10 Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago

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Well, it's 2005, I am now 25 and this year marks the 10th anniversary of taking up climbing as a wee whippersnapper (although some would argue not a lot's changed in that respect...). But what an amazing 10 years it's been; the routes, the friendships, the trips, the crags, the experiences, the falls and the lessons...oh yes, the lessons!

I will never forget the day I discovered rock climbing; on the Costa Brava when I ventured out from the ledge above the sea, solo, and in sandals, onto the granite wall above. The result of a drunken dare the night before (after approximately a 1/2 pint of lager...) whilst on holiday near Barcelona with my parents. I'd like to say that I slipped up the wall with considerable style and elan but I think the reality was more akin to a donkey on amphetamines. Finally, after much frantic pedalling I took the 20 metres into the sea...no, that's a complete lie; the wall was barely 6m high. I had lost the dare but knew I had gained something more and went back, time after time to find various ways up that little wall above the sparkling water.

If I could go back 10 years (complete with disguise-wouldn't want to frighten the wee lad) and give myself 10 lessons or tips on climbing then these would be them. But then, I wouldn't have processed the trauma, pleasure and revelations in learning those lessons. Plus, I would have told that weirdo with the fake nose and glasses to piss off. So here they are, in no particular order and in completely, personally biased fashion. I make no apologies for the bulk of this piece being focused on trad climbing: after all, it has given me some of the most important and painful lessons! I am sure that in another 10 years time I'll have at least 20 more things to add to the list...

All routes of the same grade are not equal

Take a 10 metre E3 6a up an overhanging crack (e.g. Marjorie Razorblade at Dunkeld) and a 45 metre E3 5c up a poorly protected slab (e.g. Solitude in Glen Coe). Which is gonna be the harder one? Well, if you are a thug with the pain tolerance of an SAS commando, I think you will prefer the overhanging crack. Likewise, Artic-cool technicians with thin arms are going to prefer the slab. A lesson that was lost on me as I started moving up the E grades and thinking all routes of the same grade required a similar amount of technique, effort and mental poise.

One of the first E5s I attempted, ended in an airlift and hospitalisation as I very, very quickly learned (thanks to gravity) that I didn't have the strength or technical ability to place good wires in Carouselambra E5 6b at Auchinstarry quarry. A better choice at the time may have been Lady Charlotte E5 6a at Dunkeld, being a longer, bold wall. Knowing thyself, being brutally honest with my capabilities and when pushing the boat out, making sure the route suits my strength are probably the best lessons I have learnt.

Just cos you can slap your way up a 7b indoors does not mean you can onsight an E5 outside. Relying on grade conversion charts such as the Rockfax chart is a very poor method of translating the basic strength required on a contrived indoor route to the technical intricacies required on trad routes outside. The skill required to spot and utilise holds efficiently out of the confusing features of rock simply cannot be compared to the join-the-dots style of climbing indoors. And imagine pulling off even relatively easy moves with those RPs giggling away miles down compared to that nice bolt at your hips on a sport route. Climbing walls by their nature become very familiar places; out there and up high is a poor place to discover poor coping strategies in unfamiliar terrain.

I have found the juggernaut-like speed possible indoors in stark contrast to the tortoise approach needed to pace up longer routes with frequent stops to place gear. The physiological fitness and strength gained at walls, undeniably, has improved my grade and climbing ability. But the process of translating those gains to outdoor trad routes (and even sport routes) has always been slower than I wanted. Being patient and trusting in the learning process is part and parcel of climbing.

British Tech grades are not the same as French grades

There's young Niall, just about to turn 16 and just having lead a fr6c at the wall, decides hes going to lead Dalriada (then given E8 6c) that summer... do you see what 's happened here? Dear-oh-dear! Down I bumped to earth, with an extremely red face after a kindly soul patiently explained the fact that British tech and French grades are two completely different kettles of fish.

I now feel sufficiently experienced to join in on the grading arguments that are the infinite staple conversations of climbers in pubs the length and breadth of the UK. And don't you just love explaining the British system to confused looking foreigners? Of course, at the time, I then thought I was capable of leading E3 right away not having learnt about the aforementioned points 1 and 2 at the time. Oh to be young again!

You always get the best stories from going tradding

Aye, I am completely biased, but let's look at three examples here:

Bouldering Bob: "Yeah, I went to the Boulders and did this amazing problem. You get this tiny crimp with your left, a shit pocket with your right, slap for this sloper then get this undercut with your right and then pull hard to a flake and then smear your feet and then deadpoint your right hand to this tiny edge and then... (ad infinitum)."

Sporting Susan: "I went to the Sport Crag and worked on this route. I got to the 6th bolt on my redpoint and came off. It felt hard. I was quite pumped. I'll need to go back next week and finish it off"

Tradding Trevor: "We went up to Trad Mountain. We were 5 pitches up, on these weird grooves, miles out from the gear when I had to climb through all these mad hanging baskets of Babylon. The wind was whipping the rope into parabolas. Thought I was gonna come off but then managed to mantle onto the belay ledge, and oh-my-fucking-god! There was a fucking Golden Eagle chick on the ledge!!!"

Complacency and Cockiness are your worst enemies

Success and consolidation at your best grade is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the confidence and experience gained will undoubtedly build a base on which to progress yet even further in climbing. However, it can also tip over into complacency and cockiness if the ego is not held in check, as it becomes more sated with the burgeoning list of successes. Consolidating in a grade has sometimes led to a relaxation in my approach to routes of that grade. No longer am I reverently committing to memory the guidebook description or beta; scoping the route out, or even selecting the most appropriate gear. In short, by taking this arrogant attitude, I have sometimes lost respect for the difficulties and dangers that may be encountered on routes within my capabilities.

My most recent fall in Ardnamurchan is probably a point in mind. Decking out and fracturing my ankle from 10m on an E5/6 (ironically called Point Break) was the result of severely underestimating the objectivities of this route. Thinking it well within my capabilities, I chose to disregard the admittedly awful gear and did not consider the implications of a hold snapping - and I did have prior experience that the rock could be suspect in places. Another painful lesson learned.

Patience and Preparation are your best friends

We've all been there: rushing to the crag, straining at the leash and hurrying through the warm-up routine to get onto the route; the one that's been occupying your head for the last week as you dream of topping out/clipping the chain/latching the final jug. Only to go home once again dejected, visions of glory dashed as you start thinking you've set your goals too high. I am fond of saying that I've got no patience for redpointing, but the very act of "saving" certain routes for the future hypothetical onsight, does demonstrates some reserve of patience.

Especially in the onsighting game, patience is a beneficial skill required to judge that all the preparations are adequate, the prior training sufficient and the conditions are just right. Even the choice of belayer is crucial to making that call whether to go for it or wait another day. Unfortunately for weekend climbers, like me, with other demands on our precious time, the temptation is just to get on the bloody route and be damned with all these head-games. But time after time, in reflection, I realize that all my failures usually stem from some aspect that is not quite ready. And all my successes seem to arise from waiting for that elusive day when everything slots together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Farting on the crux usually leads to a loss of body tension

Up to the roof, stretch off the undercut to a flat press; get the heel up to the hook. Piston-like the body crunches horizontally into position on the lip of the roof, straining to maintain the lock, pressure building to reach... and the dam burst, your arse plays it's trumpet majestically. You realize those beans this morning weren't a good idea as you sag away from the crucial hold before falling off to your mate's laughter. For some reason my loudest farts seem to occur at Malham Cove, where the acoustics scare the Sunday walkers, and never out on some remote Hebridean sea cliff with only seagulls for company.

Trust your Instinct

Right, I am not going to get too hippy-dippy-psycho-babbly-nonsense here, but I believe there is such a concept as "instinct", fuelled by the subconscious mind. Our conscious mind can only process a very small amount of information at any one time (...yes, yes especially us males you multi-tasking ladies, but lets see how well you lot can park your cars...). The subconscious mind is capable of dealing with a lot more information but the feedback mechanism is subtle and, I reckon, manifests itself as that instinctual feeling of right-ness or wrong-ness.

One of the biggest frights I've had in recent years occurred last year on Mingulay on the top pitch of an E6, 100m up, and above the maelstrom. Due to various stresses at work, I was not on top form, mentally speaking. But I choose to ignore that little-boy-lost voice at the back of my head and found myself floundering and hyperventilating on the crux above those oh-so-small wires. I somehow managed to back off and down to the belay, swearing I was going to give it all up once I got off this godforsaken Island! OK, that's the end of the amateur psychology lesson (and obviously I didn't quit climbing after that little hiccup).

Folk's opinions of a route are always dependent on whether they can do it or not

"...absolutely desperate...",

"...piece of piss...",

"...not too bad...",


"...bag of shite...",

Beware, beware, whenever you hear these words in relation to a route or problem especially when accompanied by a few pints. Although we climbers have numbers and grades to quantify our efforts on the damn stuff, the whole act of climbing becomes a totally qualitative experience based on ability and perception. Hence the endless debates on grades That scruffy little boulder problem at the back of the crag that you couldn't do last week ("...it's crap anyway..."), magically morphs into this amazing kinaesthetic masterpiece, illuminating the precision and applied force required, once completed. Also known as the local sandbag: where the resident hotshot demonstrates that fierce test-piece by way of a warm-up and invites you, the visitor, to have a go and thus allocate to a place in the testosterone fuelled pecking order at the crag. Don't hold to the romantic ideal that climbing is a purely uncompetitive pastime, especially where young men are concerned! So beware those innocuous comments of problems or routes that may only serve as an illusion of difficulty or ease.

There's always more to learn

I am always shocked and inspired to find how little I know about other disciplines of climbing such as bouldering or winter mixed. Climbing is so multi-factorial and not one single discipline can embrace all the factors involved to their fullest extent. So learning to do different disciplines strengthens those previously neglected factors. For example, bouldering to increase physical strength is an obvious one but can also lead to a greater understanding of efficient body positioning. Or climbing shale for learning to climb on loose holds and dealing with sheer terror! And even in trad or sport I am still constantly learning and improving these separate factors, albeit at a slower rate than when I started 10 years ago. This rate of improvement yields the greatest result when one particular aspect is focused on.

For example, the biggest contributing factor to my increase in sport onsight grade in recent years is not down to increased stamina or strength but pacing. When I first went to Ceuse over 2 years ago, I was determined to plod my way up the routes, locked into the British trad climbing style and creeping up inch by inch, every hold cranked off statically like a car-jack until I finally fell off completely boxed. It was only after watching the local dudes (and a particularly attractive French chick...) slickly sprinting their way up the pockets that realisation occurred. I was soon slashing my times on 30m routes from 20-plus minutes to under 10 minutes with increased success and a corresponding increase in my onsight grade from fr7b+ to fr8a (albeit over the space of 1 1/2 years). Although this is in contradiction to my earlier point about the slower pace of climbing outside, it does illustrate the value of learning alternative approaches to climbing and progressing beyond your sphere of knowledge and experience.

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