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How I bouldered my hardest

Updated: 7 hours ago

Improper Opera SS, 8a boulder problem. Bowderstone
Improper Opera SS, 8a. Bowderstone

I bouldered font 8a (or V11, that sounds more impressive?!).

Given that climbing is all about the grades, I’d like to share how I reached my goals and am now a happier and more fulfilled person, more worthy and respected in the climbing world, and rightly deserving of peoples attention, locally, nationally and globally. My climbing accomplishments define me as a person, and by reading this article, you might be able to learn a few things and be more like me. 

Jokes aside, I climbed my hardest boulder problems and I’m proud of that! I enjoyed training, pushing grades, and spending days projecting under a damp boulder when I could have been doing...practically anything else. It felt good, it felt nice to tell people I know, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way. I try hard to not let my climbing be all about grade chasing, external validation and Instagram followers....but I also get a lot from sharing my climbing experience with others, pushing myself amongst a community, and feeling good about myself and my climbing. I have an ego just like everyone else and I’m ok with that. For me it’s about acknowledging that, checking in with why I do things, and being balanced and genuine rather than putting on some humble facade. It’s the ones eager to tell you how humble they are that I’m never sure about. 

I’ve enjoyed pushing my bouldering limits over the past few years and have learnt a lot. If you’re interested in me chatting on about my progression on a few metres of rock, then keep reading. If not, that is totally understandable, you can always skip to the beta videos, pick another article to read altogether, or just go climbing. 

Learning better boulder tactics

I’m a sucker for throwing myself at the same move or boulder problem over and over again with very little rest...and then wondering why I keep falling off; “I know I can do it”, “it just needs a little beta tweak”, “I’m almost there”, “I want to get it done fast”, “I should have done it by now” etc etc etc etc.

The route fatigue I know so well gives me a ton of feedback, and I absolutely know when I need to rest between routes because my arms feel like they’re going to fall off. Bouldering is weird....I don’t always feel physically drained after an effort, it tricks me in to thinking I’m fresh, and it’s only with experience of watching my performance tail off and tuning into to more nuanced sensations in my body that I know what to anticipate and how to be more strategic. The nature of bouldering means that so often it’s really easy to just jump back on and have another go rather than resting, so I had to learn to be much more disciplined. 

It also took a while for the penny to drop with regards to taping fingers.......who knew that it was a smart idea to tape up before the skin bleeds rather than after?!

Andy then there’s hold brushing. And conditions. And shoving tissues and tampons in seepage cracks. And splashing out on posh chalk. And ladders and fans and lamps and tarps and blubber pads. And those lame little skin care bags you see climbers obsessing over…I now own one too. They’re actually really useful.  

Bouldering in Zillertal, Austria

Falling off the top 20 million times

I’m good at coaching others to practise the top moves of boulder problems. I’m crap at doing it myself though, and seem to get a bit ahead of myself when the send feels near.


When redpointing sport climbs I can generally get away with working out the crux beta and having a sequence for most of the climb, but leaning on my experience and intuition as the sections come together. My progression has generally been upwards and linear. More goes = more progression. Each visit = more links. So goes the basic equation.


Bouldering seems to have a more funky algebra equation whereby my performance may radically vary session to session, or stagnate for an indeterminate length of time due to any number of factors. What I thought was the best beta still needed tweaking after numerous sessions. When I thought touching the final jug on Improper Opera SS, for example, meant that success was imminent, it actually took me another 6 or 7 months to finish the problem. When I thought I had the top moves dialled, I actually needed to stack 4 pads and wobble on top of a ladder to practise the final moves numerous times (many thanks to all the folks who turned up to the Bowderstone for a pleasant solo session and ended up being recruited to spot some sketchy ladder business). When I thought each visit should now be a proper effort from the bottom, I actually needed to treat more sessions as practise and keep training longer links rather than keep falling off the last move. When I thought the plan was to get stronger and then climb my hardest problem without too many turned out to be quite the siege. 

Don’t be like me. Work the top moves like crazy. 

Physical training

For 15 years I generally just climbed lots. I got better, gained tons of experience and technique, and liked climbing all disciplines. I realised, though, that for me to boulder more consistently at 7c, and move on towards 8a, I had to properly up my game. It turns out being able to hold on for ages on trad and being really good at a relaxed, 7/10 effort wasn’t enough for maximal goes on hard boulders. Who would have thought?! Topping up my strength and power, progressing my finger strength, and building more capacity to try lots of hard boulders in a session was a big part of the process, and I’ve come away with a love for basic gym sessions that I think I’ll keep enjoying regardless of my climbing. I naively thought I had strong shoulders before I started bouldering lots, and maybe I did to a certain extent, but bloody hell, making wide boulder moves and holding strenuous positions required a whole lot more shoulder strength and stability than I had. 

Physical training was particularly beneficial for me at this point because I had already built up quite a lot of all-round climbing technique, didnt have the time to just go climbing every day, and it felt like the right time to build my capacity for bigger goals. And whilst I have historically turned my nose up at boring gym workouts in favour of more mentally engaging and creative sports like climbing....when my brain is fried from work and I only have time for a short session, ditching the rock shoes and simply pushing or pulling something heavy is damn satisfying. 

Undercooke 7a, St Bees
Undercooke 7a, St Bees

And is it soft?

Did I choose a problem that doesn’t merit the grade? Who knows, and let’s be honest grades always vary for everyone. I haven’t climbed enough 8a boulders to know, that’s for sure. But for me, the wide bottom move is big and nails and took me ages to get right. The start hold keeps getting worse, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve climbed so I don’t really mind if others find it easier. I also reckon that there’s many folk who have climbed so much at the Bowderstone, they don’t really know how the grades there feel anymore....if you’ve climbed something 20,000 times it probably will feel easier. 

A quicker tick

After a break from Bowderstone bothering and some much needed UK trad trips and onsight climbing, I found myself dipping in to XXXR when I just had a couple hours free or the weather was bad. Tempting me with progress one session and then regression the next, I held this one a bit lighter, and after a few visits made overlapping links. The full link came together unexpectedly one solo session with a sneaky toe scum to help move out on to the small side pulls, and a ninja heel hook on one of the hardest moves. Complete with a deep drop knee, knee bar and excitingly wet top out, this problem was an awesome combination of burl and technique. A lovely complement to my experience on Improper SS, and the satisfaction of a relatively quick tick. 

So there we go. I climbed a couple of 8a boulders last summer. I chose a close-by venue that I could get to regularly. I sacrificed a ton of quicker ticks and route climbing. I’ve watched my beta videos back loads because it feels good every time. 

I still have a load of other boulder problems that I’d love to do and plenty of unfinished business. I wish I could do everything in just a session or two and maintain that level of bouldering. I’m not there yet but I’m pretty chuffed with where I got to...albeit a little slower than I had anticipated. 

Now...time for some more routes.

XXXR 8A, Bowderstone
XXXR 8a, Bowderstone

If you’d like to watch my videos of Improper Opera SS and XXXR, you can click here to see them on YouTube. And yes, one day I’d like to put loads more videos on there of all grades so that we don’t just highlight harder bouldering….it’s on my never-ending admin list for now!


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