Back in March, closed climbing walls and a cancelled competition calendar led to 15 year-old Toby Roberts building a Moonboard in the garden with his dad, and setting a big outdoor goal as training motivation. Within months he had become the youngest Brit to climb 9a: the route was the legendary Rainshadow at Malham Cove.
We first interviewed Toby back in 2015, when, as a little mop-haired ten-year-old, he became the youngest Brit to climb 8a: the route was Raindogs at Malham Cove (BMC News). The next year, he used half term to tick Revelations 8b at Raven Tor (BMC News).
Since then, Toby has shot up and so have his goals. Aged ten, he dreamed of qualifying for the GB Junior Climbing Team. Last year, the teen was the European Youth Boulder Champion, placed second in the European Youth Lead Championships and set his sights on the 2024 Olympics.
When he was younger, Toby also played rugby, football, hockey and ran cross-country, but "it's all about the climbing these days", he says: training "normally takes about three hours a day after school and the holidays revolve around travelling to competitions and crags." Like many of us, Toby was gutted when his plans for the year were cancelled by COVID19:
Toby competing in France during a lockdown lift this year
“I broke my ankle in January and had worked really hard on my rehab and conditioning to be ready for the comp season,” he explains. “By the middle of March I was just starting to feel good again and able to climb.”
During the first two weeks of lockdown, when it stretched endlessly ahead, Toby barely climbed but did build a Moonboard in the garden. The teen decided to focus on the positives: he had grown a lot recently, and lockdown was an opportunity to train without worrying about short-term goals. Setting a hard goal to train for - Rainshadow - helped with motivation levels.
Toby's aim for the first month of lockdown was simply avoiding injury: lots of rest days and progressively building his training volume using a Lattice training plan. “Over the spring and towards the summer,” Toby told us, “I was getting stronger on the board and progressed from about 7a to 8a. I found that very motivating.”
Toby's lockdown project
In late July, when lockdown lifted, armed with high psych and his dad to belay him, Toby headed to Raven Tor for two weeks. After months on the Moonboard, he was strong enough to send short, sharp bouldery routes, such as Mecca 8b+ and Make It Funky 8c. However, although he’d been doing circuits, the time away from longer routes had decreased his stamina.
During the rest of the summer, Toby focussed on lead training at his local walls - doing doubles and triples on the hardest routes he could find - while waiting for the nesting birds to leave Malham Cove, so he could get on Rainshadow. Slowly, his power endurance and stamina returned.
WATCH Niall Grimes interviews Toby Roberts on BMC TV:
In October, the 10-hour round trips to Malham began, to work Rainshadow for a few days at a time. Toby wasn’t very optimistic at first: “I didn’t get many of the crux moves or work out much of the beta. I then tried the top thinking it wouldn’t be too bad – but it was a lot harder than I thought.”
Slowly, he progressed: “A big high was climbing the 8A crux boulder problem for the first time and having the route linked in three sections. I then knew it was possible. A low was realising how much harder an 8A boulder problem is after climbing an 8a route to get to it!”
As winter approached, and climbing walls closed again due to another lockdown, Toby desperately tried to maintain his fitness while obsessively checking weather apps: “I wasn’t interested in sending in spring 2021. This had become my goal for the year and time was running out.”
Toby on the crux moves of Rainshadow 9a
"A low was realising how much harder an 8A boulder problem is after climbing an 8a route to get to it!"
November offered more challenges - wet holds and frozen fingertips - and it was only going to get worse. With rain and even some snow forecast from last Thursday (December 3) onwards, with some desperation, Toby walked into Malham Cove during morning mist and sideways rain.
When he fell off the crux he was gutted: “The route is very tiring and I always thought I had most chance on my first redpoint. I started talking to my dad about when it might be best to come back. I was already tired and just wanted to be feeling fresh with good conditions.”
Toby’s dad then told him something interesting: Ben Moon and Steve McClure had both walked to the top of the Cove before sending Rainshadow and Rainman respectively. He suggested a walk to the top of the crag.
“We sat at the top," remembers Toby, "Looking over the valley for about an hour with some snacks and a flask of tea. It did suddenly feel like weather conditions had improved and it was about two hours since my previous attempt. We walked straight back to the route and I tied in.”
“I felt bad going up the first section - probably the worst I have felt - but got through to my high point. I felt like it was all going right and wrong at the same time! I don’t normally make too much noise when climbing but some instinctive power screams arrived and I was fighting every move.”
Toby on Rainshadow 9a
"Some instinctive power screams arrived and I was fighting every move"
“I did the last few moves to the last hold where I thought I could fall (the last few moves are jugs) and then tried to compose myself. I clipped the chains and was a combination of exhausted, relieved and excited at the same time!”
Toby added: “I can’t explain how happy I am with this route being the first of the grade for me. I've also really appreciated the constant psyche and support from a lot of people – especially Ian Dunn, Steve McClure, Ollie Torr, Ben Moon and I'm also glad my dad enjoys belaying so much!”
Toby’s next goal is Hubble, followed by Steve McClure’s Rainman 9b – a different finish to Rainshadow at Malham and currently the UK’s hardest sport route. And after that? “I like hard projects so, as my training progresses, would like to test myself on the world's hardest routes – currently Silence and Bibliographie both 9c. Might take a while though!"
“I’m also really focused on competitions and would like to compete at the Olympics in 2024 or 2028. I had my first year competing internationally in lower Youth B last year which went well but I also feel like a learnt a lot and can improve so I’m really looking forward to 2021.”
The previous record for the youngest ascent of a 9a by a Brit was held by Will Bosi, who climbed Rainshadow aged 17 in 2016. 16-year-old Josh Ibbertson ticked Rainshadow a few days after Toby.
You can follow Toby on Instagram: @toby_climbing
WATCH Toby sending Rainshadow:
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