Aidan Roberts on climbing Arrival of the Birds and Spots of Time

© Wedge Climbing

Just under a month ago, we reported on Aidan Roberts having made two ascents at the very top end. These boulders were known - in their working stages - as The Helvellyn Project, and The Midnight Project. 

The boulder requires technical heel hooks and quick moves between flat edges  © Wedge Climbing
The boulder requires technical heel hooks and quick moves between flat edges
© Wedge Climbing

Shortly after we published the report, we sent Aidan some questions to find out more about his time on these two boulders, his process when working on them, and the lessons that they taught him. Here's what he had to say:

Congratulations on climbing two of your projects! Is it normal for you to have two projects at this kind of difficulty in mind at the same time, or do you typically dedicate your training to just one boulder?

Firstly, thank you kindly! It's hard to say exactly, bouldering feels like a game of things we can and can't control (seasons, conditions, skin, EU days… etc) and so it's felt important in recent years to make consistent reality checks to understand my motivations and see where these can coincide with the practical windows. So I haven't an exact formula! But I understand your point, it's hard to prepare specifically for too many things at once (poor comp climbers…).

In this case my training was almost completely focused around preparation for the project I had been trying in Switzerland, the 'Midnight project' which I now believe I shall call 'Arrival of the Birds'.

Aidan on The Midnight Project, now called Arrival of the Birds   © Wedge Climbing
Aidan on The Midnight Project, now called Arrival of the Birds
© Wedge Climbing

This was an exciting project for me as it felt to be of a style which reflected my own almost perfectly, and yet necessitated me to progress so much within it. So my training and preparation was almost wholly for this, and my home project provided a great outlet for fresh air and keeping my foot in the door with the mental preparation of climbing so close to my limit. Indeed, when it's so close to your home, there's very little need to set replicas!

In addition to this, I feel a little more need to be specifically prepared for boulders abroad. I've really felt grateful for the privilege of travel and appreciate the distances I cover for my climbing adventures, so it feels important to me that I give this time my full respect. Whereas I know I will spend many more years around the Lake District, and so I felt in no rush at all to complete the former 'Helvellyn project', now 'Spots of Time'.

We know you worked Spots of Time mainly alone, whereas you spent more time on Arrival of the Birds with other climbers, can you tell us about how this affected your experience on each of these boulders?

Certainly it felt different. I did actually try 'Spots of Time' with others as well. For example Dan Varian, Tim Blake, and Hamish Potokar, but generally, even by nature of its location, it was much more of a personal process.

'Arrival of the Birds' sits above the very famous 'From dirt grows flowers' so inevitably sees a lot of people. Ticino itself attracts many of the best boulderers in the world throughout the entire year, so it was nice to share some sessions with friends such as Shawn Raboutou, Clem Lechap, James Pearson, Kim Marschner, and Charles Albert.

It certainly makes the process of method refinement far quicker and often more fun. Multiple minds and skillsets certainly streamlined the whole process. Due to the intensity of the holds on the fingers and skin, this felt especially important for the sake of time efficiency, although it was far from a quick project for me regardless. So much of climbing feels to be in the mind and for myself, I sometimes think that feedback can give me quite a lot of confidence.

Climbing with others feels to have the greatest impact on motivations. Indeed, during spring of 2023 I somewhat exhausted my motivation for 'Arrival of the Birds', but upon trying it the following winter with Shawn, I felt a rekindled motivation which stoked the fire of a winter training season.

'Spots of Time' felt quite different in that nearly all the sessions I had were alone. However it felt easy to stay motivated trying this one as, due to its location, I felt very little pressure to try it at any time other than when I really wanted to go.

You said that Spots of Time was probably the experience you're 'most proud of' in your climbing. What was it about your time on the boulder that made it so special?

Yes, I'd say that both of these lines would be some of my proudest moments. I think Spots of Time specifically means a lot because of what it represents for me as well as the climb itself. At a time when I was looking further afield for these sorts of lines, this one sat just close to my home, and I'm sure will be a reminder to myself, and hopefully others, to consider whether I can find what I am looking for in my climbing adventures more locally before travelling abroad.

Aidan on Spots of Time  © Wedge Climbing
Aidan on Spots of Time
© Wedge Climbing

But then also, regarding the climb itself, it feels like a new level of difficulty in what I have seen in UK bouldering, and of a quality and location which I feel can make a valuable contribution to the climbing here.

What are some of your fondest memories from your time on Arrival of the Birds?

I've many actually, it's hard to choose one! But I would have to admit the session in which I was able to climb it was likely the most memorable, though perhaps not necessarily the successful attempt. In fact, the first good try of the session saw me fall at the very top, way into the easier section. But it was a beautiful spring evening, I felt very little pressure, and very little attachment to the outcomes of my climbing, a practice I've put quite some time into in recent years. And the relaxed atmosphere felt to be reflected in my reaction to this attempt where I fell so high on the problem.

In the past I feel I would've felt some frustration, but in this case I felt so happy to have had that attempt where the sensations of climbing were so nearly perfect, I'd had a lot of fun in doing so! Perhaps acknowledging this put me in the relaxed place from which I managed to climb a couple of hours later, it's hard to know. Either way, to feel so attuned to the in-the-moment experience of climbing felt quite special.

From your descriptions of these boulders, both seem very physically challenging. Your descriptions of how difficult you found the upper section of Arrival of the Birds, where the climbing is easier in isolation, made it sound particularly strenuous! Can you run us through some of the respective difficulties of each boulder?

Well the top is not so hard, certainly not as hard as the rest! But Arrival of the Birds is one of the crimpiest (and consistently crimpy) boulders that I've tried, and you spend a long time on the holds as you need to move slowly between them because they're like slots.

In addition to this, the feet are all way out to the sides so there are a lot of foot transitions which take time too. In total, a lot of time max crimping! And by the time I would get to the top I had to contend with an issue I'd not had before, almost loss of fingertip sensation - but not because of cold hands, but numb hands due to what felt like pressing all of the blood out of the fingertips.

So this certainly caused some troubles and felt only really to be solved by making the 'limit' crimping a little less at my limit. Though this was a slightly unconventional struggle. The real difficulty of this line is in the fingers and feeling stable enough in the contorted positions to move slowly to the next holds. Fingers and tension, but to a degree I've not felt on many other climbs. The style is very controlled and it feels like luck plays almost no role at all on this one!

Aidan on Arrival of the Birds  © Aidan Roberts
Aidan on Arrival of the Birds
© Aidan Roberts

Aidan on Arrival of the Birds  © Aidan Roberts
Aidan on Arrival of the Birds
© Aidan Roberts

Spots of Time is a little different. The holds are very small and it's certainly very finger intensive but the edges are slick and flatter, and you rely more on opposition and fast movement. It's almost a vague compression boulder, but the fingers are crimping pretty hard! It felt very contingent on coordination for me. Not in the sense of jumping around, but it felt like I had to move fast and maintain tension in quite vague opposition with the legs. In the end, this one broke down into two sections for me. The third move felt like the hardest or most low percentage - latching that was a good try - and then the last move felt rather hard to execute well from the start.

Are there any lessons that you've learned throughout your time training for, projecting, and eventually climbing these boulders? How will these lessons affect your process going forwards?

Definitely. Patience seems to be the most commonly reoccurring lesson for me as I go through more and more projecting processes. Generally, I think it's very easy to try too much and then limit yourself with regards to skin or even motivation. I'm someone who likes a plan, and so find it hard to step back on days where I need to listen to the body or when factors out of my control don't align, often I'll just crack on regardless. Less is more in some cases, let's say. Though this wasn't such an issue for me on Spots of Time as I would only really go and try it when I was excited to (which was pretty often!) and had the skin.

I think going forwards I'll definitely make more frequent attempts to check in with myself to ensure that I am enjoying the experience of trying a project. There's times when I feel like ambition requires a little austerity, but it's felt important to acknowledge the cases when projecting is no longer fun, and the unmoving rocks can await my return when I've enthusiasm for them!

Aidan training for both projects in the Spring of 2023.

How do you go about exploring different sequences for first ascents, and when do you know that you've found the sequence that's right for you?

It certainly feels like there's no one-size-fits-all formula for this. But generally the early days feel like being experimental and open minded, essentially try all the good and also the probably bad ideas that I have. It's often helpful to do so with other climbers, it's always much more efficient that way and is a fun puzzle to play with others.

Eventually, and it's a tough call to make and certainly not conclusive, there is a moment when I commit to my method on a move and then will try this method more consistently to start recruiting. The moment I feel to do this depends a lot on the style of movement and how nuanced I've been in micro-methods…etc. On the odd occasion you have the exciting moment of 'Oh yes, that's my way!' and that's super nice but most of the time there's more indecision and uncertainty than that.

Interestingly, with 'Arrival of the Birds' there are so few holds and features, so you use most of the obvious ones, and the rock is so slick that outside of the obvious features there aren't many options. This meant that I had most of the information I needed to explore methods quite easily memorised, and most of the methods were figured out from the ground, or even away from the boulder itself. This felt quite unique to this one actually and important when you can't have so many tries in a session, and most of them are working off of a ladder which comes with logistical limitations.

You've spoken about how your passion for climbing can sometimes misalign with your ambitions within climbing. What would you say your ambitions within climbing are currently?

Well I would love to give a concise answer to that! These have been my longest projects to date, so I've been asking myself the same questions. But I certainly feel like this process of finding and understanding new projects is a fun on for me and something I hope to continue to do. It's dependant on finding the right bits of rock, so I suppose the first task is to get out there and find them!

And, finally, what is it that motivates you the most in climbing at the moment?

I'm in a fortunate position that there is an awful lot which motivates me about climbing! So it's hard for me to choose one. After a spell of being quite focused on projects I'm quite excited to breathe a little adventure and exploration back into my climbing. So I've got a lot of energy to travel the UK and search for lines which inspire me.

Also to be a little more sociable with my climbing! Projecting these sorts of climbs can be a slightly solitary process and I often feel it's possible for me to spend too much time in my own company. We've got a pretty special community of climbers out there and I've a lot of good friends I hope to spend more time with so perhaps a little sociable era for me too.

I would say that the one of the main factors which led to my commitment to these projects was the concept of finding climbs which required so much optimisation in performance and psychology. I've almost felt that the harder these climbs get, the more complex it is to solve these projecting puzzles and it's in the details that I've found so much passion. I admit it's taken away from my interest in easier climbs for any other reason than the quality of the climb is great and there are many reasons I'd enjoy to climb it.

But so far, I didn't feel like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of how interesting this felt for me. So I suppose as I go and search for new lines to get inspired by, I'll be looking out for even more complex puzzles!

Aidan has repeated hard problems around the world and added a few of his own - Isles of Wonder Sit Start 8C+, Superpower 8C/+, Railway 8C in Rock Mountain National Park...

Aidan's Athlete Page 33 posts 18 videos

16 May

We're so lucky have Aidan. The future of bouldering, no doubt. Inevitable question—did the ascents get filmed? I loved Mastery, one of the best bouldering films in years.

16 May

He said on a podcast episode (Careless talk), spots of time was filmed properly and a film will get made (?), for arrival of the birds he has footage but on his phone / disposable film if I remember?

17 May

Still no grade propositions?

17 May

Sweet. Look forward to seeing the footage.

On grades, I think Aidan did say he thought they were both in the 8C+/9A range, with Spots of Time being harder maybe than Arrival of Birds? And the hardest thing in the UK. Sounds like he doesn't want to use a slash grade but also is struggling to decide. Seems understandable. Im sure in due course all this will sort itself out with repeats. Arrival of Birds is evidently in a prominent spot in an area that gets a lot of traffic from the world's strongest. And surely Will is going to try for the second on Spots of Time.

17 May

If they don't both settle at 9A I'll eat my hat, along with the hat of anyone else who posts on this thread.

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