Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hunting Bears in the Forest.


Every climbing region has a lynch pin, a pivot around which the local scene flexes, articulates, and creates its identity. These individuals are the social glue that keep us climbing together. They stay in contact with disparate groups, working behind the scenes to keep things evolving, fresh, alive. Often the influence and efforts of such individuals are not noticed, lost in the intensity of movement and depravity of comment that so often marks a day out at the crag. However if Bouldering is a culture, they are its architects, creating and recreating the scene in their regional homes.

Fatneck (left) and Hip Hop Ben - Doing their Two Ronnies  Routine
In Liverpool, or the Scouse scene, we have Fatneck!  Its not that his neck is fat, rather his head is small; its a question of scale apparently. He makes the effort to marshal the ever-growing, morphing threads of social media that weave through modern life. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He does not involve himself with the tittle tattle of grades and ethics- his energy is channelled elsewhere, into a deeper magic. One flex of his text and an unnatural power is released through the ether, leading to eddies of abbreviated words washing through Liverpool's streets on a Friday night. Often on Saturday mornings Scouse climbers find themselves at the same venue chatting away unaware of why they are there or who is responsible. Fatneck is good, really good but that's because he gained his skills from the master- he learned everything he knows from the Bear.

Sometimes individuals transcend a scene, they break through the barriers that geography and topography present. They unite disparate groups and become a powerful node in a network that can motivate individuals separated by whole countries, even continents. The simple beep of a text from one of these people can conjure a stack of pads and a spotting party under almost any boulder in Europe. The Bear is one of these powerful shamen. He's a shape shifter, inventing and reinventing himself in different locations, increasing his influence and powers wherever he goes.

Traditionally in their natural state Bears are solitary animals shunning the company of others.  Not this one. His phone book has created its own dimensions of space and time - it hums as the near infinite number of contacts it stores threaten to burst free causing havoc in the world. His original stomping ground was the flat wastes of the East.  He lived in a city on the Humber hunting far and wide, particularly on Pennine Grit and the soft sculpted sandstone of Northumberland, searching for his favoured form of sustenance, the sloper.  It was around this time I first met the Bear.  A tall man with big hands and his own mystical reputation introduced us.  I was instantly taken by the Bear's generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for everything bouldering related; his knowledge, advice and experiences are unparallelled, shared freely and in my own case foolishly and regularly ignored.

The Bear migrated from his lair in the East to the rich feeding grounds of the Derbyshire Peak in order to gorge himself on the rich slopers that are found in abundance there.  His new residence more often than not would be The Plantation.  He would be found siting astride an avalanche of pads in the cave under the Grand Hotel waiting for rain, mist and snow to clear so he could have careless attempts on the arete of his desire.  It was around this time I truly recognised the power the Bear possesses; his ability to motivate men from around Europe to join and partake in fearless deeds. I also glimpsed the ritual from which the Bear's power flows- this filled me with awe and dread in equal measure. 

On a lonely hillside in West Yorkshire the Bear was celebrating the day of his birth in a hut owned by a junior paramilitary organisation who swear allegiance to Tigers and Wolves. I presented him with a porcelain smoking baby and a fire breathing nun, gifts that both entertained and horrified those who witnessed them. The Bear initiated his ceremony, drinks flowed and one by one the intoxicated disciples present  began to beat out a raucous rhythm on any item they could find: drums, pots, pans, pipes, even the walls. The rhythm rolled on faster and faster until, fearful for my soul, I took myself outside to my tent and the relative safety of sleep.  In the morning I slowly and tentatively crept back into the hut, apprehensive, terrified of what I might see.  I opened the door to the kitchen and was met by a wall of sound, all signs of human existence had been extinguished from the room save for the Bear stripped to the waist, eyes closed, arms raised, declaring in unison with the Stone Roses that he was 'the resurrection and the light'. The air crackled with energy- the ritual had reached its crescendo and the Bear's powers were renewed for another year.  He looked at me spent and senseless, he slurred some words in my direction and took his leave.  I went to the boulders at Widdop to try to make sense of what I'd witnessed knowing that only a few humans are capable of such feats.  I have seen this ritual performed a few times, particularly by Fatneck as he initiates his annual connection to the ether and thus those around him on the Llyn Peninsula.  However at no time since have I seen anything to equal the Bear.

I have seen less of the Bear in recent years.  As he continued to roam the hills of Derbyshire in search of the aesthetic I was lured to the dark side, blinded by the allure of crimp and pull, chasing numbers that never end.  I have found myself in caves and under overhangs where the darker elements of bouldering live; competitive arenas where debates begin and controversy simmers, ready to boil over into forums and bile.  These areas diminish the Bear's power, the limestone burns his skin and the lack of slopers makes him yearn for open spaces and a soaring line.  My path on the never ending treadmill of training and projects has left me broken; only halfway along the scale, unable to go any further, diminished in some way.  The Bear has experienced change as well; he had taken to the rooves of the nation to earn a crust and so has cast his dwelling in the east adrift on a summer storm. As habitats, seasons and climates change so has his feeding ground.  The Bear has always loved the forests of Northern France, a place where his preferred diet can be easily sustained.  His feeding there has become more permanent of late and he is more likely to be glimpsed wandering in the dappled Gallic light rather than against the steel-grey skys of the moors.

The sloper, the main dietary requirement of the Bear.

My journey along the limestone road has taught me to appreciate the Bears wisdom once again.  I always ignored his advice about aesthetics, and jumping rather than climbing. Now that I'm broken I realise he was right all along.  I now search for a soaring line even if the limestone habit is hard to kick.  I have begun to reconnect, respond to Fatnecks texts, remove myself from weekly cave-bound pilgrimage. I have reconnected to the nodes controlled by the social shamen of the bouldering scene.  The forests of Northern France are now in my sights, sandstone slopers await.  In three weeks time Fatneck will guide me on an adventure through the ether and around the Forest; we will hunt for king lines in the playgrounds of princes.  If I'm really lucky we might hear the beep of a text or glimpse a Bear somewhere in the woods.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Technology, Training, and Porth Ysgo.

Winter Sunshine on the Llyn
We live in a constantly evolving world, where the pace of societal change is dictated by technology's metronome. As this pendulum swings its return time shortens leading to an ever more frenzied rhythm that most look awkward dancing to at best. Some will always get it, look cool and ride the crest of technology's wave whilst the rest of us dad-dance on the fringes of the disco, embarrassed, waiting for an opportunity to sit out.

Social media, communication devices and the amorphous landscapes of the Internet dictate the ebb and flow of change in the present era. I am only to aware of this as I type on my smart phone ready to e-mail to my computer and upload to a blog, a process I obviously struggle with being a dad dance hero who prefers to hover diffidently at the edge of the metaphorical disco. However as I look in to the flashing lights and frenzied movements of the leaders on the dance floor I can't help feel that things are starting to move so fast that no one can keep up. The sources of information about climbing and Bouldering have become so numerous that marshalling all of this news is very much like transporting soup in a colander; most escapes and only the important lumps remain. As an obsessive boulderer it becomes clear that there is too much out there to do and you will never be able to do it all, so it is time to pair things back, take stock and return to the familiar. I can't visit America, South Africa, or Australia in the foreseeable future, but I can go to Font! Now there is a place worth training for in the midst of a typical British winter.

So training is the order of the day, month, or even season. Conscious moments are filled with plywood, plastic, and chalk. The cellar board at the Hanger becomes a second home, a cave of pain whose steep angle shades the eyes from the hyper-reality and luminosity of the indoor experience. Time is marked by reps and sets; minutes are no longer temporal way markers- rather they are disciplined intervals of rest before the next frenzy of activity. Numbers take on a near mystical significance, 1 - 3 - 5, 1 - 4 - 7, 1 - 5 - anything become phrases of communication and aspiration. Things can become very minimal indeed.

There are inherent dangers when indulging the training urge. Flat wooden edges, constant repetition, pre-determined movement and an unhealthy interest in stop watches can have a hypnotic affect. Enthusiasm begins to leech away lost to the ether, the world contracts around you and the whole point of the exercise (to get stronger for a trip or problem) seems to inch further away. Relationships with non climbers become strained, they simply can't comprehend the true meaning of encore and repeater and laugh when they overhear conversations involving woodies. In light of this how can you stay psyched, continue to train and reach the finish line?

One option is to turn to the tidal wave of digital media available, to get your psych on by watching others climb your 'must do' problems. However will this really lead to a resolution of your issues, or is it the path to madness? You Tube and Vimeo hold so many visual Bouldering resources hours of your life can be lost mining these seams; and what lies at the end of them? Nothing substantial, just that same monotony born out of repetition! Click, watch, consume, click, watch, consume; time for another set? The only way out of such a morass is to immerse yourself in a Bouldering experience that can remind you in one hit what its all about. A venue that distills and concentrates everything you want from bouldering- aesthetic lines, lovely holds, breathtaking landscapes and the potential to stretch you to your limits. Bouldering videos can't do these things - Porth Ysgo can.

Ysgo is a strange mistress, moody and unreasonable in the summer, empathetic and forgiving in the winter. My annual yuletide visit was timed to lift me from the deep pit that disciplined training had created. My comrades 'with' arms Hip Hop Ben and Fatneck were optimistic as we tumbled across North Wales in the van, however the journey was anything but dry! We pulled up at the parking and the rain intensified. The walk to the beach left everything drenched besides my undecrackers! It seemed that all was lost; another piss-wet day on a piss-wet weekend punctuating the worst piss-wet year in climbing. My psych was draining, dripping from my coat. We reached the beach and it rained some more. I could almost hear the echoes of "I told you so" resonating from those climbing the steep boards of Merseyside. Then it happened! Ysgo took one look at our plight and she understood. The rain stopped and without the aid of sun or wind, the rock dried!

Dry rock this year has been scarce- almost as hard to find as an honest banker. However if you mix this valuable commodity with the rich, comedic patter which normally emanates from Messrs Hop and Neck then we are beginning to describe a very good day indeed! These comedians deliver their lines like a well practised double act, my own post modern version of the two Ronnies. As they strut along Ysgo's rocky stage I'm reminded of the importance of the social side of climbing for keeping motivation flowing; I don't ever remember a time when a campus rung has made me laugh. We climbed for four hours and the sun even made a cameo appearance in our multi-sensory variety show! Knees bleeding, hands burning, senses sated we headed to Llanberis and Pete's to indulge our need for warm grease and a perfect day was complete.

So now Christmas is over, work has started and the rain continues to fall. I've moved back into my 50 degree hovel at the Climbing Hanger, with its colourful lumpy decor! Life has returned to a routine of crimp pull and rest, minutes pass and a new rep starts. However things are different. Training does not seem pointless, it's worthwhile and focused. Ysgo does that to you. Messing around with mates on the boulder beach, finding dead cows, trying new lines; it helps you focus, it tells you to get stronger so you can get those prized lines done next time. Psych is high and the status of my relationship with the campus board has returned to positive with long term benefits. So let the training continue! In six weeks time I'll be in Font!

Here's a video from our last big trip - don't watch it, go climbing instead!

Font in a NutSack from Owen McShane on Vimeo.

Words and video - Skinny Dog
All Photo's Simon "Fatneck" Huthwaite

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Seven Foot Dyno Pex Hill

Wow it's been a depressing winter so far. No powder blue sky, no friction, and virtually no outdoor action.

The new Cheshire and Merseyside Sandstone guide came out Mid October, creating a maelstrom of phyche in my mind, focusing my efforts on all things local. I have visited all the crags in the guide in the last few weeks, called in on some familiar friends, and sought out crags I have never seen before; all done under a thick blanket of gloom covering every inch of rock with a sheen of moisture frustrating all my efforts to put the guide out of date. Yes believe it or not even a crag like Helsby, climbed on since before the beginning of time, history and memory has bouldering potential as yet unrealised. In fact Cheshire and Merseyside still has unclimbed crags which are very good, however there will be more to come on that subject when the deluge abates and the water table allows us to walk rather than wade to crags.

Climbing has been an indoor activity of late, and training for the greater ranges (Font) has been the order of the day. Whilst working hard at the Climbing Hanger Liverpool on inflaming old injuries and creating new ones to share with family and friends, I struck up a conversation with someone regarding the the Seven Foot Dyno at Pex Hill. This is a problem I put up many moons ago when my tendons were elastic and I climbed like a coiled spring full of snap and potential energy. The Seven Footer did not make the Pex eliminate topo in the new guide, and it seems that there still a little confusion on where this baby goes from, so I though I would clear things up once and for all.

The Seven Foot dyno is essentially a harder version of the break to break dyno or "Red Flash" (an affectionate name given to an old car of mine) as it now known on Pisa Wall at Pex Hill. Red flash is a V5 and is clearly and correctly marked on the eliminate topo in the new guide, it goes from holds 6 and 7 to the break. The Seven Foot Dyno is a V8 (font 7B), and it goes from two side pull holds around seven or eight inches below the break where Red Flash starts, on the eliminate topo this would be holds 4 and 5.  Obviously this means you need to buy the guide to get your definitive description, however that's a good as the guide is a thing of beauty.

If you don't want to buy the guide here is the now infamous video of the Seven Foot Dyno created by the legendary Oz Fry the man who put the bag into baggy! Enjoy