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: https://www.facebook.com/CrimpingtonBear

All photo credits: Peter Kneen / CrimpingtonBear Photography