Looking out the window at the drizzle means one thing, no two. Firstly, no excuse not to go down the wall for some training and secondly no excuse not to write a blog about something… Normally my blogs are super easy to write, this one’s a bit more complicated, requiring more thought, but here we go, just bear in mind this is a massive subject, so this is really just an overview – the internet is full of great articles, and some utter rubbish as well.
For years I was kidding myself “off down the wall to get strong” I’d say, rubbish. Is going down the wall with a mate and doing a few routes training? No. I’m not saying it’s pointless, it’s great fun and you’ll get some benefit, as you will from any climbing, but don’t kid yourself it’s training. Sorry about that.
Do you need to train, and more importantly do you want to train? If you’re happily climbing a grade and going to a climbing wall is just your way of ticking over when you can’t get to a crag then great, keep doing what you’re doing! If, however, you’re trying to improve your grade, think about what’s stopping you succeeding.
It’s important to understand a few key words when giving the above points some thought.
How do we train our weaknesses? With hard work! Remember you’ve got to want to do the training, so have a think about what motivates you. It could be a particular route or grade, it could be to burn off your mates, or to make the most of that upcoming trip to the Costa Blanca – whatever it is, use it.
Before anything, warm up! You need to prepare your body to perform, get the heart rate up with some jogging, star jumps etc, do a bit of mobility stuff to get your muscles and joints moving and do a bit of co-ordination work as well. Then move on to some EASY climbing or bouldering.
This is such a complicated subject. You’ll want to train all these different elements in phases, but we have to keep on top of them all. If we focus entirely on endurance, you’ll be stumped when you come to a crux section on a sport route, if you focus solely on power you’ll run out of gas hanging around placing gear on a trad route.
Don’t forget to rest. All this training requires your body to rest and rebuild to get stronger & fitter.
Remember I asked why you’re failing on routes? We also need to consider what we are looking to achieve from our training, maybe that’s linked to what’s motivating us. If you’re aim is to onsight The Strand, E2 at Gogarth then you’ll need endurance just to keep on trucking, if it’s to redpoint your a cruxey 7a somewhere then it’s probably power endurance you’ll need.
Well done for making it through that lot! Hopefully it’s useful and gives you something to think about. I get such a buzz from succeeding on routes that I’ve had to work hard to achieve that it’s easy to stay motivated to train and I enjoy the training itself, and that’s super important I think. If you don’t enjoy the training, even if it’s type two fun, it’ll be hard to keep doing it, week in week out.
Lastly, remember this blog is just a bit of an overview, this is, as I’ve already said, a massive subject… If you’re going to get training, get as much knowledge as you can, whether that’s reading stuff or seeking advice from a climbing coach.
Get training and smash those goals!
Grades are just arbitrary numbers and yet we get so hung up on them. I’ll happily admit I’m motivated by them and they provide goals and targets for me to work towards.
Type “how to climb 7a” in to Google and you’ll get plenty of results, the top one being by Steve McClure, the man who’s just climbed 9b, read it, it’s good.
Unlike Steve, I don’t have many grades in hand when I climb a 7a! My best onsight is only a grade harder at 7a+ and my best redpoint is 7b+, this year is the first year I’ve put some proper effort in to trying to push my grade and I’m about to start working my first 8a (nb. working is a long way from succeeding..!)
Here’s my take on it anyway!
Train. I spent years going to the climbing wall thinking I was training, I wasn’t! If you go to the wall and just mince around doing a few routes, that isn’t training. It’s still useful, it’s mileage isn’t it, but think about what you’re trying to achieve. Training is a massive subject, about which there’s shed loads written (even how many moves you should be climbing per week to climb a particular grade, or how much weight you should be able to hold hanging on a finger board), but have a think about why you’re failing on routes, lack of endurance, lack of power, lack of strength, lack of power endurance, these will dictate what areas you need to work on. Consider getting some outside advice on this, personally I needed to be told by someone else what I needed to work on, despite having a reasonable amount of knowledge on the subject.
Fall off, again and again and again. The head game is massive and falling off lots will help it. If you slap for that final hold you might hold it, if you don’t try you’ll never know, if you’re scared of falling you won’t slap… Fear of falling saps energy, makes you climb poorly and will hold you back. When I’m climbing laps indoors I never clip the top lower off, just jumping off once I’ve got the top hold, so I’m falling off a minimum of 16 time during my laps session. I used to practice random falling to build up the belayer trust but I don’t need to now, I just climb hard (for me) stuff until I fall off. Go for that next move, that one more move, every time! Bear in mind I’m talking about training here, not redpointing a route, we need to conserve our energy sometimes. Remember though, poor falling off practice could make things worse, so give it some thought and don’t do what I saw the other day – people taking their first ever lead falls on a vertical arete (hard to land well, you’ll bang your shins etc) and then not high enough up the wall so the belayer was almost kicked in the head and the climber getting quite close to the ground.
Performance Preparation. Mine used to consist of an espresso and an easy climb or two and that just doesn’t cut it. I remember chuckling to myself seeing people running around, doing star jumps, getting a theraband out and so on, now that’s me, every time. Again this is a massive subject but think about getting the cardio going, mobilising the joints and muscles and getting your co-ordination kick started, then get on some easy stuff for a bit to recruit your muscles. This happens at the beginning of the session and also before each climb when I’m outdoors. Part of the performance prep is route reading, spotting the rests, clipping positions, particular moves, where you’ll need to move fast and visualise yourself doing it and succeeding.
Don’t be afraid of failing and always take the positives. You want to push your grade? It sucks but sometimes you won’t get it. Take the positives though, it’s so important! Many years ago I threw my sport ‘draws on the floor and shouted “sport is sh*t, I’m never climbing sport again”! These days, to be honest I’m usually smiling when I fail, something will certainly have gone well or I’ll have learnt something about my climbing or the route itself and it motivates me to try harder!
Reading that won’t make you climb 7a, sorry. Reading that and giving each point some more thought might do… Each point could be an article in its own right and you might need to do some further reading or even get some outside help, but maybe it’ll be worth it. There are also other things to think about, such as nutrition, self discovery is all part of the journey, and there’s a lot that’s applicable to pushing your trad grade too.
One day I might write a how to climb 8a blog, but we’ll have to wait and see on that one!
So what’s stopping you climbing 7a?
This year has been super busy, which is ace! I’ve had loads of great clients coming and going, we’ve climbed loads of great routes, navigated up misty mountains and covered all sorts of skills from constructing a belay to identifying tiny contour features.
On the climbing side we’ve been running plenty of intro to leading courses, and in the last couple of weeks a few coaching courses for people looking to push on a little bit. As well as the technical skills of placing nuts etc, we pay a lot of attention to movement skills, route reading, tactics and performance preparation, looking at coaching people rather than old fashioned instructing, which is an important difference. We’ve had clients leading all sorts of routes, from their first leads on Diffs at Milestone Buttress through to people leading their first E1’s on the slate and over at Gogarth – which has been amazingly satisfying.
This year has mostly been climbing courses which I’ve loved running as I’m pretty obsessed about climbing… but it’s been nice to have a bit of a mix. I love all things climbing and mountains, it’s an honour to work on Mountain Leader courses helping other people on their path to becoming superstar outdoor leaders, people on ML courses are always enthusiastic and thoroughly nice. When it comes to assessing ML candidates I always try and make the atmosphere as relaxed as possible – they put enough pressure on themselves without me making it any harder! The aim is to further their learning as well, no matter how strong their performance, there’s always more to learn – which goes for all of us, I’ll often learn a new flora fact or something from candidates!
It’s the same with Single Pitch Award courses, of which we are providers. We’ve run many of these this year already and I always have a blast on them, I get to chat about climbing for two days solid, what’s not to like?! The assessments are good fun too, as long as candidates come prepared, they’ll have fun too!
Looking forward to the next couple of months, my diary is full of exciting courses we’ll be delivering, so it’ll be an ace summer, keep your fingers crossed for the sun!
Outside of work the climbing is going well, I’m training down the wall 3 times a week and currently I’m on an endurance phase. This is translating well to the outdoor stuff recently climbing up to E4 on Trad – The Mau Mau in the slate quarries and up to 7b on Sport – The Refrain on the Orme, although I’ve just had to postpone a trip to Portland due to rubbish weather…
The Cromlech, it’s a special place that oozes history. From tales of Joe Brown dropping a peg hammer on his unfortunate belayer whilst climbing Cenotaph Corner in 1952 to James McHaffie putting up a new E9 called House of Talons in 2016 which uses 12 sky hooks for protection.
It’s not just about the hard stuff though! Spiral Stairs at Diff takes in some amazing positions traversing across the cliff with some great exposure, Sabre Cut at VS has a brilliant pitch on it, Noahs Warning, another VS provides a tough challenge for the grade and Flying Buttress on the far side of the cliff gives an almost mountaineering experience at V Diff. I haven’t even mentioned Right Wall E5, Resurrection E4, Lord of the Flies E6….
I’ve climbed quite a bit on the Cromlech over the years, but the other day I had an especially great day there taking in a few of the classics.
Cenotaph Corner, E1 5c
This is possibly the most famous route in the UK, it has it all – it’s a stunning line taking the obvious open book corner that draws your eye every time you drive down the Pass, quality climbing moves and the history. It’s understandably a much coveted route, on most climbers wish list, but I’d only recently lead it as I always assumed it was going to be a polished horror show of slippery jams and shiny footholds. I was wrong! Stu bullied me into it and I loved it, steady climbing up to a cheeky crux, safe as houses as there’s tons of gear if you want it, just lovely.
Today wasn’t my turn though. My mate Fay was visiting from Chamonix and had promised her other half, Fred, she wouldn’t do the Corner without him, but our first target Cemetery Gates was busy, so the Corner it was! Fay still thinks she can only really climb VS, but off she went anyway, slow and steady the whole way, hardly noticing the cheeky crux near the top so off I go seconding it. There’s not really any need to jam on it to be honest, there are loads of good footholds to bridge on and more handholds than you’ll ever need. The crux at the top is polished, very polished, but it doesn’t really effect the climbing, back up the peg with a wire as it’s looking a bit manky, pull into the niche, get another wire in and blast up to the top with it’s tree belay.
My only disappointment is that I didn’t lead this route earlier, when it would have been at my limit, it sort of feels like one of those routes that you want to do battle with rather than cruise up and enjoy!
After the route it’s a quick abseil down to the bags for water and some amazing flapjack Laura had made (gooey flapjack, topped with caramel, topped with chocolate, topped with chocolate balls – epic!)
Left Wall, E2 5c
I’d lead this route a couple of times before and taken the fall – my first go was going so well before the pump set in on the final crack, only a little fall though unlike when I belayed Mike on it last year!
Mike: Think I’m coming off Jez!
Me: No you’re not! Pull harder!
Mike seems to take heed of the advice, makes a few more moves so I pay out some more slack.
Mike: *Wimpering noises*
Mike: I’m oooooooffffffffff
He took the big one, added too because the last bit of gear he placed was a slightly panicked placed purple Dragon cam, that proceeded to pop and unclip itself from the rope before hitting me on the foot from about 35m up.
Mike was fine, his biggest fall though! He got back on it and finished it off though, he still owes it a rematch for a clean ascent!
It was my turn to lead, so up I went, feeling pretty steady to the first crux, which was more technical than I remembered! I felt fine pump wise, but my trad head isn’t in the right place at the moment – too much sport climbing.. Up to place a good nut, down to a better rest, breathe, get psyched and keep moving through the moves (not much for your feet) and a mega jug is your reward – phew! Place some more good gear (there’s so much gear on Left Wall, you need to manage how much you place) and then a few more easy moves take you to a really good resting ledge below the higher crux crack. I milked this big time and waited for Nick Bullock to come past me on Resurrection E4 (on my to do list for this year), which joins Left Wall for a move or two.
Once he was out the way I had no excuses left so it was time to crack on. Thankfully I’m loads fitter than last time I was on it, so I had plenty of gas to place a good small nut and a Totem cam partway up the crack, then using the crack and holds out to the side blast up it until the big finishing flakes lead you more easily out left. Done! One day I’ll get round to the direct E3 finish! Left Wall is one of my favourite routes ever, another great line with superb climbing which is really safe, but only if you have the arm power to hang on and place the gear…
Another abseil down, more water, more flapjack, plus a sandwich this time and it’s Fay’s turn to lead.
Cemetery Gates, E1 5b
An easier route, but no push over even though it used to get HVS. Steep buggy climbing is the order of the day, like the other two it has good gear throughout. Fay cruised it again and I was soon following the pitch climbing up out of my cold, shady belay in to the sun, I was feeling pretty tired from a busy period of work and lots of recent climbing so I was happy to reach the little belay ledge at the top of the pitch. You have two choices here (well three really, you can run it as one pitch if you have 60m ropes), you can move right along the original line
of the route at 4c, or go direct which seems more in keeping with the line, but without quite as much exposure as the original line. I hadn’t done the direct finish before – the Grim Jim, E2 finish so despite being knackered I chose this way and had to work quite hard! The climbing has a couple of loose bits but is over soon enough, and isn’t very techy.
Another abseil down, and that was me done! A great day out climbing some super classic routes, in some great weather.
All that was left to do was lend Angus my blue Totem and watch him bag the fourth ascent of Nightmayer – E8 6c.
The Cromlech is an amazing crag, if you’ve been up there you’ll know that, if you haven’t been, get yourself up there!
If you’ve worked in the outdoor industry for any length of time, you’ll have seen plenty of instructors come and go. There’s probably good reasons for that, starting out as an instructor is flippin’ hard work! The hours are long, the pay is pretty poor and the work is often seasonal, we all know people who have worked hard all summer and then have to take shop work, become a temp postie or even sell Christmas trees.
I started out working for Acorn Adventures earning about £40 per week, living in a tent, working 6 days a week including evening sessions like campfires, murder mystery’s or even bingo. This was very far from my dream of being a climbing instructor superstar, but to be fair looking back I cringe at how bad an instructor I was, 18, inexperienced and overconfident! I had such a good time though.
As the years went by I worked in various centres, gradually earning more cash and working less hours, my centre work career culminated with working as a Senior Instructor at a centre in Swanage. I got offered two jobs at the same time and Swanage seemed like an ace place to live so after somehow blagging a better wage offer I took the job in Swanage and loved my time there. It’s not very British, but wage wise I was earning around £20k with year round employment, this seemed like shed loads to me! At this point in my career I started making loads of good contacts and was actually a half decent instructor after learning loads from so many quality people at all the places I’d worked. Two top tips at this point.. Be a people person and make as many contacts as possible (I can hardly go to a crag now without meeting someone I know whether that’s in Wales, Spain or anywhere – maybe I’m just getting old), and milk everyone for all their skills and knowledge.
My work got loads more interesting at this point in my career and I finally got around to doing my MIA, my work was now 5 days a week with only the very occasional evening so I had loads of time to climb and Swanage is an ace place to get on adventurous trad and smash out loads of sport too.
I could have stayed in this job for a long time but new challenges were needed and N Wales was calling, it was always the aim. It was the MIA qualification that opened up loads of exciting work and a decent daily rate. Moving to N Wales meant leaving full time employment for a mix of running my own company and taking on freelance work. This was a tough move. There’s probably nowhere more competitive for work, and it felt like everyone here had their MIA or higher, I had to work really hard to get work and to be honest there were times when I doubted whether I could make it work or not. Gradually though the work started to flow more easily and the work became more and more interesting, less of the D of E work (this paid a lot of my bills for a few years and was top fun, but it was never the end goal) and more teaching lead climbing, working on NGB courses and so on, as well as the really random stuff like the mountaineering oil work or working for a Russian billionaire on a super yacht.
2016 was an ace year and 2017 is turning out to be an absolutely awesome year! I finally seem to be finding the right balance of quality work and time for climbing. I absolutely love the work I’m doing! Becoming an SPA provider has been a big boost and I’ve reached a point in my career where I don’t have to chase the freelance work and my own private work makes up the majority which is ace. It’s still hard work mind, although everyday at work is a pleasure, I have to keep on top of admin and social media sucks a lot of my time – especially as I’m on the AMI committee and look after their social media too! Again, I’m going to mention the wages, I think it’s important in this kind of blog, my average daily rate (for “normal” MIA stuff) is around £150, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less and when I’m working for myself it’s between £150 – £300 depending on what’s going on. These days I occasionally employ other people and I try and pay a fair rate depending on the work, between £140 – £180.
More important than the money though, for me, is the lifestyle it affords me. I genuinely don’t ever want a full diary! That would be awful! As long as I can afford to fund my climbing trips, pay the bills and buy kit from ethically responsible companies then I’m happy. It’s no coincidence that my climbing grades have gone up over the last year, I have the time to train and the money to go cool places, and because the mix is right, I’m always super psyched to be working with all my brilliant clients that I get, whether that’s an ML training for a local provider or a climbing development course for myself.
There was a moral to this story, that probably got lost somewhere along the ramblings, I think it was to stick with it! To get from those entry level type instructing jobs takes a shed load of time and effort, you’ve got to want it, love it and work hard at it. Think about why someone should employ you over the hundreds of other people, do your clients leave super psyched, are you able to enthuse them, teach them loads by drawing on your own experiences, do you look the part or do your clothes have holes in them (we don’t need to look like a Cotswold catalogue but be semi smart), are you any good at what you do, could you be any better (hint, we all can!). You get the idea.
Enough waffling, I’m off to the wall to get some training in.