Thursday, 15 August 2013

Seven Tips for Making an Escape Plan --- from a Dirtbag Following a Dream

“You can always give your time to get more money...
 ...but no amount of money will buy back
your time”.

As the words circled my mind,
the ergonomic, pneumatic, fully adjustable reclining office chair I worked from just didn't seem so comfortable any more.

The precious 28 days of freedom I enjoyed so much no longer justified the 48 weeks of thankless work I had to do to earn them.

All the material things I was supposed to want to work for just seemed like distractions from what was important. I knew there was a simpler, uncluttered life beyond the consumer driven world I had grown up in.

All I really wanted was to go places and do stuff, out there somewhere.......

This was in fact nothing new for me. Throughout my adult life, I have had jobs that have filled me with a sense of doom. I've tried flipping burgers, pouring drinks and packing cardboard boxes into other cardboard boxes, I even tried some fun stuff and thought I had got it worked out when I got a job running a climbing wall.

But as I stared into the future and saw where each one would take me, I always saw myself stuck there in years to come, tied down by the comforting choke hold of job security and financial commitment.

When I started climbing I gained a new found drive for adventure. I decided I would just go off and climb the world. I talked about it, I planned it, I dreamed.

But seven years later I still woke up in the morning and went to work just like everybody else on every other day.

Then, in 2011, I finally met someone who was equally frustrated, and together we found the confidence to do something about it.


I had about £300 in savings and no real plan. The girl I had only recently met was now to live in a tent with me and we had no idea if that would work. But we bought a ferry ticket out of England, packed up our lives in the back of the car and started driving.

We came up with a few ways to make a little money and simplified our needs until we could afford to provide for them. Through luck, charm, and really being sure that we did not want to go back, we found a way and we made it work.

We now live for most of the year with some of the best friends we have ever had in the coolest climbing lodge I ever visited - The Olive Branch in El Chorro, Southern Spain.

The Olive Branch team enjoying the quiet at the end of the season

We climb as many days as we want, get outside every day, work for much less time than we play, and have time to spend cooking and eating well with our friends.

For the rest of the year we travel to new places, visit home or whatever else we feel like doing.

Charlotte turned out to be the best tent buddy I could ever have hoped for, and we are now engaged to be married.


We have learnt a lot of lessons on the way, and there are certainly a few things I wish I had been told before we left, so I have put together a list of seven important things to keep in mind when planning an exit strategy.

If you are on the verge of leaving, then hopefully they will help you set off a little more prepared than we were, and if you are already on your way then maybe there will be a couple of things you don’t mind being reminded about.


1. Set a date

At some point I became aware of the harsh reality of setting up a new life:- I would never have enough money. There would always dates on the calendar I could not miss. There would always be some reason for me to wait longer, and more ties and responsibilities waiting to attach themselves in the meantime.

Mucking about in Paris with no money
but a new found freedom!
This was in fact a liberating realisation, because it meant that there would never be a right time, so any date was as good as any other.

We set a date, November 23rd. Because I like the number 23. We gave ourselves three months to work our notice and prepare ourselves, and that was plenty of time. I have no doubt we could have done more to prepare if we had waited longer, but we got the essentials done and kept our enthusiasm going til we were on the road.

Whatever date you pick, just go book a ticket. Plane, train, ferry or whatever, just book it. That date will become golden, unchangeable. The rest will follow, and when the time comes you will be as ready as you need to be.

In fact we did miss our date because I really was incredibly badly organised on the day before, but we sailed out four days later and all was well!

2. If it doesn't fit, lose it

Your chosen means of transportation will dictate what you can bring.

We took a decent size family car but I packed way too much stuff and it meant it was a long time before we could pick up a hitchhiker or even recline our seats to snooze.

Even with my overly generous packing, there were still many things left over. I was pretty ruthless. I sold them, binned them or donated them to charity until I was down to the things I really didn’t want to lose. These things I mostly gave to my friends and family. Better that they are enjoyed than sitting in a box gathering dust somewhere.

Go through the essentials, the stuff you really cannot do without. And throw in a few comforts too. It gets lonely out in the wide world sometimes, and everybody gets a little homesick now and again. A laptop and some music is not such a bad idea.

But be ruthless with everything else and pack light.

Some heavy things are worth taking - that Dutch oven has provided us with many a free meal on our travels!

3. Tools are good, skills will grow

For every item I have that is repairable, I have at least a basic tool set. Sockets for the car, screwdrivers for the gadgets, needle and thread for my clothes, and gaffer tape for just about everything else.

When we set off I didn't know how to use all of them, but I learned through doing, and finding people who could show me.

I even got a few carving tools and taught myself how to make a love spoon to propose with!

A notepad and pen goes a long way too.....

4. Find something you can do and get good at it

Since we left, we have done so many different jobs to keep ourselves afloat. Grape picking, gardening, cleaning, driving and labouring are all on the list when we can get them, and jobs pretty much anyone can do. But by finding a specialism we have managed to save a little where we may not have otherwise.

From humble beginnings, Charly's Cakes have now become world famous
thanks to the unprecedented amount of love she puts into every bake!
Charlotte does this better than anyone by baking the world’s best cakes, a talent that has seen us through ever since the first one came out of the oven.

I do some freelance guiding and our friend Roy has been painting portraits for a living. We all have our little things we do to get by.

Whatever it is you can do, take pride in it and do it well. A good reputation is everything when you are working for yourself.

An incredible portrait painted on the wall of the Olive Branch in Acrylic by Roy Goddard

5. Make your peace

Once we had made our plans, I got very itchy feet. Everywhere I looked I saw things I would be happy to leave behind.

But I tried to remind myself each day to think of the people I would miss when I was sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere eating lentils. There would be friends and family who I would not see for months, years maybe. Maybe never again.

The nomadic nature of our new life means that we are constantly having to leave friends behind and say goodbyes, and that is always hard. But I always try to make some fresh, happy memories together so that we leave on good terms.

If you are making plans to get away, then now is the time to make up with the old friend you don't talk to, the brother you fell out with, and the neighbour you avoid. There really is nothing to be lost from this but pride.

6. Friends are your most important resource

I knew from the start that I could not make this journey alone. I need all my friends - old ones, new ones, close ones and passing ones.

No object I could own, no skill I possess and no amount of searching will ever bring such incredible opportunities as those my friends have brought me.

So I look after everyone as best as I can, I try hard to stay in contact, and I make sure to always share the love. It may not come back directly from the person I gave it to, but it always comes back somehow. And in abundance.

Staying in contact with my good friend Craig from VeloVentoux brought us a whole season's work in sunny Provence, an opportunity we would never have got if weren't for a couple of beers in Camp 4....

7. Keep it simple, and open your mind

Some things should stay fixed. For me it is being together with my fiancee and staying as close as we can get to good rock climbing. But everything else is flexible, replaceable and disposable - where we are, what we eat, how we get by and where we will be next week, All of this is open to change.

I always have big plans of where I want to go and what I want to do, but I try to keep my expectations simple and flexible so that my eyes are open to things I had never thought of.

We say yes to lots of things. Not everything will work out, but the best experiences are almost always unexpected ones.

We still haven’t made it to most of the places we intended to go in our first year, but we’ll get to see them all someday and even if we don’t it doesn't matter, we’re having fun trying!

Thanks for this wonderful picture go to Mark Haley


So good luck with your adventure, and I hope it leads to many great places, doing many great things with many wonderful people. By running away to follow your dreams you are already doing more than most people ever will, and even if you never catch up with them you are sure to enjoy the journey.

The world is out there, waiting.
And now is as good a time as any.


Sunday, 28 April 2013

Clam Friday

"Oh I wish I was a halibut now...." The ridiculous lyrics of a bastardized shanty circled around my brain like a doomed ship caught in the grip of a gigantic whirlpool. Memories of eccentric evenings drinking rum, making merry and eating nothing but the finest fruits of the sea.... The notorious Clam Friday.

At the same time, spinning tungsten carbide edges tore into fresh, untouched limestone, destroying a few million years of history and making way for a glistening steel bolt to be placed. A new route was being born.


Las Encantadas (or The Enchanted) is a beautiful name for a piece of rock, and when I see it in the early light of the sun, sometimes I really get it.

Photo by Emilio Bachini

From my home at The Olive Branch, one line of climbing stands out above all others on the crag. Known simply as Redders, it follows a stunning buttress peppered with holes and pockets, and has provided hours of enjoyment for people staying here, although most of them have been spent sitting round the pool with a beer and watching other people struggle.

But my eyes kept drifting leftward. The huge gully was sure to offer some treasures, but it was the wall beyond I became fixated on. It was the last unexplored wall on the crag, and due to the difficulties getting to it, no-one really knew what it was like.

One wet day in the autumn, I was eager to escape the madness and cabin fever that ensues from too many rain-fearing climbers being trapped in the same room. I packed up my rope and gear and trudged up the hill toward the airy summit of Las Encantadas. Reaching the top of the wall, I weighed anchor and set sail down the sea of dark, soaked rock into the uncharted waters below. What I saw excited me, classic features on a definite line through solid rock. A true hidden gem.

I also found, to my confusion, an old anchor at the top of the wall.

Why it was there I am still not entirely sure, since there was no evidence at all of anyone trying the obvious route leading to it. There are only two logical conclusions I can draw from this - either someone intended to bolt this wall and just never got around to it, or they were simply using it to gain access to the ledge below so they could bolt another route below that. Either way it provided as good a point as any to work from, and the new line was still there for the taking.

Months passed, other distractions prevailed and I pushed it to the back of my mind. But eventually the right partner, right motivation and right time all came into some kind of cosmic alignment and I found myself back at the top of the wall with Emilio. This time we were armed with marking chalk, brushes, tools and helmets. We meant business.

Emilio sitting at the top of the buttress just before we got ready to abseil in

The view from the top of the wall, The Olive Branch can be seen just below the road on the left

The view from the ledge, with Emilio descending from the top of the wall

Standing on the ledge, we were already a little unnerved. Aside from the questionable quality of the anchor we had our top rope set on and the inevitable loose pieces of rock that would soon be joining us, there was something about it that just instilled fear. Perhaps the fear of the unknown.

Since I had already taken the first look and worked out the basic line, it seemed fair that Emilio get the first taste of the rock itself. Watching him picking around above the starting block, it quickly became apparent that the first few meters would be no pushover. Gradually he pieced together a sequence to lead up to the prominent roof and found the real stopper move, the definite crux of the route. Some desperate, thuggish moves got him past the overhanging block and into the features above. From that point he was out of my line of sight and I was no longer able to glean any information on where to go or what to do.

When I started on the top rope I got through the the first few moves quite quickly. These things are always easier once a way has been found. Feeling confident, I switched the two finger pocket to an undercut and started to reach to the next hold.

Suddenly I was airborne. Though perfectly safe, the rope was angled so that I fell away from the wall and out into space. The small piece of rock now flying down toward the bush had detached unexpectedly and I was shocked to have fallen off. We were both caught off guard by that, but also quite happy that the crucial two finger pocket had now become quite a comfortable three finger pocket!

I found it very interesting how much fear was involved in those first attempts. The objective dangers we faced were incredibly small, but the uncertain nature of climbing a new line in an exposed position felt out of control, and not knowing how difficult it would get added a level of apprehension too.

The crux provided some interesting holds and features, but on my first few tries I really could not fathom what to do. After much flailing and udging I finally broke through and the beauty of the upper section was revealed. A wide crack with amazing hidden jugs inside it. A handjam crack with just enough holds around it. A ledge with just enough room to rest. A thin crack with surprisingly good holds all the way. All this lead up to a large block jutting out which provides great holds but has all the exposure of the route and the extra 30 metres below the ledge. Pulling onto the small ledge above would make anyone feel like a hero. From the top of this, only a couple more airy moves on small Verdon-esque 'gouttes d'eau' to a fantastic finishing hold.

We were excited. Very excited. Not just a new line on new rock, but a great new line with soon-to-be classic climbing on wonderfully featured and varied rock.

As we strolled down the hill, bubbling with thoughts about the route and the potential around it, a name was conceived.

"Well it is friday today....."
"Clam Friday!"

Out of respect for the country we live in, the name in the guidebook will be in Spanish - 'Viernes de Almeja', but I am sure it will become known by its English translation too, such is the bi-lingual nature of the route naming in this region.

A shortage of bolts provided a temporary delay, but soon enough I was lowering myself down the wall again, armed with all the tools of the trade. Once the anchor was placed, the route felt like it was finally coming into existence. I had marked all the places I thought the bolts should be while top roping, but still I took plenty of time to think about where each one would be clipped from, how the rope would run and where the best quality rock was. The line had waited this long to be bolted, it deserved not to be rushed. I took time to make sure each bolt was as perfect as it could be, and took pride in each one. 

Round and round the drill bit turned, as the Clam Friday theme song circled around my mind -

"God clam them all,
I was told we'd sail the seas for American gold!
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears....
Now I'm a broken clam on a halibut's ear,
The last of Robbie's Clamateers"

It makes little sense, and we rarely got all the words right anyway, but the mere mention of the word 'Clam' will always bring me back to those merry winter nights. Fitting then, to have a route by that name looking over the place where it all began.

We decided to wait til Friday to try it on lead.


In the following days, Emilio and Charly helped me to finish off the tidying and cleaning, leaving a pristine route ready to be climbed, and on Friday we were ready.

Charly was keen to try to onsight it, and since both Emilio and I had already tried it, we all thought this was a great idea. Unfortunately it was not to be, and one by one we all tried and failed.

Maybe it was a bit harder than we thought.

Saturday brought yet more sunshine and for some reason we decided to embrace it and climb right in the middle of the day. I went up once and worked out some more things, found more holds and got a better sequence. It felt like the next try it would go.

Sure enough it did, and just in time for Patrick to appear at the top and take a couple of his great trademark shots.

Grunting through the final bulge in the heat of the midday sun - Photo by Patrick Pearce
The last move to the chain - Photo by Patrick Pearce

The return trip two days later saw Emilio making the second ascent, Charly making good progress on lead, and Roy getting the first top rope flash.

Emilio Bachini cruising through the hard technical starting sequence

Emilio getting into the crux roof

Emilio coming down from the second successful ascent

We left the crag that evening in high spirits, full of ideas about the other new lines that may exist on this wall, and soon after Roy and Charly sent it too.

After much discussion, we decided on a grade of F6c+. We had thought it may be a little harder at first, but over these four ascents many new holds were discovered and better sequences established. I still think it is quite stiff at the grade, and certainly a tough onsight, but this keeps it in line with the rest of the crag quite nicely.

In honour of all our friends who shared shanties, seashells and shenanigans of only the most nautical kind, The new wall will be known as El Clampadres Sector.


Viernes de Almeja. F6c+, 35m

Below is the route as seen from our home at The Olive Branch,
with Charlotte Latter claiming the first ground-up ascent.

Photos taken by Roy Goddard

Big thanks to Gary and Mel at the Olive Branch for putting up with us all this time. They run by far the best guest house in El Chorro and maybe even the best climber's hostel in the world!

Big thanks also to Andreas at Aventur El Chorro for providing the drill and bolt hangers. The El Chorro climbing shop is one of the best independent outdoor retailers I have come across - he knows his stuff and the prices are good. Please support the El Chorro climbing scene by popping in there if you visit.

All the bolts and hangers, the anchor chain and the drill bits were paid for by the bolt fund collected at The Olive Branch this season, so thanks to everyone who stayed here and contributed!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Santimonia re-bolting project

Santimonia comes from the latin Sanctimonia, which means holiness, purity and sacredness. Translated to English it becomes Sanctimony, defined as either righteousness or hypocritical religious devotion. A grandiose title, whichever of those definitions was intended.

This route was in fact one of the first to be bolted in the gorge and is on great quality rock, but somehow I had never really noticed it in months of living in El Chorro. The Rockfax guide for the area rates it as a top 50 climb so it seemed like it would be worth a go.

On the walkway getting ready to go
In preparation for El Navegador (which you can read about here), Charly and I thought Santimonia would be an appropriate route to get on, and we were both keen to see what was so good about it.

To climb the route, we first had to negotiate the start of the Camino Del Rey. Always an interesting proposition, but we are both pretty well used to it by now. It did however ensure that there was plenty of exposure even before putting my rock shoes on!

A tired old bolt on the first pitch

The first pitch was a bit of a shock, stiff 6c+ climbing on rusty old bolts with some dangerous run-outs. There were a couple of points where a serious ground fall would be possible, and more if any of the terrible old bolts were to fail.

The anchor was equally horrific, two 6mm bolts with no hangers and one washer too small to keep the chain captive.
Anchor at the top of pitch 1

The washer which had clearly been replaced at some point

The under-sized washer straining to keep the chain in place
Grotty carabiner on the first anchor

The climbing had been excellent, interesting and challenging on the first pitch so we tried not to be too put off by the bolting and carried on. Pitch two led to a ridiculous anchor - two mismatched bolts, both worse than most of the ones on the first pitch and not linked together. I decided to run straight through to the third pitch, a 6b+ which was definitely high in the grade. Here I encountered another good section of climbing, but with even more dangerous run-outs over a big ledge. Thankfully the anchor at the top was a bit more trustworthy though, so I was a bit more happy about bringing Charly up to join me.

At the top, glad to have made it safely!
While I was sitting at the top I came to a few conclusions about this route.

Firstly, the climbing was great. The rock is solid and provides interesting challenges throughout, including a lot of creative hand jamming which I always enjoy.

Secondly, it finishes too soon. From the top anchor there is another untouched pitch of climbing that looks pretty good, and it may not take many more to reach the top of the gorge.

Thirdly, if anyone else is ever going to climb this route again it really does need re-bolting to make it safe. I don't know exactly how long these bolts have been here but I'm pretty sure a sizable fall could rip any one of them out, especially if it was a factor two fall on either of the first two anchors.

For all these reasons, I decided it was worth the effort to re-bolt and potentially extend this route.

Buy this guidebook!
El Chorro has a local guidebook which, although a little less glossy, is much more comprehensive and accurate than the Rockfax version. Buying this (cheaper) guidebook puts 5 euro straight into the local bolt fund where no other guide to the area does. This seems to have happened in many areas around Europe and it is sad to see, but fortunately a lot of people still go for the local one here so there is still a pocket of money here for projects like this.

The local bolt fund is managed by Andreas at the climbing shop in El Chorro. Near enough all the bolting that happens in the area is done with his drill and using the bolts he provides. He definitely spends a good chunk of his own money on this bolt fund so it is definitely good to go and spend a few quid in his shop if you climb here.

With Andreas' massive Hilti drill packed, a whole bunch of tools and climbing gear and a wonderful cranberry and almond fruitcake courtesy of Charly's Cakes for lunch, I headed in to the gorge again. I was accompanied by my good friend Emilio who was my buddy in Yosemite in 2012. A bit of bolting on a short multipitch is no comparison to hauling loads up El Capitan, so we were both well suited to the job.
At the car park with some rather heavy bags
Setting up on the walkway

The start of the Camino seemed considerably more difficult carrying all the extra weight, but we got up there fine and set about hanging a few warning signs in case unsuspecting visitors to the walkway came past without noticing us. After re-packing our bags and sorting out gear, the next task was to climb that first pitch again so we could set up on the anchor.

I have to say I was a little apprehensive to get back on and I climbed like an idiot most of the way up. After deciding the bolts were bad enough that they needed replacing, I was even less happy with the thought of falling on them. Eventually I was hanging on that rusty old anchor again and it was time for Emilio to follow.

Looking down the first pitch

Emilio geared up and followed, and confirmed mine and Charly's opinion that this was indeed a tough pitch! He took a little time to try the crux a few different ways too which was very useful in deciding where to place the new bolts.

Emmy working through the hard moves

On the easier ground toward the top of the pitch, the white line trailing down was used to haul the toolbag up
Soon we were on the anchor together, neither of us entirely happy about being there. Emilio climbed to the first bolt on the next pitch so that we could add another point into the anchor system and this definitely helped to keep us calm while hauling the tool bag containing which would place another 15-20kg on to the terrible looking safety system.

A lot of kit hanging off a bad anchor!

Hauling the tools

First priority had to be getting a good, trustworthy anchor in before any other work could begin. Aftger a thorough examination of the surrounding rock we decided the best placement would be a little way below the existing one, and this also made it nice and easy to get a good drilling position.

First contact!
Really had to push on that one!
Pushing hard....

Nearly there....
Placing the first new bolt for the anchor

Emilio did not fancy weighting the old chain so he stood perched on this ledge for the best part of an hour!

Emilio drilling the second hole

You could never tell he used to be in to Call of Duty....
Not too much further...

Bling! Brand new chain! Get clipped on to it quick!
With a brand new shiny anchor in place, we were ready to go. Mechanical bots need no time to set before use so we could set up our ropes on it and lower off straight away. We had limited time and not too many bolts to play with so decided to just focus on the first pitch this time round.

We set two lines and I started down first, choosing the placements and drilling the holes. Emilio followed down, cleaning the holes out and placing the bolts. It was good teamwork and we moved down at about the same speed so we were able to help each other out with stuff too.

Most of the bolts that already existed were actually in very sensible places, so for the most part I just got the new ones in as close as I could without compromising the integrity of the rock. I also adjusted the position of one so that it could be clipped from a better hold, and added three extra in to make sure there would not be any dangerous run-outs anymore. I do enjoy bold and risky climbing when it is appropriate, but I really don't see the point of bolting something without making it safe. A bit of a run-out over a clean fall when the climbing is not too hard is fine but hard moves over potentially dodgy falls should not be necessary in rap-bolted sport climbing.

With me drilling and Emilio bolting,  we made good progress

Some drilling positions are easier than others!

The old and the new

Down to the second bolt, not long before we can take the weight off our harnesses!

Emilio looking longingly at the flat ground below

Placing the last of the bolts we had

A bemused passer by on the walkway

Getting the last bolt in just as the sun ducked behind the hill

Unfortunately, Andreas was just reaching the end of his stash of bolts when we went to pick them up so we were a few short of finishing the pitch. Including the anchor, we got 9 placed which felt like a pretty decent first day. As it stands, the pitch is not fully re-bolted and I do not want people to climb on it so I have just been waiting for the next delivery of bolts. I have left a big flag of finger tape on the first shiny bolt so hopefully people will have got the message.

The new bolts have now come in so work will start again tomorrow morning. It will only take an hour or so to finish that pitch so we can easily get that and the rest of the existing route done if we have a nice day. If not we may get the alternative 7a+ first pitch re-bolted as this will be a bit easier to deal with in windy conditions.

The new pitches above will need another day or two's work but if the weather stays good I will plough straight into it on Tuesday. Hopefully it will all be finished by the end of the month on way or the other.

Watch this space!