In October Rich Simpson became the first Briton to climb a 9a on foreign soil with his repeat of Action Directe. But he isn’t satisfied yet. In his first full-length interview, he tells Alex Messenger about his brutal training regime, why British climbing is too complacent, how the climbing press is too narrow-minded — and what it takes to be Britain’s best sport climber.
Sinking into a leather seat with a coffee at Düsseldorf’s spotless airport, three thoughts flit across my mind. First, I’ve never been to Germany before. Second, that it all looks – how shall I say? – neat and efficient. Third, and most crucially, what the hell am I doing here?
A few hours later, wedged into the back of a bright blue MG ZR 160 with Germany blurring past me at warp speed, this third thought occurs to me again. But if I’m gripped, the driver of this finely tuned piece of defunct British engineering seems delighted. My co-passenger in the back seat clocks my pale expression. “I used to find his driving pretty scary,” he says, “then I just accepted we were going to crash. Now I’ve found peace, it’s all a lot easier.” The driver hears this and reacts in the way any 22 year-old lad awash with adrenaline would. He just laughs, and cranks the stereo, right foot pressing down as he slides into the next corner.
So what exactly am I doing? Rich Simpson, driver of the howling MG, has just repeated Action Directe and I wanted to meet him. Located in the German limestone paradise that is the Frankenjura, Action Directe was the first route in the world to get the magical grade of French 9a. Over the years, it has resisted attention from many famous suitors, including our own Ben Moon. It was first climbed by the original über-cranker Wolfgang Güllich in 1991. Who, I suddenly recall, met his end in a car crash at the zenith of his power in 1992.
Now, fourteen years on, is 9a really that hard anymore? With Simpson, Action Directe had already seen six repeats and that would rise to eight before the week was out. But if the headline was that it’s the only 9a to have been climbed by a Brit on foreign soil, then the back-story was simpler. As a climber, I’d grown up on tales of this route and wanted to see it in its stony flesh. Despite its eight ascents, Action Directe is still regarded as perhaps the hardest short power route in the world. And the roll call is truly international: Wolfgang Gullich (1991), Alexander Adler (1995), Iker Pou (2000), Dave Graham (2001) Christian Bindhammer (2003), and now separated by mere days, Rich Simpson, Dai Koyamada, and Markus Bock.
It starts with a finger-wrecking campus board move, immortalised by the old posters of Wolfgang cutting loose, hair flopping, face frozen in pain. Imagine hanging off your door lintel. Now let your fingers slip slightly, so you’re hanging off half of your first finger joints. That’s not so bad is it? Now take all your fingers off save the middle finger on each hand. Still with us? Now pull up, snatch one hand off, and try and touch the ceiling. Welcome to the starting moves. And it doesn’t get any easier.
These days, 9a is the level you need to be climbing as a male sports climber to be taken seriously. And the women are close behind. Spaniard Josune Bereziartu recently became the first woman in the world to hop onto the previously all-male ninth-level playing field with her tick of Bain de Sang in Switzerland.
But you need to be selective, you need to pick a route suited to your current form, your style. Steve McClure, the only other British climber to be operating at this level, hasn’t climbed a 9a outside the UK. Simpson hasn’t climbed one inside. So it’s hardly surprising their views often differ. This is, after all, the very top end of the grading scale. Most people will never experience it, and their fingers will thank them for it. 9a+ exists, 9b might and the potential is there for 9b+, but 9a is still, well, rock hard. If you want to translate 9a to E-numbers – which many dream of doing – then you’ll topple off the top of the UK grading table. Neil Bentley’s technical balancing act Equilibrium at Burbage gets E10, but is a mere 8b+. E14 anyone?
We’ve all been on holiday and got lucky on a route harder than we normally manage, and boast about it in the pub that night. But up in the grading stratosphere, you aren’t on holiday at all. These climbs, especially ones away from home turf, demand months, years even, of focussed dedication. Simpson is happy to admit, that he’s had his eye on this route for several years. Other routes, like Liquid Amber, Jerry Moffat’s 8c at Pen Trwyn, and Hubble, Ben Moon’s 8c+ at Raven Tor, were significant repeats for Simpson, but only as stepping stones along the way. To get anywhere near this level you need to train, he says, adding that natural talent will only take you so far – suggesting 8b.
Simpson’s training schedule is legendary, ferocious, and controversial. Legendary in that he’s even had a short film made about him – ‘Pinky Perky’ – featuring him repeating some of the hardest cellar problems in existence at the School, Sheffield’s mythical elite training facility. Ferocious, because he does two sessions a day, six days a week. That’s 35 hours of intense climbing per week, not including the time it takes to warm up and down, stretch, and run. By Simpson’s own admission, this doesn’t give him much free time and he’s usually too exhausted to do much apart from sleep. And controversial? Because Simpson is a true professional in a British climbing scene that still has a soft spot for amateurism. Training specifically for a specific climb? Goodness me old chap – that’s a bit unsporting isn’t it?
Typically British, we often have more empathy for the plucky loser than the ruthless, consummate winner. Simpson wants to be many things, but plucky loser isn’t one of them.
“Britain is the only country where it’s seen as a bad thing to want to be good at climbing, to want to work really hard. You go to the crags, and hear people whinge, ‘I could do it if I trained.’ Well mate, do it then, or shut up. The hardest part of anything is working hard. It’s not come easily to me, I’ve worked so f***ing hard. The last three years of my life have been working towards Action Directe. I’ve put so much to one side. But for me to have done it, knowing I had to push so hard is brilliant.”
There are few climbers in the UK, probably only Simpson and the Scottish boulderer Malcolm Smith, who are known for following such a rigorous and demanding training programme. He concedes that he is lucky. His body type – think wiry pitbull – and stubborn attitude mean that he adapts to training very well. That breeds complacency in his contemporaries. “Simpson has done that? Well, he does train doesn’t he? You’d expect him to.”
He puts it down to sour grapes. “Most people just can’t find the motivation to train that people like me and Malcolm have. They know it, and they’re bitter.” He probably does himself no favours with his uncompromising attitude but Simpson is not going to pretend to be impressed with you – unless you’re putting the effort in.
“It’s easy to be a could-have-been, to say that you could climb 9a+ but you’ll settle for 8c+ and have an easier life. For me that’s a shame. Why not go for what you could do? Aim high. Admit you want that 9b. You might not make it, but hell, you’ll still do a 9a+. I don’t know where I can get in climbing, and where my hard work will take me. But I will find out.”
Be all you can be is the message. But does he have any tips for the weaker weekend warriors amongst us? The F7a thrasher, the HVS struggler, people who find Severes severe? Do you have to be talented to climb well, or is it all down to pure, hard graft? “I was a very average climber. Anyone can get good but you’ve got to really want it. There’s no special secret, climbing has to become your life. Decide what you want to be good at, and focus.”
Average? Maybe. He acknowledges that it helps to be genetically gifted, after all, he’s only been climbing for five years. The start of his climbing is a familiar tale, a lost youth with an excess of energy, bored of flirting with the dodgier activities. A science teacher took him to Birmingham’s Rock Face climbing wall one day and within a year and a half he’d done his first 8a, at Siurana in Spain. After two, it was 8b and Font 8a boulder problems every weekend. He was hooked, and his parents could breath a sigh of relief, if not understanding.
“They don’t get climbing, they have real difficulty with the height thing. I don’t think they’ll be too impressed with Action to be honest - it doesn’t look very tall. But as long as I’m happy, they’re proud.”
One person who is impressed is Ben Moon. Ben knows just what is involved in the route, having tried it once before damaging his finger. And it was Ben that broke the news on the web after Simpson chose to text Moon. “It’s no longer a dream. Thanks.”
Speak to Rich for more than five minutes, and it’s clear that Moon is a major inspiration, he even brought some old magazine articles out to Germany featuring Ben in his heyday. After Simpson climbed Moon’s route Agincourt, a classic 8c at Buoux, Moon tracked him down to say well done and offer him a sponsorship deal with his small clothing company, Moon Climbing. But it wasn’t long ago that to Ben, and the world, he was just another strong lad at the wall.
“I got the train up from Birmingham one day specifically to visit the Foundry. I knew that Ben trained there, and I wanted to see just how good he was. I remember sitting and watching him and Malcolm Smith for an hour, and thinking, man, these guys are so good. The way they moved, they looked weightless.”
Spying on the top guys at the wall is something many climbers can relate to but most of us dismiss them as naturally talented. We could never climb like that, could we? Simpson, on the other hand, motivated beyond belief, returned to Birmingham and did what he did best. “I went home and trained like an absolute bastard. And a year later, I returned to the Foundry. And you know what? I was almost cutting it with him. That blew me away.”
Training was obviously working and all he needed now was time to find his limit. “To be the best, you have to accept the possibility of failure. And the closer you get to the line between success and failure, the more you’ll get from yourself. I’m not afraid of finding this line, or going over it. I’m not afraid of putting a lot of hard work in and failing on a route. If that happens, it happens.”
Not tempted by the softer grades of venues such as the Gorges du Tarn, Simpson has walked a very particular road: Agincourt, Liquid Amber, Hubble. A climbing stalker, he’s tried to repeat everything that Ben has climbed. Now he’s gone one step further. “I’m ready to set my own level now, to make the first ascent of a 9a+ or a 9b. And I’ll know that the grade is right, because of doing these classic benchmark routes.”
There are some gaps in his CV. He has never climbed a 9a on home ground. Simpson has tried Rainshadow, Steve McClure’s 9a at Malham, but finding it lacked history, claims he just couldn’t get excited about it. Inspiration is important he explains, to do anything well. It’s also why, despite being in a better position than most, he’s just not interested in competitions.
“It’s not about being better than other people. It’s about getting the best from yourself, setting goals and working towards them. Not about being better on one day than another guy – that’s not what climbing is about. I do compete, not with other climbers, but against the rock. Action Directe set the challenge, and I accepted the competition that it gave me. There are so many natural challenges, why would I sacrifice time for something artificial?”
The challenge of Action Directe is hard to miss. A striking line of shallow pockets and branded quickdraws marking the way up this severely overhanging lump, shaded by the Bavarian woods. Yet strangely, it looks, well, almost climbable. The historic pictures of Wolfgang gave it a more featureless appearance, but close up, every inch is covered in ripples, pockets and small edges. All useless to most of course, since it’s so overhanging, but this is no sheet of glass. And each successful climber has used a different sequence, different holds.
With the late autumn rain coming in for the day, and clouds building, Rich looked tired. But playing the sponsored game, he chalks up and hops on for pictures. It’s damp, his fingers are cold, and he’s unwilling to commit to the moves. I feel a sudden stab of frustration; what if I’ve travelled all this way for nothing? It’s a petty, selfish thought. But imagine coming all this way, after a year of training, to try the route. Now that’s pressure.
“I knew that I possibly had the goods, so I booked two trips, one for summer, one for autumn. It’d be too hot in summer, but I wanted to check it out and identify any weaknesses to work on. I spent two days on it on the first trip, and came away knowing that my training was paying off, but a few things needed changing. Then it was back out this September. At first the conditions were against me, it was raining for the first three weeks, but this was a blessing in disguise. By the time it came into condition, I knew the moves. And to be honest, it felt easy. But to have gone home without the route would have been very hard – I might have never climbed it.”
Watching a strong climber on a route, it can be hard to gauge exactly how tricky it is. Strong people make things look easy. And with Simpson being stronger than most, it was easy to get complacent watching him stick his fingers into the monos. From the sanctuary of an ab rope, he simply didn’t make it look hard. But he was under no illusions.
“It’s a very dangerous route, really bad on the tendons. You almost need to be stronger than the route because you’re pulling a lot on one-finger pockets. You could end your career on it.”
The rain starts. A grey drizzle, setting in for days. It’s time for a retreat to the car, and the now familiar white-knuckle ride back to base. Like Ben, like Jerry, like Johnny Dawes he shares a love for speed. A car magazine sits next to Wolfgang’s biography and Ben’s articles in the apartment. He admits that without climbing this passion for cars would probably have landed him in prison. Several of his old friends are now making a good living driving performance cars at track days, and there is obviously a slight sense of dissatisfaction that being good at climbing doesn’t, and will never pay well.
“It’s sad in a way. I’ll never reach my full potential. There’s a limited pot of money, and sometimes it goes to the wrong people. I don’t need much, I don’t want it to drink beer and party, I just want it to fund my training and three trips around the world to climb the hardest routes.”
He talks enviously of his Japanese counterpart, Dai Koyamada. Dai brought with him a cameraman, photographer, physio, a manager and he’s a millionaire through climbing. Lack of cash in climbing is hardly a surprise though, and when pressed he acknowledges that he never expected to get rich. Make enough to put himself through university in a year or two perhaps, but that’s it. Still he seems a little taken aback by a lack of even basic support, both by the media and some sponsors.
“Sponsors are only happy with the guys who pose on easy routes. I don’t have the time to climb E1s for the camera in the sun. I’d lose out, my training wouldn’t be a 100 percent.”
It’s clear there’s no love lost with the climbing press, especially with what he regards as their misplaced obsession with gritstone. Their pages are full of trilling when some young gun from abroad strays onto our island and demolishes some hard grit. But should we be that surprised? He’s not.
“Hard grit? You don’t really need to be that good, you just need to have a bit of a mad day and be able to climb French 8a, that’s all. Some Spanish guys climb 9b and onsight 8c. Are you really telling me they couldn’t cruise a grit E8, just because it’s a different style? Dream on. They’re amazing climbers. Technically and in every way they just do not have a fault. But they’re also very uneducated about British trad climbing. Our grading scale and magazines hype it up. They think that people over here are climbing 8c+ sport routes in death positions.”
It was Simpson that encouraged the Australian Toby Benham over a year or so ago to rip it up in the Peak. There’s also the suspicion that he’s done a lot more on grit that he’s letting on. He’s coy about this – he claims it’s not relevant. More likely it stems from feeling alienated by certain magazines. He also worries that Britain no longer comprehends what it takes to produce a truly world class climber. That we’re lagging behind and nobody wants to know.
“I’m the only one who seems interested in cutting it with the best. The rest of Britain isn’t interested in working as hard as you have to work. In ten years time we’re going to be so far behind, it’s going to be demoralising. I’m lucky. I’ve got Moon and Moffat to look up to. But what’s going to happen in ten years? Where are the Moons now? Where are the Moffats? There aren’t any. You need to have someone to look at, someone that was so good at their sport, to think I want to be as good as him, I want to climb the routes he climbed.”
He thinks we can still keep up, but that it will take a change of ideas, a change of attitude. “I’ve never been impressed by a young climber’s ability in Britain. It seems as long as they’re better than the other five or so in the British Team, then they don’t care about their level. That’s the wrong attitude. You can never be a truly good climber if all you’re interested in is burning your mates off. They are talented, but it’s a question of mental attitude. For me it doesn’t seem to be there. I hope there are young climbers out there that will come and prove me wrong, I really hope there are.”
It’s a lot of effort to climb a route at this level, and he’s reluctant to specifically identify future projects. Things like Big Bang (9a), the unrepeated Neil Carson route at Pen Trywn are mentioned, as is Realisation (9a+), Chris Sharma’s mega-line at Ceuse in France.
“I’ve got a lot more Actions in me. That was the first route I’ve really worked hard for, and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m stronger now as a person, and I’ll be able to get more from myself. I was always physically capable, but was I clever enough, did I have the mental goods to deliver? But when you get a feeling as strong as climbing Action, for sure, I want that again. I want that a lot.”
But first things first. Right now it’s time for a new car, the MG met its end on a slippery Bavarian bend. He knows what he wants. “A Porsche GT2, I drove one at Brands Hatch, it was amazing - so much more fun than climbing.” However, just this once, it looks like he’ll have to set his sights a little lower.