Do you think the recent boom in sport climbing has made the culture of rock climbing as a whole less adventurous?
For adventure you have to have risk, and the whole point of sport climbing is to eliminate the risk and focus on the athleticism. Many fantastic bold ascents are being made alongside the boom in sport climbing, sometimes by climbers who sport-climb to improve their skills. But in many countries nowadays rock climbing equals sport climbing, so it’s essentially risk free and feels entirely different to the sport I’ve been pursuing for most of my life.
In my view, sport climbing can be as adventurous as trad climbing – particularly on steep, hard multipitch routes on cliffs like Sardinia’s amazing Gole di Giruppe or Morocco’s Taghia region, or on many other recent discoveries in Mexico, China, Brazil, and elsewhere. What is your view of this concept of ‘adventure sport climbing’ as whole?
Adventure is a hard concept to define, and I’m sure that multi-pitch sport routes that are climbed ground-up feel pretty adventurous. But basically the man with the drill is in control; he can make the route as safe or as bold as he chooses. I find the phrase ‘adventure sport climbing’ a bit pernicious, like ‘minimalist bolting’. Does it mean that the bolts are just a bit further apart? Truly adventurous sports deal with an element that is bigger than you are and which ultimately calls the shots. In surfing it is the sea. In climbing it should be the rock that dictates to us, determining not just how difficult the climbing is but how serious it is also. With a drill you can place protection anywhere. If you really want adventure leave the bolts behind and try to tackle these crags with a trad rack.
With the massive explosion in the sport climbing and bouldering demographic as a result of the proliferation of climbing walls, how can all these talented young climbers who don’t know what cams or wires are for be introduced to trad climbing?
Well the first thing is to ensure that there is always an arena for trad climbing – this is fast vanishing in many parts of the world as natural rock is consumed by bolting. Many climbing wall and bouldering stars will never take up trad climbing and maybe that doesn’t matter, but trad climbing has to be vigorously defended for people that want to pursue a more adventurous sport. Climbing and mountaineering have always been among the ultimate outlets for people seeking an adventurous sport/lifestyle, and we have to make sure that the sport continues to attract these people; otherwise it will very soon become an over-safe, organized and regulated sport just like any other.
Doug Scott once suggested that the BMC should ‘fund bolt removal’, in a bizarre statement which came close to suggesting the annihilation of all sport climbing in the UK. What’s your view of this extreme position?
Poor Doug – this statement is always taken out of context and misinterpreted! He was saying that just as the BMC funds bolt replacement on cliffs where it has been agreed that bolting is acceptable, so it should also fund bolt removal/repair of the rock where bolts have been placed in breach of bolting agreements brokered by the BMC. I don’t find this position extreme – I think most British climbers would agree with it and in fact it is pretty much BMC policy (and I believe it’s being implemented in Western Cornwall right now). Doug is definitely not advocating the annihilation of sport climbing, but like me he believes that it should be contained, and that around the world each country should carefully consider what rock should remain natural and what may be appropriate for bolting. This is what he has been working towards at the U.I.A.A. and unless something like this happens, there is a real danger that just about all accessible rock will have been bolted by climbers in the foreseeable future. This to my mind would be a disgrace for the sport and an environmental crime.
Do you find it hard to accept the fact that the best trad adventure climbers of the present day - guys like Nico Favresse and Alex Honnold - are also accomplished sport climbers, and sport climbing has now become an essential tool for high level trad climbing?
Not at all, but to get the benefits of sport climbing it is not necessary to keep bolting up more and more rock. Countries like France and Switzerland have a huge surfeit of bolted climbing such that many bolted cliffs are now completely neglected (but still covered in redundant metalwork placed by climbers). You now have to search quite hard to find any trad climbing and even harder to find any information about it! In Britain, although we are seen internationally as ‘anti-bolt’ we have enough sport climbing venues to challenge and train our best trad climbers if that’s what they choose to do, and I personally think we have the balance about right.
What are your five favourite crags in Britain?
For doing established routes probably Bosigran/Great Zawn, Lower Sharpnose Point, any Torbay crag, Cloggy and the Llanberis Pass.
What are your five favourite places around the world for exploratory trad climbing?
Currently North Cornwall, South Cornwall, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Son Kul canyons of Kyrgyzstan.
What’s the best place in world right now for accessible exploratory alpinism?
Not sure, but I’m into the Tien Shan myself and that will have plenty to explore for the next ten years at least.
What’s the best new route you’ve ever done?
Sticking to rock climbs, in Britain it would be a toss-up between Il Duce in N Cornwall and Above and Beyond at Fair Head. Internationally it would be Dark Safari (600m E6) on the N Face of Poi in northern Kenya.
What’s been the most satisfying experience of your climbing life?
The first time I felt utterly satisfied with climbing was after the N Wall of the Eiger in 1979. I had no urge to climb for a couple of months – a record! The NE Pillar of Taweche in Nepal was just as satisfying and also left me with numb swollen toes that couldn’t bear rock shoes for 2 months!
Finally, what would you take with you to a desert island?
Mask, snorkel and really comfy rock shoes.