The rain in font didn’t relent and after 48 hours of constant meteo france/swiss monitoring we decided to chance it by driving south to Martigny. The special warm wind called Foehn had been predicted and local Fred Moix told me that good conditions would be in store. We arrived a little too late on Friday evening so I missed an opportunity to climb in perfect conditions. Upon arrival at Branson it was cool, the wind was warm, but unfortunately it was far too dark. I was still optimistic for the weekend ahead.

We managed to get the key of a local climbing wall and spent the night there which was definitely more comfortable than either the car or the bouldering pads. Saturday morning was spent trying to find an open shop because (obviously) November 1st is some national holiday (All Saints day – not the band, I don’t think), but eventually we settled somewhere to drink coffee and munch pain au chocolat. Early afternoon we headed to the crag but temps were still a little warm. It was about 13C which was nice for sitting in the sun and getting nourished by free radicals, but not great for crushing. The wind wasn’t blowing all that much but driven by psych I warmed up. After far too short a warm up I decided to get involved in the main meat, the reason I’d driven nearly 6 hours south, Radja. I last tried it with Danny and Sam in August and I’d felt surprisingly good on it. I’d made good progress, good enough to think that I could probably get it done with another visit. Perhaps that confidence was proving to be a thorn in my side, but I spent an hour failing to do a single move. I couldn’t remember the subtle body positions, or rather I thought I could remember them but my body didn’t seem to be in them. I felt a million miles away from doing the crux moves. I was a bit disheartened and to make matter worse after about 45 mins I put a hole in my tip. But not the usual tip. For perhaps the first time ever I had ripped a chunk of skin off my right thumb! This goes to show how much you have to use your thumbs on this problem. I taped over it and persisted, trying to find that subtle position that clicks and enables you to enter the next phase, which is finding enough power to actually do the moves. By the end of the session I’d somewhat remembered that you need to get your body much higher, pushing with your left hand into your right shoulder, then twisting your hips slightly inwards so you can reach up to the undercut. My very last goes saw me finally reaching into the undercut but by this point my shoulders were aching, and all this after about 1h20m of goes. I was done. The problem is too hard for me to try much more than that. The evening was spent eating Pizza and sitting in a bar listening to the locals talk about various boulder problems and boulderers (all in French). I understood enough to know that no matter where you go climbers talk about the same things, which problems are really harder than the other and why certain climbers are crushers! All pretty funny…

Radja is a complicated beast. My hardcore failure left me with some time to reflect about why this had happened. I thought about why I was having such a dismal time and simultaneously thought about how Tyler and Graham had both crushed it in a session. I think that Radja requires a pre-requisite amount of basic strength/power. You either have it or you don’t have it. If you think that Graham is a skinny waif without power/strength then you are sorely mistaken. If you don’t have this level of strength you simply won’t be able to do the moves. If your shoulder isn’t stable enough, or your back not powerful enough, you will only fail. You can’t find a way around it, you simply need a certain level of power. Essentially it’s quite a basic problem, even though all the locals will tell you it’s hugely subtle, and point to which grain of the rock you need to put a certain part of your toe on, or draw an arc in 3D space through which your hips must travel if you want to do the move. But all these things are ancillary; you must first have the strength/power to execute. No amount of technique or trickery will help if you don’t have the power. I think it’s something like needing a power level of 73 (on some undetermined scale). If you have 70 then you might just be able to do the moves if you find the absolute perfect technique, but to execute this on the link becomes unlikely. If you have 73 then you will have to use good technique to actually send the problem. If you have 80 or 90 then you can overpower the beast and crush it quickly. But this level of power is certainly world class and not many people have it so mere mortals like myself need to train to reach a power level of 75 and then make a concerted effort to climb with excellent technique.

Sunday we awoke in the climbing wall to feel a rather warm breeze and upon walking out of the door we were greeted by a lovely summer’s day. Whilst lovely if you are on holiday in Tuscany, it’s not so lovely when you’re trying to climb at your limit. It was even warmer than Saturday, with the car registering 15C in the morning and going on to 20C at lunchtime. I decided to learn from yesterdays lessons and not start climbing until about 5pm so I would get the best of the conditions. I arrived at the crag with Fred and he pointed to a particular car asking if I knew who it was to which I replied with a somewhat obvious no. He said it was Bernd Zangerl and obviously I was immediately excited by the prospect of meeting a beast but also seeing him try Radja. We went down, said hello, and decided that conditions weren’t good so we’d wait for it to go dark and then do a lantern session. Great! A lantern session on Radja with Zangerl!  I don’t get star struck, but I have a lot of respect for these top climbers because I think I have an understanding of the hard work it takes to get there. I respect that, a lot. Bernd had come alone, driving 6 hours to come and try Radja, and I respect that dedication. However, the lantern session wasn’t all that was taking place as another local, Pedro, was sat under the block playing a didgeridoo! It was a nice scene actually, with the soothing, rhythmic pace of the didgeridoo acting as a perfect accompaniment. As darkness descended I warmed up trying to actually get my shoulders and back properly warmed up this time and didn’t feel too bad. I was sore from Saturday but I felt in better shape, and walking down to Radja I thought (once again) that I had a good chance. My first goes felt much better than my best goes on Saturday. My body position was immediately better  and I reached up into the undercut with much more ease. I put three fingers in the undercut, rolled my wrist upwards to get the thumb catch, and just as I started to move up I greased off. Damn it. Even worse was that I now had a matching hole in my left thumb. It wasn’t bleeding but it was down to the final layer of skin and so I had no choice but to tape it up. I had tape on both thumbs and, for a problem that requires a lot of thumb action, this wasn’t ideal. In fact, my goes went rapidly downhill from there. Bernd had a try and made it up into the undercut and looked very strong, but something didn’t quite go as it should and he slipped off. Conditions weren’t good but he was crushing. I also realised that he was doing it with a different left foot hold and he explained that it was perhaps slightly harder but by utilising it your left foot was much less likely to slip off. Obviously I wanted to have a go using it and it didn’t take much of an effort to realise quite how much harder it was. Essentially he was using a smear and he was able to do so because he is way, way, way stronger than me. He could hold the shoulder position far more comfortably, and furthermore he was only using 3 fingers on the undercut, taking it as an open handed hold. I don’t want to sound like I’m bumming him, but I am. The guy is very strong and it was inspiring to see. His skin was sacking it and so he taped up for one more go but that didn’t help things and he stepped off. Chances are his skin will be better on Monday, conditions will be better on Monday, and I have no doubt he’ll crush it. As for me, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I have a hole in each thumb and my back/shoulders are sore. I’m taking a rest day today, hoping that the rain will stay away and I’ll be back there trying it again tomorrow. If it doesn’t happen in the next few days I’ll just have to come back again. But I’m not thinking about that yet, I’m thinking only about trying to succeed.

The more I travel the more I meet people and the more I hear about bitchiness, about people who don’t like certain other people. There are a variety of reasons for why people don’t like other people, and it’s a fact of life that not everyone is going to get on really well with everyone else, but in climbing people really seem to take a dislike to one another. Perhaps it’s because they are all so passionate about rock climbing and this is what they have disagreements about, but I think it’s a bad way to be. In my mind, it would be better if everyone could act as a positive support for everyone else and encourage them to improve, adapt, and push things forward. That probably sounds far too idealistic but I’m sure things could be more like that than they currently are. The one theme that unites all the top climbers I meet is their love for rock climbing. They just want to go out and climb. They don’t really care about 8a.nu, internet chat, magazine reports or chatting BS about climbing, they just love rock climbing. They couldn’t care less if they never reported anything else they did or if no one knew what they had climbed, because they really only do it for themselves. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but for the most part people choose this lifestyle because it’s what they love. I also think the general public are too quick to judge the achievements of the top guys without really knowing or understanding anything about them. This is also a great shame because I’m sure if people were to know these guys personally they would have a completely different opinion.  I’m not guilt free, I realise that I’ve been part of this in the past, but it’s something I realised was a bad mistake and have tried to learn from the mistake. I’m not judging anyone or trying to make moral statements about anyone’s opinion. I just want to encourage everyone, avoid slagging people off, try to remain positive and continue to love rock climbing. I hope that everyone else can do the same because loving rock climbing is the glue that binds us all together.