Lucy Creamer once flew the flag for British women's climbing: seven-times British champion, she was the first British woman to climb 8b+ and E8 and paved the way for the latest generation of female cranksters. An injury forced her out of the spotlight in 2009, but now, after several years of DIY and dog-walking, she's back on form.
We caught up with her to find out just what it's like to be struck down in your prime, why she sported a mid-life crisis Mohican and her thoughts on the new rise of British female climbing.
SS: Before 2009 you were probably the most accomplished British female climber across broad disciplines. Hard trad, sport, mixed/ice climbs, first ascents, seven-times British champ at comps. I remember you telling me that you first tried climbing in your late teens and got partway up an HVS in trainers - just a total natural! How did it feel to have found your ‘true path in life’ and be so successful at it?
LC: Well, it took a few years to become the climber I am today but it was a relief to have finally found the sport that I could sink my heart and soul into. I always knew a life in sport was my destiny and tried everything and anything as a kid, but it wasn’t until I had a go at climbing that I knew I’d found the right path for me. My face never quite fitted before - I always felt like a bit of an outsider - but through climbing I found a group of quirky, engaging and interesting people.
In 2009 you were the first British woman to climb 8b+, then you disappeared from the scene. I heard you suffered a shoulder injury from 2009 to 2012, then when that was finally diagnosed and on the mend, you badly broke your leg. How did you deal with being struck down in your prime - did you suffer withdrawal symptoms or an identity crisis?
Some people like to stay involved in the climbing scene when they are injured but, as I'm naturally quite a solitary peson, I found it quite hard. So it was easier to remove myself to a certain extent, although, looking back I’m not so sure this was the best strategy! I didn’t deal with this period of injury particularly well. I found not being able to climb very frustrating and, yes, my identity as a person was challenged. I had questions and conundrums buzzing round my brain and it was quite difficult to see clearly at times.
I didn’t give up completely: instead of climbing 3-5 times a week, I 'pottered' maybe once a week. After a few years of this, the ‘fun factor’ definitely wore off. So I got quite into running and to my surprise really enjoyed it (well always retrospectively!) but since getting back into climbing, running has become a distant memory: just a phase!. There’s nothing that really hits the mark for me or holds my attention like climbing.
I remember seeing you at Pembroke in 2011: you had cut your hair short and said you were having a bit of a midlife crisis. What happened?
I’m always having some sort of internal crisis, ha ha. I’m an over-thinker and probably prone to dark thoughts. I think it’s interesting that I know a lot of climbers who are similar to me: whether we just talk more openly about it, or whether climbing attracts people with these sorts of mentalities, I don’t know. I think it’s good to say these things and acknowledge that it’s kind of normal, and good to be aware that having physical injuries can go hand in hand with mental health issues.
The mid-life crisis was linked to turning 40: I didn’t handle it well and don’t like getting older. I’d always wanted a Mohican as a teenager but never had the courage, so my 40th seemed like an appropriate time to do it!
What did you turn to instead of climbing? Any tips for injured climbers on dealing with withdrawal, and getting back to their former level once recovered?
I recommend putting your energies into something else. Personally, I like DIY. It’s absorbing, frustrating and can take hours: a bit like climbing! Although if you’ve got elbow problems, it’s probably not the best!
I tried numerous things, including rope access work, furniture making, converting a van into a camper and harmony singing! Walking my dogs was very therapeutic too because being outside is a necessity for me. Friends suggested I write a book but I had a mental block on that one. Maybe 2015 will provide inspiration…
Getting back to where you were is a process that shouldn’t be rushed; I wish I’d listened to myself over the years. It will come but make sure your body is ready for what you are asking of it.
Climbing is your job, not just your passion - did your injury make you question your chosen path in life and its security at all? Were your sponsors supportive?
Phew! These are good, tough questions. Yes my sponsors have been incredibly supportive and I wholeheartedly thank them for that. Although I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve chosen, even with its inherent insecurities, I am continually questioning my lifestyle but the answers don’t always come!
Last October, after years of only being able to 'potter' at climbing, you onsighted an 8a in Kalymnos - Fun de Chichunne. It must have felt fantastic. Were you feeling resigned that you were past your peak by that time?
I suppose I was, whether I liked it or not: I had no expectations when I got on that route. I was just happy to be able to climb again and make improvements. Even though they were small, it felt good. I’d been gradually working my way up through the grades, redpointing on Peak limestone, but had no idea how this would translate to other rock types. To my surprise, I seemed to be climbing really well in Kalymnos!
How did it feel when you realised you might onsight the route, and jumped to give everything to the tufa fin?
I hate jumping, so I was talking to myself to make sure I gave it 100%. It was do or die so to speak. If I was going to fall off, I wanted to give it everything I could and I did! It paid off and felt fantastic, especially when I was swinging around by one arm. Not my usual style, ha ha!
A few weeks later you went to Catalunya and flashed / onsighted two 8as in a day - it seems you are the first British woman to do that - how did it feel to be pushing boundaries again?
Kind of unexpected I suppose. I was just hoping to get back to somewhere near where I had been, climbing-wise, I truly didn’t expect to make improvements: isn’t the human body a wonderful thing! Everything went right that day. It’s taught me to recognise when I’m going well and make the most of it. In the past I might have rested on my laurels, happy with an F8a flash. Instead, I eyed up Maneras de Vivir, and it paid off!
It seems like you have burst through onto the climbing scene again. Do you have any goals - or fears - about that? Will you approach climbing - and life - differently now you've come through such a challenging time?
I’m sure I should. I will try to be sensible, rest more and pace myself … but sometimes the mind is a lot stronger than the body and you forget. I’m not a goal-driven person but there are some trad routes that I never got round to doing in 2009, so hopefully if I keep climbing well and we have a good summer, I’ll be able to have a go at them.
You said you pulled off Maneras de Vivir by seeing moves quickly and keeping yourself moving. You have always been very good at onsighting. Can you tell us a bit more about your techniques - any tips?
I’ve always climbed a lot so consequently have a good level of endurance but this can be a curse as well as a blessing! On one hand you know you can hang around and recover to work things out, but hanging around too long and half-trying a move over and over again depletes your power levels.
I’ve learnt to make myself go for it as soon as I know what the move is. As a procrastinator, this method took some time to fine-tune! Another tip for being a good onsighter is to climb as much as you can on different rock types and walls to learn new moves and different ways to approach things.
You also redpointed a hard route that's not your typical style in Catalunya - L’Anarkista 8a+. You spent the equivalent of three days on it, breaking it down. Any mental/physical tips for those wanting to get into redpointing routes that initially seem impossible?
Mentally commit 100%. Redpointing requires a different approach to onsighting and you need to change your mindset. I am not a natural redpointer as I want things to happen quickly: I’m not particularly patient. But I’ve learnt that the routes do come if you persist and train appropriately. Once you can do all the moves on a project, it’s a case of trying to link them together in longer overlapping sections. It’s surprising how quickly this stage can come together.
L’Anarkista initially seemed way too hard for me. I tried it because I knew it wasn’t my cup of tea: burly moves and quite powerful climbing with barely any rests. I was finding the top really tricky but then that thing happened, where I did a hard move for the first time and then suddenly I did the top half in one go. That’s what I like about redpointing, it really does seem to go from impossible to ticked in a pretty short time.
Although, I think if something is at your true physical limit, that time frame increases a lot and the mental side becomes a lot tougher, that’s when the fun really begins. I haven’t experienced that level of redpoint commitment, so maybe 2015 is the year for it…
Earlier in your career, professional climbing was still very male-dominated, but now increasing numbers of female climbers are working up the ranks. Has the scene changed much while you've been out of it? Do you still have a niche?
I don't know if I have a niche, but my ablities definitely lie in osighting. The most notable changes I’ve seen have been in bouldering, mostly at The Works in Sheffield. I've been impressed with the amount of women climbing at really high levels. The depth of ability seemed to have increased tenfold and it's been just awesome to observe the younger generation really grabbing bouldering and running with it. This has obviously crossed over for some people onto routes too, especially the likes of Mina Wujastyk, Emma Twyford and Katie Whittaker.
In terms of what Shauna and Hazel have achieved, it is fantastic but not surprising. We have always had a lot of talent and, with the right support which they thankfully have managed to cultivate, they are now able to fully commit to a climbing lifestyle career.
Do you have any tips for female climbers wanting to progress to hard routes?
Be savvy and analytical. There are certain rock types you can push yourself on and always be relatively safe. Also: know what your strengths are. It’s not long reaches that are the problem for shorter climbers but lack of footholds. Well-featured rock offers a good variety of footholds - get used to using small and sometimes insignificant holds for feet, these will become your friends! Being short can be a hindrance but there are plenty of women proving it’s not a barrier.
Hardest trad on-sight: ‘Boss Hogg’ E7 6c- Pembrokeshire.
Hardest sport on-sight: Several f8a's of which her favourite is 'Monocroma' f8a, Raco de Misa, Spain.
Hardest headpoint: 'Slab and Crack' E8 6c, Curbar, The Peak District.
Hardest redpoint: 'Kalea Borroka' f8b+, Siurana, Spain. 2009.
Hardest mountain route: ‘Hasse-Brandler’ UIAA VIII, 500m Cima Grande, Dolomites, Italy.
Expeditions: new route, ‘Venus Envy’ E4/5 6a, 600m The Baroness, Greenland. 2001.
Mixed new route: ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ M9x- Ouray, Colorado USA, 2002. Unrepeated.
New boulder problem: ‘Trente-six’ Font 7c+- Veaux, France. 2007.
First ascent of ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ M9, a rock and ice route in Colorado that still hasn't seen a second ascent in its original unbolted state. It has now been bolted.
British Leading Champion: 1997/98, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007.
British Masters Champion: 1998.
British Bouldering Champion: 2001.
Best Ice competition result: 2nd place, Ouray International Ice Festival, Colorado 2002.
Best International result: Qualified for two World-Cup finals, gaining best result: 9th place 2003.
First British woman to redpoint 8b+ 2009.
First British woman to onsight / flash two 8as in a day 2014.
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