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Zoe Goes Carlife: the dirtbag of Dirtbags

Because vanlife is too mainstream

It has been a minute. I’ve not gone many places, other than some of the darker zones in my mind. But we’re back now and exciting things are happening, and who best to tell but you guys. Aren’t you lucky? 

So now, when people ask where I live, I tell them ‘Astra Estate’ – it’s amongst the ranks of the X-Mansion, the Umbrella Academy and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – in the small town of Vauxhall. It has a white exterior and large windows, no double glazing but excellent natural lighting, complete with an office and a walk-in wardrobe…. Also four wheels and an engine.

YES I have moved into my car like any normal, itchy-footed, travel-starved gal would do when overseas exploration is off-limits and she also wants to hold down full-time study and two jobs in her beloved North East England.  

Why? Oh, for so many reasons, but namely – why not, and why not now? I have always fancied van-life but, well, I don’t have a van and can’t afford one right now. Life changes and it seemed like the opportune moment to get on the road. Plus, one of my jobs involves a lot of late-night travel in the car anyway and I don’t want to be chugging down the motorway at 60mph guzzling more diesel than my mileage contributions can cover.

Zoe sits in front of her white car with an open boot cooking tea in front of rolling hills.

I’ve sacrificed space and headroom for a better fuel economy, comfy riding and WAY easier parking. 

I’d like to say it’s stealthy… but it may well be even more obvious than a van when all of the reflective window covers go up. I found cooking difficult enough in a fully equipped kitchen, but I reckon I’m better with a penknife and plastic chopping board anyway. My hygiene levels have actually probably increased because I make a conscious effort to battle the usual stigma. My wallet thanks me because I’m not allowed to buy more clothes or toys as I simply have nowhere to store them. 

Internet? Unlimited data deal.

Showers? University/climbing wall/flannel and water/the sea. 

Toilet? Nature’s bathroom. Or time it with a supermarket run. 

Tea? Obviously.

Views? Spectacular. Also, incredibly ordinary. And I love both.

I figured to use a lint roller in lieu of a hoover

Talk about making mountains out of mole-hills, I found a new way to store away my blinds and my day was MADE. I discovered a little cubby-hole that is now dedicated to hot drinks, and don’t even get me started on the car-kettle.  I’m getting the highs of summitting mini Everests on the daily.

Honestly, my biggest problem is that the ‘carlife’ hashtag on Instagram is taken over by Ferraris and Aston Martins that wouldn’t fit a picnic basket, let alone the whole life of a dirtbag climber that works the mornings in muddy fields and the afternoons in a research lab.

It’s been about one month already and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.

I’m also making it a little harder for myself by trying to be as plastic-friendly as possible – no single-use wipes or cotton pads, soap bars instead of bottles, refillable water containers, loose-leaf tea etc. In fact, there are several aspects of car-life that are arguably more environmentally-friendly such as water usage, electricity and food wastage, but that’s another blog.

I will strongly emphasize that this is entirely my choice. I am no more financially strapped than your average student and I have a wonderful network of family and friends that offer unlimited home-comforts which I gladly accept if I’m feeling particularly starved of convenience. 

Looking forward to sharing some more of this adventure and always on the look-out for new park-ups. Anything in particular you want to know or read about? Any neat tricks or personal anecdotes to share? Need someone to cat-sit for a weekend? Tell me!

Finally, keep an eye out for when I’m headed your way – I’ll make you a Trangia tea and let’s catch up. 


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Zoe Goes Places: North-East England

North-East Bouldering: a re-reintroduction


I’m back!

Settling down to the prospect of little-to-no international travel for the rest of the year, but excited for getting out and about in the homeland.

Isolating alone for 8 weeks, I swore lockdown would be train, train, train. Two full wine bottles became light weights… and then lighter weights… until I filled them back up with water. At one point, I even improvised a pinch block with a yoga block, a sling and heavy books. It then sat proudly in the corner, the pinnacle of my quarantine creativity, and collected dust.

To my sheer amazement, I didn’t exactly emerge from lockdown as the beast I had envisioned.

Regardless, since restrictions lifted, I’ve been out and subsequently humbled on the local sandstone. I’m incredibly fortunate to reside in Newcastle and have the Northumberland boulders on my doorstep – and I count my rocky blessings each day. Ironically though, after ‘living at the crag’ in Laos and watching the aptly named ‘TV Boulder’ from the guesthouse sofa in India, ‘on the doorstep’ now refers to a minimum 35minute drive and 15minute approach…

…But I’m not complaining. The car journey becomes part of the outing. Watching the grey monotony of the city gradually succumb to a rich tapestry of green and gold brings about a gentle high, accompanied by the low buzz of adventure. On my own, it’s almost a meditation.

Plus, a long approach justifies immediately opening the crag snacks; one must obviously refuel for the day of hard climbing ahead.

Except, this is England. Notably, the North of England. We checked the forecast a week ago. We checked the forecast last night. We checked the forecast this morning.


It’s now noon and we’re huddled in the van in a layby while the rain lashes down and I sigh at the little sun/cloud hovering above ‘12pm’ on MetOffice.com. We crack a beer and toast to the solid attempt at a day out on the pebbles. We barely touched the rock and ate all the snacks. Overall, still a good time.

I’ve cowered behind a crashpad as an improvised windbreak on the exposed face of Ravensheugh crag, insufferable midges have forced us to run from the sunburnt rock in Yorkshire and, in just one short evening session, I’ve been subject to all the elements one after another.


When the weather does behave (and has done for at least 36 hours prior, given the fragility of northern sandstone), I am practising sloping crimps, sloping footholds, and… well, most things sloping. It’s a relatively new technique for me, partly due to an active avoidance thus far. Sticking a slap for a top-out is mad satisfying though – I’m hooked.

Bouldering in the County is hard and fulfilling, and the sunsets make for some epic scenes. But climbing aside, Northumberland gifts tranquillity and a strange feeling of safety. Maybe it’s the supporting mattress of bell heather, or the soft haze rolling over the Cheviots. Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe it’s just not having to worry about snakes and scorpions under rocks or in pockets (I won’t spoil the idyllic by mentioning ticks).


Having decided to stay put for a while, I’m looking forward to seeing the progress by starting my own project list and setting targets. I won’t list them here; my fear of admitting failure is second only to my fear of ticks. But follow mine or Dirtbags’ Instagram for when they’re smashed and I can claim success (shameless self-promotion).

Thank you to the poor souls with whom I get to share these outings, who lend me pads and guidebooks, and who are making UK life a little less intimidating than I had anticipated.


Zoe.

Photo credits include: (Instagram) @smupwalton @corndawg_25 @micky_j_p 


Sport climbing in Laos, Zoe Allin

Zoe Allin is Dirtbags’ resident writer, adventurer and boulderer. She does an alright job.

Follow her on Instagram for up to date antics: @zoallin

Zoe goes all over the place and is kind enough to write some stuff. If you have any questions or queries about said adventures and locations, shoot us an email at dirtbagsclimb@gmail.com and we will pass it on.


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Zoe goes places: Thakhek, Laos

Sport climbing in Laos, Zoe Allin

PAD THAI AND CLIMBING HIGH: A boulderer goes sport climbing.

In an unexpected turn of events, I find myself in Southeast Asia climbing 30m pitches on some seriously 3D limestone. We’re ‘living at the crag’ at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek, Laos, and I am VERY confused. Where are the crash pads? Why is the chalk bag secured to my waist, like ALL the time, and why is it so small? What is this rope attached to me? And, dammit, there are way more than 5 moves on that problem, sorry, route. 


Prior to Laos, I had only limited sport climbing experience indoors, never mind real rock, but I got the gist. Keep going up and keep clipping in. That stood to be fundamentally true and I enjoyed three weeks of climbing high and chilling out/eating my weight in noodles at the ‘Kneebar’ restaurant. 

zoe goes places chalk bag

For someone not afraid of heights, I was surprisingly wobbly on my first climb. Even on the tufa-ladder that was a 5b and with one hand in a jug the size of Jupiter, suddenly I felt quite unstable pulling up the rope to clip in. Nevertheless, I finished my time in Thakhek with my first 7a lead tucked neatly under my harness. 


As well as learning the basics like cleaning the route (I had never even considered that I needed to get the draws *down* – such is gym climbing life), I can also say I picked up some less conventional lessons/insights along the way. 

  1. Jumping to slopers and trusting a couple fingers on credit-card crimps are fun and games when two meters off the floor and protected by 3 pads and 2 spotters. Not that I had many as-extreme moves on my climbs in Laos, but holds I would consider bomber on a boulder definitely felt less-than-satisfactory on a route, even at the first bolt. 
  1. Following on from above, point 2 is a note to future self. It’s all in your head, throw yourself at it. Notwithstanding, the fear exists. I’m no mathematician but I think the formula would look something like this:

with Fi representing Fear Index. 

  1. Belay glasses: a gift from above (aka German inventor, Albi Scheider in 2007). Simple yet splendid. Prismatic perfection. Just yes.
  1. Now aware of ‘flashing’ vs ‘onsighting’, I propose a new category to delineate whether a route has been succeeded, notably if it is flashed or onsighted, when putting the draws up as well. That additional effort should be RECOGNISED.
  1. Sent multiple climbs in one day? Congratulate yourself with a Beer Lao. Not redpointed a single route? Have a Beer Lao and try again tomorrow. Rest day? Beer Lao by the cave. Sent your project? TWO Beer Laos. (In this respect, I find bouldering and sport climbing to be much alike but note that beer options may vary by country).

In conclusion, I would say that this trip went off without a hitch.

When I left for India, not in a mallion years did I think I would find myself in Laos. 

But now, I can’t think of anywhere that would have ‘biner more apt, or indeed, a beta place to commence my sport climbing adventures…

Hopefully, someone out there might relate to a thing or two I’ve mentioned above. Maybe you went the other way and started with sport before tackling a boulder. Let me know your experiences!

Thanks to a bunch of awesome humans including, but not limited to:

Mattias Sarvik for putting Laos on the map for me;

Yonatan Koren for the psyche and support on Schwitzerland (7a);

Jörn Störtebekker and Jules Guérin for the amazing photos;

Tom, Fai and all the wonderful people at Green Climbers Home.

Zoe Allin

Insta @zoallin


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Zoe goes…nowhere

Home training, in isolation in Thailand

She’s stuck in Thailand.

Amidst the current crisis, of which we are all VERY aware, travellers across the globe are rushing home to loved ones as the pandemic continues to cause disruptions locally and worldwide. My rock climbing and planned motorbike adventures for Laos-Vietnam (upcoming blogs) were cut short, as serious decisions had to be made quickly to escape to Thailand before borders were fully locked down. Being stuck in Laos was not an option, with their limited emergency care and lack of an international airport. Turns out the day after I crossed, my border closed. 


Finally accepting defeat and turning my gaze towards the red bricks and rolling hills of sunny England, I now find myself in a rather sticky-rice situation.

I’m waiting on refunds from three different airlines and coming to terms with the horribly inflated price of my winged journey home now scheduled for Sunday. If this plane doesn’t leave the country, that’s it. Trapped in Thailand.


Interestingly, the choice as to coming home or staying put is not so simple and many fellow travellers are similarly questioning their next move. I don’t have a job to get back to or rent to pay, the crags and climbing gyms are closed anyway, and my family are probably safer without me potentially carrying the virus back to them. Thailand is warm, cheap, and my accommodation situation actually allows me private outdoor space (a pool, no less). 


So why am I so desperate to leave to confinement in England? 

I would be lying if I hadn’t considered waiting it out here. But Bangkok will shortly be on lockdown too and who knows how long the travel restrictions will last. If I commit to staying, I have to COMMIT to staying. For months, even.

Not so bad though? I have a guitar, chrysanthemum tea, air conditioning, a yoga mat, jungle-esque scenery (despite being in the middle of the city), and all for a fiver a night. Plus, when this blows over, I can start moving again. 

Yoga in Thailand, self isolation with Zoe Allin

Add on travel insurance (mine expired, whoops). But then minus the extortionate flight ticket home. Add on the same confinements as at-home UK citizens (there’ll be no island-hopping; in doing so, backpackers only threaten to transmit the virus to smaller isolated communities). Add on the incessant uncertainty of changes to the country, NAY, THE WORLD. But minus the support network. Add on the psychological claustrophobia as all the other travellers also manage their own brain-turmoil regarding their own personal situation. 

Add on that I have to drink my tea out of a bowl. 


Finally, add on the prospect of my family being affected and me being helplessly 6000 miles away. 

Personally, it becomes matter of physical comfort versus pragmatism and mental stability. Ultimately and to the relief of my parents, I have decided to pursue the latter. Though really, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve chosen right.

In this blog, I endeavoured firstly to summarise briefly my travel situation, and why Zoe may not be going to too many places in the immediate future (surprise, it’s Covid-19). Secondly, I wanted to address those who are lusting after confinement abroad into the mindset of someone actually locked in another country. Grass is always greener, ey

I admit to being surprised at my yearning for England.

Nevertheless, IF I get home, I’m sure I will welcome maybe 2 days of relief followed by weeks of the same isolation mania as everyone else. I’ll make sure to re-read this entry when that happens. 

INFO: If you are abroad and want to return home (gov.uk)


At least I now have time to devote to more FUN and LIGHTHEARTED Dirtbag blog entries. Coming up… Ropes, falls, and funky limestone tufas: a boulderer goes rock climbing in Thakhek, Laos.

Zoe Allin: insta @zoallin


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Shoestring guide to Albarracín bouldering

Five things you need to know before a winter bouldering trip to Albarracín

Let’s be clear. Bouldering is free. It’s more of a guide for getting to/from/general survival.


The plan was Font in early November, book at the last minute after seeing what the weather was doing. It was a good plan as it turned out the weather looked horrendous, cold and rain. So a plan B was needed, long story short we headed to Albarracín (with a reputation of being one of Europe’s best bouldering venues with “bomb proof” weather) We had a great time, so much so that we went again in early January, right in the middle of storm…with knee deep snow. So here we’ve put a crib sheet about getting the most out of winter bouldering in Spain.

1 Getting there. Flights and car hire


From the UK you can fly reasonably cheaply if you shop around to Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante and Madrid. The nearest airports are Valencia and Madrid. We used Barcelona and Alicante because the flights were cheaper and earlier in the morning so we could there, if we got a wriggle on with enough time to boulder for a few hours on the first day. This is a good thing to do if you are short on days and don’t mind being knackered.

You can choose to offset your carbon footprint created by flying by giving something back. To find out how much impact your flight has, ClimateCare have a carbon calculator.

Sandstone bouldering in Spain, Europe
Emma Brown experiencing the joys of sandstone.

Hiring a car is really the only viable option, made cheaper if you have a car full of people of course. Using public transport is difficult, as would getting to the crag when you are there. Be really careful checking the condition of your car when you pick it up, and don’t take it back very dirty inside (easy to do on a climbing trip) or you may end up with a nasty bill. Be sure to understand what you are insured for. If you take your own mats you need to hire a car big enough. First trip we hired a VW Caddy, we didn’t take our own mats but hired 3 mats from the climbing shop in Albarracin. We comfortably got
three of us and the mats in the car. Second trip we hired a bigger car a Vauxhall Zafira, with five of us and four mats. A tight squeeze.

It was like tetras trying to fit everything in.


2 What to take. Mats and stuff


To keep costs down for the first trip we took a sack each which fitted the size requirements for cab luggage (56x45x25cms) a decent size, this way we avoided the high costs of hold luggage, and skipped through the airport not having to collect baggage. Packing was quite tight.

All you need:

  • A good pair of approach shoes/boots which we travelled in
  • Warm coat.
  • 2 pairs of climbing shoes,
  • Chalk,
  • Warm crag layers, hat gloves etc
  • Flask, tea is important.
  • Change of clothes and toiletries etc. don’t forget you haven’t got any hold luggage so you are restricted on what liquids you can take, e.g liquid chalk or sharps (scissors)

With Easy Jet the hold luggage is measured by adding up the height, length and width of your bag, maximum total is 275cm, this is plenty big enough for most large mats. This meant we could put two mats together and count them as one. Jen constructed some large covers out of tent materials to hold them, and straps, together. This meant we could stuff boots and chalk etc inside the mat. We had no issues getting the mats through check in, as they are relatively light.

I think its slightly more expensive to take your own mats than to hire (hiring in November was 7 euros per day, but you had to pre book and collect when the shop is open. Taking your own is a bit of hassle but is probably worth it as you remove the risk of not getting hire mats.

Traversing

3 Accommodation and provisions

There are less choices for accommodation in the winter, camping is less practical because it is very cold on a night, there is a carpark for campervans. Albaraccin is around 1300m high. There are plenty of Airbnbs hotels, a couple of climbing hostels, we paid about 20 euros per person per night for a really good airbnb.

There are two supermarkets very near each other in the town, we had no trouble getting what we wanted to feed ourselves, we didn’t go to the next big town Terual as it was 40 mins away, and there was no need. We cooked in for 50% of the time and also ate in the local restaurants/ bars. The food was good and alright value, the best we found was Bar la Despensa, a cosy tapas bar, with very friendly staff and good prices. The restaurants don’t open until 8pm which doesn’t suit everybody, but if you are climbing all day it suits us.


4. The Crags


The boulder areas are a 10 minute drive up the hill from the town, we took flasks of hot drinks, sandwiches, fruit and boiled eggs up to the crag. We generally got to the crag between 09.00 and 10.00 which seemed early enough especially if it was cold. You can easily spend all day at the crag with no need to drop back down to town for lunch. There are 3 main car parks, the first being on a bend, the second has some small out building in it and third has parking on both sides of the road. The third is the best places to start at, you can see boulders from the road and Sector Parking is right in front of the parking. This sector is great for warming up at it has some easier problems on fantastic looking walls.

Brad Fletcher climbing on sandstone
Brad Fletcher


We used a 2019 guidebook which we bought through Needle sports in Keswick. Its in English and is very good. Ticks with intials helped us keep track of everyone’s progress. We also used the 27crags app, which proved very useful later on. Go for the problems with stars or half stars, they are all excellent. We tended to climb in 1 area in the morning and another in the afternoon. You soon get a feel for the aspect of the crags, we were able to find crags in the shelter from the wind and ones in the sun.

John Kennedy

On both trips it was very cold (between 0 and 10 degrees) but we were able to keep warm and dodge the wind.

The climbing is really good, a mix of edges, pockets and slopers.

There are hundreds of Youtube vidoes which give you a much better idea than I can. You can also walk up the canyon by parking near the sports centre (in the end we wound up using this trail to lug the mats to go climbing). This is a good thing to do perhaps on a rest day.

Brad Fletcher

5 Plan B and C



On our second trip we had about 30 cms of snow on our third day. The whole area was very beautiful, but the conditions made salvaging any climbing virtually impossible as it snowed throughout the day and the snow was very wet snow. There are lots of overhangs (Techos area especially) where it may be possible to climb in rain or light snow. For us the snow was blowing in under the overhangs and the ground and our kit was sodden. But dammit, we tried.

Team battling through. Boulderers are a desperate kind.


So decisions had to be made.

There is plenty of walking or running in the surrounding area, but you are in Spain and its just that you are high up in the mountains in poor weather. We bailed and dropped down towards the sea to find better weather. This is where your choice of airport comes in. We were Alicante so we did the 4 hour drive first thing in the morning, we went straight to a bouldering area we had checked out the night before called Crevillante near Elche, had an afternoon and following days bouldering and stopped in a cheap air bnb.

Onto sunnier climbs further south

If you fly from Barcelona or Valencia there is a boulder areas called Alcaniz which is gaining a good reputation. There is also an area near Madrid. The point is you have choices if Albarracin is rainy or snowing. Just call it early and bail. We used Instagram to find very recent photos of folk bouldering on the crags we were heading for, this was excellent for sussing what condition the crags were in.


Albaraccin is a great place to visit, I haven’t even talked about how magical the town itself is or much about the bouldering really. If you are organised, a trip in winter is really worth doing, we were a bit unlucky in our January trip as it was right in the middle of the big storms. But we had a fantastic time and the snow just added to the adventure.

Steve Rhodes