A Start to the End of the Gritstone Season?

As many of us are aware it’s been a strange collection of weather conditions over the last couple of months and it’s basically been a choice of venues based on which indoor wall is quietest. Local boy Ethan Walker commented on this recently on his blog and pointed out that whilst we can all moan about the wetness, at least we’re indoors getting a little bit stronger….

Finally last week I felt like things took a turn for the better and I immediately reminded myself of the routes that I’d abandoned 2 months ago due to damp. First was a boulder-route link up at Higgar and the other being Captain Invincible at Burbage. The Higgar Tor line has been in the back of my mind for absolutely ages since I saw a thread on UKB about the direct start being done by Ed Brown (Block and Tackle Direct 7B+) and someone saying in the forum that it’d be good to climb that straight into Block and Tackle E6 6c.

When a windy day arrived in amongst the showers last week I packed everything up and got a belay off a mate. When we arrived at the crag it was blowing an absolute hooley which was good for dry rock but not exactly that easy to warm up. After working out an easier method of doing the direct boulder problem (just jump!) at maybe Font 6C it was promising that it’d all link up. Half an hour later and having flailed around even more on the boulder problem I scraped my way up the whole thing for a really rewarding first proper route of the gritstone season. Guy Van Greuning the Sheffywood Film Magnate has made a short video about the ascent, so I’ll post that up very soon.

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Setting up for crux on Block and Tackle E6 6c (c) Guy Van Greuning

Having got that route under my belt I then got really hopeful that my main winter’s project of Captain Invincible might be possible. I’d got really frustrated since Christmas with the holds always being damp or wet but over 5 days of windy conditions had to be good. Surely, surely?!

This route has been a big motivating factor for me in my climbing this winter mainly because it’s one that I’d always written off as being too hard. It was done by Sean Myles at the peak of his abilities and repeated by another Peak master – Robin “The Pocket” Barker. When I’m climbing harder routes I’ve always tended to match myself up in terms of ability with the ascentionists to know if I’m ready for something and I have to confess that those guys always seemed a bit out of my league. Their ascents of this route on the front face of the Cioch block at Burbage have been shrouded in mystery and confusion, mainly due to a lack of information. Not much in the BMC guidebook, nor in the new Peak Rock book and even a google of it brings up not much more than “8b on dubious pegs.”

When I first started working this route before Christmas, it was a bit of a wake up call. I couldn’t even do some of the moves after a few sessions of working, which is never promising. After a while I also tried going on it with a few people who I’d consider being really strong to see if they could show me the way and that I’d just mis-read it all. Nope. I was just not pulling hard enough! Maybe that was what I needed though, as it meant I put my mind into a new gear and decided to get a bit more gnarly. That means for me, going down The Climbing Works, doing some campussing and back-3 finger boarding. I know that’s probably pretty normal for many of the Sheffield boys, but that’s big changes for me! No more cracks. No more hiding behind endurance.

A Christmas of training, a New Year of training and finally Jan & Feb training, finally got me to the base of Captain Invincible last week ready for a lead attempt. Andy Reeve (more E9 belay ticks than Pete’s mum probably?) had come out for moral support after nailing his heel on another one of his weekly grit forays and seemed psyched that I’d chosen to go for the lead just a few hours before needing to go and catch a plane to Spain. Nothing like a bit of pressure.

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Last break before crux of Offspring E5 6b. Photo (c) Andy Reeve

In the end the lead went brilliant and unusually for me, I felt pretty solid on it. There was a bit of waver in the middle where it gets a little interesting if you were to fall there, but I could hear Reeve’s voice below pushing me on. Once you get to the last break (see photo) then you’re into the crux of Offspring and I made sure I shook out fully knowing at least one of the previous ascentionist had fallen here. What an absolute heartbreaker. I’d already pulled on a “back 3” like it wanted to break my fingers and twisted a pinky mono until I winced, so I had no desire to do that again. I still hurts a bit thinking about it now.

Overall I thought the route was absolutely amazing, mainly because it’s so unlike many of our hardest grit routes in the UK. It’s actually physically hard, you need to be sport fit, there’s toe hooks, heel hooks, mono’s and slopers. Everything you’d want to take to a desert island I suppose. It’d need to be a cold desert island mind….

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Hidden Gritstone Gems

The recent spell on continued cold weather in Sheffield has given me one of the best periods of climbing I could possibly hope for before going away on a trip. Normally as a Brit, you spend the last 4 weeks before leaving to sunnier places cursing the terrible weather and promising that it’s going to be a “one-way-ticket” this time. The whole of March though, has been awesome! Fresh winds, good temps and plenty of time to explore the crags that lie a little off beaten track.

One of those crags that’s a bit out of fashion is Gradoms Edge. It’s often the last to retain the damp and being hidden in the trees, it’s quite hard to get psyched for the lines. They seem so much less impressive when there’s a forest of birch and oak 10m away… Once you get onto the rock though, there are some absolutely cracking lines to do: Moyers Buttress, Spanish Fly, Stormbringer, Eye of Faith. Aside from the old routes, there are also a number of first ascent projects – probably one of the best known being the direct finish to Charlotte Rampling. Having checked this out (yes, I’m too weak) I carried along the edge and thought I’d try the moves on a line I’d heard talked about by a couple of people. The front face of the Crocodile Buttress. Immediately, I realised the climbing was brilliant. Jon Fullwood had already cleaned the holds (thanks!) and so all I had to do was concentrate on learning how to “hug” my way up the leaning prow.

Photo: Tom Randall 1st ascent of his new E8 at Gardoms Edge!! tx as ever Mike Hutton.

Top out section, where you can relax again…

This week I was persuaded by Pete to go out for an early morning session to get the route done, so that we could fit a big crack training session in, in the afternoon. I’d not really worked the route very well, so was falling off the last move on link, but I trusted that Pete would give me such a good belay that I couldn’t possibly fall off. Good logic huh? End the end, we had so much fun at the crag messing around and talking crap that I completely forgot to get nervous and topped the route! Pete made the second ascent the same morning saying it was one of the best routes I’ve put up. Don’t read too much into that comment though……… I’ve established some right choss in the past! Seriously though, I think it’s a nice piece of climbing for those that like gritstone funk.

Going back to what I started saying at the beginning; it’s only 4 days until I head off to Italy with crack climbing legend Peewee Ouellet to go and repeat some trad cracks. I’m so psyched for this trip – I’m partnering up with someone pretty mad and also because of the shear quality of lines in Cadarese and Orco. I’ve been drooling over this video of the incredible looking “The Doors” at Cadarese. We’ll be doing some work out there with Alex Ekins and Hotaches on a couple of projects, so I’m sure their blogs will have some nice pics at some stage…

The Grit List Shakedown

Ok, here goes then. I’m going to break my own rules, and pass judgement on a load of route grades. Having mentioned that I’d do this a week or so ago, I was fairly surprised by the number of opinions expressed on whether I should do this or not! It’s really not the end of the world if an opinion is expressed and likewise it’s not the best thing since sliced bread. I do think it should be done now and again though – and the more people that did this in an open way (rather than anonymous forum posting/voting) the better. Please feel free to comment at the end of this blog on any others you’d like adding to the list.

I dare not comment on the grade on this one...

I dare not comment on the grade on this one…

I’ll apologise in advance to all my friends who read this and see that I’ve moved anything downward in grade – it’s not personal…. honest! And besides, it’s only my opinion. Also as wise man Sam Hamer pointed out to me, it’s only the lines that truly matter, not the grade.

It was a total geek posting, with a ridiculously long list of those that I’d suggest move up and those that move down. However, after a few days thought, I’ve decided to keep it to those I feel most strongly about, rather than the shady areas of “soft” or “sandbag.” I’ve formatted it so that each route is in what I think is the correct grade boundary and will have brackets afterwards to show its previous grade. I’ve only moved a grade if I think it’s a total joke at the grade – I’m quite happy with some routes out there being tough or soft.

All of these routes I have lead (bar Captain Invincible which I’ve top roped a fair bit) so I hope my opinion is as measured as possible. I’ve also kept it mostly Eastern Grit based as it’s Andi T’s duty to expose those from the dark west….

Upgrades

E9: Captain Invincible, Burbage South (E8 – makes most E8s feel like E6)

E6: Shape Shifter, Millstone (E5 – sorry, bad grading. My fault)

E5: Profit of Doom (E4, Too many wads flail on this)

E5: Hurricane, Curbar (E4: proper Gogarth E5)

E5: Nectar groove & roof (E4. P Widdy even flailed on it)

The downgrades

E8: The Zone (E9 – the climbing is too easy)

E7: Power of the Dark Side (E8 – who made a bloody massive patio??!)

E6: One Chromosone’s Missing, Harstons (E7 – gear is too good)

E6: Masters of the Universe (E7 – everyone knows this one)

E6: Speak The Truth (E7 – dangerous, but the climbing is too easy)

E5: Committed (E6 – no one ever does this without pads. Ulysses or Bust is harder)

E5: Nosferatu (E6 – sorry, it just is)

E5: Peas of Mind, Curbar (E6 – crap route, too easy to step off line)

E5: Winters Grip, Millstone (E6 – hard move much too low for E6)

E4: London Pride, Millstone (E5 – no hard moves)

Back on The Crack Horse

It often seems to be the way with me, that just as I feel like I’ve had a little bit of a break-through, I get injured. It’s happened time and time again over the years. This time, just one day after doing My Kai and Master’s Edge I injured myself fingerboarding.

I was training down in my cellar doing some assisted one-arm hangs in safe grip positions. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Then, I had this sudden urge to see what my max full-crimp hang score was….Why?? I really don’t know. Thirty seconds later I had a sharp pain down my forearm and I knew it was game over for a while.

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Bad chin day.

Over the years I’ve been injured far more times that I’d like to admit to myself. It’s been absolutely soul crushing sometimes, but over time I’ve learnt a really useful skill: sideways motivation deflection. Every bit of psyche that I’ve got I’ll plough with total energy into what I can do without affecting my particular injury. The list of “sideways deflection” results during the last 5 years probably now reads as the few things that I’m actually quite good at; offwidthing, hand jamming, pinky hangs, core conditioning, and index monos.

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Back when the cool kids did core conditioning, not deadhanging.

The ferocity at which I end up training and obsessing about these things have only been equal to the frustration that I’ve had in not being able to do “normal climbing.” So where did this leave me after the latest blow up?

After 2 weeks of total rest, I spent some time testing what I was able to do on rock. I could do some pretty intense climbing on very steep rock (big holds on >45 degrees) and any amount of finger crack climbing. With hindsight, I can look at this injury as being a good thing as it reminded me of two goals this year. My Blackers Hole Projects and an Italian Trad climbing trip to Cadarese and Orco in April. With those in mind, I was back focused and happy!

Firstly, I booked off a little time to spend down at Blackers Hole reaquainting myself with how pumped you can get on big holds. It’s totally mind boggling really as there’s hardly a crimp down there, but within 60ft your arms are exploding. It was brilliant fun though, finding that I could climb with no pain on such big holds, yet still explore a couple of new routes in the E9-10 range. Very, very psyched for this.

Heading up on Infinite Gravity. The new route breaks out from this into beefy and bold territory. (Photo: Oli Grounsell)

The second half of my motivation has been directed towards making new steps forward in my crack climbing again. Pete Whittaker and I have come up with some devious ideas and some devious training methods! I love making these sorts of plans with Pete as he’s partly mad and fuels the fire for some insanely tough and unique training sessions. I’ve built around 40ft of new finger crack that’s got some amazing link ups and problems up to….. er….. well, quite a horrible grade.

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Flappers don’t come in the usual places now.

So for over a month, I’ve been slogging it down to Blackers Hole and sweating away down in my cellar, with just a small dinosaur shaped paddling pool (and occasionally Pete) to keep me company. Last 10 days though, I finally felt like my injury was starting to not hurt on problems less than V6ish, so I headed out for a few days with the very talented Oli Grounsell and did The Bad and The Beautiful E7 6b, Fat Slapper E7 6c, Peas of Mind E6 6a and a rather nice 7c+/8a finger crack in Cheddar Gorge called Bursting the Wave.

Photo: How to get good on grit? Go out in all weather.-0.5 degrees in the car park at Curbar at 9am...doesn't stop the mighty Tom Randall..!

Flashing Peas of Mind at Curbar. Can’t be more than E5 6a though. (Photo: Wild Country)

Hook or Book; The Zone E9 6c

So far this winter I’ve struggled and struggled. My two projects have seen sessions of no success and to be honest I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated. It’s not like the training isn’t going well – my fingers (and specific training goals) are the best they’ve ever been and I regularly PB, but it’s still not quite enough for success on the given line. I guess, I’ve got to be patient. The best thing to do when this happens though, is to get out and do something – something that will give you a bit of a buzz and feel like progress. That’s right isn’t it?

I decided I wanted to see how my projects and finger strength compared to something on the hard grit circuit and thus see if progress from last year really was being made. The Zone, E9 6c at Curbar kind of fitted the bill. Nice wall climbing, fairly challenging sport grade (not the usual gritstone 7a+ frightener) and bold enough to thrill. This route was put up by British climbing legend John Arran and one I remember the first ascent of it well, back in the day.

Photo: Gnarly bugger and inveterate soloist. John Arran

This weekend, I finally bit the bullet and called up Pete Whittaker and told him I’d man up if he promised to hold my ropes and carry me to my car if it went pear shaped. As usual he was totally psyched for it – I already felt stronger just listening to the enthusiasm on the phone! It’s way easier to commit to routes like this when you’ve got a good mate who’s going to bring the right vibe to the crag on the day and who knows even less about skyhooks than me.

The first half of the route is a highball boulder problem up to a series of flatty edges where you can arrange some skyhooks. This highball V3 takes a little of the edge off the nerves to start and settles you into a rhythm, which you then immediately break by spending 10 minutes trying to place the hooks. In fact I got totally pumped putting them in place and the ensuing down climb of a few moves was desperate in this state – a big reminder that I’ve not done any AeroCap for about 3 months!

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Photo: the 2 poorest hooks – my mind needed them though.

After taking a few hours of resting, faffing, waiting for the holds to stop being warm and procrastinating I finally went for the lead. I’d moaned for the previous 2 hours about how the crux hold wasn’t cool enough, but somehow I felt that I’d probably sketch it out if I really needed. Climbing the bottom section felt reassuringly solid the next time and arriving at the hooks for a shake out, I bolstered my confidence by only eye-balling the good group of skyhooks. I couldn’t face even a glance at the bad ones as I knew they were there only to make me feel less scared.

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Photo: the good grouping of hooks – surely these are ok?

Moving onto the top sequence of the route I kept thinking about the mental tricks that I learnt on Century Crack last year. The moves glanced by so sutbly that even when I got the crux hold and it felt terrible I didn’t think much of it. Adjust thumb, sit on right foot, bump right hand up a touch (go further than you think), throw for pebbly-boss…. OH SHIT….. that was nearly off. In someways I felt like I’d actually fallen off the route, but there I was feeling gripped on the last hard move. Pete was telling me I was looking smooth (good liar) and all I had to do was crimp it up. Index finger on, crimp that finger first, adjust hip left a little, feel toes inside boot, move foot across, share feet….. ah. Ok all over.

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Photo (Mike Hutton): bottom V3 highball – great problem in its own right. Luverly.

Topping out on the route was such a disappointing feeling though. I’ve never done a headpoint before where I only did it to progress my headspace. I’d always done them in previous years because I wanted the route so badly. This time, I’d taken my obsessive approach to training and self-progression to a headpoint and it didn’t work. Trying dangerous routes in this style for me has to be about how much I want the experience, not just as a tool for progression. A real lesson learnt this weekend. In the end I just ended up thinking about what I really wanted; to do those other projects!!

Many thanks to Mike Hutton for the photos…

Two very different projects

Last month was an utterly hectic one – I’ve not really sure if I had a grip on anything and one day had sorted of melted into the next through something I think might have been called the night.

In amongst trying to juggle the care of my feisty one year old daughter Hannah, I’ve taken on two projects; one a gritstone first ascent and the other a new climbing wall build.

The new route I’ve found is certainly the hardest route I’ve tried on grit. That’s probably not saying that much, to some extent, because most grit routes have very low french grades once you convert. However once you combine F8a or more and really terrible gear, it becomes pretty interesting and more of an involved process. I’ve had the meat of the climb sussed for a while now, but was really stuck with the start – but hallelujah – I found a sequence finally today!! I was starting to seriously bang my head against the wall as I know this cold snap will probably not last much longer. Really looking forward to putting this route to bed now and leading it.

Vital gear on the project – engaged on just 2 cams, which is better than nothing I guess.

The second project of mine is a new bouldering wall in Loughborough that I am now part owner of! I’m really excited about this wall, as I’ve worked in the indoor climbing wall business for a few years now and have my own ideas of what I think will work. I’d really like to try and put my own slant on indoor climbing…. and well…. perhaps even bring something new to it (no, it doesn’t involve an offwidth). We’re well into the build now and it’s amazing seeing wood go up on the walls, after spending days and days t-nutting.

Here’s a 3D video tour of the new wall – The Climbing Station, in Loughborough.

One of the 3D views in the main room