With just a fortnight to go until my Extreme Blind Triathlon style attempt on Am Buachaille I’m climbing well and feeling confident of success – Scottish weather and nesting fulmars permitting.
This is the culmination of weekly training sessions at The Castle (often under the watchful eye of our unofficial coach Dan Clemson) and a four-day expedition to the southern coast of Sardinia last month.
This expedition was a dry run for Am Buachaille. We had planned to go to Skye but a wet and windy Atlantic weather front forced us to make alternative arrangements.
In Sardinia Matthew and I were joined by Nick Carter of Alpha Mountaineering. He was there with me when I summited The Old Man of Hoy in 2013 and will be our guide on Am Buachaille. He will also belay the fourth member of our team, Keith Partridge.
Keith is an award-winning adventure cameraman and film-maker who has worked on movies such as Touching the Void, Bonington: Mountaineer and most recently in extreme locations around The World with Steve Backshall.
In Sardinia Nick, Matthew and I were able to practice our communication on multi-pitch routes and, most importantly our rope skills at belay ledges, where three people can quickly feel like a crowd; and ropes slings and karabiners become a confusing cat’s cradle.
As usual with climbing it’s all about having a system and sticking to it and I was glad again for Dan’s rope-work refresher sessions at The Castle.
We tried, as much as possible, to select routes that emulated the traverses, slabs and steep but juggy overhanging sections we’ll encounter on Am Buachaille. But we stopped short of looking for a 500-metre-long rockfall causeway, strewn with seaweed, to clamber across. Negotiating that part of the approach blind is going to be hazardous enough without tempting fate beforehand.
Something that boosted my confidence was the obvious improvement in my footwork on the rock-face. This is due to a number of factors. The first of which is injury.
In seeking to build stamina for this project, I took up running again, on a treadmill. Although I was careful to work up slowly, I hadn’t appreciated how tight my calves and hamstrings had become, inspite of climbing! The area behind my Achilles quickly flared up making walking down stairs agony.
I was lucky; a sports injury clinic called Isokinetic, had heard about my project. They provided me with expert support and weeks of intensive physiotherapy. I not only made a full recovery but found that the mobility in my feet and ankles improved hugely. Smearing and heel hooks became easier and the strength in my toes, and therefore my balance, was far greater.
Of all the physio exercises I was given perhaps the most effective involves putting a piece of tissue paper under your foot and scrunching it then flexing your toes and repeating 30 times for 5 repetitions on each foot, once-a-day. It’s the foot equivalent to using a Gripmaster ball.
The second factor came with the excellent advice I received from Louis Parkinson of Catalyst Climbing. He gave me some coaching last year after which I was climbing two grades higher! Here are his Top 3 Tips for improving your footwork:
1: Be gentle – placing your feet onto holds as if the holds are incredibly fragile is a great way to force yourself to slow down as you approach your target, instantly improving your precision!
2: “Grab” with your feet – don’t just plonk your feet on the holds and hope they stick; your climbing shoes allow a feeling of sensitivity for good reason! It may sound like a strange tip, but I try to think of my feet as “lower hands”, grabbing holds with my toes and trying to pull them towards me as I climb…
3: This technique, which some people call “hover hands” helps improve where you place your feet. Hover your hand over your next desired handhold for 3 seconds before grabbing. If your chosen foot position has left you unbalanced, you’ll quickly find out and learn to correct it!
The final factor is Matthew’s constant Yorkshire refrain of ‘use yer feet lad’ and ‘keep yer bloody heels down when you smear!’ After 10 years of him being my climbing partner, I think the message might just have sunk in.
So, assuming the Scottish weather is on message, I think we’re all set for a successful ascent of Am Buachaille on midsummer’s day.
Watch this space for news…
Red Szell’s book The Blind Man of Hoy is available from The Castle Shop.