thinking hard and climbing less hard

Posted on April 19, 2015 by Dan Varian

i’ve just been to Scotland and ticked off a really nice problem that i’d found whilst boulder hunting. My mind has mainly been on a prow in northumberland though after a close call last week.

On Thursday morning whilst at work I listened to a podcast Interview with Ben Moon where he said some really interesting points, and also some pretty blanket statements that i didn’t expect from a man in his position. Here’s some quotes from Ben, which out of context probably look worse than they really are as he was fairly positive about the UK on the whole. But they still struck me as odd and i couldn’t shake them.


“i think theres still a good tradition of training in the uk but we’re not really producing climbers out on rock.”

“we’re not producing world class climbers at the moment”

“its an interesting question why at the moment british climbing isn’t producing “Björn: Ben Moon” the best climbers in the world” “we haven’t been for quite a few years”

Edit: Ben Got the point, and qualified that his comments were just about uk male sport climbers.

regardless these words rang through my head whilst i walked into my project on Thursday afternoon, and nevertheless helped spur me up it.


I hit the board again for two weeks and made sure i had two rest days before trying it, i then started getting close again after mentally restoring myself to home game rather than away game. Regardless of whatever reasons why, that just seems to be the way it is in the UK for myself, maybe i was just tired off my holidays, who knows.


Picture by Steve Blake, Steve's put up a 3 star classic 7A+ at this crag and he was putting up lines like hitchhikers in the 70's, not a bad innings!

 After dropping my prow on the last move to a half pad mono in the arete last session 3 times i was quietly confident i could get it done on thursday if things swang in my favour, I’d had 2 rest days and i had the added bonus of motivational umbrage bestowed upon me from Ben’s words. To top it all i found a slightly better foot position on the upper section that made it a few percent easier, so i ended up doing the stand up first try and the sitter first try that day after a big rest. Star Power represents a nice break away from the traditional crimpyness and power climbing that much of our 8B and 8B+s in England adhere to, whilst it is still reasonably fingery it is more of a compression and long power test piece being 13 hard hand and tricky foot moves, it hasn’t got any 8A moves on which is why i’m reluctant to properly guestimate it in the 8B+ grade as i think those should have 8A single moves but it does have loads of moves almost that hard and it ends with a 7C ish single move to a blind half pad mono, which after you’ve done an 8A+ to get there is a bit of a sod. To me it seems harder than monk life which is roughly a 7C into a 7C+ move (but sharp so go limiting) but easier than The Rail which felt like it had an 8A+ move on my sequence. I don’t think its a dead cert for 8B+ and that grade is very much tentative in the UK...


Picture courtesy of Mark Savage, a man as psyched on his photography as i am on bouldering. 

On paper there are 2 climbers in the UK who have established and repeated climbs of the 8B+ grade in the UK Myself and Mike Adams, and i certainly don’t have a clue where the boundaries truly start and end. If Gaskins’s post 2003 problems are included its like throwing a flipping brick into a tumble dryer going at full speed and asking it to carry on working. 

Ben pinned 6 tails on the 8A and above donkeys as his markers for where the benchmarks are. Nowadays there are over 430 and it takes some getting one’s head around as to where the tails are exactly. Of course there are mostly benefits to this process. In sport climbing its looking like hubble is more and more likely the worlds first 9A, like star wars remastered it just gets better with age whilst realising how far ahead of its time it was.

As ever i'd like to thank the really impressive development work of the true grafters like Jon Fullwood, Steve Blake, John Watson, Bob Smith, Greg Chapman, Lee Robinson etc etc People who often wont make the headliines for lack of big numbers but are often the reason why guidebooks for outdoor bouldering are more than a pamphlet about stanage plantation and almscliff. To me it’s people like that that truly add the backbone to our sport, they tend to be less about the #tbts and throwbacks and more about the crack on and get stuff done. Without Steve and Bob Star Power might never have gotten climbed.

`Many thanks go to Scarpa UK in this respect too, as they let me crack on with developing and repeating lines and they've got a great supportive attitude towards the sport.

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Empty the bones of you.

Posted on March 21, 2012 by Dan Varian

I've been scooped as ever so Marks blog or outcrops fb feed are clearly the places to go for county news! Mark has some nice pics on his blog.

 I've been stuck in a bit of a rut with 5 projects recently, mostly because i've been trying 5 things all at once so my sessions have been spread out to say the least. I felt in the form of my life on the board last week and managed some tricky moves on it (along with a raid upto thorn... nearly collapsed on the walk in, but got up return of the fly for its 2nd ascent after 9 years, and picked my jaw up from the floor after seeing moment of clarity!) With the weather looking perfect in Northumberland this week it was time to head up with Katie and go and test out the purple patch good and proper.

It was too windy for project No1 so 3 and 5 took priority. I'd cleverly stashed my harness and micro gear safely behind my sofa at home away from prying eyes so i was free of my harness and gear for the day (i'm a shit trad partner!) So my trad project was going to have to be a boulder problem if i wanted to try it. That said it is a boulder problem as you can only try it with pads, due to the crux being at 7m with no gear. It is not a normal crux either like on most highballs. It is a proper boulder problem crux that would be tricky on the ground. Luckily Ben was out too and had borrowed some pads off Matt so we had 7pads!  I felt rather good warming up and despite it being in the sun it seemed like a good time to have a bash at the biggy. I hadn't tried it since January so a quick brush on abseil and check of the top was needed for reassurance seeing as though i'd be soloing up there now. On my first go i felt a lot better than in january and. Next go i'd stuck the crux launch to the pocket off the tiny 3 finger crimp and it was time to man up, after a brief pause to turn my brain off i promptly got up the rest of the problem/solo forthwith. The crux on this is lower than the last droppable move on Darkside but is a trifle more momentum stopping so font 8A+ (H) is likely its best expression. Its the only grade i can stomach giving it anyway, it felt nice to be free of the rope too and in my natural environment of deckout failure, although i was a little apprehensive on getting the top slopers.  . We still had a while to go so Ben got on County Ethics. He ground upped it in 3 goes on the day and looked in well his comfort zone on high ground, great to watch.

 It still wasn't home time so i got on a lovely little project coming right out the bitch, its rather innocuous but is a nice reality check in relation to the big stuff on north wall. Normal bouldering, workable moves. The moves are really cool on it. It basically does the first hard move of the bitch to the jug and then you gross to a crap pinch (footer on the bitch) and work your way rightwards using a tricky heel which destroyed 3 of my shoes. With the threat of another anasazi heel getting ruined thus pushing the stats to >50% of this years freebies getting wrecked i thought today would be good to see it off! I'd got super close the day i did four mats wall. the problem has a really hard cut loose to get your right heel up and the LH pinch is so crap that it just fires of. Pretty frustrating! and the odd expletive leaked out. As it got later on i got tireder but conditions actually came good. Meaning the LH pinch got grippy enough to be usable from the start. As the day was drawing in friction and tiredness finally met in the middle and i scraped up it. Not the best line in the county but a really nice problem which is workable and just good fun (like all the problems on those boulders)

As ever the grades on these are a guess. They are vaguely accurate in relation to the other things at the crag but not in relation to things as a whole. Empty the bones of you is kind of like doing two pump up the powers on top of one another into a necky finish, except its not polished or bolted.  I'll be whinging about  hard grades as well as having a bash about where i think the future of highballing might end up going in the UK during the premiere of Life on Hold in sheffield at the weekend.

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The Dark Side of Bouldering is Trad!

Posted on December 22, 2011 by Daniel Varian

 The County has been a salvation in this dismal winter weather and there have been a few winter gift days over there of late. Friday wasn’t one of them but i was busting to get out after a week of work. I ended up going to Back Bowden with Alnwick Ben and making the best of a very snowy day. The snow made most things un-playable and i’m not one for going too near wet sandstone. So we played about on the north wall. Unfortunately i’d had a gorgeous sunday the previous week doing all the boulder problems on there. Nothing was toppable so i thought it wise to look at Dark Side and get the bottom wired. I first tried this in 2008 with Ned when i had a finger injury and could barely get off the ground. It was hot and Ned got up the wall until the holds seemingly disappeared. I didn’t get back up to Backers for a while but i always thought this’d be a great route to leave and attempt in good style. Ground up/Onsight climbing is a funny ethic but entirely logical, you just walk to the bottom of something and try it. The problem with most of the climbs i want to try is that they have no gear on (boulders/solos) and if they have good gear on i’d prefer not to use it (e.g Earth boots, Living in oxford, second born, Sheer temptation i have all climbed onsight or ground up above pads only (when all have at least some decent gear) This is a funny niche of ground up style and one which is non sensical if the E grade of the route is looked at but so far as climbing a bit of rock in a purely enjoyable and memorable style then it is second to none. This style only works when its possible to exercise a good level of control and down climbing or jumping off has to be an ever-takable option. 

 Problems begin to arise when things get close to your limit. when you start falling off left right and center its best not to hit the ground in my experience. Compromises creep in for sanity reasons. short “Trad routes” are often a funny concept to tackle for myself as i love the grey area between highballs and proper routes. I think this stems from when i started climbing in Northumberland after learning to drive i was often on my own but wanted to attempt many of the classic callerhues routes like crouching the mahogany, boulevard, ned kelly along with others at howlerhirst, and armathwaite so i just got on with it with my one blue franklin pad (which i still have). Once i moved to Sheffield i was really at home with this style and amongst friends. There is a fantastic Onsight and Ground up ethic at the heart of Sheffield climbing and there is a friendly peer pressure to not take the easy way out and ab/ toprope stuff. This is a great incentive but it does tend to mean you get less done as a climber (but feel better for what you do do) as something that may have only taken you one go to head point can take considerably longer to ground up. Some fond memories from Sheffield ground up days out are (guide book grades)

Superbloc E8 (font 8A+)

Carless torque E6 (font 8A)

Toyboy (e7-7a (font7c) 

My prune E5 (font 7c)

Return of the Jedi HXS (font 7c)

Renegade master E8 (font 7C+) 

Earth boots E6 7a (font 7c) 

Pie hard E6 (font 7B+)

unfamiliar e7/8 6c font 7B+ (used a rope)

Panther dash e7? (font 7B+) fa ground up

Living in oxford e7 7a (font 7B)

nefretiti e6 6c (font 7a) flash

Happily ever after e6 6c (font 7b) onsight

navana e6 6b (font 7a)

4 above all on same day with Ned and Luke

narcissus e6 6a (font 7a) onsight

The power of the darkside (E8) (route 6c+) flash (clearly looking at the above list this is more like E6)

There is one failure from the peak which particularly sticks in my mind and that is when i attempted to ground up superstition above pads (and a bit of snow) so no rope. Miles Gibson is the only person in the peak (with Myles, Welfords, Barker and Moffats additions notable too) who has put up routes which get close to Andy’s in terms of being brutally hard as well as intimidating. Before you leave the ground you know you wont be in a typical trad climbing mode, you’re snatching at crap pebbles and mini edges doing font 7c+ to 8A+s in places where people are imagining trad routes being in a few years time. If Miles bags the lawrencefield project (and lets be honest a closed (gentlemans agreement) one to the likes of Me, Ned, Caff and Ryan etc) then he’ll have pushed this style of boulder/trad blend to new heights. 

I have never been so gripped as the 25ish seconds i stood at the last hard move of Superstition, with no one else there (but my camera), needing the gumption to just pop 8inches from a little cluster of pebbles to the ledge but with that distance feeling more like 8 feet. This situation taught me lots about where my own limit lies in terms of when brain frizz shuts you down completely. Over the last year i’ve tried to push these a bit. An easier project on lion rock tested my mental limits with only 4 pads i was trying to commit to an easy font 6C+ish dyno but at a height where dynos and solos haven’t mixed yet. I didn’t do this or Superstition but the adage that you can learn more from failures than successes couldn’t be more true in this case.

Adam's awesome pic is taken from up a tree so foreshortens the distance a bit.

It's these 2 failures which have taught me the most about ground upping and really seizing opportunities when you have them. Interestingly hard moves can be easier to do than easier ones which disrupt flow and allow you time to think.

Andy has an incredible roster of hard boulders and competition results in his portfolio and Pointed the way in the peak 4 years ago by doing the first ground up ascent of Careless So far in the County (of Andy's routes/problems) i’d only managed to ground up the Magician (E7 font 7c+) and i’d found better beta on the bottom and stuck to the right arete at the top, different to Chris and Andy. The Young was far to intimidating to attempt ground up but it really does represent an awesome challenge for someone with balls the size of Buster Gonad. The Prow could have been potentially ground upped the Day me Mick and Ned got on it but it would have been a bit poop as one of us would have sat there getting all the beta off the others as they worked it which is a bit silly, it was much more fun to mutually work it and figure it out together.

So the Darkside was an obvious challenge to leave. At least font 8A, high but with a great landing and whilst it is incredibly intimidating up there it is also one of the most basic walls in the UK, nearly everything on the upper route is a horizontal crimp, no sidepulls underclings or pinches. So no tricky sequence reading just wind up the gears and pull. It is very steep for a “trad route” and as i learnt on one go foot pings mean lots of pivoting and travelling time as your body follows with the momentum. These are dangerous as you can find yourself flat on your face from high up. Luckily this is something i’ve unwittingly trained in the past, albeit from a lower height...

When it came down to it the Darkside passed in a serene blur for the crux, i was totally psyched and committed once i thought i had my beta and for the crux moves i could just hear a faint whir of intensity in the background. I arrived at the break with numb fingers from the cold (the friction was incredible though) and some serious quick thinking was needed, Mark had brought slightly poor gear as andy has a metolious cam in the pic of him and we tried to guess from that (who seriously owns a set of these in the uk unless they’re sponsored by them?) so Mark had guessed at a half camalot (he’s the trad man), i’d been totally useless and only brought a harness and a 10m rope it was in anyway even if it was looking a little uncomfortable, (if you want to know the gear then i think some small ball nuts and size 0 cams would be great) luckily the gear is almost completely superfluous as there are only 2 pulls to really good holds and you can sit on your heel, after some serious breathing i pulled up to the top of the crag and a large snow patch, being somewhat un prepared for winter climbing we had opted to rest a rope up there to get through the snow as decking out from an icy footslip would be a bit to ironic after all that!

If you’re looking for some huge insight as to whether it deserves the grade of E9 7b or not then bear these points in mind. I’m mostly a boulderer and don’t fully understand the E system when it comes to danger vs difficulty.

If it were a sport route it’d be about 8b+ and have about 4 bolts and a belay in (it’d also be nowhere as good, i love Englands ethics!)

The move to the rail off the quarter pad crimp is probably 7b, if not then its 7a along with the 2 moves before and there arent any moves upto the break easier than 6b, most’d be 6c or 7a.

There are no other trad routes of this uber higball/guaranteed deckout from the crux of this difficult style except for maybe Superbloc which is lower and Andy’s own routes The Prow and The Young (not forgetting The Ayes have it and Endless Flight direct too which i haven't been on). Pearson’s excellent Return of the Jedi is similar but easier but with a slightly worse landing. Lanny Bassham 8A+ and High fidelity 8B come close in Yorkshire but are boulders. (the latter Andy cruises in this video

Grade bickering is the Dark Side of trad and at the end of the day i think routes are best judged by their reputations and how they keep them. One thing about this route is that i think because it is basic it’d be the most flashable of all the routes of this style, what a flash that would be though! Not many people outside Northumberland really know about this route in the same way that Gaia is famous worldwide. Yet you wouldn’t catch a lady bird on any of the crux holds on Darkside, greenfly maybe, but no one ever got distressed after crushing an aphid. Its a beautiful wall and its certainly an ascent that i'll cherish for a long time to come.

I’m indebted to Andy for pioneering these incredible routes and Mark and Katie for the style of this ascent as without their spotting along with Mark abbing and cleaning the holds for me the route was pretty much un-attemptable. The wall was very wet until 2008 when the trees were felled so moss had grown over two of the 1/4ish pad crimps rendering them totally invisible from below and its impossible to take a hand off and brush (for me anyway) at that difficulty. Knowing the gear is right is a great mental boost too, even if it is superfluous, you don’t know that ground up and it gives you the option of retreating. 

I had 4 pads 1 cam (pre knowledge of gear and placement), and 2 spotters for this. I’d have used way more pads if possible but we just didn’t have them.

To see Mark's perspective of the day then go here:

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Black Triage

Posted on November 01, 2011 by Shopify

Here's a nice pic from Mark Savage of a new problem i sneaked up at back bowden the other day. The county never fails to dissappoint if you stare at its gaps long enough. It follows the leftwards trending grooveline and is probably about soft 8a to boulder ground up.

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