Monday, 19 December 2011

Darth V turns to The Dark Side

Dan Varian repeats The Dark Side, E9 7b

It was perfect conditions at Back Bowden yesterday. The road was icy, there was snow on the ground, but the sun was shining and the friction was as good as it gets.
The only thing spoiling it was my hangover.
When I got there, I expected to find a few cars parked up. Maybe everyone else felt the same way as me, or had decided to go indoors, but Dan, Katie and I had the place to ourselves. A rare treat on such a good day.

After warming up by climbing a new problem in The Bat Cave (more on that later), we headed over to the North Wall where Dan was going to attempt to ground-up The Dark Side.

Andy Earl made the first ascent of 'The Dark Side' in October 2003 when he was at the peak of his powers. Not only is it Northumberland's hardest route, it is a contender for one of the gnarliest routes in the country. Much talked about and revered, but never attempted.

Andy Earl setting off up 'The Dark Side', E9 7b

It's steep, committing, sustained and requires proper, hardcore bouldering strength. It goes without saying that the holds are small! There's one 'sort-of-ok' hold and it's a temperature-dependent sloper high off the ground.

Dan had been halfway up the wall the day before and was psyched to give it a go. I abbed down it with a brush and found that the holds were surprisingly clean.
Dan was itching to get on it, and after minimal preparation he was off.
He cruised the bottom section through the shield and got to the halfway point, touching the next holds before bailing.
A couple of minutes later on the next attempt, he got the higher holds, but a foot popped and he was in the air a worryingly long time.
Slightly shaken by the fall and after a bit of a longer rest (maybe five minutes) he set off again, fully psyched and committed.
As there was just Katie and myself spotting, I only had time to take one photo, then run back over to help move mats, and put him on belay as he reached the break.
I could tell he was worried, and he shouted down "This cam's shit. Watch me", before launching up from the break. Katie and I exchanged a couple of concerned glances as there was no way we'd be able to help if he came off from there, but then he was up and we could breathe again.

Dan Varian on the second ascent of 'The Dark Side' E9 7b

It was fantastic to witness Dan's ground-up ascent. Not only was it a bit of climbing history, but he gave it everything he had. Completely inspiring.
He is one of the strongest boulderers in the country, and I can pretty much say without any doubt that he is the king of highballing. I've never seen anyone so unconcerned with falling off hard moves high above poor landings.
He recently made the second ascent of 'The Prow', and now, with the second ascent of 'The Dark Side', Dan has proved he is up there with the top trad climbers, although he'll be laughing his head off when he reads this. Trad climbing! Who'd have thought it, eh?

I wont pre-empt Dan's ramblings on the Beastmaker blog, but we had an interesting discussion about the difficulty and seriousness of 'The Dark Side' when compared to 'The Prow' and 'The Young', all hard-as-nails Earl problems.
He was a bit spaced afterwards, which is always a good sign of a near-death experience...

Darth V...

Continuing the assault on the North Wall, Dan also made the first ascent of 'Little Piggies', 7c which takes a line to the right of 'Little Pixies' on very small, sharp crimps.

Dan Varian on 'Little Piggies', 7c

Ooooh y'bugger, that hurts.

As I mentioned earlier, Dan also put up a problem in The Bat Cave called 'Brokeback Bowden' (between 'Barbastelle' and 'Bechstein') which is also 7c, but took a bit more effort. The sequence is quite complicated for a short problem and a couple of the holds are horrible. It goes from a painful footlock, out to a rounded pinch/boss kind of hold, using a small, but crucial undercut in the roof.

Dan Varian on 'Brokeback Bowden', 7c

Dan Varian on 'Brokeback Bowden', 7c

Dan Varian on 'Brokeback Bowden', 7c



And here's Katie, climbing hard as ever, on Four Mats Wall with a lovely bit of snow:

Katie Mundy, 'Four Mats Wall' 7b+

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Back Bowden when Chris Morrish made an almost night-time ascent of Peak Technique. He used the least number of footholds I've ever seen anyone use. I think he went from the break to the top in about five massive moves.

Chris Morrish on 'Peak Technique' E6 6b
This photo isn't quite up to the usual standard as it was so dark and the lead happened unexpectedly so I didn't have time to get ready for photos, but it was certainly exciting!
You can see he's wearing a headtorch to spot the footholds. Takes me back to the old days...
He hasn't been climbing much due to an injured shoulder, so jumping on an E6 is particularly impressive.

Niall Grimes' new book Boulder Britain is out now. You should buy this select guide to bouldering in the UK for at least three reasons:

1. Niall is a diamond.
2. Photos by yours truly.
3. It's brilliant.

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