The Thick end of the Wedge
It’s always tricky to come back from a climbing trip abroad and keep the momentum going. The excitement of being somewhere different and being able to climb on new stuff day after day can make your home climbing areas feel mundane. After some down time I was struggling to think of what I wanted to do locally, and the season was drawing to an end rendering all but the shadiest crags out of bounds.
Once again Jon Fullwood (not one for thinking inside the box) had a suggestion. Johnny Dawes’ old route Home Cooking needed a sit start. It’s a beautiful, soaring double arete that tapers to a lovely sloping finish way up high.The existing start always felt like it missed the point, pulling on just above the meat of the feature, in a juggy no man’s land above the clean cut prow below. The low start makes the most of the whole feature, squeezing through it’s blankness into the glorious highball romp of a finish.
As the seasons rumble on, the changing of the clocks brings about a short magical period (very short this year!) where the days are long but the temps stay low. It’s great to be able to hold fire and take your time, heading out in the afternoon but knowing you have hours of daylight and conditions to play with.
The sequence is great, the crux being a tricky foot move off some sloping nothings and some karate chop slapping into the original route. Great fun...
I’ve been wondering whether it’s just me and if my own tastes have been becoming more esoteric. In some respects it’s definitely true but i’d like to thing its because that’s where some real quality climbing is. If there’s one thing in climbing i love it’s being first on the scene in an area with classic boulders and experiencing it whilst it’s sleeping. When it comes to visiting unkown venues or places that don’t have any hard climbing established i never question myself anymore. 10 years ago i didn’t ask myself those questions either, it was always worth it even if it’s just to go somewhere different. That latter point is something which has been snowballing more and more with recent climbs. It’s been utterly brilliant climbing loads of new problems over the last 10 years, its also been just as fun repeating those of others. I guess this is my point in a way, i hope the development scene can weather the pressure of the way climbing media operates nowadays, much of local development is a slow process and finding classics can take years, yet inevitably these things end up sharing the same 5 seconds of fame as the rest of the internet now just to be forgotten. The consoling fact is that they exist and they’re amazing things to climb on when you find them nearby.
It’s a real privilege to have been born in the “bouldering generation”, we didn’t have the climbing walls that are about now, but like the generation before us with 90's sport and 80's trad. Pretty much all the best 8th grade lines in the UK have been put up post 2000, save for one or two. I would argue this is also a reason why bouldering has been popular in the last decade, as much of the excitement has come from many people riding on the back of a wave of interesting development. The fact that the golden goose is still turning them up in strange places just goes to show how rewarding it can be living in a country with such great little crags on our doorstep. Rock is a limited resource however and the days of new climbs will dwindle one day. All i will say is that it is an incredibly rewarding thing to get good at whilst it lasts. The last unknowns in a niche of a niche sport. It’s a bit weird but there aren’t many better rushes than walking round the corner and seeing that dream line, sat there like a sleeping leviathan. Difficult, intimidating, but possible. Waiting to breathe further life to the sport. I’d argue It’s even better when it’s somewhere you’ve been brought up as you have a more intimate connection with the landscape and the local nuances, a connection i always lose on holidays. On holiday i feel nothing other than a consumer of nice rocks most of the time, but i can certainly appreciate what it’s like for the locals there and the scene they have.
For two years now i’ve been engaging with a sporadic wild goose chase around my favourite stomping ground of northumberland looking for a mythical mega prow thanks to a teasing tip off from Steve Blake. Last week, at a particular low point physically (two black toes and a racked but light body. I caught a nasty gastroenteritis after competing in the best stagnant bogwater lowball girdling championship in history) i finally guessed it’s location. Dan Brown could write another crap novel with all the places Katie and I have been looking for this flipping prow (we’ve had a lot of fun on the way too). All i’ve had to go on was a photo which Mark’d got hold of on the NMC black market. luckily i could tell the sandstone type and a rough aspect and plants which hinted at a few locations. Sufficed to say expectations were high. What if the side i couldn’t see was covered in choss, or even worse, Jugs! Luckily the hype was pitched at a decent level, i’d say in the end it’s one of the coolest sets of moves on one of the best lines in the county, and northumberland isn’t short of massive lines. I got the stand last session and i’m calling it Star Slinger the stand goes at 8Aish but there’s more still to go below and around it, so in the great tradition of the one-upmanship of knowledge we wont be telling the internet where it is anytime soon, but you’re welcome to go hunting and find it in the real world.
Sometimes classic line’s are just waiting for their time, be it a nearby tree falling or the sea giving a helping hand.
Wilson 8Aish was one such line i’ve crossed my fingers for 5 years over. i first cleaned the upper section in 2009 but at the time it was almost impossible to start and had a death landing. The storms this winter pushed the massive block at its base to the best place it could possibly be and straight away i was on it, these things only happen once in a blue moon. I knew it was the best line on the coast. Its on the best st bees rock and the moves have a great blend of power and fear suppression. It will make a really satisfying ground up challenge to the best boulderers. Hurting yourself in the infra littoral zone with no phone signal is fairly ill advised though.
On another development thought experiment we decided to act upon some enticing pics John Watson put of some coastal bouldering in Dumfries, it’s pretty near where we live in Carlisle (in the grand scheme of things) and Micky, Katie and I have had 2 trips there recently and i can see myself going back for years to that coastline, The greywacke and raised beaches offer a huge variety of angles and holds on great clean rock and it’s a lovely peaceful setting. A real developers playground. We’ve put up quite a few problems there now but there are 3 classics that’d be brilliant anywhere. There’s a 7A+ish hanging scoop that has the best scoopy power palming i’ve ever done on a problem, really unique stuff which you hardly ever see, arete’s are ten a penny in this world but hanging scoopy bowls are somewhat rarer. More on this in the future i guess.
This blog is dedicated to “left of Ivan” a project i ripped a key hold off recently, which was going to be well fun.
In my mind I approach bouldering development like a giant easter egg hunt, whereby 300,000 to 3 billion years ago nature ran round and hid loads of the best bouldering lines in the UK into bizarre little nooks and crannies with very little logic behind it.
The other day i managed to climb a total dream line of mine. The type of line i always hoped would exist but never expected to find. Expectations can be disappointing in that even in the best areas in the world its rare to find something that ticks all the boxes for what i imagine is the perfect problem. For me its things like, hard and varied moves from start to finish, nice rock with a flat landing. All too often a minging hold, lumpy landing or filler moves section creeps in. Even lines like Lanny Bassham (sharp pockets and palm gouging pebbles detract from the experience) and Partage (samey moves) can be nit picked. Until last year i’d say the best problem i’ve ever done in the UK is Lanny as it ticks all the boxes for me. It has fantastic moves and is reasonably varied, employing heels and toe hooks, pockets and slopers, the location is stunning and its still tricky after the crux.
Highballs are a funny thing in that they often embody the zeitgeist of bouldering over the generations (Mandala, Careless Torque, high fidelity, evilution, partage, merveille, livin’ large etc) For me a true highball should embody the bouldering spirit of it being really hard to take a hand off, whilst not quite being a solo. Lines like Lanny, Superbloc and Londinium fit this ilk well, you just keep heading upwards until you’re on top. Movement wise IMO these are a class above lines like Careless torque which has a no hands rest after the bottom section and is escapable. Of course strength and fitness can render most moves “chalkable”
Last year I decided to pay another visit to the “waste of cumberland” -a rather cruel historical name for what is a beautiful forgotten part of the county. As there is a crag out there which crowns the hilltop in splendid isolation. Once a landmark for the borders it now sports one of the most overgrown footpaths in the UK. A place people seem to only visit to carve their names for the last 400 years. Its nearly a scottish crag but for a mile and a northumberland crag but for 500 meters. Such is the history of the area it feels a little bit like all three; Scottish standards of isolation, Northumberland’s rock and Cumbria’s views.
Of course the downside of that for most people is that its in the arse end of nowhere, then again most crags are. Last year on a summers day when it was in the high 20s in carlisle i realized this wasn’t just a fantastic crag, it also enjoys great conditions in summer as i battled with the top out in a light thermal. It took me 30minutes just to figure out the top out on a rope that day so i wasn’t overly optimistic about taking huge falls from the last moves. Everytime i shockloaded the gri gri i just thought, splat, splat, splat and a long crawl back to the car. It is the type of slopey top out where every sequence is a dead end except one, which involves about four foot moves and four hand moves to move 50cm upwards. I was thinking i’d prefer to have rataplat up there than something so specific as at least on rataplat there is a point where you can just keep mauling the top. I gradually pieced together the lower moves and it just kept being an unrelenting bit of climbing, super varied, pockets crimps and slopers, and all powerful, there is one hold on the whole problem where you could chalk a hand ok but it tends to tire your fingers out for the font top out so i felt it was better to just climb fast through it.
Its certainly the hardest crux i’ve ever done at height and i feel i have a decent record to draw from on highballs. What kept me going was that it was too fun, working the moves on a rope i was left grinning each session from the quality, i was constantly having little chuckles to myself as to why the best highball in font had turned up 30mins from my house in Cumbria, such is the brilliant randomness of life. Combined with the fact that the crag doesn’t really exist save for a page in the eden valley guide. It was a much needed boost to the part of me that says “keep looking, they are out there”. A rhetoric which is hard to positively reinforce sometimes especially in the eighth grades.
So following some serious pad logistics and a good amount of help from Micky Stainthorpe and my Dad we had enough pads up there for me to fail miserably from high up and take some big falls. The next week, and some forethought with regards to rest days, saw me struggling to get warm in June! luckily i did get fired up enough and after a scaredy jump off i carried on through the keyhole on autopilot. Watching my ring finger pop out the tiny pock (leaving me mono crimp hugging a very slopey top) just before my foot landed on the slopey lip is a moment i can only be thankful went the right way.
It was a beautiful experience putting up this one, a complete package and everything i could wish to find in a highball. The grade is on the soft side if you get it wired on a rope (i only ever abbed the top section, so never top roped the whole thing as that always takes away a bit of the magic for me). I do think the grade may be on the hard side to anyone who steps up to ground up it as that would be an incredible effort, as ground up climbing always is, far superior and far harder.
Hobbie Noble is named after a local reiver who was a bit of a rogue with morals who divided the locals depending on whether he was raiding your Bastle or rescuing your nephew from the Law, his is a great story and worth a read , The abridged version is that he grew up pretty much at the base of Christianbury and would have passed through it on his way to bust Jack o’ side out of Newcastle’s gaol. Jack o’ side was a Scottish armstrong and Hobbie was loyal to that clan, famously solving the Armstrongs Dilemma of what to do about Jack getting locked up by saying “give me 5 good men and i’ll sort it”. He was later tricked by an english armstrong clan who’d betrayed him for gold and as a result he was captured and hung in Carlisle, most likely on Harrabee hill, which is pretty much where Eden Rock is today. The guy who betrayed him; Sim of the Mains, got his comeuppance when the Scottish Armstrongs found out and tracked him down and hung him in Carlisle too.
Proper history rather than fannying about on rocks. You can still feel a bit of the Reiver feel in the borders in a few places and wondering round the timeless stone corridors of christianbury is certainly one of them, its nice to be born out of their world and to still feel what those bleak times might have been like sometimes in these days of blogs, tweets and likes.
Climbing takes me into these landscapes and knowing a bit about the history of them all adds to the experience.
Hobbie was immortalised in Walter Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’
Fun in the north.
Climbing for me seems to have a way of aggregating aims from seemingly chance events as time passes, a quick flick in an old magazine here or a flick through a guide book there. A conversation with friends about some crag i haven’t even thought of for years. Sometimes the aims build to become a solid one or sometimes they just drift by in the background. Slow burners. One such project for me was a line of veiny rock at Reiffs bouldering cliffs. Last year i spotted this incredibly obvious line the day i climbed helicoidal flow and Rubha Dubh Dubh. I felt the holds and suspected it’d go. Quite why nature felt like producing a wall with all these perfect holds i don’t know but in my eyes they are some of the best lines in the uk because they exploit incredibly subtle features that hardly ever occur on overhangs. I didn’t know if i’d get back there to try it but i logged it in the back of my mind, ready for serendipity to build it into a reality if everything conspired.
Reiff was a lovely breath of fresh air that comes from ranging further afield, out of my local crag comfort zone.
As i’ve got older i’ve got fussier as to what to spend my free time on. I still love bouldering on hard lines more than ever but as i climb more and more, i’m inevitably left with those 2 choices that face you in local areas. Change tack and climb different lines/ styles or get stronger for the bigger gaps. A number of projects in Northumberland are currently that bit too testing for me and they are of radically different styles which aren’t necessarily what i’m great at, one involves at least 8B slab skills and mono pock crimping and the other involves wild compression on slopers and obtuse angles. Interestingly the UK’s hardest proven slabs are in the 7C+ region on boulders and there are few of those about. True compression wise our hardest problems max out at 8A+. Font has loads of compression climbing upto 8C so why are we so far behind? well partly its the rock but mostly it is our history, Compression has never really been in vogue in the UK, it was all about crushing small holds 10 years ago and in many respects it still is now. The same goes for slabs, in Font there’d be far fewer hard slabs without the LeDenmats passion for the mighty Dalle.https://www.flickr.com/photos/beastmaker/14027745607/
Its with this in mind that makes me really happy to go out developing with other climbers. Everyone is looking for something different that inspires them when the rock is a blank canvas. Tom “Gangle” Newman has turned his hand to putting up new problems in the peak since moving to Nottingham with much success. He’s been hoovering up old projects all over the spot.
Tom was my raiding partner for a quick trip north of the border in May and upon arriving at Reiff he immediately spotted a line between the obvious ones i’d seen. Wide moves off few holds. At first i was a tad sceptical that it’d go as it’s a line i would never have spotted immediately, its the type of thing i’d have ended up playing on after being at the crag for ages. Yet it ended up climbing superbly, taking a line through the blankness that was super impressive in it’s board style and pureness. Tom got very close on our day trip but the rub of the green wasn’t with him for the full send. It’s always the way in climbing. I can say this smugly as i was fortunate to just be on the other side of the coin on my chosen project. Just scraping out an ascent which felt much like chucking a dart through an open letterbox from 20yards away. Mainly because i’d been off form for close to 3 weeks with a bad flu bug and cold which i was only just coming out the other side from.
All in all it was a brilliant day at one of the best bits of bouldering crags in the UK for side by side quality 7’s & 8’s.
On a tangent the other day some people i know were miffed when Jemma Powells new sandbag 7B+ was reported on UKC the other day, because of its "lowly grade” (and yes UKC’s ultra basic reporting didn’t help convey the overall important message here). Yet i was really chuffed to see that getting reported for a few reasons. The main one being that to my knowledge that it is one of the hardest boulder problems ever put up in the UK by a woman, something which is well worth drawing attention to (Nia Fletcher put up a 7B in the lakes recently and there are quite a few other female developers who have put up many a classic in the uk, Karin Magog Tess Fryer and Veronica Hunter to name a few. For some reason bouldering development in the UK is a very androcentric past time. Even though Trad and Sport climbing in the UK has had more female FA’s close to the cutting edge for their time (granted sport climbing has abated a bit since Ruth Jenkins and Karin Magog's 8’s) Yet at the minute we have many of the worlds most famous female boulderers operating in the UK. Obviously there are oodles of reasons for this, but it’s fantastic to see development reporting on the rise in the UK by Women (Leah and Shauna have put up harder boulders abroad) . But that isn’t the main reason to be out putting up new climbs, the main one is that its really fun, you don’t have to have climbed everything to develop new climbs, you simply need the desire to go into the unknown and find roughly what you’re looking for. It takes a different skillset and mindset to do this and i think it's very commendable when it happens. whether people share it with the world or not is up to them, but i am always glad when they do. There is a huge onus on international development at the cutting edge of the male sport right now, mainly because they warm up on last years test pieces nowadays and the more that development equals out between the sexes the better in my eyes.
Anyhow, back to me. there’s a fantastic project near me at the minute that i am pretty sure is one of the problems i’ve been looking for my whole life without knowing it. It’s bizzare where they can turn up and i was smiling from limb to limb doing the moves on it the other day. 9m high 8Bish and everything on it, crimps, slopers, a pocket and subtlety with a 7B+ slopey font top out. Middle of nowhere, yet only a short drive from my house. A slightly harder, sandstone Lanny Bassham is a good summation, with a similarly involved approach. This is what gets me excited to be fettling away as a boulderer. Sometimes i develop things for both myself and the community and sometimes its for myself, this is a me line. That for me is why it’s worth heading out and sifting through all the crap crags that can be nearby. Once you’ve done the classics it’s worth trying to find more lines which are as good if not better. Of course a day has to come when they run out, but when you take places like Scotland into consideration that time is a long way off. It had seven new font 8’s added to it last year (possibly more if Mike Adam’s ascents on Skye get graded, i think Venom Jag had been done by Dave Mac before but Darken down is new). More than Wales and they roped Megos in for the best one... , it looks like it was the most new 8’s added in one year ever in the history of Scottish bouldering and it’s main (pretty much only) native hard bouldering developer was injured most of the year. Dave Macleod has put up some amazing problems in Scotland over the years. Triangulation is just one example of a benchmark classic power problem three star climbing and situation and 10 mins walk from the road and basically perma dry.
Here’s Gangle on the second ascent four years after it was put up. He uses pretty different beta but i couldn’t image two more contrasting climbing physiques. I got up it after tom with slightly different beta again.