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.