Positive Climbing

Cogne Ice Climbing

It took many years for me to turn my attention to the wonderful world of ice climbing. Here I am on the last pitch of Stella Artice (5), Cogne, Italy. I was so warm when this photo was taken, I wasn't even wearing gloves! Photo by Jake Wrathall.

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1988 & 1989

Me in a Tree

Me in my favourite tree - before I was let loose on rocks. Trivia tit bit: in the house behind me was a girl of similar age who eventually moved to Hollywood and married Michael Douglas. Probably wasn't much good at climbing trees though.

I started climbing in South Wales in the summer of 1988 at the age of sixteen. In contrast to every other sport I had tried, climbing felt natural, perhaps largely because whilst I had only started the ‘sport’ of rock climbing after sixteen years, I had climbed anything and everything just as soon as I could walk!

I was lucky enough to start climbing at a time when clubs were still actively taking out beginners without worrying about being sued! Though I’d already taught myself the basics, I found partners through the South Wales Mountaineering Club, and received lots of encouragement from people like John Bullock, Paul Christie, Geriant Morris, Andy Long, Alun Richardson, and plenty of equally helpful friendly rivalry from local youths like Dan Dyson: with their help, I quickly learnt how to deal with the typical vicissitudes of Gower climbing: loose rock, big tides, and cantankerous sea birds! Before I’d ventured further-afield, I can remember thinking that if the holds didn’t come away, climbing would be a cinch.

Early days at Three Cliffs

Climbing at Three Cliffs - aged 16. This was my entire rack, I stacked shelves at M&S in the mornings to get money to buy gear.

1990 & 1991

My first job in climbing was as an instructor at Hyde House Activity Centre in Dorset. Like most activity centres, the objective wasn’t to teach new skills, but rather to give an experience. After five months, I’d certainly had enough instructing, and vowed I’d never work teaching beginners unless they had climbing shoes! It was surprisingly tough, and the pay was horrendous but it was enough to allow me to save up enough money to go Inter-Railing, where my highlight was a day in Chamonix. I didn’t have my climbing gear with me, but did have an afternoon at a small bolted local crag where I was kitted up by some friendly Brits and set about climbing a few bolted routes. Bolts were entirely new to me, as were holds that didn’t come away in my hands, and by the end of the day I’d done a 7a – which I had no idea was quite a lot harder than my previous best-effort which was E2.

1992

I had a few weeks before starting University in Sheffield. I’d heard all the climbers in Sheffield University Mountaineering Club climbed E6, and I was pretty anxious that I wouldn’t be good enough. Just before I left South Wales, I spent a few days in Pembroke with Andy Long, who showed me that E4s and E5s had holds just like E2s and E3s, with his example, and no-bullshit encouragement I moved into E3s.

First ascent of Sparks

Sparks E5 6c - First ascent. My first decent new route on gritstone. I am being belayed by Miles Gibson, who came within a whisker of beating me to the first ascent, spurring me on to do the crux first moves, which I thought worth 7a - there were plenty of routes waiting for Miles though.

A week or two later in Sheffield, I spent a fresher’s week climbing every day on gristsone. Grit felt natural for some reason, it wasn’t too high, the gear held, and the holds didn’t come off in my hands. I climbed an E4 (Auto Da Fe at Rivelin) on my second day. In the weeks that followed, I discovered that my fears that everyone would be climbing E6 were of course unfounded.

Being a climber at Sheffield University in the 1990s was pretty much guaranteed you’d leave with two things: strong fingers and a 2:2. I got both, and managed to tick a few good routes. One memorable ascent was of the High Tor classic Castellan: at the time I was living in a house with six other climbers, we called ourselves either ‘the fraternity of power’ or ‘the extreme climbing fraternity’ all a bit embarrassing now, but it was a good joke at the time and made for a hot-bed of competitive climbing practises. On evening we were watching a climbing programme on TV which featured Ben Moon climbing Castellan, and evidently not cruising it. I announced that it was probably quite easy, and that I was going to do it. Bets were placed. The following Saturday, after several bus rides, I got to High Tor and with the pressure of a household of doubters ready to mock behind me, managed to onsight the first pitch. I actually fell off seconding the second pitch, but I glossed over that point whilst basking in the glory that would last for the next 31 days (we had a rule that no accomplishments over a month ago would count towards one’s current status – it encouraged consistency). It was around this time that I started working an unclimbed line at Millstone. I had already done one new route – though Sparks at Rivelin was far more of a boulder problem than a route. The new line I was working was the last unclimbed line on the Embankment Slab at Millstone -  it was leagues above me when I started trying it, and I could hardly do a single move, but I knew that if I persevered and trained, eventually I’d be able to do it, but I was still nowhere near it when my time at Sheffield University came to an end.

Elm Street

The line of Elm Street (E8 6c) I took this photo so I could study the route at home, the three guys stood at the bottom so I'd have an idea of scale...

1994

  • Elm Street E8 6c (1st Ascent)

After graduation comes a time to take responsibility, start a career, marry your college sweat-heart, and generally give in. I signed on the dole, and started training in earnest. In 1991 I paid a visit to Buoux in the South of France. In the days before, I injured one of my toes, and standing on holds was very painful. Determined not to let this affect my trip, I found a route where you don’t really use your feet: Reve D’Un Papillon (8a) and redpointed it. I was still very much into trad climbing, and so with the extra strength from all this sport climbing and training, I did return to Sheffield in 1994 for a cold, dry few days, and soloed ‘Elm Street’ E8 6c, still one of the hardest unprotected gritstone climbs, probably quite a bit less committing with big mats, which hadn't really been invented at the time - I'd have used them otherwise!

1995

In 1995 I made a long trip to Canada and the USA. Starting off directing a climbing programme in a summer camp in Vermont, then crossed Canada in a VW Camper, climbing in the Bow Valley, Lake Louise, and finally Squamish. I then headed down to Yosemite, where I spent many delightful days climbing with amongst other people, Steph Davis, who convinced me to get sponsorship. I then headed out east to Owens River Gorge and Red Rocks. I came within a whisker of onsighting a 13a (7c+) at Owens River Gorge, before heading back to Britain having run out of money.

1996 - 1998

  • Sans Arete 8a Oxwich (1st Ascent)
  • Napalm in the Morning E7 6c Giant’s Cave, Gower (1st Ascent)

Living back in South Wales with newfound confidence, I worked my way through the new local testpieces, then got involved with the development of new sport routes, bolting new crags ‘Rams Tor’ and ‘Oxwich’.

It was during this time I started competing. My first competition was by accident: I met a college friend in Bristol for the day, and there was a friendly competition running, so we both entered. I remember it went to a 7c super-final, and I pipped John Wainright to the post to win. The next week I did another at The Warehouse in Gloucester. This time it was a bit more serious, with almost the entire British Team competing, and so I was even more surprised to come 2nd (or 3rd, I can’t recall). I realised that if I was going to continue competing, I would need to train more diligently, and so I moved back to Sheffield, now a member of the British Team. Doing international climbing competitions is always an eye-opener, and it certainly was for me. I tried for a year, and got within one place of qualifying for the semi-finals, but the standard of fitness was simply too high, my best onsight was 7c, and international finals were 8b at the time.

 

Chasing The Dragon E8 - the was probably the last of the big lines of Yellow Wall, Gower, it's about 8a in French grades, and is protected by two stainless pegs.

1999

  • Inferno 8a+ Oxwich, Gower (1st Ascent)
  • Route of All Evil 8b+ Oxwich, Gower (1st Ascent)
  • Chasing the Dragon E8 6c Yellow Wall, Gower (1st Ascent)
  • The Big Issue E9 6c (Pembroke) (3rd Ascent)
  • The Big Softy E7 6b Pembroke (1st Ascent)

By spending nothing, it is actually possibly to live on the dole and save money. My first big trip was to Thailand, I spend almost two months living on what was then an almost deserted beach with incredible walls and routes everywhere. I took photos when I wasn’t climbing, and on getting back, wrote an article for High magazine, which went a long way towards paying for the trip. I started a website with a view to promoting my writing and photographer (‘climbingmedia’), which grew with each article I archived on it. After what turned out to be a very good year for me, I headed back out to north America, for a month in Yosemite and a month in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, where I repeated most of the local test-pieces up to 8a+, including the much hyped ‘Shining Path’ which turned out to have some excellent climbing.

Soul Doubt E8 6c

Soul Doubt E8 6c. I was pretty lucky to be the right person at the right time to get a first ascent of a line like this, one of the last of the big lines without hideously hard moves!
Photo from footage taken by Mark Turnbull

2000 - 2002

  • Soul Doubt E8 6c (1st Ascent)

Getting back to Britain I found myself with another gritstone project, this time it was the wall left of Beau Gest, which yielded surprisingly quickly to produce ‘Soul Doubt’ E8 8c, clearly I was climbing quite well, but you can have too much of a good thing, and I had been penniless for a long time, so I was going to have to make more money, preferably without actually getting a dreaded job.

Whilst in Mexico I decided I was going to go into business organising climbing trips to exotic locations, and the year later, I was running the website ‘planetFear’ which had grown from climbingmedia. As the business grew, it became a platform to experiment with new ideas. I had recently been asked to provide climbing coaching to The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Mountaineering Club and I had already been in discussions with Neil Gresham about using the web to promote climbing coaching. At the time the term ‘climbing coaching’ hardly even existed. Still wanting to run trips to exotic places, I came up with the idea of running holidays where coaching was provided on a daily basis: the ‘coaching holiday’. Neil agreed to front the coaching, and I would do the organising, and focus on ‘one-to-one’ coaching, which I found more natural than the workshop approach. The first trip was to be in the Costa Blanca, so the trips were dubbed ‘Sun Rock Workshops’, actually the first one didn’t sell at all, but subsequent trips to Kalymnos, Fontainebleau, Sardinia, Arco, The USA, Val di Mello, as well as throughout the UK, proved huge hits. To meet demand, I recruited other top climbers to join myself and Neil, and in most instances, introduced them to the new world of ‘climbing coaching’. 

Blind Vision E10

Blind Vision (E9) this took a lot of physical training, and mental preparation. It was a year before my fingers recovered after this route.

2003

  • Blind Vision E9 (1st Ascent)

In between running coaching holidays, providing one-to-one coaching, and editing a fast-growing website, there was decreasing time to climb. My only significant contribution was the long-standing ‘Slingshot Extension’ project at Froggatt. Slingshot was a legendary highball boulder problem, first climbed by Jerry Moffatt, it had surprisingly only had one repeat. It took about six month’s of training to get strong enough to do the route. The route had pretty much already been graded E10 before I got on it, so I went along with that grading, though opinion is now that it's E9.

2004

  • Spartan Wall 8b (1st Ascent)

It was hard to get any personal climbing in during a coaching trip, but where there was a will, there was a way. In Kalymnos, there are many unclimbed lines, and I had bolted what I considered to be the best looking one the year before. The line was a vertical smooth wall, with just enough holds for it to be climbed (by me anyway!). In September 2004 I returned to the line and redpointed it, at the same time opening a new sector at ‘Afternoon’, which has now been named Spartan Wall.

Spartan Wall 8b

Spartan Wall - Photo by Nick Smith

2005

  • The Journey to Deliverance 8a+ (1st Ascent)

Eventually, working full-time was too much of a compromise. Although I spent a fair while away running climbing trips, that just made it harder to get away for my own trips, and in August 2005, I left planetFear. The last coaching holiday I ran was in Kalymnos, and I was very pleased to bolt a line left of ‘Spartan Wall’ that was of at least equal quality, the route was ‘The Journey to Deliverance’ and is about 8a+.

Enterprise

Enterprise - highball 7b+ (first ascent), Burbage North. Photo by John Arran.

2006

  • Enterprise Font 7b+ / E7 7a (1st Ascent)

Back on the gritstone I turned my attention to an unclimbed line on Burbage North: I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether it was a short route or a very big boulder problem, in the end I climbed it was an extra-large crash mat, to produce ‘Enterprise’, though I wouldn’t quite call it a boulder problem! Within a year I had started work on a book aimed at climbers wishing to improve their sport climbing ability, I’d been on several climbing trips, and added two grades to my onsight personal best, which reached 8a.

2006 came to a close with an extended trip to Kalymnos. Now packing a drill, I spent a month bolting and climbing new routes on a new sector that became known as The Ivory Tower. My visit resulted in a collection of excellent routes that went up to 8a. On getting back to the UK I began work with John Arran on the second in the '+' series of books, this time on trad climbing.

2007

This year was mostly occupied with writing and taking the photos for Trad Climbing+. In the spring I spent three months on a round-the-world trip that took me to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Canada, and I managed to get some great shots for the book, and do some good climbing, including an ascent of Astroman which reminded me of how completely unfit I was for long crack climbs! The summer back in the UK consisted of back-to-back coaching and work on the trad book - but it all finally came together in October when I handed over the book to Alan James at Rockfax and took a much needed two week break in Kalymnos. In Kalymnos I finished the last project on the Ivory Tower (an extension to Dream Line at 7c) then bolted a new finish to Anaphylactic Shock which went at a very fun 8a. I was also really pleased and surpised to onsight Helios (8a) on a cool sunny day at North Cape, which was certainly not expected!