Becoming a gnarly alpinist

Last Sunday I returned from my first foray into Alpine climbing and mountaineering. I had always assumed that I’d enter this world at some point, but had no particular intentions about when. Earlier in the year the opportunity came up, so I decided that my time had come. Time to (try to) be a gnarly alpinist!

I have lots of reflections about this trip. It was an intense experience with some ups and downs, but I’m glad I did it and I learned a lot.

We hired James Thacker for some guiding at the start, in order to learn some of the skills such as moving together and glacier travel / crevasse rescue that are needed for safe travel in the Alps. I was very impressed by James’ constant attentiveness and his ability to keep a good eye on all of us at the same time. It felt like we were really learning things rather than just being dragged up to a summit, which was important as our aim was to gain skills which we could then use independently later in the trip. James wrote a nice blog post about our time with him.

In the run up to the trip I read Alpine Mountaineering by Bruce Goodlad. This is a great book which gives lots of useful context and advice for a Brit who is looking to go to the Alps for the first time. It is a little more aimed at walkers/scramblers than climbers, but I still found it very helpful. However I was a little upset when the author at one point stated that “with the advent of cheap short-haul flights, a weekend trip to the Alps is a reasonable proposition”, while later in the book he notes that the melting of the glaciers due to climate change is a big and visible problem. I was pretty surprised by the lack of recognition of the connection between these two things.

On that note, travelling to the Alps (in our case Chamonix) by train is very much a reasonable proposition. I did this via a 17:30-ish Eurostar, connecting with a night train from Paris Austerlitz to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, arriving 8:45 in the morning. This got me much closer to the action than a flight to Geneva which requires an airport transfer. You can take an onward train or bus to get to Chamonix itself for about 9:40.

Unfortunately when I arrived it was raining, and this was very much a constant theme during the trip. From what I hear the weather in the Alps this summer has generally been quite disappointing and this was certainly the case during our visit. When it stopped raining I pitched my tent at Les Arolles (cheap and good facilities – full of climbers), then managed a quick hike from the valley to try to get warmed up.

Hiking through the forest near Chamonix. I found wild blueberries and strawberries, yum.

Hiking through the forest near Chamonix. I found wild blueberries and strawberries, yum.

A couple of days later the four of us had all arrived and we began our guiding with James. Given the generally bad weather we were actually really lucky to have 4 quite reasonable days with him. This was a relief as we obviously didn’t want to have invested in the guiding only the end up standing in the valley getting rained on.

The first day wasn’t looking too good high up so we headed into the Aiguilles Rouges which is the slightly lower altitude range on the other side of the valley from the “big stuff” of the Mont Blanc massif. We did a rock ridge traverse of the Aiguilles de Crouches, which was a good opportunity to learn about moving together on the rope.

The Aiguilles de Crouches. Photo by James Thacker.

Descending some snow fields from the Aiguille Crouches

Descending some snow fields from the Aiguilles de Crouches

The following day the weather perked up so we drove through the tunnel to Courmayeur in Italy and took a lift up to the Torino Hut at about 3,400m. We spent the day mainly learning about glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques nearby, which was something that had featured high on our list of things to learn about. It was the first time I’d been at such a high altitude and the effects were quite obvious. As soon as I tried to walk at all quickly I’d get very out of breath and start panting heavily. I could feel the lactic acid building extremely quickly.

James showing us how we'd pull someone out of a crevasse

James showing us how we’d pull someone out of a crevasse

The next two days we had agreed that we’d go down to a 2:1 ratio with James in order to try to bring together the skills we’d learned on the previous two days. After having spent the night in the valley we again went up to the Torino hut and Khalid and Harriet went off with James to tackle the Aiguille d’Entreves.

This left me and my climbing partner Sadie to go and do something independently. We decided to have a go at a rock route named Lifting du Roi on the Roi de Siam, which James had recommended to us. It was great fun with fantastic views but not particularly challenging climbing. We didn’t actually make it all the way to the top, abseiling down after a very fine corner crack, as we’d run out of time. This was definitely a noticeable theme throughout the trip: to get stuff done you really have to be very fast, which takes some practise!

Sadie questing up the Roi de Siam

Sadie questing up the Roi de Siam

Panorama of the view from the climb, lovely!

Panorama of the view from the climb, lovely!

Corner crack pitch on the Roi du Siam

Corner crack pitch on the Roi de Siam

Eventually we got back near to the Torino Hut by around 7 PM. The other three were all staying the night in the hut, but Sadie and I had decided to have a go at camping on the glacier. It was harder work than just paying for a hut stay, but we learned a lot about the logistics of doing this, and it was quite fun.

The first thing we realised was that we needed some sort of shovel in order to create a flat platform on the snow. Fortunately we managed to borrow one from a friendly Spanish couple who were also camping nearby. When we got into the tent we started to get cold very quickly, and we raced to get our sleeping mats down as fast as possible – turns out tent fabric isn’t a great insulator!

After a tasty meal of pasta, pesto and cheese (mmm, healthy!) we had a poor but not terrible night of sleep. We both kept waking up and I was getting a little creeped out by some of the strange noises outside – despite having probed the area I was having visions of a massive crevasse opening during the night and swallowing us whole. Fortunately this did not happen.

In the tent, melting snow to drink like proper gnarly alpinists!

In the tent, melting snow to drink like proper gnarly alpinists!

We were up early at 3.30 AM the next morning to pack up the tent and meet James. He then took us on the South East ridge of the Tour Ronde. This was good mixed snow/rock ridge which we climbed moving together in crampons. It was my first experience of climbing rock in crampons but I didn’t find it too bad. On the whole though I felt pretty wasted from the early start and the previous day, so had to try quite hard to keep up. It was fantastic to be on the mountain as the first rays of light were breaching the horizon though, and we topped out by about 8.30 AM.

On the summit of the Tour Ronde

On the summit of the Tour Ronde

Madonna-hugging on the summit of the Tour Ronde. Photo by James Thacker.

After this we thanked James and continued the trip on our own. The following day brought a return of the bad weather which was not altogether a problem as it gave us a much-needed rest day. After that, Sadie and I decided to join some other friends, Adam and Bart, on a trip up to the Envers Hut next to the Mer de Glace.

I like trains

I like trains

We took the rack-and-pinion train from Chamonix to Montenvers, and then hiked up to the hut. This involves descending some ladders onto the glacier, walking up the glacier, then ascending some more ladders and walking a steep path to the hut. From afar I found the Mer de Glace quite a depressing example of climate change; it’s quite clear the extent to which it has receded, leaving lots of moraine behind. This is reiterated by a sign on the way down which shows the height the glacier used to be in 1820. However up close there is much more ice than can be seen from a distance, since a lot of the ice is covered by rocks and pebbles. Being a “dry” (not snow-covered) glacier the water ice seemed to glow in a fascinating way and the features were clear to see. We crossed lots of streams of water flowing, and occasionally came across moulins, where a stream plummets into a gaping hole down to the depths of the glacier. Needless to say we did not get too close to these!

A moulin on the Mer de Glace

A moulin on the Mer de Glace

Adam on the Mer de Glace, just before you ascend the ladders off the glacier

Adam on the Mer de Glace, just before you ascend the ladders off the glacier

I found the walk quite tough. I was probably tired, and I also had a sore knee which didn’t help, but we were carrying a lot of weight from our food. (I also had a terrible Grivel bag which made my shoulders sore.) Talking to Adam and Bart I picked up quite a few useful tips to keep food weight down:

    • Take a sheet of tin foil rather than a pan lid
    • Don’t bother with a kettle, a pan will do
    • Instant coffee rather than an aeropress (I might have to work up to this one… but perhaps there’s middle ground in a Turkish style brew where you have no filter and just let the grains settle to the bottom of the cup)
    • Dried bananas (or dried fruit generally) – note that “banana chips” are actually deep fried in fat, you want the brown ugly looking ones for the real deal which are dehydrated
    • Powdered soup
    • Stock cubes = lots of flavour for very little weight
    • Don’t bring a glass jar full of pulped tomatoes (we actually did this) – take tomato soup powder instead
    • Get rid of as much packaging as possible
    • Smash (powdered mash potato)
    • Milk powder rather than fresh milk
    • General rule: think really hard about anything which has high water content

When we eventually arrived at the hut we went off to do a shorter route very close by, called Le Piège. This was good fun, and Sadie did an impressive lead of the fierce crack climbing at the start (which I fell off on second!) Unfortunately on the last abseil our ropes wouldn’t pull. This lead to me prussiking/climbing up 60m to retrieve them just as it started getting dark. Again we were showing our inexperience, as Adam and Bart pointed out that we should have paid more attention to where the rope was running over the edge at the start of the abseil.

Looking down on the Envers Hut

Looking down on the Envers Hut

Selfie on Le Piège

Selfie on Le Piège

The following day it rained all day so we sat in the hut playing cards and scrabble, reading, and generally going slightly insane. Frustrating.

Going a bit crazy waiting for the weather to improve

Going a bit crazy waiting for the weather to improve

On the third day it looked better so we set out to tackle our real objective, Guy Anne L’insolite. This was a long and excellent route, and definitely a good challenge. Despite not being as fast as we might have liked (again this comes down to experience and practise) I think we would just about have made it to the top if it had not started raining after the 10th pitch. We started abseiling and the heavens opened. It took several hours and we got soaking wet and very miserable. Our wet ropes seemed to get tangled even more readily than normal and my camera passed away in a puddle of water which accumulated in our bag on the descent. Adam very kindly waited for us at the bottom which was appreciated as we were feeling more than a little sorry for ourselves by the time we got to the ground!

Sadie on the awesome diagonal crack on Guy Anne L'Insolite. Photo by Adam Brown.

Sadie on the awesome diagonal crack on Guy Anne L’insolite. Photo by Adam Brown.

The next morning we needed to return to the valley and it was more of the same. Rain. We tried to leave the hut when it had eased a bit, but it soon un-eased and we proceeded to get wet, again. Coming down the glacier we saw loads of rock fall, and ascending the ladders was actually quite serious as by this point there was – no exaggeration – a waterfall coming down the rock face. Coupled with a very strong wind this persuaded me to concentrate quite hard on holding on!

The forecast for the following day looked dry in the morning with the weather crapping out later on, so in a concerted effort to not get rained on we rose early and took the first lift up to the Plan des Aiguilles for an attempt on Papillons Arete. Unfortunately we misjudged this one as on arrival we could see the rock was gopping wet, and following the unusual conditions for the time of year, there was even a sprinkling of snow at this low altitude. Being North-facing (something we hadn’t considered), it was not going to dry out first thing in the morning. So Sadie and I decided to hike to Montenvers instead, both of us being intensely keen to not get rained on yet again.

It was an enjoyable little hike and we didn’t get wet, but given the €30 lift fee, it felt like a very expensive walk! The cost of everything in Chamonix definitely left a slightly sour taste in our mouths, but you can’t really avoid paying the high lift fees if you want to get stuff done. Perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so bad if we hadn’t felt like we were constantly battling the weather but the cost associated with a trip like this would make me think twice about returning to Chamonix vs finding somewhere cheaper to visit instead. That said, the great think about Chamonix is the amazing granite rock climbing, and the sheer variety of things to do within a relatively small area. So I guess that’s why everyone wants to go there and hence it’s very expensive! (Also there’s a rather big mountain called Mont Blanc in the vicinity…)

At this point Sadie and Adam had had enough, so decided to head off to Orco instead. I had a couple of days left before driving back to the UK with Khalid and Harriet. After a day sitting in the tent in constant rain, it finally looked like our last day would bring some good weather. We decided to head up to the Aiguille du Midi lift station and tackle the mega-classic Cosmiques Arete. I was pleased for the opportunity to get up there as it hadn’t previously happened during the trip, and the Aiguille du Midi is such an iconic starting point for many objectives in Chamonix, so I was keen to see it for myself. I was less pleased to hand over another €55 for the lift pass though!

A temperature inversion meant that the first lift took us from an overcast valley into a beautiful clear mountain morning, and we proceeded down the famous snow arete and round to the start of our route.

The snow arete down from the Midi station

The snow arete down from the Midi station. Photo by Khalid Qasrawi.

The Cosmiques Arete is definitely a good outing, but our enjoyment was crushed by other guided parties on the route. At the first abseil a French guide with too many clients started lowering his clients over the top of us. We responded by making a concerted effort to get well ahead of him, and did so quite easily. Unfortunately we ended up queueing to get through the first tricky section of rock climbing – this time it was a guided party in front of us who were holding up proceedings, which had lead to other parties in front having to wait. All this meant that the French guide eventually caught up with us, and then proceeded to make our experience miserable for the rest of the route. This all culminated in a massive mess of several parties climbing on top of each other towards the end of the route. I got very frustrated and all I could think about was getting out of there. I was no longer enjoying myself and it also made the situation ripe for an accident.

The three of us on the Cosmiques Arete

This experience would certainly make me think twice about doing such a popular mountaineering route in the future, at least during a busy time of year. The behaviour of other parties ruined our day and next time I’d rather do something a bit harder or more obscure in order to have some breathing room. Still, we were lucky to get a final day of good weather so I shouldn’t complain too much.

In the end this trip felt like an education in what the Alps are all about. With the weather, expense and busyness there were some ups and downs, but it’s certainly an amazing place to visit, and I hope to go back in years to come. I developed a good sense for how Chamonix works and the geography of its surrounding mountains. I want to go back to Chamonix, but I’d also be keen to consider other Alpine destinations which might be a bit cheaper and quieter in the future.

Font and Pembroke

This post is a little overdue, but I’ve recently had two mini-adventures which have taken me outside my usual comfort zone of bolt clipping.

The first was a trip to Fontainebleau at Easter. I generally only boulder indoors for training, but going to Font for Easter sounded fun and we were lucky with some really good weather apart from on the Monday.

It was only my second trip to Font. On my first we had bad weather for 2 out of 3 of the days, so it felt like my first proper encounter with the famous sandstone boulders. Naturally I had fun falling off lots of things, no matter how “easy” the grade was! But my expectations of myself were low, so I enjoyed simply having a go at stuff without being too concerned about grades.

The best day was probably Sunday, when we decided to try to do as much of the Apremont Centre blue circuit as we could. I got to problem number 31, and definitely felt pretty worked as we walked back to the car!

Unfortunately Colin got a finger injury on the first day and couldn’t climb, but this did mean he took a load of good pictures:

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The photos above are all copyright Colin Rouse

More recently I managed to get some climbing in at the UK trad paradise of Pembroke.

This was stage one of my “try to climb more trad this year” plan and I had great fun getting scared trying to put on my trad head.

Adam managed to persuade me to try the notoriously classic and tough Pleasure Dome E3 5c, which resulted in me taking a rather spectacular wanger, certainly my biggest trad fall to date. Fortunately I had placed a bomber nut so I wasn’t in mortal danger, but I have to admit that I came off at least in part because I was scared to commit to the move and hence have to place gear from the next holds! (Still working on that trad head…)

Pleased that my nut held after I fell off the crux!

Another very memorable route was the rather esoteric Preposterous Tales E2 5b. It traverses into and through a sea cave and then up through a blowhole. (Which fortunately was not blowing on the day we did it!)

Inspecting the "top out"

Inspecting the “top out”

Adam enjoying the first pitch (the crux, as you enter the cave)

Adam enjoying the first pitch (the crux, as you enter the cave)

Most of the difficulty on this route comes from route-finding rather than the moves. I spent a long while on pitch two debating with myself where I was supposed to go. I eventually figured it out though.

Approaching the first belay stance

Approaching the first belay stance

The holds are probably permanently wet – at least they were when we did it – but they’re big enough that this doesn’t matter too much. We initially attempted a headtorch-free ascent but gave up on that idea pretty quickly!

Pitch 3, up into the light!

Pitch 3, up into the light!

Adam celebrating his exit while I'm still freezing my ass off below :)

Adam celebrating his exit while I’m still freezing my ass off below :)

It was great to get back into a bit of trad climbing, and it was my first time in Pembroke. I was suitably impressed and will be returning!

Orange rock and orange naranjas in Chulilla

I’ve just returned from a trip to Valencian climbing destination Chulilla. It’s not somewhere I had heard of six months ago, and certainly isn’t one of the big sport climbing areas that you often hear of people heading to. But when I was chatting to my friend Glyn some months ago he proposed it, and the climbing looked good, so we set the wheels in motion.

Chulilla. Photo by Glyn Hudson

Chulilla gorge and town – the refuge sits on top of the cliff on the left. Photo by Glyn Hudson

More recently it seems like Chulilla has been getting a bit of attention from the UK climbing community, and deservedly so in my opinion as it has some fantastic climbing. However there is still a lack of good information on the internet (at least in English) so this blog post will also function as a mini-guide giving some tips to those who are thinking of planning a trip.

View from the refuge

Chulilla is a small town situated at around 400m, about 1 hour’s drive from the coastal Spanish city of Valencia. It hosts a vast, orange-coloured limestone gorge, much of which is bolted.

The walls of the gorge are roughly 70m high, but not many of the routes go all the way to the top. That said, many of the routes we climbed were super-long stamina fests; an 80 metre rope is essential, as few lines are equipped with intermediate lower-offs for those on shorter ropes.

Luke Brooks on Siempre se puede hacer menos 7c+ at La Pared Blanca

Luke Brooks performing una bicicleta on Siempre se puede hacer menos 7c+ at La Pared Blanca

We stayed in the climber’s refuge El Altico, run by local climbers Pedro and Nuria. Pedro has been responsible for a lot of the bolting so he’s great to chat to about routes. The refuge overlooks the gorge and provides bedding and an equipped kitchen with a gas hob and fridge. If you’re feeling flush or lazy Pedro and Nuria will also serve you meals. I was lucky to have my birthday during the trip, so on that evening we gave ourselves the full-board treatment and enjoyed a tasty Valencian rice dish.

El Altico Refuge

El Altico Refuge

There are other eating options in the town, although be aware that quite a few places are only open on weekends. On our last night we enjoyed a very tasty meal at Hostal El Pozo.

One more thing on the subject of food: the locally-grown oranges are really fucking tasty. A big step beyond what you can get in the UK. We ate a lots – I think the best ones came from the tobacconist in the square.

Glyn Hudson flashing Entre dos caminos 8a at Pared de la Enfrente

Glyn Hudson flashing Entre dos caminos 8a at Pared de la Enfrente

Talented Finnish climber Katariina Rahikainen who also flashed Entre dos caminos!

Strong Finnish climber Katariina Rahikainen who also flashed Entre dos caminos

From the refuge it’s possible to walk to all of the good climbing, although having a car in our group was pretty useful for getting in/out of the village, supermarket runs, etc. A car will also reduce your walk-in time for some of the crags. There are also some other crags (not in the gorge) with routes in the low 6es which were visited by some of our group and require a car.

Chulilla has a lot to offer in the mid to high 7s. There were two areas we found ourselves going back to again and again. The first is Pared de la Enfrente which is directly opposite the refuge (although it takes a little time to get down to as the refuge sits on top of the cliff). The second is the El Embalse area which includes El Oasis, El Balconcito and others; this is a bit further away around a bend in the river, but it’s where we spent the most time and is absolutely worth the effort to go to.

Pared de la Enfrente

Pared de la Enfrente

I wouldn’t say that there is a definitive style to the climbs in Chulilla; there is quite a lot of variation other than the fact that most routes are pretty long (often 30 to 40 metres). You’ll find both steep tufa climbing and delicate crimping – sometimes even on the same route!

We found that the grading was often a bit soft compared to other areas we’ve been to, but this could be in part due to the length of the routes. But there were quite a few routes where we disagreed with the grade reported in the guidebook.

View from the

View towards the reservoir from El Balconcito

Some highlights for me were:

La Diagonal 6c

This is an obvious diagonal crack which goes to the top of the gorge. In the guidebook it is 2 pitches of 6c + 7a, but we didn’t think the second pitch was significantly harder than the first. We climbed it as an epic 70m single pitch (massive rope drag by the end) but you can’t abseil off without ending up hanging out from the wall. So Glyn had to climb it again on second to strip the draws. We then topped out and tried to walk down by going left. This resulted in us getting pretty dehydrated whacking our way through dense bushes for a few kilometres but we eventually found a way to scramble/walk back down into the gorge. We later realised it would have been better to abseil down Orgasmatrón which is a multi-pitch 5+ just a few routes to the right. I don’t recommend our descent strategy, but our mini-epic is part of the reason that I won’t forget this route!

La Diagonal

La Diagonal… spot the line

Emily at the belay after we absolutely crushed the steepness of Orgasmatrón 5+

Emily at the belay after we absolutely crushed the steepness of Orgasmatrón 5+

El remanso de las mulas L1 7c+

My first of the grade, this is a long route with some technical/hard moves up to a decent knee bar rest, then a sustained crux of tufa pinching up to a good jug with feet which aren’t as good as you’d like. Then a bunch more tufa climbing which isn’t hard except when you’re pumped out of your brains – which you are by this point! (I was, at least…)

On my first go, by some miracle, I almost managed the onsight. It was one of those rare situations where I was somehow able to squeeze out every last ounce of effort from myself and try really really hard. When I finally fell off just a couple of bolts from the end I felt as if I might be sick! Despite my initial near-success, actually getting the redpoint took a while and became a bit frustrating as I kept falling off the lower section which I had onsighted. In the end I got it on my last go of the second day trying, having accepted that I’d leave the clips in and try again after a rest day – I think this allowed me to relax enough to actually do it.

Moon safari 7c

I was pretty pleased to manage to flash this great route. It starts off hard, then there is quite a bit of easier but sustained tufa climbing, then a fewer hard moves near the top which I somehow managed to battle through.

The magnificent tufas of El Balconcito (although Moon Safari is just out of the photo, on the right)

The magnificent tufas of El Balconcito (although Moon Safari is just out of the photo, on the right)

Tequila sunrise 7c+

My best redpoint and most enjoyable route of the trip. I had great fun working this route, and when I did it I felt great, having just had a rest day I was fresh and everything seemed to flow really nicely. I find it super satisfying when I manage to get a redpoint by climbing well rather than just scraping through. It gets 7c+/8a in the guidebook, but I definitely don’t want my first 8a to be a soft one! I think 7c+ is fair.

Enjoying some late evening sun on Tequila Sunrise. I fell right at the top on this last attempt of the day, but got it first go the next day on

Me enjoying some late evening sun on Tequila Sunrise. I fell right at the top on this last attempt of the day, but got it first go the next day on

Nivelúgalos 7c

A fast redpoint on the day I ticked Tequila sunrise, this route had some great moves including a memorable heel hook as you move from one undercut to another.

Finally, a bit about the journey. You can of course do the predictable thing and fly to Valencia, but we took the train for a better adventure and lower carbon footprint (booked through my company Loco2 of course).

Latour de Carol train station in the Pyrenees

Latour de Carol train station in the Pyrenees

On the way out I travelled with Glyn via the uber-scenic Latour de Carol route. This consisted of a sleeper train to Toulouse (although you can get one direct to Latour de Carol for a quicker journey), and then a local train up through the Pyrenees the following morning. We soaked up the mountain scenery and upon arrival at Latour de Carol I managed to muster up enough Spanish to ask the café owner if we could leave our bags in order to go on a little walk. We went a kilometre or so to the border and then returned to reward ourselves with beer and a bite of chorizo! Another local train took us down to Barcelona where we got a connecting service to Valencia.

This humble stone marked the border - despite how it may look it was quite solid and we weren't pulling it over!

This humble stone marked the border – despite how it may look it was quite solid and we weren’t pulling it over! For some unknown reason it says “2980m” at the bottom but there’s no way we were that high up.

On the way back we were both joined by our girlfriends. We travelled to Barcelona on the Saturday arriving mid afternoon and spent a night in the city. The highlight was definitely having pinchos at the lively Gasterea bar. It’s the first time I’ve been to a “proper” tapas/pinchos place where you literally sit at the bar and iteratively pick out small snacks while getting steadily more intoxicated. (As opposed to “restaurant” tapas where you sit at a table, order once, and are waited on.) It’s a great way to eat; we experienced loads of different tasty morsels in a single evening and the place was positively buzzing. The following morning we took a high-speed TGV service direct to Paris (also fairly scenic as it turns out), and then the Eurostar got us back to St Pancras by 7.40 PM.

Glyn enjoying Pinchos in Barcelona

Glyn enjoying Pinchos in Barcelona

Catalan rock and Gredos ice

I’m writing this while once again hurtling along at ~300km/h aboard a high-speed train. This particular one is an AVE from Madrid to Marseille, one of the new cross-border high speed routes linking France and Spain. Having just left Madrid I am taking in the wintry Spanish landscape, and in a few hours I’ll get off at Perpignan to connect with an Intercities de Nuite night train which will bring me (while I sleep) to Paris early tomorrow morning. Then it’s just a quick hop on the Eurostar and I’ll be home in time for elevenses. (No, I don’t actually observe elevenses… but it sounds suitably British)

The trip started near Tarragona, where I joined up with Chris Jorde who I met back in September in Rodellar. After finishing his studies in Barcelona, Chris has been climbing solidly since I last met him, and needless to say he was in good shape for it! Fortunately for me, he invited me to come stay at his rented apartment in Cornudella de Montsant and I happily obliged. He also had a fellow Brit staying, Rachel Slater, who was similarly good company and an excellent climber.

Chris demonstrating exemplary belay technique... gloves, glasses, bright clothing for visual impact and nutella jar close to hand in case things get serious

Chris demonstrating exemplary belay technique… gloves, glasses, bright clothing for visual impact and nutella jar close to hand in case things get serious

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Rachel on Orient 7c+, Terradets

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t find the start of the trip totally easy. On both trips I did last year (south France and Rodellar), I had clear goals grade-wise. I had to work for them but they were quite achievable. This resulted in me going from a 7a redpointer at the start of the year to a 7c redpointer at the end. Obviously that’s great and I wanted to continue the upward march so I had my sights on 7c+ this time.

But there were several problems.

Me falling off Orient - photo by Rachel Slater

Me falling off Orient – photo by Rachel Slater

For a start, such rapid progress obviously cannot continue forever. If it did, we could say that I’ll probably be climbing 9a in 2015 – something tells me that’s unlikely! In reality I think that while I did make a lot of real improvement in my climbing and strength in 2013, I was also in a situation at the start of the year where my redpoint grade did not reflect my actual ability. So it was fairly easy to just try harder climbs and achieve them.

Purolitic 7a, Montsant - ace photo by Rachel Slater

Purolitic 7a, Montsant – ace photo by Rachel Slater

The second “problem” was that we were going to different crags day by day. Actually this was quite nice, as I experienced a lot of different climbing areas in one trip: Siurana, Terradets, Montsant, Margalef, Masriudoms. A grand tour of Catalan climbing. But it obviously made it difficult to really sink my teeth into a hard project which might take days to complete.

The huge cave of Masriudoms

The huge cave of Masriudoms

Thirdly, I was out of shape. Actually I thought I made quite a concerted effort to prepare in advance of the trip. I did lots of route climbing indoors and felt like I was performing well. But as soon as I arrived on the rock it was clear that my endurance was just not good enough. And the problem was not only endurance – I hadn’t climbed on real rock since early December and my technique was a bit rusty. Rock is a much more subtle medium than plastic, so it’s unsurprising that this slipped a bit through many weeks of only climbing indoors.

Phwoar!

Phwoar!

I think my main error was that I didn’t realise and accept these facts quickly enough. I tried one 7c+ (Orient) at Terradets over two days at the start of the trip but failed to get it. Actually on my final attempt I climbed through the crux but just got so pumped I could no longer hold on and finish it. But after that I still kept trying things that were at the top of my grade range and failing at them. This made me frustrated.

Chris crushing at Margalef

Chris crushing at Margalef

By the end of the trip the situation improved. I had definitely gained some endurance and technique and the ticks were coming more easily. We went back to some of the places we had previously visited which allowed me to finish off some business. In the end I ticked a soft 7c and three 7b+ routes within the last 3 days I had. It’s actually not something I am at all unhappy with when I think back to how hard I had to work for my first 7b+ last May. I reckon that if I’d have gone back to Tarradets after a rest day at the end of my time I could have done Orient as ultimately the main reason I failed was endurance.

My last day... Margalef's pockets tore me to shreds!

My last day… Margalef’s pockets tore me to shreds!

So, it was a definite learning experience:

  • 1.5 weeks feels a bit short for a productive climbing trip to me. I felt that it took a week to feel “on form” and then I knew I was about to leave imminently.
  • If moving around a lot, don’t bother with hard redpoints. Concentrate on onsighting, gaining technique and enjoying the climbing. Especially if endurance/technique are not where they could be. If I could do it all again I’d do onsights/flashes at max 7b for the first week of the trip, and only tried harder things after that.
  • Don’t try to progress too fast. Enjoy climbing at your current grade. I still think I can do a 7c+, but I also have much to gain by consolidating my current grade and there is joy in that too.
  • Endurance. I still haven’t figured out a great way to train endurance indoors in preparation for a trip like this. But it’s clear that lapping 12m 7a’s on plastic isn’t cutting it. For the next trip I’m thinking to try long boulder circuits on steep terrain with a bit of weight added. Any tips gratefully received!

After I parted ways with Chris and Rachel I had another little adventure before returning home. I took a train to Madrid where I met up with Iago and Juan who I know from The Castle, and Iago’s friend Dani who lives in Madrid. The next morning we all set out at ridiculous o’clock to do an ice climbing course in Sierra de Gredos. I was pleased to have this opportunity as I spent last winter gaining winter mountaineering skills with the objective of then progressing on to winter/ice climbing.

Gredos

Circo de Gredos

Iago had promised me crisp neve and Spanish sun, but we were actually greeted by rather more Scottish conditions at first! Our trek up to the hut at around 2000m featured very poor visibility and gale force winds. Nonetheless it was character-building!

Our guide Fernando putting up some top ropes for us to practice ice climbing on

Our guide Fernando putting up some top ropes for us to practice ice climbing on

Fortunately the conditions improved once we reached the hut, which sits in the “Circo de Gredos”, a circle of peaks which provide some shelter. So over the following days we learned about how to move on ice, place screws, make anchors from ice axes and more.

Iago and Dani on the sunny walk out

Iago and Dani on the sunny walk out

Winter mountain activity for me is something completely different to rock climbing. Maybe my attitude will change in the future, but at the moment I’m not aiming to climb hard stuff or difficult mountains. I just really like being in the mountains and snow. It’s a unique and refreshing environment to experience from time to time. I look forward to honing these skills in winters to come!

Venga bicho! Adventures in Barcelona, Mallorca and Rodellar

Beware that this post contains some beta about routes in Rodellar.

Towards the end of August I embarked upon my biggest climbing trip yet. Actually, that’s not technically correct: I embarked on what was initially supposed to be a “normal” holiday with my girlfriend Emily and some other friends. We planned to stay a week or so in Castelldefels, a beach town near Barcelona.

Some time after booking the holiday, I found out that some friends were going deep water soloing in Mallorca, just a couple of days after I was due to leave Spain. Mallorca is pretty close to Barcelona, isn’t it? It would be rude not to, I thought.

But the Mallorca excursion would only be four days, and if I was going to lose money re-arranging my return travel, I figured I ought to make it count. So I decided that after Mallorca I would head to the sport climbing mecca of Rodellar for 3 weeks.

I use low-carbon forms of transport as much as possible, and so our route to Barcelona involved a late-afternoon Eurostar to Paris, where we had a bite to eat and then boarded the Elipsos “Train Hotel” sleeper train at around 11 PM. The Elipsos is probably the nicest sleeper train I’ve been on, the couchettes have 4 rather than 6 berths, making them comparatively roomy, and the on-board bar-buffet is well stocked and pleasant. They have a proper selection of French and Spanish wines, and the drinks are pretty reasonably priced compared to a lot of trains I’ve been on.

The “holiday” portion of my trip was annoyingly stormy for most of the week. This caused problems when Emily and I decided to do a day trip to Montserrat, with the intention of getting ourselves up an easy multi-pitch route. In fairness the plan was a disaster in a multitude of ways – we left a bit late, got completely lost and nearly ran out of petrol (due to the hire company’s ridiculous “return with an empty tank” policy) all before we even started our approach. After we finally parked up and started walking to the climb, a storm came over and made us very wet.

But we were by this point pretty psyched and hopelessly optimistic, so we carried on. The approach took much longer and was far more adventurous than expected, so when we finally arrived at the base of the climb it was about 6 PM. I looked up at the sopping rock and came to the conclusion that I already knew was inevitable: yes, it really would be a bad idea to start a 3 pitch, soaking wet route with just 2 hours to go before dark. We turned around and walked back, less disappointed than you might think as we had both enjoyed the scramble through the woods together as much as we might have enjoyed actually doing a climb.

When our holiday came to an end, I parted ways with Emily and stayed for a night with a friend who lives in Barcelona. I caught up on some work from his house and boarded a ferry to Palma de Mallorca the following evening.

It’s more expensive to book a cabin on the ferry, and even if I had wanted to, they were all booked up. So my sleep was supposed to be facilitated by the “comfort” of a reclining seat. However after I boarded, I bumped into a couple of other lone travellers on the deck and after sharing some beers we rolled out our mats and sleeping bags on the sun loungers on the deck. The sea air was warm and this was a much more comfortable bed than any reclining seat, except than at around 6 AM it suddenly got very windy which forced a retreat below deck. But the ferry docked at 7 so this didn’t matter much.

I spent the following day working in a cafe, before meeting my climbing buddies at the airport for the drive to Porto Cristo on the other side of the island.

Cova del Diablo is the biggest and best DWS crag in Mallorca, located just outside Porto Cristo. This is where we headed for our first day. I wasn’t very happy with my climbing here, which I put down to a variety of factors. For a start I hadn’t done any climbing during my holiday, and before that I’d had an injured arm which had impeded training. Secondly I’d neglected to cut my toe nails, which made my climbing shoes really painful. But finally I’ll be honest and say that I was scared. Diablo is a pretty big and intimidating crag at 22m high, and I just wasn’t feeling too comfortable with falling off from high up.

The following day was much better. We headed to a different crag called Cala Barques, which is very picturesque. From the parking you walk through some countryside for about 20 minutes and arrive at a beautiful beach. Just along from the beach is an impressive cave with lots of stalactites and other cool features. Further along there are more climbs around some archways in the cliff.

Cala Barques!

Cala Barques!

I decided to tackle my fear of falling head on, so spent the first hour or two just repeatedly jumping into the water from gradually higher heights. This worked well and meant that I could climb much more comfortably, fully committing to the moves and taking a number of reasonably big falls. I didn’t really get up anything that day, but I tried quite a few routes and felt good about it. The following day I returned and ticked a few things: Big XXL 7a, Tranversal 7a and Bisexual 7a. On the latter I ended up desperately campusing the final moves and pulling through by the skin of my teeth – not the best technique but a crowd pleaser!

Horizontal moves on Transversal 7a - I met this guy on the ferry!

Horizontal moves on Transversal 7a – I met this guy on the ferry

Richard topping out on Metrosexual 7a+

Richard topping out on Metrosexual 7a+

Me on Bisexual 7a

Me on Bisexual 7a

On the fourth and final day it was unfortunately very wet. Undeterred the team decided to head to Cala Barques once more, but really it was very hard to do any useful climbing as the rock was incredibly greasy. I fell off The Might of the Stalactite 7a twice and gave up.

That evening we returned to Palma de Mallorca. My friends got their flights back to the UK and I got back on a ferry to Barcelona. It was a great opportunity to experience the Mallorca DWS that I’d heard so much about, and I would certainly like to return for a longer trip at some point. There are a huge number of brilliant looking lines at Cova del Diablo, so I certainly have more to try there.

Next morning I arrived in Barcelona. I took a high-speed Alvia train to Zaragoza, where I got on a local train to Huesca, which is the nearest train station to Rodellar. The high-speed trains in Spain are some of the best in Europe – roomy and comfortable even in standard (“Turista”) class, and there was even a movie being played (which I couldn’t watch because it was dubbed and subtitled into Spanish).

From Huesca I had decided to try to hitch to Rodellar as a taxi costs about €70. This involved walking through the town, full of regret that I had put so many unnecessary things in my heavy bag. Eventually I got onto the right road exiting the town, and set about trying to thumb a ride.

It wasn’t easy, but I managed eventually. I was almost ready to give up and call a taxi when I managed to get a lift to the village at the start of the long windy road up to Rodellar. From there I figured I’d be waiting some time as there was very little traffic, but not 10 minutes later I was picked up by Doke, a Spanish climber who worked in the kitchen at the climber’s refuge, Kalandraka. I finally arrived in Rodellar around 7 PM, feeling excited and quite relieved that I would be staying in one place for a few weeks!

Rodellar!

Rodellar!

Initially I stayed at the Mascun campsite, however it quickly became clear to me that the social hub for climbers is Kalandraka. On the first few nights I had the dilemma of whether to stay around Kalandraka to socialise, or go back to the campsite to cook. So after my 3rd night I just moved to Kalandraka, where you can stay in a dormitory for €8.50 per night (which is actually €2 cheaper than the camping).

Kalandraka is a fantastic place. It’s clean, modern and totally geared towards climbers. All the staff are climbers and it just feels like living in a community of like-minded individuals. There’s free internet and electricity, which enabled me to do work on my rest days. For entertainment you have a slackline, pool table and ping-pong. If you want to chill out, there are bean bags on the decking which overlooks the valley. On Wednesdays they serve huge, delicious burgers with bacon, onion, gherkins and a side of salad and roast potatoes, all for €8.50. If you’re still hungry you could try a “slice” of cake, literally the biggest slices I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to buy meals of course – there’s a communal kitchen for guests to cook in too (but note that you need to bring your own stove).

Kalandraka!

Kalandraka!

The deck at Kalandraka, a lovely place to chill out

The deck at Kalandraka, a lovely place to chill out

The climbing area is also very pleasant. It sometimes seems like a giant edible garden – there’s rosemary, thyme and blackberries everywhere. If you keep your eyes open you can also find figs, grapes, mint, oregano, lemon-grass and lavender.

The weather was extremely good right until the end of my stay, with basically every day being clear and sunny. In September it’s too hot to climb in direct sunlight, but there are crags on both sides of the valley so it’s typical to start on the east side and then cross the river later in the day. In the evening it does get cold, which made a welcome change from the perpetual heat of Barcelona and Mallorca.

Groceries can be purchased from the shop at the Mascun campsite, but it’s quite expensive so if you get to Barbastro or Huesca it’s worth stocking up. The shop is perfectly adequate though (if a little lacking in fresh produce), so you certainly won’t go hungry if you can’t or don’t want to leave Rodellar.

At the start I was shown around by Jerome Mowat, who I knew from London and who happened to be in Rodellar at the same time as me. This was a great way to quickly get an understanding of the place, and my initial goal was to try to climb lots of routes and get fitter.

On my first day I did my first 7a onsight, the 38 metre long epic Fanthkes o panthere. This felt like an achievement at the time, but by the end of the trip I had done so many 7a and 7a+ onsights that I came to take them for granted. I think onsighting this grade in Rodellar is definitely easier for me than in the UK as everything is chalked up and there is often no real crux on a route. So if you have enough stamina and can keep it together you’re set.

After the first two days warm-up and a rest day I started on my first project. I was climbing with a guy from Dorset called Trev, and he was trying a 7b+ called Aquest any sí (Catalan for “this year yes”) at the crag with the same name. (A very nice place right next to the river, which gets shade from about 11 AM.) So I had a go and I’m glad I did because it’s a sustained 25m of brilliant climbing with the crux right at the top (powerful moves while pumped – yay!) It took me 3 sessions to tick the route but it was so good that I almost didn’t mind that I kept falling.

Aquest any sí 7b+

Aquest any sí 7b+

However the real goal I had in mind for my trip was to get my first 7c, so I turned my attention to this next. I’d heard that Nanuk in the Gran Boveda (“Great Vault”) was a worthwhile line so set about working on it.

The first attempt came at the end of two days of climbing and didn’t go well. I was shattered and didn’t even make it to the chain. I sacked it in and decided to come back on a different day for a better attempt.

Nanuk has everything: you start off with some slab climbing and come to a ledge where you can rest (but if you’re pumped here then you’re doing it wrong). You then chimney up between some massive tufas, get set and blast through some pumpy moves up an overhanging section to a small cave where you can get a good knee-bar rest. Try to recover as much as possible because the next few moves are difficult and bouldery, involving a reachy pop to a sloper over the lip of the roof, followed by some powerful moves to pull up and over to reach a tufa jug where you finally clip the chain – epic!

Nanuk 7c

Nanuk 7c

Trev on the steep part of Nanuk

Trev on the steep part of Nanuk

On my first proper day working it I managed to get to the finishing moves, but I was absolutely spent and had no chance of succeeding on the boulder problem. I knew I needed to get the climbing up to there as efficient as possible, so on my next day I went bolt to bolt really trying to work out as much beta as possible.

It paid off. On the following attempt I reached the cave knee bar and felt relatively fresh. As I hung around shaking out I knew I could get it on this attempt if I just kept myself together and stayed in control. The first couple of moves after the rest felt like a struggle but I managed to regain composure and stick the sloper. I battled over the lip and finally clipped the chain with relief and elation – I’d got what I came for! Beers were drunk that night.

Happy faces

Happy faces

So, what next? Well I was chatting to Doke (the guy who picked me up when hitching) one day and he pointed out a new route at El Vaso, called Tope Gama. As we talked a bit more he told me that he’d bolted it himself. It was 7c he said, but a hard one. Some say 7c+. I really liked the personal connection with this route, so was keen to have a go, but after several attempts I gave up. I could do all the moves but I found myself a long way from being able to actually climb it – the route takes a very overhanging line up the roof, featuring big moves between decent holds. I found myself getting completely pumped after just a few moves, and while I could envisage doing it with enough training, it didn’t feel like a realistic prospect for this trip. It definitely felt a lot harder than Nanuk.

The next day I found myself trying something a bit easier, Pince sans rire 7b+ (French for “pinch without laughter”, meaning a dry humour) at the crag with the same name. This is an absolutely inspiring line – after some easy climbing through the first few clips you get sustained, slightly overhanging tufa climbing for the rest of its 30m length, with one good rest about two thirds of the way up.

On my first try it felt hard but doable, and I was keen to redpoint it for two reasons: one was that it was just such a good, long line, and the other was that it required efficient tufa climbing, something that I don’t have a lot of experience of from climbing in the UK. I do like to work on my weaknesses so this was an attraction for me.

After a rest day I came back to the crag with American climber Chris Jorde who had recently arrived in Rodellar. We found the line quite busy and despite my British qualities I didn’t fancy queueing, so I did some other climbs meanwhile. Which is actually a good thing because I decided to try the climb to the left, María Ponte el Arnés 7b+, and was super happy when I managed to get the onsight! The general opinion seems to be that it’s on the easy end of 7b+, but even so it’s a great achievement for me. The route has better rests and is less sustained than Pince sans rire, but with some harder moves, and I definitely think it’s equally good.

Later that day I tried the very long and enjoyable Far Faders West 7a+, but fell off at the top. Finally Pince sans rire became free, so I hopped on and managed to tick it. A great day all round.

Having put Pince sans rire to rest, I was keen to try another 7c. There were two at Gran Boveda which looked interesting. The first was Maroskum, which started off nicely enough, but was incredibly thin, crimpy and hard at the top, featuring what appeared to be a decidedly manufactured two finger pocket. I nearly failed to even reach the top and was ready to leave a “bail biner” on the bolt, but some encouragement from my belayer Nico finally got me to the chain. I stripped it.

The second route I tried went much better. In fading light I hauled myself up L’any que ve tambe (Catalan for “next year also”, the companion to Aquest any sí) with many rests on the rope. I felt tired and drained, but it was evident to me that this was a fantastic route, featuring mainly tufa climbing but with a more vertical bouldery section at the top.

Unknown climber on L'any que ve tambe 7c

Unknown climber on L’any que ve tambe 7c

After my rest day I returned with Chris, but in the morning we warmed up at La Palomera which is worth a brief digression…

I planned to get on a 7a called O3. When we arrived some French guys were climbing it so we did another route first. We then got ready for O3 and asked the French guys which line it was, from which we understood that it was the right hand line of bolts. I’d looked at the guidebook and seen that there were 7 bolts, so I put 8 draws on my harness and off I went. After I clipped the first Chris looked up at the soaring line and expressed doubt that 8 draws would be enough. He had a point: we could count 6 bolts from the ground and that got us halfway up the wall, which would be an odd place to put the lower-off.

So Chris got me some more draws and I carried on. After some fantastic technical face climbing I reached a jug beneath a small roof. I peeked up and could see 2 bolts. I couldn’t see the lower-off. I looked at my harness and could see 1 remaining draw, despite the extras that Chris persuaded me to take. Oops.

I wasn’t sure if the lower-off had an in-situ clip, and not wanting to compromise my onsight attempt I decided I had no choice but to run it out. After some hesitation I committed to the move, pulling over the lip of the roof, and very gingerly climbing past one bolt, then another and finally arriving at the chain feeling relieved – I would have been in for at least a 10 metre whipper! Fortunately the climbing after the roof was not too difficult, so it was mainly a head game.

Back on the ground, we realised that the climb was in fact Cárcel racional, the route just right on O3. The guidebook grade is an absurd 7b/+, but both Chris and I agreed that we wouldn’t give it more than 7a. So despite the drama this was a happy accident – we wouldn’t have picked a 7b/+ as a warm-up, but we both found it to be a superb route and were glad to have accidentally climbed it. For what it’s worth, it does seem like a lot of the lines at La Palomera are over-graded.

So after this adventure we headed to the Gran Boveda, and I was pleased to get L’any que ve tambe on my 2nd attempt of the day (3rd total). Chris did a fast redpoint of Les Cadres Regenerent 8a, and then flashed L’any que ve tambe.

As we pondered what to do the following day, Chris suggested that we could head to a crag called La Piscineta. La Piscineta is not a popular crag for two reasons: the climbs are quite hard, and compared to most of the crags in Rodellar it’s a long way from the town, involving an hour’s hike up out of the Mascun valley and down into the Alcanadre valley (so you have a hill to climb in both directions).

But if you can climb hard enough and are willing to endure the walk in, you will be rewarded. I felt like I’d done everything I wanted to do for the trip, so I was up for the adventure even though there was only one route that I’d realistically be able to try there. I was curious to see the crag I’d heard people say was so amazing, and keen to just get out to somewhere a bit new and different after becoming quite familiar with the Mascun valley in the preceding 3 weeks.

Dropping down into the Alcanadre valley

Dropping down into the Alcanadre valley

La Piscineta did not disappoint. We waded across the river and probably the best looking crag I’ve ever seen came into view. At its base was an immaculate turquoise pool with fish lazily swimming around, occasionally nibbling at the surface or chasing each other. Out of the river rose a gigantic 45 metre roof of tufas and jugs. Across the valley there must have been at least 20 huge eagles gliding in circles around the rocky peak. We both got extremely psyched.

Chris crossing the river towards the steepness of La Piscineta!

Chris crossing the river towards the steepness of La Piscineta!

Climbing wise the day was not a great success, but neither of us minded. We hadn’t come here just to collect yet another tick. Chris tried Pieds nus dans la terre sacrée 8a (“Barefoot in the holy land”) and I tried Pim pam plouf 7b+. On my second attempt I got through the crux into a knee-bar, but when I came to re-adjust my foothold broke and ejected me. On the next attempt I came within two clips from the chain but completely ran out of juice. Chris made 4 attempts on his route but was similarly burned out by the last. We packed up our gear and had an invigoratingly icy dip in the pool before starting the hike back.

Eagles circling in the distance

Eagles circling in the distance

The inviting water beneath the crag

Inviting water beneath the crag

La Piscineta is definitely somewhere I would like to return – the day really motivated me to get stronger and come back at some future point when I can try more of the routes there!

And so after a few more days my trip drew to a close. It was the first time I had been on a climbing trip on my own which I was somewhat apprehensive about beforehand. But it definitely worked out thanks to the social scene at Kalandraka and the fact that most of the climbing in Rodellar is contained within a relatively small area. I met and climbed with lots of amazing people from all over the world. I did have to be a bit more self-sufficient and proactive than I might have been if I hadn’t come alone, but all in all it worked out for me.

My plan for the return journey was a bit different to the outbound journey. On reflection I didn’t think the train was the best way to get to Rodellar from Barcelona. It turns out there is a coach service which runs from Barcelona Sants station to Barbastro, which is a bit closer than Huesca and doesn’t involve the change at Zaragoza. (It can also be a bit cheaper.)

So I intended to get the bus back from Barbastro to Barcelona. When I was booking my travel the Elipsos night train from Barcelona to Paris was unfortunately not yet on sale, and I wanted to get my travel sorted so I opted to book a night train from the French border town of  Cerbère. This meant that I’d need to take a regional train from Barcelona to meet the night train.

However, as luck would have it, a Polish couple I’d made friends with, Agnies and Wojciech, were driving to Girona Airport that day, and my regional train stopped at a station very close by. So I was fortunately able to skip out the faff of going to Barbastro and Barcelona.

When I got to Cerbère I had a couple of hours to wait, so I sat reading a book. At some point I noticed a man nonchalantly wander over and sit beside me, but didn’t take any notice as I was engrossed. Then he made an offhand comment which I don’t remember, so I turned to look at him and realised it was my friend Danny from back in the UK! I nearly jumped out of my skin! Danny was returning with his partner Jess from their holiday in Sitges, so it was great to have some unexpected company that night and the following morning. These sorts of experiences (with strangers or otherwise) are one of the reasons that I love train travel.

So that’s it. I’m now back in London wondering where the next trip will take me and who I will meet. Certainly I will return to Rodellar at some point, perhaps the same time next year!

Going solo

In case you hadn’t noticed, in these past few weeks we’ve been getting an unusual amount of sunshine here in the UK. So when Glyn invited me to join him down in Dorset for some Deep Water Soloing at the start of July I was pretty psyched.

Before this I’d been on two DWS excursions, the most recent of which was nearly 2 years ago. The first consisted of me flashing the classic Freeborn Man, and the second consisted of me falling off it repeatedly. Doh.

So I definitely felt like I had unfinished business to be seen to, and honestly I felt a little apprehensive despite the 6c grade being well within my ability.

I took the Friday off work and we started with Lulworth. I also had unfinished business here, having previously struggled on Horny Lil’ Devil. I tried it again and fell off, then nearly got very hurt when a loose block came off in my hand while traversing above the crag with a backpack on. Not a great start, but I did somehow produce a flash of Animal Magnetism which was pretty satisfying.

Glyn Hudson flashing Horny Lil' Devil

Glyn Hudson flashing Horny Lil’ Devil

Me on Horny Lil' Devil

Me on Horny Lil’ Devil

Me off Horny Lil' Devil!

Me off Horny Lil’ Devil!

The next day we headed to Connor Cove and I successfully got up Freeborn Man on the first attempt. Phew! I didn’t realise it at the time, but Glyn was videoing me. I don’t look as smooth as I’d like!

Glyn Hudson on Freeborn Man

Glyn Hudson on Freeborn Man

Me on Freeborn Man - right foot way too wide!

Me on Freeborn Man – right foot way too wide!

After this Glyn had to take off, but I’d arranged to link up with Adam Brown & co, who Ross McKerchar put me in touch with. I had fun onsighting a few easier lines, and we finished the day with a lovely BBQ on the cliff top.

Not a bad place for a BBQ

Not a bad place for a BBQ

The following day it was back to Lulworth. I finally made some progress on Horny Lil’ Devil and eventually did it on my 4th attempt that day – hooray!

This last weekend I once again returned, with Adam Brown, Rachel Keys and James O’Neil. James is a strong boulderer but rarely sport climbs and had never done DWS. However he totally pulled it out the bag with an assortment of impressive flashes over the course of the weekend.

Jen Killeen cranking on Freeborn Man

Jen Killeen cranking on Freeborn Man

James O'Neil starting The Conger

James O’Neil starting The Conger

Rachel Keys and James O'Neil getting involved with The Conger

Rachel Keys and James O’Neil getting involved with The Conger

Rachel Keys on the crux of The Conger

Rachel Keys on the crux of The Conger

For my part, I managed a flash of Crazy Notion and an onsight of Davey Jones’ Lock-off. The latter was utterly incredible, probably the best DWS I’ve done. It took me at least 20 minutes to complete, with plenty of shaking out and great moves.

Another highlight was The Laws Traverse, which is not too hard (though not too easy either!) but I found it super fun, especially as there was a group of about 8 of us on the send-train!

Finally, here’s an action sequence captured by James, of Adam Brown coming off Herman Borg’s Basic Pulley Slippage – entertaining!

This September I have plans to be in Mallorca for 4 days, where I will surely return to the joys of Deep Water Soloing!

South France Sport Climbing

On Sunday I returned from a two week trip to South France with Vivien, Glyn and Luke. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for most of the year. Living in London and working full time I don’t get out to crags as much as I’d like, and it’s not easy to work on hard projects during a weekend trip with no idea when I might be able to return.

So I was excited to be somewhere for a decent chunk of time and to have the opportunity to really try to push my grade. Before this trip my best redpoint was 7a. Towards the end of last year I came close to ticking both a 7a+ and a 7b, but didn’t quite manage it. Since the new year I’ve tried to step up my training, and I’ve been regularly climbing 7b’s indoors. So my objective was to do one or more 7b routes, and also to try something harder to see how it felt.

We headed to Avignon on the seasonal direct Eurostar service, which was pretty much the most relaxed, easy way you could get to south France. Step aboard in central London and emerge just under 6 hours later at your destination, having spewed significantly less CO2 into the atmosphere then you would have done on a plane. I do hope they expand this service beyond the current Saturday-only offering.

Vivien’s parents live near Avignon so we headed there initially. Worryingly it was bucketing down with rain but we consoled ourselves with some tasty food and wine!

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The trip was initially conceived as a 2 week stay at the infamous Céüse. I was excited to visit this legendary crag for my first (but surely not last!) time, but unfortunately the weather when we arrived was a lot colder than it usually is for the time of year. Céüse sits at about 1800m, and there was actually fresh snow up there. A different plan was called for, and I’ll have to go back for Céüse in the future!

We cracked open the Languedoc-Roussillon guidebook in search of something a bit lower down, and liked the look of Seynes. The next day the rain had stopped so off we went…

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Seynes has a lot of tufas!

I spent the first day getting into the swing of things. It was actually my first time on real rock for the year, so I wanted to remind myself how to do footwork!

On the second day, I got my first decent tick. Si! J’y étais gets 7b in the guidebook, but Glyn and Luke both thought it was soft, and UKC gives it 7a+. It was a great route and the grade doesn’t really matter, however it left ambiguity about whether I’d achieved my 7b goal yet!

Trying to fit in with the locals by wearing a stripy t shirt!

On Si! J’y étais. Trying to fit in with the locals by wearing a stripy t shirt!

The following day I wanted to try something harder, so decided to get on Le chute du rastaquouère 7b+. This ended up being the best route of the trip for me, but things didn’t start well. I began getting the clips in and working the moves. Initially the moves were hard but also very enjoyable. I got a fair way through the route but started to get completely shut down. I felt utterly drained and eventually resorted to clip-sticking through several bolts before lowering off before the end. I had kind of given up. I couldn’t climb 7b+.

Then Luke actually looked in the guidebook and pointed out that I had taken the wrong line. It turns out there’s a bolt line which branches off from Le chute du rastaquouère, unmarked in our guidebook, which I had mistakenly followed. I later found out that this line gets 8a. No wonder I couldn’t climb it!

Luckily I’d left my rope hanging. I jugged back up with lots of huffing and puffing, managed to clip-stick to the lower off of the 8a, and then get the clips out of that section. Some time and loads of rope work later, I set off on the remainder of the correct line and finished getting my clips in. To be continued…

The next day was a much needed rest day!

Vivien being a very unsophisticated Frenchman, drinking red wine from a nut pot

When in France, drink red wine. Out of a nut pot if necessary! (As expertly demonstrated by Vivien)

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Beneath the “Sunburnt Sector” aka Rouge Gorge. I have no idea how the rock got that colour.

While at Seynes we camped beneath the crag. This was perfect except for two things. One, there is a really annoying noisy road nearby, which kept waking us all up several times a night. Two, towards the end of our stay I learned from a local guy that people camping there was causing access issues which might jeopardise the access for climbers. Not good. So although it’s a great location, except for the road, I think I’d find a campsite next time.

On the rest day I tried slack-lining for the first time! I was terrible at first but was able to make a few steps without falling by the end of the trip. Which was progress, at least.

Luke

Luke looking steady

Glyn

Glyn looking calm

Me

Me looking disastrous!

Next day it was back to the project. My first go didn’t feel great but I spent lots of time really working the top section properly. I then gave Luke and Glyn all the beta and they both flashed it. On my next attempt I ticked it with much yelling and grunting. I tried really hard and was absolutely delighted to get it. And the moves are awesome. At the top I shouted “I don’t care if I don’t tick anything else for the rest of the trip!” – a sentiment that lasted at least until the end of the day! The euphoria of sending is short lived. That day I also did my first 7a flash (Au nom du pere) which got me pretty damn pumped.

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Shaking out at a jug on Le chute du rastaquouère

The following day was our last at Seynes. I was still really mentally psyched to climb stuff, but physically I was exhausted. This resulted in me eagerly trying several things only to lower off the second bolt pumped out of my skull! Oh well.

We headed back to Vivien’s house for another rest day.

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Vivien needed to head back home at this point so we said goodbye to him and headed for the next crag: Buoux!

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According to the guidebook, “in Buoux even the pockets have pockets in them!” That’s certainly true, and not a tufa in sight! It was good to change things up a bit.

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Luke warming up on Récréativité 6b

Rose des Sables 7a, a fantastic line, and thanks Luke for the flash beta!

Luke on Rose des Sables 7a, a fantastic route which I was pleased to flash

I set about trying to climb the classic route of the crag: No Man’s Land 7b.

Getting the clips in No Man's Land

Getting the clips in No Man’s Land

Unusually for a sport route it starts with a traverse along a line of pockets. The climbing on the traverse is not difficult, but the feet are pretty poor and you end up quite pumped by the time you arrive at the more difficult crimpy climbing on the vertical section.

I had several goes on the first day, but didn’t manage to get it. The following day I felt pretty worn down in general, and fell off the 6c we were warming up on. So I was quite doubtful that I’d be able to climb No Man’s Land. After taking a long rest I got on it and really just thought I’d be going up to take out the quickdraws. But I surprised myself and somehow managed to pull through and make the ascent!

I was quite relieved. The traverse somehow made the route really mentally draining to redpoint – each time I fell I knew I’d have to do the pumpy traverse all over again which stopped being fun after a while.

After another rest day we decided we’d had our fill of pockets, so struck out for our third crag: Venasque.

Venasque was great fun. The main wall of the crag is ridiculously overhanging and full of jugs and flatties of varying degrees of positivity! It’s quite hard to capture the steepness in photos but at points on it you are almost traversing a horizontal roof.

Lowering off Petite Marie 6c+, into the tree!

Lowering off Petite Marie 6c+, into the tree!

Glyn on Les Petits Qui Frétillent 7b

Glyn onsighting Les Petits Qui Frétillent 7b, avoiding a bees nest!

I got stuck in and ticked Misanthropies thérapeutiques 7b on my first redpoint attempt. I then moved left to Aller Plus Haut 7b+, which took much longer, but I eventually got it after another rest day. No single move was particularly difficult, but it took a lot of determination to consistently not mess up whilst fighting through the pump. I could have used some more stamina! Finally, I also did L’Intégrale de Peuterey 7b on my first redpoint attempt.

As the trip came to an end, I was very satisfied with my progress and felt ready to return home. My body was quite exhausted and I’ve been resting up in the week since I got back. It was great to have the opportunity to tick off quite a few routes in a short space of time, and Vivien, Glyn and Luke were great company. I hope to do some more 7b’s and 7b+’s over the summer, and who knows, maybe even a 7c…

Glyn also wrote his own trip report