Almscliff Adventures: Begginners guide to Rock Climbing

 Almscliff crag walk

Almscliff Crag is located between the verdant green sloping hills of Harrogate and the bustling city of Leeds, and protrudes on top of a small hill. Made of Millstone grit, it optimizes the hardiness of the great Yorkshire people- tough and gritty is most certainly the way up North! It was formed out of the destruction of the surrounding softer and more fragile shale and mudstone strata, which left this hardier famous landmark which is extremely popular with walkers and climbers alike. I headed up with the Leeds University Mountaineering society (Climbing) to try out my first outdoor climb, having had several indoor and seemingly difficult routes indoors at the Depot (Pudsey) and The Edge (Leeds). I could only really manage the Blues and Black holds at that point, so wasn’t too sure what to expect on an outdoor trip! But I was rearing to go and try it out.

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Beautiful views of Otley and the Chevin from the top of the Almscliff crag.

Ed and Dan were my teachers and were incredibly patient with my incompetent movements that resembled a seagull with broken wings that had been coated with tar… rather flailing!

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But you learn fast, it literally is a steep learning curve, with all the different names for pieces of kit, it can be a bit overwhelming! Firstly, rock climbing involves two people or a small group including the use of ropes which can either be done indoors at a local climbing centre OR outdoors. Other types of climbing without ropes involves bouldering where crash mats are places strategically in order to prevent any accidents. This is usually done in indoor centres without rope as the crash mats provide sufficient padding to cushion a fall whilst you build up your strength and stamina, to prepare you for an outdoor climb. You can use ropes indoors where another person is strapped into a harness and tied up whilst one person belays you- basically pulling up the slack rope as you climb ever higher and ready to catch you if you slip and fall. The different types of climbing are:

# 1 Traditional (or trad if you want to sound cool and mingle with climbers, ALWAYS use colloquial language to get in with the climbers!). This is where one climber will “lead” up along the rock face and place in all the bolts, cams and screws through which the rope will be placed through. This not only keeps the lead and first climber safe but allows the second climber to follow. Then at the top an anchor is built and three ropes are attached with into the rock with hexes (you will see why, they resemble hexagonal metal pieces) and then attach yourself to them by the rope with a special type of knot know as a clove hitch. The second climber will follow up after the first has yelled “OFF BELAY, FREE TO CLIMB” and they have secured the ropes up at the top. The second climber will also remove the gear as they progress.

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(Left) Your nuts, bolts, cams and clip ons to keep you safe! All of this should be provided with your climbing society. (Bottom) Nick Belaying Fergus, (Bottom Right) Nick being lowered by the belayer, Ed who is at the top.

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# 2 Sport climbing is where climbers clip onto already placed bolts that are securely fixed into the rock for people to ascend. This is the much easier and quick way to climb, but not as exciting as leading a climb.

#3 Soloing is where climbers will ascend under their own steam without any rope and by themselves, DON’T TRY THIS FIRST!! It can be very risky going it alone, so make sure you have many months of experience before you try this out. Ed, (see below) has done this for years and so is experienced enough to know the risks.

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Ed soloing it up the Chimney

#3 Ice climbing involves, as the name suggests, ice or snow with use of particular equipment such as ice picks (who doesn’t want those awesome looking pick axes?) as well as crampons, boots, thermals, rope and harness. This isn’t for the faint hearted, not only are the cold conditions tough, but the technique is better off perfected indoors before you go out there, but it looks beautiful.

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# 4 Competition climbing is more competitive climbing primarily done indoors in climbing walls, check out these amazing videos of insanely good comp climbers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qk-lNsRtwQ

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# 5 Bouldering is as I mentioned earlier without ropes, and is frequently performed indoors with different coloured holds which indicates their level of difficulty. Hand Jamming, crimps are all part of the technical lingo…watch out for the Climbers chat guide coming soon!

IMG_5325Here is Fergus Bouldering up Manhorn…quite a long way down so crash mats were used! I was going to do this but then again….

Here are the essential basics to Traditional climbing:

#1: Belay Kit– can be bought in many outdoor stores, I personally bought mine at GO Outdoors as you can get a £5 discount card which will save you a whole load, and my gorgeous black and orange harness as well as purple screw gate (to clip rope through) and orange belay device (where the climbers rope is threaded through and to control the climbers ascent/descent). This will usually set you back £50 with all of the above and a chalk bag for when you get sweaty palms! If you have a bit more cash to splash, you could probably get a harness for £46 alone then buy the rest of the gear separately. Check this Climbex one similar to the one I got on Go Outdoors.co.uk:

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http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-pilot-harness-set-p194186

#2 Climbing shoes- I can’t stress how IMPORTANT SHOES are… always get a size above your normal shoes size, as they can be quite tight! It is supposed to be just uncomfortable so that you can really grip the rock face and have the friction to push up against gravity and the wall. Also you want them to be super comfy!

http://www.gooutdoors.co.uk/climb-x-crux-climbing-shoe-p194484

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#3 Chalk– is placed into you bag and attached to the back of your harness, used to stop those sweaty palms of yours when you’re up high from sweating up and losing grip!

The cheapest and best way to start climbing is to join your local university club and pay the membership there: your covered for insurance purposes and can borrow all the gear for a small £30 a year…think how much you will be saving if you don’t have to buy all that rope, harness, shoes, cams, nuts, clip ons, ect!

It’s also a great way to make friends and get shown how to climb with a good technique. Most members would have been doing this sport for some time and are experienced. So don’t splash your cash on all these fancy pancy climbing courses all the time- although I learnt how to belay at the edge for £25, I could have learnt the exact same thing with the climbing society showing me. I did my first outdoor climb with them too.

IMG_0640Me checking out my harness, belay device and screw gate.

So back to Almscliff! Classic climbs include the Chimney which is categoriesd as very difficult and Wall of Horrors. But as a beginner I would highly recommend doing Stewpot and Easy man– I am seen here doing Stewpot, which I also led a climb for. The rock is lovely and firm here which is reassuring, but it really makes you move your body in a way that makes you a more cautious and perceptive person. You need to be aware of where you’re placing your feet at all times…if you get a bad foothold then finding an equally dodgy handhold is of no significance.

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TRUST in your strong powerful legs and push up always from them and straighten your body right from your feet, all the way through your legs, through your core and UP you go! Onto the next hand hold. I must say, when I first started climbing, I had my doubts whether or not I could do it. My arms are like spindly gibbon arms, not much muscle at all! My legs are strong with all the cardio I do, and I was assured that it’s your LEGS that are the key to climbing. Whilst climbing Stewpot, in one of the cracks my friend shouted out that he saw a bat! I had to come up as I must say I didn’t initially believe him! But indeed there was a small wrinkled up Pipestrelle, sat snuggly between the cracks. We wondered if he was dead but he stirred as soon as we took a photo of him. Hope he was alright. You need a special license to handle them so it’s best that we left it alone. One then route had been led for me and it was safe for me to climb, I tied up my harness and headed up.

It was a gorgeous warm and sunny day. 25ᵒC-perfect for climbing the warm baked rocks of Almscliff crag. The scenery is truly spectacular up there. You can see why it’s a popular haunt with climbers, ramblers, boulderers, painters and walkers. Prior to joining the group, on my way up from the side car park, I wandered the crag to get a couple of panorama shots, and found a whole host of insect wildlife there. Swallows dart up and down catching their ready packed meals that are equally agile and astute on the wing- talk about fast food!

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My climbing friends tried the much harder Chimney, and Nick and Fergus gritted their teeth, and push and pulled harder to get to the top after attempts to get past the notoriously difficult mid slab of millstone rock- gravity ALWAYS wins. Funnily enough as I am writing this I just watched the film Gravity last night, brilliantly composed and shot, but a rather pessimistic film! Its unnerving to see your climbing buddies take a fall, even when attached to rope that can take the weight of a ton. We shout out support down at the bottom to help spur them on.

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The sun was beginning to slide further down the clouds, providing the perfect opportunity for me to get a silhouetted head shot and create a double exposure- check it out!I was very happy with the results after a tinkle on Photoshop CS3, I will be posting up a video tutorial on how to do it shortly. I hereby name it “Fergus and the Ferns!” after the plant I used to create it and the guy posing for it!

fergus tree copy before crop

After a long and gorgeous afternoon of climbing and photography, it couldn’t have ended more perfectly. I OFFICIALLY have the climbers bug, despite the climbers calluses and cramps in your toes after wearing the tiny shoes, climbing really makes you feel alive and brings out the best in your abilities- it MAKES you have to believe and trust in your judgment and work as a team to help them through the climb.

“Nothing beats that feeling when you get your hand at the top of that rock…”

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The York Bird and Prey centre

“The sheer power and speed at which a Peregrine falcon torpedoes towards you as you swing its bate is truly a unforgettable experience.”

I visited the brilliant York Bird of Prey Centre, situated in York behind the walled garden at Burn Hall, Huby and houses over 70 different bird species. The place itself was only constructed and completed in June 2013 and has had visitors pouring in, especially when the weather had been good, to see its spectacular aerial displays, held twice daily. As well as this, you can attend the historical talks on the rich culture of Falconry as well as have your photo taken with some of the

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most impressive raptors.

The first aerial display was truly breath-taking. The European Eagle Owl certainly made an impression on visitors, and it was most surprising to hear that they are native to the UK! Such a large owl in our British landscape, a dark shadow to most as it glides majestically through the inky darkness of the night. I have occasionally heard and seen owls during my bat transect walks, but never really known what they were, apart from the time I stumbled upon a Tawny owl with my flashlight, he just sat there perched, blinking with his vastly adorable dark eyes. Such gorgeous birds.

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Then the Barn owls were equally as marvellous with their pale and clean complexion, they most definitely are the Nicole Kidman of the owl world. I must admit though, my favourite raptor has to be the black Kite, Shadow, who unremittingly kept on flying away and ignoring his keeper. It must be said though, that the keepers were absolutely fantastic and cared about their birds a great deal, so much so that they did not have the harness (creeance) and clip on them (or anklets)- and so the birds had the opportunity to fly away, never to return. As a scientist I would say that getting regular meals and favourites, as well as security and a dry home are most likely to be the reason for their sudden reappearance, but I would hope that it would be in part for their carers too.

The peregrine falcon however was the most spectacular of all of the birds. Such a small birds and yet the 120km/hr speeds it can reach are truly incredible. How such a small animal can reach frightening high speeds without doing any internal damage is what makes evolution extraordinary. The female that was used in this particular display was released for roughly an hour, and eventually, with such a high metabolism, the bird is forced back down to take the bait as the hydrochloric acid in its stomach consumes the last of its calories- hunger eventually gives way.

My friend got the fantastic opportunity to “jump train” her by swinging the bate and then releasing it as she came closer. He took a while to get the swing of it, but then again she was in no hurry to take it! She must have had a rather hearty breakfast prior to her flying. This is the basic application of how a falconer will train their bird, on the principal that their hunger will allow them to trust them enough to sit on them- this is called Conditioned Reinforcement (CR). These predators are solitary and so therefore would never really be in the presence of another bird let alone another species!

After the displays, we walked around the centre to look at some of the other intriguing species, one of my faves being the little owls and the cheeky Caracara– he also performed during the display and hopped around most of the time, trying to pinch the contents of your bag! In the wild these opportunistic raptors are the bandits of the Californian desert, and will actually hunt in teams to capture their prey. The vultures were also a great viewing, their sulky appearance can be deceiving, if they weren’t behind the cage they would sooner be flying off to scavenge than apparently seem recluse and skulk like a teenager.

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Falconry really is a fascinating tradition, if you want to get started or want to learn more, here are a few websites which I found rather useful and interesting:

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Falconry/Training_Hawks

http://www.themodernapprentice.com/basics.htm

I got to hold a beautiful eagle towards the end of the day, rather heavy but still able to hold him. All staff were so friendly and volunteered to help clean, look after and do the talks. They were really knowledgeable too, and clearly passionate about what they did- so refreshing to see! I would again highly recommend a visit, I must admit it was a little tricky to find, its probably easier to punch in the postcode to Burn Hall next to it, then park up further along and walk straight in. I bought a Wowcher! Ticket so £6 for two people to enter was a bargain, and we were lucky it was such a sunny day too! They also offer falconry courses if your interested as well as private displays. I will most certainly be visiting again, keep an eye out for the videos I will be posting up soon.

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