes to show how hard it is to be objective with your own shots, and how much of my judgement is affected by the factors at the time the image was taken, and not just the image itself...

Its also nice too see how little of the image is obscured by copy - a consistent criticism of mag's nowadays. Although Climb's new look allows for more info to be placed on the border of the cover, I think the editors are actually making an effort to try to clean up the covers a bit - bravo!

Friday 18 September 2009

Shooting the Cap

Mont Blanc range from the Lac Cheserys

I've always found taking pictures a lot easier than selling them, so its only now with plenty of confirmed sales for my Capucin shots that I can relax a bit and consider it a successful shoot. I've got a little video clip of Caff reflecting on how lucky they'd been to get it done. Although typically modest with respect to his climbing contribution, what he's really acknowledging is not so much what went right, but what didn't go wrong. Small things can have big effects in these situations.

The place is massively photogenic but not without its challenges - altitude, harsh light, inability to move around freely. There's a limit to just how much camera gear you want to carry up such a route, particularly as we didn't set up any shots; all the climbing was being done for the route, not the camera. Plus there are Heinz Zak's images which have been widely published - inspiring stuff for photographers as for climbers, but meant I'd have to avoid similar shots without ignoring the most photogenic spots.

not travelling light...

Gearwise then I was limited and had to choose carefully. Almost all Heinz's shots were shot with a fisheye, so tempting though it was I figured not having one might just be a good thing. Other than that it was my standard minimal kit - D300 & 50-150mm/2.8, plus either 12-24mm/4 or 16-85mm. For this kind of work shooting on DX has big advantages over FX - not just a smaller body but smaller lenses and overall a much smaller kit.

The crucial piece of kit though was the bag. I've used various methods over the years - various Lowe photo bags or just putting the body in a BD Bullet wrapped in a fleece, with lens pouches strapped to the outside - and not been happy. So as a bit of a last minute impulse I bought a Lowe Inverse 100. Turned out to be perfect - bum-bag design but with decent padded waist strap and a shoulder strap. A good fit for the body and two main lenses, plus room for an extra lens and water bottle strapped on the outside. Having the shoulder strap really works at stabilising it, without giving the over-balancing effect you get from a rucsac, and I climbed up to E2 with it on no problems. Sitting low on the back means a Bullet can be worn comfortably as well, handy for swapping with the leader on the harder pitches.

Caff on his successful repoint of the crux 8b pitch

After three days as a three man team I took a bit of a gamble by withdrawing from the big push. I wasn't too bothered about missing out on the summit, given the style I would have made it in - all the more motivation to go back and do it properly - but it potentially meant no more photos. I rationalised the decision on a few counts: firstly, it'd give the boys the best chance of summitting. Of course I really wanted them to succeed as they deserved it, but ultimately it's the biggest factor affecting the saleability of the shots. Trips with summits and sales are the best, but usually its a compromise in favour of one. Secondly, I'd got some decent shots so far but as a team it was hard work getting anything other than bum shots. Caff failing on his first redpoint of the crux pitch was actually a massive stroke of luck for me as it gave me a chance to get above him for his second go. By splitting I had at least a chance of getting something different.

So on day 4, alone, I gingerly crossed a very ropey bergschrund and set off up the Petit Capucin. I deliberately chose a more direct line to avoid the objective dangers of the Voie Normale, which at this time of year had begun to disintegrate. The first twenty metres were a bit steeper than I'd hoped, and after laybacking a nice VS corner I ended up posting my camera bag and helmet into a squeeze chimney. Thankfully it widened at the back and, with considerably less exposure, I was able to chimney up and emerge on easier ground. In the end I didn't go to the summit, stopping in a notch between the main summit and a gendarme on the south face on which the rock routes finish. The gamble paid off; I got a grandstand view of the upper part of the route and some of my favourite shots of the trip, very different to the standard stuff. In the end I left early concerned about rockfall, and ended up shooting Caff's onsight of the crux pitch from lower down. Again, it was a little stroke of luck, although I thought the angle wasn't as good, turns out back in Lightroom its as good if not better.

Lac Blanc - Mamiya 645 & Hartblei TS, Velvia

Although I took my full medium format kit it didn't make it up the mountain. Since upgrading to the D300 I'm finding it ever harder to force myself to use it -there's no resolution gain over the Nikon and it requires much higher levels of effort and discipline. However there are advantages in terms of colour, (in skies particularly, in comparison Nikon's look green), a big clear viewfinder and I much prefer the 3:4 format for verticals. I also believe the slower, manual approach is conducive to more considered images. However I'm shooting less than I was last year, and I'm looking carefully at options - the combined effect of the credit crunch and consumer DSLRs breaking the 20MP mark has seen second-hand prices for MF backs tumble. Having the simplicity of a rugged manual body, prime lenses combined with the flexibility of digital capture is very appealing.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Voie Petit

The Grand Cap is the central pillar, the Voie Petit takes a line right of centre

As you may have already read elsewhere, our trip to The Grand Capucin was a big success. Ben And Caff managed the third free ascent of the Voie Petit, the route Alex Huber suggested 'may be the hardest route in the Alps'. Caff deserves a mention for being on blistering form. On day one, after a long journey and with barely a warm-up, he kicked off by onsighting a nasty bold slab graded 5.12b by Huber (~E6). Ben and I both needed the only bolt just to get up on second. After that he didn't look back, onsighting or flashing every pitch but the crux, some whilst seconding Ben's redpoints.

Ben fuels up on Jelly babies at the base of the crux pitch. Dent du Geant and Jorasses behind

In total we spent four days on the route. By day two we'd reached the crux pitch, a technical thirty metre corner capped by a roof and graded 8a+, when bad weather sent us back to the valley. After two days exploring the cragging delights of the Aosta valley (Caff was particularly excited by a hard sport venue called Il Cubo),

Ben on an 8a at Il Cubo

and being ripped off (76euro for two nights camping...) we returned to the glacier on the promise of a good forecast. Luckily it didn't disappoint; day three saw us back at the highpoint and Caff made short work of the crux pitch, only just missing getting it first redpoint. Ben got the next pitch ticked off and then we abbed down leaving ropes fixed to the base of the sixth pitch. The boys had a big job to do the next day, another eight pitches including an 8a and several hard 7s. Figuring I wasn't going to add much to the team but a handbrake, I elected not to join them and instead scrambled up the neighbouring spire and watched the action unfold.

pitch 11; 8a at 3700m and another McHaffie flash...

These pics are just a taster, I've saved the best and the full story for the mags: Climb should be running a full article whilst John Arran will be covering it in Climber's Alps and Beyond column. I'm really happy with the pics I got so it should be worth the wait...

Monday 3 August 2009


Tomorrow I'm off to the French Alps for a few weeks with a strong team and a big objective - suffice to say despite my recent sport climbing I'll be mainly on photo detail! I'm not expecting any access to a computer, but if I can I'll try to post an update before we get back - lack of RAW editing facility, rather than the internet, is likely to be the stopper, but I'll go for text only if so.

We're travelling out by car so I've got the luxury of packing a good choice of kit, the Mamiya 645 will be in but I doubt it will make it onto the mountain. I've not shot digital on a multi-day mountain trip before (although I went digital three years back now, on the Lotus Flower trip we were looking at twelve days between plug sockets, so I went back to my old OM kit) so it'll be interesting to see what I end up cutting back to and what works best.

Saturday 18 July 2009


High summer in The White Peak, and its a relief that after the dire summers of the last two years the wildlife seems none the worse for wear. In my, admittedly limited, experience it seems insect colonies that were down to low levels last summer have bounced back impressively, with birds and plants are doing well too. The weather this year has been a succession of hot, dry spells interspersed with wet, cold periods, rather than the mild but dull and very wet summers of the last two years, or the hot and dry of previous years. Looking at temperature graphs for the last few hundred years, it looks like the ragged sawtooth's interminable rise might be in a regressive pattern for the next decade. This winter was certainly a little more like 'winters used to be', and the wildlife seems to be benefiting. Of course the concern is what happens after our brief reprieve period...

I've been experimenting a little with white background work to produce some design-ready nature images. There's a fair degree of faff and extra equipment required, but the resultant images ceratinly have their uses. Here's a comparison of The Peak's two native Orchids of the genus Epipactis - the Dark-red and Broad-leaved Helleborines.

Traditionally this is regarded as a difficult time of year for the landscape photographer, with the sun high in the sky for much of the day, throwing harsh blue light onto a predominantly green landscape. Although I tend to be immersed in nature photography at this time of year, The Peak has more to offer than many landscapes in summer. Drifts of Cottongrass already add shimmering silver strips to the moors, whilst Bell Heather is just coming into flower on south-facing slopes. Pretty soon it'll be joined by the more widespead Ling and the moors will be at their most spectacular. Its not all uniform green in the White Peak either. Haymaking breaks the fields into a patchworks of yellow and green as early as May, and carries on 'til late July when the most ecologically important fields, under stewardship schemes, are left to seed before mowing. Autumn's colour might seem a way off yet, but the straw yellow of drying grasses are caused by the same process and can be just as photogenic. My favourite landscape photo of the last month has been up on Kinder. Mindful of the fact I'll be away for the peak of the Heather season this year, I teamed up with my boy Cofe for an evening shoot on the western edge of the plateau.

Tuesday 7 July 2009


Lots of little things have gone on since my last post. Nothing big, but no lack of interest either. We had a week in the Outer Hebrides at the start of June, which didn't disappoint. Despite taking a car-full of camera gear, I really got into using my Ricoh compact on this trip.

A lot of the time I was sketching with a view to returning with more serious gear if the weather cooperated, but having seen the quality it can produce it also meant I could my binos round my neck, D300 + 300mm over my shoulder, Ricoh in pocket and be ready for landscapes or wildlife without needing a bag.

Getting back to The Peak, I've kept using it for sketching out locations in marginal weather. Attempts to return for a proper go haven't always worked, what with the weather, the midges, and the fact that when you get down to it, it can be damn near impossible to improve on a photo, even when its one of your own. There are a lot of subtle factors which you rarely take into account as being crucial when deconstructing photos, so its always instructional to try and repeat a shot. If nothing else it'll give you an appreciation of how much the landscape changes in a week or so.
Climbing-wise, I've surprised myself in getting into limestone more than ever, and bolted lime at that! The motivation is easy; in a few weeks I'm off to Mont Blanc's Grand Capucin with a strong team, and I need to get fitter. I've done a lot of trad lime, and enjoyed it all, but the combination of uncomfortable holds, uninspiring lines and arbitrary bolting of Peak sport has always seemed a particularly joyless challenge. I can trace part of this change in attitude back to a conversation I had with Pat Littlejohn whilst taking a minibus of foreigners down to Craig Dorys. Discussing some of the piles of choss he'd climbed over the years, he explained that he has never viewed poor rock as a detrimental quality, but just simply as a fact of the route. It can add to the character, or it can detract, but in itself it just is. Whether, to a climber, it is a problem, is something foisted on it entirely by the climber's preconceived notions of quality.

I really liked this philosophy, and it ties in well with the zen approach I mentioned in an earlier post. I've never had a problem viewing loose rock as interest, so on the Peak lime this year I've been trying to put notions of good and bad out of my head, and simply see what there is to learn. I always like learning, and along with the dose of variety its enough to keep me happy. So far it seems to be working; I managed to actually work a route over several sessions at a grade harder than I've done before (a lowly 7c) and, when it came to it, got a lot of satisfaction from the redpoint. I was surprised to find it really does feel easier (and a lot better!) when you do it. Now if I could just get my head round working stuff a bit better...

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Stanage birds

One of the things I've been busy with the last few weeks is the birds at Stanage. I got involved with the BMC's access team about eighteen months or so ago after expressing a little too much interest in what was happening on the Eastern Edges. One of the main tasks is to tour Stanage and Burbage with Bill, the North Lees estate warden, looking for the Ring Ouzel nests. Ring Ouzels only live in moorland and mountain habitats, and there's some evidence that their range is contracting northwards and to higher altitudes in response to global warming. They disappeared from The Roaches some years ago, and on the Eastern Edges occur no further south than Burbage.

Bill does the bulk of the work finding the nests in the early mornings and late evenings, then once he has a good idea of their locations we go out and decide whether a restriction on climbing is needed. My trainer-soloing skills are occasionally required for checking the innaccessible nests with minimum disturbance, but my presence is more to advise on the popularity of any adjacent climbs, and hence the size of any restriction. Despite the high profile of the Popular end restrictions they are actually rarely used. So far this year we've had 7 nests on Stanage with only two restricted areas, both covering the same pair. As soon as the chicks fledge the parents get straight on with a second brood in a new nest, the male continuing to feed the fledglings whilst the female starts incubating. That's right where we are now so its taking up quite a few of my evenings this week.

As the shot above shows, its also been a good opportunity for me to scope out some good locations for photographing the birds. Bill's knowledge has also been invaluable in going about this without disturbing the birds. Its also nice just to go out birdwatching for its own sake again, something I rarely do nowadays, although I seldom go out without pair of binos stashed in my bag. As well as the expected residents like Woodcock and Grashopper Warbler we've had Short-eared Owl, Buzzard and Raven, none of which are common on these still-keepered moors, and a real treat in a party of Dotterel at Crow Chin.

Dotterel are one of those species which, like Ring Ouzels and Chough, have a special meaning for anyone who loves high, wild places. Less than a thousand pairs nest in the Uk, and only on the highest mountain tops, the Cairngorms being a particular stronghold. They are one of the last species to migrate north come spring, and every year they break their journey north from the Atlas mountains at traditional spots like the Carneddau plateau and Pendle Hill. Its something of a pilgrimage for hillwalking naturalists to get to one of these spots at the right time (mid/ late May) and catch a glimpse of these mountaineering plovers as they head north, and one I've long intended to do. I didn't expect them to come to me; perhaps a little karma for looking after the Ouzels? This one is a female; unusually the brighter of the sexes, a role-reversal that extends to them displaying to attract a mate, who is then left to incubate the eggs and rear the young.

Friday 8 May 2009

The Zen arcade

Climbing media nowadays is awash with increasingly sophisticated advice on training on strength and stamina. Wisdom on technique is basic by comparison, and as a result folk keen to improve often focus on the physical aspects. Part of the problem is that strength training is so easily reductible in a scientific manner whilst technique is not. So first lets try to define technique; mine is simply that technique is efficient movement.

I look at climbing not as a simple physical challenge, but as a four-dimensional puzzle. On an easy climb there are any number of solutions, but as the climb gets harder the available solutions get less in number and demand greater precision in execution. Strength can help you bulldoze through but the really useful skill is to be able to find the most efficient solution quickly and repeatedly. This is the skill I'm most bothered about in my own climbing, and what I touched on in the previous post is that I don't feel its one that has especially improved over the years. I don't agree that this is because it is innate talent, it certainly wasn't for me, but I think it is the kernel of truth behind the old adage 'the best training for climbing is climbing'.

The subtleties of sequence choice and body-positioning are best left to the subconscious, as Bruce Lee put it 'don't think - feel', and the best way to get that to learn is to immerse it in the environment you want it to perform in. Long-term training on a board is likely to leave your subconscious confused when you get back on the rock, just as a summer on lime leaves you flailing on the grit. Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Outliers glibly suggested that elite performers in any discipline have one thing in common - not talent - but practice, and at least 10,000 hours of it. In Jerry Moffatt's book Revelations he recalls training endlessly in a cave at Stoney, confident that he is the only one of his peers so motivated, and later reaps the rewards in the USA.

Back when I was twenty and obsessed I put in far more hours, all on the rock, than I do now, and I'm sure that's the key to what I seek. Of those climbers that are putting the hours in now, how many are on unrealistic artificial surfaces? I'm sure that you have to spend at least 50% of your climbing time on rock to avoid loss of technique. My base level is high enough now for me to rest on my laurels at a respectable standard, and there's also a problem of dimishing returns in seeking out new problems locally to solve, so its not likely to change soon. In fact I'm quite looking forward to decrepitude setting in and pushing me back down through the grades and a new set of puzzles!

What has also intrigued me is how technique in climbing is analagous to composition in photography. Its another four dimensional puzzle that for me gets played out twice for each photograph. First there is getting yourself to the right place at the right season, time of day and weather. Secondly is settling on the right angle of view and precise positioning to resolve the elements within the frame and give a harmonious composition. I say harmonious but its an inadequate word, for many shots you may be trying to create a startling effect or a neutral one. If its a climbing shot a lot then rests on the timing at the last instant, plus recomposing on-the-fly to ensure that as the main subject moves they aren't upsetting the composition as a whole. On a landscape shot the final timing is also suprisingly fraught, I guess the final images give the impression that the making of the image is a calm affair - not usually! The final composition has to be tweaked to accomodate moving and reshaping clouds, wandering sheep etc, all whilst trying to capture what is usually fleeting good light and ensuring any wind effects on vegetation are as desired.

I'm sure lessons learnt in reading climbs have been used to good effect in composing photographs, and I'm sure in time compositional trials will further my pursuit of a more refined climbing technique. Some of my most productive times in both areas have undoubtedly been away on trips when I've been immersed in both on a daily basis.

I equate making it to a good location with the right gear in the right season to turning up to try a climb fit, strong and with the right boots. Success of sorts may be easy to achieve, whether the desired tick or a half-decent photo, but what will create real lasting satisfaction comes down to those last little elements, and ultimately, technique. Flashing the climb with an elegant sequence, or quickly settling on a really cogent composition, these are things that cannot be trained for but rely on regular practice in the field coupled with maintaining an open, creative mindset. Or as the Zen maxim goes:

'First develop a perfect technique. Then place yourself at the mercy of inspiration.'

Monday 4 May 2009

The Pits

A good few years back now I did a few various bits of work for Beyond Hope over in Delph, back when Sam Whittaker was doing the day-to-day running of the place. In the evenings we'd get to the local crags before scooting back over the moors to Leeds or Sheffield. Usually this meant Running Hill Pits, not a well-known crag but one of which the locals are justifiably proud. I spent enough time up there to understand why, but its a ballache to get to from Sheffield and you drive past a lot of good crags on the way. So its probably six or seven years now since I was last there.

The central goal of these evening sessions was a Dougie Hall route from the early eighties called Scoop de Grace. The Scoop itself is a great feature that just begs to be climbed, but is guarded by a fifteen foot wall of essentially blank rock that is the local byword for impossibility. Just leaving the ground is difficult, making progress is harder, and there's precious little to aim for above. Sam eventually did it using the most brutal basic sequence of pull-ups on tiny edges that I knew was a non-starter for me. Some consolation though was the photo I got of him on it.

It was one of the first climbing photos I took which I'd venture to call definitive; as in I think it will be very difficult to improve upon, either by myself or anyone else. Quarried grit isn't generally a sculptural rock, but waiting until the sun was at the perfect angle brought out something pretty special.

So on sunday when Nige suggesting heading over I was pretty keen. Seven years stronger; I'd be all over it. The reality was a little different. Sam's direct sequence seemed as impossible as ever. The footholds were even worse than I remembered. The tiny crimps are harsh on the skin but I was loathe to abandon the way I knew could work for fear of wasting it getting nowhere on an alternative. However Jon and Nige got no further and I really felt like pulling any harder would be injury, so I had a go at the right-hand start. I vaguely remembered a cunning sequence but couldn't recreate it and resorted to a jump start.

All this only served to further confirm one of my pet theories, which is that I haven't improved as a climber over the last ten years, I've only become more accomplished. That might sound like like my typical half-glass-empty grumble side coming out, but its something I believe in. I could pull out the excuses, like my boots being worn out when you need new, it being May (though 6 degrees and windy...) and general poor form. But the fact is I was doing no better, and on the technical invention front had got worse. As an aside, I'll admit I have made some gains - more comfortable on big trad than I was back then, a good bit fitter, and along with the accomplishments has come experience. But to a large extent I think experience makes you more conservative technically. Climb carefully, statically, wear it down you learn. Back when I was in my early twenties I would usually pull some crazy sequence out of the bag and it would work more often than not. Nowadays it seems the bag may be empty. This being the side of climbing I most value, its a worry. How do you train for invention?

The others had lost interest. Si asked if I fancied a route. "Yeah, once I've done this," I replied. It wasn't so much PMA as stubbornness. Realistically, if I didn't do it today it might be another seven years. I'd be pushing forty, no chance. Thank god, the next go was progress. Jump off the floor, just catch the crimp with three fingers, swap feet, udge left hand to make room for a stretched match, left foot high, pull-up, out to tiny crimp, change feet, big lunge left for better crimp - a hold that is the key to the route. I'd stuck it. Left foot on fast, sag under, through to next crimp with right... back on the mats. The next hold was terrible. Another five goes got to the good crimp but no higher. I was struggling to stay warm and feeling tired.

I walked over to the others and had a snack. Looking back over, the chalk marks looked like footholds. Too small, and with worse feet. In a wider context this is also a pretty significant route. By the mid eighties this, Walk on By and Monoblock were probably the three hardest problems in the Uk. Our Big Three. I don't think anyone has done all three to this day; there's a red rag for all you strong boys out there. Gradewise I suspect Scoop is the easiest, but it will test your head too, and as a line the others do not compare.

Jog about to warm up, then back on. Miss the jump start a few times, then catch it. Back through, feeling a little better, this time I get the better crimp and can use it. Left foot high, right hand through, its bad but I'm ready for it, through to the next, its better, some weight on my feet finally. Not quite the good hold I was after though, time to move on... left hand comes through, another tiny slopey crimp. Shit, I'm coming off, paste right foot into scoop, big rockover almost into balance. Shit, no handholds. Nothing. The others have noticed, Jon runs over to spot. I'm teetering, left foot onto the slopey intermediate, left fingertips by my knee, right hand nowhere, I stab my right foot across onto the lip, it sticks. Lean into balance, exhale. Thank fuck for that. The top is a delight.

Tuesday 21 April 2009


Spring feels like its really sprung here in Sheffield. Its a few weeks now since the Curlews returned to the moors, the first buds burst about two weeks ago, but the last week has seen the leaves unfurl and breathe colour back into the landscape. On friday a Cuckoo sealed the deal. To further lift the spirits there's been plenty of sunshine, we might even be on for a repeat of April two years ago when it didn't rain in the central Peak for four weeks. Hopefully we'll be spared the summer of floods that followed. In common with previous years there's a lot of haze about which can make for disappointing sunsets for photography, luckily alternative subject matter to 'the grand vista' is getting more varied by the day.

As is usual this time of year grit action has swerved into the quarries. For these (and the midland sandstone crags) it's peak season; quick drying, not too hot or midgy yet, and a nice transition to the bigger trad challenges of the summer.

At venues like Duke's or Nesscliffe the rock is usually at its driest of the year just before the trees close in. Not sure if'll make it over to Shropshire this year, but if you've not been, now's the time to go.

Friday 17 April 2009

Lleyn sun

Sitting on the patio, enjoying a beer in the evening sunshine, I tilt my head and a stream of saltwater runs out of my nose and onto my book. Despite packing the car full with cameras and climbing gear, surfing proved just too addictive. Abersoch came up with the goods over the easter weekend; wall to wall sunshine from friday to tuesday that felt like a real holiday. I did get out with the cameras during the evenings, but the light was too harsh during the day and the swell too inviting.

Mick Fowler's old principle of trying to get more feet of climbing in on a weekend than the miles he'd driven to get there seems positively opulent compared to surfing though. The actual seconds you spend stood up compared to the effort of getting there and the time spent in the water is ridiculous. Thankfully I'm at a stage now where I'm improving fairly quickly and proper rides are seeming much more attainable. That failure ratio is highly addictive too, everytime I decide to go in after the next wave, its goes better than I hoped and I head straight back out to try again.

With this and the ice climbing I did earlier in the year, its really nice to be learning and improving fast at something again. Hopefully the psyche will spill over into my photography and climbing where gains are harder won nowadays.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Caley etc?

First stop on Saturday was Steve Dunning et al's new bouldering wall in Leeds: The Depot. Its superb and will be the equal of anything in the country when its finished. What's open now is better than 95% of walls already. Cofe gave me a hand fitting out their swanky new Cafe with a bunch of my prints. Looks pretty smart:

They are all for sale so have a look if you're in the area. If you've seen something you like on the website its a good place to check out the quality of the prints before you buy too.

Good as it is there's no climbing wall in the world which could tempt me off the grit on a sunny spring day, so it was off to Caley next. I'm pretty convinced its the best bouldering venue in the Uk, the only downsides being proximity to a busy road and a tendency to stay damp. Conditions on saturday were great, literally everything dry, cool, sunny spells and a good breeze. Indulged ourselves in a long warm-up circuit (how good is Rabbit's Paw wall?) before getting stuck into some more serious stuff. Nearly seven years ago now I was a local here so have done most of the stuff I'm likely to do on an odd visit before, so its was all about trying to repeat some of my favourites. I stayed well clear of Blockbuster, Ben's Groove went easily enough and then it was on to Terry, one of my top ten problems ever. After re-learning how to hold the pebbles (its in the thumb, of course), Nige and I were getting to the top hard move lurching left into the big holds. About twenty goes and an hour later I finally took off my boots and admitted defeat. As a general rule I'm much more bothered about my base level than my all-time hardest tick-list, so stuff like this really frustrates me. Its a tricky move, but I couldn't undertstand what I was doing wrong. With hindsight it was pretty warm and I think we were the first to clean it off this spring - with a proper clean of the crux slopey crimp it might well have been a different outcome. Putting this amount of effort into something I've done before doesn't bother me at all though, far better than scratching around some lowball drivel just for the sake of a new tick.

By the time we'd worked our way along to the crag rain was threatening and we were pretty goosed. We finished off trying Scary Canary, another classic highball that I've done quickly before. Failure this time was more squarely due to filthy holds on the arete. I suspect the arete sequence has fallen out of fashion in favour of a more basic crimping up the sharp pockets, but it makes for a better problem. Hopefully there'll be chance for a rematch before it gets too hot.

Monday 6 April 2009

Up The County

Tuesday and Wednesday last week turned into a mini-trip to Northumberland with The Lodger, Andy J, Sam & Lu. Four crags in two days plus a dawn photo session can't be bad, in fact I'd say the Belford-Bamburgh area is perhaps the best in the uk if you want to combine convenient landscape photography and bouldering.

Tuesday started at Shaftoe; a new crag to me and great to explore in sunny breezy weather. Surprisingly its gritstone, a little soft and scrittly, reminiscent of Brimham in its rounded sandiness. Its a big, fairly complex area, though one impression was reiterated as we checked out the various areas: its either too high or not high enough. The grades also seemed to be wildly to cock; I warmed up by flashing a 7b+ in my trainers and Lu slipped off the topout of an 8a on her first attempt. No doubt its a fun area if your relatively local though, some great features in the rock and fantastic views north to Simonside.

A very pleasant drive along quiet roads took us north, passing an amazing amount of outcrops, to the bunkhouse at Preston ('The Joiner's shop' - recommended), and then for a last light session at Bowden. I wanted to get a good photo of what is probably the best problem in The County - The Crack, which Andy and I had previously done but Sam hadn't. Sam was first up on his second go, Andy lapped it several times, and I managed to struggle up in between trying to catch the light bursting through layers of clouds. In The Peak I think this would get 7b+ or 7c, a similar standard perhaps to West Side Story and of comparable quality for certain.

Dawn Wednesday saw me at Bamburgh beach and a frustrating sunrise - two minutes of contrast as the sun broached the horizon, then overcast. Flipping between my Mamiya 645 and the new digital body was a struggle and in future I think concentrating on one or the other is required. The beach here is probably the most popular sunrise photography location in the country - four folk out this morning - but having shot it in soft light before I packed up, sat and soaked up the sea air and the bobbing Eiders for a while and then headed back.

Most of the day was spent at Kyloe-in-the-woods where none of us managed anything of note. More than a little fatigued we agreed to check out Hepburn before heading home. Another nice looking crag on a quiet hillside, plenty of good lines in the mid grades, but nothing to tempt us to stop. Further right there was more lurking in the woods. A few giant slab extemes lost to moss, and a perfect highball block with a cracked arete - Northern Soul. A stone cold classic at 7a, don't miss it if you're in the area.

Thursday 26 March 2009

The Joker

Funny how things work out. I'm really motivated for photography at the moment (the shot above is from dusk on friday) but seem to end up climbing. Partly its the weather. Unstable air keeps rolling in off the atlantic and boiling into cloud over Kinder; shutdown for promising afternoons. The last three days I've set off with photography in mind and ended up making the most of a blustery, showery hour or two before darkness. And I probably would have just sacked it if it hadn't been for chance meets and calls along the way. So props to Zaff, Cavey and Keith for encouraging me onto the crags.

One thing I've really noticed this season is how hard it can be to get warmed up. The upshot seems to be that I get a rollover effect on successive days on. So this week, without realising it, was a bit of a textbook method for me to sneak in to form: three short sessions all ended by darkness, the first two concentrated on good, constant movement over familiar ground. The first, on wednesday at Burbage West, also served as a little wake-up call. I've got The Nose and The Nostril well wired and on the circuit, but was shown easier methods for both. In fact the Nostril sequence is so much easier I'm not sure it counts! Its great that little bits of rock like this can keep teaching you stuff.

So day three and I end up heading for The Plantation to meet a psyched Keith. He wants to try The Ace; I'm jonesing for some magic light. Its been raining half the day, there's a strong wind and Lee looks at me like I'm an idiot as I leave the house. Heading up to the crag I've got my full camera kit, tripod and the knackered boots and pad that live in the car boot. We force a good warm-up cicuit trying to keep out of the wind, push a few eliminates through the 6b traverse, then head over to The Ace. The Joker isn't something I've ever been that bothered about, one or two sessions a year to reassure myself its out of my league, but the west has blocked up with clouds and Keith's attitude is infectious. Cleaning the left-hand crimp, its clear to see its changed since I last looked (november, I think). A few crystals have been lost along the back and its slightly more positive, especially at the right end. It almost looks deliberate, but Keith isn't convinced and once hanging the hold its clear the best hand position doesn't use the most positive part.

A few goes in and I'm up to my previous highpoint: two joints over the top. Keith is looking strong as ever on the low start but struggling on the crux match move. The landing isn't great and I'm still not greatly motivated by the problem. Next go my fingers really lock into the crimp, my thumb assumes the unfamiliar bone position, breathe in rhythym to the swing and back on the pad, this time with a sharp pain in my palm where the lip crystals bit. The not-strong enough excuse is looking frail. Another go, same result; its on but the double catch seems no less improbable. Next go I resolve to do the match, try, and make the move but don't stick it, spin and land hard on a rock left of the mats. What's curious though is I don't get to consciously execute the move; there isn't time. The move is made on the ground and the sub-conscious takes over. Now I'm interested!

Five minutes to let the pain in my foot subside, push Keith through the moves a couple of times and then sit down to try to generate some desire for the problem, take in the place, think about the move. Next go is predictably crap, next again isn't. Initiating the move I know this is the go, the move is done in my head, everything sticks, I'm up and Keith is as pleased as I am.