Summer Endurance Challenges

The Staffordshire Nose – An Entirely British Day Out

I first came across the Staffordshire Nose Challenge in my early years of climbing together with Pete Whittaker. We’d recently broken the record for the most number of routes climbed in a day (550 soloed) and for some reason we wanted more ways in which to destroy ourselves on a day out. I think it was the experience of climbing with someone and jointly going through the same pains and exhaustion that was somehow bonding. You knew you were suffering, but there was also someone else who you depended on, just a few feet away, feeling exactly the same. After that day out, we spent some time researching other possible challenges and came across the – as yet uncompleted – Staffordshire Nose Challenge.


The rules of this day out were easily defined. You must climb all of the Brown and Whillans Routes on the Roaches, Hencloud and Ramshaw in a day. Thirty two routes in all and most of them graded HVS. It sounded so simple, that we could hardly believe that a number of strong parties had already failed to complete this in a 24hr period. There were tales of partners being carried back down from the crag, E6 leaders flailing on routes many grades below their limit and of course, plenty of blood, sweat and tears. On the face of it, mine and Pete’s first attempt at the challenge in 2009 was surprisingly successful despite the conditions and our usual “disaster-style” professionalism. We’d started the challenge in pouring rain and finished it 9hrs and 56mins later surrounded by clouds of midges. I’m not sure if we lost more blood to the wildlife or to the cracks.

Over the following years there was one individual who continually expressed interest in trying to match (if not beat) mine and Pete’s day out. Andi Turner, the keeper of Western Grit, had enrolled various partners over the years to complete the big day out. Until last year he’d been very close to completion, but with the magic combination of Pete “The Dark Horse” Bridgewood, he convincingly beat our time in July 2012 to bring the time down to 8hrs 41mins. They had chosen to use a combination of solo and roped climbing and certainly upped the ante a little by combining risky strategy with speed. The moment Pete and I saw the news of our time being bettered, we were instantly motivated. This challenge was getting competitive!


The arch rivals!

Over the past few months, we started to plan a come back. As Eastern Grit boys, we knew our regional pride was at stake and sacrifices would have to be made in order to rise to the challenge. I started doing regular runs in the park each evening and Pete cut down on his cake consumption in preparation for peak performance. We carefully analysed Andi T and Pete B’s speed strategy and realised a day of our own preparation was necessary. We learnt the approaches to the routes, the down climbs and what was the lightest rack that we could risk. Lunch was abandoned in favour of “breakfast bulking”, we wouldn’t build a single belay (just sitting braced behind a boulder was opted for) and we would also choose to solo a number of routes.


Team Plonker

Arriving at the Roaches on the day of our big attempt we were already under pressure from outside factors. The forecast for the day was rather poor and we noticed that all of our routes were under “winter conditions” which I classify as grassy, damp or wet. To further complicate factors, my carbo-loading strategy had been a little excessive and I was dashing to the toilet rather frequently. Only Pete’s in depth knowledge and understanding of the rock conditions gave me hope that morning. He put my mind at ease quickly:

“It looks bloody damp, but it’ll be alright. We can put a rope on if it gets too serious.”

The first hour actually went pretty well, with routes like Rhoden, The Mincer, Matinee and The Bulger quickly passing. By Valkyrie Direct though, a weather situation was starting to develop. The crag had become enveloped in a cloud of clag and it started to lightly rain. Just a couple of routes after this Pete had probably one of his boldest leads of his career to consider. Dorothy’s Dilemma, E1 5b sits proudly alongside the other great lines of Brown and Whillans. What it lacks in protection and safety, it makes up for in greenness. As I watched Pete set off in wet shoes and no quickdraws (they were too heavy) I felt apprehensive. He’d climbed bold E9s on grit and flashed multiple E7s, but this looked the real deal. As much as I wanted to laugh that he was going to attempt an E1 at his very limit, I had to be silent as the situation was serious. On topping out with some very sketchy looking climbing he shouted down,

“That was harder and scarier than climbing Meshuga!”

After that experience, we were pleased to be in one piece still and started to realised that we’d really have to knuckle down if we were going to get to the end of the day with a successful result. Fortunately the worsening of conditions was equally matched by an improved resolve. We felt privileged to lead classics like Lightning Crack, Slippery Jim and The Sloth in the soaking wet and each time we topped out it’d had felt like an E5 experience. Each time one of us got to the top a route, the other was congratulating them like they’d onsighted one of their very hardest routes. The game had changed and HVS was very close our limit!


(c) Mike Hutton Images

Hencloud was very similar to the Roaches. Perhaps a little greener, but at least it stopped raining for two of the routes. In the midst of soloing Main Crack I did stop and think about the situation. Here we were soloing on top of each other, with wet trousers, wet shoes, wet cracks and the repercussions of a fall ultra-serious, but we were having so much fun. Each top out brought out feelings of mutual understanding. We knew we were cold, hurting and tired, but to go through that with someone else, who’s outcome is 100% depending on your own fortitude is amazing. It makes you so much more positive and brings out the funniness in the misery.

Along the edges of Ramshaw we neared the end of the challenge and the funny side of the day came through stronger and stronger. We were shouting lines from famous Youtube clips about speed climbing at each other constantly. Becoming parodies of our own heroes, we mimicked their actions.

“Pete…..! I can show you 30 places on Ramshaw that you can die!

“Allez, allez, allez!”

“No gear. Don’t Fall!”

We ran across the final section of crag still roped up – our gear jangling on our harnesses – to face the last labour. The viscous Ramshaw Crack. Our time was just 5hrs 35mins to this point and we knew we had the potential to break the record by a fair margin. As I pulled into the wet void above me I felt cooked. I’d nearly fallen off soloing Great Zawn just 20 minutes beforehand and I knew that this route was probably beyond me. As I floundered my way up, the final insult was for my tape glove to split and fall off exposing open wounds on my hand. Ejected from the route, I lay on the ground at Pete’s feet a broken man. I curled up and whimpered.

“I’m so sorry Pete. I can’t do it. I’ve got nothing left.”

Like every great partner and friend, he dragged me to my feet, handed me a belay device and told me that he’d take care of business. Setting off on the crack above me, he gave it everything and threw the all important chicken wing to cross the threshold of success. I knew that once he’d done that move, all it required was for me to second the pitch under the careful guidance of Pete screaming at me and telling me I couldn’t give up. In one final nauseating effort, I jammed every part of my body (learning a chin-jam in the process) and crawled over the top of Ramshaw. We laughed and high-fived like Americans, but underneath it all, we’d had an entirely British day out at the crag. Our time of 5hrs and 53mins reflected complete and utter stubborness and sheer will to not give up in totally unacceptable conditions. I hope that even as I write this, Andi T and Pete B are already preparing to do battle with the Nose again next year.


Why It Sucks to be a Route Climber

I’ve been a route climber – you know, doing long things on ropes and getting pumped – for almost all my climbing career. That’s about 18yrs to be precise and rather surprisingly, I’ve never tried being a boulderer. I know that probably sounds obvious, but it sums up my experience in climbing as at no time over the years, have I completely sacrificed my fitness in favour of going bouldering.

Last year, I took a step towards the dark side and spent a long time not tying into rope and not getting pumped. As some of you who know me (or read my blog) will know, it was because I started working with Ollie Torr to get a bit stronger. I realised if I was to make a change so significant after 17 years of a very set training pattern I’d probably need to accept the body might find it a shock to the system! Other than the fact that I did get some excellent results out of it, I learnt quite a few new things about what it’s like to live life as a boulderer.

Typical route climber. Weird.

Having spent so much time being a route climber and watching “from the other side” as boulderers went about their every day life I have to confess I was a bit clueless as to how different things would feel. Below I’ve listed a few of my observations from this 6 month transition and whilst some of them are serious (and hopefully useful) observations, some should be taken with a pinch of salt!

1. I stopped getting ill or feeling on the edge of it. For years I’ve had this feeling each morning when waking up that I’m on the verge of being sick, but a couple of hours later I feel fine and I just repeat the process the next day. I’ve always put it down to the heavy volume of training and very late nights trying to fit endurance training in around kids

Message: route climbing hits your immune system hard

2. I’ve got way more energy than I thought I did. When I converted to being a boulderer, I no longer had to go to bed every day totally toasted and most evenings I didn’t even have to fit a last block of training in. It was all easily fitting into each day! As a result I found myself absolutely buzzing. At first it was pretty strange and I had to go out for 2-4 mile quick runs to burn off the excess of jitters but with a bit of time I realised I could just plough that energy into things I’d abandoned previously due to not having enough time. Artwork, cooking and TV became a reality again!

Message: route climbing uses way more energy. This is obvious, but possibly not appreciated by many.


Train hard, eat hard!

3. My house got way tidier. Most days previously would result in me dumping bags of ropes, kit, shoes and racks all over the place, but seeing as a crash pad doesn’t fit in my living space very well, it got neatly put away in the basement.

Message: I’m messy and lazy

4. My internet surfing went sky-high. Because I spent most of my time resting whilst training or resting whilst projecting, Too much resting for my liking. I had this terrible binge of web browsing. I started instagramming, actually following links on Facebook and thinking that articles on Buzzfeed were worth reading. They’re not.

Message: Instagram activity is proportional to number of moves not done.


Garden projects got done

5. The younger cool kids started talking to me. I think they were tricked into thinking I’d abandoned my weird crack and trad fetish, and so started engaging me at the crag. I had to pick up on some of the lingo – send, can you spot me, campus it, hashtag throwback thursday – and soon enough I was wasn’t asked any more about why Pete wasn’t with me.

Message: Routes aren’t cool, trad climbing is seriously uncool and Pete is not cool despite having a sister on the cool list.


Pete still being uncool, even though he’s on the Lattice Board

6. There’s just as many tricks on most boulder problems as the routes out there, but in general I think boulderers are much worse at spending the time to work this out, or persevering with making an alternative work. Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but as a whole, there was more brute force and less finesse. I think this is promising for many of the route climbers out there??!

Message: route climbers are weak and boulderers are strong.


Tricking my way along a Font 7B with 7A cunning.

I’m back “normal” climbing again now. Six months was enough for me to have a little sample into how the other half lives and I’m pleased that I did it. I’m not pleased that I have to go back to feeling like death every morning and working out how to squeeze the adequate training volume into a fairly complicated life, but it feels freaking awesome totally annihilating myself on the lactate rush.  There’s not many things that come close to this for me and I’ll gladly stick with this for a while yet!

Return to the USA Cracks

When Pete and I spent an autumn down at The White Rim in the USA, trying to make the first ascent of Century Crack, we left with the feeling that we were only just scraping the surface. The sandstone faces and roofs of Utah must offer some of the most exciting and daunting crack projects in the world. Century Crack, Mason Earle’s Bartlett Wash Project (now climbed!) and Peewee’s Necronomicon give you an insight into some of the best hard routes in this style. What’s interesting for me, is that they’re still a away off the current sport climbing standards and I personally feel there is little excuse for this. It’s just a matter of motivation!

Century crack

Photo credit: Alex Ekins (c)

Since Pete returned from his epics in Yosemite, enduring the smell of Dan McManus’s socks in 9 day storm epics and Nico Favresse’s sandbag beta, he started to remind me of our plans to get involved with something really meaty again. An all-out unlikely mission where we’re currently way too crap and will involve some serious teamwork, training oblivion and thinking out of box. This led us to the conclusion that we might as well go after something that jointly motivates us. You can probably summarise it in a few words:

Crack. Hard. Long. Meaty.

So what’s the method? How are we going to get from the current standard to somewhat better? Firstly we did what we do for every joint mission – and I recommend that anyone out there that’s taking on a project do something quite similar.

  1. What’s your goal – what specifically does it require?
  2. How good are you now – are any of your performance factors crucial to the goal?
  3. Work like a robot at improving a few key (weak) factors. Don’t get distracted. Focus.
  4. Have process goals for almost all elements.
  5. Establish a base of conditioning with your mind focussed on a block of hard work somewhere 4-8 months in the future.
  6. Don’t make excuses, don’t be soft on yourself. Don’t worry when you feel like crap for days on end.
  7. Agree a plan of action that works for both people.

If you work as a team – you need to think like a team!

For me and Pete, it’s going to be all about steep terrain and upper body conditioning. We’re not that good in wide positions, mega burly big moves and our core is a looooong way off what it was a few years back. Because we ultimately want to perform on quite a specialist terrain, we need our training to be a mixture of generalised and specific (the specific being a crack). With the application of normal training methods, it’s then fairly simple! Once you’ve got out of bed each morning…..


We’ve already built a few new bits and pieces down in the cellar to work some new crack sizes (we’re not great at thin hands) and the Lattice Board is coming in pretty handy for doing a load of strength drills. Really systematic and easy to measure.


We are about 1 month into it now and adaptations are starting to show though. At first I spent almost every day thinking the training was a complete disaster as I could barely get out of bed each morning, I hurt so much. But then just the other day…. yes just one day…. I had a mega day. Sometimes, it’s little rewards of one good day out of 30 bad ones that keep your faith!


Weak for the Grade

So it’s just over 2 months since I made some sort of vague pact to “get strong or die trying” all whilst maintaining the pretence that I can still get up the odd fitness route. Firstly, I’d taken the brave (no, it’s not that easy trusting your training with another person!) step of giving Ollie Torr my forearms to try and finally turn me from being chronically weak for the grade. Secondly, I turned my back on the usual pattern of a massive volume of climbing and went for quality. No more exhaustive days and more of that “stop when you feel strong” attitude.

1V8A5989 - Version 2

Would you trust your forearms with this man? You bet! (c) Pete Kneen

How’s it gone, you’re probably wondering? Have I turned my life around and have I stopped falling off pretty much everything above V8 that’s not a crack? The quick answer is it’s gone great and I’ve ticked more hard boulders than ever before in my life, but the longer answer is slightly more interesting in my opinion…..

  1. Dropping the volume. 

Oh my God. I know this probably sounds obvious to most people out there, but when you’ve lived a life of grinding yourself to a pulp most days of the week then you’re amazed at how much spare energy you have when you’re pulling less than a 1000 moves a day. It felt amazing! Filling the day with just a boulder session, fingerboard, rings and bar work meant I had so much energy. For the first few weeks of following Ollie’s plan, I was getting to 9pm each night and having to go out for long runs and do boring housework to try and burn my hyper-activity off. I was absolutely wired. Even though I was knackered in a specific way from the strength work, the overall body tiredness wasn’t there.


More hangs, fewer moves! (c) Pete Kneen

Lesson: if you want to get some much needed energy back into your life of kids, work, family and climbing then drop the volume.

2. Fingerboarding & Rings

This part was really a revelation to me. I’ve been doing a combination of complimentary rings and fingerboard work that was designed to work on the issues I had in both the shoulders and forearms. I’ve fingerboarded for a number of years now, but never before have I had such quick gains. I very much owe this to the nature of the complimentary work – I think some parts of the chain were so weak that I was held back by them significantly. I further see this now that I can watch Ollie do a session on the rings (he’s a beast – but an ex-gymnast, so I can’t big him up too much) and tie this into his finger strength scores that originally impressed me so much.


Ollie Torr. No messin’ (c) Pete Kneen

Lesson: if you’re very weak in one region, don’t just look for causation at that point.

3. Going to Raven Tor

For years I’ve hated The Tor. It’s exposed every weakness I had and still have. Until last year the hardest problem I’d done there was a V7. I’d tried all of the V8-10s and couldn’t get anywhere near them and in particular Ben’s Roof seemed miles away for me – its basic crimp move midway hit me right where it hurt…. in my spongy fingers. Going to this venue whilst following a new regime of training has been the most beneficial thing I’ve done to my “normal style” climbing (AKA not crack climbing) as I’ve been able to lay the improvements from training straight onto real rock. As I ticked my way through various problems this Autumn I thought it might be worth me going back to the nemesis 15 year project of The Sheep at Burbage, Yup, a lowly V5 that has kicked my ass for over a decade. With a mate Chris in tow (he seems to have been my lucky charm this year) I managed to break the trend and actually did the damn thing. Unbelievable! I’d managed to climb more than one V11 in the previous month but that V5 still felt harder (see video at bottom)


Doing Steve’s V12/8A+ link (c) Chris Fox

Lesson: Go to Raven Tor as it’ll get you up your real projects.

So in summary, it’s gone pretty darn well. For the first year ever, I’ve had people moaning at me that I can’t claim to be weak any more (got to be a good thing?) and a number of route projects I’d written off as being too cruxy are now possible. Working with Ollie has been absolutely brilliant and made me realise that having been a coach for so long I’d forgotten how good it is to have someone who’s watching out for you and who you can moan at when it’s all going wrong. As (mostly) they’ll tell you it’s going to be alright and you will tick The Sheep one day…

Boulders climbed this Autumn below – for those that like to see the numbers. Admittedly I still snuck around doing quite a lot of long problems and link ups, but I couldn’t even do the sections last year as individual V7-9’s. I know it still doesn’t look great, but anyone who know’s me well will tell you it’s very different from the previous year where I did 2 x V8, whatever the length!

1 x V12

4 x V10/11

2 x V9/10

1 x V9

2 x V8

How to Get Strong or Die Trying

Most people who know me really well, are very aware that I’m a climber who likes to “trick” their way up routes and who tries to make up for a total lack of basic power by having oodles of endurance. This becomes a problem eventually, as you come across routes with no “cheater-beta” and moves where the strength level required can’t be beaten into submission with endurance. This is problem that many of us will face over the years and in the end it’s simply a matter of recognising when the balance of endurance vs strength has gotten out of kilter. And boy, has it gotten out of line with me in recent years!

So what do I do when I’m a coach myself? Write a plan to address the basics? Do a self assessment on the functioning of my muscle groups? Nope. I start looking for someone out there that has exactly what I don’t…… Basic finger strength and the knowledge and understanding of how to gain it to absolutely killer levels. And I mean real top end. Proper pulling and hanging power. No techniquing up things, no messing around.

Coach Torr doing his thing

Coach Torr doing his thing. Photo: Pete Kneen

That’s when I met Ollie Torr. Many people will have never heard of him (unless you work at The Climbing Station or are involved in the coaching industry) as he’s very modest, unassuming and not an in-your-face poser. You’d never really know the beast that lay beneath until you happened to ask him to show you his deadhanging. The first time, I asked Ollie was when he was staying in my cellar with some mates and arrived pretty drunk, late in the evening. As I let the guys into the cellar and showed them around, Ollie started casually hanging off my client testing rung single handed – note that to hang this single handed is a score reserved to most 8b+/Font 8A climbers. He looked at me and said,

“Tom, this isn’t that hard. I thought you said this was the testing rung?”

I shook my head in disbelief and offered him a few weights to add to his bodyweight – this would show him who’s boss. Over the next 10 minutes I loaded him up with every weight I had available in the cellar and he was still hanging strong. Unbelievable! He’d just beat the scores of Font 8B boulderers and multiple 8c+ climbers in an inebriated state and having already climbed that day.

More stuff I'm rubbish at!

More stuff I’m rubbish at! Photo: Pete Kneen

I was fascinated that my perceptions of how strong a climber could be had been broken in an instant. Obviously, I invited him to come back for further testing in a slightly better state and needless to say he bettered the scores yet again. I had to do a total mental re-set of what is possible for the forearm to achieve and this really excited me. I’ve been working in coaching a long time and I’ve assessed many of the UK’s best climbers but never seen anything like it.

So, where does this leave me? It deposits me straight into the arms of Ollie Torr. The guy who’s an ex-gymnast, personal trainer, 1st class post-grad sports scientist and V11 boulderer in his spare time. I’m a great believer in coaches who combine experience and knowledge – there’s no faking years of industry experience and also you can’t just buy your way into thousands of hours sat reading scientific papers and text books. I’ve worked with Ollie increasingly over the last year and I’ve been constantly impressed by his drive, enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge.

Ollie crimping it up at Forrest Rock. Photo: Pete Kneen

Ollie crimping it up at Forrest Rock. Photo: Pete Kneen

I’m quite excited to see where all this takes me. I’ve instructed him to leave me with all the “weirdo crack training” and the “endless endurance work” and for him to concentrate on giving me that strength and power that I’ve always lacked. If you see me hanging off a campus board or fingerboard after having had yet another session at Raven Tor bouldering, you’ll now know why! 🙂

Here’s to a bit of risk taking. Bring on the winter training.

The Final Round – Hard Lime

Ever since my first visit to Ilam Rock in Dovedale I’ve been hooked. The first route I tried was a ground-up attempt on Eye of The Tiger which had had all the old wires stripped out of it to make a nice pumpy and pure E7 6c. As I’d launched into the crux at the halfway mark with Andy (A.K.A. Reeve) below me shouting words of encouragement I knew pushing the boat out a bit was acceptable as it’s riddled with RPs and small wires that look amazing.

“Oop… ah not got this Reeve. Ok I’m off!”

As I peeled off the greasy crimp I started my downwards journey. Unfortunately it didn’t quite end in the place that either me or my climbing partner were expecting. I landed solidly on his head and then shoulders, accompanied by the sound of wires and small friends following me down. Luckily for Reeve he’s shorter than his wild hair bouffant makes him look and my last piece crucially held as I started to fully crush him. Needless to say the day didn’t follow on that well and I felt incredibly guilty to leave my mate with a subsequent week of no climbing as I’d injured him. The only thing that made me feel better (probably not Reeve though!) was that over time there’s been a whole host of climbers who’ve decked or near-missed on this route.

On the middle section of the Eye of The Tiger

On the bottom section of the Eye of The Tiger

When I finally went back this year and lead the line without making a cock up, I spotted what could be a route of proper hard trad up the centre of the buttress. I saw that you could approach the 3rd-height niche of EOTT by a bold sequence direct up the face and then climb through the hard crux and finally finish up a new headwall that I’d established this year. Essentially, taking in all of the hardest climbing and going direct on the centre of the face – no deviations off left or right and no easy climbing.

As I worked the route this summer a little bit, I was a bit intimidated by how hard and continuous the climbing was – all whilst trying to place fiddly gear. Normally I’m not into trad lime at all, but it’s unrelenting “sporty” difficulty lured me in. Climbing 8a+/8b on RPs and skyhooks is hardly something to be missed if you’re into that kinda thing! The one thing that held me back was that a pocket on the bottom wall kept crumbling away and it was the sole pausing point to place some ok gear. With master-mixer Gary Gibson’s help, he showed me how to reinforce the hold and make sure that it’d be the same for someone in 1 year’s time and also in 10 year’s time.

Can't beat a good skyhook!

Can’t beat a good skyhook!

After a few sessions of working the route with a visiting Japanese wad and Pete Whittaker I refined the beta and we got the bottom section down to around a very highball Font 7B+ protected by some skyhooks and microwires. I therefore headed out this week, with some slightly cooler weather, also joined by Rich Heap and Pete Kneen holding cameras. As the sequence climbed on monos it sort of seemed predictable so I set off on the route with some confidence that I had a little margin to play with should anything go a awry.

And oh how it did. The bottom boulder problem went ok and I clipped the skyhooks and moved through the “Megos move” to place the next skyhook and RP. My speed was bit below par and quickly I became surprised at how pumped my undercutting (and supporting) arm was. Ignoring the feeling I launched up for the good pocket from which to place the two micro wires for the proper crux  As I slotted the best one in I thanked my luck that at least the last part of the bottom wall I could probably ok to fall off.

Ping….! The placement broke and I was left waving a wire in the air in front of my widening eyes. Concern rising, I improvised with a new position and shook my head in disbelief that this would happen now. My nerve must have been rattled as I then struggled to get the smallest micro-rock in next to it. I just didn’t seem to sit as it normally did. I then looked down to see the skyhook at my waist had rotated out of it’s pocket and looked like it was trying to tell me the time. In annoyance I knocked it out of it’s position and watched it slide down the rope. Who needs that useless piece of junk anyway?

Rich Heap wondering - but is it better for a VCS or a Blanco?!

Rich Heap wondering – but is it better for a VCS or a Blanco?!

On quite a few of my harder and sometimes bolder ascents, I’ve picked up my game from this type of set-back but for some reason this time I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was the fact that on abseil earlier I’d ripped out two other pieces of key gear only by testing them with hand-weight or possibly it was my knowledge that I’d forgotten what gear went at the top of the route and I’d already decided I would fudge it if I got there. Nothing was quite as prepared as usual, if I’m honest about it.

Ignoring my doubts (or maybe naively trusting my ability) I crimped leftwards into the mono.

Aggh… I caught it with the thumb catch before the finger…. why?… doesn’t matter… I’ll adjust and reach left to the two-finger crozzle.

As I squeezed my left hand fingers into the shallow two-finger pocket my right hand unexpectedly started to open out.

What… what’s this? I’m failing. The good hold is letting me down. No I’m letting me down. No, it’s the feet. It’s not. It’s not the feet…. It’s the bloody mono. I’m feeling weak on it. Jesus, why now?

I did what we all do we start climbing and a doubtful move comes up. I started rocking backwards and forwards. I got the death udge and I felt myself settling into the movement pattern where your body udges, udges and udges some more until you flop off the move having never even slapped upwards. One gigantic disappointment of a move.

Just do it. Now. Ignore it….. slap like you’re feeling fresh. 

Rescue mode kicked in before I’d udged more than about three times and I optimistically threw up and leftwards to a good rail and I found myself on terrain leading into the crux of Eye of The Tiger. Normally you’d arrive here fresh, but I was toasted and not feeling that happy or psyched. For the next 30ft of the route I dug into a mental reserve that I normally save for the Crack Cellar under my house where you deal with “the unpleasant” and switch off and do the business. It’s not pretty or enjoyable but you get on with the job – and this particular one deposits you at the final headwall and the last crux.

Feeling waaaay more pumped than I'd like to be

Feeling waaaay more pumped than I’d like to be

By now I’d used up my power juice, endurance reserves and any resemblance of being mentally cool. As I tried to recover on the last shakeout holds, Rich Heap who was above me filming, heard a lot of complaining and my belayer was subjected to me telling him how it was probably game over and I’d never recover. Unfortunately for these guys, they didn’t know my cunning trick. My excessive pessimism would mean that any subsequent move on the headwall that went quite well would surprise me and I’d be buoyed up with immediate optimism for my own ability and I’d climb calmly to the top. Hopefully. Right?!

As I lunged for the mono above and caught it I was surprised by the way in which it bit in reassuringly and quickly moved my feet up. Locking the mono by my waist I screeched as deep a lock as I could to grasp a hidden crimp and rushed into the holds above. Each hold I moved off of, was a little closer to success and in the final burning moments of my forearm’s efforts I still told myself “I’m not going to bloody do that bottom bit again!”

Practicing the deep lock on the top mono

Practicing the deep lock on the top mono

Hitting the top of the route, the sense of relief was high and I was indeed very happy to not have to face the bottom section of risk-play again. Pete Kneen asked me at the base afterwards about what I was going to reward myself for doing the route, which lead me to an interesting self-realisation. These routes aren’t about reward for me – I certainly don’t feel that I deserve one – it’s more about the peculiarities of the experience. Sometimes it’s grade driven, other times it’s about the line and often or not it’s simply a project shared with a friend. I think that’s why lots of “professional” climbers get caught in this trap of stating that one minute it’s about “the experience” and then it’s “whooh…this is my hardest and best ever!” Overall they get something special out of the rock each time, but the impression to those watching (or reading) can be very different.

This route for me has been about finding my limit on a medium that I’m not that great at and exploring the balance between physical difficulty and danger. At times it’s felt hard and dangerous and others it’s been the opposite. To me the name of “The Final Round” and a grade of HXS 8a+/8b expresses everything I understand about this route so far. I’m sure others out there will fill in the blanks if they desperately want to assign an E-grade to it. All I know is that I’m putting my skyhooks away for a couple of weeks…

Filming note: whilst you’ll see there’s a trailer/teaser above, there is also a longer edit coming shortly from Pete Kneen via the Rab website for those who like a bit of hard lime and don’t mind putting up with my weird sense of humour.

See also:

All photo credits: Peter Kneen / CrimpingtonBear Photography

The Hartland Roof Crack Project: The Kraken, V13

Ever since doing the Pura Pura, I’ve been looking out for something that’d take my crack climbing in a slightly new direction. Whilst the Pura Pura was hard, Century Crack was gruelling and Cobra was painful, none have truly powerful, all-out 100% moves. I suppose that’s the nature of power endurance climbing, but it’s a factor that I’ve been very aware of in the recent years. And this is due to one thing: I know routes like Century, Recovery Drink etc are just the start. This game has got a whole lot further to go.

Century Crack 5.14b

Photo: (c) Crusher Bartlett

Where do you go when you’re puffing out of your ass on a V10 though? More stamina? Build another cellar crack? Work on your pinkie jamming? I think the answer for me lay in trying to find or climb a much (much) more powerful crack. No endurance factor, less cheater-beta and with plenty of power needed. Both Pete and I have talked about this being the limiting factor in what we’re doing presently and we know that you’re unlikely to be climbing much above 8c if you’re a stamina weakling.

Quite a few years back we both ended up in Devon on a tip off from Stu Littlefair about a mega roof crack. We got psyched and drove down south to get stuck in. Unfortunately, it rained and rained and rained. That wasn’t the issue though… it basically turned out that it was way too hard! A massive horizontal roof crack at Hartland Quay that featured 20ft of pods and pockets into another 20ft of thin hands and monos with a tricky lip turn at the end. Suffice to say we got shut down and decided that it was easier to go and climb Greenspit and All Elements / One Infinity.


All Elements, V11

Photo: (c) Mike Hutton

As Pete is off training most of this summer for his Yosemite trip, I found myself getting motivated again for some Devon action. I knew in the back of my mind that I should just commit to something that I wasn’t sure was possible as then I’d find out how far I could push my power. Most of the time, I look for the sub-max moves as you know that anything above that and you’ll never hang around for more than about 60 secs. Going back for the first session back on the project this year I was reassured that everything about it was hard. The singular moves came to together ok, but trying to link and maintain core tension whilst spinning around in the roof was desperate. All of this had to be done with little error so that I had a chance on the crux mono move.

First of the tricky moves...

First of the tricky moves…

Photo: (C) Mike Hutton

Compared with the mono on Cobra, you’re in a whole different world. No longer is it a single set up undercut mono on a 35 degree bulge. It’s long horizontal span to a back-hander mono, followed by a 270 degree spin through and hard move to a thin hands jam (which is immediately followed by a really gnarly ring-lock move). When I first tried this move I was convinced that my forearm or finger would explode with a loud “bang” if I even tried to put 75% of my weight on it. Thinking about doing the full spin on a single bad foothold seemed very unlikely! As I’ve always done though, I broke it down, learned how to pull harder on monos and introduced my forearm to the idea that it wanted to stay in one piece. Bit by painful bit, it came together over the summer.

Black & Decker highballer!

Black & Decker highballer!

Last weekend, was around my 10th day on the project and also marks around 10 years of crack obsession. As I warmed up on the roof, I was really aware that the weekend before I’d done the roof in two halves and so the pressure was on. I’d spent of week of obsessing about every possible advantage I could give myself and as I put my best boots on I thoughts of the positives. Just before pulling on though, I caught myself making a rookie error – I was about to gauge how I was feeling for the day with every possible factor in my favour. If I had subsequent doubts, how would I rest my mind?! With that, I took off my favourite shoes and put on my worn out pinkies.

With local man Gavin Atkins occasionally acting as a soundboard, I spent the next hour or so making a bit of a hash of the warm up, the lame excuses and the project as a whole. My sequences suddenly felt a bit off and my feet weren’t sticking on the holds. I knew that I’d started the usual process of getting too attached to the goal and letting expectation bring down my performance. For that I had my little trick! I slipped off my old pinkies (which in reality are perfectly functioning!) and strapped into a perfect pair of velcros. My one last psychological advantage.

The Kraken Tape Job

The Kraken Tape Job

Photo: (c) Chris Prescott / Hotaches Films

Setting off with an unusually low expectation on the outcome, I found myself climbing reasonably well. 20ft in and reaching a long way into the mono I shut out all the thoughts of what could go wrong when I cut loose and grunted my way into a dark place in my mind. As my forearm increasingly screamed at me, I kept the pace and urged my feet forward ahead of me.

Just a couple more seconds on this “f-ing” hold! Cummon… I felt every sinew straining and waited for my inevitable season-destroying injury. It never quite came and I had the thin hands jam placed and ready to release the mono. As I spun through and eye-balled the ring-lock move my body sagged a little and realised I’d blow it. Not enough in the tank. Bollocks! Gav below me shouted and I made a vain lunge at the one-inch slot ahead knowing I was off. As I dropped towards the shingle beach my fingers locked in the position I’ve done a million times before and suddenly it was game on…. on a bloomin’ ring lock!

As with many “at limit performances”, the last bit drifted by in a bit of a daze and I dug deeper than I have in some time. I’m not sure the moves were that hard, but I was drained and my body was complaining. Right at the lip I nearly hashed the whole thing up as I kicked my own hand off a crimp by heel hooking on top of it. A resulted bodge job sequence was cobbled together for a few V5 moves at the end. I’m glad that wasn’t the crux! As I dropped off the finishing jugs and onto a pile of mats, I felt utterly beasted. It seemed appropriate that I named the Hartland Roof as “The Kraken” after a mythical monster of the deep that most of us hope we never have to wrestle with. That’ll be any form of crack climbing for most people then 😉

The Kraken, V13

The Kraken, V13

Photo: (c) Chris Prescott / Hotaches Films

First ascents are always hard to grade and I’ve waited a couple of days to think through my logic. In terms of any crack climbing I’ve done it’s in a very different place on the difficultly scale and even if you take something like All Elements at V11 or Sasquatch at V11 it’s nothing like them. Whilst I’m not the most experienced “regular” boulderer in the world, I think I’ve got reasonable reference points from the strange world of crack climbing. For me V13 seems to fit the bill, but time will tell. Whatever happens, I know this is an important step in the direction of where myself and Pete want to go with our next big trad mission…