Sheffield-based climber Alex Barrows has climbed his first 9a - Era Vella (9a) in Margalef, Spain. The 45 metre long route - first climbed by Chris Sharma in 2010 - is renowned for being the ultimate endurance test and is the most repeated 9a in the world.
Alex has had 9a in his sights for many years having ticked off multiple 8c's and 8c+'s.
He told UKC: "If Hubble and Action Direct are the world’s classic strength test pieces to throw yourself at, Era Vella has got to be the energy systems equivalent. This is endurance climbing in a style that just doesn’t exist in the UK. By the standards of Margalef pockets it’s not that painful either, although I still had to resort to superglued tape on a few fingers. It’s not unusual to have to queue to try it, which is annoying but also pretty cool that it’s so sought after!"
Last October Alex went to Margalef for 3 weeks with the plan of trying the route: "It turned out that my ego and expectations were writing cheques that my body couldn’t come close to cashing. I could do all the moves, but the holds were slopier than I’d expected, the rests were worse and making any serious links generally resulted in dejected failure."
Despite this, the lure of being able to do all the moves proved too attractive for Alex, and he spent the next 5 months training for a return trip at Easter, throwing in a 5-day tactical mini-trip in February to ensure that the beta was refined.
Alex specialised his training plan towards Era Vella, focussing on 3-finger pinching by fitting in fingerboard sessions and creating replica moves indoors: "I’d warm up for weekend outdoor bouldering by fitting in a quick fingerboard session so I could really target that grip several days each week. All of my energy systems work involved replica moves and sections."
"I made a real effort to make up new problems and circuits for almost every session too, rather than re-using them as I normally do. Big thanks to those who’ve endured nerdy training talks with me, especially Tom Randall and Stu Littlefair!"
Having struggled to match a previous highpoint from February, Alex faced a mental battle with the route as well as a physical endurance challenge - claiming that he gave up on trying the route last week and opted for a session of onsighting followed by some rest days:
"I was falling below my highpoint from February, feeling despondent and struggling to enjoy myself. I went onsighting for a day, took a double rest and ended up with rejuvenated motivation so got back on it, switched beta a little and managed to get through the crux. After that my high point inched its way up for a few days, and I started to really enjoy it again. Falling off the top of things and getting a move or two further each time is way more fun than falling off the same move low down again and again!"
Finally completing the route and achieving the elusive first 9a tick, Alex summed up the experience as follows:
"3 trips, 5 months of specific training, a load of replica problems and more doubts and self-questioning than a philosopher. Felt like I was dreaming on the last few moves. By far the hardest thing I've done, even if it doesn't have any hard moves on it!"