Monday, 26 December 2011

The South Downs

A mate of mine, Justin Norman, has started a new blog about the South Downs, take a look, its pretty cool.
The South Downs

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Bonita Norris - Ama Dablam

Bonita Norris, the record breaking British Everest summitteer, has written an exceptionally honest blog about her recent climb on Ama Dablam, its really inspirational stuff, read it here -

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Eiger - Triumph and Tragedy, an evening at the RGS.

The Nordwand
It is some 45 years since John Harlin fell to his death from the Eiger Nordwand in 1966, however the pain and power of the event still looms large in the psyche of Sir Chris Bonington. On Thursday 1st December I had the pleasure of hearing him speak on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society as part of an event entitled “The Eiger – Triumph and Tragedy”. The evening was staged by The Mountain Heritage Trust, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of our mountaineering history, as their chair said, “We care about your old nuts.” Also on the bill was the quite incredible Ueli Steck, holder of the speed record for a free climb of the Eiger Nordwand, a quite unbelievable 2 hours 47 minutes.

It was only my second visit to the RGS and I still marvel at the history and atmosphere contained within its walls. The bar is situated in the map room and it is difficult not to be overawed by the knowledge that surrounds you. 150 years ago great men stood in this room and laid their plans for the great expeditions of the British Empire. In one corner Livingstone hangs shoulder to shoulder with Captain Scott. In another corner hangs a portrait of Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest expedition, brooding over a large model of Everest itself, and all around are drawers filled with the maps these men pored over and themselves created.

Sir Chris spoke first, explaining how the Nordwand had been a constant presence in his formative years as a climber, rearing its face every so often to tempt him. He spoke with great humour and, to be honest, some dodgy accents, on his early attempts with the great Hamish MacInnes and the brusque but utterly dependable Don Whillans. He spoke of his terror at finding himself bivvying below the Difficult Crack with MacInnes while still a schoolboy and he spoke with great eloquence of his and Whillans’ involvement in the rescue of Brian Nally following the death of Barry Brewster on the second ice field, the interview with Brian Nally following the rescue is heartrending.

Finally in 1962 Sir Chris made the first British ascent with Ian Clough, but even this victory was tinged with sadness after two climbers following Clough and Bonington were swept to their deaths by falling rocks. The final chapter of Sir Chris’s talk was given over to telling the story of John Harlin and his team’s attempt to climb the Nordwand by a direct route. Harlin’s initial plan was to climb the route Alpine style, however this changed to siege tactics when it was discovered that they were competing with a German team. As has been documented many times John Harlin fell to his death when a fixed rope parted. Sir Chris was one of the first to Harlin’s body. It is his emotion when reliving this, the pain obviously still so real and raw, his voice faltering and tears falling that will stay with me. His presentation was modestly delivered, illustrated with a few photographs and no fuss; his tale of triumph and tragedy needed little else.

After a brief interval where the great Doug Scott auctioned various pieces of Eiger memorabilia with expert comic timing, it was the turn of Ueli Steck to speak. Ueli isn’t a huge guy and dressed in a black t-shirt he seemed to blend into the stage but his quiet manner and soft spoken, dry, sharp wit hide an athlete of immense power and skill. He joked to start with that the only reason he makes the incredible speed ascents, for which he is rightly famous, is that his wife likes him home for lunch. He makes light of the training and commitment involved and then explains that he’d like to show us some “nice” pictures and so we sit enthralled by videos of his various ascents to a pounding rock soundtrack (I wonder if it’s the first time a guitar solo has been heard in those hallowed halls?). We travel with him to the Nordwand where he seemingly effortlessly runs up 70 and 80 degree faces punching his axes into the ice like a boxer before sprinting along the ridge to the summit, then on to an onsight climb of the Colton-Macintyre route on the Grandes Jorasses and up the north face of the Matterhorn, all three faces in around seven hours of climbing, before he whisks us off to the Himalaya and his stupendous 10.5 hour ascent of Shishapangma. He brings us back to earth with the revelation that less than a month after Shishapangma he reached the third step at 8600m on Everest only to turn back as “no mountain is worth losing fingers or toes for…” Good sense indeed. Steck is an incredible climber truly deserving of the epithet “The Swiss Machine”.

The evening ended with a Q&A session and finally an array of Nordwand summiteers lined up on the stage, but what still, and will always stick with me is the emotion attached by Sir Chris Bonington to the awesome and terrible North face of the Eiger.

Friday, 2 December 2011

SusSAR Mountain Bike Training

On Saturday 28/11/2011 I had the pleasure of attending a Mountain Bike Training Course run by a chap called Gary Shipp on behalf of SusSAR. These courses have been running for about the last four years and were started after three mountain bikes were donated to the team by the family of a misper.

The course is a bespoke training package designed to produce riders who are confident on a bike and how that can be integrated into a SAR situation. Gary is a former member of SusSAR and is the driving, or should that be riding, force behind the training package, he's since moved away but comes back once in a while to deliver this course and does it all out of the kindness of his heart

In my youth I did quite a bit of biking around the villages in Durham and Northumberland where I grew up, normally downhill stuff involving falling off and multiple contusions. Ive cycled on and off ever since, including a course at work, but Ive certainly never been what could be called a serious cyclist.     

The venue for the event was Litlington Village Hall in deepest darkest Sussex on the edge of Friston Forest. Why there? Because Friston Forest holds a secret, it contains the 1986 World Championship Mountain Bike Course and is therefore the perfect place to give three, middle aged, (and I'm being generous there) blokes heart attacks on two wheels.

The day started gently enough with tea, doughnuts and a tour of the bikes (Specialized Hard-tails..see I almost sound like I know what Im talking about). The basic gist being how to ensure the bike is safe to get on and ride, In fact everything we would do over the day, would be aimed at two things,
1. Our own safety.
Dropping into the Buttock Clencher
2. That nothing would distract from the search.

Before long we were out on the bikes, Gary told us that the aim of the afternoon session was to raise our technical riding skills and have some fun. Almost immediately, as we crunched gears and strained at the pedals up the first incline, I realised my CV fitness was nowhere near adequate for the day. But after every climb came the payoff, a fun, sometimes frightening, always exhilarating descent through the trees and very soon the skills of my youth came back. The highlight of the day was a very steep descent with a long, fast run out, the path strewn with slippery leaves and shot through with roots was a real buttock clencher. As the day wore on and the ascents became fewer and the descents more frequent I really began to enjoy myself, even as the light began to fade the enjoyment did not.

After a return to the village hall for a little more maintenance we set out in the pitch black on a simulated search, the bikes now equipped with incredibly powerful lights from Exposure Lights, which made a huge difference. After a couple of hours of putting it all into practice we found our missing person, the dashing and handsome (his words) John Griffiths, crouched in a bush, and it was tea and medals all round.

Huge thanks to Gary for a great day; he shared his enthusiasm and expertise with us for the price of a doughnut and even gave me the shirt (well, Jacket) off his back.

As well as being a top chap and sometime MTB instructor, Gary also runs a great website Car Free Walks.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Gear Review - PROBalm

Update 03/06/2012

A quick note to say that following my inadvertently crisping up my scalp, forehead, nose and ears in the Devonian sunshine yesterday, I have found yet another use for PROBalm. It works wonders for sunburn, I warmed the puck in my hand first to soften and then rubbed a good layer into my lobster-like cranium. Very soothing and continued pain relief after 6 hours. Good work chaps!

Update 18/11/2011

The finished product.
This morning I received the finished product and I'm NOT disappointed, the guys at PROBalm have toned the aroma down slightly making it fresher with more of a definite citrus note. Its also a tiny bit softer making it easier to absorb into your skin. Packaging wise, I can see why they are calling it a puck. Colours are black and yellow, presumably a nod in the direction of the bees and the label styling is quite retro-surfer. Certainly not something I'd be ashamed to have roll out of my kitbag in the changing room.
Importantly the container screws shut on a good, secure long thread so you won't end up with your puck of PROBalm rolling around loose in your bag gathering sock fluff and chalk.

About a month ago I was contacted via a friend on Twitter by a new start up company from Saltburn in the North East called PROBalm and asked if I would test their product. These guys have created a skin repair product aimed at those of us who like to batter our skin with every element we can find.
Being a bit of a kit whore I, of course, said yes. They duly sent me a prototype "puck" of their product. This review is therefore based on that prototype and except in photographs, I haven't seen the finished product.
Lets start by saying that apart from a bit of aftershave or moisturiser on my scalp after I've shaved what little hair I have left off, I don't have a daily skin care routine, I'm not that metrosexual. However I am, what is commonly termed as a "clumsy bastard" and cannot seem to take part in any activity without removing skin from some part of my body. I cannot cook without burning myself, I cannot climb without tearing great strips of skin from my hands, I can't even go for a run without encountering some sort of hostile, thorny plant. So over the last month I've used PROBalm quite a bit.
Initial impressions when it came out of the packet was of a hard yellow/brown substance with a strong but pleasant smell, a complaint I have had in the past with moisturising products is the lingering smell of sick they leave on my hands (I know, weird). PROBalm on the other hand smells good, I like the fact that its a hard substance and you can scrape lumps of it off to lather generously over a sore spot or just rub it in your hands to leave a thin easily absorbed coating. I'm hoping the final product retains this versatility.
PROBalm does seem to work on lots of different things, the night before it arrived I'd been climbing at Bowles Rocks near Tunbridge Wells and had scraped the skin off my shin when my foot popped off a hold (damn that Sandstone) so I took the plunge and applied a generous scraping of PROBalm to the injured area and it took the sting right out of the injury. I've also used it on burns and scalds from cooking (I do tend to get a bit Ramsey in the kitchen, and ingredients can fly) and not only does it protect and soothe the affected area but it does seem to accelerate the healing process. I've even used it to treat spots (yes, 35 years old and still getting zits) and it nicely reduces the inflammation. Obviously these effects may not work for everyone.
All in all the chaps at PROBalm have done a damn fine job on their stuff, they tell me its a natural product made from, amongst other things, Propolis wax, hence the PRO part of the name, which has long been held to have beneficial properties.
You can follow the PROBalm team here on twitter or visit their website by clicking the PROBalm logo on the right of this page.
I look forward to testing the finished product which is launched on the 8th November and will of course update this review when I do.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Sussex Search and Rescue (SusSAR) – A personal view.

At the end of 2009 I was looking for a new hobby when I saw on the news the International rescue teams heading to Italy following an earthquake in the Abruzzi region and thought "I could do that". Unfortunately when I looked into it with my employer I was told that I'd have to take any time abroad as annual leave or unpaid leave, so depressingly I abandoned that plan, fast forward two weeks and one cold, wet, Saturday morning I went shopping in East Grinstead Sainsbury's
SusSAR's Mascot
and stood just inside the front door were two chaps wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Sussex Search and Rescue" my initial thought, and I'm sure that of many other people was

"Why the hell does Sussex need Search and Rescue? I mean it's not exactly mountainous is it? It's just Crawley, Brighton and a few fields after all.

I expressed this thought to Mrs. W as we started shopping and she said "Well why don't you go and ask what its all about" I'm pretty sure she's regretted saying that ever since..... I went back and spoke to one of the chaps who did a damn fine job of persuading me that getting up at two in the morning to go and bash about in the woods in the rain was fun and off I went with a leaflet and the web address in my pocket.
At home I did a little more research and it turns out that the majority of counties in the UK have a search and rescue team of some sort whether it be a Mountain Rescue team or as in the case of Sussex and many others a Lowland team. The Lowland teams are governed by an organization called ALSAR (Association of Lowland Search and Rescue) and they in turn by the UKSAR Group chaired by the department of transport which includes all the recognised search and rescue practitioners, Police, Military and Volunteer. (Can anyone call themselves a Search and Rescue team? Yes, they can, however will anyone use them? Probably not.) These volunteer teams are set up in conjunction with the local Constabulary and can only be called out by them, other teams have evolved out of different backgrounds, SEBEV (South East Berkshire Emergency Volunteers) have grown from what was a Cold War organisation, the original purpose of which was to provide aid in the event of a Soviet attack, hence their headquarters is in a fallout shelter, with the diminishing of that particular threat they have diversified into Search and Rescue.
SusSAR were formed in 2002, others, like Surrey Search and Rescue (SurSAR) are more recent additions to the SAR family having only formed in 2010.

So a couple of months after my encounter with SusSAR in Sainsburys and having filled in an expression of interest form I found myself at a new members evening at the Black Lion in
Death by PowerPoint?
Patcham just north of Brighton suffering what can only be described as death by PowerPoint at the hands of the then chairman, where a lot of questions including the "why?" were answered. It turns out that Sussex is one the most heavily wooded counties in the UK,

"So what?" you might think, "surely the infra-red camera on the police helicopter can see through trees?"

Well, yes it can but it relies on the thing it's looking for being hotter than the surrounding stuff, which is fine when the thing you're looking for is a hot, sweaty criminal who is legging it from the old bill, but when the object of the search is a sixty year old grandmother who went out for a windy walk on the downs six hours ago and hasn't come home for tea then there's a fair chance that her external body temperature is pretty close to the ambient temperature of her surroundings and to search for her you going to need people, as many as you can get and they are going to need to know what they are doing when it comes to searching, and that means training.

Hang on! Training? Arent you all just walking in a line across a field prodding the ground with sticks, Ive seen it on the news, you dont need any training for that!

A team of four receive a briefing from their Team Leader
Ah yes, the walking in a line with sticks thing, thats all well and good if youre looking for the carving knife that Mrs. X used to dispatch the dastardly Mr. Y who Im sure was very deserving of her ministrations but if its that bloke who went out ten hours ago on his mountain bike and hasnt come back for breakfast that youre searching for, then its about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Mainly because it isnt quick enough but also it just doesnt cover enough ground. As I have since found out on various training evenings and weekends, the science of search is mind-boggling and relies, rather coldly, on statistics and the acceptance that we simply arent going to find everyone we go out looking for. However the tactics and skills we are taught and use give us the best probability of finding the majority of missing persons, or in SAR parlance Mispers. So you wont see us marching in lines across fields.

If you do see us, youll see us in teams of four moving quickly across the landscape, searching sectors that have been set out by our search controllers working with Police Search Advisors taking into account the statistics gathered over years of searches and the landscape were in. You may see us working with other teams (Lowland Search Dogs - Sussex, SurSAR, Hantsar) as we all help each other and train together. Were able to do this successfully because were all trained to the same syllabus. 
We're all trained to the same syllabus
You may even hear us laughing and joking as we go, because, believe it or not, were probably enjoying what we are doing. I hasten to add that this in no way reflects our attitude

So, who are SusSAR? Well, we are from all walks of life, everyone from students to the retired, teachers to engineers, cops to farm secretaries. We have one thing in common, were volunteers. Why, you may ask, do we volunteer to get woken in the middle of the night, don rustly nylon clothing, drive half way across the county and tramp around in the woods for hours? A couple of reasons theres the stock answer Because I want to help and give something back to the community then theres the answer I gave when asked why at the new starters evening Cos its a great excuse to buy Gucci outdoor kit. There are those that join for the perceived glory, they dont last long, and there are those that see it as a different hobby.

Some of the team at the Seaford Triathlon
No matter what the reason for joining, we all learn very quickly that what SusSAR do is bloody hard work. Not only are we committing ourselves to the hours of searching, there is also the fundraising aspect. SusSAR is entirely funded by donations; we receive no central funding whatsoever. Consequently many of our Saturdays are given up to standing outside supermarkets with collecting tins, of acting as marshals for events where the organisers then make a donation, or standing on stalls at country fairs to raise awareness of the team. It costs about £12000 a year to keep the team on the road, everything from fuel for our search support vehicle to uniform for the troops.

When I joined I didnt know what to expect, there was a great deal of stress put on fitting in with the team, which I found a little overpowering to start with, I soon came to realise the importance of teamwork when its pitch dark and youre in the middle of nowhere 60 miles from home. Now nearly two years down the line Im proud to say that Im a fully operational member of the team, Ive made good friends and intend to carry on learning, Im doing a mountain bike searching course in a few weeks time and searching.

We SAR types have a saying The Misper comes first.  That is the ethos that runs through everything we do, our training, the decisions (sometimes difficult) that we make, the fundraising we do and the lives we lead.

 SusSAR were Charity of the year 2010/2011 at Sainsbury's Horsham
Can you do anything to help? Yes is the simple answer. You can join up click here for a list of lowland teams, or here for a list of Mountain teams, if you ever see us standing outside your local supermarket with a collecting tin drop a quid in the pot or you could undertake a sponsored event for us, a friend of SusSAR has just run the Barns Green Half Marathon on our behalf and we have two fabulous ladies running the Brighton Marathon for us next April, if you have any ideas, get in touch through our website.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Gear review - Rab Generator Vest

I’ve had my Generator Vest for just over 6 months now so thought it was due a review. I’d been lusting after some sort of insulating jacket or gilet since I’d started climbing and joined SusSAR, I wanted something I could throw on when standing around at the end of a search or exercise to take the chill of inactivity off or when standing at the bottom of a crag as the sun went down. Whatever I chose needed to be light and packable, my experience in Norway has taught me that I’m definitely a layering kind of guy, so I wanted something that was going to sit in the bottom of my rucksack and not get in the way until needed. I decided I wanted a vest style as I wanted to maintain maximum movement in a climbing situation.

I looked at a few different products, from the obvious - The North Face Nuptse, to the obscure - the Keela Titan gilet. I knew I wanted to avoid down fill - perfectly fine in the crisp, dry, brittle cold of the Arctic, not much use in the damp cold of the South of England - oh how I laugh when I see a fashion victim in collapsed down in the middle of a rainy London. Having decided on a synthetic fill, I went to Rab to see what they did, I like Rab kit having used a down pull-on and expedition windsuit in Norway and I already owned a pullover fleece which is bombproof. Mrs W bought me the Generator Vest for my birthday from I’m not sure what she paid at the time but they have them for around £65 at the moment.

I have the XL (Fat git) in Black which weighs in at 285g. It has a Primaloft fill with a Pertex Quantum shell which makes it windproof and water resistant, however even wet the Primaloft remains warm. It has three pockets - two handwarmer just above the hip and a napoleon into which the vest can be packed away. It also has a loop for clipping onto a harness. The vest stays in the bottom of my rucksack and gets regular use mainly as an extra layer on chilly evenings on the way home from work. Despite the constant battering it gets from being dragged in and out of my rucksack and packed and unpacked its still pristine and showing no sign of wear. To be entirely honest it’s a bit of a luxury item but I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s been a welcome extra layer at the end of a search or a long hike. All-in-all it’s a great bit of kit and I’d recommend it.

Fingers crossed for a long, hard winter so it gets properly tested.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The North Downs Way: Reigate Hill to Box Hill 27/08/2011

On Saturday 27/08/2011 we went for a walk on the North Downs, to be precise, The North Downs Way. Not the whole thing mind you, just the section from Reigate Hill to Box Hill. We've been, as Bill Bryson would term it, section hiking the trail for the last two years with the kids and Mr. and Mrs. D - the in-laws, doing short sub-10 mile stretches, two or three times a year. At 150 miles long it's going to take us a while, we've probably managed 30ish miles so far, but we're doing it this way to get the kids used to longer and longer days of hiking. So, whereas the first few sections came in at under 5 miles, Saturday was an 8.5 miler. It's also a gentle way to do it, never that far from civilisation, so a pub lunch is always an option, more of pub lunches later.

The planning for these jaunts always begins with epic whinging on the part of my son who claims not to like walking, but inevitably ends up thoroughly enjoying the day, and so it was that on Saturday morning there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when he decided he was staying at home. As he is only 9 (going on 16) this is not an option so he is persuaded into his boots and off we go. A car is first dropped at the foot of Box Hill in the Stepping Stones car park then we all pile into one car, legally I assure you, and we head back to the car park marked on Mr. D's, OS map.

Unfortunately this map was printed in 1995, so the magnetic declination wasn't the only thing well off, turning to the maps he'd also printed from memory map we discovered that sometime in the last sixteen years the car park had migrated four hundred yards south where it was now enjoying a splendid view over Reigate, Redhill and beyond. On arrival we discovered a veritable theme park as far as National Trust car parks go - cafe, toilets and even deck chairs - it was all we could do to keep Mrs. D settling in for the day. 

And we're off and looking at the sky I make the decision to leave my waterproof in the car, I say waterproof, I'm not sure it qualifies anymore, it's ten years old, leaks and is about as breathable as a black bin bag. I'll rephrase that - looking at the sky and seeing it's blue and cloudless, I leave my third layer in the car.

The Fort, looking South - Casemate far right.

Our first stop was Reigate Hill Fort, built in the 1800s at a time when confidence in the Royal Navy was at a low ebb and fear of French invasion at a high. 

Peering through the window of the Tool Store

It is one of thirteen forts built to the south of London; these forts were not designed to be heavily defended castles but more resupply points for mobile units of soldiers.

The Magazine
Having said that, the earthworks are pretty impressive and the buildings, Magazine, tool store and Casemate, still exist, although they are locked up and one has to be satisfied with looking through the windows.

Between the tops of Reigate Hill and Colley Hill is what the National Trails website calls Reigate Temple, although this is the only place I can find it called this. Other sites I have found refer to it as the Inglis Memorial. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert William Inglis donated it to the Borough of Reigate in 1909. I am struggling to find any information on Lt. Col. Inglis, but his memorial is little gem, just take a seat inside and look up and there is a beautiful mosaic ceiling depicting the celestial realm. 
The Inglis Memorial

It was originally a drinking fountain for horses on the original route over Reigate Hill, this got me thinking about how quickly society can change - in 1909 the motor car was still a rare thing, no one even considered that we would need a vast road around London carrying cars at <ahem>  70 mph and yet just 102 years later the old main route over the downs into Reigate is a footpath and from that footpath you can hear a constant, if distant roar, like the crashing of a waves on rocks that is the sound of hundreds of cars a second passing on the nearby M25.

The Coal Tax Post

Moving on west from the Inglis Memorial the ridge of the Downs curves south west and the views toward Dorking are superb. Brambles, which, on Saturday were fruiting nicely, border the trail but I'm not sure how many berries were left by the time the kids had grazed their way along the hillside. The trail then plunges into the woods, woods that are mainly made up of Yew, Ash and Hazel, some of the specimens of Yew are ancient and have been shaped by the ages into incredible forms. About a mile further on we find a curiosity at a junction where our path meets one heading North towards Mogador. Leaning at an angle is a cast iron post, painted black and White with the shield of the City of London embossed on to it and a series of numbers and letters. 

It almost looks like a fancy mile marker post but the inscription appears meaningless, I take a photo in my iPhone and post it to Twitter asking for suggestion and very soon three chaps have come back to me - it's a Coal Tax post. These posts were erecting in the 1850's in a ring around London marking the point at which commodities (such as coal) were taxed on entering the City of London. There are a few examples left of these posts and we discover another a few hundred yards further on.

The trail then takes a left turn and we descend to the foot of the downs, knowing full well that we'll only have to climb to the top again. Walking along the bottom of the downs and looking up I can see the ridges formed when soil is washed down the steep face by rain and then a large bird of prey catches my eye as it skims over the scrub, it looks to be a Buzzard and soars lazily along before alighting on a tree branch just outside of the effective range of the lens on my Nikon.

We then begin another ascent and come to a T junction where the fingerboard instructs us to turn right in order to continue on the North Downs Way, as we turn I feel a few spots of rain and begin to think that leaving the “third layer” behind was a bad idea (yes, I know, you should always carry a waterproof), however five minutes sheltering under a particularly impressive Yew and the skies cleared.

Just north of Betchworth Station the path comes out onto Pebblehill Road which despite its seemingly tranquil, rural location was actually rather busy and great care had to be taken with the little ones as the footpath is a tad thin on occasion. The stretch of roadside walking is only about half a mile, downhill, I hasten to add - in other words, there’s another steep climb coming, and then a right turn takes you a little country lane flanked by houses and back onto the footpath proper. Passing the old Betchworth Lime works on the left with its impressive brick limekiln tower and ascending up to the top of the old quarry provides another stunning view and an information board showing the various species of local flora and fauna.

Quick's Grave

At the top of this latest rise is a strange sight, a grave. The inscription reads –

6/9/36 – 22/10/1944
An English Thoroughbred

Although if you look carefully it would appear that a number existed before the 6 of the first date, this seems to have eroded away over the years. My first thought was that the grave was that of a house, however a little research reveals that it is actually the final resting place of a Greyhound, to be precise, the favourite Greyhound of the wife of a Mr. Barnholdt, a Danish immigrant and owner of the land at the time.

Soon after this the question of lunch arose, the walk had so far taken a little longer than planned, partly due to a navigational misadventure where it appeared a fingerboard had been tampered with (we were never lost, we had just misplaced our position). The original plan was to complete the walk, jump in the Landy and drive to a pub, however when the newer map was consulted we saw a pint pot about a mile from the top of Box Hill and not far of the path, we decided that we’d investigate this as a source of sustenance. Seeing that it was not present on the 1995 map, I had already concluded that it wouldn’t be the stone-floored, low-ceilinged ye olde hostelry of my dreams but imagine my surprise when I stumbled out of the woods into the car park of a Smith and Western American South-West themed restaurant. Nosebag was needed so we piled in rucksacks and walking poles all and settled down to all things deep-fried and burger-like. The kids, of course, loved it, and although a little slow, the service were good and friendly. The food was pretty good as well and from someone who’s spent a little time in the south-west US its not a million miles away from authentic especially when washed down with a couple of Coronas. I still can’t escape from the nagging unreality of taking a break from our walk in the Surrey Hills to have lunch in a wild-west jailhouse though.

The view from the top looking South
An hour and half later we waddle out of the restaurant and back onto the trail where it takes a mere 20 minutes to drag our distended stomachs to the top of Box Hill where, by now, there is glorious sunshine and the view south is stunning. We pause for a few moments to enjoy the view and take the obligatory trig point photos before beginning the descent to the car park. 

Unsurprisingly the path to the Stepping Stones car park is signposted as the Stepping Stones Path; which makes navigational choices a doddle. Strangely it hasn’t dawned on me that a Stepping Stones Path leading to a Stepping Stones Car Park may at some point involve Stepping Stones and so when we encounter the river and its single line of stepping stones they come as something of a surprise. Son bounces across the line of wet concrete pillars with little concern and I follow, the water looks pretty deep at the stones, looking upstream one can see the river bed through the clear water, but not under the stones, where the water is murky and the bottom invisible. Fifty yards later we’re back at the car.

So there we are, another section done, 8 and a bit miles, the kids have done really well and we’ve all enjoyed ourselves. Great views, reasonable weather and good company, that’s what its all about, isn’t it?


Sunday, 28 August 2011

Fear of Failing or Failing from Fear?

I am something of a failure.

There, I said it.

On a number of occasions in the last year I have failed to achieve something through fear, most notably last year, while in Snowdonia I failed to reach the summit of Tryfan. It wasn’t through lack of fitness, or desire to reach the top and leap, gazelle-like, from Adam to Eve (or is it Eve to Adam, I forget) no, it was a simple case of getting about three quarters of the way up the north ridge, looking up at the wall of rock that remained and my bottle falling out of my arse.

I have always been afraid of heights. Always.

8 years old, school trip to Durham Cathedral. Climb to the top of the tower. Going up the spiral staircase I can feel the tower swaying – it’s not swaying and unless a major earthquake hits Durham it never will – but I can feel it swaying all the same. Get to the top. Refuse to go anywhere near the parapet. Miss out on view of Durham.

Two years later, 10 Years old. Family trip to Richmond in North Yorkshire. My Dad drags me to the top of the Castle Keep to cure my fear. It doesn’t. The Keep is only 100ft high. I still hear the screaming when I close my eyes.

In three visits to Paris I have never managed higher than the Second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Ski lifts – usually these delightful contraptions skim along a mere 20-30ft above the heads of the merry crowds below, however there is (or was, its been 10 years) one lift in Teton Village that suddenly takes off and soars up a vertical cliff face, I have travelled on it once, and I tried to get off halfway. Had it not been for Mrs W halting my progress I would now be a greasy red smear on that cliff face.

The London Eye fills me with dread, and a sense that it would be an enormous waste of money; as I would inevitably spend the entire revolution gibbering, face down in the centre of the pod.

I know it’s a cliché but I started climbing thinking it would maybe finish what my dad had tried to start and that by exposing myself (not that like you perverts!) to my aversion would rid me of the fear.

It hasn’t.

What it has done is teach me, to an extent, to control it. It still surfaces now and again, I climbed last Wednesday and tried to lead on an overhang, I got three clips off the ground and started to struggle. All I needed to do was bring a foot up onto a feature and step up bringing the next hold and clip into reach. But I couldn’t do it, then I realised, I wasn’t afraid of the height or the fall particularly. I was afraid of not doing it, of failing.

I look back at my failure on Tryfan last year and thinking about it, I realise I wasn’t afraid of the height; in fact I was sitting on a nice flat bit at the time, it was looking up and thinking what if I go further and then find I can’t do it and get stuck. Failure.

So now I’m afraid of failing, here we go again……

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Scratching the itch


What's this? A Monday off instead of the normal Saturday or Sunday? Feels strange, I'll tell you what it actually feels like, a mini holiday. I'm sure it won't last and very soon it'll become just part of the routine. However yesterday, as the kids and the lovely Mrs W are on summer holiday we went off to scratch daddy's itch i.e. a bit of outdoor climbing, due to work and time commitments I haven't been outdoors since the groin strain. 

Stone Farm is a cracking little spot a couple of miles southwest of East Grinstead in Sussex, south facing with some tree cover so our own peculiar local brand of friable sandstone dries nice and quickly and there's shade for when you get a little too warm. When we got there there was one other car in the little parking area and four lads playing on the Inaccessible Boulder.
Me on The Inaccessible Boulder earlier last year.
We basically had the place to ourselves, I had my mind set on two routes Remote and Pine Buttress. Remote was first, set the anchor up around the convenient tree some kind soul had placed at the top, then off with Mrs W on the belay. The first few moves were relatively easy, but the crux comes about three quarters of the way up where a thin vertical crack goes to the top. So I jam the fingers of both hands into the crack and walk my feet up the wall before jamming the toes of my right foot into the bottom of the crack and stand up too reach the top - unfortunately this is where I ran out of holds and spent a little time slapping ineffectually at the rock before hauling myself inelegantly over the top on my belly.

The kids then decided they wanted to do Slab Direct, a 4a with some reachy moves - well, reachy if you're a 4'4" 8 year old. It took them both a while to get off the ground but they both did really well and topped out, then both decided on Pine Crack, lots of jamming of feet into the crack ensued and bearing mind I'm too tight to buy them proper stickies due to the rate at which kids feet grow, they both did really well on what is quite a technical route.

Then onto Pine Buttress for me, standing back and looking, it seemed to have a number of nice juggy holds. However these holds turned out to be uniformly shallow, I'm talking first and second joint shallow, which for me is verging on unclimbable, in fact, even two months ago I wouldn't have even considered trying it. It took me a couple of goes to get off the ground, but I wasn't going to be beaten and I managed to thug my way up - cue an enormous sense of achievement.

All through this sunny, warm, nay hot morning Mrs W. had patiently belayed all three of us, never moaning always encouraging, she'd even packed a cool bag full of snacks and cold drinks....and she's not even particularly keen on climbing.


Monday, 1 August 2011

Pops and Tweaks


Yes, that's the whole of my thigh!
I’ve just found out that I cannot climb for about 4 – 6 weeks.  It all started on the last Bank Holiday Monday, I was climbing at our local crag and trying a new route (Stone Farm Crack, Stone Farm, Sussex) and I was working on the start of the route. I was trying to follow the rules; technique rather than relying on strength, trying to use my feet properly – you know, everything the experts tell you to do.
Unfortunately it wasn’t working for me that day and having slipped four or five times I lost my rag and thugged the start, in doing so I felt a little pop, one could say a tweak, at the top of the inside of my left thigh, I thought to myself “Oof, that smarts a touch” shrugged it off and <ahem> danced to the top of the route with all the elegance of a mountain goat (think an arthritic old billy in his latter years).
Fast forward a week to the following Friday evening and I’m at Harrison’s Rocks near Tunbridge Wells for the first time, and having a lovely time trying some new routes when just as I’m topping out I manage to leave a foot behind (boy-o-boy are those new 5.10’s sticky!!) and sure enough there’s another tweak, not to say wrench, in that left thigh. Luckily I was at the top as there was going to be no effortless waltz up for me this time. I walked off the top and belayed my mate, all the time I could feel the throbbing in my groin getting bigger and bigger <you boy, at the back, yes you, stop sniggering>
By the time I was getting out of my mate’s car an hour later I was ready to reach for the Vitamin I, the next morning I got out of bed and it felt like my left leg had been shortened by three inches but I thought “Hey, I’ll be okay, it’ll walk off, it’s no biggie…”, so four hours later having limped round Bluewater and Decathlon looking for a harness for Mrs. W I find myself in my sister-in-law’s back garden having an anesthetic beer when a rugby ball is introduced into the afternoon’s equation. I distinctly remember saying to Mrs. W “Don’t let me run around, it would be silly”.
And yet ten minutes later I’m charging around like a bleedin’ eejit, then its Col goes one way and Col’s left leg went the other way and Col ends up sat on his ‘arris in the middle of the lawn holding back the tears cos this time its not a “wrench”, it’s not a “tweak” and its certainly not a freaking “pop”, it’s a strain, a bloody great groin strain.
Over the last week a bruise has formed covering most of the inside of my thigh which is an incredible colour and the pain hasn’t diminished much despite icing and painkillers so I decided this morning that I’d go to the doctor’s. After a quick exam (much prodding of tender areas and whimpering from me) the doc announces that I’ve torn the muscle and some blood vessels and it’s going to be 4 – 6 weeks before it mends fully. Gutted. So, no climbing for me. Double-gutted.
Hopefully you’re reading this thinking what a twonk, an absolute pillock, a bloody fool – that’s what I want, I want you, the reader to take from this one lesson - warm up, stretch and warm down properly, hands up all of you who’ve heard yourselves say “The walk in is a warm up” or “It’s just a quick climb, I’ll be fine”, well take it from me, it’s important and I will be doing it next time I climb……in a sodding month.

AZ on the rocks - Saturday 16th April 2011

I'm sitting on a Boeing 777 on an overnight flight from Phoenix to Heathrow trying to write a review of a Scottsdale climbing centre or as our former colonial brethren like to style them "a rock gym" while everyone around me (with the exception of my eight year old son who is cramming in Tron Legacy again) tries to sleep. I can't sleep on planes, as someone once said, "I don't do turbulence", and so excuse me if on occasion this reads a little panicky.

I came away from the climbing centre and immediately sent a tweet to Gareth offering to review it and massage my pretentions as a sometime writer, he, being the top chap he is accepted. So here I am 37000 feet above the Canadian wilderness struggling to organise my thoughts, which is why, you, the reader has had to put up with the last two paragraphs of blah. If you're still reading at this point, I'm impressed.

I had two definite activities in mind that I wished to incorporate into our family holiday to Phoenix along with all the museums, mock gunfights and a baseball game, they were
1.    Purchase new rock shoes while taking advantage of a reasonable exchange rate
2.    Drag my family and our hosts, my sister-in-law and her husband along for a session at the wall; they would be given no choice <cue evil laughter>.

My researches revealed a variety of possible walls in the greater Phoenix area, however when one is described as "Arizona's Biggest" and as having "14000 square feet of climbing" it's got to be the one you go for. And so it came to pass that last Saturday morning, nursing a not inconsiderable tequila hangover, I found myself at AZ on the Rocks in Scottsdale trying to read three pages of waivers, "you wills" and "you will nots" and "if you die at our centre, your heirs may not sue us" which seemed to be the American equivalent of the BMC statement of risk. Having parted with $52 for a family pass, pretty good I thought for three adults and two kids to climb all day and including any kit hire, we were ushered into a side room and shown the 15 minute unintentionally funny induction video, this was followed up by a member of staff supervising your first belay. As a non-climber my wife found both the video and supervised session useful. I found it amusing that the young lady who gave us our induction said "if you already know how to belay then I'm not gonna tell you how to to do it differently" before proceeding to tell me I couldn't use my belay plate and had to use a gri-gri. I'm not sure how effective her supervision was either as when it came time for me to climb in order to allow another member of our party to belay, I reached the top of the route and looked down to discover at least eight feet of slack in the rope, now don't get me wrong I'm not one for having a top rope that you could play pizzicato on but a big loop ain't nice either. I did find it reassuring later in the session however when I witnessed floorwalkers actively engaging with belayers and intervening when they saw dangerous practice.

The centre was enormous with hundreds of routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.14 YDS, this range of routes seemed to have something for everyone, it gave my kids a chance to come away with a real sense of having achieved something by getting to the top and me a chance to push myself. The majority of the routes were given over to top rope each equipped with a gri-gri already on the rope and half a figure of eight knot tied into the other end; I wonder how often these are swapped over? There are four auto-belays spread around the centre; there was also a large menacing looking overhanging lead section and a vast bouldering area. Had the fancy taken me I could also have used a large gym with free weights and cardio machines. Also set up was a slack line on which I successfully made a fool of myself. If anyone could tell me how to stop one of those things wobbling under my weight I'd be most grateful.

The walls themselves were essentially featureless except for the holds and the odd crack. The holds were in most cases uniformly shiny and, if like me you are a weakling, difficult to maintain a grip on, although I did impress myself with a few small edges. Each section of the wall also has an accompanying daisy chain anchor into which the centre rules state you are required to clip when belaying. I have to say I found this quite restrictive, as a belayer I move around quite a lot making sure that the climber is not being impeded by the rope, the daisy chain made this impossible and I admit to having "forgotten" to clip in to the anchor on a number of occasions during my visit.

Unlike most walls I've visited in the UK where routes are set in a single colour of hold, those at AZ on the rocks are set using any colour hold and then the individual routes are shown with an inverted "V" of coloured tape under the hold and some holds are part of three or four routes, fine as you climb up to the hold but a problem when you're above the hold, can't see the tape, are wondering where the heck you can place your foot without going off route and how much longer you can hang on! You may be thinking that surely you can remember which hold you just used for your hands but I'm convinced they change shape and colour when you're not looking.

I was unable to try out the lead walls at the centre due to not having taken my own rope and bouldering is not my bag so I am not placed to comment on those facilities however they looked to be on a par with those at Craggy Island.

I'm just going to pause the review for a moment to tell you that we've just hit the turbulence I was telling you about earlier and it's deeply nasty, everyone seems to be coping admirably except me and a lady across the aisle who has just taken a bible from her bag. Awesome.

Despite some negatives AZ on the Rocks is a good centre, the staff were friendly and the atmosphere was good. The facility was very family friendly and the induction would have a complete beginner climbing in half an hour. There are lockers, although you need to provide your own padlock, and showers, there was even a big bottle of hand cream in the gents to soothe your battered digits (climbing centre’s of Britain take note!). The family pass we got allowed us to climb all day and we were able to leave, have lunch, and then come back and continue climbing. The hire kit all seemed to be clean and well maintained, even the shoes didn't seem too skanky and chalk was available. There was an onsite Tufa gear shop that, although small, appeared well stocked. As I've said above there was a good range of routes from easy - less than vertical - to downright outrageous roofs, and those in our merry little band who had never climbed before thoroughly enjoyed themselves, at least that’s what they're telling me. I may even get them climbing more often. On the downside, I did not enjoy being made to use a gri-gri, I'd never used one before and didn't like it, but that, I believe, is a discussion best left to the darker recesses of certain online climbing forums (yes, that one). Another problem may be the location, even if you're staying in the Phoenix area you are going to need a car to get to AZ on the Rocks as it's quite far out, tucked away in the corner of a business park.

All in all I enjoyed climbing at AZ on the Rocks and would recommend it, if for some reason you find yourself in Phoenix and crave a climb.

Oh, and the turbulence has stopped, for the moment....

AZ On the Rocks

Colin Watson