Author Archives: Jon Leighton

The Van Trip: Part 1 – Arco, Finale Ligure, Corsica

It almost feels like a different life now, but in late September last year, Emily and I set out across the English channel for 5 months of European adventuring in a camper van…

Our trip began on an unassuming suburban street somewhere near Merton. Having made a stop in London to see various friends, we woke up the next morning to head to Folkestone for the Eurotunnel. We quickly realised that the van’s leisure battery was flat, as the lights wouldn’t turn on. No worries, we thought. We’ll just hit the road and the alternator can charge it. It then became apparent that the starter battery was also flat. Luckily we managed to enlist the help of some builders for a jump-start. (We later figured out that the voltage sensing relay had been wired incorrectly, which meant that the two batteries were basically permanently connected, hence why our appliances had been able to drain the starter battery. Doh.)

We crossed the channel and immediately pulled over, because we still hadn’t decided where we were actually going. After a quick ponder of various options we picked Arco, in Northern Italy. We spent the next few days making our way there, stopping overnight on the France/Luxemburg border, and then next to a gorgeous lake in Austria.

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Waking up in Austria, en route to Arco

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Arco, Italy

Our arrival in Arco was a bit fraught. We’d been driving all day, were quite tired, and didn’t really know where we should park up. We tried to get to the famous Massone crag, but it became apparent that we probably weren’t going to be able to squeeze through the narrow streets that lead there. So we retreated, but our van manoeuvring skills were somewhat under-developed at this stage of the trip and it was a bit chaotic to say the least. Eventually we got turned around and drove about some more getting increasingly frustrated. A chilly plunge in Lake Geneva cleared my head and we finally found our way to a good spot near a crag called Nago.

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A nice tufa cave at La Gola sector, though very polished

To be honest the time in Arco was not the highlight of the trip. Although we did find some good things to climb here and there, the rock was often extremely polished to the point of being unpleasant. Fundamentally though, I think we were also still just getting into the swing of van life. We’d had several rather busy and stressful weeks trying to sort things out and tie up loose ends before we left, and we were still unwinding from that and learning how to live in the van.

As well, there seemed to be a steady stream of random little problems like the flat battery. Another was that the sliding door got stuck closed. This meant our only access in and out was to climb over the front seats. On a rest day we found a friendly mechanic who spoke precisely zero English, but we managed to communicate about the problem through mime and Google Translate. We now refer to him only as “the van whisperer” because he pushed and jiggled the door in some kind of special way and it miraculously came open. He unbolted part of the locking mechanism and told us that we needed to get a new one from a dealership. So off we went to nearby Trento and they ordered us the part, which meant we were committed to staying in Arco for another 10 days. We made the best of it but were pretty keen to move on when the time came.

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Sore skin from some sharp crimps prompted us to take a double rest day from climbing. On one of them we did the Rino Pisetta via ferrata above the village of Sarche.

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When we got the part, we bolted it back into the door and tested it without closing the door. It seemed to work. So we then slid the door closed, and it was stuck shut again. Bollocks.

This time there were no van whisperer tricks to be had, but we decided to head on to less polished pastures nonetheless. We resigned ourselves to climbing over those seats for a few more days.

Our next destination was Finale Ligure, which we liked quite a bit. The grades were stiff but the rock was good quality and not too polished. We spent quite a bit of time at the amazing tufa-laden wall to the right of the Grotta della Strapatente (see here for some good photos), but also visited various other crags including the much-photographed Grotto dell’Edera – an impressive cylinder of rock that you climb inside of. (And it’s not just aesthetic – the climbs are pretty good too.)

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Finale Ligure, Italy

A local garage managed to resolve our sliding door woes for €50, too, so things were coming together.

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Lovely pocket climbing at Boragni sector in Finale Ligure

I really enjoyed the onsighting in Finale but there weren’t a whole load of options for redpoint projects for me, which was a bit of a shame. We considered checking out some of the crags in the Oltrefinale guidebook (an area a little further away), which had some harder crags, but ultimately decided against it because they were south facing and the weather was still on the warm side for climbing in full sun. We did get to have a couple of bracing swims in the sea though! (A good way to get clean as they had showers on the beach…)

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The wonderful Grotto dell’Edera – quite hard to capture in a photo!

After a couple of weeks in Finale, we boarded a daytime ferry to the French island of Corsica. As we came into port at sunset we were greeted by a beautiful red textured sky. We drove in the dark to Corte, in the middle of the island, intending to climb in the Restonica valley.

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Corte, Corsica

Next morning we went straight to the climbing shop in town to buy the sport climbing guidebook, planning to have a fairly relaxed day while we got our bearings. However the woman in the shop told us it was out of print, so we bought the multi-pitch guide instead and made a snap decision to go and do one of the shorter routes.

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Restonica valley is absolutely stunning with immaculate granite walls in all directions. I have to admit that I was surging with psyche in that moment and perhaps pushed the decision to go and do a multi-pitch a little more than I should have. By the time we’d bought the guide, driven into the valley and parked the van, it was 11AM. The month was now November so we didn’t have oodles of daylight to play with. Our chosen objective, Le Vent du Silence, was only 5 pitches long but there was a bit of a walk-in, and given Emily hadn’t done lots of multi-pitching before we weren’t able to move super fast on the route. We got to the top but darkness fell during the descent. On the last abseil in the dark I landed us in the wrong place which meant we had to do a bit of sketchy down-climbing to get to our bags. Not ideal in hindsight, it put a bit of a damper on things and wasn’t very confidence-building for Emily.

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At the top of Le Vent du Silence. Note how low the sun is, we are definitely about to get benighted!

In the car park we met a friendly French man who was on holiday with his family. He knew the area pretty well and gave us lots of recommendations. It was a stroke of luck that he was leaving the next morning, so offered to sell us his copy of the sport climbing guide which was a great help.

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A stunning sport crag right next to the road in Restonica

After some sport climbing we took a rest day and started to think about what to do next. Emily was a bit apprehensive about doing more multi-pitch, but in the end she decided to tackle that head on, picking not just any multi-pitch but a very long one with a big walk in! We set out in the dark the next morning, heading for Esméralda. It was an exhausting 13 hour day, with 8 hours actually on the route, but there was no major drama and we both had fun.

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The route takes a rightwards trending line

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Climbing through some of the abundant tafoni formations

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Needless to say the following day was a rest day! I found some sweet chestnuts which I toasted and put in a potato salad, yum.

When we first arrived in Corsica it was early November. The place was pretty deserted, with not many tourists around, and the conditions were perfect for climbing. But after our first week there, the weather started to get a lot more unsettled and we had to sit out some really wet days. It got cold too, with a bit snow falling in the mountains. It was clear that winter was starting to set in.

We began to get a bit frustrated with the weather, especially since whenever we looked at the forecast for Spain we saw a run of clear sunny days. Our plan had been to continue on from Corsica to the more southerly Italian island of Sardinia, and then catch a ferry onwards to Barcelona from there. But after checking the long range forecast and reviewing the seasonal average conditions for these islands, we thought better of it and booked a ferry to Toulon, from where we planned to drive to Spain.

Meanwhile, we still had a week or so left in Corsica. On one overcast day we went to do some roadside sport climbing. As I stepped off the ground on the warm-up, I somehow trapped a nerve in my neck and was plunged into agonising pain. It was really weird and just went away of its own accord eventually, but I couldn’t climb that day so just belayed Emily as she ticked her project. We decided to leave it there so headed back to the van early, and I thought that since I hadn’t had much exercise that day, I’d take my bike for a spin up the valley.

In my haste to get going, I didn’t really think it through properly and decided to just go ‘fast and light’. I wore only a t-shirt and a thin base layer, and took no food or water. I think I thought that I’d only be out for a short while, but once I got going I was pretty keen to make the ~13km to the car park at the top of the valley. On the way up my body was generating plenty of heat to keep warm, but I did start to get a bit hungry and thirsty and to have doubts. Eventually I stopped at a bridge about 1km shy of my target, and decided that was probably far enough. I’d reached snow patches so it was pretty cold, and I was hungry for sure. I went down to the river and slurped up some of the icy water.

I hopped back on my bike and started rolling downhill, and instantly understood that I was about to get very cold. Soon it became quite a struggle to squeeze the brakes, and I had to stay focused because there were many corners and big drops to the side of the road. I was in a deserted valley and suddenly it felt like quite a serious situation. On the way up I’d seen one or two cars driving the other way but there were none around now. Every so often I stopped to try to rewarm my hands in my armpits, and was literally yelling “come on! keep going!” at myself as I went. I’ve heard stories of people who have hypothermia just sort of sitting down and ‘going to sleep’, and was afraid of what might happen if I allowed myself to dawdle.

Eventually I turned yet another a corner and finally saw the van. My whole body was tingling and vibrating involuntarily, which I’ve never experienced before. I collapsed through the door and whimpered at Emily, put on all the clothes I could find and curled up in a ball in a sleeping bag while she made me some tea. I won’t be making that mistake again!

Next we headed south east to the Aiguilles de Bavella. There’s a lot of climbing in this region, but we weren’t sure if the weather would really let us sample any of it. Still, we thought that it would be nice to get a change of scenery and take a look around, even if we couldn’t do much climbing.

We’d been particularly drawn by one of the most famous multi-pitches on the island, a route by the Petit brothers named Jeef. After a day’s sport climbing followed by two extremely wet days, it looked like we might just have a weather window to try it. For efficiency we scoped out the walk-in the day before, since Corsican approaches can be pretty tricky to find. We stopped when we got to the river crossing. We could see where to go, but with the amount of water that had been coming down the river had swelled and was impassable (at least without getting wet). We headed back to the van and hoped that it would subside by the next morning.

The next day we rose at 5 to give ourselves maximum time. At first light we reached the river and were happy to see that it had dropped quite a bit, so we could make the crossing. Once on the route we dispatched the first couple of pitches and were at the start of the crux pitch, which features a single 7b move which I failed to do but could pull past easily.

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On the approach to Jeef

In order to allow me to lead a 7a+ pitch later on, without us having to turn the rope over, I decided to try to run this pitch into the next one. This was a poor decision. Since the two pitches wind around a bit, I knew I’d get pretty bad rope drag but decided to do it anyway. At the belay I was out of sight of Emily. I called out that she could start climbing, and soon felt the rope go tight, meaning she’d fallen off that tricky first move. After a short while it went slack and then tight again, and I heard a piercing scream. Shit.

Not really sure what to do, I waited to see if she would start moving again. She didn’t. We attempted to shout at each other but I couldn’t really hear anything apart from nondescript hollering. After waiting quite a long time I decided that I had to do something else. I didn’t have very much rope left at my end, but decided to tie Emily off to the anchor, untie from my side of the rope, and abseil down it to try to see what was going on.

Fortunately, after going down about 10m I could see Emily and we could talk to each other. She told me that she had hit her ankle on the rock during the second fall, it was really painful and she couldn’t put any weight on it. Clearly we had to abandon the climb.

We formulated a plan. Emily had pulled up a short distance above the anchor so couldn’t clip into it, but was within reach of two separate bolts and managed to attach herself to them. She then untied and I pulled the rope up to where I was and did a couple of abseils to get to her. As I had traversed I had to do a bit of a pendulum but it was OK since the rock was slabby so I could run along it to move horizontally, and eventually I was able to throw the ends of the rope to her so she could pull me over.

From there, we could easily abseil to the ground, but still needed to do the walk-out with a sprained ankle. We put as much weight as possible into my bag and Emily hobbled down very slowly, spending a lot of time sliding over rocks on her bum. We got there eventually, and I felt grateful that we’d had the accident early on, with plenty of daylight to spare.

The belay at the start of the pitch that Emily fell off is just above an overlap in the rock face. The amount of drag meant that I couldn’t keep the rope very tight, and there was also a lot of rope out. So when she fell, it stretched quite a bit. It all happened quite quickly so we don’t know for sure, but we think that the rope probably stretched enough that Emily fell past the overlap, with the rope running over it. This would have caused her to swing in forcefully to the rock below, which is probably why she hit her ankle so badly. I definitely feel culpable for this, given it was my decision to run the pitches together! A lesson learned the hard way…

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The overlap that became so problematic…

Needless to say, that was the end of our climbing in Corsica. We only had a couple of days left before the ferry anyway, so we wound our way slowly back up to the port. En route we had probably the best meal of the whole trip next to a cosy open fire at a restaurant called U Tavanincu.

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A tasty meal before we left Corsica. Emily’s ankle was still so painful that I had to give her a piggy-back into the restaurant!

We boarded the ferry to Toulon and then started the drive down to Catalonia, unsure about how soon Emily would be able to climb again.

I’ll continue the story in Part 2!

North Wales, Australia, climbing, and the start of our van life

Nearly two years ago I stepped into the unknown and moved to North Wales. I’d arrived in London three and a half years prior, not really knowing what I wanted from the place but feeling like it was an obvious thing to do. As I got increasingly motivated for climbing I started to feel less and less content in the city. Week days were busy with work, evenings at the climbing wall, and then at the weekends I went in search of real rock. Long drives to Portland, Brean Down, Anstey’s, the Peak or sometimes North Wales. There wasn’t really much space left for the other things which feature in a balanced life, like having friends for dinner, going for a walk in the park or spending time with my partner.

I’d been discussing a move with Emily for months but eventually we concluded that whilst she had her reasons to want to stay put for a while longer, I really needed a change. So we decided to try living apart for the first time in five and a half years. It felt like a risk, but the status quo wasn’t risk-free either.

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Clogwyn yr Eryr with Will on my 27th birthday

I slotted into the Llanberis climbing scene and for the first time felt like I lived in a real community. Hours on motorways were replaced with having a social life. I could walk down the street and bump into friends. I had enough time and didn’t need to rush from one thing to the next. It wasn’t perfect but it felt like a huge improvement on the big smoke.

I was delighted when Emily decided to join me the next July. Surely she’d love it! We’d live happily ever after in our cute little mountain village, surrounded by friends, rock, and lots of fluffy sheep!

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Snow day with Emily and a friend’s lively dog

She did love North Wales, so it came as a bit of a shock when later that year she told me that after a long process of reflection, she’d decided that what she really needed was to return home to Australia. Having come to the UK 10 years ago for university, she’d not really intended to settle but had ended up staying (I had something to do with it…) But Australia was home and she was asking me to go with her.

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Bouldering in the winter sun with Ramon at Porth Ysgo

A digression: one thing that I have found helpful in the last couple of years is learning about mindfulness and meditation. There are some good apps available to help. Initially I used Headspace for a few months but fell out of the habit. I picked it back up with Calm around the time that Emily and I were having this discussion, and have managed to continue more or less daily since then (although I no longer use an app).

Anyway, mindfulness has definitely made me more able to be accepting of the idea that I am not actually the absolute master of my life, able to direct it exactly how I want. (For what it’s worth, nor do I believe that there is some external deity orchestrating things.)

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Trying out our new wetsuits at Whistling Sands on the Llyn Peninsula

It’s easy to think that we know what should happen or is going to happen in life, but that idea is demonstrably false. I can think of many instances in my own life when I was convinced something was going to turn out terribly, and yet it did not. And vice versa – times when I thought things were going great but then the shit hit the fan.

Observing this has made me more able to accept paths I did not explicitly choose. Paths like moving to Australia. Initially I definitely threw my toys out of the pram a bit, but as I gave it more thought, I realised that I actually have no idea what might happen either way. What I do know is that I value my relationship and that given I can’t predict the future, I may as well focus on enjoying the present.

So we’re moving to Australia in March! Melbourne initially, but we will probably look to live closer to rocks in the longer term.

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Gogarth Red Wall

Having made this decision I started to relate to climbing in North Wales a bit differently. My days there were now numbered and I needed to choose my battles. Somebody asked me in April what my goals were for the season. I hadn’t given it much thought but replied that a very good year would include doing my first F8a+ redpoint and my first E6 onsight. I didn’t really think I’d achieve this, but knew I’d be stoked if I did.

The spring and early summer saw many days spent at LPT . I had half an eye on a planned trip to Céüse in July and so got stuck into sport climbing. One session I decided to have a play on an 8a+ called Wild Understatement. It’s a cool variation on Ben Moon’s classic 8a, Statement of Youth – it takes a more direct start through a big roof, climbs through the middle of Statement, and then branches out left into a delicate off-balance crack at the top.

I was surprised to find that I could basically do all the moves and so decided to keep trying it, whilst telling myself that I was still just playing around. After a few sessions I fell right at the top and had to admit that I was probably now on redpoint. I got it done just before the Céüse trip, many thanks to John Bunney who pretty much came down to hang out and belay me! In hindsight, Wild Understatement was exactly my style: sustained endurance climbing without any super bouldery cruxes.

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Introducing our friend Charlie to the slate

When I returned from Céüse I was super keen to do lots of trad climbing. The sport climbing in North Wales is decent, but trad is really what it’s best at, and I still had loads of classics to work through. As the summer wore on, in the back of my mind was Skinhead Moonstomp on Gogarth Main Cliff. I’d read about it in Andy Pollitt’s book and it sounded epic and kind of scary. But Dan Mcmanus told me it was basically safe so I kept wondering… maybe I should try it.

I spent a while waiting to see if the opportunity would magically arise but it did not. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to try it I needed to just decide to do so and make it happen. I couldn’t really think of who else I could persuade me to give me a belay so asked Emily, and she graciously agreed.

We left a bit later in the day as I thought conditions would be better, but arrived at the base to discover that the only other party on the cliff were just starting up Positron, with which Skinhead Moonstomp shares some climbing. After waiting for them to get ahead I did the first pitch and Emily started seconding.

I’d perhaps been a bit optimistic about Emily’s suitability as a second for this route, and she fell off but eventually got to the belay. I started up the second pitch, which is the E6 6b crux. You traverse out left to beneath what I think the guide describes as a “looming wall”, plug in some gear, take a deep breath, and run it out until Positron’s crack. At this point the ropes are fluttering in the breeze for perhaps 8 metres below. (I could have done with a breeze actually, my t-shirt was now drenched in sweat.) You then do a few moves on Positron before going directly up to the infamous “bucket seat” belay. Somehow I succeeded, my Céüse fitness certainly helped but it was touch and go.

Poor Emily now needed to follow, and the traverse moves are not actually straightforward. She fell off and took a pendulum, finding herself dangling in mid-air some way beneath me. I’d hurriedly tried to remind her how to prussik at the previous belay, but she was out of practise and there was some trial and error involved (we couldn’t really communicate due to the noise from the sea). By the time she arrived at the bucket seat it was nearly dark. I set off to string together the final two easier pitches by head-torch, slightly gripping. When we got back to our bags it was midnight… dinner was on me the following evening!

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Rock Bottom Line with Glyn. My technique was completely wrong but made for some fun photos…

Having decided to move to Australia, I was sad to be leaving behind the fantastic variety of climbing destinations that Europe has to offer. (Which is certainly not to say that Australia doesn’t also have exciting climbing potential.) So I was pleased when Emily agreed to the idea of us spending the winter pursuing the quintessential climbers’ dream of living in a camper van, following the sun, and doing loads of climbing at European crags.

It’s easy to look at people doing these sorts of things and think “wow, they must be having fun literally all the time”, but this overlooks the fact that such trips take quite a bit of (worthwhile) work to put together, and even once you’re on the road there are still highs and lows. (I’m still getting used to the stress of manoeuvring a massive van up tiny Italian mountain roads…) The fact that we rarely share photos of the more dull or difficult moments of our lives probably helps to perpetuate the image that everybody else is having more fun.

For us the run-up to coming away felt pretty stressful and busy, and didn’t involve much climbing either (in part due to a terrible September in North Wales). There were lots of things to do: buy a van, get it ready, sort through our belongings, get rid of a load of them, pack the rest of it into boxes, clean the flat, and so on. Then, once we’d finally left North Wales, several days of driving lay between us and our first destination, Arco in Northern Italy.

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Putting a solar panel on the roof of the van

Before all this though, we thought that if we were going to move to the other side of the world, we’d be really sad to say goodbye to the lovely friends we have in the UK. It felt important to mark the occasion, so we decided to put together a big party in North Wales.

Just a few miles from Llanberis is a beautiful, co-operatively run, organic farm called Tyddyn Teg. We’d been getting weekly veg from them and so asked if it might be possible to hire out their barn. They agreed so we set the date for the first weekend of September and started to make plans.

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Tyddyn Teg farm

We were really touched to receive help in all sorts of ways from various friends which made the end result all the more special. Lots of people pitched in to make food (veg supplied by the farm!), Nathan set up some awesome speakers, lights, lasers and smoke machines, Amy made hanging decorations, James and Chris (aka Gaenz and Fixd) kept the dance floor moving til the early hours, and lots of people turned up with great costumes. We were quite stressed with the organisation for a couple of days preceding but it came off really well and felt very rewarding to put on a party that everyone seemed to enjoy!

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Amazing lighting setup from Nathan

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Veg shop jamming trio

Also, I had been pondering learning to DJ for some time prior, and so decided that having a deadline would give me some impetus to actually do it. I played for the first hour or so and it seemed to go down pretty well!

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My first live DJ set!

So that’s it! I’m sad to leave North Wales behind, but I also feel like it has been an immense privilege to spend two years of my life there. It’s the first place I’ve ever left which I feel like I’ll miss.

Now we’re on the trip, living in the back of a van in Northern Italy. We’ve enjoyed some great climbing in beautiful scenery, but have also dealt with some electrical issues in the van, a part of the sliding door breaking, some exceedingly polished routes (which we are striving to avoid) and various day-to-day things that don’t just go away because you’re on a trip.

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Waking up in Austria, en route to Northern Italy

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Rest day sunshine in Sarche, Northern Italy

At some point we’re planning to get a ferry to Corsica and/or Sardinia, and then another ferry onwards to Catalonia. In March we’ll fly to Melbourne. After that, who knows?

Australia Part 2 – The Totem Pole

Four years ago, when I first visited Australia with my partner Emily (who is from Melbourne), we spent a week in Tasmania at her family’s holiday home in Oyster Cove, about 30 minutes south of Hobart.

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Looking out from the lovely holiday home at Oyster Cove

Before we went across on the ferry, her dad, Rod, lent me a book to read: The Totem Pole by Paul Pritchard. I’d never heard of Paul Pritchard or The Totem Pole at the time, but Paul was a key member of the 80’s climbing scene in Llanberis (where I live now). In 1998 he came on a trip to Tasmania and planned to climb The Totem Pole which is a unique tower of dolerite, 65 metres high, about 4 metres wide, jutting out of the sea just off the western coast of the Tasman Peninsula. An abseiling accident caused a loose block to give him a life-threatening head injury and the book tells the tale of his injury, rescue and subsequent recovery (although he is now not able to move one side of his body).

It was with impeccable timing that Paul visited North Wales about a week before I came out to Australia, showing a film and giving a lecture about his accident and successful attempt, last April, to reclimb the pole. He has a wonderfully positive outlook on his accident and how it changed him for the better. (Read this interview, it’s brilliant.)

On that visit we didn’t do any climbing, but the book motivated us to go on a boat trip along that section of coast line. While the rest of the tourists marvelled at seals I looked up at “The Tote” and thought to myself: one day.

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Tree hugging in Tasmania, four years ago

This past March, Rod sadly and suddenly died, so it has been a difficult year for Emily and her mum, Mandy. We came back to Australia for christmas to be with Mandy but I have also been able to fit in some climbing as well. My top agenda item was of course the Tote. It seems fitting that we are here primarily due to Rod’s death, and it was he who introduced me to the Tote in the first place.

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Emily’s dad, Rod

I was a bit worried about how to find a suitable climbing partner in Tasmania, but everything came together. I got in touch with Rob Greenwood who was also planning a trip at this time, and he told me to talk to another Brit, Jim Hulbert, who has been on a working holiday for nine months, sampling the best climbing spots across Australia. Jim was already planning to come to Tasmania the day before me, so we agreed to partner up.

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Fortescue Bay

After a couple of days warming up at The Organ Pipes above Hobart, we took a rest day and then headed for the beautiful Fortescue Bay, where the hour and a half long walk-in to Cape Hauy begins. After descending through bush until we were about level with the top of the pole, we found abseil bolts and fixed a rope.

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Jim descending down the mainland cliff

I was first down and faced the slightly tricky task of swinging on the ab rope about 4m out from the mainland in order to get onto the starting belay on the Tote. The rock was greasy and there’s not a lot to grab, but after a few tries I managed to do it, hooking my index finger through a bolt hanger before quickly clipping in.

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Hanging belay at the bottom of the Tote

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About to pull Jim across onto the Tote (the chaps behind are gearing up for an icy swim to the start of the Candlestick, which is another sea stack behind the Tote)

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Aforementioned icy swim in progress (he didn’t hang about)

We immediately regretted our optimistic clothing choices as it’s quite dingy down there and the wind comes howling through the channel. Jim set off on pitch 1 of the Deep Play route, which climbs 20m to a ledge at grade 24 (about French 7a). After a good fight, Jim unfortunately popped off on the onsight. We decided to lower back to the start and he had a couple more goes at redpointing the pitch, but didn’t quite manage as there wasn’t much time for him to rest between attempts and I was getting increasingly chilly. So we decided to press on. (Jim plans to return for another go later in his trip.)

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Jim on pitch 1 (Deep Play, 24)

Now it was my turn: the Deep Play route joins the original Free Route for its second pitch, a 40m grade 25 (about French 7a+). This pitch was superb and we were far enough above the water now that there was no greasiness. The climbing mostly involved short harder sections between pretty good shake outs, although there was quite a bit of chalk on route which no doubt made the onsight easier. Despite notionally following an arete, most of the moves were actually face climbing with occassional use of the arete for hand holds.

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Jim getting ready to come up pitch 2 (Free Route, 25)

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We had tourist boats gawping at us all day! Note the shadow of the Tote projected onto the side of the Candlestick.

Jim then lead us up the final 5m so we could stand on top of the huge block which perches on the summit of the pole.

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Summit selfie, trying not to wobble off! (It’s quite small and not very flat)

All that remained was to get off: we’d been trailing the rope we’d abseiled on behind us, and we needed to use this to rig a tyrolean traverse, something neither of us had done before but reckoned we could figure out!

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On the Tyrolean traverse (you can see we have threaded the bolts, ready to pull the rope through)

Fortunately it was straightforward. We threaded the rope to the mainland through the bolts on the summit of the pole, and pulled it tight using a gri-gri (we tied a knot behind the gri-gri just in case). Jim then clipped in to the line and went across, trailing the other end. We now had a rope which was tied at one end to the mainland, went across to the summit of the pole and through the bolts there, and then went back to the mainland. I removed the gri-gri on the pole side, and Jim used another gri-gri on the mainland side to tension it up from there. I could then go across the doubled-over line leaving no gear on the summit, and we then pulled the end of the rope through the bolts to retrieve it.

I’d read that this was a mixed route with both bolts and trad gear required. In fact it was probably about 80/20 bolts/gear, and all of the harder moves were protected with bolts. We placed a few bits of gear: 1 wire and some small cams. Frankly I don’t really understand this bolting ethic; it felt like it was practically a sport route and I think that if you’re going to place that many bolts you may as well just bolt the whole thing and be done with it. Or leave the bolts out except where absolutely essential. (Doing the whole thing on trad gear would undoubtedly be a much more serious proposition.)

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Cute echidna spotted on the walk out

Anyway, rant over, it was a fantastic day out in a beautiful place, and a major item ticked off the bucket list!

RIP Rod

Australia Part 1 – Arapiles and Grampians

I’m currently in Australia, and whilst the primary motive for the trip was to spend christmas with my partner’s family (who live in/around Melbourne), I have been able to arrange to sample some of the climbing as well.

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Smoking the ham on the Weber, a christmas tradition apparently!

In the run-up to christmas we stayed in Melbourne and did various social things meeting up with family and friends. This was enjoyable but by the time christmas day came I was really looking forward to Emily and I heading out on our own to do some camping and climbing.

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christmas day – it reached something like 35°C!

We started at Arapiles. Being summer time, it’s not really the best season for climbing in the state of Victoria, but I was keen to check out some of the classic venues whilst not having high expectations about encountering good conditions.

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Surprisingly we actually had quite a bit of wind and rain rather than the searing heat we had expected. But the rain was mostly light and we managed to climb in between (and sometime just in) showers. We spent a couple of days at Arapiles getting a feel for the place and ticking off some classics such as Kachoong (21) (good fun, I didn’t find it to be overrated as some have reported) and Comic Relief (21) (amazing climbing, hard for the grade and bold at the start). Having never climbed in Australia I didn’t have a good feel for the grade system, but discovered that in general everything felt harder than expected! This is probably partly due to conditions, but also lack of fitness…

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The juggy roof of Kachoong (21)

On our rest day we debated sticking around but eventually decided to move to the Grampians. We were worried about finding crags that would work with the weather, but the desire to see somewhere new pulled us away from Arapiles.

We headed for Dreamtime Wall which is mostly a sport climbing venue, but in a very remote location. After a fairly sketchy drive  down a 5km dirt track (we didn’t have a vehicle with much ground clearance) we established a bush camp and settled in for the night.

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Complex manoeuvring around a hole in the track…

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Bush camp for Dreamtime Wall

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The gorgeous sky that night

After warming up on Dreaming of Reconciliation (22), I decided to try to step it up a bit with Red Chilli Nights (25). It was really warm and humid and I didn’t realise the route relied on quite a few slopey holds. After an onsight battle I greased off, got frustrated and decided to come down. Then it started to rain and everything got wet, and I got even more frustrated! Eventually the rain eased a bit and Emily talked me in to trying something else, so I did R.E.M. (21). When I came down it had finally started to properly dry up and I could enjoy The Stolen Generation (23), which redeemed the day somewhat.

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Looking out from Dreamtime Wall – so nice to be able to see nothing but the natural environment

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Massive spider next to our tent, perhaps a Huntsman?

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the climbing at Dreamtime Wall as there was quite a lot of loose rock, but I think my opinion is probably biased by the terrible conditions we had that day. (And the loose rock should clear up over time.) That said I did enjoy going to this remote location and camping on our own in the bush, so it wasn’t all bad.

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Our little friend at the crag. Not sure what type of lizard this is.

The next day it was much cooler and we headed to Eureka Wall, which is one of the more famous bits of rock in the Grampians. I’d have liked to get on the classic Archimedes Principal (26) but it was clear by now that given the conditions and my fitness, I would be biting off more than I could chew. Instead I did a quality crack climb, Newton’s Law (23/24) and then the pumpy P2 of Darwin’s Theory (18) after Emily lead P1. It was a great way to get to the top of this impressive wall, and I’m now very psyched to come back for an onsight crack at the harder routes one day!

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Eureka Wall! Photos don’t do it justice. It is simply magnificent. Archimedes Principle (26) follows the enticing black streak.

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Blue-tongued lizard (Tiliqua rugosa, I think)

Once we got down from Darwin’s Theory it was approaching 8 PM but I managed to persuade Emily that we should mission it a bit further up the hill to Eureka Towers for Return to Gariwerd (22). Our guidebook promised a cairned track but it seemed very overgrown and we ended up mostly bush-bashing our way through. But the route was an absolute joy to climb, hands down the best route so far, and as I topped out the golden sun was just dipping below the horizon… a beautiful sight… but one which meant we needed to walk down in the dark!

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Massive fly on our windscreen

This was more challenging than expected because with our head torches we could only see a few metres ahead, and there was dense bush everywhere. Once we got back to Eureka Wall we thought it would be easy to follow the cairns down, but we couldn’t even find the start of the track! After searching around for ages we just plowed into the undergrowth and eventually came upon a cairn, but it was still very difficult to follow the track. We got down at maybe 11 PM and pitched our tent in the dirt, tired but content. We were treated to a completely clear, starry sky and saw several shooting stars!

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Red bull ant dragging what I think is a dead horse-fly

After that we were too tired to climb the next day so headed off to meet some friends to celebrate the new year. I’m now about to get an overnight ferry to Tasmania for part 2 of the trip, and looking forward to much cooler conditions down there!

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An echidna trying to hide from us

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A chilled-out wallaby

Lewis and Harris

Last year I did plenty of great climbing and went on some very enjoyable trips, but I was rather left with the feeling that I had lacked a little bit of adventure in my activities. Whilst I very much enjoy pushing myself physically, the more adventurous types of climbing add a little bit of spice which I can’t do without.

So when Ramon Marin asked me whether I would be interested on going on a trad climbing mission I was very keen. We picked our dates specifically to maximise the potential for good conditions in Scotland: late May to early June would hopefully have that potent combination of long days, stable weather and few midges. Fortunately for us the stars did indeed align and I’ve just returned from two weeks of stunning adventure climbing on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris (it’s one island, but the northern part is called Lewis and the southern part is called Harris).

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Dalbeg

After a long drive up to Ullapool and a 2 and a half hour ferry crossing to Stornoway we headed to Dalbeg and parked the van right next to a beautiful beach. The next day we ticked off Neptune E3 5c and Limpet Crack E3 5c (I pumped out and fell off on my first go, but it went ground up on the next attempt). We were also visited by a pod of dolphins which was pretty special.

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Looking over to Dalbeg Buttress, which is the left-facing wall above the slab

Next we headed down to to Uig area which has lots of good crags in close proximity. Our particular motivation was the 4-pitch E4 5c, The Prozac Link at Mangersta. This route featured on the front cover of our guidebook so we knew it was one we had to do.

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The Prozac Link E4 5c takes a line above this massive sea cave

When we first walked down to the cliff and peered round the corner my stomach lurched a little. This thing was absolutely massive, and there would be little chance to bail after the first pitch as an abseil, if our ropes reached, would just land us in the sea. It didn’t help that the cliff was in the shade when we first arrived which made the whole place seem much more foreboding.

We chilled out for a bit and waited for the sun the come around to burn off any grease. Gradually the crag seemed to soften its gaze and become less terrifying, and in actual fact I needn’t have worried. As ever, things are easier when broken down into steps, and it turns out the climbing is quite soft for E4. I think it gets the grade due to the commitment factor more than anything. The first pitch is probably the best and features a lovely granitic crack, although it was a little greasy towards the bottom.

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Ramon dispatching the first 5c pitch. This crack was probably the best bit.

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Pitch 2 (5b) of The Prozac Link

Next day we were keen for pushing a little harder on some single pitch climbs so we headed to a crag called The Painted Wall, where I did (wait for it) The Painted Wall E4 5c, following a lovely pink pegamatite band. I’d never heard of pegamatite before, but it’s super solid and fun to climb, though gear can be tricky.

Ramon then stepped it up a notch with Dauntless E5 6a, and then it was my turn to climb again. I had come away on this trip with the definite intention of doing my first E5, and it seemed like now was as good a time as any to try one. However, the best-looking line featured British 6b moves, which seemed like quite a challenge. I’m fairly sure I’d never tried any 6b moves on a trad climb before.

Faced with the conundrum of a great-looking E5 6b or a slightly inferior E5 6a, which crossed the route I’d already done, I decided to follow my heart and go for the great line. It didn’t matter if I failed, at least I’d learn something in the process. I’m so glad I did, because I gave that route everything I had, coming within a whisker of falling in several places but somehow just managing to stay with it. Elated, I gave Ramon a belay as he finished up with Pink and Black E4 5c.

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Me on Goodbye Ruby Tuesday E5 6b

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Ramon seconding Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

After a rest day we headed to another nearby crag, the Magic Geo. After following Ramon up the excellent Am Burach E4 6a, I decided to try another E5, The Magician E5 6a. This was a totally different experience which I’ve already written about: the route proved long, loose and very pumpy at the top. After I’d fallen twice I felt totally battered and we bailed.

The next day we tried to climb but actually failed to find the crag! The guidebook directions didn’t work for us and we didn’t have an OS map which would have provided some clarity. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I was still feeling depleted from the day before, and we had our sights on a bigger objective: Stone E5 6a at Sron Ulladale.

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Walking in to Sron Ulladale

Sron Ulladale is a big, adventurous crag which requires at least 2 hours for the walk in and another 2 for the walk out. Our chosen route had 7 pitches, although some of them were quite straightforward (but still take time). Of the harder pitches, there was a 5c which I’d lead and a 6a which Ramon would lead.

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Sron Ulladale

We got up at 8 AM, got ready, walked in, got on the route and made it to the crux pitch easily enough. It was a massive 40 metre corner, which we thought looked OK, but oh how wrong we were! Ramon went up and put in a strong effort, but a route-finding error (the guidebook description was a bit confusing) unfortunately saw him back at the belay. Next go he did it clean, and I followed up. Even on second, I couldn’t believe how hard this thing was. Despite my confidence at the belay, the crack was way more steep and strenuous than I had realised. It was also wet and dirty in places, and didn’t really let up at any point. Eventually I power-screamed my way onto the next belay ledge and we finished up the easier pitches above. Ramon said that he was close to giving up at points and would have passed the baton to me, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that – I really don’t know if I could have done it! A really impressive lead.

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Me on the 5c pitch of Stone E5 6a

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Ramon on the crux 6a pitch of Stone

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A belay with a view!

We finished the route and got back to the base for about 10 PM (sun still shining this far north). We then walked out, had dinner, and got to bed for about 1.30 AM. A very long day out!

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Captain, bring up the midge defences

After resting up we headed back to Mangersta for some of the single pitch objectives there: we both lead Killer Fingers E5 6a, and then I did Suffering Bastard E4 6a, a sustained crack climb which I probably found harder than the E5 actually.

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Suffering Bastard E4 6a

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Walking out at Mangersta

The next day Ramon did Tidal Rave E4 6a at Aird Fenish – a lovely route but unfortunately done in pretty greasy conditions. I tried Wave Dancing E4 6a but bailed half way up when I realised my arms were completely blasted.

Next we headed back to Dalbeg to look at a couple of highly-rated long E5s in the area. Ramon got on Blessed Are The Weak E5 6a, but wasn’t feeling it and decided to back off (the gear wasn’t great). I then went to attempt The Storm E5 6a, which is a full 50 metres long.

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Ramon on Blessed Are The Weak E5 6a

The Storm starts up a steep crack, and unfortunately I pumped out about 15 metres up. Fortunately Ramon encouraged me to lower off and have a ground-up go. I’m really glad I did. After looking at the route quite a bit from the ground, on my next go I found a bomber knee bar just below my high point. From this I was able to blast up through the hard section above and get to a hidden jug.

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Abseiling into The Storm E5 6a. Amazing patterns on the rock eh? The route starts up the crack in the top left corner of this photo.

But I wasn’t even half way at this point. I think I must have been on the route at least 2 if not 3 hours, climbing through some fiddly gear and really scary run outs. A blessing in disguise – if there had been more gear I’d have placed it all and had none left by the top! It really seemed to go on forever; 50 metres is a long way. At one point I was convinced I could see foliage poking over the top, only to move up and discover another 10 metres or so above me. Eventually I got onto easy but very loose terrain, about 4 metres from the top and was experiencing some mega rope drag. I looked down to Ramon who yelled something about the red rope, which my exhausted mind thought to mean that I was nearly out of rope. So I tied in to the abseil line and belayed from there. When Ramon arrived, it emerged that he was trying to tell me my red rope was caught on a spike, thus causing all that drag.

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Grappling with the steep crack at the start of The Storm

The Storm was a real effort and a real adventure, surely one of the most intense climbing experiences of my life. This is what I love about trad climbing: I have yet to find a better way to reliably have a really memorable day out.

For our last day we opted for a gentler outing, ticking off a bunch of classics at Creag Liam on Bernera island.

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A rest day swim, fortunately the beach wasn’t too busy

This is the first time I’ve climbed in Scotland. It’s certainly an effort to come somewhere like this. You endure a long drive, take risks with the weather and meet plenty of bastard midges (although we were mostly fairly lucky, since there was often a breeze). But the effort is worth it. The climbing is world-class, and the stunning raw beauty of Lewis and Harris felt really special. As well as midges, we saw eagles, seals, dolphins, herons and countless sea birds. We swam in turquoise waters next to deserted golden beaches (thanks for lending your wetsuit, Ramon) and even managed to get sunburnt!

Totally epic. Scotland, I’ll be back!

The Magician

Bouyed by success on both my first proper E5 and my first British 6b onsight, prior to our rest day, I decide to try the 3-star E5 6a at today’s Hebridean crag.

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A rewarding effort on Goodbye Ruby Tuesday E5 6b

The Magician begins with an insecure move to what looks like a decent ledge, the only protection being an RP. Unfortunately the RP is too low to really keep you off the boulders should you fluff it, but psychological protection is better than none at all. The holds are also affected by seepage and are unpleasantly greasy. This is not ideal, but I reason that if I can sketch through this section, we’ll be rewarded by some amazing climbing above. The route soars 40 metres up an obvious crack line which steepens out beyond vertical at the top.

I climb up and down a few times, unsure. I dowse the holds in chalk and wonder why the good ledge gets further away when I’m on the rock. Eventually I unlock a sequence. A high left toe on a pointy little nubbin lets me sit on my foot to chalk the next sidepull. Believing it, I commit, and am rewarded with a good flatty and a solid wire. We’re in.

I go on up for 10 metres or so, placing plenty of gear, thankful that there actually is some now. The next crux looks to be a rightwards traverse out from under a little roof with smeary feet and sidepulls. Although most of the route is bone dry, I seem to have found another seepage line and the holds are greasy. I place a suspicious nut behind a flaky flat hold, and a decent blue alien in a thin crack. The flaky flat hold becomes my foothold, and proceeds to crumble incrementally as I weight it.

Eventually I begin a delicate sequence rightwards. Trusting the smears I reach for the next sidepull. I am careful to hold the barn-door, but the sidepull snaps and down I go. The decent blue alien blew, but the suspicious nut stuck. A lower cam also blew. 1 out of 3 is fine, right?

I improve the gear and lower off for a ground-up attempt. I’m not particularly keen to repeat the start but with gear in-situ and the sequence sussed out it should be fine. The holds are wet again, so more chalk is needed. I weight my left foot on the pointy little nubbin and this time it crumbles under me. I downclimb, but after several false starts I eventually manage to make a different and slightly worse foothold work for me. The quickdraw tantalisingly stroking my hair helps.

Back to my high point. Hold the barn-door. I step gingerly onto a ledge, arrange some gear, and exhale. The next bit looks delicate, but my confidence in the security of this rock has been seriously undermined by now. Footholds routinely crumble away, and pulling on thin flakes now seems a ridiculous proposition. Who knew gneiss could be so chossy? I procrastinate.

Eventually I manage a few balancy moves up. Looking around I find no gear and no real holds above. I’m off route. Keep it together. I get back down to the ledge with difficulty, and try the more rightward line I had spied.

Now approaching what is evidently the crux of this neverending expedition, the crack rears out above me. I put a big yellow cam in and eventually suss out the next little sequence to what looks like a jug. I’ll get there, arrange some gear and then press on with confidence.

Unfortunately what looks like a jug is not always a jug, and the position is more strenuous than intended. My feet are on smears and my hands are sweating up. Shit, time to move.

I reach up to a juggy undercut flake and run my feet up the wall. That yellow cam seems far away now, and my position is seriously strenuous. It occurs to me that a knee-bar might be possible in theory, but there’s no way I have the juice to figure that out. I shove a cam under the flake, wasting energy. I know it’s bad but I don’t want to go all out with no more gear, although I also don’t want to hang around to place a better piece either. Failure is close now.

Giving it all I’ve got, I reach for a distant sidepull, body at full stretch, feet skating on smears. I let out a roar and urge them to move higher up, but it’s no use. Something snaps, and as I begin the ride I notice that my leg is behind the blue rope. I flip upside-down and have time to be thankful that my helmet is on my head. When I eventually come to a halt, sure enough, the last cam is dangling around my waist. I feel like I’ve been beaten up and there are grazes on both elbows and both knees.

“Can I maybe come down now, Ramon?” Graciously he agrees. I collapse on a boulder while he scopes out the escape, a VDiff corner. It doesn’t feel easy in this state. Sensing that I’m incapable of doing much else, Ramon instructs me to sit down while he abs for the gear. I don’t need much persuasion.

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The rock that spat me off!

Manic Strain

Although I’ve not explicitly mentioned it here on my blog, I moved from London to Llanberis, North Wales back in October. The two places could hardly be more different, and I’ve enjoyed having a project, Manic Strain 8a, which is walking distance from my house rather than a 4 and a half hour drive as it was previously with my first 8a, The Cider Soak. This certainly makes it easier!

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Manic Strain, found in Vivian Quarry, just opposite the Comes The Dervish slab, is the epitome of slate climbing. It features moves I’ve never even done before, in particular a bizarre pinky finger lock which you have to hang off in order to make a foot movement, as well as a big rock-over on a small but good edge for which stiff shoes help a lot.

I had to be resourceful to get this done. Being on the shorter end of the spectrum is quite unhelpful between the first and second bolts. It took 3 sessions to even work out a sequence for this move, and I jealously watched Will and Dan easily use lower, better feet which their extra reach made accessible. In the end my sequence involved a high left foot and then a weird kind of drop knee. The amazing thing is that when I got the body position completely perfect, it didn’t feel hard at all. But if I was off by just a fraction the move felt impossible.

Practising this move to really solidify the muscle memory was crucial, and so I decided to go there on my own, put a rope down from the top, and do some self-belayed climbing. I’ve never done this before, so I also had to figure out how to actually do it. Steph Davis’ article was very useful, since it has photos showing how the chest harness is meant to look. I was of course very careful and cautious at first, but this is a technique I’m glad to have learned, I’m sure it will be useful in the future.

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Will Oates on one of the many high steps

Another obstacle was a 4th bolt which was hanging out and wobbling slightly, which you’re also pretty likely to fall onto. Not confidence-inspiring! If you did fall onto it and it failed, a ground-fall would be on the cards.

I talked to Glyn Hudson, who had re-bolted it a few years back, and he told me that at the time he hadn’t realised that he’d been given a pretty blunt drill bit. This meant he had to push quite hard to drill the holes, and so the holes were probably a little too big. Fortunately he was keen to get back there and sort it all out, and he very kindly spent a wet afternoon on Wednesday doing a full re-bolt so the route is now safe. Thanks a lot Glyn.

On my successful attempt today, I tried really hard to be in the moment and focus on each move I was doing. I’d set myself the arbitrary goal of doing it before I go away for 3 weeks this evening (a bit of time in London, then 2 weeks trad climbing in Lewis & Harris!) So this was basically my last opportunity for a while. I’ve definitely failed many times on redpoint attempts when under time pressure, so I was pretty pleased that I managed to find the right head space to focus on the climbing rather than the sending. Obtaining this presence of mind is something I see as a really powerful tool to become a better climber.

Manic Strain hasn’t had many ascents so I’m hoping this post will encourage a few more people to get down there!