Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Some Friends of Mine #2: Alan Cassidy

I have known Alan for almost as long as I have been climbing and he is probably the most "well known under-rated" climber operating in Scotland. I first knew him as my junior rival in the Scottish Leading League and various boulder comps back in the ‘90s. Back then, we shared top spot about 50/50 but as Alan has been a member of the British Climbing Team for three years now and is built like the proverbial brick shit-house, I would struggle to get anywhere near his position these days.

Alan on Anabolica 8a, Siurana (Photo: Hotaches)

It’s no secret that Alan loves his sport climbing and with over 70 sport routes of 8a standard or above, he is the “Mr Mc8a” of Scottish climbing. Personally, I think it’s madness to operate solely as a sport climber in Scotland due to a large number of factors but Alan has worked hard at this discipline despite this and the results speak for themselves.

Favourite climbing area/crag and why?
Ceuse probably - I've had a great time every time I've been there, the routes are great (if sometimes a little similar), great scene, good views and fit climbing birds ;-)

What kind of routes do you prefer climbing
- At the moment I like climbing at my physical limit, pushing myself as hard as I can, so as I am a bit soft, that generally means sport climbing and bouldering. But I have got good trad pedigree too and I have a lot of trad routes I want to go for in a few years time. I love all climbing and hopefully I'll be out on mountain severes in my seventies (though really I'd still like to climb 8a when I'm 70!).
What do you see as your biggest strength?
- My opinion of my own climbing is that I am equally strong/weak in all areas. There isn't really one area of climbing that I excel at over others, I just seem to get by on what Ive got. I'm not the strongest boulderer, but I can hold a level close to my maximum for a reasonable amount of time, so I guess power endurance is my strength.

What do you see as your biggest weakness?
-Strength is my weakness, plus a complete inability to open out my hips. I cannot frog to save myself. Some much so I think I could gain a grade just from being able to do this.
What motivates you to push yourself to climb as hard as possible?
- I just love it pure and simple. I love feeling at my absolute limit, struggling to do things which feel impossible and being so pumped you can't even speak. Its the best feeling.

Getting pumped on an 8a+ at the Baltzola cave, Spain (Cassidy Coll.)

What is the best thing about being based in Scotland?
- For climbing, nothing. I like the Scottish climbing scene though and my mates are here. For my mental well being, being in Scotland is good and I am close to my family. Plus I love Scotland and am proud to be from Scotland. I'd rather be in Europe though. Scottish trad climbing is however brilliant and I really should be out there making the most of that, but for just now it’s just not what I am interested in. I reached a level where I could on-sight E5s no problem, and did a few E6s and technically I can climb much harder than this. I just don't get off on scaring myself on routes which are easy for me and I don't want to die doing routes which are hard but deadly. I guess that is why I enjoyed Requiem E8 as it has the physicality I'm looking for but is safe.

What is the worst thing about being based in Scotland?
- Where do we start? No limestone, no tufas, no sport crags; yes that's right, no sport crags [Oohhh! Controversial Al!...Niall]), no bouldering areas (yes, you heard). In summer; rain, midges, seepage, too hot or too cold. In autumn; seepage, rain, snow, freezing cold. In winter; rain, snow, rain, cold... In spring; rain, seepage, too cold etc etc. Whinge whinge, moan moan...yes I know, I'm too soft.

O.K. so you say there's no "real" sport climbing in Scotland but what's your opinion on the bolt debate that is raging right now and do you think there is place for lower grade sport climbs in Scotland?
-I hate all this ethical high ground bullshit, it seems like if you’re mates with those stripping the crags you can bolt where you like if not then tough. I don't see why there shouldn't be easy sport crags, not that I know of any good venues actually worth bolting. It doesn't really affect me so I have to say I don't really care that much about whether Lower Lednock is stripped or not - it sounds like a shit crag for sport and trad, but if people were getting something out of it then that is good. Now no one will go there, I find it hard to believe Lenny (Gordon Lennox) and Boo Boo (Craig Adams) are really going to go back there to repeat loose E2s when there is so much good trad that they can do elsewhere at their level. It does seem a shame though that people on both sides take unilateral action and are unwilling to accept the consensus of the majority of climbers. It feels like I'm in a time warp to the early 90s when I started climbing, Ken Wilson et al were bemoaning how the bolt would take over and there would be no trad left - things didn't really pan out like that and I don't see that there is such a threat now. I love sport climbing but I don't want to see the trad crags retro-ed and I don't know of anyone who really does. Some people are really reluctant to open climbing up to greater numbers but the evidence on the crags is that so many great routes aren't getting traffic - I don't see the harm in more people being allowed to enjoy Scottish rock-climbing and if they take there first steps on sport climbing crags then that’s fine by me.

In Scotland, do you think there is still an attitude that you are not a "real climber" if you go sport climbing and bouldering? And has this held you back at all?

-Absolutely, I feel like people judge you for preferring to go sport climbing. Generally its people climbing at a lower level than you too. I love trad, but as i said before I'm at the stage where my ability far out strips my boldness and I don't really get a lot out of doing lots of routes that are easy for me - ok, that is fun now and again but I'm into pushing my limit. I'm saving the classic trad for when I'll appreciate it most. I don't expect anyone to understand that, but I'm getting less embarrassed about being a sport climber (though I wouldn't call myself - there is still too much shame). Britain is pretty backward in accepting other forms of climbing as valid (though I bet most if not all the critics have clipped a bolt in Spain/France etc or enjoyed the boulders of Font). Has it held me back? Maybe when I was younger and cared more of what people thought of me. Now I don't really care, I'm close to climbing 8c a level I thought was physically impossible for me when all I did was trad climbing. Now I'm not sure if that is even my true limit.

Alan does climb in Scotland too! On the classic Precious font 7c, Glen Croe (Cassidy Coll.)

Tell us a bit about your first International comp at Kranj, Slovenia last November?
- It was a shock, I really enjoyed it. It was amazing just being in the presence of the best sport climbers in the world, watching them doing there thing and learning from them. It really opens your eyes to what is possible. I also really surprised myself. I got a lot further than I thought i would in the qualifier and fell from miss reading the route - I basically hadn't seen a hold hidden behind a big feature. At that point I'm sure I had 5-6 more moves in me. Had I seen that hold I would probably have made Semi-finals. As it was, I tied with Gaz Parry in 36th, but 10 places equated to getting only 2 holds further! This made me think there was hope for me to still improve to a new level. The main problem is that to get better at comps you need to do lots of comps. The BICC is now a one off event and there are no other lead comps in Britain. What's more the routes and the walls we have in this country are never of the right standard for what you compete on. That is why young Nat (Natalie Berry) is so impressive - I strongly believe she is the best comp climber in Britain at the moment.

What is it like being on the British Team?
- Basically there is no cash. It's so frustrating cause a lot of the time you come away from training really motivated thinking yeah, I'm really psyched to go do lots of internationals and improve etc, but they can't send anyone, so its makes you feel like, what is the point in there even being a team? If I had the money and time I would self fund to go to comps, but I don't and the little cash I do have I'd rather spend on trips to the crag. The only perk is free entry to climbing walls but as we have to fund travel to training meets ourselves, I see that as paying for the free entry.

Since you have repeated a large majority of all the 8s in Scotland, how consistent do you think the grades are at this level?
-I think they are getting a lot better, thanks to more repeats and the graded list on Scottish climbs, unfortunately there is only about 6 of us actually repeating these things so I think it'll be a while yet before the grades completely settle. The other thing with Scottish sport routes is that they are either pretty cruxy or bouldery and this can often leave you confused as to the grades once you do something - this type of climbing tends to feel alright when you finally do them.

You say you are close to climbing 8c, how are you finding the transition to this level of climbing?
-Well I have found it a bit of a shock that I was able to get on these things and make quick progress. It has really inspired me. I think that ticking a couple of 8b+s [Happiness in Slavery, Dumbuck and Body Blow at the Anvil] quickly has helped raise my confidence but I am nowhere near consolidated at that level (nor really at 8b). I believe that next year will be 2008c for me! I think I would have done True North [Classic 8c at Kilnsey, Yorkshire] this year if it hadn't been wet over the summer because I nearly sent it on the day after my 1st year exams at the start of june- my foot popped just as i was going for the last properly hard move and I was feeling like I still had a lot in my arms. Oh well next year! My focus for the winter is to train harder than before on sick power endurance so I can get these super hard routes done quickly. I'd love to climb 8c abroad which requires having a good margin. A lot of people don't like power endurance training because it hurts - I guess I must just be sick!

Making links on True North 8c, Kilnsey (Cassidy Coll.)

You have just completed your first year of medicine, how have you found balancing out all the different demands on your time, training, studying and socialising?
-Its been OK actually. I managed mixing my training and studying fine (though the exam period was quite stressful). I'm not a big social animal (though i need to address this one as it's about time I had a girlfriend) and I must admit my social circle in the last few years has included fewer and fewer non-climbers. When I was living in Perth, all my school friends were about, in Glasgow I only really know climbers well. I might climb hard but I am too shy for my own good! Or maybe its just the climbing chat that scares them away [aye well, talking about cracks and thumb sprags can have that effect…Niall].

Thanks Alan, for taking the time to speak to Deft Moves and best of luck on getting the 8c tick (although I don’t think you really need any!).

"And if you do this with your middle fingers you get the shadow of a rabbit..." (Photo: Hotaches)

Monday, 5 November 2007

Some Friends of Mine #1: Tess Fryer

This is the first of a series of blogs about some of the folks throughout Scotland that I have had the pleasure to climb with. Each person that I chose has been inspirational to me in some way and by interviewing them, I hope to gain some insight into what makes them tick. Plus, it’s a great way of getting someone else to write about 95% of a blog post for you, easy work. First up and with a strong Trad flavour is Tess Fryer.

Tess bouldering at Reiff (photo: I.Taylor)

Shy, retiring, wall-flowery, lackadaisical, middle-of the road: these are all words which I would never dare to use in the same sentence as Tess. I’ve known Tess since I moved to Edinburgh about 9 years ago (Well, 7 actually since I disappeared into clubland for a while when I first defected to the East) and I have to say she is one of the most vivacious and enthusiastic climber that I have met in Scotland with a real appetite for adventure.

The first time I went climbing with Tess was during the Foot and Mouth fiasco back in 2001, we had planned to go to Upper Cave at Dunkeld but due to conflicting signs and general confusion, we ended up bimbling about Polney. The highpoint of the day was a lead of Scram’79 E4 6a which Tess seconded up this with relative ease. I could see immediately that she was capable of climbing and leading much harder than this; there was nothing hurried or unconsidered in her approach and even though she was “only” seconding, she gave the pitch 100% attention and focus, which typically characterises her approach to leading routes.

Since then I’ve been out on trips to Pabbay and Mingulay with Tess and her partner Ian Taylor; stayed in the same apartment whilst in Kalymnos; passed each other in the airports as one group starts a holiday just as another is finishing; caught up with on trips up north and generally bumped into her on a regular basis.

However, since she and Ian moved to Ullapool four years ago, I have seen her standard rise significantly from leading the occasional E3 to jumping onto E5s. My immediate thoughts were that there must be something in the local water! But then, it’s not so surprising given Tess’s drive combined with the unfair amounts of quality rock that there is in the North-West.

So Tess, here’s your Starter for Ten:

How long have you been living in Ullapool & how is the lifestyle different to Edinburgh?
We moved to Ullapool in 2003 for a trial summer. And never looked back. Though there was one winter when it did rain every day for 6 months, which got a bit wearing. But there was still dry rock to be found. On the whole life is predictably more laid back and low key, much less manic than Edinburgh days where I was always trying to fit in lots of different things. Now I’m more west coast, where maƱana feels like a rush job. I do miss a few things like getting together with friends or going to the cinema. On the other hand, I probably go and see far more music cos everything is 5mins walk away.

Are you still working as a Social Worker and how is that panning out?
Yes. What more do you want to know? It’s the day job: 4 days/week which is an okay work-life balance. Mind you, I’ve just had 3 months off which was very good for the soul. Back at my desk now and starting to pine….

How long have you been and climbing and how did you get into it?
It feels like all my life, but I suppose I get properly hooked in 1990 after going out a few times with a friend and realizing, this is me, this is in my bones.

Tess engaging in some Modern Thinking E4 6a, Reiff. (photo: I.Taylor)

Why do you climb?
I thought you said no deep questions! There is no why really. It’s not a conscious choice. From the beginning I’ve loved the whole experience: spending time in beautiful places, that involvement with the rock, the whole deep play thing. And the incredible buzz when it all comes together. But most of the time, just because…

How long did it take for you to get to E1? And then E3? And to E5 now?
Probably 3 years till leading E1 (1993). Then a decade to reach E3: E2 is a big place. And there were minor distractions along the way - like getting professional qualifications. I did quite a few E4s last year-and then a couple of soft touch E5s this summer.

What do you like most about climbing?
Same things as why I climb- the scenery, the rock, the company (on a good day), the pleasure of moving on the rock (also on a good day).

What do you hate most?
Litter. Crowds. Over-developed egos.

What kind of routes do you like the most?
Anything I can hang around on for hours to place gear and contemplate the meaning of life. I like butch routes – steep with big holds. But I also like technical balancy things. Either way, long and sustained. [Yeah, me too!-Niall]

What kind of routes do you hate?
Unbalanced, with bouldery crux, especially if it involves big reaches, power, or anything too dynamic. And blank slabs. And Lubyanka.

Favourite Area?
Can I have lots?
Top of the list: Pabbay and Mingulay in good weather-a little piece of paradise.
Sheigra. And I do love local sandstone: Reiff obviously, but also Ardmair - all year round cragging.
North Wales is not bad either.

Tess on the FA of Line Of Beauty E4 5c, Sandray.

Favourite Route?
I have the world’s worst memory so I generally forget something as soon as I’ve climbed it and every route is an on-sight, even if it’s a second attempt... I loved the climbing on the Galleries on Sandray last year. And Second Geo at Sheigra. Ancient Mariner on Pabbay was fantastic even though I failed on it. Shibboleth….I could go on.

What’s the best thing about being based in Scotland?
The beauty; the variety – of rock types, venues; the lack of crowds.

And the Worst?
Probably the fickleness of conditions: even when it’s not raining/too cold/too windy/the rock’s not seeping, you have the dreaded midge to contend with. But heh, the place would be a lot busier if people thought we were having fun.

What for you has made the biggest difference to your climbing ability?
Moving here, because there’s so much good rock within easy reach. Even if it’s too wet to climb, you can almost always find somewhere dry enough to boulder.
I’m also probably putting more energy into my climbing than I was in Edinburgh – less distractions here! Having an equally enthusiastic partner helps too.

Having moved away from a city with a climbing wall, do you miss using the wall at all, and how do you think your climbing has changed from not using the wall?
I do miss the craic that you get at the wall, and hearing what folk have been up to. But my climbing has improved except on plastic, of course. We will go through to Inverness wall for a bit of therapy if we get a really dire spell, but it’s 120mile round trip, and you have to compete with bouncy-castle kids parties, so we have to be really keen or clucking.
I think we could do with a Highland Adventure Centre: maybe a roof over the local quarry? So if anyone has £20 million to spare….

You recently led a few E5s. How did you find them?
Has this been a goal of yours or have you just tried to see how well you could climb at each stage?
I’ve always tried to avoid chasing numbers, and climb what I want to do. But I like doing things that challenge me (but not too much). Stone Pig routes suit me, and I’d done a couple of E4s there, so I was keen to try Miss Moneypenny, and loved it: no desperate moves, just lots of climbing, and plenty of opportunities to shake out.
My friend had seconded Warpath, and assured me I had to do it, and I always do what she tells me. It’s the easiest in the graded list in the new guide: “Some people call it Footpath”, I was told.
Since then, I failed miserably on the crux of Ancient Mariner. Though it was a reachy move (but I keep vowing to stop using that as an excuse, and learn to jump…). It was also 110 deg, which didn’t help.
I also got spanked on local gneiss on Freakshow at Gruinard, which was a bit annoying, as it definitely had my name on it, but I’ve got to stop placing a dozen bits of gear on cruxes, when 6 will do. I returned for a re-match recently, and did it a bit shakily.
Those are my on-sight attempts – 50% success rate to date!

Tess with One for Q E3 6a, Reiff. (photo: J.Reed)

A recent poll on Scottish Climbs found that there were over 50 men leading E5 in Scotland. One would expect to find that there were at least 5 women in Scotland capable of doing the same but there isn’t to the best of my knowledge. Why do you think this is?
How long have you got?!
You could write whole volumes on this: gender and participation in sport and risk taking: sounds like several dissertations to me!
For a start, why would you expect that proportion of women to perform at that level? Do they in Britain as a whole: 100 women leading E5 - I think not!

My starting speculation would be the time/commitment factor: unless you have shed-loads of talent, you need to put in the hours, and be fairly single-minded (and selfish), with no major distractions – like high-powered career, other burning passions, or family commitments. I would hazard a guess that it’s pretty hard to find the necessary time or energy if you have children under school age.

I’m sure there are other important factors – I learnt to climb on gear, and that has always been what I’ve done most of and what I get the most satisfaction from (probably directly related to my lack of prowess in any other area of climbing). Nowadays, it feels like the majority of people start climbing indoors. It’s a big leap from that to getting on trad routes – and probably a frustrating one, when you know that technically you can climb much harder than you are able to lead. Which is maybe why lots of people put their energies into sport or bouldering which hadn’t been invented when I were a youth... But the best way to climb harder trad routes is to climb trad routes and lots of them. I know that this affects men as well as women, but women are generally more cautious about taking risks than men, so that comes into the equation.

Oh and there’s the whole thing about motivation and why/how you got into climbing. From the beginning, I’ve wanted to climb for myself and as an equal. I’ve always lead and generally climbed with people who are operating at a similar level. I’ve never enjoyed being dragged up things.
I would hazard a guess that a fair proportion of women come into climbing through their more experienced partners, which is not generally the best way to build up confidence and skills – or the motivation to get past the indignity of struggling to follow his routes.

Basically if it aint your passion, you aren’t going to stick with it.

Thank you Tess, for taking the time to speak to Deftmoves

Next Friend: “Mr Mac8a”-Alan Cassidy