Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Road Trip

Sat in my final maths exam staring out at the sunshine, thinking about how the next weeks would pan out, I would never have imagined some of the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been and the climbs I’ve done.

We set off from the conclusion of that very exam, straight from school to begin the 7 week long roadtrip we had been planning since the beginning of the year. After a family wedding in Cambridge, we met up with Billy Ridal, one of my friends from the comp circuit who was also on the trip to Spain earlier in the year, who would be accompanying us on our journey. We were packed, psyched and ready to go, and boarded the ferry with high spirits. Bar the black foot marks in the cabin from constant "cabin bouldering", the 2 day journey passed relatively painlessly and we arrived in Bilbao ready to hit up the first stop on the list, Baltzola cave!

The one place we didn't have the guide for turned out to be the hardest to find a topo for, obviously, and we spent many hours in the city searching! Not to be outdone, we found the position of the crag online and decided to venture out topoless, and got on one of the nice lines until (we hoped!) some locals arrived. I managed the climb 3rd go, after falling from the last move on the second, and when a group arrived I was happy to find out it was in fact an 8a called “Blandiju”! As well as the route identification, we were also pointed to a topo online, which gives fairly accurate information about the routes in the cave. Fresh from my success on the first climb, I decided to try another 8, and settled on the 8a+ “Iluminatis”, another steep roof line, which despite trying it intending to get up the next day, I managed 2nd go! A very successful first day!

Second day, and I got on another 8a+, “Black Kongi”, which starts up the classic 8c of the crag, “White Zombie”, then ends with a boulder problem. It was an awesome line, and when I didn’t manage it that day I was deliberating whether to come back and finish it off or to move on to the next crag without the risk of another failure. Nice one to Billy for getting his 2nd 8a, and his first of the trip at this amazing crag! I made the decision to give it a last few attempts, and managed it, after a few good falls from up high.

I made a video of our time in Baltzola, including all the hardest climbs we managed. Some of the zoomed shots really capture the scale of the place!

After finishing the climb we left the crag and headed out to our next planned destination, Rodellar! There are very few, European destinations that allow for hard summer climbing, but with its North-South gorge giving morning and afternoon shade, and its proximity to the river, Rodellar is perfect, as well as having a great climbing scene!

My goal for the entire trip was to manage an 8a onsight, so with the aim in mind I set out to try as many 8a's as I could find, and it seemed like Rodellar would be the perfect place to do it, with plenty to choose from. We began with some fun mileage in the morning then set off for some more serious stuff on the huge wall of Gran Bovida. The goal for the day was an onsight attempt of Coliseum, the most onsighted route at Rodellar and a 40m long stamina fest. I set off, but despite easy climbing I was pumped out of my mind by half height, and came off fighting as hard as I ever have. I was going to need to be fitter!

I tried many more 8as in the coming days, falling off most in the last hard moves. I’m not sure if it was a mental block, or I wasn’t fit enough, or the routes just didn’t suit me, but despite coming within moves of success, the tick eluded me! I managed some great climbs in Rodallar though, with 3 8a ticks and a 7c+ onsight (almost falling clipping the chains!). Perhaps the most significant for me though was redpointing El Delphin, the mega classic roof climb through a huge arch well above the valley floor.

The route itself isn’t particularly good and the climbing for the most part is not too hard, but the mental battle for me to clip the chains was intense. It wasn’t the difficulty of the route, but the combination of the exposure, the (from my point of view) poor fixed gear and insecure looking rock flipped some sort of switch in my head, and I just freaked out. When I fell off on the onsight, I was a gibbering wreck of fear. I haven’t been scared of falling for some years now, in fact I have come to enjoy it, but this climb made me feel like I didn’t even want to weight the rope, for fear of the rope snapping on the worn draws. If I stopped, let the route beat me and moved on, I felt like I could develop a mental block, and it could slow down my rapid progress on the trip. I had to get back on the route, just to show myself that I could do it. The next go I came off again, panicked, but less so than the first attempt, which was good. I got back on, and with a fight I slapped through the last boulder problem and clipped the chains. Not a route I plan to do again in a hurry, but an important step in improving my climbing.

El Delphin

From Rodellar we headed to Terradets, but even with the morning shade the heat was unbearable, and the rock felt slick in the humidity. The sixes felt hard, the eights felt just as hard, and when the sun finally peaked over the top of the crag, with no meaningful ascents under my belt, I left feeling frustrated. We drove off to find the next crag, Tres Pons.

Tres Pons is exactly my style, long, not too steep and on positive crimps, and with the summer heat being kept at bay by the river and the shade, was the perfect destination. We arrived too early on the first day for the afternoon crag, but as soon as the sun was off it we got on an unnamed 7b to warm up, and wow was it amazing! This is the single best route I did on the trip, and I’m not even sure why. All the moves just flowed, and gave me a route that meant I came down smiling. Perfect!

Fresh from this fun I geared up for an onsight attempt of a route to the left, Alt Urgell, a 7c that extends into an 8a. I had wanted to go for the onsight of the 7c, but put a few extra draws on so I could try the extension if I got there. I set off, and after choosing the wrong line of holds at the start and having to down-climb to just off the ground, I was soon at the end of the 7c section looking up at the final steep moves before a hard looking slab to the chain. I was already about 30m up at this point, but I could recover for the last 10m on jugs by the first lower off. I composed myself, and went for the crimps above. It was hard climbing, but all the onsighting I’d been doing meant I knew what to do, and with some high feet and long rockovers I was stood on the slab, shaking out my arms and staring at the chain some metres above. It was a case of moving slowly, taking the route one move at a time and ensuring I didn’t make any mistakes. Every move was a calculated risk, but when I latched the final flake that I knew would take me to the top, I let out a shout of delight! I climbed to the chains, clipped them, and lowered off. I’d done it, my first 8a onsight! I left happy that night, and looked forward to the next day at this perfect crag. Effort to Billy, who also managed to top this route, despite being a bit under the weather.

We warmed up on the 7b again, but it didn’t seem as good as the previous day, which was a shame, but it was no matter, and I decided, after some recommendations from locals, to try for the onsight of another 8a. This again was the extension of a 7c+, but also extended again into and 8a+ finish. I took enough draws for the whole thing, more out of hope than any real confidence I would reach the top. I pulled through the 7c+ well, and got to the angle change that marked the start of the 8a extension, another slab! The moves were technical and balancey, with every movement a risk of a foot pop or a slip. A few tenuous metres later, and I clipped the chain, surprised to have ticked my second 8a onsight in as many days. But there was more to come! Just 15 metres of slab climbing stood between me and bettering the whole goal of my trip. I was high up, but I relaxed and focused on the next move. I committed where I needed to, rested where I could and after battling with 60 metres of rope drag, a sketchy mantle and almost falling clipping every clip, I had reached the top of my first 8a+ onsight. I lowered off ecstatic, but sad to be leaving this perfect crag. Props to Billy, the hero of the day, who, when a storm stopped his attempt, battled to the top through the heaviest rain I’ve seen, and the loudest thunder I’ve heard, to strip the route. Not something many people would be queuing up to try! 

After picking up my Mum and Brother from the airport, Billy and I were deposited in Ceuse, the crag I had visited last year, while the rest of my family enjoyed rainy days in the Verdon Gorge. Ceuse did not escape the rain however, and after the first day or so rain was a constant delight we experienced almost daily. I managed to climb far harder than last year though, ticking Dolce Vita (8a+) before the rain set in and climbing the steep and powerful L'ami de tout le monde (8b), after a problem latching a long move by the 3rd bolt. I also spent some time working Slow Food, and extremely powerful 8b+ that begins with a V8 boulder that I was very close to linking, for me the key to the route, and definitely something to got back for when I’m stronger. Ceuse, as with last year, was full of great people, and the atmosphere is amazing, so I will of course be returning lots in the coming years.

The last stop on the outdoor leg of our journey to Imst was in Gorge Du Loup, the group of crags I had visited earlier in the year. Just an afternoon there, in the dry tufa-lines of Deverse was enough to convince me that this was in fact a good crag, and after climbing the mega classic 8a+ Deverse Satanique, I was keen to return to the many more hard lines this steep wall has to offer.

From Loup, it was off to Imst, so, after stopping at the Arco and Innsbruck indoor walls to re-remember how to climb on plastic and 2 days or driving we met the team. A couple of days of rest later, it was time for the comp. My first route and I felt calm, confident and fit, but a slip moving off a pinch ended the climb short of where I wanted, and needed, to be. I came 40th on this route, but just 4 moves more would have put me joint 10th, so to be so close and coming off relatively fresh is frustrating. On my second route, I climbed well, but with a small mistake higher up I was off in a much better 15th place, so I was reasonably happy. Overall I finished 28th, my worst result in a European competition. I needed to stem the mistakes and climb to my best to make the final in this comp, but the fact I can be close on many of my climbs in encouraging, especially for next year when I should be stronger and fitter after a winter of training.

After climbing on the final problems on Sunday, we started to leave when we experienced the first breakdown of the trip! The muppet of a mechanic they sent out didn’t have a clue, but with a promise of having it seen to in the morning we were left at a campsite. Turns out the problem was electrical, and with an hour of tinkering we had found the trick (which involves pulling wires around the ignition when you go to start), and we could drive consistently. Off to Font!

Font was so much better than I expected. Even though we only made it to Bas Curvier, the sheer volume and quality of the problems that were there made me want to go back as soon as I could! While there, I managed Carnage (F7B+) and was excruciatingly close to the sit start, which is definitely something to go back for as it is such an amazing problem. I also climbed many easier problems, as the heat made it difficult to redpoint, but even these we a far superior quality to any boulders I have climbed in the UK. I am not the greatest fan of pebble pulling, but this place was definitely the best argument I’ve had for giving it a good go!

More driving, another ferry and the European leg of the trip was over, but we still had one final destination, the annual summer Youth Open comp in Leeds, and the first to include bouldering in the form of the Junior BBCs (British Bouldering Championships) round 3. The Saturday was the bouldering comp, and being a close second in the overall rankings behind the ever strong European bouldering champion Dom Burns, I was in with a good chance of taking the title. In the qualifiers I climbed ok, but not at my best and came away wit 6 tops in 7 attemps, but was within 1 move of another. This meant I qualified for the final in 4th place.

The finals were really good. Isolation actually had places to warm up, we weren’t in there for too long, and the problems actually looked really good! After observation, I was out early but from the speed people were coming back into isolation I knew I had to flash the problem to be up there and in with a chance. It was my turn to go, but a foot slip caused me to fall on my first attempt. I got back on, and despite taking a monster swing on the finishing jug I held it, and had topped the problem second go. The next problem was harder for me, with a long move from a sloper to a gaston which I couldn’t reach from the foothold, meaning the move became a full footless crucifix between the two. I didn’t manage this problem, and I didn’t even get the bonus so I was behind going into the last problem. The last problem started with powerful moves in a roof, into a long press and crimp moves on the headwall. I knew this problem would suit me, and when I came out I knew I could do it. I stepped out, read the problem and climbed it first go. I was slightly disappointed, as the problem felt relatively easy and I knew it would not be enough to put me in a better position, but I finished this comp in 4th, and the overall series in 2nd! I’m really happy with this for my first year in Youth A, and will certainly be back next year to challenge for the title. Off of this performance, I was selected to compete at the final bouldering EYC of the year in Laval in October, which will be a great comp!

Photo credit Peter Wuensche

The next day was the lead comp, and after coming 2nd in the last youth open I was hoping to go one better. My first qualifier was exactly my style, a vertical crimp-fest that actually required some technique, which was nice to see in a comp. I topped it, and was looking to repeating that on my second climb. Sadly, that was not the case. I made every move hard, got every hold in the wrong place and came off low down. Was it not for my first climb I could not have made the final, and when I came down I expected just that. Fortunately, in a final of 6 I made it in 5=. Not where I wanted to be.

In isolation I didn’t feel 100%. In fact I felt terrible. I had a pump in my arms that I could feel, and knew it would surface as soon as I pulled on to the final route. Isolation was crap as well, warming up on vertical walls is never easy! I came out, climbed as well as I could and tried hard, but the pump appeared, I went for a long move and was off. It was better than I expected to do, as I finished 4th, and were it not for my abysmal qualification I could have been higher, with count back deciding against me. Not my best comp, bouldering the previous day and just the fatigue from the whole trip really took it out of me, but I’m ready for the next national comp, the BLCCs in Sheffield in October. I will also be competing in seniors, so I look forward to seeing how I compare!

Its been an amazing summer, and I’d like to thank my Dad for putting up with me all trip and making it happen. Also to Billy for coming and keeping us company! Cheers everyone, and stay tuned for my next blog about the World Championships in Canada!

I will also be competing in the final EYC of the year in Norway this weekend, so follow me on Twitter for updates and to find out how to watch. 

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