Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Women's Climbing Symposium (WCS) 2013

One of the key trends I've noticed during the time I've been climbing is the increase in the number of female climbers in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sport. And these are not just beginner climbers, persuaded by their boyfriends to 'give it a go'; these are women climbing as hard (if not harder) than their male friends - motivated, psyched and STRONG women! 

This increase in participation has led to a number of climbing events and sessions focused specifically at women, which my local wall, The Arch has been particularly good at supporting. From my perspective this can only be a good thing, but the announcement of a 'women-only' climbing event tends to provoke outrage from indignant men who vent their frustrations on forums such as UK Climbing - which I suspect is one reason why the organisers of this year's Women's Climbing Symposium did not advertise the event on the forum

And they didn't need to - word of mouth ensured it was sold out weeks before the day itself. With sign up for the coaching sessions on the day, I wasn't the only one who got there as the doors opened at 8.30am and, as hoards of women filed in, I was very glad I did! With some of the top climbers from the UK and overseas giving talks and coaching sessions, we were in for a good day.

Women gathering for the first talk of the day (c. Paul Phillips)

The programme for the day was bookended between the old (sorry Angela!) and the young; with Angela Soper kicking off the day with a look over the history of women's climbing in the UK, and Ella Kirkpatrick  finishing off with her account of climbing El Capitan. I'm not sure what I was more impressed with; having the balls to go up the immense El Cap at 13, or still be climbing 6c at the age of 73!.

One of the frustrating things about the day was not being able to go to all the talks, which led to huge dilemas about which ones to attend, as they all sounded fantastic. I was especially sorry to miss Fran Brown's talk on coping with pressure, which I am hoping there will be video footage of on the WCS website at some point (hint hint...).

However there was one talk I definitely wasn't going to miss; Eva Lopez had travelled all the way from Spain to present on the key performance indicators for female climbers, and most importantly how to train these. For climbers who are serious about training, her blog is a must; combining scientific study and research, and translating this into practical implications for climbing training. Eva dealt with both physical and mental aspects of climbing performance, in a practical, no-nonsense way, as she took us along her climbing journey, from her first 6a, to the 8c+ she climbed last month. Living proof that if you are willing to put the training in, the rewards will come. Her presentation left me desperately wishing I could a) speak Spanish, and b) move to Spain. Eva – I want you as my coach!

The talks were varied, and it was great to hear about some really strong climbers who have full-time jobs, aren't sponsored and yet still manage to climb and train hard. Emma Flaherty is possibly the most enthusiastic person I have ever met, full stop. She was like Tigger on Red Bull as she bounced around the mat, convincing us all to get psyched for climbing and giving tips on how to blag extra-long holidays from work. Anna Rigge, resident physio, helped make anatomy simple (everything's joined to the neck, so look after that!), and addressed not just common complaints and injuries but the under-reported side of climbing injuries. She also emphasised the importance of good climbing posture; so just remember ladies - boobs out, bum in.

The timetable was busy, and I was hugely impressed by the organisation on the day, with organisers Steph and Shauna, and their helpers keeping everything running perfectly to time. It could have been complete chaos, but largely people seemed to end up in the right place at the right time!

There was a choice of four coaching sessions, all of which proved popular. As a sloper-phobic climber at the best of times, an hour spent dangling (and falling) off the damm things was an hour well spent. From the other side of the room I heard the power screams/squeals of people flying up/off the walls, encouraged by the ever-bouncy Leah Crane and Shauna Coxsey. Proof that you don't need to be tall to reach holds...
"Boobs out, bum in..." does that work on slopers?! (photo c. Paul Phillips)

The training session encouraged us to think about our goals, and focus our training accordingly, particularly if (like me) you can never fit enough climbing time in. Pull ups, push ups and fingerboarding was the order of the day, though following this session I swear the most effective training tool is probably to have Katherine Schirmacher glaring at you, stopwatch in hand...

But the part of the day which really hit home for me was Mina Leslie-Wujastyk's talk on self-efficacy. I used to think (in my young and ignorant days) than psychology was generally a lot of waffly nonsense. But as my climbing has developed, I have come to realise that it's the psychological aspects of climbing that hold me back more than the physical aspects; something which I would hazard a guess is true for many women. 

Mina gave us a very personal insight into the challenges she's faced, both on the competition circuit and with different disciplines of climbing. It made me realise just how important a factor self-belief is in defining our approach, not just to climbing, but to challenges in life. It was a brave and thought-provoking lecture, and ended with some raw footage from Jen Randall's film Project Mina (due out next year) which left me, and I suspect many others, with a lump of raw emotion in my throat.

I hope the one thing that every woman took away from the event was that there is no 'magic secret' to success, and that the women we see winning competitions and cranking on V12s have worked damm hard to get to that level. It is up to each of us to decide what our goals are, what effort we are willing to put in to achieve them, and perhaps, what sacrifices we are willing to make. 

And I guess if these top women, who are achieving so much, can open up to us about their struggles on the path to success; the very least we can do is to listen, take note, and – if we want to improve – be brave enough to face our own climbing demons, whatever they may be.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Learning to love the tufas in the Grande Grotta

The Grande Grotta is possibly the most well known, and well visiting crag on Kalymnos. It looms above Ameos, a dark maw of a cave with stalactite teeth, ready to bite climbers who approach with a less than respectful attitude. It’s steep, three-dimensional climbing takes many prisoners, a fall into space the penalty for weak biceps and forearms. The climbing is perhaps more intimidating than technically hard; there are rests aplenty, but you have to find – and use – them, and fitness is essential for battling the inevitable pump.

An Austrian climber finding the rests on Priapos (7c)
N and I plodded up the steep approach path in the early morning like convicted criminals on the way to our final punishment. Not that we didn’t want to climb, or indeed to climb in the Grande Grotta, but we were both feeling a bit nervous about the projects we had set ourselves for the day; me to get on DNA, the classic, pumpy 7a/+, and N to have a go at the gigantic roof route, Priapos (7c).

When we arrived at the base of the cave we found that a group of friendly Canadians had already beaten us to the warm up routes. There was nothing for it but to jump straight onto DNA, though I would hardly class thirty-degree overhanging rock as a warm up, no matter how big the holds! N went first, putting the clips in, then I followed, working out the moves and resting on each bolt so as not to get too pumped.

It may be steep, but all the holds are good – once you know where they are – and there are various rests that you can contrive, from an obvious sit down on a tufa seat, to a bum wedge in the tendrils of the jellyfish tufa higher up. At the top you can choose to move out left on massive holds, then back right to clip the chains, or go straight up from the bolt on smaller holds. I chose the straight up route, using some of the smallest holds on the route to gain the huge jugs at the top.

After a rest, I tied in for another go, to see if I could link the route in a few sections. Surprisingly, I made it through to the tufa seat, and sat there for about ten minutes shaking out and recovering. Fully recovered, I made the moves up to the jellyfish, then got a bum wedge / head jam rest to get another shake - no one said tufa climbing was elegant... From there I headed up the final steep moves, to dangle and wrestle with the huge tufa at the top and clip the chains. I had thought DNA would push me to the limit, prepared myself for a physical and mental struggle, but I had not expected to enjoy it so much – a great route, worthy of its three star status.

N was next up on the beast that is Priapos. Harder, steeper and longer than DNA, and requiring a more three-dimensional style of climbing, bridging between stalactites and wrestling tufas. N described it as ‘steep walking’, though that does not do justice to the effort required to walk this roof of tufas. The climbing is so steep that you belay with your back to the wall, looking outwards, not upwards, across the roof. Sometimes N disappeared from view behind a huge stalactite, at other times, you see a leg or an arm, wrapped round or through the hanging needles of rock. Carefully, he made his way through the first crux, past the missing bolt (replacing temporarily by a scarily thin rope looper through a fragile looking tufa) to the final crux section. But Priapos had taken its toll,and this was to be left as a project....for the next trip! 

Looking out across the huge roof of the Grande Grotta, to a climber far out on Priapos
Still feeling like I had some energy left in my arms, I decided to have a go at Aphrodite (7a/+), a short route with a hard crux move. I misread this on the onsight, but quickly worked it out with a bit of beta from N and ticked the route second go. Walking down from the cave in the hot afternoon sun, arms and legs scarred from tufa wrestling, I finally felt that perhaps I could come to love the steep, intimidating tufas, with their good holds and unique, gymnastic style of climbing. And for me, that in itself was an achievement.

Spot the climber...

Stamina climbing at Spartan Wall and Iannis

All good things come to an end, and my run of good climbing days ended rather spectacularly on Spartan Wall, bailing on the warm up route of the day; an intimidating, but admittedly good 6b. 

Probleme Mineur (6b), Spartan Wall

Fortunately N and H were there to bathe my wounded pride and I managed to pull myself together enough to lead up Lucifer’s Hammer (6c) after Nick kindly put the clips in for me. This impressive route leads straight up the seemingly blank and steep Spartan Wall on generally good pockets and holds - another great, fun route!

N looking up at the wall of Lucifer's Hammer (6c)

This was H’s day to shine, as she put in an impressive onsight effort on Leonides (7b), falling high up at the final crux moves. Second go and it was in the bag! With the clips in, I managed to regain my psyche, working my way up through technical tufa and wall climbing, to an awkward (and slightly unnerving) rest position, through a crimpy, tough grove until my arms failed me just as I reached the final crux slab. A fantastic route, which will definitely be near the top of my tick list for the next trip.

Another day, another crag and Ros, Rachel and I headed to Iannis in search of long, off-vertical wall climbs. We had a game plan for the day, and after warming up on Kalyne (6b), Ros lead off up Zagori (6c), a long and in places, quite run out, climb that stretched our 80m rope to the limit. For me, a few more bolts would have made the experience rather less nerve-racking and more enjoyable, but Ros was in her element. Which meant she got first lead on the next route on the list; Sens Unique, a 40m 7a that winds its way up the middle of the yellow wall. Fortunately this was considerably better bolted than Zagori and sustained, technical climbing on slopers and sidepulls (with the odd jug) led up to the crux, right near the top of the route. With variations on grunting, screaming and slapping, we all managed to pull through this and teeter across the delicate traverse to the chains – team send!

Final route of the day was Verikoko, a shorter (mere 30m!) 7a+ that H and N had recommended to me as being ‘your sort of route’. They were right, and though I was feeling tired after the previous routes, I managed to pull up through the juggy bulges and crimpy walls, and balance my way delicately across the tiny, less-than-positive holds at the top to secure my first 7a+ onsight, and another fantastic route. Ros followed suit, then we were all done for the day and headed down for celebratory ice cream and a dip in the pool.

Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve mentioned the fantastic rooftop pool at the Panormitis StudiosWith views out to Telendos in one direction, and up to the Grande Grotta in the other, there is no better place to relax in the sun, or have a lazy swim in the clear, cool pool. And I think that's one thing that has made this holiday so enjoyable; climbing in the morning shade until your arms feel suitably knackered, then spending the afternoon chilling and reading before heading out to one of the fantastic restaurants in Masouri - heaven!

View from the pool!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The not-so-Secret Garden

This morning N and H realised that the coffee they’d been stoking up on since the beginning of the trip was actually decaff.... “That’s why I’ve been having so many headaches” mused N, the ultimate coffee addict. Fresh (fully caffeinated) coffee was made to see us through the early start and we set off on the scooters to Secret Garden. 

Secret Garden is one of the more recently developed crags on Kalymnos, and though it may have been a secret initially, it is definitely one of the more popular crags we’ve been to. It was described to us as one of the best pieces of rock on Kalymnos, and deservedly so; a tall wall of perfect steep rock, varying between short pocketed walls and long, overhanging, tufa-laden routes. There really is something for everyone - unless you’re purely a slab fiend that is!

Secret Garden
The first challenge in climbing at Secret Garden is tackling the hairpin bends that lead up over the pass from Skalia to Palionisos. It was R’s first time as passenger on my scooter and she was (understandably) rather nervous. This probably wasn’t helped by me overshooting the sharp, hidden turn off the main road and shooting into some gravel by the side of the road...

Turned round and ready to go, we shot off up the hill; heavily laden with two people and bags, the balance between getting up enough speed to get up the steep turns, versus being able to get round the corners was delicate. But, with only a slight wobble or two we made it; though I swear R was holding her breath the whole way up!

Over the worst, we cruised down the bends on the other side – relaxing in the sun and open road. Parking up, a twenty minute gentle walk brought us to Secret Garden. We were first to arrive, but were not on our own for long; a couple of parties of European climbers complete with fluorescent pink and green clothing soon arrived to brighten up the crag; making us feel drab in our subdued, British greens and browns.

We warmed up on the left hand side of the crag; the steep, pocketed routes of Margarita (6b+), Bratsere (6c) and Remetzo (6c) necessitating a ‘race-to-the-top’ approach, to reach the chains before your arms pumped out. The air was hot and humid with no breath of wind, leaving the holds slick and sweaty. Chalking up between moves was essential and we lowered to the ground dripping with sweat.

Taking a break to rest, and without the pressure of the sun coming round (Secret Garden stays in the shade all day), we sat down to admire the view. The aqua sea below, clear and still, was inviting, and if the crag hadn’t been quite so high up the hillside, I may have jumped in to cool off. Sailing boats with brilliant white sails lazily drifted off the coast, and on the hazy horizon, the coast of Turkey could be seen. The peaceful tranquillity was broken only by the calls of other climbers battling with the steep routes behind us.

Looking out to Turkey

Back on the routes, N led off up Ricounet (7a), past an initial steep section and into an impressive groove between two huge tufa flakes. I was up next, and after enjoying the jugs of the tufas lower down, found myself faced with the blanker groove above. Bridging was the way forward here, delicately pasting your feel on the tufas, gradually balancing your way up the tufas, conscious of the air below your feet. I found myself wondering if the ‘musical note’ routes in the guidebook (the presence of a quaver symbol indicating a top quality route) were actually reflective of the worrying singing the hollow tufas made when you touched them rather than the amazing moves...

N and H led up Crisis (7a); another fantastic looking tufa route, but I had set my eyes on some steep, fingery pocket pulling and decided to have a go at Markoutsi (7b). This turned out to be a great varied route, with a hard, boulder crux low down, followed by lovely pocket-pulling, a scary (but actually quite easy) slab, then some more jugs to finish.  Possibly the most un-nerving part was sticking my finger in a mono, only to feel a buzzing and for a hornet to fly out! After putting the clips in I fell on the last move of the crux on a redpoint go; my arms wasted, but resolved to return.


Secret Garden was too good for just one day, and we returned a couple of days later to tick some more routes. The highlight of the day was Frapogelo (6c), a fantastic route leading up on juggy tufas through some impressively steep ground. A huge tufa extending horizontally from the wall gave numerous possibilities for holds and which I used to hang off, lean against, sit on and stand on!

N chilling out on Frapogelo (6c)
 After we'd all had a turn whooping our way up the tufas, thoughts turned to projects, and back to Markoutsi (7b). I put the clips in, falling just one move off the end of the crux section. Feeling positive, I lowered down and pulled through the rope for N, who put in a great effort on a flash attempt, but also got caught out at the crux, where have a good foot sequence wired is the key to success. After a rest, I set off again, up through to the crux, but the holds felt slippy and something was wrong. Frustrated, I came off, trying to figure out why the moves hadn't worked. With a bit of help from my fantastic belayers, I realised my left foot hadn't been high enough. I lowered to the ground, rested for ten minutes then went again; pulling through the crux with the correct sequence then continuing up the jugs to glory! After a couple more attempts, N followed suit.

Meanwhile, H was intent on finding the most greasy-looking, slippy slabs on the crag, and put in a great onsight effort on Apocalypse (6c), working her way up a groove on tiny holds and slapping for a crucial hold on the wall above. 

H on Apocalypse (6c)
Tired but satisfied, we headed back to our scooters and over the hill back to civilisation, leaving the not-so-Secret Garden behind. Contender for the best crag on Kalymnos? In my opinion, definitely yes, and I can't wait to go back!


She works the room, knowing all eyes are on her. Everyone wants a bit of her, and everyone will get a bit – for a price. She has to survive after all, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Pressing her slim body up against you, she meets your gaze with her large, green, black-lined eyes. Whether you are male or female, she is not particular; dealing out her affections where they are likely to have the desired effect. She acts young and innocent, as if she is just there for the pleasure of your company; but beneath that sweet demeanour lurks sharp claws, that she is ready to use. You may be taken in and give her what she wants, at which point she stretches and walks away; off to find someone else to satisfy her needs.

But as soon as you take your attention away from her, she is there; careful to make sure your glance doesn’t stray to others, that she is the only one you pay attention to. Sunlight glints off the auburn in her hair as she stretches, playing on her beauty as she tiptoes across the room.

Though you know in your heart she’s only doing it for the sardines; as she curls up, purring in your lap, it’s hard not to fall just a little bit in love with her.   

Rita, our adopted holiday cat