"Lithium" first ascent (scotlands hardest boulder)

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Lithium 8B+, Arisaig

Posted by Dave MacLeod

Yesterday, I sent my project in the Arisaig Cave. Nine years after Johan first told me about the cave, that’s me climbed all the good lines. Time to move on! I’ll really miss the place. I’ll miss driving west on the Road to The Isles, leaving behind torrential rain or snow in Fort William, to arrive into bright sunshine as you hit the coast at Lochailort. I’ll miss watching otters and sea eagles going about their business on the beachfront by the cave, as I went about mine. I’ll miss a pre-climb brew in the Arisaig caf, looking out to Eigg. And of course I’ll miss the superbly physical and technical climbs.

In many ways, my days at the cave have helped me to see just how much climbing helps me with life. Given that the climb is almost 50 moves long, in the past few weeks as I’ve reached the stage of redpoint attempts, I’ve needed to rest for the best part of an hour between tries. This experience took me back to doing the same, seven years ago on At Eternity’s Gate, which is similarly long.

On those long rests you walk the coast to stay warm and send lactate through the Cori Cycle. But more importantly, you reflect. There is not much time for that in modern life, even in many types of climbing. Going to the wall to train, for example, is not often a great reflective opportunity.

On both those long climbs with long walks in between, being there and doing them helped me get through some very bleak feelings I was having. It did not diminish them, or take them away. Just helped me to remain resilient. For that I am very grateful. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to live in a country full of places like this, and have the opportunity to spend time in them, so there should be no trouble having similar experiences elsewhere.

Why did I send it now? A huge list of things. I would say that first and foremost, my two primary changes I made to my training had the desired and dominant effect. Firstly, I basically cut 4 hours out of my work day and replaced it with winding down time and going to be early for around a month. Secondly and even more importantly, I dropped my CHO intake south of 50g per day again (on most but not all days), together with restricting the daily feeding window to 6-8 hours. This made my ass lighter and improved my recovery from training. NB I am skipping over a whole world of detail here! I also continued to make improvements in the sequence, right up to the successful try. On the last hard move, I consciously focused on arching and stiffening my back as I threw for the hold. In combination with a hefty power scream, this kept my feet on. I also continued to get more used to the upside-down rest position on the halfway kneebar, and could relax more, stay longer and breath deeper than on previous sessions. I also timed my sessions nicely with good conditions, for once. I also solved my ‘glassy skin’ issue by rubbing some thick skin off my hands on sharp rocks, and then washing them in water to get to the ideal balance of cold and dry vs soft and sticky. At last I could really apply my strength fully to those smooth undercuts.

The psychological side of the attempts I usually find the most straightforward. I definitely feel that I have a good system in place for managing my level of effort and controlling any nerves or self-consciousness. However, On the successful try I was particularly lucky that I had to dry a couple of seepy wet footholds (the climb starts outside the cave, and is the only part of the venue to be exposed to seeps). After drying them I had only a few seconds to get started before the water ran back onto them. So there was no time to develop any sense of anticipation for the attempt ahead. In fact, I had to spend the moments on the first kneebar trying to dry the other kneepad which had caught some drips as I started. So I arrived at the crux with a fresh mind, unhindered by any sense of occasion, and was free just to be in the moment and give it everything. On that last try I was definitely climbing through the moves faster than ever before. So it made sense that I surpassed the previous highpoints.

***Warning: boring part below. Feel free to stop here***

I’ll call the climb Lithium, and grade it 8B+. I have gone round in circles with the grade for a day or two. 8B+ in the UK is pretty tough. I am not certain this is a grade harder than some of them, nor have I done enough of them to know. So since I am not sure, I’ll just go with 8B+. I also completed the project quicker than I expected, a sure sign that it is easier than my initial expectation.

Going by Magic Wood, where I have done a lot of my boulder repeats in recent years, Lithium is definitely a grade harder than New Base Line 8B+, Shallow Water to Riverbed 8B+, Mystic Styles 8B+ and definitely harder than Practice of the Wild 8C. It feels similar in difficulty to In Search of Time Lost 8C which I tried for two sessions at the end of my last trip, and got good links on. But perhaps it is easier than The Understanding 8C which I tried for 30 mins but couldn’t do. By this logic perhaps it’s nearest easy 8C. But again, the UK perhaps has stiffer grading. Whether that is right or wrong is another argument. The bottom line is that it is very hard to reduce grading to an entirely rational calculation. I just don’t do enough bouldering to have a good handle on grades.

It’s also a very specific type of climb, in some ways it plays to my strengths (steep, with rests and technical). But I think I am really weak on the undercuts and pinches. So someone else might find them much easier than me. So, lets go with 8B+.

Anyway, bring on the spring and more great climbs this year.

PS: In case anyone wonders about video of the send, it’ll be in a feature I’m doing with Chris Prescott this year which will hopefully include some great trad projects I’ll be pointing myself at in the coming few months.


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