Climbing legend Ben Moon drove the sport climbing and bouldering scenes in the 80s and 90s. In 1990, he was the first person to climb the mystical grade of 9a. Now, 25 years later, and after many years off climbing, he's just climbed his second 9a, Rainshadow at Malham. How has he pulled off such an impressive comeback? Sarah Stirling finds out.
BM: When I first saw Rainshadow I wasn't climbing at all. I'd given up, years ago. Then I watched Jordan Buys trying this route. It takes an amazing line up the centre of Malham Cove. I felt so inspired. I thought: wouldn't it be incredible if I could do a route like that?
Walking away from Malham that day, I thought: I'm really lucky that my weight doesn't fluctuate; I'm still ten stone as I always was, and fit and healthy. I react well to training; I improve and get back to former levels really quickly. I've got really good genes. My grandma died at 104, still slim and fit! I decided to start training and climbing again.
My base level is really high, partly because my finger strength stays pretty static even if I don’t do anything. I went on a trip to Font with family and friends long after I'd given up climbing, and I could do about Font 7b+ then, so I guess that's my base level without any training!
The first route I did when I got back into climbing was Predator 8b at Malham: that took four days. Then later that year I did an 8b+. It took me five or six days. Then I did an 8c at Ravens Tor; then I nearly did an 8c+.
Last year was a write-off though, I had elbow problems and didn't climb for six or seven months initially. So I've been training really hard again since about September.
It took me 18 days to climb Rainshadow. I first started trying the route in February this year, and for four months I totally focussed on that route. I only climbed at Malham or trained indoors specifically for Rainshadow. It's one of the best routes I've ever done. I can't believe it! It was an incredible feeling clipping the chains.
It's funny that I've now climbed my second 9a, exactly 25 years after I was the first person to climb the grade. I climbed Hubble the day after my birthday in 1990, and it's my birthday in a few days. I graded Hubble 8c+ back in 1990 but it's generally accepted as 9a now.
Rainshadow is a completely different kind of route to Hubble. It's a lot longer. You need endurance, and it's also got a hard, bouldery crux. There's an 8c+ move into that crux, and an 8a plus move out of it, with no rest.
There are two sport routes on my mind now I've climbed Rainshadow: Northern Lights and Evolution. Evolution is a route of Jerry Moffat's at Raven Tor. Northern Lights is a Steve Mac 9a at Kilnsey. It was an old project of mine that I gave up on in 1996; Steve did it in 2000.
Northern Lights has been on my mind ever since getting back into sport climbing. I spent 30 days trying to do it back in the 90s. It broke me in the end. I packed in sport climbing after three seasons of failing on that route. I gave up in 1996 and just went bouldering.
Then I packed in climbing altogether in 2006. I'd just done a really hard boulder problem called Vogager in the Peak. Probably the hardest thing I've ever done.
But I felt demotivated. I didn't have any goals. And I had a young daughter; she's six now. I became more focussed on my family and business, I guess. I climbed about once a month and I took my daughter climbing a bit, but that was it. I also did a bit of surfing.
Things have changed since I first started climbing. The British scene is great nowadays: very diverse people doing lots of different stuff. The indoor scene is massive now. I wish there were more people out sport climbing. I think the indoor market has brought people in who don’t know much about climbing and don’t realise what’s out there.
When I was young you read in a mag about this route and that route and that’s what you aspired to do and maybe they don’t know about that nowadays. I left school at 16 after failing all my O-Levels. I was a rebel and they didn’t want me back. I stacked shelves for three months in a factory, then I moved to Sheffield, signed on the dole and went climbing. I dossed on the floor of a house for six months, then rented a house with some climbers.
I climbed trad back then, because that was pretty much all there was in the UK. Until the mid 80s I did a lot of trad up to E7, but from then onwards I focussed on sport climbing. I like pushing myself to my physical limit in a safe environment.
I first went to France back in 1984 with Jerry Moffat who had become my friend and climbing partner in Sheffield. It was where a lot of the hardest routes in the world were at that time. Verdon and Buix. It was the place to be, really, for sport climbing. We learnt a lot from the way they were climbing, and then took French-style redpointing back to the UK.
I gave some of my new routes in France tongue-in-cheek names about French military disasters like Agincourt. I feel a bit guilty about it now but I spoke to some French climbers recently, and they didn’t seem offended by it. They thought it was funny. So I don’t think they hate me over there…
Then, in 1987 the government started this scheme called Enterprise Allowance. It basically allowed me to get dole money without signing on. I’d just got my first shoe contract with Asolo; then I got more contracts. Boreal and DMM. I put together a business plan and it went from there really. I didn’t need much money back in those days.
When I packed in sport climbing and just bouldered, it all went in a different direction. I’d always bouldered a lot for training. But that’s what it was back then - training for climbing. Yes, I think I had a big impact on the sport because it was all I was doing from the late 90s onwards, and I made the first bouldering films ever. They were very popular and showed bouldering in a new light.
It’s crazy, though: I never imagined bouldering becoming a sport in its own right. But in a way it doesn’t surprise me: it’s less pressure and more fun than hard redpointing or onsighting. You don’t have to invest so much time and you don’t need equipment or partners. It’s more accessible. And with the growth of indoor climbing walls it’s really taken off.
I love training indoors. I have to be careful not to get side-tracked, and remember it's a means to an end. I don't have a training schedule as such but I always have a plan in my mind. I keep a training diary so I can see what I've done over the past year. I'm quite methodical.
I climb and train about 15 to 18 days per month on average, now that I've got back into climbing. About three days a week, sometimes four. At the wall I'll do a mix of really hard bouldering: 3-4 move problems combined with 7-8 move and 20 move problems.
My main advice for older climbers wanting to get back in the game after time off is: take it really slowly and be patient. Don't overdo it. And try to be consistent: little and often is better than a lot not very often. Twice a week for an hour is better than once a week for two hours.
I'm lucky to have my own business so I can be very flexible with when I work. I try to keep the weekends free for family things. When I've been climbing at Malham, it's been through the week when my daughter is at school.
Moon climbing has been going for over ten years now. It’s a pretty small company but it gives me a good lifestyle. I enjoy developing products. At the moment I'm particularly pleased with the Moon Board system. If you like Moon Board holds, it allows you to create problems and share them with people around the world.
When I packed in sport climbing people labelled me as a boulderer. But if I had to choose between bouldering and sport now, I'd choose sport. Bouldering is a young man's game. Jumping off and that is intense!
My next project is definitely Northern Lights at Kilnsey! The weather is getting warmer - I got Rainshadow done just in time - but Northern Lights doesn't get much sun...