Multi Sports Birthday Weekend in Pembroke

As we go climbing every weekend (weather permitting) Lucy informed me she wanted to do something different for at least one day of her birthday weekend, so I started racking my brains and came up with the idea of getting some sit on top kayaks and going for a paddle around the Pembrokeshire coast for the day.

Leaving Port with Alys. Paul and Sarah were way behind.

Leaving Port with Alys. Paul and Sarah were way behind.

I did have a secret agenda though as Pembroke does have some amazing deep water soloing and I had just been given a spear gun that I wanted to try out.

So we left early on Saturday morning and headed off to Pembroke, where we were joined by good friends Paul, Sarah and Alys. When we arrived in St Davids to collect the sit on top kayaks we encountered our first problem of the day. I used to work in a shop that sold sit on top kayaks but I had kind of forgotten how big they are, especially double seated ones! So after a lot of faff we managed to strap a double and single on to my van and a double to the top of Paul and Sarah’s little Ford. Luckily we weren't going too far to launch them.

I don't think that is what paddles are for!

I don't think that is what paddles are for!

We arrived at the small port to discover the tide was out that meant we had to carry the boats down to the water which took some energy. We loaded up for which I got a lot of stick as I had brought a big duffle bag which had deep water solo gear, spear fishing gear and food for the day but it did look like I had a small suitcase strapped to the back of the boat and was attempting to paddle over to Ireland!

We set off at a leisurely pace checking out all of the little coves and caves as we went. We carried on heading for a deep water soloing venue called Barrel Zawn. We had chosen this location as it had said in the guide book that it worked on any tide however as we approached it became apparent that this wasn't the case. We had not factored in that it was a super low Spring tide so there were a lot of rocks sticking out at the base of the crag. Shows that you shouldn't always trust the guide book. Never mind we were having a lovely day so we just carried on up the coast until we got hungry and pulled in to a small beach for some lunch.

Lunch on the Beach

Lunch on the Beach

After Lunch we headed back towards the small port, by the time we got close we still had an hour before we had to start thinking about getting out so we could get the boats back to the shop before it closed.  Everyone pulled on there snorkel and fins and start snorkelling. Having just been given a spear gun by a friend I decided I would give it a whirl. Now I have never dspear fished before and decided I should probably paddle away from the group as I didn't want to hurt anyone.

I suited up, set up the spear gun and jumped in and started looking for fish. The water around Pembroke is very clear which is what you need however there is a lot of kelp on the sea floor which the fish seem to be hiding in and every time I spotted one it was in to the kelp before I could take aim. The other issue I quickly discovered is that if you look down on the fish they are rather small so you need to dive down to the same level to get a side on view. In order to dive down and stay down you need to wear a weight belt which I had also been given however when I was given it I lifted it up and straight away thought I would drown if I had that around my waist so had taken a lot of the weights off. Mistake. Every time I dived down I would eventually float back to the surface.

I had also worn a summer wetsuit, however what I had not anticipated is how cold the water gets as soon as you go 1 or 2 meters down. Having spoken to the friend that gave me the gun since he said that you do really need a winter suit with a hood even in summer.

First attempt at Spear Fishing

First attempt at Spear Fishing

I persevered though and took 4 or 5 shoots at some delicious looking fish hoping that we could BBQ one up that evening but after an hour I had caught nothing and we had to get the boats back, disappointed but having enjoyed the challenge I vowed I would go back and try again.

Having not caught any fish we all went to the Pub for Lucy's birthday meal everyone was disappointed not to be eating the fish I had cockily told everyone I was going to provide.

Lucy focusing on the moves ahead

Lucy focusing on the moves ahead

The next day we got back to our usual climbing escapades and headed to Carreg-y-Barcud a crag that despite living in wales for over 10 years I had never visited.

I had two E1’s on my list but started off on a big HVS called “Ethos” which was really good fun. I then went on to do “Beyond the Azimuth” a classic E1 that a lot of my friends had done and said was amazing. They weren't lying, its an amazing slanting crack with loads of gear and really enjoyable to climb, I would even go as far as put it in my top 5 UK climbs.

Sarah is happy to grab the jug on "Mean Feat".

Sarah is happy to grab the jug on "Mean Feat".

We then moved on and Lucy did a few HS’s as she had never really gotten on with Pembroke style of climbing so did not want to push herself to hard.

Just as we finished up on Lucy’s routes Paul and Sarah were just toping out on Sinecure the other classic E1 I wanted to do however we were all starting to feel pretty tired from the 10km of paddling the previous day and I was losing motivation to lead.

We therefore finished the day by dropping some top ropes down some hard scare E5’s right in the middle of the crag and working those for a few hours before we left. I always love working hard routes as you start to realise that they are not totally out of reach and it is just keeping the mind under control however I would need a few more sessions before attempting “Mean Feat” (the classic E5 of the crag) on lead.

Brilliant weekend and found out that kayaking is more tiring then it looks and spear fishing is really tricky. Will be back for “Sinecure” and to see if I can get “Mean Feat” a bit more dialled.  

 

Enjoying the Sunday Afternoon at the top of the crag.

Enjoying the Sunday Afternoon at the top of the crag.

Is training for everything, training for nothing?

So I think I train pretty hard for someone who has a full time job. On average I do about 8 to 10 hours of training a week, granted not as much as an Olympic athlete who is around 20 hours a week but as I mentioned I do have a full time job.

Trail running helps with the cardio fitness.

Trail running helps with the cardio fitness.

I like to be fit and enjoy training with my wife across multiple sports. I run, cycle, weight training, yoga and occasionally get out on the surf board or jump in a kayak. However, my main sport/passion is climbing and mountaineering.

Bike riding helps with the cardio fitness and strength the legs.

Bike riding helps with the cardio fitness and strength the legs.

Now climbing and mountaineering are different sports. Pure rock climbing whether it be bouldering, sports climbing or trad climbing require huge amounts of upper body power and endurance (the balance of which does change within the disciplines), good flexibility, great core strength and it helps if you can keep your body weight low for power to weight ratio.

Mountaineering on the other hand requires more. It requires all of the same things as climbing plus strong legs for walking and slogging in. The ability to keep a lot of power and endurance in the bank for hours even days on end and a great cardio ability which allows you to maintain all of the things above.

Whenever I go to the climbing wall I always get a little disheartened as I have a lot of friends that can climb a lot harder than me, and I know that I am in most cases doing almost double the amount of training hours. However, these training hours are not just climbing and this is where the problem lies.

On average I do about 4 hours of climbing training a week, which depending on how I feel can be bouldering, pushing grades or simply endurance laps. The other 4 to 6 hours of training I do a week is running, weights or biking. My friends on the other hand may do up to 6 to 8 hours of climbing but then do nothing else.

Weight training is essential

When I started doing other forms of training I assumed that my climbing would actually improve as I was elevating my whole physical abilities and while my climbing endurance has increased my actually climbing ability has remained about the same.

On the other hand, my mountaineering ability has increased dramatically which makes sense. Sadly, unlike climbing where I have the ability to do it every night of the week if I choose I don’t live somewhere where this is possible, on top of that even if you did live somewhere like Chamonix you are subject to weather. In this case you have to try and work every component of mountaineering individually and then add it all together. Weights for the legs and arms for power endurance, running and cycling for cardio, big hill days of hiking or trail running to fuse the previous two then various forms of climbing and core yoga for climbing performance.

So while it is disheartening to be out climbed at the local wall or crag the overall fitness does mean that when I do get to the mountain’s I can go all out whilst friends that purely climb get left far behind.

I have also been very happy as I recently started an Uphill athlete alpine rock climbing training plan (https://www.uphillathlete.com/) written by Steve House which while is a bit more structured than what I have been doing basically confirmed that the way I had been training was correct for the goals that I want to achieve which all focus around big mountain routes.

What all the training is about. Gets you faster and higher and more makes it more enjoyable.

What all the training is about. Gets you faster and higher and more makes it more enjoyable.

Finding my feet in Cornwall

So after a long and snow filled winter the first bank holiday of the year arrived in the form of an early easter which signalled the start of summer. With a big trip planned to Yosemite in September I wanted to get my head back in the trad climbing game. Also having a couple of days holiday to take before the end of the financial year it seemed sensible to tag it on to the easter bank holiday giving me a solid six days of to get back on it. We choose to go down to Cornwall as it tends to always have good weather, is a bit far to drive for just a weekend and is granite so would be a great way to start training for the valley.

Finding my feet on the slick granite of Cornwall.

Finding my feet on the slick granite of Cornwall.

Now I have tried to keep climbing fit over the winter with a few trips to the Peak District but a lot of training went into the legs and the cardio to help with my ski touring and mountaineering plans. The other thing that you cannot really train is the mental aspect of trad climbing which you can lose over time.

I headed off to Cornwall with a list of E2 and E3’s that should be well within my ability especially as granite crack climbing is my thing and I had been focusing on cracks every time I had gone to the Peaks over winter. However one thing came to light as soon as I arrived. Whilst my upper body was fine my feet didn't feel secure and my head had gone to bits.

We spent the first two days at Bosigran and Sennan where I had real trouble trusting my feet even on VS’s and HVS’s, on gritstone your feet stick to everything (as long as it is dry) wear as granite is a lot more slick. My head had also lost its cool, despite the gear being absolutely bomber I was double checking everything and putting in way more than I needed. 

Lucy enjoying the view and feeling a bit more comfortable than me.

Lucy enjoying the view and feeling a bit more comfortable than me.

Now I gave up on chasing grades years ago as it was stressing me out and vowed to just enjoy climbing for climbing sake however when you know that you can physically do something and it is just your head holding you back that is frustrating. 

After a particularly long battle with my nemesis route (story for another day) at Sennan I decided to wind things right back. So I just focused on finding good quality VS’s and plugging away at those for a few days. By the end of the trip I had gotten my confidence back and was back up to E1’s and E2’s with out getting stressed out or a mental block.

When I got home and was training in the gym I was going through Steve Houses “Training for new alpinism book” and found an article written by Mark Twight called TINSTAAFL which stands for “`There is no such thing as a free lunch”. Now in the context of the article he was talking about physical training but I think the same applies to mental training. You have to train yourself to control your fears but that training has to continue and after a few months of not training it, I had lost it and it took me a few days to train it back up to where it should be.

Good friend and all-around amazing climber Paul showing off.

Good friend and all-around amazing climber Paul showing off.

When Did I Become A Skier?

So I have just returned from Chamonix which turned out to be one of the best ski trips I have ever done as it just did not stop snowing. Half way through the holiday I stopped and thought when did I become a skier?

Early Days - ski approach to Scottish climbs

Early Days - ski approach to Scottish climbs

Now what I mean by this is when did I start skiing just for skiing sake. When I was growing up my Dad took me and my brother on some fantastic snowboarding holidays (snowboarding was the cool thing to do back in the early 00’s) and I really enjoyed those trips. However, when I left home at 18 the ski trips stopped, mainly because I could not afford them but also because I was too busy going on climbing trips or training for climbing trips. I didn’t think about skiing for another 8 years.

Whilst on a trip to Scotland a friend of mine who had recently started going to the alps for winter alpinism suggested that I hire some touring skis and come on a tour with him. The tour was short but I enjoyed it and thought that it was a good way to get to climbing routes quickly. Fast forward a year and I was up in Scotland again and the weather was crazy, it just did not stop snowing. Getting to the base of the climbs was taking hours as the snow was so deep, so I went off to the local climbing shop with the intension of buying some snow shoes. However, when I arrived I started looking at the ski touring gear and having just had a bonus from work decided that it was a better way to go. Faster approach to the climbs and a much quicker way back to the car. Sold. 

Having seen me just purchase the gear and not wanting to be left out Lucy also decided that she also needed some touring skis despite never having skied in her life. 

Lucy ski touring up to the St Bernard's Monastery

Over the next 4 or 5 days we skinned in to the routes around the cairngorms climbed them and then very slowly skied out as the three-hour lessons that I had given Lucy on the side of the ski run’s had not given her much skiing confidence although she was doing really well. 

Brilliant, skiing can get me to climbs faster and get me home quicker.

A few weeks later I had a call from a few friends who were going on a ski trip to Chamonix and did I want to join them, again the plan was to use skis to approach climbs however when we arrived it had dumped a lot of snow so we just ended up skiing for a week. It was during this week that I start to really love skiing in its own right and not just as a method of approach and descent.

Over the next few years the ski trips start to become more frequent and less and less climbing gear was getting packed to take on the trips with us.  We started doing more and more ski touring. Then on this year’s trip to Chamonix I decided that I needed to start using all these skiing and touring skills to actually do what I had gotten in to skiing for which was to climb mountains, however it dumped it down with snow and we ended up skiing powder for two weeks which is no bad thing and had an amazing time. It also dawned on me that over the last few years I had brought three pairs of skis, ski specific clothes and packs and I realised damn I had become a skier. 

So the big question is, is skiing better than climbing? Hard one!

How Injury Made Me Fitter

At the moment I currently have two ongoing injuries, the first and longest problem I have is my tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. I have been suffering with this one for almost 5 years and it is very common amongst climbers and was brought on for me by too much finger board training when we had one set up at the shop I used to work at.

Running with a knee brace and poles helps mange the knee injury

Running with a knee brace and poles helps mange the knee injury

The other injury I suffer with is hip and knee issues in my right leg. Whilst out running two years ago I tore my hip flexer muscle which took over a year to heal and then caused an imbalance in my IT band which has lead to issues in my knee joint when running.

The elbow injury is the more annoying of the injuries as climbing is my main passion in life. However, out of the two it is the most manageable with a strict regime of weights and stretches that don't take too long and making sure it is taped up when I climb. This means it does not cause me too many issues. The knee injury is a lot more painful however and takes a lot more time to mange and while braces and taping do help it, they do not elevate the problems altogether.

A rolly bar gives your fore arms great endure training but with no stress on any of the joints.

A rolly bar gives your fore arms great endure training but with no stress on any of the joints.

So reading this you would think that I must be on a downward spiral of fitness as climbing and running have became harder, however at the moment I am actually climbing harder and running further than I ever have. So how did I achieve this?

The first thing is seeing a pysio and getting a proper set of exercises and then sticking to them religiously. Also trying to go beyond what the pysio recommends that I do. The pysio will be trying to get you back to a point wear the injury will not effect you in day to day life and climbing and running are not included in that thoughts process. By going beyond the excecises that the physio recommended I have actually found that my leg muscles and elbow muscles have gotten stronger. Granted they still hurt but I can walk up hill for alot longer than I ever did before.

Next up is trying to find a sport or exercise that trains the same muscles but with a lot less stress. For me I replaced some of my running withroad biking and some climbing sessions with a weighted rolly bar (see photo). Both of these things train the same muscles but with a lot less impacted on the joints. In the case of road bike it may not be as aggressive on the muscles but does give you a much harder cardio work out than running which helps with running. In the terms of the rolly bar it targets the forearms directly so it now takes a lot for me to get pumped on a climbing route.

Yoga really helps with injuries and has the added benfit of giving you a stronger core.

Yoga really helps with injuries and has the added benfit of giving you a stronger core.

Finally and I think this is the thing that has made the biggest difference is Yoga. Now up until 18 months ago I was very sceptical of Yoga, Lucy has been doing it for about four years and was always trying to convince me to do it and I did go to a class with her but found it a bit dull and felt it was just fancy stretching rather than anything that would help with fitness. It wasn't until one evening when I was too sore to go running and my elbow didn't really fancy lifting any weights that I logged on to you tube and found a 30 min video called “yoga for fitness” that I really started to pay attention. That first 30 min I did was really hard. Lots of planks and core work. I decided I would keep doing it and found a few more videos that target different areas of the body. 18 months on and my core strength is stronger than it has ever been, this has meant that my climbing has improved drastically and may not have healed my elbow has helped because I am now capable of holding and balancing my weight better than I ever have done before. When it comes to running I still have to be careful especially down hill and I still have to wear a brace but again because my core strength is so much better my technique has improved which means I am taking pressure off the knee joint and have actually got faster.

Ibelieve that I am always going to have these injuries and despite all the pysio and yoga I am always going to have to mange them but that does not mean you have to stop doing what you love. You just have to be a bit creative and smart in the way that you train for them.

Fast and Light in Scotland, Modern or Stupid?

I was looking back over some photos of me climbing in Scotland and the Alps in summer the other day and I noticed something. Year on year my alpine rucksack got drastically smaller and my clothing system got lighter and lighter as my experience went up. My Scottish pack and clothing seemed to stay the same up until about 2014, when it did get smaller it was not by the same margin as my Alpine pack had. Is this me just being British, following my piers or do you actually need more to climb smaller routes in Scotland? 

2013 Lucy climbing in the Cairngorms with a pretty heavy 40l pack

Know let us be clear. Scotland and the Alps are very different climbing venues. Firstly, there is the weather. The weather in the European alps tends be relatively stable and practicable so if you intended to go up high in the alps you will most likely wait for a good weather window, you can predict to a reasonable level of accuracy how long this will last for and therefore take appropriate clothing and equipment. Whereas predicting Scottish weather is like throwing a dart blind folded. There is also the technicality of the climbing, generally summer alpine climbing is moving over moderate ground but lots of it, oversely this is not always the case. As with Sottish winter which tends to be shorter but much more challenging terrain. 

Having read the above paragraph, you now start to see that Summer Alpine Climbing and Scottish winter climbing are really two different types of climbing and therefore the kit requirements would be different. However, what about routes in Scotland like Tower Ridge that require an alpine mind set to do or if you want to do back to back moderate routes quickly for millage.

The last time I climbed tower ridge me and my wife took a 30m rope, six quickdraw, one set of nuts and four hexs. In our packs we had a belay jacket, some water and a few energy bars. We climbed the route in two hours and that included the 15 minute wait at the eastern traverse. This is not a brag there are people out there that can get tower ridge done in sub an hour but more an indication of what can be done by lightening your load. Whilst doing this route we past multiple people with huge 40 even 50 litre packs loaded up. 

I have been lucky in my career working it the outdoor industry that I have had access to the latest kit that has allowed me to lighten my load but even with the advance in light weight kit people do still seem to drag a lot more in to the base of Scottish winter climbs?

Is there a need for modern fast and light techniques in Scotland? I guess the answer to that one is probably not unless you are training for something big further afield. Most people tend to want to push there technical limit in Scotland so are happy to drag all their gear in to the bottom of a route that will only take a day. 

Despite all of this, over the last few years I have started to strip my load in Scotland right back and have attempted to start to enchain multiple moderate routes together. Something that will catch on? Doubt it but what is better than climbing? More climbing and going lighter definatetly helps.

Lucy looks pretty happy with a light weight 25l pack on

Lucy looks pretty happy with a light weight 25l pack on

The Changing Perception Of Grades

End of the VS challenge on Stanage just as we loss the light

End of the VS challenge on Stanage just as we loss the light

Climbing has always been pretty central to my life and that in turn has meant that one of the things I always measured myself on was what grade can I climb, beit in winter, trad, sport or bouldering. For years i obsessed over what grade i could climb, I was always looking for the next “e point” or next hardest winter route. Every time I went to a crag or mountain I would scan the guide book looking for a soft touch at a certain grade just so I could get the tick. I would pass by 3 star classic VS routes to climb some crappy corner just because it was graded E2. I did this partly because of the culture and pier group I was in at the time. University climbing clubs are a bit of a hot bed of proving ones self and being in competition with friend all be fun. 

I carried on like this for years after I left Uni thinking that the measure of how good I was as a climber was dictated by the grade I could climb. This did lead to a few great climbs and leading my hardest route to date however it also stressed me out. I would go away on climbing weekends or holidays and always come back feeling that I hadn't accomplished anything because a friend had climbed an E3 and I hadn’t. This went on and on and I got more and more stressed. I was training harder and harder which lead to injuries that I am still carrying today.

Then one day whilst scanning UKclimbing I came across a challenge “The Stanage VS challenge". So this is a challenge to climb all of the three star VS routes on Stanage in a single day, 31 in total. At the time I was starting to get in to trail running and this is something my wife loves so we decided to try it as a way of merging the two sports (In the end we ended up doing it over two days as it was bit harder than we thought). Doing this challenge opened my eyes, like most British climbers I have been to Stanage many times but every time I had ever been I had walked past fantastic world class climbs just because they where at a grade I thought was beneath me.

Over the coming months I started to change my view of what I wanted to do when I went to the crag, instead of fighting and dogging my way up routes at the very edge of my limits I start to look for classic routes that took striking lines and were known for there quality. The grade of the route started to become an after thought next to the quality of the climb. I became a lot less stressed in my climbing because after ever session I was leaving the crag knowing that I had climbed good routes and had had fun doing it.

Now the one massive advantage of this was I became a lot less stressed however the other advantage was that I ended up doing a lot more climbing on a given day, what used to be 4 routes a day turned in to 8 routes a day meaning a lot more millage and that had an advantageous effect, I started getting better. This meant that slowly my climbing grade started going up.

I don’t regret the days I had with my uni friends fighting my way but I don't miss them either. I have come to the conclusion that you can have both quality and quantity and that has overall made me happier and a better climber.