Insecure in Discomfort

Sometimes routes do not have to be difficult or on immaculate rock in order to be perfect. Neither do they always require weeks of preparation and mulling over. At the absolute last minute I agreed to join Richard, Kate and Sam on an exploratory mission in the Cederberg. Geelberg is not unclimbed but still relatively unknown spot. The result was a weekend of productivity in the mountains, working on my thesis and opening a memorable new line with Richard and Sam.

Kate was as much part of the sending team and even more of an inspiration for me. I broke the days up into one day of route climbing and one day of thesis work. Life is always about juggling my passion with both my personal and professional life.  An internet-free spot is often a great place to sit down, read some papers or write but the excitement of potential things to climb can be a distraction in its own right. With her determination and dedication to recovery, Kate inspired me to work hard on the non-climbing day. She is recovering from a pretty serious motorcycle accident and it was great having company in the cosy mountain cabin while I worked.

However, the main reason we were here was to explore. The climbing was exciting, as it always is with Richard. He is always up for looking for new lines in exciting, relatively unclimbed places. So we looked at the mountain, picked a line and up we went!

Exploring which way up the hillside to go was a combination of Richard and Sam racking their brains from previous trips and aiming for the base of the section we hoped to climb. A spot of silliness and snapping pictures of the orchards on the way up was also necessary.


We ummed and aahed about where the route should start but eventually settled on an obvious feature, right of the arete on the left-hand pillar which sits near the centre of the picture below.  I lead the first pitch, which had a rather exciting move off the bat. The crux pitch was taken by Richard who described it as climbing on broken eggshells, at this stage we were feeling a little insecure but it turned out to be quite a spectacular pitch of climbing following an excellent feature.


My last minute plans were a great lesson in seizing opportunities  The wall was named the Payback Wall, a reflection of a politically charged nation disatisfied by the greed of their leader. We were not Secure in Comfort as our wonderful president is. All of us were going through some interesting life phases and transitions out of what seemed comfortable so the name seemed apt given the insecure appearance of the crux pitch. Thus Insecure in Discomfort was born!

In a moment at the top where Richard and Sam abseiled down to investigate a new line I collected my thoughts. The time in these hills was precious. It was not infinite despite the seeming endlessness of our pursuits outside. To be fortunate enough to have a glimpse at these spaces and sample sweet mountain water is something that has value far beyond that of wealth or grandeur (or firepools). It is a hunger and greed for these places that keeps me coming back for more.

An aside: Richard can turn a phrase. For a scientist, he has a way with words that inspires me as a writer. Do take a look at his blog:richclimbing

South African climbing gyms and how to get the most out of gym climbing

South African  climbing gyms and how to get the most out of gym climbing


Climbing walls have made massive progress in the past 10 years in South Africa. The days of being crammed into the broom cupboard of the uni sports centre, sipping on R5 cans of beer between send attempts are for most people long gone. A new era of commercial gyms is taking centre stage.

I’m not saying that the industry has exploded to a point where it is able to sustainably support all of these gyms, but there is certainly a notable industry growth and additionally an almost untapped market of people that haven’t even heard of climbing. Many of these individuals may not be opening the next version of Mary Poppins anytime soon but they probably do want an alternative to keep their children busy. It’s not just children who have cottoned on though. Climbing is a lifestyle for some but gym climbing is an incredible complement to a busy schedule for others. Naureen Bretherick, a well known South African rock-climber, explained that being a new mom means her time is more valuable than ever. Popping in to the gym for 2 hours is an efficient way of going climbing between her role in the corporate world and changing diapers. As compared to driving out to Bronkies for a few hours, the convenience of a city bound gym outweighs the old mantra that climbing in a gym is not ‘pure’ nor that fun. In contrast, climbing gyms are a source of social interaction, an awful lot of entertainment and a way to get you stronger than you believed imaginable. After all, what’s a boulder problem without a bit of peanut-gallery banter?

Cape Town’s very centre has arguably the world’s most convenient multipitch trad routes that are absolutely world class. Yet there are five existing climbing walls that are all doing exceptionally well. Currently it could be said that the abundant rock near the CBD makes this city a climber’s haven. And it is partly (but not exclusively) because of this and the resultant climbing community that the climbing industry is doing so well. The other reason is that these business owners created a demand by supplying the city with the facilities and marketing them to the general populace. Three of these are commercial gyms, with a strong membership base. They are not even in competitition with one another. They service a completely different client base. While the other two, club walls, usually reserved for the student or traffic bound, offer a way into the climbing lifestyle. The gyms have the advantage that they provide someone who has no existing connections to the climbing world the opportunity to try out something active that doesn’t (have to) involve a weight room whose sole (read soulless) purpose is to give you a better reflection in the mirror lined walls. People want to be fit, strong and active without the pretence attached to standard exercise gyms. So next time you are queuing for the warm up routes, remember that we all have to start somewhere and that a thousand top-ropers are better than a single team of rugby jocks😉

How do we avoid these crowds if we are serious about training? The delight of good route rotation means that the non-gym walls are almost a dusty relic. Home walls are a nice thought but inevitably end up getting you the fittest they ever will during the construction phase. New, clean holds and freshly folded towels make that few hundred rand worth it. Provided the gyms keep up with the metaphorical Joneses, of course. There is nothing worse than arriving at a gym with the same tired old routes week after week. Nor is it acceptable for them to be impossibly or poorly set. Good routes make a gym average. Poor routes make them unclimbable except for birthday party madness. But if the gym in question gets this all right, all the 8B boulderers AND those notorious top ropers will turn out in their 1000s, week after week, printing money for the gym owners.

But it isn’t a case of five loaves and two fish. Only so many people can climb at once in a gym so how do we deal with the crowds? Here are some ideas to optimise your gym climbing experience.

Find out the schedule of the coaching clinics in your area. When a large team of climbers is doing laps on your project, you might start feeling perturbed. But if you know it is the week before the lead comp circuit, you can pretty much bet that this will happen. So periodise your own training so it doesn’t synch up with the existing comp circuit training.

Attempt to schedule your rest days around busy gym days. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, make use of the gyms’ down times. I’m yet to see an absurdly busy gym on a Tuesday lunchtime for example.

Pick the other gym! There is always that one gym that has either been there longer and going there has just become a habit, or, somehow they got the location-to-route-rotation ratio of the recipe right. If you are taking a beginner climbing, don’t take them to the gym that has the best forty degree wall but not a slab in sight. Make date night at the quieter, more vertical alternative.  Chances are you will avoid bumping into your ex too! Suck it up and pay the day-pass rate for once in your life. You might even find that the other gym suits you better traffic-wise and gives you less hives from drama-encounters.

Avoid birthday party times on rainy weekends. These and corporate events are often the lifeblood of a gym. They are vital to keeping the gym open. So rather than having to worry about squashing a child when they stray off into the boulder sector, have a look on the gym’s website, notice board or facebook page to see when the party bookings are. Most well designed gyms keep a separate area for birthday parties but smaller gyms may have no chance but to squeeze all the cake and merriment into the boulder cave. Accept this as part of the experience and do your best to go before or after such a booking.

Speak to your gym staff about what you want to see at the gym. Don’t complain under your breath about “that shitty purple 23 with the massive reach”. Find the route setter and talk to them about it or write it up on the feedback board and then tell someone you did so. Give constructive feedback about how friendly the front desk staff is or that the mens urinal doesn’t flush. Be kind about it though. Working at a climbing gym can feel like a thankless task. Gym staff pour their hearts into the gym to make it great for you. Yes, it is a service industry but imagine being locked in your favourite place in the world, everyday for eight hours a day without being able to enjoy its fruits. It is easy to overlook things so feedback is usually welcomed. Maybe you could brighten up the manager’s day by bringing them their favourite latte before hounding them about the terrible systems board set up that has been there for months. Remember they are probably at the mercy of their superior but most climbing gym owners will listen to suggestions from their staff if it means their business is better run.

While we are on the topic of being kind to gym staff, you will find your gripes will probably be taken more seriously if you leave timeously. Staff cannot be expected to stay an hour late because you are the last one in the shower EVERY day. Go home and shower if you need to have a final burn on that route before closing time.  The graveyard shift is a great way to avoid the high traffic times. It is probably the best time for projecting and using the training equipment. However you do need to be considerate on exit. Making friends with the staff will make your time at the gym much more pleasant.

Do yoga. If the climbing wall really is too busy, why not buy a pass to the yoga studio for an alternative workout? Check the class times and make use of your gym’s other facilities on the busy climbing nights. You can always end off with a conditioning session after the class.

I have climbed at, coached at and worked with many of the country’s gyms from construction through to managerial roles. These strategies really do work to improve your gym climbing experience. Give them a bash, and be nice, always.

MCSA/BMC Trad Climbing Exchange: Preparation begins!

MCSA/BMC Trad Climbing Exchange: Preparation begins!

Last Night Anthony Hall, Clinton Martinengo, Warren Gans, Richard Halsey (aka Squeaky), Julia wakeling, Sarel Janse Van Rensberg, Micky Wiswedel, Gosia Lipinska and myself met in Cape Town to discuss the upcoming South African leg of the UK/SA trad climbing exchange. The exchange has been organised by the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) and the MCSA (Mountain Club of South Africa).

The exchange will take place firstly in South Africa at the end of February and will then move on to the UK. In the Southern Hemisphere we will be visiting Wolfberg, Yellowwood, Table Mountain and Blouberg. Thus the South African leg promises some long sweeping lines on bullet hard red sandstone and there will be a bit of hill walking involved. No doubt we will draw on previous (and current) ties with the Queen to sip on the odd cup of tea between pitch swinging.

The British team has some pretty big names coming over including Steve McClure, Emma Twyford and Pete Robbins. And the South African team is nothing to snark at either. I foresee some serious psyche being generated by this little endeavour. Big ups to the MCSA, BMC and all the relevant individuals (esp Julia Wakeling) for having such an inspired brainchild.

Practicing, Habits and Flexible Scheduling

Practicing, Habits and Flexible Scheduling

I’m in Johanesburg this week. Not usually your prime climbing destination, sure, but what ths place is teeming with is PSYCHE. People work hard, people play hard, people train hard. Even the dogs seem to bark with that much more oomf than dogs elsewhere in the country. It might be because of its nature as a big city and economic hub that everyone here seems driven to milk every possible bit of pleasure out of life. The energy of this place suits me right now.

My head is down writing my thesis at the moment and this can be an all consuming task but because I am in this fast pace city I am able to condense my working hours into solid chunks punctuated by training and seeing family and friends.

I decided to do a Brian Weaver style post and give you a run-down on life and training this year. Training has been fun this year. Living in Cape Town has been the best thing for me as a climber. There are good climbing gyms in the city and a large crowd of regulars plus endless bouldering and trad climbing: two areas that I want to work more on.

I have been working on a loosely periodised schedule this year where I follow a block of specific type of ‘training’ alongside my regular weekend climbing. The climbing outside may or may not fall within this category. For example, if I am training in a power block but I get really psyched on a long endurance style route on the weekend or my mate calls me up to have weekend in the mountains leading easy routes for pitch upon pitch, then I go with the flow. But, I usually stick to my guns during the week in the gym. It is a time to add a bit of structure to things where I will focus on power for a few weeks, then endurance and then power endurance while mixing this up a bit as and where I see fit.  That said if I am in the gym doing endurance laps and the coolest boulder problem out is set up I may give it a go while I am still fresh. Or if a long lost climbing partner is in town visiting and wants a belay I am likely to abandon my  hard boulder session for a day. This flexibility in training suits my personality well. I shy away from structure and sticking to a precise schedule. So this allows me to maintain motivation. What has been important though in battling my desire to be tied to a structured set-up is developing habits. The first habit  has been going to the climbing gym two to three times a week. It allows this to be the default. So if I deviate from this habit, it is unusual and I can slot back into the habit the following week. Everytime I go to the gym, there is some benefit. Sometimes if I am low on energy I hang out with my friends at the gym and hop on things that look exciting or are the most social options to get myself out of my own head. Other times I feel very focussed and my training is selfish and all about me and the campus board and  sets and reps in the weight room and on the rings. My stop watch is out and I am anti-social. For me it is important to change this up and keeps things varied. So even if I block my training I still mix up the types of things I do within the set-up. Maybe I will boulder on the moonboard today or I will work on dynamic movement. Even if the only thing I get out of visiting the gym is connecting with climbing partners to make weekend plans, I am instilling the routine of visiting the wall and inevitably I get some kind of movement practice,  a point I will touch on in the next section.

Making way for a personal life, making a living and a degree has had its challenges but on the whole things have been on the upward swing for me. So time spent practicing is valuable. Following on from Steve Bechtel’s post about deliberate practice I thought he put into words a notion that has been part of my  climbing preparation for years. I generally follow the philosophy that movement is the most important thing in climbing. I stick to this for about 60-80% of my climbing  time in the gym or on rock. Note though that this doesn’t mean I time how long I spend on it, rather that on average I do more movement based practice and then add on other aspects in smaller moderation. When I warm up I always focus on a movement drill which involved careful, precise movement. I often dedicate time to boulder problems that are not my style or that I don’t get naturally.  Sometimes working routes and boulders or other times onsighting. The other 20-40% of the time is spent doing sport specific training such as campussing, systems board, hangboard or general conditioning. I tend to add cardio training too, but this usually is an add on outside of climbing time and specifically when I know I have a big walk-in coming up or if I want to trim down a bit. My favourite here is swimming or surfing but this year I am adjusting to the colder ocean in the Cape and have been jogging and hiking too. I find hiking to be incredibly beneficial as it reflects on my days out climbing with larger approaches. It allows time for me to clear my head while still being in the mountains. Cape Town in great for this as the mountains are literally in the city bowl. I also make sure to always throw in a specific time for antagonistic muscle training at least once a week to prevent injury. I try to do a small amount of this at the end of every session too such as push ups and rotator cuff exercises. I add core strengthening in between sets- a personal weakness that needs extra attention.

But that has been the year to date and my preparation and adjustment back to the lifestyle of training and climbing religiously. My year in Korea (2014) of focussing on other things was excellent in renewing my desire to have a rigourous climbing life.

Let’s get back to why I am in Johannesburg. The Rockmasters 2015.

As some of you may know, I am a climbing coach. This means I help climbers of all ages and abilities to reach their potential, identify their strengths and weaknesses and work out how to best train and practice for climbing. In understanding what I do about motivation, climbing, movement, training and general sport science principals it is my favourite thing in the world to make specific differences to individual climbers lives. One of my climbing partners and coachlings (as I call them) is incredibly ambitious. Interstingly her and I were both invited to the Rockmasters event at CityROCK in Johannesburg. Mikela Sinovich and I spent some time in Johannesburg pre-event to get conditioned.

It has been great preparing for this event and feeling the skills transfer to my rock climbing. Going into this competition I feel confident. I am aiming for a podium finish but mostly just looking forward to having a strong contingent of female competitors. Bring on the routes!

A big shout out to my family in Johannesburg. Thanks Morag, Keith, Keagyn and Shannon Saunders for hosting me and for all the support. Thanks Christopher Ravenscroft and Ryan Rabey for the fun times.

>Swimming with a dead goat

>Swimming with a dead goat

A blast from the past to keep you entertained. I wrote this piece in 2011 after a wonderful day out at Howick falls with Faye Brouard, Andrew Scott and Dave Richardson.



>Once upon a time there was a  climbing lass that liked to gaze across the valley at the long vertical faces that lay on either side of a majestic waterfall. Time after time she watched the huge sandstone walls disappear around the corner as they headed off to clip the bolts on the shorter cliffs nearby. Her friends had warned of the vicious roar of the waterfall that left communication between belayer and climber impossible.  Tales of large loose rocks and dizzying table sized ledges with via ferrata cables seemed to frighten many away.

Then one day a nobleman and gentle lady called upon the young lass and two strapping young lads to visit this enchanted crag with them. The day was beautiful and the team was filled with a great deal of excitement. When finally they touched down on the ledge everyone was in good spirits. The sun was…

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A Big Flake

A Big Flake

My ou Bunny tuned me I should hit the crag with him on Saturday. Problem was there were other plans cooking too. Broke is an understatement, so I’d already bailed on the vaalies who had trekked for some klippiestoei at Rocklands. Staying local was defs on the cards for me.
Dilemma! I wasn’t quite sure where to head but missions were necessary, otherwise my fresh skin would be wasted. Then there was the issue of graft. Not the kind that earns you money but the kind that scores you cred, and not street cred either. Varsity vibes, feck. I heard there was this rad plastic jol at Shitty Wok. Other crushers were tweeting it all over the interwebs. I thought it might be a chance to score some stash and work on my guns. I could klap two birds here and graft in isolation while the laaities were seshioning. Score, I sent that one! Comps cost geld though- real live moolah. Although it might be a long time until we have this much UV in these parts…
But then Bunny said TM was mint. I started getting amped for some epic missions on the hill again. Then I read the bull with the passes for traddies on The Forum and it seemed like admin. We’re not pebble wrestlers squishing the veg and we don’t have drills stashed in our boxers. Please, we only have half-ropes! WE need permits!!?? Angaz’! What about the noncs that can’t even scramble an 8 and have to get the blades to airlift them. We’re TEA drinkers who can handle ourselves when shit hits the fan! Plus, someone has to entertain the tourists above Arrow Final! Anyway, I was not keen for office work or forking out for Cape Nature to piss on our access. But I don’t rate the pressure of making final plans. I did some number crunching and decided to skip the plastic. This was until Bunny started chucking shit like ‘You better show. Three strikes and you’re out! ’ bra- wtf!?? It was almost like he thinks he’s the only belay bunny this side of The Mountain. He forgets I live in a house with Squeaky whose ticklist is far superior and am getting laid by the Pom- his most important belay bitch. Bru, I have queues of okes lined up and your threats don’t even make me want to chalk up. Plus he knows I will pick a decent rack and a softer catch over phuka when given half the chance so I’m not sure why he thinks I will run after him. How can the force be with me when you’re crushing my psyche dude?? Whatever happened to positive vibes!? Go solo that shit if you’re the shiz.
So I bailed. I wanted another kind of crushing and it involved tops FOR DAYS!! Yip, I’m a big flake. Lank Capetonian of me, I know. But even us Durban laanis have to ebb and flow sometimes. So I found a horsefly from school-days who helped me fork out for entry. Legend! Shot! We missioned to the Wok with his wheels cos my battery was as dead as a newb soloing Jeopardy.
The Wok was chokkers with newbs. Luckily, psych arrived with Brit when I saw there was another girl amped for legit sendage. I get a bit tired of competing against myself and noncs. The tuks and wits crew would have been keen but since its season they were ticking projects elsewhere and, well, Durbs’ chicks don’t coin it enough for roadtrips to the gym. All the laydies with real jobs have swopped redpoints for breastfeeding or draws for downhill. Luckily there are a few wombs to spare and Julia, Brit and I smaak plastic more than we care to admit. But the Jem mos popped her pinkie and is down and out. Just the two of us then.
So the crushing began. The problems were far sicker than the last comp I did (which was in K-land). They weren’t quite as special as the ones at Worlds in Arco but they were pretty darn epic with some kick-ass volumes and techy moves. There were spans of problems too. I rate the setters must have been zonked after all of that tweaking. The format was a little different to usual. Bonuses were marked but there were close to 36 boulders and only your top 10 sends counted. It was all about managing your steam and skin. There was no iso and groms and ballies had the same problems but flashing gave extra points. The temps were sky high and the schlork factor was pretty intense with all the newbs around. But the setters had done a job by spreading things out nicely. Brit and I kept it chilled to begin with but I could see by the last two hours that both of us had started to dig deep. It’s not like we hadn’t been trying earlier but in the last while we both worked the quality lines- the ones we wanted to do but hadn’t flashed. We eeked in as many attempts as possible. It was a real sauna in there near the end and chalkbag was spaar so I had to keep schnaaing from other okes to stop the schlork. I was keeping an eye on my scorecard but far more interested in tops. Brit and I swapped beta and suggested problems and bonuses to go for. It was rad to see each other climbing and how my easy send was her anti-style or her cruise-easy was my 9B.
In the end I scored some downturns and Brit got a hangdog. Pretty decent loot for a day on plastic. And we got a sick power-endurance sesh too. Sometimes being a flake is more about the story than the choice. I am stoked with the problems I sent near the end and feel ready for my projects. Best I put aside those nuts for a while and dust off my spongebob- Pandemonium here I come!