A new born baby, a toddler, a dark, dank cold winter with no climbing gyms open thanks to lockdown and a Stay At Home order from the Government is not exactly the ideal combination for training and projecting an incredible difficult route. But Andre Hedger is made of stern stuff, and when he’s excited for a new project, he lets very little stand in his way.
Make it funky is an 8c route at Raven Tor, a 10m overhanging limestone classic with committing moves right from word go. The crag is a mecca for hard sport routes, and it is easy to see why Andre was drawn there. Classic lines sprout up from every feature, the distinctive shades of the limestone creating a stunning historical backdrop for climbers of all disciplines to admire. Many famous feet have graved these holds, and many of the nation’s top climbers cut their teeth here.
But the success of this bloc owes as much to a cold garage on the Sussex-Kent border as it does to the rocks of the Derbyshire dales. Having chosen this route last October, Andre had to embark on some very specific conditioning work. With winter drawing in, the lack of daylight meant training and sending opportunities were limited – and that was before the November lockdown was announced.
But instead of thoughts of frustration at being physically separated from his project for an indefinite period, Andre put the time to good use. Weighted hangs, pull ups on 8mm edges and endless fingerboard sessions in slippers while his daughter played at his feet were all designed to hone his already impressive finger strength, ready for an assault on the tiny crimps the limestone would provide.
At 10m, whilst not overly long, Make it Funky certainly requires far more endurance than can be usually found at a bouldering gym. But as Coach Stu Howard explains, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“The route itself is only half the battle; childcare, an understanding partner, 4am starts, nine hours of driving in the day and variable weather conditions all mean that the climb itself is only part of the challenge, and physical prowess and technique are just two parts of the process. Training is important – but so is everything else slotting into place so when the day dawns, the mind can stay focussed on the climb and the moves.”
After a hard winter of training, as soon as the country began to open up, Andre was away. Travelling with his Dad, his trusty belay partner and biggest supporter, the days began with a 3.30am alarm call. Trying to sneak out of the house without waking either child could seem a bigger challenge that what awaited at the crag. But once on the road, the cool morning air was as much a wake up as the steaming coffee his Dad would bring.
Conditions were close to perfect. Raven Tor can be a suntrap, the limestone sweating in the mid-afternoon heat. But so early in the season, the rock remained cool and the three hour drive from the South East gave it time to lose any early morning dew.
But several trips came and went without the send. There were near misses, repeated falls at the crux, momentarily lapses in concentration, stiff muscles refusing to yield on tricky moves. Would it ever go? At times Andre says he doubted, it, doubted himself. It’s a hard route but within his ability – or so he thought. But with Spring wearing on, and the world opening up, soon he would have less time to stay in peak condition as the twin demands from his business and his family ramped up.
But there is always time for one last go. The scene was perfectly set, the conditions right, the forecast for the day good. Andre picked his Dad up as dawn was breaking and together they trundled North, determined that it had to go.
A vigorous warm up at the crag, muttered greetings to the other fellow climbers who had fancied an early start. A brief smile, a look up at the route. A last good luck from his Dad. Time to chalk up the hands, and get going. The start is overhanging, not too technical, but burly. It is a brutal way to get going, completely unforgiving if every foot isn’t pin point accurate. Then the terrain is steep to the anchor. There’s a famous mono left by an old bolt hole, plenty of seemingly blank terrain, before a small flake presents itself for the last sequence of moves.
It so nearly went first time. The start was easy, Andre moving with ease over the lip of the overhang. He made his way steadily upwards, allowing himself a brief moment of excitement that this was it. But pumped towards the top, the slack stopped coming. He called but the rope was short and he fell, the frustration evident for all to see. How had his experienced Dad made such a mistake on the belay?
It turned out the climbers nearby had accidentally lowered themselves on top of his poor Dad, who’d had to disentangle himself from both them and their rope. A few terse words were exchanged, apologises forthcoming when they realised what they’d done.
But thanks to that block of winter training, Andre knew he had more attempts in him. Gearing up to go again, he fell on the first move. The growing sense of frustration was bubbling up – how could this be happening?
Rewind a couple of weeks and local climber and photographer Alex Hupje was there, sitting on a static rope watching the drama unfold. He’d already snapped plenty of shots, the levels of dedication Andre was giving to this climb etched clear across his grimacing face, which had already been captured for prosperity. Did he think the route would go?
“I didn’t know Andre well, but you could see in his face how hard he was trying. He’s outrageously strong, exploiting disgustingly small holds which is a photographer’s dream. He’s also wonderfully expressive on the rock, and each attempt looked so good. With so much psyche, it felt inevitable that the route would go and I was privileged to be there to watch part of the process.”
Tied in, chalked up, for another attempt. A local climber Adam Hodgson had offered to film – and Andre’s earlier frustration had given rise to fire in his belly. “I’ll give you a show,” he said, determined that this attempt would go. And go it did, smoothly from the start to the finish, whoops ringing out belong as he finally clipped the chains.
And just like that, another 8c falls. Despite lockdowns, despite the cold nights and the closure of the gyms. Despite everything life could throw at him, Andre has managed to tick another big project off.
The day wasn’t done – there was still time for his Dad to get some well-deserved climbing in, Andre’s inspiration and the man who first introduced him to the sport. It was fitting that he was belaying at the last, and able to share in his son’s success.
But as Make it funky becomes a project for someone else, as the climbing gyms reopen and Andre finds his attention once again diverted by real life, what comes next? Which magical line is out there for him, waiting to be climbed? Which holds will tempt him back into his garage late in the evening once his children are asleep for more hard training?
He’s staying tight-lipped on that one, so I guess we’ll all just have to watch this space to see what he does next…