Thursday, 30 August 2007

Gender Divide

Having been told an alarming statistic the other day about how few women climb hard in Scotland, I came to thinking about the gender divide in climbing. Clearly, climbing is a male dominated sport, probably at both professional and amateur levels. Although there is no shortage of amazing and inspiring female climbers, I sometimes wonder whether women shy away from climbing, believing that it is competitive, macho and testosterone-fuelled. Personally, I have encountered very few displays of unpleasant behaviour in this regard, and when I have, they have been easy to walk away from.

I am, however, a firm believer that being female offers distinct advantages in climbing, and that there is no reason why with some effort, women can't climb as hard as they like. We're generally (although not always!) smaller and lighter and therefore have a better power to weight ratio. We have small fingers - I can get all 4 fingers into a pocket that Martin could only fit 2 into. How cool is that? We might not be able to lank things, but we all know that lanky boys have no body tension! I'm sure I don't even need to mention the sit-starts issue....

Anyway, back to what I really wanted to know, which was what the gender divide is between readers of my blog. If I make a perhaps unrealistic assumption and suggest that folks who read this are probably climbers, I wonder what the split is? Help me out and complete the poll on the right. I hope I will be pleasantly surprised....

950 Hours of Climbing

Our Great Escape is now imminent. I can't quite believe it. Having said to so many people that 2007 would see a big change for me, I didn't actually know what I was going to do, where, who with or how..... Then earlier this year Caroline idly asked if I wanted to go to Australia with her this summer. The conversation went something like this:
Caroline: I don't suppose you want to come to Australia with me for 4 weeks this summer?
Me: Hmm... nice, but I can't really take 4 weeks off work at once.
Caroline: Ah well.
Me: You could climb your way round Australia. That would be cool.
Caroline: Yeah, I hadn't thought of that.
Me: Does it have to be Australia?
Caroline: No.
Me: Does it have to be the summer?
Caroline: No. I was going to quit my job anyway.
Me: No way.
Caroline: Yes way......Why?
Me: I was going to do that too.
Caroline: No way.
Me: Yes way.
[stop breathing]
[long pause]
Me: [remembering to breathe] Why don't we quit and go climbing?
Caroline: Cool! Let's do it!
[collective giggle]
In the ensuing 20 minutes of babble we managed to work something out. Finances are sorted, work is on hold, our disbelief is nearly suspended.... So, we have 950 hours of climbing ahead of us. This may seem trivial to some, but for us it is well outside our comfort zones. We should have done it years ago, but such are circumstances that we didn't. We didn't even know each other until about 10 months ago!

Having spent 6 months concentrating on logistics, maybe it's about time to think about some climbing objectives! We have a nominal goal of 7c (or 7a!) by Christmas, depending whether we're feeling cocky or realistic. Other than that, the list looks like this:
  • climb
  • do some yoga
  • onsight F7a
  • get strong
  • climb more
  • work on the tan
  • climb even more
It seems a bit limited. No doubt things will fall into place, as they appear to have done so far. All suggestions welcome, although we can't guarantee to give each one full and serious consideration!

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Festival Madness

Having managed to avoid most of this year's Edinburgh Festival, I walked down the High Street on Monday, just to see what was doing.

Despite the annoyances of the Festival (extra traffic, people stopping in the middle of the street to take photographs, tourists assuming that the whole city is pedestrianised during the Festival, drunk people rolling back at 3am every night) Edinburgh is a vibrant place to be in August. I still find some of the things people do as part of the Festival very odd and very funny. But each to their own. I'm sure there are plenty of people who think me and my climbing are equally odd and funny. The world would be a very tedious place if we were all the same.

Monday, 27 August 2007


There has been no climbing of significance to report over the last week or so, since I was forced, much against my will, to take a trip to the Flatlands of Middle England. Milton Keynes.

Even worse, I had to travel via Luton.

Luton any other railway station in the south east

Yet another instance of Work interfering with Play. I shouldn't grumble, since I am about to have a whole 14 weeks away from Work, in order to Play. But it is frustrating, when there isn't even an indoor wall to visit.

Milton Keynes, of course, has an indoor snow slope. Heading eastwards, I think it must be the biggest hill between there and the Alps! It is certainly visible on the horizon almost all the way from Luton. I knew that there was supposed to be a climbing wall of some description under this artificial hill, but the details on UKC were scanty and the Ellis Brigham website didn't give any more useful information than a phone number (which wasn't much use to me, doing my research, as usual, at midnight the night before departure). I managed to orchestrate my travel so as to minimise the time work activities would take and maximise my chances of locating and using said climbing facility.

Xscape, Milton Keynes. A pretend hill...

Nothing had quite prepared me for the disappointment of what Milton Keynes had to offer in terms of climbing facilities. Inside a shop were two tall towers, with assorted holds bolted to them. In addition to this was a very low and short bouldering wall, maybe 12 feet high and around 30 feet long. It cost £10 for HALF AN HOUR . The towers themselves looked as polished as the F3+ routes at Sella and the self-belay devices indicated that this is a "have-a-go" facility. As soon as you let go of the wall, the self-belay device lowers you right to the ground, thereby offering no scope for "working" moves. Maybe there weren't any moves to work anyway.

I had a chat with the staff in the shop, who were very nice. The facility is really aimed at children with desperate parents on wet Saturday afternoons. To that end, it is a fun and entertaining place to introduce pint-sized people to the joys of this wonderful sport, in the hope that it will inspire them to pursue it further. But I left thoroughly disappointed. It seems clear to me that Milton Keynes (and its environs) is a prime location for an indoor climbing facility. Everything else about this town is artificial; an indoor climbing wall would fit in beautifully.

This brings me to my rant about Milton Keynes itself. I might be biased against this fair corner of England on the basis that it offers me no opportunities to indulge my obsession, but that aside, I think I have never come across anywhere so soul-less and unimaginative. The theories of post-war town planning make sense; they're logical, there isn't any obvious or scientific reason why completely new, planned urban environments should not be successful. And yet, to travel around and through Milton Keynes is an almost terrifying experience. While it is green and leafy, the traffic flows smoothly round umpteen roundabouts, houses glimpsed through the trees look well-kept and tidy, it feels sterile and clinical. Where are the people? Why are there not more cyclists? Is there some kind of curfew in place, or a local bylaw that keeps everyone locked up at home if they aren't en route from one place to another (by car)? I see no evidence of Life (or should I say Lifestyle?). The last time I was in Milton Keynes was the day before the 2005 General Election. I kid you not, there wasn't a single election poster anywhere. No fliers, no posters, no campaign leaflets. Nothing. Maybe I have this wrong, but I can't imagine that even in so-called safe seats, MPs do nothing for their election campaigns. The lack of 'history' couldn't be more obvious if the place was called Newville. It's not just weird. It's wrong.

While I'm on a rant....Milton Keynes is flat. As a pancake. Perfect lazy (or fast) cycling country. But the whole place is littered with signs saying "No Cycling"!! The Green Party have clearly shot right past Milton Keynes on the M1......

The view of Willen Lake from my hotel. Maybe Milton Keynes is a haven of peace and tranquillity....

Friday, 10 August 2007

Nothumberland Jungle

Continuing our exploration of various corners of Northumberland, today Diff and I went to Raven's Crag. It was one of those that I hadn't even noticed in the guidebook until very recently, but on closer reading looked very promising. It's only a stone's throw from Bowden Doors, an ideal place to sneak away to if Bowden is busy or if you just fancy a bit of space to yourself.

Raven's Crag

We went armed with my new bouldering mat (which looked very shiny and a bit out of place at the crag) and a stash of food, intending to check out some new problems, test the mat's suitability for use as a comfortable chill out mat, and do a taste-test comparison of Sainsbury's Jaffa Cakes with McVities originals. As far as those goals are concerned, our day was very successful.

Gav in the office with my new mat. Amazing how much hilarity it caused.

Raven's Crag is so close to Bowden and yet appears to be little known, and little climbed judging by the vast quantities of small, slow-growing flora attached to the rock. There is oodles of rock there. It's as long as Bowden, and with (very almost) as much to climb. The only thing to add is that the grades are slightly easier than Bowden; there appear to be fewer very hard problems, but lots of challenging things in low to mid grades.

Our first problem, on the Pinnacle, freaked us a bit because it was so green. But we managed it...somehow! The relief in Diff's voice when the words "Ah, jugs!" floated down was heartfelt! We then moved further up and along to discover possibly the sandiest wall in the whole of Northumberland. It looked as though it might have been climbed too much, but it would have taken a highly systematic, military operation by an army of climbers to wear the skin of the sandstone away in such an even fashion to expose the sandy beach-ness underneath. We reasoned this wasn't the work of over-zealous climbers but rather of an over-zealous wind.

We continued our jungle adventure to an overhanging traverse with some very sharp holds on it, and a scary-monster-hidey-hole pocket at the finish. I think that went at about 5c. First time all through, I fell off the last move because the monster in the pocket bit me. That's my excuse, anyway.

Moving from here to the Meadow Wall area was a battle. Ray Mears would have been impressed (or not!) with our bushwhacking techniques. Given that we were lacking an essential piece of kit (a machete) I think we managed very well to get there, climb and get out alive. Goodness only know what was hiding under all that bracken. We could easily have been eaten by monsters or rabbits. (For those who don't know, the monsters hide in the little pockety holes in the rock, and come out to eat you when you put your little pixie fingers in there to climb a problem. Lank versus Pixie? On balance I think the Pixie has a greater number of hazards to negotiate...but then, being a Pixie, I would say that!)

Exporing the Northumberland Jungle

Eventually we found an area which was mercifully bracken free (relatively speaking) so having climbed some pretty highball problems with exciting slopey topouts, we opted to do the Jaffa Cake taste test here. We have concluded that in the overall rankings, Spar Jaffa Cakes are superior to both Sainsbury's (which came second) and McVities (which took last place).

Tasting jaffa cakes is a serious business...

This was a lovely spot, very secluded and with lots to climb.

My camera is very slow to react, which is why I missed the really good picture of Diff on this highball problem with a slopey topout. He moved. But I guess that's what climbers do!

The guidebook was a bit confusing, so we muddled through some of the problems next to each other, and did them Our Way. It was much easier to not worry about what the book said. Why do things by the book, anyway? There were lots of tenuous and sketchy moves off slopers very high up, and some pretty good dismounts (well, we needed to test the mat out properly. We can confirm it does the job very nicely.) There was a lovely slab, and an easy problem with some fantastic jugs at the top right where we wanted them. I also almost got my come-uppance when cockily I decided I could climbg a jamming crack graded "5a more difficult than it looks" (Dead Tree Crack, maybe?). Yeah, that looks ok, I thought. Uh-uhhh.... having reached the big ledge half way up and jammed half my body into the upper half of the crack, I thought I might stay there for a while since it was more comfortable than trying to move out of the crack. I felt pretty stupid for being so cocky. Pride comes before a fall.... fortunately, I didn't fall. I escaped left and did the topout to the 5c problem next to it!

Sketchy slab, but lots of fun

Scary topout photo...after the slab

Raven's Crag is definitely a good place to return to. It's a superb venue for a fun day's climbing; although the grades aren't high, the problems aren't all as straightforward as the grades might suggest. It is evidently an under-visited crag, but I can't see why. It's lovely. A Friday Crag maybe.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Running out of steam

Having had some holidays to take recently, I counted that in the last 9 days, I have climbed on 8 of them. On my day off I went to yoga, which according to Bong doesn't constitute a rest day. No wonder I'm feeling a bit beat.

Maybe I'll do the washing up now...


No, not the tiny bugs which suck the lifeblood out of you, but the big red kind that says loudly "I've Done It!". Friendly Fire at the Anvil is now officially my first 7a tick!

Leading Friendly Fire the first time in May 07

First, I have to say thank you to Caroline and Jonni for their patient belaying, shouts of encouragement and for putting up with my incessant babble about the Anvil for so many months. Thank you!

Edinburgh was a bit grey when we left, but the forecast was promising. I was excited just to be heading back there and to show Jonni and Caroline exactly what I'd been banging on about since May. Having been to the Anvil three times, I've only had one day on Friendly Fire, since every other time I've been it has been streaming with water. Today I was not to be disappointed. For an Anvil climbing day it was about as perfect as it could be. Warm sunshine, with an anti-midge breeze, clouds scudding across the sky, and bone dry rock. Smashing! In my excitement I nearly couldn't find the place. We walked past the wee path off the track. It isn't the easiest place to find, particularly after a summer's growth of greenery.

Caroline at the top; Jonni belaying in the sun

Although it was exciting to be there I was feeling quite tired. I (again) underestimated the impact of the 2-hour drive and 4-mile walk in, not to mention my yoga class the previous evening which always makes every muscle less mobile on Thursdays. Reminding myself of Dave's advice on redpoint tactics, I sent Jonni up first. My excuse was that he's just spent 3 months leading everything between Madrid and Trondheim, and has most definitely found his leading head. Having said that, I think even he said that if he'd top roped it first he wouldn't have wanted to lead it. Some moves are a little scary, despite the well-placed bolts.

Reminding myself of all the moves was important. I thought I'd got them wired, but falling off the first move on my first top rope floored my confidence completely. The first crux move, just below the second bolt was nails when I tried it in May, but by the end of that first day I was happy with it. This time, it took several attempts just to remember how to do it. Another chunk of confidence gone. In fact, having looked back at the pictures I did it differently this time from last time. Oh well, it still worked. Moving off the pixie picnic ledge was ok, but reaching up for the overhanging flake and crossing through for the slippy quartz band was just as scary. I pinged off it on the top rope and as I swung out felt a considerable relief that the rope was there....not a fall one would want to take on the lead.

We found a wee frog sunning himself at the bottom of the route

I decided that I was too tired generally to lead it today, my leading head not really wanting to come out of its hiding place, so instead thought I might as well just practice all the moves on the rope. I remembered how much better I felt about leading it in May once I'd got the sequence sussed. So I yo-yo'd various moves while Caroline patiently belayed. At least the sun was shining and the wee beasties were indoors hiding from the wind.

First redpoint of the day

Having tried all the moves umpteen times, I realised that I would kick myself if I'd come all this way on such a beautiful day and not at least attempted to lead this route. So I talked to the others, and then they pulled the rope before I had a chance to change my mind. At this point I became acutely aware of how much pressure I put on myself to achieve something once I've set myself the goal. I had to talk myself out of the pressure ("it doesn't matter if you need to rest on the bolt, just try it"), whilst still maintaining the psyche to go for it. The first section was tough, but having got the first crux move, I felt encouraged.

I made a bit of a mess of the traverse left from the third clip, but once I was on the ledge things improved. Plenty of time catching my breathe and managing the jitters in my head meant that the top half went very smoothly. Having clipped the penultimate bolt I started to feel nervous. It was so nearly in the bag, but I knew that this is where my stamina had run out last time. With my right hand in the top crack I felt good enough to make an extra move with my feet to make sure I reached the top hold easily. Magic. The surge of exhilaration after so much preparation was huge. I can stop banging on about it now!

Hanging out at the top of Friendly Fire

Team 7a walking home in the evening sunshine

So what's next? Shadowlands? Maybe on a good day, with some more work....