Monday, 31 December 2007

Home Sweet Home

"I know of no sweeter sight for a man's eyes than his own country" so said Odysseus, relating tales of his native Ithaca. Homer has a point, I think. The best part of going away, for me, is coming home. Coming home after 3 1/2 months away has been quite an experience.... and I haven't got as far as the office door yet! Having thought about very few things while we were away, it has been a shock to remember how phrenetic my "usual" life is.

Dover harbour - darker, colder and wetter than we left

Since September brain power has been concentrated on what there is to eat, where to sleep, what there is to climb and whether or not it's going to rain. That's not to say I've thought exclusively about these things, but I'd left behind the everyday paraphernalia of washing, washing up, phone calls, post to open, deciding what to wear, worrying whether my hair is a mess (ok, so I didn't worry much about this before I went away or while I was away, but suddenly now it seems important!) etc etc. Revolting as this may sound, we even stopped worrying about how often we showered - everything we had with us was also unwashed. Alarm bells only started ringing when we realised that everyone we met smelled of washing powder....

The luxuries of home are as luxurious, if not more so, as I had anticipated: my own bed, a hot shower and clean clothes. My tan is fast washing away as a result; I have had it pointed out to me on numerous occasions already that it might not be tan after all, it's just dirt! On the flip side, I've realised exactly how little "stuff" one needs, even to lead an exceedingly comfortable middle class existence. I've started to clear out various cupboards, signed up for eBay and Freecycle, and am trying very hard to avoid post-Christmas sales (reasonably, though not entirely, successfully).

For those of you who like statistics, or who might be thinking about a similar trip, here are some numbers:

We were away for 93 days during which we drove 5264 miles, climbed 155 sport routes and tackled 160+ boulder problems. We climbed for 71 of those 93 days.

We spent 9 weeks in a tent, 5 nights in hotels, 4 nights in a gite, 1 night in a refugio and 15 nights in the wendy house.

The whole trip cost me £1802.12, which includes bank charges and commission.

Caroline ate 2.75kg of Nutella and bought the entire stock of rice cakes from Intermarche in Laragne. We have eaten unprecedented quantities of butter, rice and potatoes, made our own chips, sampled some strange cheeses and not poisoned ourselves once. We've had 3 hangovers between us and drunk our way through about (I reckon) 250 teabags.

It cost us £168 in petrol to drive the 1654 miles from Finistrat (near Benidorm) to Edinburgh (including one night in a Formula hotel) using the toll motorways through Spain and France. The tolls cost us just under 140 Euros.

We climbed indoors yesterday. That was a shock. I feel like a complete fraud saying that I did 7b in Siurana when I got spat off 6b at Alien Rock. I have no strength at all, I feel weak as a kitten, which seems daft having spent so long climbing outside. My excuse is that I haven't been climbing steep stuff outside, and all the lead routes at Alien Rock are overhanging. I forsee a lot of training in 2008......

Diff climbing the drilled wall near Torello

To sum up, I should have done this trip years ago. It has been a tremendous experience and we've had a lot of fun. I would do it again tomorrow without hesitation. There have been highs and lows, but it's all part of the fun. It's hard to maintain the motivation and enthusiasm to climb every day for so long, when the usual home comforts are missing. There is no prosaic routine to put the exciting things into perspective. I also found that being surrounded by like-minded climbers makes it far easier to explore one's limits, to push oneself and to attempt things that one might otherwise shy away from. In other words, it's difficult to generate all your own psyche! I am rapidly coming round to the idea that everyone should take some time out from whatever they regard as normal. Removing the clutter of things we take for granted (hot water, bed, clean clothes, to continue with the theme....) has given me a better idea of what is important to me, has put things in perspective a little more. "I can see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that blind me. It's going to be a bright bright sunshiney day."

Chilling out in Font....happy days :-)

Dave Mac on A Muerte (9a) at Siurana

I'm gradually catching up with the routine stuff I've been evading for three and a half months, including adding photographs to previous blog posts which had none, opening a mountain of post and washing all the clothes I took with me. It's nice to be back in my kitchen, and I promise I'll make some more brownies soon. I know you've been missing them! I'm now looking for the next challenge, which might be as simple (!) as moving house. In the meantime, if anyone out there is thinking about a long trip I've only one thing to say.

Do it.

Happy New Year :)

Friday, 21 December 2007

Driving Home for Christmas

Believe it or not, there was SNOW on the Costa Blanca hills on Saturday night. It rained heavily and some of the tents at the Orange House looked like those little floating puffy lifeboat shelters. Fortunately, we had picked a well-drained spot. Having run out of psyche for sport climbing, we thought we would head north to Albarracin. But when Sunday morning dawned cold and everything was wet, we sacked it off and decided to come straight home on Monday. Albarracin would have been pretty chilly.

Heavy frost and -10 in Lyon

We left the Orange House outside Benidorm at 11am on Monday in warm sunshine. Our journey took us through torrential rain in northern Spain (the hills west of Tarragona, towards Siurana, were covered in snow), past a mini tornado just south of Barcelona, bitter chill in Girona, thick freezing fog in Lyon, cold dampness in Calais, and salty road spray and low winter sunshine in the UK. We attempted to maintain a Mediterranean climate in the car by turning the heater right up. Then we bought some cheese and the car started to stink. So we turned the heat down and ate the cheese. Unfortunately, the damage was already done and the smell of camembert lingered on.

Heading north...

Tea on the road at Saint Quentin, 90 miles south of Calais

Travel weary on the Calais - Dover ferry after 2 days' driving

As the temperature dropped, the price of petrol rose as we travelled northwards, and we are horrified to see that it is now more than 100 pence per litre here in the UK. In Benidorm we paid 1.12 euros per litre (which is about 81 pence). The car was washed clean by the rain on Saturday night, and two days' driving through France and Spain left it a little dusty but not too bad. The shortest leg of our journey, through the UK, has left my car black with grime, the windscreen washer empty and the wipers squeaking!

Thick fog on the M11

1654 miles and 32 hours of driving later we are home.


Continuing with the cheese theme, once we were in the UK we willed Radio 2 to play Chris Rea's "Driving home for christmas", but they didn't.... what irony that they're playing it now as I write this. The best things come to those who wait.....?!?!?

Clear skies and winter sunshine heading into Scotland

The Pentland Hills finally come into view. The last few miles seemed to take forever...

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Little Britain

The Costa Blanca felt like little Britain when we first arrived, but last night the electricity pylon next to us exploded and all the lights went out. It´s taken all day to (partially) fix and suddenly we are wishing we were back in the UK where things (appear to) work. It´s gone chilly again (unseasonally so, apparently - again) and we are ready to come home. Although it´s nice to sit in the sun by the pool and under a palm tree, right now I would happily swap this for a hot bath (or just hot water that lasts more than 1 minute) and my own bed. We have concluded that all we need is a week´s holiday from our trip and to come back refreshed and strong and ready to climb Everything and Anything.

A rest day...chilling by the pool this morning

So, more 7b action started with a route called Oceano at the Wild Side, Sella. It couldn´t be more different from Gurungos: steep, juggy and polished. The moves are simple: reach up, grab jug, pull hard. Nothing technical or difficult about it. Not my style at all. I´ve done all the moves on a top rope but I still can´t link them all in one push. The bolts are very spaced and I haven´t even tried to lead it yet. Bong put it very well when he said "It´s not an inspiring route." He´s absolutely right. I want to do it, because it´s different from what I usually enjoy and, although it might seem like making a rod for my own back, I will always at least try to rise to the challenge. I could do it with a bit more practice and a lot of stamina training. Questions are, is it worth it, and do I have time? Answers: no, I don´t have time.....but I´m not sure that answers the first question of whether it´s worth it. I´m not sure that it is, but I like to finish what I´ve started, so maybe I´ll come back in the Spring and have another bash at it. Here is Iain flashing Oceano, with complete composure:

We have had many discussions about good holds and bad holds, and what constitutes a "mono" and a "two-finger pocket". I thought this picture might highlight some of the differences between climbers. This is my index finger and Bong´s index finger. So what is a mono for him is a two finger pocket for me. Hurrah for pixie fingers!

I can´t reach the big holds, so it´s a good job I have small fingers with which to use the little ones.... all swings and roundabouts really.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Oranges and Lemsip

We're now at the Orange House, on the Costa Blanca, a lovely spot and a haven of Britishness amidst the happy-go-lucky chaos that is Spain. It's warm and sunny, although the evenings are chilly (but not as chilly as Siurana). We've spent a couple of days being anti-social and sitting outside because when we arrived the Orange House was infested with the lurgey. Fortunately, the affected (and infected) inhabitants have now either departed(!) or recovered (natural selection, I guess) and we are now able to enjoy sitting inside in the warmth!

The climbing here is very different from Siurana - so far, we've only climbed at Sella on grey slabby limestone, with lots of water pockets to tuck fingers and toes into. This is very sore on toes, but very good for those of us with pixie fingers! There are many more routes showing polish than at Siurana, and Sella is much busier than Siruana. We had become accustomed to having the crag to ourselves, and there is a little bit of me which is slightly put out to find that the 10 routes on either side of us are all occupied, and (heaven forbid!) all by Brits! Having said that, it's a nice change being able to chat to everyone without feeling embarrassed at my appalling Spanish language skills. We have many more places to explore here, with many different colours of limestone. The grading definitely seems slightly softer here than at Siurana, although it's difficult to compare them since the climbing (in our grand 3 days' experience) is very different.

The good news is that Caroline has now flashed her first 6b. The bad news is that my faithful shoes have finally gone through at the toes. I hope they will last another 3 weeks, although I have visions of tiny blisters on the ends of my big toes (which has happened before). Maybe we will have to go shopping! (We haven't done that in a while!!) I've lost a lot of psyche after a superb final week in Siurana but Caroline seems to be compensating for this more than adequately. She's definitely on a roll, and we will have her redpointing 7a before she can count 30 elephants. We have some new friends here, Victoria and Paul, who have also achieved personal bests in the last 3 days. (Thanks for the use of your laptop, Paul!). Will has also achieved a personal best today.

Caroline attempting to onsight 7a - La Cosa - only the crux defeated her

I had a bizarre experience yesterday. During a failed attempt to onsight 6c (Dingo Boingo), I heard a voice calling my name from the other side of the valley: Emma! Hello? Who's that? Gary. Gary who? Gary Jones. I nearly fell off with surprise! Fortunately (for me and Caroline) I didn't fall off, but I did bail on the route early because a) it was hard b) it was very hot and my fingers were very sweaty and c) the conversation on the ground below me was more interesting than tiny water pockets above me. Gary and Cristina - lovely to see you both and thanks for the treats! Cristina, I hope you get many happy hours of climbing from your new shoes! It's all here waiting for you...

We're looking forward very much to all our visitors next week. Anyone else want to join us? The more the merrier!


In spite of my cavalier approach to climbing goals for the season, promises of 7c by Christmas etc, I don´t think I really believed it would ever be possible. Pipe dreams, I thought... but if you don´t believe it, it won´t ever happen. So having done 7a+ on a third redpoint, I thought that maybe Dave´s suggestion of 7b wasn´t so unrealistic after all. We had several discussions over which route to try and concluded that Gurungos, on Campi qui Puigi at Siurana was probably best, despite the comments about it in the Rockfax guide ("not one for the nervous..." - ha ha ha!). Granted, it seems to be (by concensus, not by me!) hard 7b, but having worked the moves, taken 7 falls off the crux move whilst just doing bolt-to-bolt, it went second redpoint on Tuesday.
Tea - makes you strong!

Pulling the top rope

Clipping the first clip - a boulder problem start on very sharp crimps

Since we were leaving Siurana on Wednesday, I really didn´t want to leave it unfinished, so on Tuesday Campi qui Puigi was Last Chance Saloon. It´s a long route, 27m, with a fingertip-scraping bouldery start, followed by a short easy section to the bottom of a flat vertical wall with small crimps (crux). Above that is a small overhang with some good holds and a bolt above. The top section is supposed to be easy, but frankly, holding it together up there was almost as hard as the crux. The sequence on the top section is not obvious, and I did it a different way every time. The big holds appear to be spread liberally across a rough, sharp and bumpy expanse of blankness, with the odd small, not-so-good hold hiding away. Fortunately, my pixie-sized fingers were able to make use of the small holds to get me across the blank expanses between the good holds! Phew!

Flying lessons off 7b...that's a screaming face not a laughing face

Some cunning redpoint tactics included a down climb to a ledge from the clip before the crux. First redpoint went well: up to the 4th clip and then down climb to the ledge, long rest ("look mummy, no hands!"). But then the crux move went a bit wrong, and ended in a proper scream several feet lower than where I wanted to be.

The crux move - catching the tiny triangle with one finger

It´s awkward to catch a tiny sloping triangular crimp with one finger, nudge a second finger onto it, and then pull hard. I needed to lunge for this one off a small left hand crimp (sorry, that´s a terrible word but I can´t think of a better one - that´s how it felt anyway!) because it was a long way up. Apparently tall people keep their feet much lower on better holds, but that just wasn't an option for me. Second redpoint nearly went wrong when I almost forgot to put my right foot out on the small smear in order to reach up for the aforementioned sloping crimp. There is always that little bit of amazement when a hard move like that is successful. I almost didn´t know what to do next. I guess that´s where the "practice" kicks in.

Then you get both hands on this big ledge...

...and shake out above the crux

Top out - higher than 27 metres will ever get you!

Thanks to Dave and Caroline for patient belaying, to Dave for the loan of his psyche and to Diff and Dave for the pictures. I had a brilliant week with you all and the climbing doesn't get much better than this for me!

Now we are on the final leg of our trip, on the Costa Blanca, there is still time for my "7c by Christmas" pipe dream to become reality. I think it's unlikely, but you never know until you try...