Temperatures dropping, daylight in shorter supply, energy bills rising – time to give some thoughts to a winter sun-rock trip. If it's your first trip, contributors NWClimber and Full Stottie have drawn up a helpful and humorous guide to essential equipment, tricky techniques and practical planning, with insights which even the well-tanned sport climber might find invaluable. If you're looking for slightly more serious advice, check out our article on surviving your first sport climbing holiday...
So, you're going sport climbing abroad! For the very first time! Psyched? You bet! So here's some friendly advice from an ageing climber who's been on his first climbing trip more times than he can remember...
(As this is your first sun-rock jolly I am assuming you will be going somewhere in Europe, where, until 2018 at least, everyone is willing to speak English. I'd have to include a very lengthy section called Dealing With Language Difficulties if you were going to South East Asia, Australia or the USA).
Take a rope. If there's six of you going you might think only three ropes are needed, but the owners of those three ropes will be mightily miffed by the end of the week when they're packing up to come home. Cherished lifelines turned to tat, filthier than the air in London and kinkier than Ray Davies: you might not get an invitation to the next trip.
Daisy chain / cow's tail
Two slightly different ways to attach yourself to the top of the route while you're trying to work out how to get down (see Techniques). You can make a daisy chain yourself, but kids from the local infant school will knock one up in minutes – nimble little fingers, see? (Make sure you ask their teacher first, unless you're pally with the local vigilantes). Cash rich, time poor? You can buy a ready-made cow's tail from the butcher's. Don't be confused if the butcher calls it ox tail: very few butchers know as little about climbing as I do.
You'll need a set of these, probably ten or twelve. If you're an outdoor climber you'll have some already and if the top and bottom crabs are shaped differently, these will do, but a matching set with different lengths always looks cool and gives the impression of competence. It's not widely known that quickdraws are both extremely sensitive and empathetic. When you're moving well, they'll sway gracefully; when you're happy, they'll jingle merrily; but their normal response to shouting, bad language or fear is to slide as far out of sight (and out of reach) as possible, clinging tightly to each other and tangling inextricably. Sometimes, despite being totally pumped, you've stretch, stretch, stretched and oh! so gratefully clipped the bolt, then time after time (and you don't have much time!) that bottom crab keeps shying away when you're oh! so shakily trying to clip the rope. Long draws have even been known to grab the loops on climbing shoes in terror. Do not be misled by the names. Slick and efficient use of quickdraws depends entirely on the situation.
You can get these from your fishmonger, but if you don't live near the coast you'll know that fish shops are rarer than butcher's shops and they're rarer than free-spending climbers. They're called sacrificial crabs because you're at the fourth bolt on a thirty metre 4a in Croatia, you've sacrificed millimetres of sticky rubber, centilitres of perspiration and every ounce – sorry, gram - of your dignity getting there; the fifth bolt is many metres away, jeering at you, and your reflection in the glossy limestone clearly reveals your despair. You just want to get down a.s.a.p. and give all your gear to a poor, German climber (good luck finding one of those!). Reach for your sacrificial crab; clip one of its claws in the hanger, clip the rope into its other claw and you'll be down in a jiffy!
One alternative to a sacrificial crab is a small, light oval of metal called a maillon. Avoid these. Despite their advantages, and widespread use, no-one really has a clue how to pronounce the name properly. Avoid embarrassment – stick with the sacrificial crab.
I'm not talking here about the sort of stuff everyone does – shining your rock-shoes, ironing your rope, greasing your gri-gri – I'm talking the subtle, shrewd, sophisticated stuff: think diplomats, politicians and world-leaders. (Oops, perhaps not every world-leader!).
For example, you haven't shared a room before with everybody who's going on this trip, have you? That's why, if you're not careful, you'll end up sharing with Paul, Abby, Ian or Nikki. 'And what's wrong with Paul/Abby/Ian/Nikki?' you ask. That's what you have to find out! Shrewd questions in the right places, astute observation, detailed analysis of gossip and banter, that's how you become aware that Paul's chronic flatulence sounds like clog-dancing in a bubble-wrap factory, but smells much worse; that Abby's tuneless humming is as incessant as it is irritating; that the contents of Ian's toilet bag weigh more than his climbing gear and he sulks for days on end if the apartment's hair-dryer is crap; and Nikki's snoring sounds like wave after wave of B52s are carpet-bombing the bedroom. Would you share with any one of them if you didn't have to? So, do your research!
Often overlooked in the excitement of an overseas trip, it's important to have a number of these ready to explain why you didn't reach the top in the style you were expecting to. Part of your preparation for the trip should be a useful back-story. Whenever possible, subtly mention: the hospital investigations (but not the septic ear-piercing); or the troubles with your joints (but not the death of your dealer); or recent problems with your balance (no mention of the credit card). Once you're out there you've still got 'too hot/too cold/too windy/too sharp/too smooth', etc., but being abroad means you can get creative. Some folk often bring up food as an excuse while others go and sit in the shrubbery with a piece of tissue. Wildlife offers fertile ground – ants and bees are good but snakes are top trumps. On multi-pitch the propensity of clumsy climbers ahead of you to send down tons of rubble is acceptable reason to retreat (N.B. Do NOT be tempted to throw rocks back up at them. I tried that once...) If none of these factors are present, you just have to admit it – the climb was better than you and you were having an off-day.
So, you've climbed outdoors in the U.K., right?
(Oh! But you have climbed outdoors?)
Tip 1: Climb outdoors before you leave the U.K.
O.K., so now you've climbed outdoors in the U.K. You probably know that if you get to the top of the climb there's a collection of metal thingies which constitute the lower-off (apologies for all the technical jargon). Of course, if your girlfriend's already led it, she'll have put her own big screw-gate in to lower off, to save wear on the in situ gear, right? (Sorry, I've done it again, haven't I? In situ is not Latin for harness, it means 'already in place') But if you're the last one up? If you're lucky, there'll be a snap link, or two, or a screw-gate crab – no problems there then. But there might be a pair of bolts with rings attached or even a pair of those mayleeon, male-one, malign whatsits. What then? Simples, you just attach your cow's tail to a metal thingy, thread a bight through the rings, tie a knot in it, attach it to your belay loop, untie your tie-in, detach your cow's tail, lower. Got it? Attach, thread, knot, attach, untie, detach, lower. It's so easy!
But (there's always a but, isn't there?)... Not every lower-off in Europe is quite as straightforward. So, be prepared to deal with pigtails, ram's horns, monster hooks and any number of variations which appear to have escaped from Dr Who's prop room. And if you still can't work it out, that's when you whip out Hermit, the well-dressed, sacrificial crab, and away you go!
Tip 2: Perhaps practise the re-threading stuff, like, at the first bolt of your first climb. Easier for friends to shout conflicting advice then, and, if you cock it up totally, not so far to fall ;-)
Know your gear.
Not, how to use your gear, know your gear. Would you recognise your rope in an identity parade? Almost certainly! And if, coincidently, someone at the crag has an identical rope, chances are that one end of your rope is tied to your rope bag, Ikea bag, Aldi bag or even to you, on a sandbag. No problems with your helmet, either: if you're not carrying it, you'll be wearing it, right? (You will be wearing a helmet, won't you?).
Tip 3: Wear a helmet. Holds break, clumsy climbers drop gear, sheep, goats and cretins knock rocks off.
It's the smaller stuff you have to look after. Unscrupulous climbers can be expected to put their old, mucky quick-draws with the red extenders next to your new, shiny quick-draws with the red extenders and inadvertently (ha!) get them 'mixed up'. I've even heard a rumour that one cowboy used to carry a dozen rolls of insulation tape in different patterns and colours so he could 'rebrand' any gear that he managed to rustle.
However, it's not just other climbers...
Picture the scene: Greece, towards the end of summer. Brilliant, cloud-less, blue sky. Hazy views across the Aegean. Hot heat. A thirty minute walk uphill in full sun to a new crag...
Arrive, panting and perspiring, and guzzle water. Groans, and cries of woe. He owns two pairs of Miasmas, one older pair for easy grades, the other, newer one, he saves for harder stuff. He's left a pair at the apartment.
(Insert appropriate sympathetic sounds here).
No he hasn't!
(Relief and joy all round!!)
He's left two right shoes at the apartment.
No need now to ask Frank Unsworth why he'd written 'FU2' on his new pair of Miasmas.
Tip 4: Avoid confusion, mark your gear.
Tip 5: Read and consider the following words of wisdom about what to wear.
Pity the poor sponsored climber who has to draw attention to herself/himself and whose choice of what to wear is very limited. e.g. the Austrian climber apparently sponsored by a swimwear company who spent a week climbing in Kalymnos 'dressed' only in Speedos.
Some of our continental neighbours wear very little while climbing – crop tops and shorts are not unusual. Remember, these girls led their first 6c at the age of five and have skin which only ever glows with sun-kissed vitality and health. Is that really you? (I'm talking to you, lily-white shins and crimson calves!) No? Best wear some clothes then.
As a general rule, the brighter your climbing clothing, the more proficient you will be expected to be. Shades of 'Decathlon orange' or 'E9 yellow' carry a subtle, subliminal message: 'Watch me'. Do you want that when you're four moves up a 5a screaming 'Watch me! Watch me!'? If you wear garishly-coloured clothing featuring clashing patterns and conspicuous checks, designed, apparently, by a five year old with a box of wax crayons, you could be mistaken for an Eastern European climber. For these climbers, 7c is a warm-up.
Listen, it's your first foreign sport trip. Keep a low profile in dull, sensible, rock-coloured gear. Otherwise it could be: 'Trending now – Calamity climber (i.e. you) goes viral'. Oh! - you're cool with that? Have you thought of getting sponsored?
Dealing With Foreign People
You will meet people from lots of places at the crags, so be prepared, or be prepared for embarrassment. Avoid shouting or talking slowly because they will hear and understand everything you have said about them since they joined you at the crag. As if that isn't embarrassing enough, if you or your friends have a strong regional accent you might be placed in the awkward situation where the Brit understands perfectly the foreigner's excellent English, but the foreigner doesn't understand the Brit's English. I know! Why can't everyone just speak English?!
Tip 6: If they don't reply in English, you don't want to know the translation.
Always start with a nod and smile and follow with a neutral comment like 'Nice climb, yes?' You can them move on to the follow-up: "Where are you guys from?" (always use 'guys', it's cool and surprisingly gender neutral). You may think you don't need to ask the first question if you have identified their chat as French or German or Spanish, but take care, Walloons, Austrians and Catalans can lurk behind the core language and embarrass your assumptions. It works both ways of course. The Scot in our party was regaled with 'You're from England, yes?' by a Slovenian. Not happy.
Further conversation can be encouraged by asking about climbing in their country. However, if you ask for an opinion on Trump, or Putin, or Macron, or Merkel etc., a lengthy and detailed response can have a severe impact on your climbing time. Be prepared, in return, for questions about Brexit, Manchester United or the Queen. You'll have deserved it.
Tip 7: Don't be rude to, or about, foreign people: you wouldn't want to be mistaken for the Foreign Secretary.
In every aspect of life, disappointment is a direct function of expectation: the higher your expectations, the greater your disappointment if they're not met. I don't want you to be disappointed. I'd like to provide you with a nice, soft catch, but your ambitious leap-lunge, slap-latch-plunge into the confusing world of first foreign sport climbing trip is invariably followed by a short, sharp, ego-bruising shock and a climber's-sized portion of humble pie. Here instead, is some subtle (you can still claim the onsight!) beta. You'll find some common misconceptions – and some appropriate, expectation-lowering correctives – below. I'm sure many well-travelled, sun-rockers could suggest many more:
Because I've onsighted 6b indoors, I'll be fine on 6b abroad.
Although you've onsighted 6b indoors, you'll fail on many 5s abroad.
All foreign sports climbs have bolts 1 or 2 metres apart.
All foreign sports climbs have bolts.
I've climbed in Yorkshire in August – it'll not be much hotter in Spain.
It won't be much hotter in Spain, as long as you've finished climbing by 7.00 a.m.
Eating Marmite keeps mosquitoes away.
Ha! Not even Nikki's snoring keeps mosquitoes away.
Airlines rarely lose baggage these days.
But those conveyor belts just love rucksack straps.
The guidebook says it is fully-equipped throughout.
But the guidebook doesn't say when it was equipped, nor what with.
This is a climbing trip – there'll be no boozing.
Didn't every one of your mates say "I'll drink to that!"?
I'll sleep well after climbing hard all day.
Not if you're relying on Marmite, you won't!
So, there you are, a concise distillery of wisdomness, especially written so that you don't make the mistakes that I made on my first sun-rock trip and which I've very consistently never avoided making ever since. And as I can't think of anything super-witty to finish with, this is the way the article ends, not with a bang, but a Whymper:
"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end."
Or to put it another way, 'Stay safe. Have lots of fun!'
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