You started climbing in 1993 at Dumbarton Rock. How did it all begin?
I just got the train there by myself having read in the appendix of the old SMC Southern Highlands book that there were rock climbs there. I soloed up ‘Plunge’ (Diff) but didn’t realise you could climb around the side of the castle wall at the top. I tried crimping directly up the wall but realised I might fall and reversed the whole thing. I did that three times and then just stood and watched two guys working Requiem (E8 6b). I know from the book that it was the hardest rock climb in Scotland and I thought it looked amazing and set that as my goal to climb by the time I was 16 (I managed it at 21). I overheard the climbers on Requiem laughing at me for failing on Plunge. I thought it was a bit ironic, since at least I had soloed to the last few moves while they were completely failing to do the moves on Requiem on a top rope! Dumbarton is such a good climbing school. Some of its climbs are straightforward, but to do them all you really need to learn your technique as well as gain the strength. I was so lucky to start there.
What advice would you give to budding climbers?
I’ve learned many many things that helped me and I think could help almost anyone starting out in climbing - I wrote two whole books just on the training side of things! But some of the more intangible ideas I learned the hard way were not to wait around until opportunities fall into your lap. Instead, just go out and do what you can with what you have. Self reliance is an important skill to be a solid climber in the mountains - you learn it from figuring out what resources of information, skills, fitness, equipment etc you have, and pushing your limits to the edge of that. So if you have very little, you can still push to your limits and learn to be an expert at doing exciting things without stepping over the line. It also really helps to develop a habit of pushing yourself a bit out of your comfort zone every day. I had to force myself to do this at first, but once it became a habit it opened up another level of possibilities for me. That goes for when I was desperately trying (and failing) to lead my first VS, and later when I felt bold enough to have a go at first ascents I knew would be harder than what had been tried before.
You do the majority of your climbing in Scotland. What are your thoughts on the current Scottish climbing scene? Do you think your blogs and projects in the country help raise awareness about the climbing Scotland has to offer?
I’ve spent a lot of time climbing in Catalunya, Switzerland, France, Norway, Patagonia and other countries with great climbing and climbers - I actually can’t think of any country I’ve climbed in, including Scotland, that doesn’t have a fantastic scene of climbing right now. It constantly amazes me how much better the world of climbing has got in the 22 years I’ve climbed. Almost everything is better - sharing of information, knowledge and inspiration, climbing walls, guidebooks, development of new areas, new climbing disciplines, better equipment. One thing that I noticed very early on at Dumbarton Rock in the late nineties that hasn’t changed is that climbing is a great leveller of people - folk from all different backgrounds and corners of the world can meet through climbing and broaden their horizons. That is so good.
There’s no doubt that even my own climbs and writing, films, books etc have influenced other climbers and helped folk learn about the great climbing in Scotland - I know because I get a lot of messages from folk saying this. When I was 16, I overheard some climbers at Dumbarton Rock talking about how Scottish climbing was ignored by the climbing press (magazines at the time) and I remember thinking that as soon as I was able I would make an effort to share what Scotland had to offer for climbing through writing etc.
Have you got any long term projects in the pipeline? Can you tell us a bit about them?
Yes I have many, many projects. Too many to list but one big lifetime goal of mine is to climb a Font 8C boulder. Strength has never been my strong point in climbing and so I’ve had to think long and hard about my training to figure out how to squeeze every drop of potential I have. I’ve been to Magic Wood in Switzerland a few times in the past few seasons and was inspired to try Chris Sharma’s famous 8C ‘Practice of the Wild’. On my first few trips I just wasn’t strong enough to do the hardest two moves. But last October I did manage to climb the individual moves at my absolute limit. So I would like to keep training for that. In sport climbing I’d also love to climb 9a again, or maybe even 9a+ if I can get good enough. I had a first try on ‘Era Vella’ (9a in Margalef, Catalunya) today and was definitely pretty inspired for that. I could do the moves, but could I link them? I’ll have to find out!
You’re currently recovering from ankle surgery. Has your injury affected your climbing in the long term? Have you found you’ve developed and improved your training as a result?
Yeah I’ve had three ankle surgeries in the past two years and spent nearly 9 months of that time on crutches. I think almost any significant injury affects your climbing forever, but that’s not necessarily to say you are limited. I definitely am limited in some ways but the point is that you can often adapt to cope. Ideally you can adapt to get better than you were before. In some cases an injury can help you learn more about your body and you end up being able to use it better and therefore climb better despite some disablement. At least ankle injuries don’t stop you training your upper body, even when you can’t walk. I was definitely strong after three months on crutches last year. I trained more intensely every day than I ever had! It still took a long time to feel good once I was climbing again though. Confidence and movement are such subtle skills. It takes so much work and determination to recover properly from a surgery. I actually should have hired a professional coach to help get me through it - it was hard! There were tears!
We’ve heard (correct us if we’re wrong) that you’re on a zero sugar diet. How positive a step is diet for your climbing? Does it affect your energy levels?
Good question. Yes I’ve eaten more or less no carbohydrate/sugar foods for three months. I’ve eaten around 75% of my calories from fat instead. It’s an ongoing experiment and it’s too early to have any firm conclusions. This is a big subject and folk should be very cautious about listening to what other individuals do. What led me to the point of feeling like I wanted to try this was a failure to maintain my ‘fighting’ weight where, pre-ankle surgeries, fasted running helped me to do this. I was constantly hungry and having problems with energy levels as well. Clearly all of these variables do not apply to everyone!
But since making the change I am cautiously optimistic. I stopped thinking about limiting my food intake and at the same time lost 3.5kg (to 5% body fat), gained roughly one grade in rock climbing standard, had much better general energy regulation and unexpectedly found that a long-standing problem with depression basically disappeared. The only negatives I find so far are that my ‘session endurance’ in anaerobic (1-3 minute bout) sport climbs seems to tail off a bit quicker at the end of the session, but I’m still not sure if I’m just imagining this or not. It’s hard to be objective. I also note some new research just out showing that fat-adapted endurance athletes who have maintained this metabolic state for well over a year show normal muscle glycogen levels where studies of up to 30 day fat adapted athletes show low glycogen levels. So it may be that the adaptation period is not yet complete, hence my cautiousness in prejudging my experiment. But in the past three months I’ve completed 4 or 5 multi-year climbing projects in bouldering and mixed climbing that I’d completely failed on before. So it looks quite good, at least for a 37 year old with likely metabolic disturbance which has developed probably over 2-3 decades. As you can imagine, the non-climbing benefits alone make it more than worth it. I wish I’d done it a lot sooner.
One one hand, I think it would be pretty hard for most people to go wrong by eating less/no processed food and added sugar. However, I would strongly urge anyone to put in the work to know what they are doing if you want to make changes to your diet that are positive. In the past 6 months I’ve read probably 20 books, several hundred research papers and countless blogs and lectures on the subject and would have made many classic mistakes if I hadn’t done so.
What has been the most challenging climb you’ve done? And what was the biggest lesson you took from it?
People ask me this often and I never really know what to say - so many climbs have been massive challenges in their own different ways. I think in some ways doing Rhapsody (E11 at Dumbarton Rock) back in the day was a really important climb that made every other climb since a little easier because that one was so far above my level when I started trying it - I just tried it because it was there, at my home crag, and I was driven by curiosity if it was possible and a bit of an obsession with that face in general. I never expected to be able to do it. I was so caught up in just trying it that I almost didn’t notice it changing from impossible to possible and kind of 'woke up’ to reality when I was falling off the last move on lead. After doing it I knew I should get bogged down in being overawed by hard routes and just get on them. These days when I struggle to make progress on hard routes I keep reminding myself how easy they feel when all the pieces fall into place.
If you had to spend a day in Scotland climbing, where would you go and why?
Hardest question last eh? Well of course it’s hard to beat The Ben in late season with good weather and good ice. Some of the lesser known spots in Glen Nevis like the Skeleton Boulder or Sky Pilot on a spring or autumn day are possibly the most inspiring places to hang out in the universe. But I’d say the climbing out in the Western Isles, for everything - the culture, scenery, climate, light as well as the climbing… it takes some beating.