Friday, 27 May 2016


Practice of the Wild from MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT on Vimeo.

Above is the film of me climbing Practice of the Wild 8C in Switzerland the other week. The whole experience of that trip went pretty well. I had a good focus, good training and ended up doing not just the big goal, but almost everything else on my wishlist as well. I normally make pretty ambitious wish lists for trips and so if I manage even one of them I’m doing well. So I came home quite inspired to try and repeat the process.

However, your focus has to fall into line with what the conditions of the moment dictate. I wanted to climb one more boulder problem project back in Scotland, before the summer heat arrived. With many things to catch up on since I arrived home, I only got two chances to get on it. Last week I went up in not great conditions and almost did it. Yesterday I had another chance but couldn’t get away till late in the evening. My plan was to drive up, walk in and have a night session on it with the lights. But when I arrived in the car park at 10pm I felt too tired and decided just to sleep and go up early in the morning. 

Next morning I walked in to find the project roasting hot, in full sun with no wind. No chance. I deluded myself for ten minutes and tried to warm up for it but quickly confirmed that bouldering season, at least for something as hard as this project, is now over.

So I packed up, turned around, and walked out, cursing myself for not managing to make this project happen while I had the form to actually climb it. I’ll just have to hope I still feel strong in the autumn, although by then I’ll be preparing for a 9a endurance route. I drove home rather frustrated, behind caravans.

Much as the failure is unpleasant in the short term, a kick in the ass is what I need now, to force me to move on, re-focus and prepare for what I want to climb next. One of the many lessons I learn about my climbing over and over again is that I do best with a clear focus rather than trying whatever. For the summer trad season, I have various ideas for hard projects to look at, but nothing I’ve actually been on yet. Next week I should have a chance to go and look at the first one or two of these potential new routes. 

So for now I can only have a very short term focus - to start to claw back some endurance. I've been on the circuits, to try and turn myself into a route climber again. 3 sessions in, I already feel some progress and it’s actually really nice to climb more than 10 moves in a row.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Risk taking

Risk taking is something that continually fascinates me. It used to occupy my mind mainly in the context of running it out on scary trad routes. These days, more and more, I think of my risk taking in this environment as being quite simple most of the time. I either want to do the climb enough and feel able and willing to commit to it, or I don’t. Risk taking decisions in climbing are often quite formulaic. You put the pieces of information you have through the algorithm, and then churn out the decision. The spaces between the information get filled with intuition borne from experience (of past mistakes). Where you know you are relying on intuition, you must accept its limitations and be ready to escape as best you can if the adventure goes bad. If there is no intuition, no spaces between the data, there isn’t much excitement. Sport becomes robotic and dull.

More interesting are the more complex risks of life. Where the proportion of fragments of useful signal in the noise of unknowns are much scarcer. If I eat this, am I getting slightly more dead, or slightly closer to 8C? Will my life be better if I stay in the European Union? Given that the world is still turning after George W, will the end befall us under Donald Trump?

Still more tricky are parental decisions. My daughter balances along a wall. My head tells me there is only one way to learn about height: landing from a height. Better learning from a 3 foot drop than 30 foot. But learning carries the risk of things not working out well. There is no way around this. Avoiding short term risk during learning creates bigger risks later on. It’s why the rates of kids fractures go up, not down, when they replace the concrete with rubber flooring in play parks. Risky play is a serious business, of learning.

It was a year and a half ago now, but readers of this blog will remember that my take-home message from the referendum campaign for independence here in Scotland was that I resolved to be as fearless as possible in as many areas of my life as I could. I was left with a strong desire to rail against bias for the status quo until you have a path of solid data laid before you (data which can never be got without taking the leap and running the experiment). It colours my approach to many things, in my view in a good way. But I’ll not be offended if you read this and think differently. My perspective is that our norms are way too skewed in the direction of reluctance to experiment and take risks, and by pushing back against this, we get closer to an optimum balance. In other words, the tide of societal norms and especially media economics is constantly dragging us towards fearfulness. While the tide moves in this direction, we have to swim in the other direction, even just to stand still. I’m writing this post as much as anything to remind myself to keep up that resolve. I try every day, sometimes succeeding, sometimes badly failing. Failing is allowed. Failing to try is inexcusable.

As I get older I understand more and more that I have an appetite for taking risks in certain situations, even if the odds are not great. I don’t take stupid risks. You’ll never catch me in a bookmakers, for example. I’m also not that attached to the thrill of taking risks. I still get a wee bit scared to phone people I don’t know and things like that. I get no kick out of random risks, purely taken for the thrill. But if I’m curious about an outcome, I’ll gladly take a calculated risk to find out what will happen. In fact, I’ll find it harder not to take the risk. I find the status-quo an uncomfortable, stressful place. But pure indulgence of curiosity is not the only strand of motivation for risk taking for me. The need for change is another.

I heard an interesting quote the other day that there are only two things that drive significant change in a persons life; abject misery or profound inspiration.

If this is indeed true, then it is interesting because either will do. If you don’t have the inspiration, misery in its various forms will do just fine in its place. Maybe it’s just me but I feel myself getting gradually less tolerant of a part of our culture that is tyrannised by the need for data. I’m all for evidence, and the use of useful data. But life is full of unknowns - incomplete or absent data. Quite often the only way to get data is to go ahead and try, and learn the hard way. This is the rub for me - aversion to exploring areas with little data only succeeds in getting less data. If you are a data fiend, then the places where data does not exist are those that will feed your habit for more data.

If someone says “lets not try this until we have evidence”. The next question should be “can we get the evidence without trying it?” Life is far to short to get stuck in this dilemma all the time.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Practice of the Wild

Video still of climbing Practice of the Wild (Font 8C) in Magic Wood last week.

The footage of Tyler Landman doing the second ascent of Practice of the Wild was what first inspired me to visit Magic Wood in 2012. Obviously I’d already heard about it, as ‘Chris Sharma’s hardest boulder problem’. I’d heard about Chris’s method for the last move - a wild all points off dyno across the roof. Landman looked so dynamic and strong on it and the climbing looked so good. It it was an exemplary piece of hard climbing. I had to go there.

But not for Practice of the Wild - at Font 8c and one the hardest problems in the world according to Daniel Woods who also repeated it, it was too hard for me. Although I do boulder for quite a few months in the year, sometimes as much as 6, I’ve never got much beyond a handful of Font 8Bs. On my 2012 visit, feeling in good shape for me, I did manage two 8B+s (New Base Line and Mystic Stylez) which I was very surprised and delighted with.

Of course bouldering grades do tend to be a bit stiffer in the UK and neither of these felt as hard as some of my own problems in Glen Nevis such as Seven of Nine. But operating pretty much on your own, it’s easy to get lost with grades, and I frequently do. I’ll give myself the excuse of not doing one climbing discipline for long enough to get an idea, and stick to it.

In 2012 I did try Practice of the Wild for a session, and confirmed that it was indeed far too hard for me. I couldn’t do any of the crux moves. None. But that was sort of irrelevant. Because I was inspired by it, which is all that really matters. I’m fully accepting that when you try something hard, you might never succeed. If that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be hard, would it? So who cares whether it’s too hard, so long as it drives your motivation.

I visited Magic Wood again in 2013 for a week (of warm and wet weather). The hardest thing I climbed was 8A. Ridiculous as it is to say, the best thing about the trip was just to stand and look at Practice of the Wild again, and think.

Climbing Dark Sakai (8B) last week. I'd tried it before in October but tweaked my finger on a nasty pocket at the start. This time I could do it first try after a quick reacquaintance.

In the past year or so, I’d gone through two ankle surgery rehabs, a big chunk of the year on crutches and was looking at another surgery. I was 36 and after so much time just trying to be able to walk and climb anything, the idea of reaching a new level of Font 8C seemed laughable. A joke. I looked at the problem and even in my dreamy inner thoughts I felt there was no chance, ever. Don’t kid yourself on MacLeod.

For quite a while I accepted this. Actually it was part of a wider shift in my thinking at the time. I was really trying to come to terms with my loss of form after the surgeries. I wasn’t really prepared to deal with it and was trying to find the best way forward. For a time it seemed like I should accept that upward progress in sport climbing or bouldering was just over for me. As I wrote in Make or Break, I do feel that almost every serious battle scar you pick up in life changes your constraints. It changes the rules of the game for you, sometimes tipping the scales against you. If you are unprepared to push back against this and still fail, it may be better to leave the game. Eventually I realised this was not me. I do still enjoy trying to improve at climbing so much, that playing against poor odds is still worth it for me.

Given some time to recover from the surgeries, I naturally felt this black and white way of thinking melt away a bit. The reasons why I couldn’t keep improving seemed less important when I could get on with a daily routine of actually training and going climbing, ticking routes again, even if they were not hard ones.

Some footage of me climbing my model of Practice on my board in March

So with some positive feelings returning I made a statement of intent by building a model of Practice of the Wild on my board. It was a pretty good one! At first, I couldn’t do any of the moves. After several sessions, I could do two of them individually, then another, then another. But that’s where the progress basically ended. By last September, at my strongest I could string two moves together (of seven). At this rate, I’d maybe climb the model when I was 45?! I’d have to hope it was harder than the real thing. Actually I knew it wasn’t.

And so I knew I needed another ingredient, not an edge, but a supercharger on my climbing standard. You don’t get many of them at 37 (without crossing boundaries of legality and sporting fairness). But you do if you are not thin. I’ve never been a thin climber, and always struggled to keep my body fat % below about 15% (putting me firmly in the outlier category at the high fat end of the Font 8B+ or harder cohort). For reasons I couldn’t fully understand (even now I still only have fluid hypotheses) it was getting harder and harder for me to even tread water in this battle. I still had a hunch that somewhere beneath my tyre was a potential Font 8C climber.

So although this aspect of my preparation clearly would be the linchpin, the trouble with it was that I’d already thrown every single piece of advice coming from sports nutrition at it already, and failed. I’d slowly, depressingly failed for two decades. So how might I suddenly succeed? I’m sorry to break the narrative and potentially spoil the read at this point, but the ‘how’ what came next I’m going to save for a dedicated blog post (well, actually massive essay). Please forgive me for this, but it’s such a controversial topic that I am very concerned that I might be taken out of context, or seen as being flippant or glossing over important details in such an important issue. Also, and not least because the approach I took was precisely the one that many nutritionists warn is a path to outright failure in sport performance. So if you are interested in the ‘how’, it’s coming. For now, here’s what happened:

Phase one of me intervention was reading around 20 books and many hundreds of scientific papers and hundreds more webpages, so I had a handle on what I was doing. In phase two, I easily lost 3.5kgs in less than one month and my climbing standard took an immediate jump. I didn’t really get to test this other than on my board since it was the start of the winter. In phase 2, I maintained my new lower weight and felt great in training with much better energy and much to my surprise a few other long term health issues cleared up as well. During this time I managed to climb my model of Practice of the Wild. So I made it harder so I couldn’t do one of the first moves again and built up to being able to just climb it once at my limit.

In phase three of my dietary changes I dropped another 2.5Kgs, still feeling great and just before my trip to Magic Wood in April I could run laps on the model! When I arrived in Magic Wood I headed straight for Practice. I was somewhat bleary eyed after the long drive across Germany, but I could immediately feel I was much stronger on the moves. But it was on the second session, after a night’s sleep that reality hit - I could link it straight away to the last move! A huge leap in progress, and more than that a realisation that this was not a joke project. I could do this.

Since the start holds were still quite wet I spent time practicing the finishing big dyno a few times. On the third time I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder while holding the swing. “Oh no! Surely I’m not going to get injured now. Not now!!!” It didn’t feel that bad, but not good either. In hindsight I think I just scraped a rotator cuff tendon a bit. But I was worried it might be a SLAP tear. Either way I was terrified of doing the move that way again.

So one night while it snowed about a foot, I broke trail into the wood, set up my lights and worked out another method. A huge cross through stab to a crimp, and then I could get the jug statically. It was maybe a tiny bit harder, but I could do the move several times in isolation.

I had one more session of redpoints to the last move every time. One time I held it and my lower hand pinged off. I knew it could happen next session. But I also knew this could get harder psychologically - playing defensively creates pressure. When all you have to do is not blow your chance, somehow this becomes much harder to avoid!

Sure enough, next session I felt inexplicably a few % weaker. Two mistake riddled brawls to the last move, falling weakly. One fall from lower down. Then a hole opened in my finger. It was unravelling! I’d surely need two days to let the hole heal up, then the rain was coming. Practice of the Wild can stay wet for weeks at a time. I spent half and hour repeatedly doing the last move, systematically trying every tweak in the movement I could think of. I came upon a small improvement. If I pulled up a little higher and went for the move without dropping down so much (more of a snatch than a lunge), it felt a tiny bit more solid. I went for a walk. Looking at my shredded fingers, I figured I wanted one more try that day from the start. If I was going to take two days off and potentially more after the rain, what did it matter if my fingers were totally trashed?

Whatever happened in that moment, the pressure of anticipation for that session dissipating, the walk warming me up a bit, my skin hitting that sweet spot of friction just before it gets too thin, whatever, everything clicked. As soon as I pulled on I felt good. The moves flowed by and I arrived and the last move not feeling anything. It wasn’t until I felt my fingers bite into the crimp that I woke up and realised it was on. I breathed to force me to take my time setting my feet, and then grabbed the massive jug.


Video still of going for the jug on the last move on the successful attempt. I'll post up a video of it when it's ready.

None of this matters to anyone except me. And only two things about it really matter to me. Firstly, Practice of the Wild is a brilliant piece of climbing, and by being hard enough to give me a good battle, I was able to enjoy it all the more. Secondly, I had to make real progress in my climbing to do it. Well okay one more thing matters, I had to use my brain to figure out how to make the progress. The battle was won while sitting on my ass at 2am with square eyes reading obscure papers on cellular metabolism. There is more to climbing than just pulling on holds.

Footnote: I’m always a bit sensitive writing about weight and climbing. Personally, I think writing about it and being open is much better and healthier than being secretive. But I know disordered eating and inappropriate food restriction happens in climbing and it’s a problem. In my view we’ve got to be open about when it’s appropriate to look at weight as a priority for training for climbing. As I said above, I have a post coming on the ‘how’ of my training intervention. It’s a highly controversial and polarised topic that needs handling with care. So even in that post I’ll be urging you to listen to the whole body of research out there, not just one voice. But from this post if you take anything away from it regarding weight in climbing, let it be these three simple points:

1. I spent months and probably 1000s of hours studying vast quantities of scientific research and discussion before doing anything.

2. I used a strategy for weight loss which does not involve being hungry, or anything other than eating high quality real food.

3. I am a 37 year old male who had a tyre around my waist. My individual story is relevant to me, not you. Fat loss tends to be effective in climbers with excessive amounts of fat. It can be seriously performance negative (at the very least) in those who do not carry excess fat, or people who are growing or have other health conditions. This leads back to point one - start from an informed position.

Climbing Steppenwolf (8B) in three tries.