Monday, 31 December 2012

Ploughing on with the recovery road

I’m continuing to plough on with the work of building back up to climbing fitness. Before Christmas, I had some weird sessions. On the boulder wall I could do certain moves that would have been hard for me before my accident, especially if they were close to the ground and didn’t need much work from the foot. As soon as I got above head height, my standard inevitably crashed since I’m not yet safe to jump down from the boulder wall. Over Christmas I spend a few sessions climbing halfway up most things and just downclimbing again as if I was on a trad route! That was quite demoralising. It’s just totally against the grain not to be able to try hard.

However, on the circuits and routes I have been back up to doing a few 7c+s and I can feel my movement and confidence improving with every session. I’m also beginning to increase the load. I’m currently back up to 2 on/1 off, 2 on/2 off. It would be so easy to keep adding more, but I’m so anxious not to overdo it. Running is still painful and out of the question at present, which is disappointing. So it’s a long road and I’m only part way down it. Despite more ups and downs it definitely feels like I’m going somewhere.

I’ve been trying to think of every way I can to improve how far I can go with my gradual return to climbing. Some of that is dealing with small but important details like completing physiotherapy exercises. It’s also the wider approach. I think the best way I can view what I’m doing is serving a new apprenticeship in climbing. It’s a change to re-learn the whole game of climbing from the ground up. I’ve got a strong feeling that this mindset will work pretty well.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Christmas orders from our shop

We are dispatching every day via Royal Mail first class. Last posting day for Christmas delivery is Thursday 20th. So get your order in. If you don’t make it in time for Thursday, will be dispatching orders right through the Christmas period.

I have just added two new climbing DVDs from Hot Aches Productions to the shop.

 Wideboyz tells the story of Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall’s crack climbing adventure from training in their ridiculous but effective home climbing wall to making the first ascent of the world’s hardest offwidth under the noses of the Americans. Good story! It's also available for download.

Odyssey follows a hardcore team of James Pearson, Caroline Ciavaldini, Hazel Findlay and Hansjorg Auer on a trad road trip around England and Wales onsighting and redpointing many hard and famous trad routes. Also available for download.

Fort William Mountain Film Festival masterclasses

Since I’ve been working on a book, I’ve not been able to do personal coaching. I still get asked a lot, so I run a few days a year of group masterclasses, which are always very popular. I’m doing a day of classes during the Fort William Mountain Festival in February, at the Ice Factor.

The classes are on Saturday Feb 23rd, 10-12noon, and 3pm-5pm. (the lunchtime session lasted one night on my events page before filling up). Places are £40 plus your normal wall entry. Give Claire a phone on 07813 060376 to get a place.

Later that evening I’m introducing the climbing night at the festival with film and a Scottish winter climbing theme for Andy Cave’s lecture.

See you there!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Post surgery week 5

Every day is feeling like a little milestone right now. On Saturday, before my lecture at TCA, I tried a little bouldering. It was inspiring and demoralising in equal measure. It was great to complete some easy problems and feel like I was really climbing again. However, I couldn’t do any remotely difficult moves and was using mainly upper body strength to try to control my way through moves and take pressure off my feet. Even the things I could carefully climb, I had to jump off from head height, or climb up as if I was soloing and reverse back down.

After a post lecture drink, I walked back from the pub, a total of 5 miles, which was fantastic. So today (Monday) I decided to make a small venture into the hills, walking up to the Iron Age fort of Dun Deardail above Glen Nevis which is a few miles and 350m of ascent. Although my foot was quite achey, it was more that both feet and legs felt equally stiff and out of shape. Plus, there was no pain from the joint itself, only the plantar fascia was complaining.

A good day or progress and I’m looking forward to the next little step forward. In the meantime, back to roof climbing on my board and then the wobble board.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Bongo Bar film from Norway is up

The full film of our first free ascent of Bongo Bar on Blamman in arctic Norway is now online. A lovely reminder of a great route and trip and somewhere I'm definitely going back to! In the last week I’ve just been talking with Gore-Tex about the next Gore-Tex experience tour I’m planning. 

By the way, not all the tours are rock climbing based - there are opportunities to win places on trips in all sorts of mountain sports. Right now there are two comps with closing dates in the next month.

1 month post surgery

My house this evening.

It’s now a month since my surgery. My ankle is getting ever closer to a normal size. However, it’s still stiff as hell and I feel a good way off getting into the mountains. There should hopefully now be some fibrocartilage cells growing over the defect that was drilled in my surgery. I experimented with a 5 mile cycle the other day, and it felt a little raw after that. The following day I walked the best part of a Km on the flat and it was fine with that. Early days? Hopefully. In another couple of weeks the fibrocartilage should be a little more mature and I should get a better idea how I’ll be fixed for proceeding to longer walks and climbs into mountains.

In the meantime, I’ve progressed from easier moves on near vertical terrain to a proper session of bouldering on my own board. The first session was shaky but OK and I managed one medium and one quite hard problem, although the hard one had a foot-off crux so it doesn’t really count. On the second session I could make some quite difficult moves, but some moves that I normally find easy were not possible just yet. Strength, stability and confidence will need many sessions over the coming weeks to build up. Great to be doing the whole routine of climbing though.

It’s quite a nice reminder of how much power you apply through your lower body on hard moves, even when the footholds are very poor. Being able to test this on board problems I’ve done before is an eye opener. Where my foot normally maintains body tension and pulls really hard to stay on, right now it just lifts off without me being able to do anything about it. The priority is to get mileage on problems and routes I can onsight or do in two tries for the time being to reeducate the motor patterns as well as gain the strength right through the chain to my toes.

On Thursday I’m travelling to Glasgow for a coaching session with the youth squad at TCA and then my lecture there on Saturday at 6.30pm. Do come along to that. For a slightly cheaper advance ticket, give TCA a ring on 0141 429 6331.

Friday, 7 December 2012 shop new stuff

Over the past few weeks we have added quite a few new titles to the shop. Of course as usual we are dispatching right up to and over the Christmas period. Early winter is of course the season for thinking about (and hopefully doing) training. As well as the full complement of the best climbing training titles on the market, our Beastmaker fingerboards are ever popular and we’ve just got another large pile of them in.

First up we have Ines Papert’s rather lovely new book. It’s really an inspiration book full of great photography of her globetrotting adventures on steep ice, rock, mixed and big mountains, together with stories of her experiences.

Nick Bullock is a somewhat controversial chap who has a habit of provoking and polarising opinion on all things climbing and mountaineering. He caused a bit of a storm recently for making some pretty strong assumptions about the folk he passes in the street; “their lives are grey”. So you can imagine his new book is not short of colourful thoughts and stories of mountaineering experiences all over the planet. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s not elitist in his climbing philosophy, certainly not trying to be anyway… Essential reading really.

Next up we have Karen Darke’s second book ‘Boundless’. It’s one thing to decide to take on a life of adventure following a life changing accident that leaves you paralysed. But what is the reality of living that life like? She shows us that fear and uncertainty do not go away, even if you decide to take life by the horns…

Finally we have Autana, Leo Houlding’s latest climbing adventure film to climb the great sandstone big wall on Cerro Autana in the Amazon jungle. It really is a fine adventure, full of some quite unexpected challenges that are both funny and renew your respect for Leo’s attitude to erm, trying new things (you’ll see what I mean). The cave systems high on the wall they visit are quite extraordinary and the whole thing is very well filmed as you would expect from an Alastair Lee DVD.

We still have a bit to go before last posting days before Christmas, so get them in. Te shop is here.

3 weeks post surgery: climbing begins!

Just over three weeks post surgery, I had a much more convincing start to climbing activity. Thanks goodness for that. The pain in my midfoot got quite worrying over the course of a few days, but then the process reversed and I was able to walk progressively better. I’m not as worried about this now. I had been trying on my right rockshoe every few days and it just felt ‘wrong’. But then it crossed a line and felt ok, so I went climbing.

I just went to the bouldering wall and did some very controlled circuits and carefully executed boulder problems. As you can imagine that felt pretty damn good! So now I do feel like I’m on a route back into climbing. Of course I’ll have to build up slowly. There’s no way I could walk up a mountain just yet. Even on the wall, my movement is quite limited and I can't go high, jump off my foot or rock over aggressively onto it. But at least I can do something.

In the coming week or two I’ll just work back up through the progression of problems on my own board, go for a few short walks if I can, and do some bike sessions to remind my body it needs to start getting fit again soon. Work has increased to a fever pitch as I’m trying to complete lots of work tasks ahead of being able to get climbing outdoors again. When that happens I’ll inevitably go mental and want to do quite a lot.

I’ve been back for a second session after a day’s rest and will have another tonight. Here’s to that.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Lecture at TCA Glasgow soon

In a couple of weeks time (Sat 15th) I’m heading to TCA in Glasgow to speak. I’ve just been putting together some stories and ideas for my talk. I guess because the talk is in Glasgow, my home city and in a climbing wall it got me going over thoughts of the path my climbing has taken since I discovered climbing. I viewed my participation in climbing really quite differently in every stage of my life as a climber. In the talk I want to share some of the important moments both of climbing and in thought that opened the next chapter of climbing adventures and challenges, which are of course still unfolding to this day.

Come along, it starts at 6.30pm. It’s a bit cheaper if you get a ticket in advance - details in the poster above.

Post surgery day 21

A few days ago I tried a little gentle climbing at Glasgow Climbing Centre. As I kind of expected, I wasn’t really ready just yet. Well, I’m not really too sure to be honest. The climbing felt really quite gentle. It might have been trying to walk from the car that was the bigger problem.

I kept a walking boot on my right foot and just did about 15 routes between 6a and 7a. I did try one 7a+ but it had some drop-knees so I just backed off. The feeling of climbing reminded me of one time the morning after a friend’s stag do, trying to climb when totally hungover! Balance, control and fitness all felt predictably novice-like. It was an odd sensation - simultaneously feeling great just to be moving up some holds, while also feeling like throwing a strop at the state of my form. The enjoyable part won out. 

The swelling around my ankle has decreased maybe 50% now and my drilled up medial talus feels a little less raw. However, now I’ve started to attempt progressive weightbearing, yet another new pain has emerged. I’m getting a severe shot of pain in my midfoot while trying to heel raise out of a dorsiflexed position. It’s painless with even slight support from my crutches, so I’ll need to keep using them yet. Who knows what’s going on there. Perhaps it’s just all part of the recovering process, or perhaps there’s some other damage in there that has not yet been seen. I’m a bit terrified there’s something going on with my navicular or even a lisfranc injury. Next week it's back to looking at MRIs and visits to hospitals all over again.

Such are the ups and downs I’m going to have to keep working through. In the meantime, It’s back to writing and exercises.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Post surgery day 12

Two days ago my foot started to show some signs of fairly rapid improvement. In those two days I’ve gone from prohibitive pain just trying to put weight through it without moving, to todays crutch free hobbling about the house. It’s still a hobble and will have to be for a while yet since the drilled area underneath my medial malleolus is still feeling raw and preventing a full stride. However, the feeling of bipedal movement even if it’s only slow and from room to room feels good. Little Freida keeps bringing me my crutches and it was especially nice to leave them sitting by the couch for once and follow her on foot. The boost was momentary however, since she proceeded to burn me off on my own board, swinging around on the holds.

Today, hanging about on my board and putting my feet on, I’m actually thinking that moderate climbing may well be easier than walking. So I think it’s almost time to get moving on some very easy routes. Scarpa are sending me a bigger pair of rock shoes for my swollen foot. Even then I reckon the first week or two of climbing will need to be in one approach shoe. Caution is probably well advised though - I’ll wait a few days yet, and start off on 6s.

Meanwhile I have plenty of training tasks, rehab tasks and working tasks to complete each day and have recommenced these in earnest. I even needed a rest day from fingerboard work today! Some of my pre-surgery gain in pure finger strength have been lost from the week off, which is expected and temporary of course. 

One thing I have on my side is experience of having gone through this sort of thing before. It certainly hasn’t helped me deal with the fear of permanent loss of function. But it has helped me manage the maintenance training much better. The last time I broke my ankle I was 3 months in plaster and when it came out I had one leg like a stick insect. I was pretty lazy then (it was 15 years ago) and didn’t do anything like the levels of physiotherapy and training I ought to have done. So it took a lot longer than it could have to return to fitness. I totally missed the opportunity to get a good ‘foundation’ phase done. So when the time came around, I had to learn to climb well again at the same time as start from being ridiculously weak.

This time round, I’ve tried to give myself some slack where it makes sense, and worked hard where it makes sense. For instance, I’ve eaten a ton and then had cake afterwards. Funnily enough my weight is the same although body composition might need some miles on the bike to correct. But I’ve done more fingerboard, rotator cuff, flexibility and push ups in the last 7 weeks than the previous year. It might be into next spring before I can sort everything else out enough to reap rewards from that, but they will hopefully be there.

Carrying lunch slowly through to another room under my own steam felt like a wee milestone today, but the stiffness tonight reminded me there will be plenty more ups and downs to come. I might get a fright when I try and climb!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Post surgery day 6

I’m finally home after surgery. Until today, I felt pretty rubbish. Particularly yesterday morning which was a real low point of feeling pretty fed up indeed. I got a bit of a fright after three days when I took my dressing off to find my foot was a fair bit bigger and more purple than I expected it to be. I guess in my mind I’d already gone through the ‘ankle like a purple football’ phase once already. It’s a slightly more normal shape after much time under an ice pack and I can move it a little more than, well, not at all.

So I’m happier today and feeling like it’s a bit more ‘on track’. I’ll just let the next few days roll with some gentle movement and more ice until next week it’s more established in the proliferation phase and hopefully ready for some slightly less gentle stretching.

Up til today I must admit I just couldn’t face training at all. I’m not sure if this was a physical thing or whether I was just feeling a bit low. But tonight I’ll try a few hangs and see how I get on. Even if it’s just a warm-up and then stop, doing something might be really good for morale.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Recovery day 1, again

Wakey Wakey Mr MacLeod. Feeling rather spaced shortly after coming round.

Yesterday I had my ankle surgery, which went quite well. Quote of the day from the surgeon was ‘articular surface intact’. Thank goodness for that. However, I did have a small flap of torn cartilage in the medial gutter of my ankle. It was very small and right on the edge of the cartilage, so it may not give me any trouble in the long term, or it might. We’ll have to see. I’m also still sore at the back of my ankle which couldn’t be properly seen but the surgeon’s opinion is that this is not a big deal and will settle. Again, we’ll just have to see. The large tibial bone spur which was creaking around in my ankle was chewed up and pulled out and I’m pretty sure that will help matters a lot!

I’ve got instructions to proceed to full weight bearing as pain allows. Obviously, 24 hours post operation I certainly don’t feel like putting my foot anywhere near a floor. On Monday I have to be in Wales for a big Gore-Tex event, but then I’ll just go home and work on my book for a week or two and then if everything feels ok, I will try to begin some gentle climbing. I do have a lingering worry about the back of my ankle. But there’s not much I can do except see how things pan out. I’m trying not to base my feelings on how it feels one day after being under the knife.

I do have a rehab plan in mind, but it’ll have to stay in my mind for a few more days until everything settles and I know exactly what the starting place is.

I feel lucky to the point of feeling guilty about having got away without more serious damage and disability. Much as I’m aware that we have a lot of power to get ourselves out of all manner of holes, there are some things that cannot be changed, and others have far more serious misfortune to deal with. What can you do except take the luck you’ve been given and run as far as you can with it? 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Something reliable

The past few weeks have been a bit tiresome at times. Two separate but related things have been going on with me. The first is obviously my struggle to recover from my recent climbing accident. The second is the thing I’ve been filling a lot of my time with for the past month while I cannot climb properly - working on my injuries book.

I’ve spent weeks and weeks of just reading, wading through scientific papers, medical texts, blogs and case studies. Sports medicine crosses so many specific fields of knowledge. It’s a huge picture. One of the most striking things about the science and art of treating sports injuries is the lack of hard unequivocal evidence in so many corners of sports medicine practice. You could spend your whole life reading the conflicting viewpoints and interpretations of the weak and limited scientific evidence available. The deeper you read into the detail of each field, the less seems reliable.

Of course, a bit of time to step back, digest and put into perspective what you have read makes things clearer. But while reading through the thick of the information, it’s hard not to get disheartened by the lack of hard rules and structure on which to build an approach to staying free of injury and solving existing ones.

One theme that does keep coming up is that humans do seem to be able in a lot of situations to find ways to overcome problems where the available evidence is not much help. When it’s not obvious what to do to either improve performance or recover from an injury, the single most valuable thing we can hold onto is that we have the capacity to literally try everything, to not give up and to work through problems and last the distance until either a resolution or a workaround is reached.

Lack of good scientific evidence to base our decisions is frustrating, but it’s crucial not to let this erode the one thing you can rely on to make progress - strong motivation.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Doh. Surgery on the cards

Well that was an up and down week. At the start of week 4 of since my accident I attempted some normal steps across a room. I yelped and fell over. My ankle joint, which had seemed relatively unaffected, was immediately extremely painful on the anterior aspect. Pretty much my worst fears then.

In the absence of much ligament damage in that area, pain inside my ankle joint looked likely to mean damage to the articular (cartilage) surface inside the joint. Since cartilage, strictly speaking, doesn’t heal, it wasn’t the best. I was straight back for another x-ray that afternoon, which as expected was inconclusive. At least there wasn’t obvious damage to my talus. There was the faint echo suggesting there might be a bone spur in there, but it was hard to tell, and my doctor felt it would be treated conservatively anyway. I talked to my doctor in detail about what to do next. An MRI scan was really in order, but this and a consultation with an expert ankle orthopedic surgeon would add up into months of wait. Without really knowing what was wrong in my ankle, walking around on potentially damaged cartilage wasn’t really an option given my occupation.

So I decided to find out how much it would be to see the consultant on private time. Even if I just paid for the diagnosis and scanning, I’d be able to jump a lot of the waiting without extreme cost. One week later I was in the MRI machine and the following morning on the consultant’s table. I’m glad I did. The scan showed bruising in my Talus and Tibia but no damage visible on the articular surface. However, I had a large bone spur on the front of my tibia which had broken off. Although I do have the option of leaving it there and seeing if it gives me problems down the line, removing it might be the safer option to protect myself against future problems. There is also the additional benefit of a close inspection of the joint cartilage and any defects can be treated at the same time.

I didn’t feel like I had much option but to get it done, and get it done quickly. Although it’s going to be seriously expensive, it protects my ability to work in the short and long term. So I’m booked for the surgeons table in two weeks time. Depending on exactly what the surgeon finds in there, I’ll either be back to climbing in a few short weeks, or a bit longer. The way it feels, I think it’ll be on the short side. But I’m not thinking about it. All I can do right now is keep training and count down the days until then.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Foot notes day 21

The strength of my torn plantar fascia (foot arch) is definitely improving rapidly at the moment. I’m imagining it’s still mid way through forming the immature collagen scar, but the earliest new fibres could already be starting to remodel now. Over the weekend I was able to briefly stand on the bad foot alone, though lent on the lateral side and I can stand up on my toes too, but again only if I lean my foot on it’s lateral side, so it doesn't really count.

The medial side is still too weak to walk without pain, and my heel must be well and truly bashed up as it formed fresh swelling and bad pain from yesterday’s weight bearing experiments. Normal walking is still some way off for me. I have to accept that. I still managed to limp across my kitchen though. So making tea continues to get easier.

On the fingerboard, I have also had great progress which I’m sure must start levelling off soon. I got 6 pull-ups on the Beastmaker monos, 3 on the 45 degree slopers (no cheats of course) and back up to 2.5 one-arms on the big hold. My best ever one arm performance was 4 complete pull-ups on a bar, about 6 or 7 years ago. I’m chuffed to get so much strength back so quickly after so many years avoiding pull-ups. My ultimate goal strength levels are still miles off though, so hopefully I can keep having sessions like they are going just now - noticeably stronger every day. It’s just so nice to finally pick up where I left off with a bit of real strength training that was out of the question for so long.

I think my weight has risen by a kilo or 2 which I’m counting as an achievement considering I’ve been sat on my ass or doing isometric hangs. I’m going to try and get myself a bike shortly. I think I might be able to cycle even in another week or so, and I sure as hell want to start burning some calories, getting outside and clawing back some VO2 max as soon as my foot lets me. Even if I only need to do that for a week or two before walking and climbing gradually take over, it’ll still be worth it to get conditioned again, both in terms of VO2 and body composition.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Foot-notes day 17

I’m at day 17 post accident and had the expected ups and downs. A lot of folk (including many who are recovering from nasty injuries themselves) from got in touch after my last blog post saying they were heartened to see me sounding so optimistic so soon after my little tumble. Thanks! 

I must admit that the novelty somewhat wore off on Monday morning, waking up after week 2 of recovery and looking forward to week 3… of much the same. On the whole, it’s true what I said that a bit of time uninterrupted by trying to perform would be great to have a proper phase of foundation strength training. That part has been going great. When I go into my wall and start doing my workouts, I sort of forget about the injury for a while and feel normal.

The biggest pain in the ass is not being able to chase my 19 month old wee girl about and generally being a useless lump at home. I’ve only thrown my crutches away in anger once. In the grand scheme of things it’s obviously nothing to moan about. However, trying not to moan doesn't get rid of the feeling underneath. It seems the biggest psychological challenge is not right after the injury, but a few weeks on. What can you do but hang on the the positives of the training that can be done. Since I have a lower limb injury, thats a lot!

My plan to return to climbing with a Gullich upper half and Ondra lower half is working nicely. While my legs are visibly atrophied, my arms get bigger. On the fingerboard, as well as having time to get thorough workouts completed daily, I’ve had time to do all the peripheral stuff too. I have basically avoided basic strength training since 2008 because of golfers elbow. Even last winter, when I got symptom free and could train freely on the bouldering wall again, I still avoided campusing and fingerboard for the time being. Although I’ve been able to manage to keep a decent climbing standard, I could definitely feel my basic power suffering this year.

So with this break I’m determined to get fully back into strength training. So I’ve matched a rather intense program of deadhangs and pull-ups with an intense program of wrist flexor eccentrics for the elbows. It’s definitely working. I was always too scared to really push into elbow pain at VAS 5 just because it felt so wrong. But having bitten the bullet, it’s feeling line the right thing to do. I’ve also started a new method of doing eccentrics to mimic the most aggravating position and so far I think it’s increasing the response.

As expected, walking is still feeling pretty distant. I still cant get near a full weight bear on the bad foot although it can handle sharing the weight for standing now. I had a good meeting with Jaqui at Lochaber Physiotherapy and got a stronger idea of what is going on in my foot. My ankle joint seems to be on good form at the moment. I also still have a foot arch which elicits very localised pain at the attachment to my heel bone. The heel bone and fat pad seems to have been very badly bruised and bashed and will no doubt cause me a world of pain in the weeks to come once I start walking again. I think I’ll have a fine excuse to treat myself to a nice new pair of shoes.

Monday, 1 October 2012

End of the line, for a short while

 Oops! Time for a little phase of finger strength training

In my last blog post I mentioned that I had a few wee routes to finish off before I was completely done with Steall. I do like finishing things before moving on, so I was eager to get them done. I’d bolted 5 new routes on the left side of the crag, two on the left arete of the main crag and three on either side of the big slab to it’s left. All needed a good brush since they are a bit slow to dry compared to the other lines, but the rock is great with lovely little pockets and every so often these weird letterbox jugs that are just the most satisfying holds ever!

End of the Line 6b+, first ascent, Steall.

I’d bolted the routes and partially done the hard work of cleaning them on previous visits. With three dry days gone, three of us went up to try and get them cleaned and climbed before they got wet again. All was going well, a new 7b, 6c and 6b+ were in the bag. But then it went a bit pear shaped.

Kev took these pics and had a fine view of my tumble down the bottom bit of the slab into the birch trees

It turned out, the 6b+ slab was quite long and the rope I was using which wasn’t mine was a little short. As I got lowered off, the rope ran out about 6-8 feet above the small ledge at the start of the route proper. Neither of us noticed in time and so I plummeted, clipping the ledge with my foot and somersaulting down the turfy scrambling ground below, eventually coming to a violent stop wrapped around a birch tree on the slope below.

As I was flying head over heels I was wondering what the hell was going on! Normally I always take a long rope to the crag so rope length issues don’t arise and it hit me that the borrowed rope I was using must’ve been too short and the end had gone through the belay device. For a minute or two I thought I might have got away with it but very quickly my right foot started to get bigger and severely object to being weighted.

A rather nauseous hop/clamber/crawl down to the wire bridge followed. The bridge was fine thanks to my practice on the Stac of Handa. After that, the machine that is Kev Shields carried me most of the way back through Steall gorge to the car and a trip to the Belford. A good man to have around when things go wrong! It appears my ankle is not broken but it looks likely I have a grade II tear of my plantar fascia (foot arch) and will be on crutches for a few weeks. It’s still early days to get a close idea of exactly what’s been mashed and bashed inside my foot.

On the bright side, I was about to start the yearly retreat to the fingerboard to avoid the autumn deluge and begin my foundation of strength training for the season anyway. So now I’ll have a even more focused start to that. I might even finish writing my book too. A few weeks out of immediate performance goals to really build a base of finger strength is something I should have been doing much more of in previous years. It will be really interesting to see if it yields a positive effect. I know where I’d place my bets!

I took day 1 post-injury off since I felt pretty damn sore all over and sorry for myself. But yesterday (day 2) I started gently with an hour and a half session of deadhangs, pull ups, antagonist work and flexibility training. My neck still felt a bit sore from the somersaulting down a crag, so I felt pretty weak and tentative. But that will give me good motivation to climb out from the hole.

I feel awful I’ve had to cancel a coaching trip I was due to go on next week, and a trip right afterwards to the trad area of Bohuslan in Sweden that I was greatly looking forward to. But both can be done when I’m stronger, healthier and have the book finished. 

So no there is no time to waste! I’ll be back on the cliffs in 4-6 weeks and have a lot of deadhangs and writing to fit in before then. Best get stuck in!

[UPDATE] I wrote the above on day 3 post accident. It’s now day 6 and I’ve already made a bit of progress. I started early mobilisation on day 4 and have got 80% ankle range of movement back from about 20% on day 1. I can rest the weight of my leg on the ground now and even get 10kgs of force through my forefoot pain free. Looking good!

Dam That River 7b, first ascent, Steall

Monday, 24 September 2012

Fight the Feeling

Fight the Feeling, 8c+/9a, Steall, Glen Nevis. Picture by Lukasz Warzecha.

I finally nailed my Steall project. All I can say is I had a fantastic and heart stopping 20 seconds when I got through the crux and nervously continued, completely pumped to the belay. I was totally unsure if I’d make it until I had the finishing jug firmly in my hand. I think I was too nervous and full anticipation to even breathe or make a sound.

I’m so, so happy with this new route. The cliff carries a lot of personal history for me and completing it is a culmination of a big part of my climbing inspiration. It’s also one of the most stunningly nice rock climbs I’ve ever seen and the quality of the rock is just fantastic. Apart from all that, it’s also the hardest sport route I’ve climbed by a good margin.

It ‘went’ it straight away after I took a break to go bouldering in the alps for a week and then returning to find the long awaited perfect conditions (about 10 degrees with a breeze). Sure you could say (and some have said) I was crazy to try it through the summer heat, humidity and midges. That could be correct. Maybe I just tried it because I wanted to be trying it rather than it being the best thing to be doing? But maybe if I hadn’t had regular sessions on it I wouldn’t have got stronger on the moves and learned all the little things that get you higher on the climb. 

I first visited Steall as an unfit 17 year old around 1995. I still remember being really inspired by the place, and by the hard climbs. They were just so far above what I could ever imagine. I’d seen the pictures of Malcolm Smith on Steall Appeal (8b) and Cubby on his Ring of Steall project which I’d heard could be one of the first 8c+s if he could finish it. When we went, Cubby’s draws were in place on Ring of Steall and we made it our day’s entertainment just to abseil down the crag. I was totally fascinated by how hard it must be to climb that smooth overhanging sheet of rock, and a seed was definitely sown to see how much of the huge leap from my level to being able to climb this I could jump.

Starting the crux section. Lukasz and Wojtek (The Polished Project) also shot some nice film of the route which hopefully will show off what a nice route and cliff this is. I always felt it was a shame that so few people know about Steall and how great the climbing is here. Yes I know there are a couple of midges about in summer. But right now (Sept) and right through the spring it’s a fantastic place to climb. Fight the Feeling takes in most of Ring of Steall (8c+) until past it's crux and then has a bouldery main crux on the headwall above. I gave it a split grade in the end and I'll wait for the opinion of repeaters. If Ring of Steall holds it's 8c+ grade then maybe it will end up as 9a. If not then it would be 8c+. It's certainly much harder for me personally than A' Muerte (9a) that I did a few years ago, but it's always hard to tell if one route just suits you more than another.

It was several years later before I returned and actually tried Cubby’s Ring of Steall project. Despite getting close, Cubby never quite finished it off, which I know was frustrating for him. I hope he can see that the vision for the line and the effort he did make carried a great inspiration for me and other climbers, which has got to be important and worthwhile. For me, the unfinished project it seemed like an obvious target to feel like I could make some sort of contribution to climbing in the highlands. I thought about it a lot and it eventually became a dream route for me. But when I tried the crux, it just seemed impossible. I wasn’t anywhere near strong or technically aware enough to do even the moves. More years later, with lots more climbing experience under my belt, I climbed the Ring of Steall project in 2007 which was a very memorable moment for me.

Despite it feeling so hard during the preparation of many days working on it, I did it effortlessly on my first serious redpoint attempt, much to my surprise. This of course opened my eyes that there was more space to improve. So the blank looking headwall above where Ring of Steall heads left to finish up a diagonal crack seemed like the obvious progression.

I placed the bolts and had great fun unlocking a sequence to connect a few distant tiny crimps on this. Initially, just linking the section where it left Ring of Steall to the top felt absolutely nails. In actual fact, I was stupidly missing a few obviously better methods to do the moves and eventually could link the headwall quite steadily. Eventually I redpointed through the Ring of Steall crux over 30 times but hit a wall by the time I got to the main crux on the headwall. I was lucky to have an up for it partner in redpointing during July and August, Dan, who nailed his summer project (Trick of the Tail 7b+) right 10 minutes after my top out.

Linking the whole route was desperate for me. I’ve learned a lot about my climbing limitations during trying it, because I’ve tried everything to get stronger and fitter to manage it. However, just like on Ring of Steall, when I finally did it, it felt easy. So the door for further improvement is still wide open it seems! 

And that was my biggest problem - I had become convinced during trying it that not only was I struggling to make the improvements I needed to, but I was somehow losing my ability to climb, train, recover and have good days. Almost every attempt became a constant fight against this feeling. I don’t really know why I’ve turned into a sport psychologist’s nightmare, but I do seem to have lost a lot of confidence for some reason. The routine of preparing myself for a redpoint effort got progressively more difficult as last month wore on. I wasn’t nervous or scared of it, I’ve got enough experience to be able to swallow those feelings in a climbing situation at least. It was more that I stopped believing I had room to improve on my previous best efforts.

I wondered what I could do about this feeling at the time. It was really strange - one part of my mind was telling me that just keeping going with the training and work I was doing on the route would pay off sooner or later, while the other just didn’t believe it was making any difference. The only option really was just to keep going to find out which scenario would come to pass. In the end, several small things got me there. I kept going back and changing little things in the sequence that needed changing, simplifying the footwork and using a crucial intermediate hold on the crux. I alternated periods of working the route with a little time away to train, and I did a few sessions of deadhangs replicating the specific grips I needed on the route. Finally, I went a did some nice runs during which I tried to regain confidence while hopefully burning some fat.

I felt I really needed to finish the project to move on to another stage in my climbing and life. It’s taken the guts of a whole summer season, but well worth it. So I’m slightly less unfit than when I first visited Steall 17 years ago and it’s time to move on again. I have a few more wee climbs to finish off here yet before I’m completely done, but I’ll certainly miss climbing here almost as much as I’ll enjoy starting another adventure on some other steep bit of rock.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Waiting for Autumn

While I have been waiting for the summer to come to an end and the season for climbing on small holds to begin, I’ve been trying to sort some things out. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit fed up with how the summer has gone. Having said that, the battles have been enjoyable. I could so easily have had very different results on a couple of hard projects had conditions been right at the right moment. But it didn’t happen. I particularly thought on quite a few attempts that I was going to get my Steall project. On reflection though, I don’t feel I really did enough to deserve it just yet. Also I went to look at a couple of cliffs I hoped would have another great hard trad new route for me, but they were a bit disappointing. Outside of climbing, I have written a lot of book which is good although much work remains and progress has been rather slow.

I signed another three year contract with Mountain Equipment which is really great and gives me an opportunity to keep pushing myself in my climbing. I have been thinking a lot about my training going into the colder months and what moves to make next. This summer has been the first that I haven’t felt my fingers getting stronger. I know that it’s down to just going climbing on physically ‘easy’ trad routes for a long time and not doing any training since my elbows weren’t up to it. Already I’m noticing some small gains since I’ve been healthy and able to start basic strength work again. But my body is feeling like it will take some time to get used to strength training again.

After speaking at the St Anton festival in Austria last week I had a few days in Magic Wood. The objective was just to pull hard on powerful crimpy moves as much as possible before going back to Scottish projects. It’s just as well, since the conditions were pretty bad. After a few days moping about looking at wet projects and climbing damp boulders, there was one day of decent conditions. I could do Darkness to Sunshine (8A/+) quickly and then worked on some harder things without success. I spent an hour or so trying Remembrance of Things Past (8B+) which is exactly the opposite of my climbing strengths. There’s not a lot of opportunity to lean on technique and get weight on your feet, but raw finger strength is the order of the day. It was still quite wet but I could see I probably would struggle to do it even in good conditions. On the other hand, the moves didn’t feel impossible so I don’t think a huge gain in strength to weight ratio would be needed to manage this level. I’d love to try this again sometime after a winter back on the fingerboard.

I super motivated for this season to get back into basic strength training and see what possibilities it opens up. I’ve also spent a lot of time recently reading to expanding my knowledge of sports nutrition and feel like I’ve learned a lot there with much potential to do the hardest stage - putting new knowledge into practice.

A good run

While in Magic Wood, waiting for boulders to dry out, I decided to go for a couple of jogs to keep trim. I found a nice track that led up into the mountains in steep zig zags from 1300m to over 1900m, above the tree line and into a lovely open mountain corrie. On the first outing, it was super humid and felt like hard work. I walked a few sections, but I sensed that the uphill running was beginning to feel close to ‘steady state’. So a few days later I did it again on a much nicer day and got on much better.

I ran over 600m altitude gain in 36 minutes without stopping to walk which is the first time I think I’ve ever run so far uphill in one push. The interesting thing was that I did the run after eating lunch (I’d had 4 hours bouldering in the morning). Normally if I ever run I do it after the overnight fast to get into fat oxidation quicker. The difference was quite amazing! I know that’s rather obvious but it was still quite something to experience it. Instead of feeling like a motivational mission, it felt pretty easy. Moreover, after the harder steep sections I could feel my legs wanting to run faster as soon as the angle decreased again. I guess habitual runners must be used to that feeling but it’s nice for an amateur to feel it even once.

I remember reading when I started climbing that Messner, in training for the first ascent of Everest without oxygen in 1978, 'claimed' to be able to run 1000m uphill in 35 minutes. So I’m officially 3/5ths as fit as Messner. Im not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Perhaps I put in some training for my enchainment idea after all?

I wrote some ideas about mental strategies for motivating yourself to run uphill on the training blog here.

In conversation with... Reinhold Messner from MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT on Vimeo.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Higher highpoint, out of time

After the frustrations of not feeling good enough to get through the crux of my Steall project, I took a small break from it which consisted of some diligent training, family time and writing some more of my book. I could probably have taken more time doing those things, but the prospect of some better conditions and a trip away getting imminent demanded going back up for another couple of sessions.

On one session, when it was still feeling a bit hot and windless, I couldn’t even do one of the moves in isolation. I lowered off and felt pretty dejected. I was practically ready to leave it until next season. When it was my turn to climb again, I went for another go as a formality. A small breeze started up at the same time as I did. The holds instantly felt stickier and next thing I knew I landed the last of the crux moves.

I soldiered on in extremis for a few more moves before falling, completely pumped, from the last really difficult move at the last bolt. That was a real eye opener. For one, I learned that conditions matter even more than I would ever have given credit. To go from unable to do single moves, to almost succeeding on linking the whole thing in the same session, because of a few gusts of wind is a massive effect.

Second, I learned for the first time that the route is definitely possible for me. I think If I could replicate that effort a few more times, I’d struggle through to the belay one time. After that session, I must admit that a wave of utter determination to try my best to finish it came over me.

However, maybe that was my best effort, and I’ll not be able to match it before the autumn monsoon? I’ll find out. It doesn’t matter really. I’m just pleased to know I’m not wasting my time trying the project. Next session, I held the last crux move again but sadly my foot slipped straight afterwards. A good sign of consistency. 

I battled on for a couple more sessions in crap conditions, hot, humid, still and midgy. I still got really close even in those conditions. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that the temperature would drop and and wind would arrive just after I ran out of time before leaving, and that’s exactly what happened. So I am a coiled spring, and will somehow have to try and keep my powder dry for a while. I must admit I'm struggling with that more than I ever have right now. I suppose that's inevitable since it's biggest project I've ever tried. The likelihood is that I’ll be back again next spring for another scrap, unless I’m lucky and late September is dry enough to keep the seeps at bay.

Of course I’m well pleased to have got as high on it as I have. I’ve certainly put in a lot of work, both at the crag and in training and really feel stronger for it. On my last attempt of one session, I climbed the lower section in full knowledge I was too tired to have a serious shot at the upper crux. As I climbed through the first crux (Ring of Steall 8c+) I took my hand off to reach for the hold, felt tired and hesitantly went to grab the quickdraw and end the attempt and then changed my mind and carried on reaching, statically. When I did the first ascent of Ring of Steall in 2007 getting through that move was the hardest link I’d ever done and now I can do it nearly every attempt in decent conditions. At that time I couldn’t have imagined doing the move statically. I’ve really realised that I have so much room to step up my training and effort level yet.

Steall path appeal

A while ago on Twitter I mentioned that the Steall Gorge path in Glen Nevis had been entered into a vote based competition to win £25,000 of funding for restoration and upgrading. I asked you guys to make a couple of mouse clicks and vote. Thanks for that - it won and was awarded the money!

However, making a proper upgrade to a path like that (cutting through a very steep rocky gorge) does take a fair bit of money to undertake the full scale of work the John Muir Trust (the landowner) wants to make. So they are trying to raise a further £60,000 to do the job properly and fully upgrade the path. I’m sure many of you guys have been through the Steall Gorge and know that it deserves a well constructed path (it gets a lot of use!) and that folk do have bad accidents there from time to time. The good news is £42K of the shortfall has already been raised.

If you want to help them secure the remaining £18K, donate here. It’s an easy process. I completed it in about two minutes. If everyone of you who regularly reads my blog over a a few days donated £1, it would be in the bag.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Getting out of a hole

So, I’m close to my project, but close is nowhere. If I had a run of cold windy days, I could see it happening. But It’s August, the wind is set in coming from the humid south, and so it’s not happening. The Steall midges are very well fed on my blood and I’m only getting the same highpoint and more and more frustrated and restless.

What to do? Sure I could just keep at it. Motivation is not a problem. Call me a mad man, but I don’t really care how many midge bites I get or how long it takes. My will is much stronger than a few thousand tiny midges. Another day of overheated redpoints in long sleeve top and midge hood might wont send me over the edge, but there are other issues. I don’t want to get too used to having bad sessions and forget to try really hard when good conditions come along. Also, climbing on the same route too much isn’t so good for the body. I’m waking up stiff and sore when I ought to be fine.

So the coaches prescription is to go and do something else for a bit. Keeping going in the current crap weather might be too risky for injury and the negative mental aspects might overtake physical strength gains.

Tomorrow I’ll see where the mood takes me and try something new.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Beastmakers in the shop

Since this site is one of the main places on the web to get information about training for climbing and our shop sells all the best books on the matter, it was about time we started selling some of the best training equipment too. So priority number one was to get hold of the best fingerboards on the market right now; the Beastmakers.
Designed by Font 8b+ boulderers and made out of rather lovely skin friendly wood, their design is clearly a labour of love and that is why they have become so popular in the UK. Oh, and they make your fingers strong. Well, owning one isn’t enough on it’s own. It’s the numbers of hangs clocked up that get makes the jumps in grades we all want. But having a well designed and skin friendly hangboard is a good first step.
I started fingerboarding in summer 2005 just after I first tried Rhapsody. At the time I was climbing F8b and the odd 8b+ and about 8A on boulders. After a solid summer doing my deadhangs most days I got back on the sport climbs in the autumn and was blown away to discover I could now climb 8c. The following year I did Rhapsody and the year after that my first 9a.
That raw finger strength was obviously the ingredient that propelled me forward to grades I never thought I’d get to. There are of course many young strong lads I’ve seen and coached in walls up and down the UK who would wipe the floor with me on a hangboard yet can’t climb nearly as hard outside, since power is nothing without technique. And technique is just as hard won as finger strength.
So every climber needs to have a balance between learning technique and learning to pull hard. However, every climber who spends any time training or aspiring to harder grades should have and use a fingerboard. And if they are going to own any one, a Beastmaker is a pretty good choice. 
We are stocking both the 1000 and 2000 models. The 1000 is designed with those new to training in mind (Font 5-7C) and the 2000 is a better choice for those already used to bouldering walls and basic strength equipment (7C-8C). They cost £75 with our normal £1.50 shipping. Shipping to Europe and the rest of the world are at normal Royal Mail rates.
Get hanging and get strong. The 1000 is here and the 2000 is here.

The Milo of Croton school of training with Freida MacLeod. I wonder how long I can still manage this?

Freida getting started with some assisted hangs

More progress on my project

Conditions have been dry enough for another 2 sessions on my Steall project albeit in the heat and more than a few midges. Objectively, they were pretty good and still showing progress. Diminishing progress, but still progress and as good as I could expect. On the first session overlapping halves more consistently than before, and then overlapping halves for my warm-up once. I ought to be happy with the progress but it’s hard not to balance this against restlessness that such good links and feeling strong on the moves doesn’t translate to getting any higher from the ground yet. 
All of this renews my respect for the route. On some attempts I did notice a ‘head problem’ creeping in that I was feeling the inevitability of how I was likely to get on in the attempt. That usually means it’s time to take another tack. I’m 95% there. I can see I don’t have much to do, but not much more to give either. My endurance training has worked well and I’m not really feeling pumped when I fall, just ‘powered out’. It seems maybe my strength to weight ratio is just not quite there. 
So I’m stepping up the attack on both sides of the ratio with a beefed up fingerboarding routine, using a 10kg weight belt to up the intensity and decrease volume on my circuits and a very organised diet which isn’t something I do often. I tend to ‘train heavy’ most of the time since my somatotype is heavy, and only get slim when It’s totally clear it will be worth it. The main reason is that it’s logistically difficult to balance a routine of hard climbing and training without running into various problems of underfuelled training, injuries, illness etc. But in the short term it works really well.
Fingers crossed for the route be dry enough to get a try or two next week. I definitely feel that working on it and feeling strong in bad conditions might still set me up to be in a really great position if we get some cold and windy weather sometime.

Friday, 27 July 2012

A scary lead on the Caldera slabs

Eyeing up the crux, no going back now. Pallor E7 6b first ascent on the Caldera slabs, Ben Nevis.
Since my elbows finally got healthy last autumn, I’ve been on a mission to get strong and fit after three years unable to really train. I’ve been unleashing my keenness mainly the bouldering and sport climbing disciplines and although I’m still only part way through the process of getting where I want to be, I’ve had some good milestones. Part of a grand plan? Well sort of. Partly I’ve just missed pulling really hard on holds at my limit and now on a year long indulgence! But partly I know that to build my climbing to another level it has to start with bouldering, then sport climbing, then I’ll have a good foundation to do something good on trad.
With all this building a new base line I’ve not really climbed an unprotected trad route for ages. In fact I can’t really remember the last time. Yesterday we went to the Granite slab. I was just going to belay Kev and have a play on the routes. But I still took my helmet and a pair of jeans, in case.

In the end, I decided I might as well lead the first project on the slab. It feels rather hard for E7 given the height and absence of gear, but climbs just a little too easily to be happy to give it E8. So E7. I clipped some cams three moves up to stop my body rolling to the car park if I did decide to fall off and headed upwards. 
In the absence of recent trad experience I fluctuated in and out of the right mindset, having conversations with myself and becoming distracted (relatively speaking of course!), then popping back into the flow for a few moves. Thankfully I flowed properly at the crux and watched myself carefully smear through and creep my fingers onto the finishing ledge. It was nice to remember why I do bold trad. It’s a demanding passion but excellent when you make the investment to do it right.

I wondered if the good vibe would help me on my Steall project today. It didn’t. I wasted a fine chance with a belayer and a cold wind by fumbling the same move on two consecutive attempts and failing to get back to my highpoint. I can climb it in overlapping halves every session and nearly every try and even in not so great conditions. I’ve been here before - 95% good enough but exhausted all the easy channels of progress. I think I’ve hit a wall. My patience for acting like an amateur has run out. It’s time I got to grips with addressing the hard components influencing my performance that I’ve been avoiding.

Kev working on the line, Steall gorge behind. Nice place eh?