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Learning, always learning

Or put another way making mistakes, always making mistakes.

I have two projects on the go, one is an overhanging wall down in darkest Wicklow and the other is a plumb vertical (1 degree overhanging actually) wall on tiny holds in the Quarry. With the weather and family life I have been able to get on the Quarry proj a lot more as I can be shoeing up under it 15 minutes after leaving the house. Forgive me if I’m being a little vague about the exact location of both these problems but I feel it’s best not to tempt fate.

I first tried the Quarry problem in 1998. Climbing wise I have a good memory and I never forgot about it and so last spring, after just over 15 years, I started working on it again. In ’98 I only had a few sessions on it and never made much progress. On my return I found I could still remember the holds but it didn’t feel any easier.

Through the course of last spring I had a few sessions on it. Because the holds are so tiny it’s very conditions and skin dependent. None of the holds are deeper then first joint, most are half that and you can only get two fingers at most on them and they are sharp as well.

The whole problem revolves around getting this sloping edge about 10 feet above the ground. The starting holds are decent and it’s just a matter of finding a good position to make the reach. At first I couldn’t even hit the edge but slowly I made progress. On the good days I would try what I though was THE sequence and just try and refine the technique but some days that sequence felt too hard so I would get a bit demoralised and start playing around, trying to find a different way. Now there are only 6 hand holds and 3 foot holds so there aren’t a huge number of permutations and I’d say I tried the majority of them.

Once the weather started to get a little warmer I put it on hold until the start of this winter. So far I have about half a dozen sessions. I had settled on a sequence involving a terrible pinch, I could barely hold it at the start but am now able to reach from it and slap the sloping edge. This in itself was progress but with it came the realisation that the reach would have to be done absolutely static if I wanted to stick the edge. This two steps forward, one step back progress is typical of this, and probably most, projects. You don’t really progress in a linear fashion towards your goal due to the interplay of various factors such as form, training, conditions, psyche etc, not to mention these discrete steps, both forward and back, caused by sequence revelations.

Doing the reach static from that pinch was always going to be a big ask and I started to wonder if it was out of my league. With the new energy and motivation that comes with the New Year I started to focus on getting this thing done or at least giving it my best shot, so rather than just set myself the goal of doing it I decided to set myself the goal of trying it at least 8 time in January. At the end of the month I could then assess how I was getting on.

A pattern developed where my first go was often my best, this could of been due to my skin being good. But it was a little strange. I started warming up on the finger board at home, this must of helped and when I didn’t do this it took a good few tries before my fingers felt strong which was a waste of skin. I also started using a nail file to keep my skin smooth. You have probably seen videos in which the wads spend as much time filing their skin as climbing. It really works.

In my last session I realised that the position in which I reach from makes it very difficult to keep my body close to the rock and dead still. So once again I started messing around with different methods. I tried a different sequence, moving my right hand first then my left, skipping the terrible pinch, as soon as I did this I realised that my shape was much better and that I could get a high right foot which would allow me reach statically to the edge. It was a great moment, the first time I really believed I could climb this thing. It’s not going to be easy but I think it will go. In the space of a minute I went from thinking my sequence wasn’t going to work to being pretty sure that I would be able to do it. Now for the first time I could start to anticipate what it would be like to stick that edge and break onto new ground.

I had tried that method before but it didn’t click. Maybe I wasn’t committed to it, or maybe I needed to have that little bit of extra strength, it’s hard to say. It’s not intuitive, to me at least, that the optimal sequence would involve less holds and less hand movements rather than more, especially on a problem where the holds are so marginal.

Climbing hard problems (and developing bouldering areas) is like peeling back the skin on an onion, layer by layer more gets revealed but it can’t just happened in one go, you can’t really force it. This is why I think flashes of hard problems are a real display of virtuoso, there is some many things that have to be perfect for it to happen and you only get one shot.

Now to force a conclusion and moral out of these ramblings.

– You don’t have to be a wad to adopt their tactics, doing so will serve you well.
– Bouldering, especially doing first ascents, is a thinking sport.