Alex thinks this long cave boulder problem is best described with a route grade of 8c+.
We caught up with the Sheffield based PhD student for more info on Pilgrimage, his other climbing plans and more...
Jack: Where do you live, and what do you do for work? How did you start climbing? Who are you basically!?
Alex: I started climbing when I was at sixth form back at home in Bristol. Originally I just climbed trad. I used to live closer to Avon Gorge than the climbing wall so instead of going to the wall I'd go down there and solo a bunch of routes. I moved to Sheffield a bit over 5 years ago for uni and ended up getting hooked on sport climbing and bouldering (partly because I started decking out from grit routes a bit too much!). Now I'm doing a PhD in the Physics Department here. Sheffield's a great place to be because there are so many climbers and whenever you go to the wall you'll get burnt off and made to feel weak. That's definitely good for training motivation! Where else would you be able to ask one of the lecturers in your department for beta on an 8c?
Jack: What is Pilgrimage exactly?
Alex: Pilgrimage, aka 'The Big Link', is a 45 move boulder/route in Parisella's Cave, North Wales. I think it's currently the only problem that climbs the whole way through the steep part of the cave from the very back which makes it pretty cool. It's got plenty of history attached too – Ben Moon famously fell off the very end when it was a project and Malcolm Smith eventually made the first ascent back in 2004. Since then it's gone unrepeated. It's also one of the few challenges in the UK of this style – steep, powerful, 3D endurance climbing. I totally love that stuff but it's pretty hard to come by in this country. When I first went to Parisella's 5 1/2 years ago I spent the whole day failing to do a 7A+, so to now be able to climb all the way out of the back is an awesome feeling.
Jack: What are your thoughts about these long boulder problems - are they more like routes or boulders or a bit of both?
Alex: Physically Pilgrimage is definitely more comparable to a route than a boulder problem. The individual sections aren't hard, the difficulty is all in doing the link. The mindset you need for it is more like a route too – focusing on climbing quickly and efficiently, making yourself relax into the rests and then turning the power back on as soon as you leave them, avoiding getting too stressed out on redpoint attempts. Even the process of warming up for an attempt is much more comparable to route climbing – ensuring that you're rested but at the same time still warm enough to avoid your fingers numbing out. The only difference compared to a normal route is that it's easier to work. A sport grade definitely better describes both the difficulties and the process to my mind.
Jack: Grades / sequences. I know you think your sequence was a bit easier than the original method, and you used knee pads, can you give us your thoughts on these areas?
Alex: Yeah, my sequence is WAY easier than the beta Malc Smith used on the first ascent. My beta is pretty 3D and uses a bunch of kneebars, both for moves and for rests. Some of the knees are quite good but some are pretty marginal and rely on having a decent pair of kneepads. People tend to fixate on the difference they make to the rests but actually the biggest difference compared to the original method is that I have alternative sequences on what used to be the two crux moves. Anyway, I think my version is probably F8c+ as a route grade (or maybe F8c/+, but slash grades don't seem very popular in the UK).
Jack: Do you think that the use of knee pads is contentious to the wider climbing community, or just a minority? Is it really a big deal?
Alex: It seems to be a bit contentious with UK boulderers, though the sport scene here has generally embraced them. I'm not sure it's really a big deal elsewhere, especially in America where they've been using them for years in places like Rifle and Hueco. Watch any video of Dave Graham and he'll probably be using a pad at some point. Trickery is the new strength.
Jack: What other hard boulders or routes have you done and how do they stack up against Pilgrimage?
Alex: Physically Pilgrimage has got to be the hardest bit of climbing I've done. Last summer I did my first 8c+ sport route, and I think Pilgrimage is a notch harder than that. The process of working it is easier as it's right off the floor, but it definitely feels like my best achievement to date. I've redpointed half a dozen 8cs in France and Spain and one in the UK and the breakdown puts this a big step up from any of them.
Jack: Any thoughts about Malc's ascent back in the day?
Alex: I just wish I could be as strong as Malc! I think his method is phenomenally impressive - brutally powerful and totally relentless. Watching the footage of him on it makes me feel very, very weak.
Jack: Which UK climbers do you think are out there doing the business at the moment?
Alex: I think it's a really exciting time to be a part of the British sport climbing scene at the moment. There are half a dozen Brits who might break the 9a barrier this year, plus Ryan P has already added his name to the growing list. (Imagine what he could do if he stopped screwing around on grit slabs and trained like a comp climber!) If the weather plays ball I'm sure this is the year some of Steve's 9a's will see repeats from UK climbers. The only downside is that we've not got enough hard, dry routes here so now if you want to get on a classic 8c you'll probably have to queue for it! Plus the probability of turning up at the crag and getting burnt off by a girl is getting higher and higher. Everyone seems to be training harder than ever. Brits have a habit of trying to give off the vibe of not really trying, but I think that's starting to change. 'Secret training' is out and stopwatches are in; training is almost cool nowadays. Or maybe I just hang out with less cool people than I used to.
Jack: Any plans for the rest of the year? UK? Over seas?
I went to Malham last weekend for the first time in ages. I used to hate the style but this time I loved it so I'm really keen to work through all the classics there. Bat Route in particular looks awesome. In a month I'm off to Spain for some onsighting which I'm looking forward to loads; trips to Europe are pretty much my favourite thing in the world! I'm psyched to try some of the harder, more bouldery routes at Raven Tor when I get back as well – stuff like Evolution. I'm really bad at short things with hard moves so it's a good way for me to work my weaknesses. Then in the summer I've got my sights set on a return to Gorges du Loup. I had a quick play on a route there called Abyss last year and it totally inspired me. The climbing is amazing – toe hooking weird blobs upside town, pinching the life out of tufas and knee scums everywhere. I've got a lot of training to do before then though.
Jack: Thanks Alex and good effort on The Big Link!
You can watch Alex's ascent of Pilgrimage on this mobile phone clip:
NB: Alex said about the video: "Unfortunately it cuts out the first few moves. The rests are cut down due to technological issues and the guy filming getting a phone call whilst I was in the second one! You'd get bored if all the resting was in anyway."
Alex Barrows is sponsored by Blox
Massive thanks to Chris Lockyer for the awesome photos!
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