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    Notes and advice from Sean McColl.

Gaia (E8 6c)

Preamble

I have somewhat stopped actively blogging mostly because the number of people that read the posts were not as high as say an Instagram or Facebook post. Those updates are short and to the point, but lack an intimate story; in the end, I think most people just didn’t have the time to read a long story. This story is different. This story is about a climb that I saw in the first couple of years that I started climbing; this climb is called “Gaia”. To give what limited background knowledge I have on this climb, here goes:
  • gritstone route at Blackrocks, near Matlock, UK
  • FA by Johnny Dawes in 1986
  • E8, 6c
  • height is about 8 meters
I first saw a video of Gaia in the movie “Hard Grit”. For those who haven’t seen the video, the climber falls in the crux of the route, comes within a few feet of the ground and absolutely hammers the corner, spinning a few times. It looks as though he breaks his ankle but I’m told that he was actually ok. Never-the-less, the falls looks absolutely terrifying, hence the E-grade. From as long as I could remember, after watching that movie, I wanted to climb that route. Over the past 15 years, I’ve seen the route pop up here and there of various people completing or falling on the line. Watching those clips only made me want to try it even more. My chance finally came as I booked my flight up to the CWIF this year. Graeme Alderson invited me up and said I could stay an extra day or two and try out the grit. As I had never tried it before, I was pretty stoked. I also knew it would be hard to climb outdoors after having just done a competition. The CWIF was amazing, the first night I got in, I went to the restaurant and had the pleasure of seeing a handful of my friends from around the globe. Of those people was Dutch/Austrian Jorg Verhoeven. The competition itself was a great event, it was the first year I had the opportunity to attend and I was not disappointed. The qualifying round felt like a really big gym sesh. They set 30 boulder problems spread throughout the gym using only fluorescent orange holds. Semi-finals and finals were world cup format with world class route setting. In the end, I managed to pull off a couple of “off-book” climbs, and adventure my way through some tricky boulders, winning the event! I could write a few thousand words about the competition but this post is about the day after the CWIF…  

Getting Ready

I have never in my life climbed on gritstone. Since as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to try it, but the opportunity has never arisen. It wasn’t until I found out that Jorg was already stoked to try Gaia that I realized that that line would indeed be my first exposure to the legendary gritstone. We woke up at a reasonable time, had some breakfast and drove out to the “Blackrocks” climbing area. It was a chilly morning, we had a few layers on and we made the short 5 minute walk up the hill. Out of nowhere, Jorg declares “there she is”. I was mesmerised. The line looked so perfect, shorter than what I thought but at the same time very aesthetic. As we walked up to the route (after taking a quick selfie), Jorg started explaining the subtleties of the route including where the main gear placement was. I was pretty baffled; I didn’t expect it to be so low. On a side note, I actually thought it would be cool to try and flash this route… After scoping out the route, the placement and giving it some thought, I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be trying to flash this route on lead, for me it just wasn’t worth it. I didn’t even think I’d be eventually leading it, but I was just happy to do the moves and have this line be my first exposure to this type of climbing. Jorg setup a line and rapped down brushing the holds and pointing out some features. I did it on top rope next and successful flashed the line! Mission accomplished. I know that the top-rope part is a deal breaker, and if I ever wanted to say I did the line, I’d have to lead it, but it was still a great feeling going up that line after seeing it so many times in movies. I was actually surprised at how slabby the top part was, I had always imagined it being a bit more vertical. It wasn’t until my second time up the route that I figured out a key foot move that made every move up the route 100%. I would never had to step anywhere where I felt awkward or unsafe. It was at that moment that I felt confident enough to contemplate leading it. Next was Jorg’s ascent and he absolutely killed it. As I was belaying him, I was very aware of where his hips were compared to the placement, how much slack I had out and how quickly I could pull it in and step backwards. Nothing crazy was needed and Jorg hiked up the route with a giddy squeal as he pulled himself over the last arête. It really helped belaying Jorg and physically seeing how far he was above the draw; after he did it, I knew I’d be trying it as well. The next dilemma was the gear; I haven’t placed gear in a long time… maybe 10 years. I know how to place gear, but it’s not in my main skillset let’s say. On my second toppie, Jorg explained the placement, how to make sure it was good and I put it in and out a couple of times for practice.  

The Ascent

How do you prepare for a Gritstone route? It was a bit strange for me, but I treated it like a competition, focus. I put the cam on my right side and the first one in my mouth, pre-clipped to the rope. I ran up the first few moves and placed the first piece. I setup my heel in the crack, leaned out and put in the second piece. I tugged on it a bit and decided to replace it just a fraction. I tugged on it a handful of times and it looked bomber. I clipped it and as Jorg told me before, I just forgot about it. I rested and composed myself in the no-hands before starting the route. I use the pocket method high and left and straight from the first move, I felt confident. The first pogo felt bomber and it made me feel light going up the middle section. I was up into the corner before I realized it and executing my very specialized hand and foot sequence. From the pocket and dish it went:
  • left foot up
  • right foot out to the seam
  • match hands
  • right hand into gaston
  • left foot in corner
  • right foot slightly right 10 cm
  • match back on left hand
  • left hand higher to palm
  • right hand to mono
  • left foot to dish
  • left hand in to bad side-pull
  • lean out to right hand sloper
  • match hands
  • right hand palm wall
  • cross over match feet
  • right foot out right
  • re match hands
  • campus around corner
Those sequences of moves were so engrained in my mind that it felt like I was dancing a pre-rehearsed routine. I was matched on the final sloper before I realized I had finished the hard part and I was going to do the move. I stalled on the final sloper for a couple of seconds before campusing over the last bulge and crying out with joy! I had done it, and it felt great! As I scaled the last few meters of the top-out, my mind was in a flurry of emotion. For me, this was so outside my normal day it felt very surreal. The joy of doing something new and exciting gave me energy. As I ran down the backside, I could feel my legs, they were shaking… Jorg met me almost halfway and gave me a huge hug. We had both done what we set out to do that day, and both done it without any scary situations.  

Final Thoughts

After doing the route, I didn’t know really what to think. The experience was so different than anything else I’ve done in climbing; it’s hard to explain but I will try. The moves on Gaia are not especially hard, but doing them that high above a piece that you yourself have to place is unnerving. When I did the route, I did it with 99.9% efficiency and there was not a shred of doubt in my mind. It felt similar to competing in the fact that I was focused, I had one goal and I knew my ability. It felt completely different to competing having to put in a piece of gear and the fact that the moves were practiced. As I did the complicated section at the top, it felt like I was floating over a memorized sequence. That’s the story of my first route/day/experience grit climbing. It lived up to my expectations and even pushed me a little bit. It was so cool doing it on top-rope first (thinking I wouldn’t lead it) and to slowly piece it all together with an ultimate realization that I could really do this thing properly on gear and of course on lead. Rock Climbing is about experiences and this is definitely one I will remember for the rest of my life. A big thank you to Jorg Verhoeven for bringing me on this adventure!

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Comments (23)

  • Avatar

    Nils Winell

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    Wow! Great post Sean – a pleasure to read for sure. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Reply

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    Alex

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    Thanks for the write up, like you say, you can’t express the same feelings or emotions through and instagram or facebook post. One of the steadiest looking ascents of gaia I’ve seen.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Joe Law

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    Hi Sean,
    Really good write up and a very special one for me because this is where I first ever climbed anything. I grew up in a house just on the main road (before you go under the road bridge). Almost every day I would go to Black Rock and play/climb in a pair of old worn out trainers. I guess we didn’t know it at the time but me and my older brother we bouldering, and now some 20 years later I’m still at it.

    Anyway thank you once again for a great story and hopefully we will see you again at next years CWIF.

    Ps, you godda love the grit!

    Keep up the good work.

    Joe.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Sean McColl

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      Climbing is a very natural skill and something we all kind of do as kids. Black rock is definitely a cool area. Hope I’ll be able to come to CWIF next year as well!
      Cheers,
      Sean

      Reply

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    MarkU

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    A great read and a great send! Picked a gorgeous day to experience the grit too. I like the longer, in-depth blog posts and would encourage you to more.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Sean McColl

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      Thanks for reading. I will try to more actively blog, I also think it’s nice to see how other people experience things.

      Reply

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    Dean

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    Hey, great work and video. I think Facebook and other social media sites can suck the story out of an experience like this. Keep up the good story telling!

    Reply

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    Susan Jervis

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    Congratulations Sean! Great job, thanks for sharing 🙂

    I want to thank you for being so detailed in your description of how you did it on top rope first, watched another climber, took information from that climber, rehearsed it in your head and only tried the route when you knew you were ready. I want to thank you for not editing out you placing your gear and testing it’s safety to make the video shorter. So many kids and novice climbers watch and read posts from incredible climbers like yourself and learn from them and those details are so important. When experienced world class climbers describe thoroughly how they approach a rock mentally and from a safety standpoint I think it’s great. I also think it’s great you wrote about how you prepared to belay Jorg…. because I agree with him.. that’s a scary belay WTF!

    Cheers,
    Susan

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Sean McColl

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      Thank you!
      I also find it important to show what you have pointed out. I never want to set a bad example and safety is a top priority for me, especially with a competition career.
      Belaying is also very important. I cannot climb with someone that I do not trust, because at the end of the day, your life and safety are in their hands.
      Cheers,
      Sean

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Oiver HIll

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    Fine job, I liked your write up. Carry on the great work of climbing and explaining.

    Reply

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    Alex

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    The fall from the Hard Grit movie is anchored in my memory! And every time someone repeats Gaia they usually talk about it also 🙂
    We can say that this is a fall and a climb that really made an impression on our generation! Such an iconic place, such a great history of climbing!

    Congrats for the send, the paper and the vid. The framing is beautiful and the place looks so peaceful that when watching I was absolutely sure you were going to float smoothly over it. I love how you bring your dynamic style to it compared to the other sends I’ve seen!

    Definitly want to go there someday!

    Also congrats for the win at the CWIF! M3 and M4 were just crazy! I just can’t believe how you pulled that off! Such a good show you and the other athletes gave us!

    Well, with your story know that you just ruined my day at work because all I’m going to think about from now on is climbing. Fortunately I got the afternoon off to go climb and place some gear above the sea in the Calanques 😉

    Keep crushing Sean !

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Sean McColl

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      Glad you liked it! I try to imagine people being motivated at work reading the post, then being MORE efficient at work and climbing in the evening!
      Cheers,
      Sean

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Paul Campbell

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    You make it look soooo smooth! Awesome & congrats on the CWIF win!

    Reply

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