Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Moth Direct

Iain Small approaching the roof on pitch 1 of the Moth Direct. After the first couple of pitches I didn't get the camera out much. It wasn't really photography weather!

Last week I was sat in my car Dumbarton just after climbing Gutbuster. I had arranged to climb the following day on Crag Meagaidh with Iain Small and Helen Rennard, with a rough plan of doing a direct start and finish to ‘The Moth’ VII,8, a 380 metre route first climbed by Es and Guy on the Pinnacle Face. We looked at the wind forecast and postponed. I’m glad! 

Iain heads up into the morning gloom at dawn.

We reconvened at the Meagaidh car park at 5am yesterday and marched into Coire Ardair under leaden skies but fairly benign weather. In Raeburn’s Gully, Iain pointed out the first couple of pitches (beyond that it was in the cloud). The first pitch looked really logical, taking a nice dribble of ice emanating from a roof, then stepping left and pulling over the roof to gain the ledge Es and Guy had traversed in on to reach the main corner system on pitch 2. Iain made chilled out work of the pitch, as he does. I then lead the crux of The Moth which had a fun ‘Quarryman’ style crux palming off a corner.

Iain rapidly dispatched the following 2 pitches (run together) and then I led an 80 metre pitch (with 10m of moving together of course) that was standard Meagaidh tech 5 icy face climbing with basically no gear and eventually found a belay below the barrier wall that tops the buttress. Iain launched up the steep wall directly above the belay and made it to a the next ledge just as darkness fell. From here Es and Guy escaped rightwards along the ledge in the dark and deteriorating (thawing) weather.

Iain on the hardest part of the first pitch. Great climbing with a good bit of gear.

We followed in the dark. The wall above still looked steep at first and well rimed up at this height, it wasn’t clear where to attack it. I led off up a bulging wall, with one well placed cluster of runners to encourage me to keep going up, followed by a long groove which was great except there was basically no protection and the updraught was hammering my eyes and face with spindrift every time I looked at my feet. This still didn’t make the top. But thankfully the final pitch was easier and led us to a wee cairn at the top of the Pinnacle.

One of the side effects of always trying projects which are super hard for me is I don’t get out and about ticking loads of easier routes on nearby crags. It's kind of odd that Meagaidh is less than 20 minutes drive from my house, but I’d only ever done two routes on it before yesterday. Hopefully I can start to address that issue! It was the same with Binnein Shuas which is even closer. I hadn’t done anything there at all until recently and now have done several E7s and two E8s. Yesterday I was also thinking about my rather harder project on Binnein Shuas which escaped last year thanks to my shoulder accident in July. Ideally there is time for some more winter routes before that project thaws out and I can get started on it again.

Helen eyeing up the line from Raeburn's Gully.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Ten years after

Highpoint on Gutbuster 8B+ in sunnier times in May 2017 - very very close but needed some more cold days! Thanks to Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media for the pic.

Oh man, thinking about it, it’s actually eleven years. In 2007 I was 29 and was climbing really well. In that period I did my first E11, my first 9a and was doing a lot of high standard climbing across the disciplines. I was living in Dumbarton and doing a ton of climbing there, but in May 2007 we made a plan to move to the highlands and so I did a bit of a mad rush for a few weeks to finish various remaining projects on the boulders.

I climbed all of them except the hardest one - the link across the roof into the start of Sanction (Font 8B). I got really close at the time but it didn’t happen before I left. It seemed like madness to drive back from my new home in the highlands to finish it off so I was happy enough to forget about it. Although I did have kind of a niggle that it would have been nice to open an 8B+ boulder at Dumby.

Thankfully Malcolm Smith sorted that out in 2008 and made the first ascent, calling it Gutbuster 8B+. The strenuous kneebar rest between the two halves of the climb certainly is a Gutbuster, but it’s pretty important to get as long as possible on it, to be fresh for the tricky jump move right at the end of Sanction. 8 years after its first ascent it is still unrepeated to my knowledge.

Last spring I was going climbing in Arrochar but got rained off and since I’d driven down, I bailed to Dumby instead. I stood looking at Gutbuster again and decided to get on it and see if the moves felt harder for my ten years older body. I did actually feel a tiny bit stronger on it although obviously memory is not perfect! The curiosity switch was instantly flicked and I decided to see if I really could burn off my 30 year-old self ten years later.

I had some sessions, but with it being May it was getting kind of late and although I got ridiculously close, I ran out of conditions. I also noted that I’d been doing lots of redpoints and lots of rest days and had lost fitness. I really needed to get some training in, but there wasn’t time with just a couple of weeks left of the hard bouldering season. So I left it and aimed to come back in September.

But in September I had a separated shoulder and was battling just to raise my arm above my head, never mind climb anything. I managed to get back on Gutbuster by November while I was down studying at Glasgow Uni for a month. I was climbing but still not nearly on 8B+ form and my right arm was still extremely weak. Sometimes it can be good to work out the moves while weak and find the best method. My plan was to build up my strength with a few sessions on it, get it wired and then go to Spain in Jan and try and get back towards 8B+ form. On top of that I had my usual experiments with various aspects of diet and recovery protocol. It worked really well.

I had one session on it the other week in poor conditions and felt noticeably stronger, then another hard week of training on the board. I really wore myself down in that training stint and was exhausted every night, but hoped after a rest day I’d feel very strong right on time for a busy work period finishing and the good conditions starting. Then I went back down on Tuesday just before the worst of the recent snow arrived.

It was snowing at the crag but seemed okay for climbing. I warmed up and tried a few moves and instantly knew I had a chance to send it that day, feeling by far the strongest I’ve ever felt on it. But on my first two tries my foot slipped at the same move halfway up Sanction. I tweaked the beta and it was much better. I also realised I wasn’t able to fully relax in the kneebar rest and spend a fair bit of time faffing with the kneepads to get them in the right spot on my thighs. That also made a huge difference and I could relax and get my breathing down at the rest.

On the third try a full on blizzard started while I was on the shakeout. My hands went numb and I fell off Sanction, but even if I hadn’t, the top holds were full of snow and I’d never have made it through. I retreated to the cafe for a brew while the snow raged and then returned and brushed the snow off the holds. But it was getting dark and getting silly.

Snowstorm started mid attempt. It wasn't going to happen.

I had my ‘one last go’ and fell near the end of the first half when I couldn’t see a foothold in the gloom and slipped of it. Och well. Just to finish myself off, I went back to the start without even taking my rock shoes off and started again. This time I scrapped through the first roof but with the kneepads properly positioned and jumper on this time, I was warmer and much more relaxed and able to ‘shake off’ the stress of the first part. I took an extra moment to compose before taking the little spike crimp, for no particular reason, and started up Sanction. This time I just happened to make all the moves really error free and got to the jump. I was just that much stronger on it than previous sessions and next thing I’d done the crux and my eye level creeped over onto the top slab. I did feel powered out while setting up for the last tricky stab to a crimp, but held it nonetheless. At that point there only a real mess up would send me off and I found myself stood on the slab, wide eyed.

Gutbuster finishes up Imposter arete, a straightforward 5a but really a solo with a horrendous fall if you did decide to come off it. Normally I’d just walk up it, but now most of the footholds were wet and holds were full of snow. It felt more like E4 5c, crimping the hell out of the damp snowy crimps. Getting off the boulder was even more of a gripper! The descent climb faced directly into the snow and was snow covered slippery death.

So I guess I showed to myself that its possible to burn off your 30 year old self ten years later. Clearly I need to be cautious in how I interpret this. But I have to admit that I find it hard to doubt that the changes I’ve made in my approach to training have made a difference. Actually the training hasn’t changed that much, its more the lifestyle and especially nutrition practice. I do feel generally better, but specifically a bit stronger and more resilient to training stress, illness, injury. In other words, I feel like I bounce back a little better than I did before. I’ll keep testing, trying to falsify. If it keeps working in this direction, I’ll take it!

I’ve read a ton of recent research in various corners of physiology over the past two and a half years. The details of this are rather complex and thee’s no doubt it’s like looking at a half-finished jigsaw puzzle of evidence. But I increasingly form a hunch that at least a decent proportion of the age-related decline in performance and/or increase in brokenness seen across sport could be prevented by deviating from some of the standard advice in sports science discourse. Doing this involves a bit of curiosity to use the evidence base as just that, a base, a starting place, from which to take some educated guesses and head off in search of new places for organised research to follow on behind. To me this has always been what sport science has been about.

I'll post up some video of climbing it shortly.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Catalan Witness the Fitness

Last night I climbed Catalan Witness the Fitness in Cova De l’ Ocell, Catalunya, first climbed by Chris Sharma. In my last post I talked about doing one of the 8B variations on it and how I felt uninhibited by worry about my shoulder on a very aggressive iron-cross move and how this felt like a big recovery milestone. For sure I feel like I can try hard without worrying now. But the final milestone in a recovery would obviously be to climb something as hard as I’d done before.

Catalan Witness the Fitness has been confirmed at Font 8C several times, although after Jakob Schubert’s amazing ascent recently, he suggested a downgrade to 8B+. I don’t have the same experience at this level of bouldering as those other guys, but given what I do have, I think I would concur with 8B+.

It would really be a dream come true to climb this line, not just because its a great climb super hard, but also because going from a pretty serious shoulder injury to 8B+ in just over 6 months would be a very satisfying endorsement of my approach to recovering from this injury and all the decisions I’ve made to steer the course along the way.

After finishing the other two 8Bs in the cave, I’ve been focusing on CWTF for the past four or five sessions, although they all converge on the ‘iron cross’ section in the second half of the cave. I was initially struggling with one move in the crux section that seemed too reachy for me. But eventually I found a method that worked (Solutions seemed to work better on the toe-hook). Still, I couldn’t quite link it through the jump to the good rail which is the crux for most folks. 

I also was struggling with the iron cross and had a sinking feeling that were I able to ever link up to it from the start, that move would likely become a stopper. I eventually found (as I always seem to) a completely non-standard way to do the move involving spinning round, going feet first and doing the move ‘La Rose’ style. Even then, I still lacked the shoulder strength to do it consistently and spent more time on faff mode until I got a little left foot heel-toe that stayed in just long enough to do it more in control.

With sequence sleep/nutrition routine dialled in, together with several training type sessions on it when conditions were on the warm side (and so it becomes more about getting strong on it than actually trying to send), I saw the north wind forecast. When I woke up I noted to myself that I felt really good and well rested with plenty of energy. The long drive there was always a little bit of a challenge in that I always felt a little sluggish warming up after it. But I learned how to take my time warming up body and mind. When I arrived, there was a little fresh snow on the ground and the sandstone looked extra pale and dry. Excellent. Warming up I felt the effects of my taper routine. The holds felt bigger.

On the second try, I felt really strong and got to the rail for the first time and onto the 8A+ second part. Gangling across this towards the iron cross, I was really curious to see if the pump/power out would hit me, but noted feeling relaxed and fresh. I could feel some power-out arriving as I spun the feet round, but to my surprise hit the ‘Rose’ move perfectly (with some luck I think) and before I knew it was on the shake out. I had estimated I could only stay on this very steep rest for two chalks before I’d lose any recovery. This also tallied with videos of the other ascents. However, I felt super relaxed and ended up staying for 50 seconds and still feeling my breathing continuing to settle.

Inevitably, I sensed the possibility of success and this became a potential source of anxiety. The exit moves are only about 6C+, but pumped climbers have fallen off here. However, I thought about the initial days after my shoulder injury when it was so painful it took me half an hour to sit up in bed (6 months ago!) and how heavy, weak and timid I felt on the rock even two months ago. I reasoned that if I could go from that, to this, in that time, I would surely be able to reproduce this effort again if I were to fumble the finishing crimps. 

I was still re-running this thought in my mind as I got moving and grunted through the finish, going for broke. Before I knew it, the massive finishing jug was in my hands and it was over.

Were it not for the fact that my climbing partner for this (supposed to be sport climbing) trip broke her foot and was unable to climb, I’d almost certainly not have dared to travel specifically to try this climb. I should be less scared. Especially as I’ve explicitly resolved before to take an utterly fearless approach to life given previous experiences. Life is certainly too short to worry about failing. However, on the plus side, at least I did focus on making some key decisions in my training to give myself a chance. They turned out to be good calls and it is great when that happens.

This will certainly not be the last bouldering I do this winter. In fact I view it as excellent preparation for a couple of harder projects back in Scotland. However, I’m also psyched to think about some other climbing disciplines soon.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Don't let go

Video still of the redpoint crux on ‘GRA” 8B, Cova De l’Ocell, Catalunya. I was really trying to hold on, but didn’t quite make it this time.

Right now I am in Spain. My climbing partner Alicia has broken her foot, so I am not doing my planned sport climbing and instead going bouldering. I spent some time visiting Cova de l’Ocell and trying the hard problems in there.

Most of the problems finish of the same section of roof with a hard iron-cross move, which I knew would be challenging for my shoulder and a good test of whether I can get beyond ‘recovered enough to climb something’, to strong and able to climb something hard, i.e. complete recovery. 

I’ll admit that every time I do the move, it feels like my arm has been nearly ripped off on a rack. However, this feeling is getting less pronounced. And I still managed to get through this move on Independencia (8B) on my first try and finish the climb.

Now I’ve been trying the other 8B (detailed at about 2 mins into this video) first climbed by Chris Sharma. I don’t know the name of the climb but I’m calling it GRA after the graffiti at the start. The other night, I nearly succeeded on it 4 times in a row, falling each time on the drop down form the iron-cross move.

So this is a story of failure so far. However, on the attempt in the pic above, I had a really good moment. When you commit to the drop down without having caught the hold right, there is a risk you’ll deposit yourself onto your head on the ground. And I only have one proper mat on this trip. Despite this, I got super aggressive  and really really tried to hold onto it, despite my feet coming off and being so outstretched that my shoulder was not properly engaged.

If I were thinking about my recovering shoulder, I would have surely let go. But I wasn’t! I felt completely uninhibited and my body is obviously now comfortable to climb this way again. This marks a big recovery milestone. The ability to completely let go of inhibitions and give everything is critical for climbing at your limit. I'm delighted that my comfort zone is extending pretty close to the limits of my physical capabilities again. This is where I want to be.

Lets see how the next few sessions go on it.

*UPDATE* I went back a few hours after writing this and sent it.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017


On the headwall of Testify 8b, Loch Maree Supercrag last weekend. Yesterday, on the first ascent, these lovely rough Gneiss crimps were a wee bit wet in the pouring rain, but they are incut enough I could get past them. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

In May I got a chance to visit the brilliant new sport crag at Loch Maree - beautiful setting, excellent crag, mostly waterproof routes. Thanks to the NW usual suspects for putting a huge amount of effort into developing it (or anyone who opens new sport crags anywhere!). On my spring visits I ticked the 8as already established and completed an 8a+ extension which was 50m long (The Circus). I couldn’t help eyeing up the  unclimbed terrain to the right and figured there would be at least one great route to be done here.

Approaching 1/3 height on Testify 8b. It's massive! Photo: Dark Sky Media

As soon as my recovering shoulder was up to it, I packed my Hilti and my titanium glue-in bolts (to last many decades in the maritime environment) and drove north west. I bolted a line right of The Circus that splits in two at 25 metres (halfway). The right hand version looked around 8b with an easier but exhilaratingly exposed upper half. The harder version has a brilliant but desperate boulder problem at 45m.

Last week I got stuck into the easier version. The tech crux is actually low down and is a fingery cross-through move - pretty much the only move that still hurts my recovering AC joint. I knew it would take a couple of sessions to get used to moving dynamically on this move, and it did. But yesterday I got through it and the sustained section above. But with numb hands I slipped off near the end of the crux section and split my ring fingertip which bled everywhere and seemed to indicate the end of my session.

It was the first cold day of the autumn and I’m not up to speed with my cold weather tactics yet. Next try, I spent a few minutes moving large rocks around at the base to improve the sloping gully ledge at the foot of the route, but more importantly to get muscles up to temperature for the next blast. It worked a treat and I felt way stronger and found myself on the brilliant easier middle section of the route. I checked my finger, which was only bleeding a little and so was fine to go for the top. The previous week of heavy rain had some serious waterfall action fringing off the top of the crag and unfortunately was catching four of the crimps near the last bolt. But this section is not that hard so I was pretty determined to make it through. It was just too good not to! Of course I didn’t let go and was delighted to clip the anchor on my first new route since the shoulder injury.

I would say that this closes a chapter on the shoulder injury story for me, but not the book. I am obviously beyond the sufferfest stage of climbing withdrawal, but I have a bit to go to feel my right arm is really strong again. For that I have the harder line to focus my efforts. Given the encroaching cold weather, this is most likely a spring project for me, but I’ll give it some goes and this can direct some winter training for it. I think the boulder at the end is in the V10 range, and on some really tiny edges. It’s going to be hard to pull on these after so much climbing below. Exactly the sort of project to fire up a winter’s training.

Friday, 22 September 2017

AC joint recovery, progress and protocol

It’s coming up for 8 weeks since I separated my shoulder. I’m delighted with my progress and although I’ve obviously got a long way to go yet, I’m a lot further along at this point that I expected.

Even two weeks ago, although I was doing some gentle endurance type climbing on my wall and an ever increasing load of rehab exercise, I was still unable to load my shoulder dynamically without some pain. How it would respond to ‘proper’ climbing i.e. 100% effort, with dynamic loading still felt like a big unknown.

Now, I feel rather more confident that I will be able to recover really well from this injury. I can campus without any problem, complete a half one-arm pull-up and have managed to get up some of the ‘medium-hard’ problems on my board. Fewer and fewer moves are causing pain and strength is improving daily. It will still take quite some time to recover 100% of the strength lost. But my day-to-day work is feeling less and less like rehab and more like real training.

I also just had my first day back out at the crag which was a huge boost. Through experience I’m well equipped to cope with the enforced break from my normal routine of outdoor climbing that is so important to me. But ‘coping’ is the key word. It takes active effort to get through the stress of deprivation from being outside in nature and doing that you love. So when you can stand outside in the quiet of the north west, smell the autumn air and dangle about on a cliff preparing a new route until the sun sets, it feels like a huge weight is lifted.

Just this experience is like the sun coming out in my head. Both body and mind are telling me it is time to GO.

 i.e. Go climbing.

A lot of people have messaged me asking to know exactly what I’m doing for my rehab since the results have been good so far. Obviously my program is personally tailored to me, but here is a quick list of the bulk of what you need to know. You’ll see that none of it is rocket science, but also very easy to get wrong in our modern way of life.

There are three central foundations on which the rehab protocol are built. Sleep, nutrition and stress management. The detail of much of this is described in my book Make or Break. But aside from the myriad of sleep hygiene tactics, the main issue for me is just to enforce a hard bedtime to ensure I get at least 8 hours of quality sleep (not just time in bed) with no exceptions. Nutrition wise, I eat what most would describe as a Paleo type diet, although I certainly don’t set out to follow the Paleotm rules. Basically I just eat unprocessed foods - lots of red meat from properly raised animals, lots of leafy green vegetables, lots of eggs and high fat dairy depending on my energy needs. I’m glossing over a ton of detail here but broadly I eat this way for three main reasons. It helps me maintain my weight without having to constantly watch my calorie intake. It is generally anti-inflammatory and this makes a huge difference to recovery from injury or training in general. Finally, it makes it a lot easier to make sure I get all the nutrients in abundance. For geeks, Marty Kendall’s site is a fantastic tool to explore various options for getting your nutrition right. Cronometer is also a great tool for monitoring. I also try to actively limit stress. Getting injured and then trying to recover is already stressful enough and I can see the physiological effects of this quite readily. Lowering the allostatic stress load is important to give your body a chance to heal. In practice this means getting the above factors right, making some space for relaxation and managing my work as well as possible. The biggest challenge in my case is that time spent outside at the crag is possibly the biggest stress reducing behaviour in my life, and being injured tends to remove it! Although I did make an effort to have days outside as soon as I could, I definitely could have done more to get outside earlier in the rehab process.

On top of this foundation comes the exercise protocol. I’m not going to go into the detail here because the principles are in Make or Break. On top of the basic shoulder rehab exercise program, I went for testing with my physio every three weeks to identify weak areas and extra work needing to be done as I progressed. But once I could tolerate movement of my arm I started climbing immediately, but very gently, just moving round a vertical wall covered in jugs. So easy I didn’t really need to pull with the arm at all, and only for a few minutes a day. Each session I could do more, progressing to quicker (or more accurately less-slow) movement and then to a slightly overhanging wall and eventually to moving slowly on a 45 degree wall. I tended to find with almost every new stage of the progression that the first session introducing a new level gave some soreness, but subsequent sessions were fine and I could consolidate that level over the following days.

Off the wall I maintained a daily routine of a standard shoulder rehab protocol - rotator cuff, back and arm exercises with bodyweight, dumbbells, bungee cord and rings. For an AC joint rehab, chest presses, press ups and dips were the very last thing I was able to add - not until 7 weeks and even then very gentle. However, pull-ups were tolerated far earlier. I had a good setup with my rings and feet supported on piled up boulder mats to take weight off. In the first 3 weeks I did assisted one-arm pull ups on the good arm, then two arm static hangs on bent arms, then assisted two-arm pull ups, then unassisted building up from sets of 5 to sets of 20, then one arm locks on the injured arm, and at this stage I can do 50% of a one-arm pull-up. Standard progression. Clearly, someone who was unable to do one-arm pull-ups before the injury would have a progression at a lower level, for instance with a more drawn out progression of assisted pull-ups and then progressing through low numbers of unassisted.

Over all I would say that I have done 2-3.5 hours of work per day, just about every day. Not all of this was hard exercise on the shoulder of course - that is a total of everything, from grip-strength work to hip stretching. There was no hard and fast rule to progress other than monitoring how the shoulder felt during the session and how well it recovered the next day. The only time I felt I’d overdone it was actually in week 7, adding too many dips and press-ups too quickly. I needed to take two full rest days before continuing, and after that left those particular exercises for another week. I was careful to complete all the rotator cuff, scapular and back exercises in my program before doing the climbing related ‘fun’ stuff. It’s all too easy to just climb and ignore the real work.

Now at 8 weeks I am starting to climb and focus on real climbing goals and days out at the crag rather than just rehab goals. So I need to continue to be careful to schedule in the rehab exercises  on days at home, so that they don’t slip off the radar and slow my continued progression.

I must say, 6 weeks ago I could not even imagine the position I am in now. I felt so awful and disabled at that point. If the next 6 weeks brings anything like the same consistency of progress that will be fantastic.

FWMF Minifest trailer

FWMF Minifest 2017 from Fort William Mountain Festival on Vimeo.

Here is a trailer I put together for the Fort William Mountain Festival Minifest which is running on Saturday 7th of October in the Nevis Centre. Some of my own aerial footage from around Lochaber in the trailer, and the list of great looking film showing.

You can get tickets for the night at mountainfestival.co.uk

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Separated Shoulder

5 weeks ago, I had an accident playing with my daughter and separated my shoulder. I did it properly as well; a grade 3 separation tearing all three ligaments which join my right collar bone to my scapula. It was a classic shoulder separation scenario - diving into a roll but instead landing on the point of my shoulder. Seeing my reflection in the car window was all I needed to know what had happened (it was obvious!), but nonetheless I headed off to get an x-ray and exam to confirm. My clavicle was elevated with a marked deformity across the top of my shoulder.

I’ve always counted myself lucky not to have had any traumatic shoulder injuries. There is a first time for everything. On the first two days it was so painful it took me 30 minutes to get sat up in bed. Taping it had me yelping like a kid! Obviously at this point I was not too happy about the situation.

But even by the third day I was able to make some tiny movements. By the beginning of the second week, the immobilisation of my arm in the sling had devastated my arm and shoulder muscles, which looked (to my eye at least) tiny. It is always shocking how fast immobilised limbs waste away, especially when it is your own limb.

Step deformity at the AC joint (the end of my collar bone)

With my daily exercises, I did everything I could to progress the return of range of motion, strength and muscle mass. At first, I could only really do 1-2 hours per day, but by the third week that was more like three in total. Early on I was just doing a ton of grip and pinch exercises, biceps curls with my arm supported, internal/external rotations with tubing or my other hand for resistance, isometrics at different angles and many more.

It got noticeably better every day, although there were of course still some mornings when I felt rotten, and some evenings when I sloped off to bed exhausted and sore at 7pm. Speaking of bed, the exercises were as always only half the picture. These days I am rather more careful to enforce a minimum amount of sleep, go after a far higher maximum and I’m much more careful with my diet now I have better knowledge on what I’m optimising for. While its not possible to know just how much all of these things make a difference, here is the output so far.

At five weeks I have fairly decent range of motion, but still a bit to go to achieve the last few degrees of pre-injury flexion and especially crossing my arm across my chest. I can manage about 12 pull-ups pain free and can now tolerate short climbing sessions on a 45 degree board doing moves which are fairly easy for me.

I can’t yet tolerate long training sessions, any really hard moves at 45 degrees, forceful ‘gaston’ press moves, very dynamic jumps on steep ground, or other heavy loading of the AC joint with my arm overhead. To me that feels like excellent progress, and I’m still seeing daily improvement. I’m sure I’m not the first climber with this injury so I’ll report back as a few more weeks pass and see what I can manage or cant manage.

Although it’s obviously a massive pain in the ass to have an unexpected traumatic injury I could have done without. But once it has happened, it’s happened. You have to deal with it head on. Its a good opportunity for me on three fronts. First, it allows me to test out the principles I detailed in Make or Break and continue to build on them. Second, it’s allowed me to work on some other projects that needed done. Thankfully the weather has also been rotten for the past month anyway, so there is no FOMO for the mountain crags going on. Finally, as always it allows me to go back to square one and assess my weaknesses to work on in training, and put some proper time into addressing these without the constant drive to just go out climbing all the time.

So let’s see what the next month brings. It would be doing well to be worse than the previous one.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Summer of Shuas

The first crux of Dun Briste E8 6c during the first ascent. Thanks to Cubby Images for these pics. Cubby, when are you doing your book?!!

 This summer I’ve tried to make up for last summer’s wet weather and broken legs and have picked up where I left off, trying to do some of the superb new routes just waiting to be climbed on Binnien Shuas. In this effort, I’ve been following the lead of the amazing Iain Small, who has made a great effort in developing the crag over the past year. Let me take a moment to underline just what he’s done here. Although I can barely keep count, Iain has added one E8 and five E7s to Binnien Shuas in the past year. And, having repeated a few of them, I can say that they are brilliant routes. Not only that, but Iain has done a very thorough job of cleaning them, turning three star routes into four.
Having broken my leg trying to make the FA of Stronghold, E8 6c last autumn, I was playing catch up with Iain this year. I kicked off by repeating Siege Engine E7 6c which takes a soaring diagonal ramp on the left side of the crag. It’s ridiculously steep and a long winding pitch but well protected and about 7c in difficulty. This for me was a pre-requisite before trying the obvious project cutting through the roof above the ramp.

Nearing the top of my own route Stronghold E8 6c, which was very satisfying after breaking my leg on an earlier attempt past September. Pic by Cubby Images

My first abseil down the project was an exhilarating and nervous experience. The headwall above the roof has this amazing flake in it. It’s hard to describe, but sort of like a ‘slice’ out of the granite resembling the cut you would make in the top of a mound of bread dough about to go in the oven (not that I bake any bread these days ; )). It’s such an amazing feature, I was really nervous that the stretch across the roof to the flake from the undercut flakes below would be too far and the line would be impossible. As it happens, it’s perfect - 8a+ with good gear and excellent, athletic climbing. You start by doing most of Siege Engine to the perfect cam slots in the roof. What follows is a huge powerful reach to the lip from here, some toe-hook trickery and another piece of gear before the culmination - a powerful slap to a perfectly placed side pull right below the top. 

I’d just had a week off climbing for my birthday fast (blog on this will follow) so on my first day up there with Iain I opted to top-rope it in its entirety to see if I could actually get through that top crux. This is something I don’t often do these days on headpointed trad routes. I usually tend to mess about on the moves on a shunt and then just go for it as I’ve got a lot of experience at knowing when I’m likely to succeed or fail. I was glad I did on this occasion though. Although I did manage to link it, I really needed the extra training burns before adding the effort of placing the gear on lead. I also seconded Iain on yet another great new E7 just left of my route Stronghold.

A couple of days later I was back with Iain and Cubby and after a bit of faffing decided to get on it. I felt really good all the way but was still full of apprehension for whether I could power through the crux with a bit of a pump on. I could feel that pump starting to kick in just a wee bit on the first crux, so got pretty fired up and let out a battle cry on the final slap to the side pull. It was an exhilarating surprise to stick it and a few moments later find myself standing on the ledge above with another classic new route in the bag. 

Setting up for the final crux on Dun Briste E8 6c, during the first ascent. Pic by Cubby Images.

Between Iain and myself, we eyed up a possible direct entry to the line from below. The following day I returned by myself and spent a long afternoon cleaning it. I think this could go but it’s at least another grade harder and will need a bit of work yet. With the sun staying out I was back again the following day with Murdo and Cubby. After the hardcore cleaning session the day before, I was pretty exhausted and at first wasn’t sure if I could climb anything. But after checking out Iain’s Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c on the right side of the crag, it was too good not to lead and both myself and Murdo dispatched our repeats with great enjoyment. To really finish myself off, I started up Isinglass E7 6c on the proviso that if I could manage the wobbly initial slab, I’d just try my best to keep going. I’m sure you’ll understand that after decking out and breaking my leg on the next route to the left, I’m a little nervous of Binnien Shuas starts now. I was a bit tense, but the start went fine and I pressed on. It was kind of cold and windy and I was really too tired to be on a big E7, so I didn’t hesitate and blasted on. Isinglass is another climb with the crux right at the top and I’ll admit I had to do a pretty committing slap on the key move onto the top slab.

Nearing the end of an intense and bold crux section on Iain Small's Braes of Balquither E7/8 6c, Binnien Shuas. Pic by Cubby Images

Enjoying Iain Small's excellent route Isinglass E7 6c, Binnien Shuas. Pic by Cubby Images

This really is an excellent crag for accessible mountain trad that dries quickly and is often in condition even in fairly mixed weather. The two E8s I’ve added myself are both brilliant, but I really do want to see an E9 on this crag. So I’ll be back as soon as I have the opportunity to get on the direct entry to Dun Briste. Although the E7s and E8s in this post will not be targets for most readers of this blog, it’s worth pointing out that the classics at the other end of the grade scale are highly recommended too. Ardverikie Wall probably gets twenty ascents for every one of any of the other routes. But there are plenty of other great ones too. The place is really other keeping in mind as a Lochaber mountain crag to visit. It’s in condition earlier and later in the season than many of the other mountain crags in the area and you can easily get in there and climb many pitches even with a half day and often when the higher mountains are catching the showers. See you up there.

Training with Freida after getting back from holiday last week. She insists on doing her rings workout to Katy Perry. I now know all the words to 'Roar'.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sailing to St Kilda


Setting up for the crux of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b on Ruabhal, St Kilda. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Several years ago I was lucky enough to climb on the spectacular islands of St Kilda, which sit 50 miles out in the Atlantic to the west of the Outer Hebrides. We had just one day and did a fantastic three pitch E6 on perfect black gabbro, similar to the Cuillin of Skye. Ever since, I have wanted to return and do something a bit harder. So when the veteran sailor and explorer Bob Shepton asked if I’d like to sail there with him, I obviously had to grab the opportunity, despite having no sailing experience and not really being a ‘water person’.

It was probably a good thing that I had a very busy few weeks of film shooting before we were due to leave Oban on June 10th. I had no time to consider how the journey across would be. So I had no expectations at all, except to have an adventure. Sailors Bob and Stuart, climbers myself and Natalie Berry and filmmaker Chris Prescott hopped aboard and off we went down the Sound of Mull. Although we had chosen June for the probability of fine weather, the standard Scottish summer fronts were ruling the skies and so we had three short days of dodging unfavourable waves, wind and rain in the small isles and Outer Hebrides. Eagerness to finally get there helped us decide to set sail west from Harris into a forecast of possible Force 7. There was an occasional Force 8 forecast a little further north, and of course once committed to the big waves west of Harris, we discovered that was a slight underestimation.

Bob Shepton's boat, the Dodo's Delight on a very calm departure from the St Kilda islands.

Some new ropes to learn. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

For my part, I was happy with being in the storm. Knowing nothing about sailing in storms or the capabilities of the boat, I could only go by Bob, whom I could still hear laughing and joking below deck as the boat was being thrown all over the place by waves which rather dwarfed our boat. I also garnered a slight note of caution from the odd bit of chat, that it could get really bad. Therefore, I expected it to be horrendous - like hanging onto the boat and being half drowned by waves. This probably helped as by the time I clocked the jaggy islands of St Kilda through the driving rain, I’d still been waiting for it to get really bad. Nonetheless, I was certainly ready to get off the cramped space of the boat and be able to spread out a bit and exercise limbs.

It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that it was calm enough to get us ashore and we set up camp as the clouds finally parted. Desperate to get going, we hot-footed it over Hirta to the cliffs of Ruabhal and found the rock to be dry, despite some huge waves battering the bottom 50 feet of the walls. Chris and Nat were still feeling a bit wobbly and spaced from the journey, so I rigged a line and went over the edge to check out the two lines I had in mind to climb.

 Bob noting down the shipping forecast. A regular ritual on the boat. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

The forecast was none too good. 

I had a fantastic evening dangling about on the wall, sussing out new lines and watching the impressive show of breaking waves blasting huge plumes of water skyward. The combination of natural sights and sounds really makes sea-cliff climbing on St Kilda a sensory feast. The first line I looked at seemed to have roughly 7c climbing with decent gear although you do move a bit away from it on the crux traverse. The next morning we waited out another wet start and tried to hold back as long as possible before walking over to the cliff. In late afternoon we were in place on a hanging belay just above the waves, with the cliff above us now nicely dried out in the sun and strong northwesterly. The first pitch was a beautiful easy pitch of E2 5b on great rough holds and sinker gear. I was actually happy Chris asked me to climb it twice for different angles and stills. I could get warmed up a bit after getting chilled on the belay.

The climbing on the crux was just so good and exposed that it seemed crazy to waste time worrying about whether I could do it or not. I just launched through it and before I knew it was stretching for a nice finger lock on the slab above the lip of the roofs. The remaining pitch was great fun, especially when a curious guillemot flew up to my face and attempted to perch on my head. I’m not sure who got more of a fright. On top it was 9.30pm and would have been nice to just go back to the tent and eat some dinner, but we had one more day of climbing and the forecast was good. I was eager to climb something harder, and I knew this meant going straight back down to spent crucial hours scoping out another line.

Starting the difficulties on Making a Splash E7 5b, 6c, 5c. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 

Just past the crux on Making a Splash. The Gabbro is perfect stuff. Made to be climbed. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Once over the edge again I was happy, and glad I’d decided to do it as it took me until after midnight to suss out the line of the second route I wanted to do. The plan was to breach a long roof in the middle of the cliff. I looked at it in two places, both of which were possible but far too hard for a single day of climbing. As I abseiled through a potential line, at first I wondered if it might only be another E7, but it quickly turned out to be far harder. A sequence of minuscule crimps and sidepulls round the roof worked out at Font 7c-ish. Actually pretty hard to pull off first try on a route in this situation, well for me at least.

However, the next day conditions were perfect. I knew I had an opportunity to take, so I had to calm myself down a bit and take my time to wait until the sun was going off the cliff in the afternoon. After arranging the gear I reversed back to the belay to ditch some of the rack ballast and generally sort myself out. Although I was a little worried about slamming into the wall below the roof should I fall, the conditions were just too good not to go for it with total commitment. As I set up for the crux slap, the holds felt unbelievably grippy and I knew I was going to do it. After another airy hanging belay the final E5 6b pitch was a total joy to lead. We shouldered our packs and headed off to village bay to sleep and look forward to the journey home.

Natalie seconding pitch 1 of Old Boy Racer, on perfect sea washed gabbro (like sea-washed up to 100 feet on a south west facing cliff such as this. Those winter atlantic storms must be some sight!).

The exit corners of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b. Not too sure I'll find sea cliffs climbs much better than this. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

My strongest memory from the trip was walking back to Village bay after working on the E8 by myself. It was after midnight, but only half dark since it was just around summer solstice. Once over the crest of the hill and out of the wind, the silence of the late night was intense and very relaxing. As I walked I could pick out the calls of the handful of different birds still out and about, the seals on the shores of Dun. But mostly, there was just pure quiet. It was lovely.

Natalie on the 'Mistress Stone' at the top of Ruabhal. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media