Frances Bensley: the third British woman to boulder 8B

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 03/12/2018
Frances climbing Jack the chipper, 7B+ in Magic Wood

Frances Bensley has repeated the boulder problem Fat Lip 8B at Raven Tor in Miller's Dale, a route first climbed by Steve McClure in 2007. She is only the third British woman to climb the grade: the others were Shauna Coxsey and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk. Frances also redpointed her first 8b+ sport route this year, in Siurana. Does she have any tips for us, in general and for this route? Apparently it's all about wearing a particular climbing shoe on your right foot!

I am currently managing the Ballroom Climbing Wall in the heart of Coventry city centre. It is a couple hours' drive in any direction to find outdoor climbing!

I started out as a comp climber. I made some great friends competing in the BMC Youth series when I was younger and I am still in touch with many of them. Although my main focus is now climbing outdoors, I have continued to compete casually ever since.

Comp climbing brings a different element entirely – I think it is fair to say it is basically a different sport! It is a great way to challenge yourself, meet new people, and watch other climbers for inspiration.

Up until a few years ago, I didn't set myself any big goals. Most of the climbing and bouldering that I did outdoors was either onsight, flash, or done in a couple of sessions – redpointing was a foreign concept!

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In 2015, when I became aware that I was strong enough to climb harder but needed to get fitter, I focussed on more specific aspects of my climbing. I had a trip to Rodellar in Spain planned and set myself the goal of climbing 8a. On the very same trip, I redpointed Gracias Fina, my first 8a.

Once I stopped seeing 8a as this massive grade, I stopped limiting myself by seeing 8as as a huge barrier to overcome. The other big difference at this point in my life is that I started climbing more than twice a week and also started climbing more regularly outdoors.

In April I climbed my first 8b+ (Kalea Borroka) in Siurana and then set myself the challenge of projecting Pilgrim 8A/+ at Parisella's cave, which I had tried on and off in the previous couple of seasons. Feeling stronger than I had before on the Fat Lip moves made me think that with enough time and effort, it might be possible.

Before I tried Fat Lip, I had written it off as above my pay grade. It wasn't until I actually pulled onto the start moves that the idea of projecting it seemed less remote. There is a key right heel near the beginning that I even bought a pair of Five Ten Blancos for because I had heard that they made the move significantly easier – this certainly proved to be the case for me!

My first session on Fat Lip was spent successfully pulling onto the first moves and failing to get my heel to stick. On the second session, I tried this new shoe on my right foot and was delighted when my gamble paid off. At this point there were still three individual moves that I was unable to do! It took me around 10 sessions in total.

I enjoy getting to know the details of a problem – discovering the micro beta and very subtle body positions. With repetition, your body learns the moves so that you can climb them as efficiently as possible. The moves in isolation are not desperate and from what I understand, the holds are surprisingly positive for 8B. However getting everything to go right all in the same go was a challenge. There are a lot of things that can wrong and not much margin for error! The knowledge that the season might soon end, because a couple of the key holds start to seep, spurred me on!

Fat Lip was an investment that required a level of dedication I have never before commited to anything. I didn't train specifically – just tried it for hours. I enjoyed working towards an end goal and seeing the progress I was making.

What would I say to other women wanting to get strong? Don’t be afraid to try something because you feel you are not strong enough. I have spent a fair bit of time on woodies, moon boards, finger boards and campus boards – anything that is working big moves, power or finger strength. This definitely applies to routes as well as bouldering – strength is a lot slower to build up than fitness for most people. You don't hear many women complaining that they are too strong!

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