Live and let live

Posted by Lucy Creamer on 07/08/2003
Lucy Creamer. Photo: Tim Glasby.

Concentrating on one aspect of climbing isn’t a bad thing. It’s essential if you want to stay ahead of the game, says Lucy Creamer.

“See that person over there?”
“What the really fit looking one?”
“Yeah, she’s only climbed outside once and it was on bolts.”
“No way! The way she climbs in here, you’d think she’d be able to get on anything, why hasn’t she gone to Gogarth then?
“That’s what I keep saying…Get yourself outside…but she seems to prefer it in here“
“Weird or what, can’t be a real climber….”

A familiar scenario down at the local wall? But why are we so intent on pushing everybody out to the crags? Okay, for those of us who do climb on the ‘real’ stuff, it’s a fantastic and sometimes life changing experience and that’s our choice. But if somebody never ventures outside, then, really so what? Generally people do, and having worked at various walls and watched people come and go, it’s definitely a small minority who stay on plastic and never get interested in the outdoors.

Climbing these days is no longer the simple gentleman’s’ pastime of tweed, tobacco and valiant struggles up green gullies. It’s not all about reaching the top. It’s just about how you want to play. Choose your niche and pick your style. Onsight, head point, red point. Trad, Sport, Competitions, Bouldering, Soloing. Big Walls, Aid routes, Alpinism, Ice, Mixed. And each with their own subtle intricacies and strange grades.

There are lots of us who enjoy dabbling in many of these areas and get a great deal of satisfaction from the versatility of something different, but nowadays people are starting to specialise. Climbing on the mountain crags of Snowdonia is not the forerunner to climbing in the Alps it used to be, it’s just simply cragging in North Wales. Bouldering is not just used to get powerful enough to do the crux move of your route project, it just is bouldering; an end in itself.

These days it is just not possible to excel, and by that we mean be the very best, at every category of climbing. This super-human being doesn’t exist. To be the best in all, would require incredible strength, talent, time, focus, money, dedication and to be honest, an incredibly obsessive and robot-like personality.

Using athletics as an example, you wouldn’t find Marion Jones winning the 100 metres gold and then thinking to herself, “ Oh I quite fancy trying a Marathon next week. I’m sure that’ll be alright with the Coach.” It doesn’t happen in any sport, people specialise once they find out where their strengths lie.

But as we all know climbing isn’t like other sports, it’s a ‘lifestyle’, a complete ‘way of life”. The appeal is in its variety in terms of locations, people, moves, styles and levels. Which may explain why there is a national obsession with having to be good at everything, an all-rounder. An all too common throw away comment when somebody achieves something is “oh yes. But they are only a boulderer, they don’t do routes.” So what!

Or my own personal bugbear is “well they are bound to be that good, they train indoors.” Yes, well, that’s entirely the point. Ramon Julian was recently quoted in OTE as saying “I believe in order to be really strong you have to train in a climbing gym….You can also build strength on rock but it is easier in a gym.”
This 21 year old recently put up one of the hardest routes in the world, so he’s obviously doing something right. He also happens to be coming consistently in the top three in the World Cups at the moment. This is something very close to my heart as I have enjoyed competing immensely over the years but feel worn down and saddened by the continuing negative attitudes towards indoor and competition climbers.

There is a definite trend in the British climbing world which has been around since I started competing over ten years ago, that expounds the theory that on-sight trad climbing is the number one accepted style of climbing and anything that isn’t, is not really worth doing or is just not ‘real’ climbing. Well, it’s time to wake up and start accepting the people who are specialising and get used to the fact that we are all different and get our ‘kicks’ in different ways.

I guess I’m lucky because I started climbing on rock, then progressed up through the grades as is the accepted way of doing things. So when I get the not-so-infrequent rude person coming up to me at a wall, questioning my climbing morals and exclaiming “oh why aren’t you outside on a day like today?”, I can defend myself by saying that trad onsighting is my first love, but explain that with a comp coming up I have to train indoors.

But that’s just being polite. What I should really be saying is; “actually I enjoy competitions and climbing down the wall. The evidence would suggest that you do too, it’s a great way to keep fit and strong and I’m anticipating more than one good weather day in my lifetime!” The stigma that surrounds indoor climbing seems ridiculous, especially when you look at the numbers of people regularly using walls.

In Britain, we may be blessed with some of the best trad climbing in the World, but if that isn’t your bag, or you can’t get access to it, then walls or sport climbing are your only options. OK, Britain does have some great bolted routes, but you don’t get many visiting foreigners coming over here on their holidays to go sport climbing, instead we all pile over there and climb on their acres of good rock. You know when you go abroad you’re going to get mileage on routes of your grade, good weather and almost definitely come back fitter. Well, unless the trip gets sidetracked by too much vino and sunbathing that is.

I was reminded of our unfortunate climate and bolted rock scenario when I saw this quote about Francois Legrand in ’Rock Stars’;

“Hardly any other climber had such an all-encompassing training programme so specifically geared to competitions. On a good training day he would warm up…Next he would do strength endurance training on his big climbing wall…in the afternoons he would go to Orgon, where he would warm up by doing a 7b then two reps of an 8a. After a twenty minute break he would do three or four attempts at the route ‘Bronx’ 8c+, resting for twenty minutes between each go. Next he would do an 8a+ three times with a minutes rest in between goes, rest for ten minutes then do another set and he would finish the day with a 7c!”

If you ask any of us on the British Team, how often we train on rock for comps there would probably be a resounding silence. It’s not that we don’t want to but our rock just doesn’t lend itself to International style routes. Our sport routes are generally less steep, shorter and feature quite bouldery cruxes. Whereas comp routes are very long, very steep and very sustained with no obvious crux - the total opposite.

The future of the British competition scene is in our up and coming Junior team, in which we have a bundle of potential. The vast majority will not come from climbing families, but the ones that do are lucky in that they are taken outside from a young age and get a great grounding in one of the most important aspects of all, technique. Fliss Butler, the British champion 1992, was a classic example of this, she explained in Rock Stars that “The fact that I did many traditional routes on-sight with bad protection, helped me a lot for competition climbing.”

But the ones who are stuck down the wall should be given our support. I was one of these people, in my late teens and early twenties, no car, no money, living in a city but desperate to climb, so I found myself down the wall. A lot. It was great for strength and fitness and it also opened up a whole network of climbers to me, who took me under their wing and whisked me off to such exotic places such as Cheddar gorge!

But what if they just simply prefer to climb indoors right now, but feel slightly intimidated by the ongoing supposition that “onsight trad is king”? If you look at all the profiles that the juniors fill in for competition comperes to read out, they’ll nearly always nominate a trad route as their “Favourite Route”. Now I’m sure they enjoyed this route but I can’t help but feel it’s due to conditioning; they feel they will belong or be accepted more if they can prove they’ve been out trad climbing. But why? These kids are the ones interested in comps, the ones who aren’t are out on Stanage on a sunny Saturday. They’re here to compete.

The real question is why do we continually denigrate comps and their validity instead of accepting their existence and getting on with our own things? I was talking to Steve McClure the other day about these types of attitudes and he came up with a situation that I could really relate to. He said, and bear in mind this guy is one of the best sport climbers in the World;

“I was chatting to some people a while back and we were talking about routes and I could tell they didn’t really understand my climbing or sport climbing and were looking down their noses a bit so I found myself starting to justify myself. Saying things like ‘I grew up trad climbing, I only started sport climbing a few years back. I still go out tradding, I just don’t go on about it’. But then I thought, what am I doing? I’m buying into this whole thing of sport climbing being inferior. So I decided to make more of a conscious effort in the future to talk-up sport climbing rather than letting people dismiss it.”
Steve is a great example of someone who has discovered his strengths and followed that direction and excelled. This is what you have to do if you want to be a podium competition climber. You have to concentrate on that style of climbing, put all your energy into it and go for it. This is why support or even just a lack of cynical witticisms from the climbing community is a big help.

There is no doubt that climbing on rock is incredibly important and an integral part of every competition climbers’ repertoire. Looking at the history of 99% of the top competitors, they either grew up on rock or have had a variety of mileage on rock and wall to access the diversity of techniques on both mediums. But in the future, there will probably be a whole breed of competition climbers who have no interest in touching rock. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

So to all you cynics and future world champions out there, go and do your own thing. Have fun and enjoy, be nice to each other (ahh!) and above all be proud of yourself and your chosen area.


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