They say time flies when you’re having fun. I don’t know about that so much, but I can honestly say that when you’re having the time of your life, doing what you love the most, time races past you faster than our Brad in a Tour de France time trial. Four months is a long time, but its so easy to let that time flicker away; make a list of venues and all of a sudden you’ve only got a handful of consecutive two week trips with a bit more on the end. Then when you add on travelling, rest days, short excursions to smaller areas, bad weather, and projects, all of a sudden you find your time quite limited, and once its gone you can’t get it back. Everything has to end though, but that just makes you appreciate them more.
Me and Will left England at the end of February, full of anticipation for the up and coming adventures. We had a plan; we had lists of venues and routes, we had sort of an idea when we’d be in each one and where we would stay. Not much was set in stone though – if we decided we wanted to head off somewhere else then we could – that’s the beauty of a road trip, you’re totally free, if you can afford the fuel. In this way especially, road trips are different to normal climbing trips. Yes, you’re there to climb, and the climbing is important, neither of us were afraid to admit that we were there to push our limits and try really bloody hard. It wasn’t to be an adventure holiday where you bumble about scaring yourself silly. We were there to try our best on boulders and sport climbs.
But, it’s not just about the climbing, and that’s an important thing to remember. When you’re travelling for a long time always trying to push your limit it would be so easy to burn out, so we made an effort to remind ourselves that its not the end of the world if we weren’t motivated to push it that day, because you can’t be motivated every single day, and if you had a bad day then that’s just what it was – a bad day. You can’t perform at your best 365 days a year, that just doesn’t happen. Something that I felt was equally important was to really try and enjoy the areas for what they were, and to appreciate the company of others instead of only thinking about the climbing – though I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t the focus of at least 90% of my thoughts…
The first stop was Fontainebleau. It was my first time in the forest, and obviously I’d heard a lot of good things about the place so my expectations were high. To sum it up, the climbing was as good as I could have hoped but the weather was less than ideal. Snow and rain seemed quite determined to stop us from climbing. But we were keen and made the most of it by running round looking for any dry rock – not a good idea to climb on damp sandstone, but if you pick your area right then you can often find enough dry to keep you busy. The thing for me which makes Font so good is the density of really high quality rock – its some of the best I’ve ever climbed on – almost as good as the County…
After sliding off some terrible font slopers in less than ideal conditions for a while it was time to get tied in and get pumped silly on jugs. It always amazes me how easy the moves are on most routes, even on Pata Negra I don’t think there was a boulder problem harder than 6c or 6c+, so I always wonder why anyone ever falls off. Until I try and link a few moves together, that is, and I’m painfully reminded of how useful oxygen is when it comes to respiration and how dangling off your fingers is not conducive to a constant supply of that most valuable element. Oh how I’d love to be 12 again!
St Leger, Buoux, Lourmarin, Chateauvert, Gorges du Loup, Gorges du Tarn and finally Rodellar. It felt like we were never in the same place for long, and since we were both horrendously unfit from all the bouldering, much of this time was embarrassingly bad grade wise. It was all preparation, I told myself, for the main event – Rodellar. There was progress though, the fitness which I missed so much did slowly come back. By focusing more on volume and onsights in the first month or so of the sport climbing portion of the trip I got into reasonable shape, though still not particularly good.
I only spent a week in Gorges du Loup, but it really was a brilliant experience. We were both fortunate to be invited by a friend, Peter Wuensche, to stay in his house there with a few other young British climbers. There weren’t any particularly significant ascents by anyone on the trip, but there were several personal bests which is much more important! What was more interesting was getting a glimpse at the future of British climbing, I expect good things from everyone on that trip in the next few years. Its an exciting time to be climbing in Britain.
It was interesting to say the least. To essentially start from scratch and work back through the grades, it felt like I was reliving the process of improvement through my climbing career so far, only in fast forward. The achievements were the same, and still represented improvement, even if they weren’t personal bests at the time. One example springs to mind: At Buoux I onsighted a 7b+ (sort of – in my hypoxic state I accidentally stood on a hidden bolt below a bulge which definitely helped), which is no where near a personal best for me, its something that I expect to do when I’m in reasonable shape. However, this one felt like a first, like a huge leap forward in the progression of my climbing. I tried really bloody hard. I should have fallen so many times but managed to scrape through, barely. The fact that it was a 7b+ didn’t mean anything at all, I was happy because it would have been so easy to give up, but I fought on even when I was convinced I was off, and that is such a rewarding experience.
It doesn’t matter where you are at in your climbing, 5a or 9a, you can always try your best and that’s something about climbing which I really like. I know from personal experience that the climbs I’m happiest with for the longest time are not necessarily the ones with the biggest number (though they are sometimes), but the ones where I had to push my self to my absolute limit. There’s something very satisfying about trying really hard, to the point where success or failure becomes quite secondary – how many routes have you clipped the chains of without much effort and been satisfied with? I bet the number is pretty small, and those ones are likely to be more adventurous routes with friends where technical difficulty is not such a big part of the experience.
I tried to carry that attitude of ‘try hard’ forward throughout the whole trip. This really worked, it took the pressure away from success or failure, so you ultimately perform better in the end. This really made the process of trying hard routes a lot easier, even on Pata Negra, I never left the ground worrying about the moves at the top or about whether I would clip the chain or not. Instead, I focused on each individual section of a route at a time, breaking it down to trick myself into thinking it was achievable. And, following some advice from Katherine Schirrmacher, I also tried to learn something new on each attempt, however subtle, as its often the little things which make the big difference.
Back to the trip though. For me, Rodellar really was the highlight, everything else was great and made the whole trip a much fuller experience. But Rodellar really does suit me perfectly, and I think that had a lot to do with my success and overall enjoyment of the area. Pata Negra was the big one for me there, but I did a few other things which I was quite pleased with, nothing that significant, but I felt like my base level increased by a grade or so. 8a+ 2nd go became the norm, even managed a couple in a day, and 8b’s were no longer drawn out battles. I didn’t really focus on onsighting this trip though, so nothing much to shout about there – can’t do everything I guess, unless you’re Ondra…
Not many people get the chance to go on a trip like the one I’ve just been on, so I feel pretty fortunate to have had the opportunity and I feel like I made the most of it, but everything has to end at some point. The gap year isn’t quite over yet though. I’m going to Iceland for month where I won’t actually be climbing, after that I’ll potter round the UK a bit before either going to Switzerland or back to Rodellar before starting University in Sheffield!
‘Its easy to be close, but it takes mental fortitude to clip the chains’ – Gavin Ellis
Climbing is unique in a way, you can always go back for another go, the rock will always be there, its always up for a fight, so long as you are. Whereas in other sports much more is fixed, you have to be ready there and then, if you fuck up then you can be left lamenting that screw up for the rest of your life, after all, you’ll never get a chance to compete in that race ever again. Redpointing, though, is a different kettle of fish, once you’ve done the moves then its possible, success will come given enough time. Its a question of how much time and effort you are willing (and able) to put in. Time is not unlimited though: the plane won’t wait for you, the season will end at some point because the Earth doesn’t give a crap if you’ve just fallen off the last move of some random piece of rock, so keeps spinning regardless, and when the window of success is small, which it often is as something gets closer to your limit, other factors begin to play a more significant role; stress, mental state, conditions, and physical condition all have to come into place at the right time to be able to succeed when something is truly at your limit. If you don’t stick with it, and be patient, then you’ll never get through that window.
I’ve been trying a route here in Rodellar, called Pata Negra, which I’ve had to stick with over the last month. The climbing on it is pretty cool: heel hooks left right and center, a knee here and there, a couple cut looses which always look cool and save lots of energy, even a bat hang if you’re front calves are up to the challenge but your forearms aren’t. It can be split into two main sections, separated by a massive rest. The first section is actually a few sections separated by bad rests, and boils down to 3 moves revolving around a lovely lump of sika – not quite the same as Northumberland. The second section also comes down to 3 moves, but on edges around the lip of the roof, a lovely proposition after 25m of almost roof.
At first progress came fast. There were significant gains each session, I made bigger and bigger links quite quickly, till I eventually managed to scream my way past the first crux before falling 3 moves from easy ground, my confidence grew with that progress. 8c isn’t that hard after all, I mean, its been onsighted. As Steve Mcclure says, an improvement curve can be plotted against time, slowly leveling off until eventually becoming flat, with success crossing that curve at some point – ideally just before the curve flattens out. In my ignorance I thought that maybe the curve would continue to rise steeply and that success would be assured in a matter of days. With that in mind I came down from that attempt happy as fucking Larry. Oh, how I was wrong.
I got a serious case of man flu. It rained, the route got wet. I fell left, right and center, but not very high. I fell in the middle a few times. Foot slips, frustration, excuses, and a bit of grunting eventually got me back up to those 3 moves at the top a few more times, but it felt like a long way off. 8c is hard. I thought about the route all the time, almost to the exclusion of everything else, it became the sole source of motivation for me, nothing else mattered, I just wanted to do it. I wasn’t going to give up now.
Then came the day when it all fell into place. It was perfect conditions: a properly good breeze, fairly cold but not so cold that you numb out. There was a good group of people at the crag, all motivated and trying hard, I even saw a strong Spaniard do Pata Negra quite easily – nothing like a bit of humbling to make you try hard. I felt good too, and that’s good for your confidence, even if its not essential to be in top physical condition. It was like it was meant to be: I cruised through the first crux, even had a second to think to myself, ‘I don’t need to scream’, I did anyway, and rested up really well too. Found myself at the final 3 moves; one down, next ones easyish, one more to go, to a jug as well. I hesitated though, my elbows were already up, and once your chicken winged, you’re fucked. Bollocks.
I was worried that I’d missed the window of opportunity because I felt like I’d gotten worse – the first crux felt shit hard all of a sudden. I managed to fall again 3 moves from easy ground, but felt no where near doing them. I was on the verge of sacking it off, doing some easier stuff and maybe coming back to it. My trip was drawing to a close, I could probably count the number of really good go’s I had left on both hands, the weather changed too – the lovely cold I’d been treated with was replaced by hot humidity with a light breeze at best. On top of that rain was forecast on the horizon. I could feel the window closing, if it hadn’t already snapped shut. I was worried that I would end up coming home empty handed and would spend the next two months lamenting my failure. This may have just postponed success, I’d like to hope that I would be capable of doing it upon my return here, however a part of me was worried that if I failed to do it this trip then I would develop a mental block, potentially halting future progression in climbing, and that I would actually return worse than I am now. I feel like I have just gotten lucky with my form this trip, it could have so easily gone the other way, but somehow I have managed to get fit here. This is time that separates the men from the boys, if you really dig in then you will probably get it done, but its so easy to give up, to go for some quick ticks to satisfy your ego, even though you’ll know, deep down, that you got second best.
After a bit of rest; where I regularly switched between nervous anxiety, calm acceptance, and demonic focus, and with some magic belaying by Micha I managed to get it done. I’ve been keeping a daily log which I guess is a bit diaryesque so I’ll include a bit of what I wrote here:
Its shocking how much one route can mean to you once you’ve invested time and effort into it; that effort and emotion builds and builds till it threatens to overwhelm you. You develop a relationship with it, personify the objective to help your mind cope, to somehow justify the investment, to make the fight easier. The process of trying it becomes an integral part of your life – in the time I’ve been trying it nothing else really matters, you get tunnel vision, long term thinking is thrown out the window, everything you do, you do for the route, as if in preparation for the fight. It becomes your motivation, your partner, and the very thing which frustrates you the most, threatening to drive you insane.