Learning to fly: Sport climbing and performance coaching in Costa Blanca by Blanka Russell
I’ve been climbing for about 3 ½ years now and my grades differ a fair bit between various climbing disciplines. I have lead a few 6bs and occasional 6b+s (and even one very special 6c+) indoors, but have only ever managed a couple of 6as outside. I’ve also not done a lot of falling outdoors, so I knew I wasn’t pushing myself.
This May, my friend Anna and I went for a long weekend climbing holiday in Costa Blanca with Rock & Sun, to get away and climb somewhere different. Whilst the main objective for that weekend was to have fun, I also found myself enjoying the coaching and general encouragement provided by our guide Sergi. So much so, I talked to him about the coaching courses they offered and left determined to come back and focus on learning. Or as I said to Sergi – “I’ll let you bully me for a week!”
I spoke with the admin office about my preferences and availability and we agreed the ‘Climb with your Heroes’ week including Tim Emmett would be the best fit.
The company arrange everything other than flights. Tim himself picked me and two other ladies up at the airport and drove us to the villa we would be sharing for the week. During the transfer, we found out that we were to be the only participants on the course, and we’d have 3 instructors at our disposal – a local guide studying for his instructor qualifications as well as Sergi and Tim. A 1:1 ratio, compared to the advertised 4:1 – things were going to get intense!
The villa is about an hour’s drive from Alicante airport, with shared twin rooms (though you have the option of paying extra to have a room to yourself), a swimming pool, and fully equipped kitchen. The guides take you to a local supermarket to get supplies whenever you ask. We ended up mixing eating out and cooking for ourselves. Throughout the week, it felt like a bunch of mates living and climbing together. It just happens that one of those mates is a celebrity climber, who’s done some impressive stuff in his life and is happy to get stuck in, from sharing tips, to sticking the draws in for us, belaying and even shoe cleaning!
The itinerary consisted of travelling on Saturdays and climbing on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday (with enforced rest day on Wednesday to prevent injury). We would spend the morning at one crag and the afternoon at another, following the shade and the best type of rock for the exercises planned for each day. In the mornings, we would learn various techniques, in the afternoons, we’d put them to use.
On the very first morning, we all shared details of our experience to date and ambitions for the course and later that afternoon, we picked our projects – a climb each, that we would aim to redpoint by the end of the week. I went bold and chose a 6b route I top roped with a few takes in May. It’s at that point I decided my motto for the week would be F*** IT! – I came here to try hard and push myself. The other ladies were all equally psyched.
With that motto in mind, I got the guide to pull down the rope on the 6a they prepared for us as possible 2nd warm up and on-sighted it. My first 6a on-sight – things were looking up.
At the end of the day, I got to have a first tentative go at my project – climb 9 of the day – my hardest lead attempt ever. It wasn’t pretty – I fell, I took, I swore a fair bit – and started doubting my choice. But I wasn’t going to give up. That’s not why I was here.
The week continued in the similar rhythm – drills in the morning, leading in the afternoon. I learned a lot of handy tips and I climbed a fair few more 6as/6a+s – some were clean, some real battles, but all to the chains. And I continued to be happy falling.
We were all recorded on days one and four and watched the videos to see the improvements we have made. What a boost.
On Thursday afternoon we went back to our projects, this time with a plan – work each section in turn to find out how it flows, then have a go at sticking it together. My section by section attempt felt great – I was relaxed, I was not battling the route, I was dancing up it. But when it came to the real go I tensed up and messed it up, just in time for a rain to come. Back to the house.
That night and following morning, my mind kept going through the route – thinking about all the moves and how to avoid tensing up – first bit is ok, bridgey-bridgey, followed by a tough sequence as you get to the tree root at the base of the crack and smear your way above it, then some more sustained but very doable bridging . I chatted it through with my kick ass roommate and the instructors. Not giving up.
After easy drills and quick break for lunch it was time to have one last session on the projects. Part of me was hoping to crush it the first time, I knew I had to just relax and remember the crux, so what was the big deal? I made sure no one else was watching or encouraging (as apparently that makes me more tense). I got on – got past the bit I messed up last time – and then messed up a couple of moves later. Darn!
Half an hour break – recover muscles, walk around, find my calm - decide that I can always come back and get it next year. Then I tell Sergi – “if I say TAKE, say NO!”
He smiles, and as I set off, he talks to me about his grandma’s turkeys, and by the time I finish laughing, I’m past the third clip. I do some completely different moves to the practice run – ‘this is not a crack climb – why am I putting both of my feet in the crack?!’ – I keep going – it gets hard – ‘find your route! The route!’ shouts Sergi – what is he on about? I’m on the bloody route! Oh s**t! – the ROOT! – I grab it – and the sequence comes back to me and suddenly the crux is gone and I’m onto the last bit – I tell myself to slow down and I make my way to the top – with a massive whoop as I clip the chain.
I get back to see one of the other ladies lower of, having got her project and then I watch in awe as my roommate crushes her first 7a.
Just in time to head back and out for a last meal out and last night in the villa.
By Blanka Russell, photo's and video's by Tim Emmett & Rock and Sun