Thursday, 14 June 2007

Reflections on the Road

The long drive up from Edinburgh to Sheigra on the far NW corner of Scotland. Five and a half hours behind the wheel. Ali's asleep in the passenger seat, having had a busy night shift as a fireman. The mind starts ticking over. Mine starts grinding over with the sound of rusty cogs...

In 2001, I onsighted my first E6; back then, I had only onsighted one french 7b+ and could occasionally onsight 7b ; redpointed 7c+ and bouldered font 7b "straight up" (7c if you count traverses: i.e. Consolidated). Now, six years later I have onsighted french 8a; redpointed 8b and bouldered font 8a. And in all that time, I have continued to onsight E6es up and down the country, with the occasional failed foray into E7 territory.

The Herbaloner E6 6b, Pabbay. Steve Crowe climbing in the background. (Photo: C. Adams)

So why? Oh why, have I not managed to push my trad onsight grade in a similar manner? Going by the improvements in my sport and bouldering grades, surely I should be onsighting E8 by now?! Well, no. Not really. If we examine the nature in which I climbed those first E6es and analyse my improvements in sport and bouldering then it will be seen that the apparent physical progress in sport and bouldering does not correspond linearly with an increase in trad grades...

Take my first E6, a scruffy little wall by the name of Helmut Schmitt at Stoney Middleton in the Peak. I remember a sketchy blur of slapping hands on the crux and of poorly placed gear, too pumped to place it any better. Not so much throwing caution to the wind as chucking it into a hurricane. This approach pretty much summarised my style at the time and on subsequent E6es over the next year. I was in my early 20s, felt invincible and that I had something to prove. A bad combination for my belayers I am sure. At Gogarth recently, (see earlier post: Scotland vs North Wales), I did a wide variety of E6es: pumpy ones, technical and scary ones, cruxy and run-out ones. And on each of them, I remember placing the gear really well, hunting out the elusive rps; taking a considered, calculating approach; locking off every hold statically and in full control.

The above descriptions sound like two completely different climbers, and they are in a sense. I have definitely changed over the last six years, from the young tyke to a more mature climber (I hate using that word, I sound old!): one who doesn't want to take unnecessary risks; one who wants to climb again next week; one who knows that it isn't worth risking everything just for one route; one who has had an accident but gotten away lightly and one who has settled down with their partner, realising that they don't have the right to put their own lives in such jeopardy again. While my trad grade has stayed the same, I have actually improved and consolidated the skills and fitness required at this level but I am no longer prepared to take the same approach to onsight E7 as I did when I first started onsighting E6es.

Bouldering at Ben Ledi, experimenting with body positions

Looking at my sport and bouldering abilities, at face value they seem to indicate a huge improvement in physical strength and fitness. But on examination, these have only played a small part, the main contribution that influenced my progress was that of skill acquisition in each discipline. For sport onsighting my biggest jump ever came from learning about pacing on routes: learning how to "sprint" up overhanging routes and climbing in a slick, economical manner. For redpointing, it was about remembering all the sequences and in particular the foot sequences on cruxes. In bouldering, I learnt how to experiment with subtles nuances in body positions and to persevere at a given sequence until success.

Rosanna 8a, Ceuse, learning how to sprint

In saying all that, I know that I am stronger and fitter than six years ago, but this is really only a fraction of the overall climbing equation. With over 40 E6es onsighted at this point, I feel I have created a huge base to move forward from, but this is tempered by a more considered and conservative approach than in the past. I hope that I can move into E7 territory without the precariousness that characterised my first E6es.