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Voyages of Delusion

There are very clear signs that nature is finding a new balance to all the energy us humans have been smashing into the system. The arctic is warming at roughly twice the rate as the rest of the world, and the ozone hole has been growing up there in spring. This warming weakens the jet stream and forces it south, this conspires with enhanced snowfall in eastern North America and high pressure over southern Greenland to induce strong south-westerly winds across western Greenland (this has dismaying consequences for climbing and flooding in the UK). The melt season there started a month early this year, beating even the current ‘record melt’ year of 2012. This doesn’t guarantee more melt, but the early melting increases the snow crystal size, lowering its albedo, which makes it more susceptible to melt later in the season. Once this snow is gone, the ice below melts rapidly.

All this meltwater has to go somewhere. Almost all of it reaches the base of the ice sheet, leading to localised ice-flow acceleration. Much of it is then routed to the ocean. Where the water spills out into the ocean at the margin of a glacier, it often draws warm water to the glacier front leading to enhanced melting, undercutting and calving. We have quite little understanding of how much melting there is there. I had a bash at modelling it earlier in the year, but even with the best data available the model is still off in daisy land whilst the glaciers retreat (usually). The freshwater is then emptied into Baffin Bay at the surface where is hinders ocean upwelling and heat release, potentially leading to overall warming of Baffin Bay.

Meanwhile, the Beaufort gyre has sprung into action early this year, leading to rapid breakup of sea ice in the arctic basin. This, combined with a relatively mild winter, a series of cyclones channelled across the North Atlantic into the Greenland and Norwegian Seas earlier in the year, plus enhanced flow of warm water to the west of Svalbard, has decimated the sea ice and prevented it reaching its usual position around Svalbard. It was even possible to circumnavigate Svalbard several times this year already, which is very rare. Sea ice extent is roughly one million km squared lower than the same day in 2012. I can see little reason why sea ice won’t reach a record low in September.

But this is good news for some. The luxury cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, is capitalising on the declining sea ice by ferrying 1700 blithering idiots through the Northwest Passage this summer. They only have to pay $70 000 to $125 000 each. That lucky bunch will get to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Parry, Ross and McClure – some of the greatest leaders the world has ever produced, in my opinion. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of the Northwest Passage, here’s a quick overview, but I strongly recommend reading  Fergus Flemming’s Barrows Boys to learn more.

The Northwest Passage is a sea route along the north coast of North America through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. For a long time it was considered as a potential trade route, but even now it is rarely used. I’m not familiar with the earliest expeditions attempting to traverse it, but in 1817, John Barrow made it his personal mission to fill in the missing blanks on the map around the Northwest Passage. John Ross made the first attempt under the admiralty in 1818, but on reaching Lancaster Sound, he was caught out by a Fata Morgana illusion – a curious phenomenon common to the arctic in which the air is distorted because of a temperature inversion induced by sea ice, creating what often appear to look like mountains – and promptly turned around. He named the putative mountains the ‘Crocker Mountains’, after the first secretary to the admiralty. When the mountains turned out to be non-existent, the first secretary was, understandably, not amused. This pretty much set the tone for the majority of subsequent expeditions to attempting to solve the mystery of the Northwest Passage, except subsequent missions involved substantially more suffering.

William Edward Parry, who was first mate on the unfortunate expedition under John Ross, managed to penetrate westwards all the way to Melville Island during the following summer – one of those rare summers in which the arctic opens itself to the world. Indeed, this would be the most productive arctic expedition for the next 3 decades. Parry and his crew overwintered at the appropriately named ‘winter harbour’ before turning for home. Parry’s tactics for overwintering in the arctic – maintain routine, keep busy, provide entertainment and keep scurvy at bay – set the precedent for all subsequent expeditions. Numerous subsequent attempts were foiled by sea ice and storms. Franklin and Back successfully mapped large stretches of the North American coastline, and actually came extremely close to meeting up with an Eastward bound expedition. But alas, instead of becoming famous for the proving the existence of a continuous route, Franklin instead became famous for being the man who ate is boots.

Much later, in 1845, Franklin was given the task of traversing the passage at all costs – he must not fail where all else had – all scientific pretence was abandoned, this was a question of national honour. As almost all of Barrow’s expeditions had, Franklin did not succeed. But by this point, Franklin was a national hero and what followed was an outrageous series of rescue missions, both over land and by sea, which effectively scoured this vast stretch of the Arctic. One party, led by Robert McClure (who was actually under the command of Richard Collinson), approached from the west and set off solo in search of Franklin. Upon finding quite clear seas, thoughts of rescue quickly turned to glory. With clear and charted waters in sight, McClure was trapped in the sea ice. He was extremely close to sailing through the passage that year (1850), indeed, had he pushed on he likely would have done. But, led into a false sense of security by the open waters he was confident that the way would be clear the following summer. After 3 gruesome winters in the ice, during which time the men were reduced to quarter rations and about a quarter of their weight, they abandoned the Investigator, and were (incredibly) luckily rescued by the crew of the Resolute, which was later abandoned for no good reason in the ice. McClure sledged to a different ship, and did cross a Northwest Passage, albeit on several ships. The passage was eventually traversed in a one-er by Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906, who declared the passage useless for anything.

The fate of the Resolute is also interesting. Trapped in the sea ice, it drifted eastwards for 1200 miles before being ‘rescued’ by an American whaler, James Buddington, who sailed her to America. Kindly, they restored the ship and gave it back to Britain as a present, which was instrumental in easing British-American relations. So, what else to do, but dismantle the ship and sell the wood to America? The wood of the Resolute was used to make a desk, and currently sits in the oval office.

The thought the passage become a tourist route sickens me. Imagine it: “quick, let’s get a selfie in front of Franklin’s grave (wherever it is…) before we catch the chopper over to Jakobshavn – maybe we’ll see a calving event” (the way Jakobshavn has been behaving recently, their chances aren’t too bad). At least they all get a chance to see their handiwork. Needless to say, the Canadian coastguards are not amused; though ameliorating, the weather in the arctic is capricious, and sea ice is no weak thing. The Crystal Serenty will be accompanied by an ice breaker, which will be trailing along behind it… Wouldn’t want to ruin the view I guess? The prospect of a mass rescue from deathly cold waters in scarcely charted seas is a sobering one, especially as those seas may roughen as the ice wanes.

Whilst the horde of moral carcasses, preening with conceit, pass through possibly the most sought after challenge in British naval history, they will irreversibly degrade by development the Innuit communities there, and indirectly evict the flora and fauna which form the arctic ecosystem. The same has happened in Antarctica – reportedly dead penguins have simply moved. Why do you think they moved? Truly, we believe absurdities, so we commit atrocities.


The Fall and Rise of British Sport Climbing

Over the last 30 years sport climbing standards have changed dramatically in the UK. Arguably there has been steady improvement at the top level, which I agree with. But, the standard of UK climbing should be measured by the level at which the majority of the top guns are consistently climbing, with reference to the rest of the world. By that measure, British sport climbing standards reached a peak either in the early 90s with Hubble, or the late 90s with Mutation. Only in the last 5 years or so has there been a resurgence, and I don’t think it’s reached its peak yet.

The 80s and early 90s were the golden era of British sport climbing (sport climbing by Brits, for clarity…). From 8a in 1984 with Statement of Youth (or Requiem in 83), Revelations in the same year, to Zeke in 87, Mecca in 88, Cry Freedom in 88, to Liquid Ambar (1st June 1990), finally culminating with Ben Moon’s Hubble on the 14th June 1990, the first 9a in the world. Malc did Hubble as one of his first ever sport routes in 1992, and did Cry Freedom in a day. Throw in ascents of Le Rage, Spectre, Are you Ready?, Agincourt, Le Minimum and Maginot line, plus the outrageous onsight and flash (and 2nd go, for those of you that care) record from the likes of Sellers, Vickers and Nadin, and you’ve got a list of achievements which would leave all us youths and the blokes (and ladies) at UKC wondering why we thought we were good.

After Jerry did Evo, Ben (temporarily) and Co shifted their focus towards bouldering, so hard British sport climbing became dominated by Steve (not)weak McClure, though there were occasional other notable ascents. The aforementioned not-weak man produced Mutation (1998), Northern Lights (2000), Rainshadow (2003), Overshadow (2007), North Star (2008), and repeated Hubble (2009). Not to mention a host of horrendously hard link ups and traverses, plus repeats of just about every upper 8 outside of Wales, and hard onsights home and abroad. Other than this, the Quill, Sellers and Malc repeated Evo, Dunning and Malc (and possibly Johnny G) repeated Hubble, Neil Carson FA’d the Big Bang in 96, Dunning FA’d Tonto in 2006, and Macleod did A Muerte in 2007.

So the noughties clearly hosted some hard ascents and amazing progress, but whilst Steve was out crushing that shit, the chasing back died off almost entirely. Everyone got stuck into bouldering and headpointing. In fact, the standard of the chasing pack dropped back to standards which were set in the mid-80s, whilst rest of the world (okay, not everywhere) continued to improve in line with the top level i.e. 9a became relatively commonplace (check out this site if you want to see just how common:

Since 2007 or so there has been a resurgence, but it’s only since 2010/11 that the hard 90s routes have had repeats. When I started climbing it was rare to see people on 8b’s or harder, and you’d probably heard of those people too. Now, I never go to the crag without seeing someone on an 8b (usually an 8c). There’s almost always queues on the likes of Mecca, Bat Route, and even Rainshadow, nowadays. Repeats of 8c and 8c+ both at home and abroad isn’t uncommon now, and 8b+ elicits no more than a cursory bat of an eyelash from your mum, and even then it would be patronizing.

But we didn’t stop there. There are currently at least 6 climbers operating at least at 9a in the UK (plus Bolger), but that could be as many as 12 depending on what you class as 9a and whether or not you think the others have still got the minerals. Ascents of 8c+ aren’t that rare anymore – I can think of 15 or 16 people who have climbed 8c+ and are still capable of it, and another couple who have climbed 8c/+. Coupled with Steve’s progression to at least 9a+ then I’d say we’ve made pretty good progress from the golden years. The numbers: one 9a+ climber, one 9a/+ climber,  at least 5 9a climbers (but maybe 10), one 8c+/9a climber, at least another 15 at 8c+ and who knows how many at 8c, 2 of whom are female (alright, one of them is getting back into it after injury).

I’ll be amazed if this year turns out to be the peak of the progression, and I really hope it’s not. At least 4 of the above 8c+ climbers (that I know) are capable of climbing 9a (or harder) in the next couple years, but probably sooner. There are probably more that I don’t know well enough to guess at their potential, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of the guys on the 9a list climbed 9a+ too. Plus the almost inevitable progression of a load of the current 8c climbers (both male and female), and, hopefully, Steve will get his Easy Easy proj at Malham – possibly a level of difficulty matched only by 6 other people in the world, on a rope at least.

So ‘we’ might not have moved on from the golden era in the sense that the then standard is still cutting edge (excluding Steve) now, but we’re pretty much back to where Ben and Co left us off 20 odd years ago. So to paraphrase Tyler Durden, I see so much potential, let’s not see it squandered. It’s time to move things on and give Steve some help! Go and get on something that you’re worried you’ll fail on. Why the fuck not? Get rich in experience, and go find out what you’re made of. Be ambitious everyone.


I’ve put off writing many blogs over the last year for fear of sounding bitter and depressed, but a friend of mine recently reminded me that people are just as, if not more, interested in hearing about the hard times as those were you went out and crushed that shit. So, at the risk of becoming a victim of obloquy, here’s a look back over the last year, now that I’ve finally regained some love for clambering up rocks.

Disclaimer: the only crushing in this blog is (mostly) crushing defeats, and in an effort to prevent myself from digressing into emotional, cliché-laden waffle I’m gonna introduce the Whiney self-Indulgent Meaningless Prattle (WIMP) ‘swear jar’.

No doubt all my biggest fans (hi Mum) will have heard the sob story by now: man falls off rock and man is not happy. Boo hoo. Jokes aside, I’m still surprised at how dramatically a few broken bones has affected my life, both physically and, even worse, mentally – it’s been a lot more than the sum of its parts (WIMP x2). In hindsight, physically, it hasn’t been that bad at all: I was out of action for a couple months from August (other than physio), then did some swimming, started hanging off bits of wood around December, and could climb fairly normally by March/April. I’d go as far to say that, had I put my mind to it, I could be back up to form by now. As it is, though, I think I’m quite a way off in many respects.

The hardest obstacle, if you want to call it that, has been, and still is, the mental side to it all. After the initial shock, I was just happy that I would recover (WIMP), then this quite quickly morphed into apathy, regret and occasionally anger (only at myself, I hope). A visit from a friend of mine, Josh Forde, and a chat with another, Gavin Ellis, brought me mostly out of my state of self-pity.

Since then, it’s been a veritable emotional roller coaster (WIMP) as I’ve been torn between (or trying to disentangle) what I expect from myself, both reasonably and unreasonably, with what I feel like I should or want to be doing. Moreover, the constant annoyance and disappointment at myself for not meeting those expectations and for not having the same drive and ambition I had before has been somewhat, well, annoying and disappointing. The latter has been the hardest to reconcile with: progress has always been key, and not striving to progress as much as possible has always seemed alien to me. The loss of that drive led me to question both why I climb and what I like about climbing – did I just like it because I was doing well and improving? I’m ashamed to admit that the prospect of giving up seemed quite attractive at times, so I thought maybe the answer to that question was ‘yes’.

Michaela Tracy shed another light on this feeling – of course I enjoyed climbing well, just in the same way that one enjoys playing an instrument well – there’s something intrinsically satisfying about doing something well (WIMP). Sheffield’s own Fresh Prince, Will Smith, and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk reminded me that everyone has lapses in motivation at times and it’s best not to try and force it when you do, because it’ll come back gradually and eventually.

Like a disgraced soon-to-be husband skulking back after a stag due in a scene like the Hangover, some motivation returned in fits and starts. This typically initiated a week or two of renewed-psyche induced ‘training’ (read: trying a bit harder than before on the Wave/in the School, plus the occasional core session, within a ‘long-term plan’ that changed weekly), only for it to vanish, leaving me wondering why the hell I bother and whether Eye of Odin will be the hardest route I ever climb – a strangely saddening thought. In hindsight, these downs never last more than a week, are becoming fewer a further between, so it’s best just to roll with em and enjoy the ups.

What I hope was a turning point occurred when Chris Shepherd invited me on a month trip clippin’ bolts in Tarn and Ceuse with Jake ‘the face’ Oughton and Alice ‘hat stand’ Irmak-Thompson. Sketchin’ up 7c’s, eating bread and cheese, kayaking down le Tarn and getting my ass kicked (back slapped) at sting pong in the barn has never been so damned fun. Sure, there’s been a couple times when I just can’t be arsed, or when I’m dismayed by a spanking on a vert 7a, but life would be boring if it was always easy. After another few days of crushing defeats, small victories and moments where you remember that it’s not just about the climbing I might even try and get better again, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, I’m just gonna enjoy being on a trip.

(Pictures to come once I have decent internet!)

Why some people will climb 9a and some won’t

I recently read a post by Tom Randall praising Kranko the Klown for his motivation and psyche, which probably helped him climb a “trickyish route of unspecified difficulty which may or may not be hard for other people…”. Said trickyish route does indeed look quite tricky, and let’s be honest, most of us are always going to be too shit to climb even the easiest of tricky routes. But why are some of us shit probably not reaching our potential? This is clearly the 21st most pressing question in British climbing, and as a man who has experienced varying degrees of shitness falling-distinctly-short-of-his-potential over the last year, I’m going to answer it.

To be brief, Randall is right, its all about motivation. Some of us just care more than others, are more psyched, think more about all things climbing-related, give more of themselves and just get really freakin’ obsessed. I’m pretty sure this is ‘the secret’. Now, if you don’t have ‘the drive’, its probably hard to imagine just how much it helps. I reckon I had a decent amount of it last year before I won the dumbfuckery award in Norway, and now, to all intents and purposes, it’s gone.

This does suck, but at least I get to assess how useful ‘the drive’ is: quite, really. First, remember the last time you had a brilliant session, when you were psyched, you turned up with a plan; everything was going well, you put everything into each go, just to complete that next set (i.e. you really cared); and you were extremely analytical of the intensity, your technique, your tiredness, and so on. But you don’t wildly thrash yourself, it’s focused, calculated and pragmatic. Imagine it was like this every session, even when everything doesn’t go well and you don’t feel like you imagine Megos does.

Sounds like a lot of effort to me at the moment. But if you have ‘the drive’ it just isn’t. It’s not conscious, it’s not forced, giving up is never an option because it doesn’t occur to you to do so, and it’s consistent. You do it all because you really fucking want to, not because you feel like you should, or because you expect yourself to.

So I guess now the 22nd most pressing question in British climbing is ‘how do I get me some ‘drive’!? Ask me in a year and I hope I have an answer!

It’s Time

It’s time to suffer, starve and triumph; to grovel down yet grasp at glory.

Master Plan

Master Plan

Because I am that weak.

A Training Excerpt

I thought I’d elaborate on my last post a little bit by sharing a few entries from my training log to give a clearer picture of my training and to give a bit of an idea as to how I analyse my sessions. I used to use a web based training log on which I still think is great, although better suited to triathlon, but now use a simple notebook. After a few rest days from my trip to Spain I started the training and built to what I’m doing now, this excerpt begins almost a week after that as that first week involved a lot of session adjustment, experimentation, and was not wholly representative of the training from then on because I was trying to get an idea of where I was at.

17/12/12 – rest day: 30 minutes stretching in morning and afternoon focusing mainly on quads, groin, hip turnout, hip flexor, and glutile/AT-band. Reduced range of movement in the morning as usual, but this improved notably as I progressed through the stretches and even more so in the afternoon. Did some leg raises onto my desk in the afternoon towards the end of the session.

18/12/12 – Beastmaker session in morning: Did 7c ish session on Beastmaker App, took 1:57:12, averaged 12% failure*. Significant improvement from last session, partly due to rest day I guess, but fingers felt stronger especially half crimp, middle two, and slopers most of all. Weakest on front two, particularly LH, and 45 degree slopers. Front 3 half crimp much weaker than all 4. Ready for 7c+ session.

Arm and Core session 2 in evening: Took about 45 minutes including warmup. Found the 10 minute intervals hard, especially pull ups. Improved one armers as did with 25kg assistance with each arm**, still with cheat start though. 

 19/12/12 – Max move session at wall: Mostly improvement from last session. Changed starting hold for lower hand on crimpoteenie cross over move so is a bit harder now, have to flag and cross under when doing it on LH-side, and can’t pull out of it when I do succeed. Did move 3 for the first time! Move on pinches feels much easier now. Great expectations move is nails, needs better foot.

20/12/12 – rest day: 30 minutes stretching in the morning after walking the dog. Worst range of motion in quads and RH-side gluteal/IT Band is tighter than LH-side for some reason.

21/12/12 – Max move session: Improvement again from last session, ready to change it up. Almost linked two moves on the RH-side crimpoteenie proj, the cross is nails on LH-side. Probably worse on move 2 today, accuracy was a bit off, and skin was going on left index. Stronger again on undercuts move, almost linked with the pinch move so is too easy. Great expectations move works better*** with the bigger foot, good full lock on crimps work.

22/12/12 – Session at Climb Newcastle: Did max hangs in the training room before going through. The board at Newcastle is a bit easier than mine so did a bit more stuff on the 45’s and a bit less on crimps. Slopey pockets felt better than usual even accounting for the extra grip. Tried several of the harder problems, succeeded on some, failed on quite a few and the session was quite adhoc. Found I was weakest on slopers, slopey pinches, high steps, and very square on locks. Not very intense but quite useful.

24/12/12 – Hypergravity session: Worked through quite a lot of low-mid 7’s and tried some harder ones with 5kg added weight. Felt surprisingly strong with this, didn’t feel like the added weight made that much difference.

Arm and core session 2: Bit of improvement in the 10 minute intervals this time. Found I had enough energy to contemplate a second round, but failed half way through this. Better form on side leavers this time. Front levers are still too hard to hold in position. Planks are too easy. Improvement in one arm lock offs and pull ups. Did one arm pull ups with only 20kg assistance this time.

25/12/12 – rest day – quite sore from previous days core session. Arms, stomach and sides sore.

26/12/12 – Beastmaker session: First time trying out the 7c+ ish session on the app. Didn’t quite finish but this could partly be due to a cold coming on as well as the higher intensity. I think I could complete this reasonably when fresher. Instead of 4 finger half crimp I alternated one hand with 3 and one with 4 to make it harder as 4 with both is too easy. 

27/12/12 – Session at Climb Newcastle: Went for a bit more volume this time. Did all but a few of the white circuit, 6b-7b, then quickly did 15-20 of the pinks, 5-7a, after, including the crux one which was not 7a.

28/12/12 – Rest day: 30 minutes stretching as usual. Changed it a bit this time and did more active stretching towards the end. Feel like is more specific to climbing especially highsteps.

29/12/12 – Project session: Really encouraging session with good gains. Mainly tried crimpoteenie proj and wooden pinch proj. Linked from ground to second part of 3rd move on crimp proj on RH-side. Did easier version of the finish which is definitely possible. Harder version is possible but quite tricky. Did 2nd move of pinch proj on LH-side, and almost held it on RH-side (RH peeled off lower pinch in the swing. Tagged the top hold on 3rd move on RH side, and did an easier version of the move to a closer hold.

This series of sessions is fairly representative of what I have been doing since my return from Spain. I experienced some kind of improvement in all sessions but this could in part be neuromuscular as I hadn’t had to pull properly in quite a long time. It’s quite revealing for me to write out this many sessions at once as it gives me a bit of an overview, which is perhaps something I don’t do enough of, of the training I have done. Looking at this it is quite clear that I haven’t done as much max hang work as maybe I should have. I’ve been ill this past week so haven’t trained, but its not necessarily a bad thing to have 5 days off after 4 quite intense weeks. I’ll be aiming to do similar training over the next month, but with less volume due to time constraints, so that could be the perfect time to add in some more max hangs and really increase maximum strength. After that I’ll be setting off on a 4 month road trip starting in Font!

*On the Beastmaker App there is a failure scale at the end of each minutes hang. I worked out that each second failure is just over 2% worth of failure, and If I had to use a cheat like nestle or thumb on the sloper than I would has 20% or more, or take a note of it.

**This isn’t actually 25kg assistance. It is 12.5kg actual assistance because the machine is designed for two arms, so the weight readings are what the total weight in the system should be if you use both.

***It worked better for me because it made it more or less the correct difficulty, With the small foothold the move was a good few notches harder and the difficulty was in keeping the foot on, not in generating the force required to move.

Enjoy The Process

I’ve been in Spain for a few weeks now and a couple of those were spent in the cave at Santa Linya. Whilst there I wanted to realise my main goal for the trip which was to do an 8b+, Rollito Sharma looked to be the obvious choice as it looked like it would suit me pretty well; biggish moves, decent holds, and pretty steep.

When I made the decision to focus on doing one route I knew that it would provide a different set of challenges than I was accustomed to. I expected the route to take a long time and I also expected a process which would challenge me mentally as well as physically. With these in mind I consciously made the decision to try and enjoy the process, instead of focussing solely on the outcome, which I had done in the past.

This approach must have worked quite well for me because the route did not take as long as expected and there wasn’t much of a mental battle, infact, the actual ascent caught me by surprise a little. After doing this I turned my attention to the extension, 8c. I was surprised by how possible it felt upon inspection. I had a couple goes at this and managed to link the 8b+ pitch again but fell at the first crux of the 8c as expected. I decided to leave it for now and move on to terradets for a bit of onsighting because although I think I could have done the extension, it would have likely taken more effort than I was willing to put in at the time. Better tto lip some chains and become a better climber overall.

Off to Margalef soon so hopefully more to come!