The light burnt my eyelids, rudely pulling me out of my sleep. Bright, white morning sunshine glared through the gap in the makeshift blinds, a slash of day in a world of night. I pulled the sleeping bag back over my head, trying to escape this torture. It must have be around 10 o’clock in the morning. My bleary eyes peered into the light and found the flashing watch-face hanging in the tent pocket: 6:01am!
Across the campsite, I hear the flapping of another tent in the breeze. The Pembrokeshire coastline will soon be assaulted by hundreds of climbers, trailing their ropes up and down the cracked limestone, giddy in the glorious Bank Holiday weather.
But the morning is only just here: another day’s climbing can wait for a few more hours…
Spring has arrived.
My plans for the start of 2014 had been slightly mislaid. After finally paying off my overdraft I intended to throw all work out of the window and go climbing. Given the opportunity, I would have happily moved to Swanage (my ‘local’ crag) and gone climbing every day, perfectly content. An enforced 3-month rest period had turned me into ‘psyched-out-of-my-tree’ keen youth and I was determined to make up for lost time.
It turns out that once you start working three jobs, however, it’s quite hard to stop them. I felt caught. I just wanted to run into the sunshine but the rotas kept appearing, the shifts needed shifting and commitments had to be honoured. March was a busy month. I managed to ease my head out of the grinder just enough for the work to relent, so I grabbed some sunshine, my climbing kit and Dan Gibson.
The first visit of the Swanage season started with a laugh. Seconding some E2 after Dan, I began to remember how to climb. ‘Don’t drop the gear. Stop squeezing the holds to death.’ I gained momentum and confidence until, halfway up the pitch, I broke a right foothold and found myself airborne, bouncing like a baby suspended out from the crag. Utterly, completely, wholly embarrassed, I pulled on and raced to the top of the crag. Cursing myself and laughing at the whole situation, I’m glad Dan didn’t judge me as a total chopstick and call it a day.
We stuck to the hallowed trad at the Ruckle and had a very productive three days. Dune Dust (E3/4 6a) felt solid, Barracuda (E4 5c) was a delight, and I even surprised myself with an onsight of Mother Africa (E4 6a).
Described as ‘superbly-sustained’, I was feeling unusually negative about my chances; it was still early in the season and I thought I was out of shape.
A fierce and almost scary start saw me desperately recovering at the break, putting in way more gear than needed. Initial forays up and left revealed a tricky series of crimps but I could see broken ground above, so went for it, guns blazing and forearms wilting. After reaching monster jugs with monster kit I managed to hold it together all the way to the ‘death top-out’ - scrambling up the chossy grass in a blaze of elation. Persistence prevails once again. Thanks for the encouragement Dan.
Swanage HVS: wild! Looking down at Dan Lane on Thunderball. Photo from 2013.
A week later, Pembroke was packed. The campsite was brimming with tents as climbers gathered for the annual Bank Holiday ‘purge du lactic’. A perfect forecast and tides had aligned to create a feeding frenzy. Chalk blobs littered the walls like giant dot-to-dots and wads crushed everything in sight. It was brilliant to catch up with old friends and make new ones at the St. Govans Inn.
I spent a great few days climbing with Phil ‘That Crevasse’ Dowthwaite as we both eased into climbing. Phil deserves a round of applause (or a scolding!) for climbing just three weeks after knee surgery. He was nearly gobbled by a nasty slot in the Alps this winter.
We warmed up on the magical Mysteries (E3 5c) before moving to the Leap. I’ve never seen so many people down there, with so many routes being nonchalantly sent! Just Another Day/Scorth the Earth (E5 6a) is a great combination route and definitely worth doing. A tempting start led to an off-balance traverse leftwards, where I dithered. The footholds were sloping and smooth while the handholds were all in the wrong direction. I had a good mind to complain to the route setter.
Too high? Back to the rest. Too low? Back to the rest. Through the middle? Just right. A thuggy romp through a bulge led to a comfortable rest in the off-width crack, before I launched into the headwall. I smacked, slapped and scraped my way through the crux and my first E5 onsight of the year.
JAD/STE. Photo: Andy Reeve
The crowds quickly disappeared at the end of the Bank Holiday and each evening thereafter I said, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow.’ The forecast would tempt me stay for one more day, promising bursts of sunshine appearing each morning. Tim ‘It’s E3’ Neill and John ‘Jaaan’ Orr arrived and helped with the persuasion. It was easiest just to go climbing rather than pack up the tent. Sometimes, just sometimes, it pays to risk it and stay despite a poor forecast.
A rematch with Barbarella (E5 6a) ensured my ego remained firmly on the ground.
Pumpy climbing right from the start with hard-to-place wires meant I fell several times trying to reach the bubbly horizontal break. On abseil I can imagine someone absolutely stuffing the vertical crack with gear, before exclaiming, ‘what’s all the fuss about?’.
On lead, however, it’s a narrow, parallel and awkward little bugger, all off-balance and wrong-handed. For this reason, I put poor protection in. For this reason, I climbed slowly and robotically, not Johnny Dawes and inner-chi.
And thus, for these reasons, I fell off.
We escaped up Enter the Goat (E2 5b) in the fading light.
I kept expecting Star Wars (E4 5c) to be be run-out and tough, so climbed slowly and carefully, placing lots of wires and anxiously eyeing up the next sequences. Perhaps I was lucky, because I found the climbing to be fantastic and easy, and the gear to be plentiful. Still, starting a route with difficult expectations is better than being caught off guard.
One afternoon was spent in an unusual way. Phil and I had been talking nonsense, chatting about headpointing and ‘just getting on with it’ - a very dangerous topic. Before I knew it, we’d dropped a rope down Orange Robe Burning (E6 6b) and I was sticking gear in all it’s orifices. Phil added a few more pieces and we found ourselves at the base, committed to climbing or frigging it. I know which I prefer.
Rock, paper, scissors to decide who got first blood. Always choose paper, it’s a winner. Except this time, Phil won and he opted for a burn. I encouraged him on, partly because if he fell it’s my go. Slumping onto the bomber wires at half-height, he was daunted by the thin leftwards traverse a couple of metres above. Damn - it was my turn. I was strangely calm, probably because a line of quickdraws showed the way, making it feel very ‘sporting’. I know this style is far from ideal, but it seems unwise to ‘just get on’ E6s without easing in gently.
At the thin traverse, I used a sneaky hidden foothold to gain access to the break and managed to flop myself onto the ledge at 2/3rds height. The top crux featured a l-o-n-g reach, which shouldn’t have been too tough for Team Albatross. After ten minutes of shuffling up and down I was, for the first time ever, stumped. The jug was still miles above and, save for bearing down on minuscule razor-crimps, I had only one back-up plan. ‘I’m going to try and jump for it!’ I shouted down to Phil. He hung his head and I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or in despair.
Thankfully, just before I initiated Plan Z, I spotted a final solution and bumped my left foot onto a long sloping rail. I could release my left hand from the wet undercut and quickly make a wide, arching reach to the jug. I ignored the wet mud squeezing between my fingers as I moved my feet high and rocked onto the final break. Whooping with delight seemed a bit excessive, but I allowed myself a quiet ‘come on!’. First E6, first 6b (though probably not for Team Albatross), so as usual I have no idea about the grade. Not terrible style though - I’ll take the flash!
Phil got up to the long crux reach, but was stopped from using the high footholds by his new knee. Unable to build his feet up, he tries everything other than Plan Z. I’m sure he’ll be back since he was so close - a stirling effort.
All that’s left is to celebrate getting totally schooled on slabs. Yes, Carreg-y-Barcud is a mean fish near St. David’s Head. Despite being pretty steep in parts, the holds all belong to the Rainbow Slab. Sore feet, hot sunshine and slab climbing? Result: I clawed my way up Kitten Claws (E3 5c) scrabbling like the proverbial cat, hands bleeding and heels screaming. Tim, John and I all agreed it was time to retire for ice cream.
John Orr abseiling down to the base of Barcud. The wall forms a perfectly concave slab.
The next Bank Holiday will be spent in Polzeath, Cornwall, catching up with good friends and hopefully getting some surfing in. I hope to be back in Swanage a couple of times in May, before…
…back to North Wales!
I’ve been accepted onto the Centre Assistant scheme at Plas y Brenin. It’s a 15 month job and I’ll be living at the centre. I’ll be helping out, getting some more qualifications and gaining an insight into the world of outdoor instructing. Oh, and going climbing, of course!
I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve got a lot of ambitious plans and routes that I want to do, and I’m determined to make the most of the experience. It’ll also be great to catch up with friends from Uni. This starts at the end of May, but I’ll be moving up to Wales on the 19th to get some climbing done!
Keep an eye out for the latest issue of Trek & Mountain magazine. The lead feature is a piece I wrote about our 2-day ascent of the Cassin Ridge on Denali, Alaska. Tom Ripley and I went on the trip back in 2012, but a friend recently encouraged me to write about it in order to broaden my experience. Thanks for the impetus, Ross Worthington. I hope you like the article.
Finally, I worked with Jess Tang whilst I was a student at Bangor University. Jess was studying a Masters in Sport Psychology and kindly offered to help me with my climbing.
She listened to my thoughts, goals, training and motivations and provided an solution to one aspect. I was introduced to Goal Setting, and it’s made a huge difference to my climbing.
Briefly, it’s important to set short, medium and long term goals for yourself. Remember, they’ve got to be SMART:
There’s a piece explaining more on her new website: Sport Psych Solutions. If you’re interested in how psychology can help your climbing (and believe me, it can!), take a look.