Saturday, 28 August 2010

Sowing seeds for a future harvest

“you never climb your best on a road trip”

I can still remember Toby saying this to me over 7 years ago while climbing with him and Neal around Europe but although I could remember the words they meant little or nothing to me until recently. Looking back now I can remember Toby’s frustration with not being able to send routes at his desired grade across France and Germany. It seemed stupid to me at the time because he was able to send every 8a he tried within a go or two. Now, having had a home crag in the UK for a year or so and being able to adapt mentally and physically to its unique style of climbing I can finally understand where Toby was coming from. When you travel you must learn to accept a backwards step in performance in order to learn new techniques and develop new strengths that will ultimately allow progress on to your next level of performance. Being Irish and not having any form of home sports climbing to speak of I had never felt this before. Travelling and going on a climbing road trip was where you collected all your best ticks, surely?! Because there were none at home!
While here at Ceuse I think I must have gone through the following mental mind sets:
  • I’m gonna flash all the 7c’s and start working my way through the 8’s straight away.
  • Wow! I don’t remember this place being so technical, where are all the positive edges?
  • I can’t stand on that!!
  • I need mileage!
  • Right, turns out I can pull through all the moves on the 8’s maybe I just need to stick to some hard projects and avoid all that balancy shit I don’t like.
  • And finally… OK, I can learn a lot from this place and its routes, especially the ones I don’t find easy or particularly like. This isn’t a go for broke climbing trip with a return date set to Dublin. This is the start of a long term apprenticeship with European sports climbing for both myself and Caroline and we need to forget what we think we know or think we should be able to achieve. Our expectations had been calibrated to UK limestone and needed a reset if we were going to move on and enjoy our climbing in Spain.
It’s weird how stuff that you hear or read or think at different stages can all come together at a certain point along the line to make perfect sense and provide the impetus needed to make headway towards the next level. Seven years ago I witnessed Toby’s frustration in Ceuse and Frankenjura and also got an idea of the training he had put into his climbing and how much it meant to him. While chatting to some Slovenian climbers here in Ceuse they mentioned that they had climbed 8b+ at their home crags this year but usually drop their target grades to around 7c for their summers in France and enjoy trying onsights and climbing loads on a totally different style of hold and rock. When they return home for the Autumn they resume training and projecting, you know, pushing their standards. And then there was Jerry. Jerry Moffatt that is. I had been given his book “Revelations” as a going away present from Tim my head of department in Rhyl and had held off from reading it until here in Ceuse. I was never one for reading biographies but this had me hooked instantly. I consumed it within two days and then went back and read it some more. There was so much in it that I could understand, remember feeling myself, relate to, be motivated by and that just plane inspired me. One concept of relevance here that crept up a lot during the first half of the book was what I’m gonna call the “relocation smackdown”. Jerry recounts his early fanatical climbing career relocating from crag to crag. Tremadog in North Wales for two months followed by a two year apprenticeship literally living from the dirt in Stoney Middleton in the Peak District and then onwards to further afield destinations like the States, France and Germany. At every point along the way he details achieving his highpoints at each location before moving on and getting smacked in the face at the next. Climbing and training almost continuously, he repeatedly spent between two and four weeks adapting to each location and style of rock before he could resume climbing at his level and begin sending.
Coming back to the real world I can remember going through similar difficult patches moving from crag to crag over the years although, as my standard was never as high as Jerry’s and I never had anywhere near the consistency of constant climbing, I never really noticed it or at least never attributed it to the different rock types. Beginning in Dalkey I got quite good there, leading and soloing lots of routes daily and even managing the odd E4 within my first year on rock. From there my first trip to Glendalough or the Burren stand out as humbling. Their totally different styles seemed way harder to me and I just assumed Dalkey grades were soft in comparison. Over time and through regular visits I gradually adapted and before leaving for Wales I had lead E5 at all these crags. It was the same with my introduction to Fairhead… HVS never felt so hard before but again after numerous visits I had managed a couple of E6’s there. The culture shock on arrival to the Clwyd limestone in the UK was more obvious though. I pretty much got nothing done for the first few years here before one day it finally clicked and this year I managed to tick my way merrily through a handful of grade 8 sports climbs. I had adapted.

It stands to reason then that a similar introduction phase should be due to take place about now on the longer more sustained European limestone routes of southern France and Spain. All of a sudden I am happy with what I’m feeling about my climbing at Ceuse and am enjoying being able to onsight the odd 7b+ and build up some stamina or more importantly begin exploring the ability to recover while on a route! The change in attitude from trying to squeeze in ticks to enjoying learning a new style has been refreshing. And not just for me but for Caroline aswell. After months of moving from project to project in the UK we’ve jumped at the opportunity of being able to do 10 new routes a day and not worry about redpointing. Caroline got a good base of grade 6 routes under her belt and onsighted a long 7a+ to the chains (before unexpectedly flying off, rope in hand about to clip the anchor! A real battle!) during the first two weeks of Team Ireland and also enjoyed playing on some of the crags better 7b+’s and 7c’s just to get an idea of what was to come for her later in the year. It’s our last climbing day of this trip to Ceuse and it’s going to be our sixth day on. During the last five days at the crag we’ve been warming up on 6a’s and 6b’s, climbing classic 7’s all throughout Berlin, Biography and Demilune sectors and finishing up with a good attempt each at something we find pumpy. On Monday I went up Ratman and Bouse de Douce, 8a+ and 8a in the Berlin sector just to try the moves. They both felt great but being honest I knew I didn’t have the time or desire to repeatedly go back on them for the ticks. They’ll be more fun as quick sends in a year or so when I’ve some fitness. Instead I put my draws in Makach Walou a brilliant pumpy 7c+ with no real hard moves. Placing the draws it felt super pumpy for me and I didn’t rate my chances of redpointing it before leaving for Spain but I reasoned that if my draws were in it it’d be more likely to give it another try and hence get to work on learning how to actively recover and depump while on a route. As it turns out it was Wednesday evening before I got back on it to give it my first redpoint attempt. I use redpoint loosely here because I had no real sequence I just knew I could get up it and that was enough. I surprised myself by climbing up above the 5th draw before getting lost and pumped out on the less positive edges below the 6th. Forcing myself upwards I crossed over and kept moving from edge to edge before falling off. Chuffed! I had gone for it and taken a lob whilst trying. Something I have little experience of to be honest and have always found a little difficult to do. Hanging on the rope I rested and then fought my way to the chains in one. Right then, I now had a sequence. Half an hour later came my second redpoint attempt (baring in mind it was our 5th consecutive day on!) with thin skin and tired arms I climbed past my highpoint, clipped the 6th and began to recover on the crimps above before coming off a greasy edge at the end of the hard climbing beside the final draw. I am chuffed. I thought this route was my anti-style and was making such quick and unexpected progress.
Meanwhile Caroline’s attention had been stolen by Saint Georges Picos, a mega classic 7a and somewhat of a rite of passage for Ceuse. It wasn’t the grade that appealed to her about this line it was its nasty difficulty that reacted with Caroline’s determination that got her hooked. As Kev said, “if she’d put that same amount of effort into any of the 7b+’s at the crag they’d have been ticked by now”. The route has an intense first 4 bolts providing the crux and after that takes a sparsely bolted line up an easing vertical wall. The first few moves are reachy and finger intensive, involving some stiff pulls with minimal and polished feet. On Saturday Caroline climbed the route first go after spending some time trying the start the week before with team Ireland. It was a real inspiration to watch someone dispatch their project in such a determined style. Crush mode! Was this really her first time at Ceuse? The route served its purpose well by forcing her to crank and also by ensuring a good head training session on the runout upper wall before the chain. After this everything was game-ball for Caroline as she had overcome her own personal challenge. Aside from climbing on all the 7a’s and b’s Caroline has been working a really nice 7b+ on lead. Tuesday evening with failing light Caroline made short work of the reachy crux for the first time and fought on to reach the decent rest before coming off near the top due to a combination of fading light, not having a robust sequence and not being able to see the footholds! Still though massive progress to be working at her previous best level on such a different style of climbing within such a short space of time.
Today will be our 6th and final day on at Ceuse for a while. Although I’d like to send the 7c+ I’m not too fussed as I feel like I’ve come on a lot in my three and a half weeks here and I now know what is possible for me during future visits. We’re going to walk up, warm up, try some more onsights and finish our trip off on some brilliant routes… School is in.

Team Ireland

By the end of our first week in Ceuse a decent Irish squad had assembled. Neal and Naomi had been here 3 or 4 weeks, Caroline and Myself had a week under our belts, Andy and Carole had been cutting their teeth at Orpierre while camping at Ceuse for a few days before undertaking the walk in and Finally Kev arrived and wanted a good daily pump fest to provide some mileage and boost his trad stamina for the Autumn. It was great craic both at the campsite and crag. It was interesting to see the effect the different mindsets and agendas had on people’s daily routines. It was something I’d never really noticed before but then again I can’t remember being on a climbing trip with such a varied bunch of converging plans. Neal and Naomi were just passing their holiday midpoint and the drive to go home with some ticks and was clear. They had both been here before and knew what to expect so arrived with a game plan, a wish list and lots of focus. It was unfortunate that we hadn’t all arrived at the same time because I would have loved to be able to join in with their redpoint psyche but we just were not at the point of our visit yet. Caroline and myself arrived after a great few months on UK sports and a healthy redpoint head but 3 weeks of down time and relocating across Europe had taken its toll. We had no route fitness and Caroline had never been to Ceuse before so we needed mileage and lots of it to get use to the style of climbing and the length of the routes. Carole and Andy were at the beginning of their mega trip and just wanted to climb lots and relax. As a result of the different mental phases we ended up climbing with Kev, Carole and Andy more than with Neal and Naomi, only catching up with them occasionally as they whizzed back and forth across the crag to each of their respective projects. In the end I think I worked out best for us. I was able to just climb whatever anyone wanted and place the draws and in the process I clocked up a rake of routes and Caroline enjoyed building lots of easy mileage on the 6’s and 7’s while taking a much needed break from pushing herself. After two weeks or so Team Ireland had dwindled to just Caroline and Myself. Before everyone left we managed a visit to Orpierre and a day bouldering in Ailfroide where we met some more Irish by chance (Howard, Bridget and Niamh). After that we had two much needed rest days and the following day’s constant rain forced a third. In total we had been away from Ceuse for 6 days! With Fatigue no longer an issue and a promising weather forecast for the final week we could look forward to more climbing that tested our weaknesses with no pressure or expectation of success – I just need to climb on a different style of rock for a while and remember to try and learn what I can along the way. Bliss!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


What can I say? The place is awesome! We arrived late in the middle of a thunder and lightening storm after a 12 hour drive and set up camp alongside Neal and Naomi who had been climbing there for a couple of weeks prior to our arrival. They were just getting into the peak of their redpointing after building up some route fitness and getting their Ceuse heads in gear. We knew we were in for a big change in styles but nothing could have prepared us for this. It was my third visit to the Mecca of climbing. My first being during 2003 when I had never been sports climbing before and could barely manage to climb anything. My second visit came during 2007 when Caroline flew off to Turkey to compete in the World Mountain Running Championships for Ireland. I met up with Sean and Kev Marnane and had 5 days climbing. I didn’t climb much but remember trying two 7c’s in Berlin Sector and made it to the top of both with multiple rests and falls – I had no fitness to redpoint anything at that stage but I remembered coming home from that visit feeling like those grades were possible for me with some fitness. This trip was Caroline’s first and the compulsory culture shock took place as per normal. Runouts combined with sustained climbing and the occasional thin technical section all acted to knock us out of whack and presented us with an almost diametrically opposite climbing challenge to what we had grown accustomed to in the UK. Dinbren’s 12 meter long, steep and powerful, crimp-fests were like the opposite end of the sports climbing spectrum to these 35 meter slow burners. No move felt hard compared to our old local but the combination of easy moves and constant steepness presented a new challenge – stamina as opposed to power endurance. Perfect training for a winter of climbing in the Costa Blanca in Spain! I’m expecting a serious smackdown but also some signs of slow progress and gains. Watch this space for more updates on how it goes.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Costa Blanca

Our new home! We met our landlord and got the tour of our new house. Air conditioning, heating and of course pool maintenance. Once we said goodbye to Mr. Landlord we began unpacking and moving stuff around to make the house feel like a home. The house is in a lovely part of the town in a small residential area high on the hillside of Puig Campana (the towering 1400m mountain). 10 paces from our front door gets you onto wild mountain side trails running up and around the peak. Looking out from the rear of the house you can see Calpe and Altea beaches and the Mediterranean. The first priority after getting settled in was to sort out all the documentation required for working (and being paid) in Spain. Once we got our head around all that we began to explore our local area for climbing and running. Lots to go at but unfortunately August wasn’t the time to do any of it. Climbing in 37 degree heat was just way too much for us but we made a good stab at exploring all the same. There are three big crags that stand out immediately as being the big players in the area all within 30 minutes drive of our house. Wildside at Sella is an awesome overhanging buttress of perfect tufa dripping limestone. Around 30 routes from a lonely 7a to a mega hard 8c with lots to go at in the 7c to 8a range. Stamina is required! Bovedon at Gandia is home to a mind blowing expanse of horizontal climbing. A huge cave on a mountainside and fully equipped with permanent quickdraws, it stays dry in the rain and all winter and is home to a host of routes and linkups starting at a burly 7c and even has a 9a. Forada shines out as a mini Ceuse without the walk in. Lots to go at there from 6c to 8b.

Closer to home we have the gift of the quiet and relatively small Echo Valley. A handful of grade 8’s up to 8b taking powerful lines through some steep terrain will be providing a lot of entertainment during those shorter evenings after work methinks. Despite the temps we tried to climb and felt the need to get something done after the few weeks disturbance to our climbing. I managed a few 7b+’s onsight and Caroline was back onsighting 6c+. With the conditions being poor and so many crags to explore we never jumped onto anything too hard, it was all very relaxed. We were not pressed for time here – these are not our holiday crags afterall.
Anyway, it was way too hot and we had all of our camping stuff to collect from Neal in Ceuse so we hit the road once again, this time bound for Gap, France.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Road to Release

It’s dark and wet on a Sunday evening in Llangollen and I’m shattered! 2 days of frantic packing, making snap decisions on what is needed and what should go free to a good home, dismantling the Fringe board and lowering it down the side of a building under cover of night and saying all the final goodbyes to everyone has taken its toll. I had planned on setting off for Dover around 10pm after a few hours of sleep but of course that never happened. It’s 11pm now and we’ve been at it flat out. It’s a strange feeling trying to pack two peoples lives into the boot and backseat of a 307. Strange in a good way – leaving bag after bag of clothes and memories down to the charity shop felt like a release. Throwing away black sack after black sack of junk into the skip had the same effect. It was like the ultimate spring clean and I felt great after doing it. Being forced to evaluate what actually matters and what was needed brought me to the realisation that in fact I don’t need very much at all. It’s the people I’ve met, friendships I’ve made and experiences I’ve had that are the only things I really want to keep hold of – everything else can go and I’m more than happy to start from scratch.

The 1500 mile drive passed in a two day blur. Not much to say really. The car was full, we’d not a lot of money but just enough to make the fuel and toll costs to La Nucia, I couldn’t see out the back window and there was no Air conditioning so the front windows were open at all times. We arrived to our new home hot and sweaty wrecks. But we’re here now and ready to start exploring!