It takes 365 and just over one quarter days for our planet to make one lap around the sun. During that orbit the hemispheres take their time to warm themselves by tilting towards the sun. Like an intricate clock made by the blind watchermaker, the seasons come and go in perpetual motion.
The inevitability of those seasons is like the ebb and flow of the tide, you can stand like King Canute and try and order them to stop but like it or not you only have a few months before the winter returns. I have tried to kid myself that that I am a polymath when it comes to climbing, but rock climbing is what drives me. Whilst scratching around during the winter months helps feed my desire to find life up there between the land and sky, but nothing comes close to the feeling I get from rock climbing.
Like the seasons my climbing has a spring, autumn, summer and winter, although on our great isle that should probably now be pre and post monsoon season and winter. The weather is of course a perennial British talking topic, if it is not too hot, cold, wet or windy then one of these weather options is close enough on either horizon to warrant a discussion.
Winter for me means the wall in the main and whilst others may bulk at climbing inside. The social nature of indoor climbing, sharing beta and working problems is something that helps me maintain some form of focus as the days draw into a point when daylight is a rare commodity. Waking up for work in dark and returning after light has long since dipped below the edge of the world makes for gloomy days. Ones where I am glad that at least I don’t work in an office.
Somewhere amongst the hours of indoor training the snow and ice returns. Out of storage boxes comes my aging winter kit. It seems pointless to invest another £600 for new axes, boots and crampons when all they see is 5 routes a year. Alpine starts, sweaty approaches, freezing belays and rattling around on metal points start to lose their appeal as quickly as the enthusiasm built as you remember the suffering.
Nestled amongst those winter epics though are those few precious days, days that I enjoy far more than attacking a frozen icicle with various weaponry. Those perfectly clear, dry and sunny spells that mark the first shoots of spring. The axes are hopefully hung up for another year, rock boots are dusted off, the winterised rack is re-summerised, cams are oiled in ready for action and rock climbing guidebooks are pulled off the shelf.
Despite the sun the weather is cold and careful consideration needs to be made when it comes to route choice. It is now the encyclopaedic knowledge of crags pays off. What crags are in the sun and at what time, which of those offer shelter from a biting northerly or easterly wind.
Vivian Quarry offers afternoon sun and shelter from the wind, Rainbow Slab gets the morning sun although is more exposed, Tremadog is south facing although parts go into the shade at about lunchtime and the freezing breeze at the top makes those last pitches a race against time for the second. Gogarth is good early season, but not Main Cliff as it doesn’t come into the sun till around lunchtime and Wen Slab is freezing as it only gets the last weak rays of sun this time of year. It is possible to climb in the Pass but there is often a cold wind, the best shelter is around Cenotaph Corner. The Lleyn is good but a little too adventurous and loose for the first few days back on rock.
By the time you have added in time constraints, wind, distance to the crag and personal preference. This list of crags is short and the routes you want to climb again even shorter, but despite having climbed the all classics many times before the fact still remains they are classic and its is early doors when it comes to trad climbing.
To me I see this first forays onto rock after a winter as like shaking hands with old friends, some of which have been with me for over 18 years. Comes the Dervish is a prime example, I have in the past climbed it three times in one week. Some may say that is sad, but the route is that good that I just can’t help it. In know when to reach out from the crack to find those hidden holds, what wire I place and most importantly a feeling of how hard it should be. In essence it is a benchmark by which I can judge my current level of climbing. Too easy and it can be scary as I know I need to push a little harder, too hard and my confidence takes a knock. Like any with any good friend at least I know where I stand after some time apart.
In the space of a week of good weather this February I had met about twenty of my old friends. Like any close friend they offer advice on life, each helping put me back on track for trad climbing. Whether it is getting my eye back in for wires, for reading real rock or getting back used to running it out a little. Those bolts are so close together indoors that getting a microwire a good way below your feet and committing to crux can feel alien but at the same time invigorates the soul. Doing this on routes I know and love removes part of the fear and allows me to know that whilst I am running it out I am doing so to reach a good hold or wire.
Familiarity can of course breed contempt, one year on my annual early season shake down I was climbing Monster Kitten in Vivian and cruised the flake and was set up for the long step across to a good foothold. All too causally I step right with just a fraction too little conviction and relaxing thinking it was all over. I missed the hold and plummeted down the slab much to the belayer bemusement. It keeps you on your toes though and another lesson is learnt.
I guess what I am trying to say is that as the winter season draws to a close and the sun starts to do it magic that we should be out getting used to the rock again. For most the feeling of rock under foot and hand is something of a distance memory, getting back into the swing of things by going over old ground you can do two things. First off you get to enjoy the routes you love again and secondly you dust of the rock climbing part your brain that over the winter has slowly been filed further and further back and become dusty. By climbing routes you know, you eliminate surprise and gain confidence as you will measure your current performance against that of the past.
So as spring and summer arrive dust off you rack, dip into your guidebooks and go visit you favourite crag and climb the routes you know and love. I guarantee it will put a smile on your face, like catching up with old friends.