Robbie Phillips: tackling fear to take on extreme climbing dreams

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 10/12/2015
The New Statesman. Photo: Finalcrux Films.
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Top performance coach and comp-climber Robbie Phillips has spent the past couple of years testing how far his skills transfer to adventure mode and finding out: "when you're scared, how do you do it anyway?" A series of six episodes about Robbie's adventures called Transcendence will be out soon, by Finalcrux films.

When I left school I didn’t want to go to university, so I went straight to work at the climbing wall, mainly performance-coaching and route-setting. Then I decided to do something a bit different, which led me to a big multipitch route in the Dolomites, Bellavista (8b+) last year. It was then that I realised there’s far more to climbing than just pushing the physical aspect. Climbing has always been about going on adventures and setting new challenges.

I had three big routes in mind for this summer that were all a bit out of my league, so I put in place some mental and tactical training goals on the build-up. My friend Willis and I would spend all summer in my campervan ticking off each route before eventually going for our ultimate goal, the Eiger.

The first route was Silbergeier in Switzerland: it had been my goal for ten years, ever since my coach Neil McGeachy told me about it. It’s a bolted route with sustained climbing up to 8b+ and huge run-outs so you’d take a massive winger if you fell. Exciting!

Next up I made the second ascent of Project Fear (8c), a Dave MacLeod route, as I quite liked the idea of two Scottish guys being the only ones to have climbed this Italian route. It was a total adventure, much bigger than the Swiss route, 18 pitches with a bit of sketchy chossy nonsense to get my head in gear for the Eiger.

Paciencia, Eiger North Face. Photo: Finalcrux Films

Paciencia, Eiger North Face. Photo: Finalcrux Films

I first heard of Pacienca, Ueli Steck’s route on the Eiger, when David Llama made the second ascent. He said it was the hardest route in the Alps. I thought: “It doesn’t look that hard!” There were lots of 6a and 6b pitches, with sections of 7c-8a. I didn’t get it. Then I found out!

Pacienca’s not safe at all. You spend ages climbing the easier pitches because you don’t want to die. The harder pitches are safer but on really techy limestone. Every hold is upside down and it’s vertical with no footholds so you’re constantly on the edge of falling off, and there are massive run-outs between really suspect gear on very bad rock. It was proper adventure mode.

Back in the UK, I was honoured and confused to be invited as a pro to the Red Bull White Cliffs dry tooling event, as I’d never tried dry tooling before! The marketing was: "14 of the best mixed climbers battle it out". In reality there were 13 of them – people like Will Gadd and Tim Emmett who are alright at that kind of thing – and me.

At first I couldn’t get to the top. Then I discovered I could trust the axes and just went for it. In the finals at 75m the presenter was saying: “Robbie you’re winning, keep going!” but then I got lost 80m up and came 5th overall. I was pleased with that. I’ve been trying to do everything I can to become an all-rounder, and am looking forward to a big winter season.

After that, I went to the slate quarries to try that Johnny Dawes route, the Quarryman. It’s a famous classic that’s only been done once before from the ground. The groove pitch is wild, it’s not something you can train for. Nobody makes it look pretty. It took me three days, but I was just happy I made it look easier than Caff on his video – he looked like he was taking a crap the whole time with that awkward strained look on his face! I think I made it look slightly more dignified … but it did take three days to get to that point.

I started getting into British trad properly in September last year. By November time I’d headpointed a few E7s and E8s. Then I did New Statesman E9 at Ilkley. I progressed to onsighting a lot in the E6 range and then flashed my first E7, Dalriada.

I’ve been climbing a lot with Ian Small, who is the best trad climber I’ve ever seen. Definitely the best onsight trad climber in Scotland, but he doesn’t ever talk big about himself. At first I was really embarrassed to climb with him as I was so rubbish by comparison, but I knew I’d learn a lot. I want what he’s got. He’s very calculated, and knows his limits and can just hold everything together in tough situations.

When I took up trad and big wall climbing I was intrigued by the idea of being scared and the tactics behind it. How do you just get on with it when you’re scared, and especially: how do you do it in an environment far from help on a new route that’s really serious?

The answer is training – everything I’ve been doing is training – because I’d love to go new-routing on Baffin, but if I went now I’d die. I’d freeze to death and fall off. The routes I did this summer are tame in comparison. Even the Eiger – you’re on an alpine north face but at the same time you can watch a family having an ice cream just down the road. You can hear their laughter while you’re freezing your ass off.

There have always been training fads – gymnastic rings, cross fit, campus ball and lots lots more. I don’t think these are always that transferable to climbing. If you do lots of campus sessions you’ll be really good at pulling yourself up on wooden rungs (or campus balls which is the latest fad). The best training for climbing is, and always will be, climbing. If you want to get stronger go bouldering, but be specific with it! Work your weaknesses or whatever it is you want to improve on whether it’s a physical or technical attribute.

I find soloing interesting. I like to do routes I’ve never done before. I’ll test the water – is this worth committing to? Honnold has climbed 8c but the routes he solos aren’t that hard for him. He’s developed his mental ability so he’s comfortable up to 7c. I think that’s the trick; you need to build your experience and mental strength up over time – it’s all about training.

I’m going to Yosemite for a month in April as I’ve never done any big granite multi-pitches before and it’ll be good training for Baffin. Then I’d like to finish the Alpine Trilogy – if I’m successful I will be the first Brit to have done that. Then I think I’ll be ready to scare myself with the polar bears in Baffin!

I’ve just started doing a lot of motivational speaking and so far it’s going really well. Speaking ties in well with my climbing adventures. I’m not earning millions, but enough to get by and go climbing a lot. Climbing has always been a big game to me: it’s about challenging yourself, learning the strategies, but at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun!


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