Wednesday, 23 October 2013

I’m rubbish because my mate is sometimes better than me.

This weeks post comes from Ged Mac - gourmand, raconteur, and proprietor of Liverpool's Climbing Hangar.

The heavy bass massaged the dance floor of Chibuku as Nick played a DJ set supporting Disclosure in Liverpool last month. This was his most high profile set ever. I ‘danced’ away to his mix feeling a warm glow of pride. That’s my mate Nick I thought, look at all these people dancing, enjoying themselves, I was happy for him. A dark thought about my climbing life surfaced suddenly, how often am I envious instead of proud of my friends success? How often does a friends’ success actually spoil my climbing session? More often than I would like to admit actually.

I assume we all compare ourselves to other people, in all walks of life. At the wall this means you have put yourself in an ability league relative to other people. I am also assuming that, like me, you expect to outperform some and be outperformed by others. But when this order is upset, unbidden thoughts, presumably made by demons, appear in my mind and interfere with my climbing session. Here are three scenarios:

Scenario 1: I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try (called a flash). While basking in glory, Dan, who climbs V14 strolls up and attempts to climb it. He struggles and falls! Wow! Dan fell off it? Well ain’t that just the icing on the cake? It must be harder than I thought! I must be on form tonight!

Scenario 1.1: Dan cruises a problem I am working. I am inspired and pay close attention to his movement, looking for tips. I feel indifferent about his ascent as Dan’s is basically a machine anyway with hydraulics for fingers. I expect him to crush it easily.

Scenario 2: I’m climbing with Mark, our finance man, Mark climbs V9ish like me. I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try. While basking in glory, Mark glides effortlessly to the top. I didn’t find that one too bad actually, he says, looking surprised after my horror show. This triggers dark, envious thoughts. I invent reasons why he found it easy and I didn’t. I find reasons why I’m tired. I mutter, ‘well you’ve always been good at slopers, I’m rubbish at them. I’m climbing terribly– maybe I’ll wrap up and go home early…. I need to train more/eat less/pull my finger out etc

Scenario 2.2: Mark saunters up a problem that I am working, yep I feel bad about that. OMG, I am rubbish, I’m quitting climbing etc… self-esteem/cliff edge/dive dive dive…

Scenario 3: I climb a boulder problem first time, I fight hard and get it first try. N one’s around, I move on. Nice. Next problem Ged….

Hypothetically, the above takes place in five parallel universes, I climb the same boulder problem in the same style in each universe, but each leads into one of the scenarios above and a very different feeling about my performance based on factors beyond my control. Typically the suggested circuit grade is the classic session killer, normally that it’s harder than you think it should be. Amazingly, very few people complain if they think something is too easy (go figure), but anyway.

It’s pretty embarrassing admitting the above. It isn’t like I choose these thoughts. But up they pop, like little bubbles in my mind, often with terrible effects on how much I enjoy my session. What’s worse is the occasional mood swings and stupid comments that follow, yeah I didn’t sleep much last night or I’ve climbed too much or not enough. Crazy. Obviously the problem is internal, Mark and Dan are two climbers I respect and learn huge amounts from. So what is the difference? I don’t know to be sure, but I presume that the proximity of Mark to me in terms of ability/time climbing/training/build/height/age, occasionally triggers a very negative self-analysis that totally ignores logic and obvious objective analysis like style of climb, that Mark and I have different preferences/strengths weaknesses and so on.

Obviously I’m going to climb with my friends so, if Mark continues to cruise stuff I can’t do, well, dry your eyes Ged and get on with it. But the real question here is why and how do certain things get under our skin with enough force to inhibit performance? Listen Mark, it’s not you, it’s me. Maybe there are areas of my motivation and self-esteem that I don’t yet understand, invisible mental currents that wield influence over my climbing.

I know I climb my best when I’m happy. I also know that sometimes I get annoyed when I judge my climbing to be poor and struggle to reverse the feeling, my climbing always worsens when this happens, even if the judgement is wrong or unfair. Yet I think I climb for pleasure, for the challenge, for how good it makes me feel, for time shared with others.
The million dollar question is then, can I (we) improve the climbing experience by altering my emotional response to things beyond our control, to stay happy and motivated? I’m working on the answer, but so far my top three for staying positive is:

Forget ‘I did it’ = / ‘I fell off’ = try, be motivated by making progress no matter how tiny.
Never, ever make an excuse for falling off, analyse why it may have happened, but don’t excuse it.

Spend a session failing on hard stuff – I say in my head after every fall, ‘this one has something to teach you then, best pay attention…’ failing can be fun!
If you have any experiences of other factors influencing your climbing, positive or negative or you have any wisdom to share from climbing or from other disciplines, please do get in touch so I can explore the subject further with case studies other than me!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Game of Bests - Revistited

New game, new game! Best problem you have ever climbed - think about it?

(If you are unsure of the game of bests I wrote a post about it some time ago, you can catch up by reading it here.)

When writing about Angel bay I happened across a photograph; a photograph I had long since forgotten, a photograph that encapsulates why I climb. This photograph was taken by Crouch and first appeared on his blog (see it here). It was taken at a time when I was going well; in my head I was even keeping up with Crouchy! I've never actually kept up with Crouchy and that's why he's my hero. He sends 8a on any rock type, he has an ambition to herd cats in the future and he can eat caustic curries with a smile on his face. However I digress; being delusional about your ability is an old tradition in sport, it can really help with motivation and achievement. In bouldering it can lead to problems being climbed that, on balance, you really shouldn't be able to touch. The problem in the photograph, my favourite problem ever, is a case in point.

The brilliant Lizard King, Llanberis Pass. Picture Crouchy Collection.
The photo was taken by Crouch himself on a crisp winter's day when the pass was enveloped by powder blue skies and a soft, low light enlivened the shadows that lingered in the lea of the boulders. We met with the Dinas crew: Kev and Liam, dragons from the South, strong in the crimp and the lock. Kev chose to join us as we quested after this mythical reptile in the pass. I had spotted Fathanded Tom as he dispatched the problem in question with ease many years before. I had a go on two of the moves a week previously and knew that I could climb it, despite myself!

The description of Lizard King (simply the best problem out there for me) in the old North Wales Bouldering Guide is confusing. It states that it has a range of grades depending on the methods used to climb it. This would normally put most off the scent and would lead them to quest up other hillsides, however the description also contains stars; a hint of quality that cannot be ignored. If the stars lead you over to Craig y Llwyfan you will see there is no real confusion; this problem is no eliminate, it just encapsulates quality of movement on rock. The confusion comes from the fact that three problems share a similar start on this boulder but take different lines through its steepness. However it all makes sense when you get there.

You may ask what all the fuss is about. Why is this fool waxing lyrical about a single line flung far from the honey-pot problems of the Cromlech and Wavelength hillside? How can this be 'best'? Well, it starts with the location, away from the hustle and bustle of trad climbers and tourists that inhabit the laybys of the pass. The boulder itself looks like a little bit of Switzerland dropped by the Bouldering Gods into the Land of Dragons. The lines of holds that festoon the front face of the block look like they have been laser cut: two near perfect rails that produce the strong visual line those obsessed with aesthetics covert. Finally the angle of climbing is steep, around 30 degrees overhanging - proper climbing if you ask me.

Lizard king, neither high nor low version, is the problem that I would put in my back garden if I had to choose one! It's my 'best' because of its line, the company on the day and its location. Its my best because I sent it, even though I had no real right to do so (Crouchy got the send with minimum fuss about an hour before I did!). Its my 'best' because, as the discovery of this once forgotten photo demonstrates, it can still motivate me now years past both its ascent and the peak of my climbing powers. I look at this image, the only one I've seen that flatters my ego, and it makes me want to try hard, seek out the reason why I hang round small bits of rock rather than pubs at the weekend. 'Bests' motivate, that's why they are the best!

If you don't have a problem that motivates you like this one motivates me, leave the plasic and wood of the wall alone, go out, meet people, and find your best in the shadows cast by boulders on a crisp, powder blue day.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Found and lost.

Have you ever been to the bay of Angels? Have you ever stumbled along its shingled shores to sample the smooth, steep bounty held within? Time slides lazily here; cormorants skim across the still waters and lead your eye to a horizon stippled with windmills attempting to stem the inevitable rise of our warming seas. It's amazing to think that this tranquil little beach, looking out onto a calm sea of renewable rotations, is only a breath away from the bus tours and hotels of Llandudno and the now-faded ice cream parlours of Colwyn Bay. Calmness pervades, waves ripple rather than break, and the problems engage in such a way that hours pass without weariness, ache or need of rest. If you have never experienced the stillness beyond the bungalows in the bay, you need to, and soon.

Crouchy on Dirt Box
Angel bay used be a regular haunt of the Merseyside Bouldering Scene, a real after-work treat when the tide was right. I did my first font 7a here, and I'm sure that Dolph's second ascent of Manchester Dogs was the beginning of his, now marathon, eighth-grade journey. Showtime, Fathanded Tom, Crouchy, Cassidy, Angry and the Silverback all visited in their time and danced on the wave-sculpted rock below the hill and between the tides.
Crouchy doing battle with the Locker
The bay was the sight of one of the most memorable nights of my climbing life. It involved an incident that entertained and horrified in equal measure. It was just a 'Tuesday night after work' session at the bay like any other! Showtime and Caryl were going and I'm sure Fatneck put in one of his influential cameos. Skinny dog was with me and everything was shaping up for a very pleasant evening of summer Bouldering.

I fed the dog and let him mooch around the bay as is his want, chasing the occasional pebble, his feet beating out a staccato rhythm as he searched for momentum and purchase amongst the rock and shingle. On one of these runs something grabbed his attention. A galaxy of starfish had been washed up on the shore; they sat there desiccated by the late-afternoon summer rays. These salty, crunchy fruits of the sea proved too much for the Skinny one to resist! He devoured them in the same way a child eats sweets when they have been told to share. We noticed his activities too late, but thought little of it!

Fatneck showing his class on HP direct.
An hour passed, problems were sent and insults were exchanged as tokens of friendship. It was at this point the dog was sick. It was dismissed as nothing to worry about, we gave him fresh water and returned to banter and Bouldering. What happened next will be etched in my mind until the rising tides engulf the bay indefinitely! My quiet little companion stopped running. He stopped moving. He simply opened up, morphed into a double-ended, biological Roman candle. Fountains metres in length eruped from his orifices, providing a show that was truly multisensory! Showtime laughed. I cried, hit by the sensation that this beautiful beach in its newly defiled state would be my home until the dog hit empty. Skinny looked miserable and began to waddle around, dragging his posterior along the pebbles in search of something cool to ease his pain! The curious incident of a dog in the bay amused Showtime so much he named a problem after it! The dog never looked at seafood in quite the same way again.

Angel bay has been the scene of so many chapters in the Mersyside Bouldering story.  Inspired by nostalgia I went back and visited after a break of some years this summer. It was as calm and tranquil as ever, but something had changed. It took me a while to isolate what variables had shifted, and then it hit me; this place, a former hot bed of Scouse climbing energy, activity and bile, had become a backwater- overlooked, ignored in favour of a famous cleft in the next headland. Have we all been blinded by the allure of arm-busting link ups and the sinuous pathway to big grades mapped out for only those with the patience and dedication for the journey?

Angry Jones on Bridey Arete
Angel bay, once a jewel in the coastal crown of North Wales Bouldering, is being lost as quickly as it was found. A lack of interest has allowed the quiet and constant creep of barnacles across the bay to continue unabated. Proud, smooth, clean lines are slowly being re-colonized by the creatures of the shore. Sonic Boom, a boulder problem of some note, was once adorned with stars; now crustaceans decorate its slopers. Angel bay needs to be found again before it is lost to the sea: Jonesy's Locker, Dirt Box, Ren Arrete, Muscle Bound, Chaos Emerald Crack, The Holding Principal, Spectrum, The Limpet, Limp Wrist, The Letter Box and Sonic Boom are all good reasons to go! So people of Merseyside, Flintshire and Conway, let's not wait for a new guide to spark our interest, let us repopulate the bay with climbers. We can match those limpets and barnacles with our own efforts. Let us fight them on the beaches! So much can be achieved by so few! There is a battle to be fought and, by our will, we can return this tranquil spot to its former climbing glory and you too can experience the agony and ecstasy of climbing here.

Thanks to Crouchy and Fatneck for all of the photo's- there's more to see on!

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Very Tall and the Very Small.

Skinny Dog turning to run from a good argument
Debate has always been the lifeblood of climbing. Grades, sandbagging, ethics, mistrust and sheer pig-headedness have driven us on, motivated us to try harder, and led us onto the path of discovery and perceived achievements. It could be argued that this discord has had more influence on the increase in climbing standards than either the invention of the campus board or climbing's flirtations with the status of being a "sport" and the aroma of measurement and science that follow it! Every bar brawl, every tall tale told on Malham's catwalk, every wall and edge claimed by a Master; the unstemable torrent of doubt pouring over the achievements of others have motivated us to "prove em wrong."

These dialogues and discourses were traditionally presented and explored in the vicinity of warm beer and salty snacks. Fleshy fists would often support salient points mooted on the style of ascents made on the moors and mountains that fan out from the pub's front door. Today the rhythmical tapping of letter embossed plastic cubes, or the creation of codes which resemble language on illuminated screens, underscore the discordant melody that is contemporary climbing culture. Forums, posts, blogs and tweets now burn with the passion once stoked by fists, whisky and ale. We are now driven by what is written. We may not punctuate our points with blood and sweat, but the passion, drive and consequences are the same.

One debate that echoes around the Bouldering sphere is that of 'aesthetics' vs 'the move'. Is the strength of the line more important than the feel of the moves that make it? This argument often morphs into one that can encompass locations, environments, rock types; even the use of holds. Whilst not particularly contentious, these debates fill the bellies of those involved with fire. It leads to derisory comments about Parisella's Cave with its fragrant carpet of goat shit and the primacy of granulated, sedimentary rock types on one hand, and the idea that gritstone is a "luck-based rock type for punters who can't be bothered training", (a moment of brilliance from Crouch 2010) on the other. I have no desire to delve into this particular dialectic other than to be utterly entertained by the rhetoric it creates. What it shows us though is that, where aesthetics are concerned, passion can lead us to irrational positions that stop us from experiencing things that could be really rather good.

This summer, in an attempt to keep myself ticking-over for my winter projects, I went 7b hunting on the moors and mountains of Wales and the Peak. I was drawn to the Wavelength hillside by the problems I had not yet tried or overlooked in the past. One in particular had caught my eye, not because of its sweeping line or its towering reputation; its name attracted me, I mean who could resist doing battle with the "Beef Growler''?  Enquiries made about this problem did nothing to enhance its reputation. It's found on the diminutive roof of the Pie Shop boulder. A low-slung affair with high dab potential and a grinding finish to boot. Conversations with the first ascentionist should have put me off but I was deaf to phrases like "close to the ground" and "utterly crap'': the name alone continued to pull me up the hillside.

The allure of the Wavelength hillside.
On inspection the problem looks poor- close to the ground with a huge pile of sheep shit underneath it to enliven the experience and sharpen the senses. This problem is an aesthetic black hole from which lovers of the line would never return but, my word, it climbed well! I'm a tall man, and I usually laugh at such short walls, but each arse scraping move drew me in. From the heel- toe lock at the start, through the tenuous heel hook in the middle, this problem made me pay attention. I had to think of ways to keep my body high and hold swings. Right up to the final mantel I could not believe the quality of experience afforded me by this low- hulking piece of crap. As I reflected on climbing Beef Growler, bathed by views of one of Britain's most beautiful landscapes, I realised that although the problem I'd ascended was anything but aesthetic- the experience of climbing it certainly was.

The view from the Growler; doesn't get much better than this
So, although debate and strong opinion have driven climbing onward over the years, we should learn a lesson from the Growler experience. If we polarise ourselves into tribes that worship particular rock types, holds, or even climbers, we might miss something really good. The question 'is it the line or is it the move' should not even be asked - It's all climbing. Others may say a move, problem, or venue is rubbish; don't believe them, find out for yourself. You may find your perfect problem. Remember the old adage, "one man's rag is another man's cape"; let's face it, we all want to wear a cape deep down!

Beef Growler 7b from Pavelsky on Vimeo.

Thanks to Paul for the use of his video, you should watch his others, they are really rather good.