'at times I thought I was deluding myself to even try'
If you go on the logbook page for Malc Smith's Hunger (9a), you'll see just one logged ascent.
Date: 23 May
Style: Leap RP
Last week, the enigmatic and elusive climber known only as 'hidden' made just the fifth ascent of Scotland's first 9a, a route that, until June last year, still held claim to the title of 'Scotland's hardest route'.
First established in 2010 by the legendary Malc Smith, Hunger was left unrepeated for eight long years until a young Will Bosi came along to claim the first repeat.
A year later, in 2019, Dave MacLeod, who worked the route alongside Malc when it was still awaiting its first ascent, put an end to his fourteen year relationship with Hunger and claimed the third ascent. Last year, Hamish McArthur brought his comp pedigree to the Anvil and made the fourth ascent, on just his second day on the route.
And then, on 23rd May 2023, after twenty sessions on Hunger across two years, a fifth climber joined this elite group - Rob Sutton.
So, who is Rob Sutton?
44 years old, father of three, operations director across five climbing walls in the TCA family. You might, if you're a hoarder/collector/connoisseur of On the Edge magazine, know Rob for his 2003 fourth ascent of Poppy (8b+) at Ansteys Cove, in Devon. Or perhaps you'll remember him for his ascent, in 2011, of Kilnsey's first 8c, True North (8c).
Alternatively, if you're a regular browser of UKC's recent top ascents page, you might well know him as one iteration of the aforementioned 'hidden'. Two months before we found Rob 'hiding' at the top of the sport ascents page with Hunger 9a, he was 'hiding' at the top spot of the trad ascents page, with a sixth ascent of Dave MacLeod's hard E9 at Dumbarton Rock - also the first E9 in Scotland - Achemine (E9 6c).
We decided it was time to unhide the hidden, to learn about the man behind the ascents, and to find out more about Rob's incredible year of climbing so far.
Why are you hidden?
I'm hidden because I've always thought of my UKC logbook as a record for me rather than anyone else.
It's also incomplete, I'd intended on going back through old tick lists to get it up to date but never have. It's got to be right! It's a bit daft really, and friends often - rightly - take the piss, but that just makes it more fun staying hidden.
I share ascents with friends and family, but beyond that I'm not worried one way or the other if people know. It's lovely to be asked to do this interview and I'm happy to oblige - and to be unhidden! - but the important thing for me was sharing the news directly with those I spend my time with.
Onto to the climbing itself, congratulations on an amazing last couple of months! Achemine E9 6c in March, and, just last week, a rare repeat of Malc Smith's Hunger, 9a. How does it feel to have had such a successful spring?
Thanks! Yeah, it feels great, and a little surreal to be honest, because I've been so focused on the process.
I decided to really have a go at reaching these goals about eighteen months ago, and ticking them both has come as a very welcome surprise. Fingers crossed I can hold the form for a while yet, it's amazing to see Iain Small, Ben Moon, Neil Gresham, Tim Emmett, Steve Mcclure, and Dave MacLeod all blazing a path with what's possible!
Unless I'm mistaken, these two ascents are your hardest trad and sport ascents respectively - are there any changes you've made that you can put your recent form down to, or is it more the culmination of years of effort?
That's right, previously I'd climbed up to E8 and 8c. It's definitely the culmination, but after deciding to commit and try the next level a couple of years ago, I've had a good consistent focus on the process toward these milestones.
I've always enjoyed training, but believing in the possibility of longer term goals makes a real difference and provides that extra motivation to get up early, get out to the projects, do another set or squeeze a session in.
Training wise I've not really changed much from previous years, but the commitment and energy has intensified. I share what I'm up to in a Whatsapp group with mates in a similar position in life. It's loads of fun, and adds tonnes of inspiration as well as helping constantly refocus on key objectives.
What was it that drew you to Hunger?
The grade was a huge draw of course, especially since it seems to be consensus now.
Climbing 9a, similar to any breakthrough in grade boundary, is always going to be a target if it's within touching distance. After covid, a good mate reminded me that 9a had been a goal and that now might be the time to make it happen before getting too much older.
I visited Italy in 2019 and tried Ground zero (9a) (9a) at Tetto di Sarre in Valle D'Aosta, and even though I was way off it, it gave me belief to check out something closer to home now the kids are older and I had more time.
Hunger was the most logical 9a to go for, as getting there is doable within a day which helps keep the balance at home and work. It's still not logistically straightforward, with a rolling 6km cycle/walk from Lochgoilhead in one of the wettest and midge-heavy parts of the UK, but the Scottish scenery and wildlife are beautiful, and it's not so remote that you lose 4G!
Alan Cassidy and Gaz Vincent were also keen to try it, so we could share belays. Finally the quality of the line is incredible, tackling the full length of the steepest face of the gigantic Anvil boulder, which up until now has only been ticked by climbing legends! Big respect to Malc for establishing the route.
How long has Hunger been a project of yours, and how did you approach training for it?
I did Fire Power (8b) which shares a start with Hunger back in 2007 before we had kids. I think I also tried Body Blow (8b+), which shares the top of Hunger, around the same time, but dismissed it as too hard. Roll on fifteen years, with older kids, The Climbing Academy (TCA) established, and I felt like I had enough space for a big project. In March 2022 Hunger became exactly that. I had about ten sessions last spring and around ten further sessions this spring.
In terms of training, I carried on with what I've done previously to get ready for harder sport routes. Regular conditioning sessions at home (weights, ring work, finger boarding/floor lifting, mobility, stretching) and running with our dog.
Along with this I used the in-vogue replica method. I'm fortunate to have a board at home, but also regularly find myself in top quality climbing walls, so modelling routes is something I've done for years on steep boards. Combining this and/or rotating it with endurance route sessions or general bouldering sessions - depending on what life allows - seems to work OK.
Hunger is basically power endurance, with three boulders split between reasonable rests, so for specific sessions once or twice a week I trained in that style. Sets of three max difficulty boulders back to back, or reps of linking three boulders with easier downclimbs.
For most sessions at home I included a thirty minute bike ride on a turbo as part of the warm-up. I was going to have to do this to get to the Anvil, so I figured I should suck it up and get used to it as often as possible!
Talk us through the ascent!
I knew I had a good chance, as for the first time in a few sessions I could get back on the route after only a three day gap. You know the stars are aligned when free time coincides with a recent visit, weather, conditions, and good form!
In the previous session I was really close several times from the ground, and on the last attempt I immediately pulled back on and did the second half. Despite that I was resigned to it being the last day for a while and having to leave it until late Autumn due to the onset of midges and humidity. Summer is also busy with work and family holidays. Reflecting on it now, I think that accepting this helped ease some self-induced pressure. I certainly felt no pressure on the day of the send.
Rob on the first half of the route © Rich Smith
The warm up on the top section went smoothly, and then - for only the second time ever - I managed the hardest move first go of the day. I took time to rest and then gave it everything from the ground. The first half had become really consistent and went by really quickly. I was back at the rest before 'the' move for about the thirteenth time! I went for it and finally stuck it, not perfectly but enough.
From that point there were ten moves left which I'd been consistently doing cleanly on every attempt. Thankfully the same was true on the ascent, despite the additional anxiety of it being 'the' go! Arriving at the anchor felt surreal and still does a little bit. I'd been so focused on the process and not the result, then suddenly it's done on the first go of the day!
It really is true that if you keep showing up, trying hard and working step by step, maybe one day you'll get lucky!
What about after climbing it, how did it feel to break into the 9th grade?
Felt amazing! Definitely a life tick and still buzzing now! It's just a bit of rock at the end of the day, but at my age it's nice to confirm you can get to a benchmark whilst juggling everything else in life. It had to fit into a busy life, and at times I thought I was deluding myself to even try.
If it weren't for the support of good mates and family, there's no way I'd have had enough self-belief. It was an unforgettable day that I was very grateful to share with Alan. If it wasn't for his amazing support it wouldn't have happened. I'm looking forward to getting back there with him as soon as possible to help him get it ticked too!
Rob working the second half of the route, including the crux move © Rich Smith
What about Achemine? It seems like a route that really isn't over until the very end, any heartbreakers or big falls? How did the actual ascent go?
Thankfully no heart breakers or big falls as I managed to get it first try on lead, and I still can't imagine taking the fall!
As E9s go this seems like a safer one to try, as the fall is big but the gear is great and easy to place. I was top-roping it cleanly about 50% of the time, and it really isn't over until you get the top of the crag.
After warming up on the day, conditions and the odds felt right to try. Once committed, during the ascent I did everything to focus on the climbing and not think about the fall at all.
It went perfectly, so the realisation of the situation only came once it was done. A very memorable experience shared with Sam Ley belaying, who's very close to completing it himself, so I'm looking forward to belaying him soon. Amazing effort by Dave having the vision to put this route up.
Tell us a bit about your day-to-day life and how climbing fits into it?
Day-to-day life is always full-on and all the better for it. Climbing is a big part of it in more ways than one.
I've three kids (fourteen, thirteen & nine) that together with my wife (Rhi, who also works full time) regularly need to be in different places at the same time after school and on weekends. It's constant feeding, washing, and taxi-ing around! We also have a three year old wire-haired pointer, Nelly, who needs a solid walk/run twice a day.
Family life is great and always busy, so I'm very lucky that Rhi and the kids are incredibly supportive of my climbing and often provide the motivation and inspiration to get out and do so. The kids love going climbing, and it's great to see them all enjoy it when we find time. The dog means there is no excuse but to have active rest days!
I'm the Operations Director for TCA. With around a hundred staff across five sites in Glasgow, Bristol, and Chippenham, open twelve hours a day, there is never a dull moment and work will pop up at any time. I'm at one of the Glasgow sites several times a week and frequently travel down to the sites in Bristol and Chippenham. Whilst the challenges of work are always there, we have an amazing team of staff running the sites and it's incredibly rewarding seeing customers enjoying their climbing and providing employment opportunities. Working in climbing walls means there is no escape from training if you can find a moment to squeeze it in, although that's harder than you might imagine!
I'm also a trustee for Urban Uprising, a charity going from strength to strength, helping facilitate those less fortunate to find the joys of climbing, which is fantastic to be a part of. Anything that can be done to diversify climbing can only be positive. I'd love to give more time to this, but with everything else, it's just a few hours here and there. The charity has a small team doing amazing things, so I'd urge people to check us out and support in any way they can.
If time allows, then during the week I can sometimes find a slot to get out quickly or have a longer training session. Aside from that it's hour-long early morning sessions or similar sessions around lunch or between finishing work and getting back home.
Are there any habits you have or approaches you use that help you find time to fit everything in?
No revelations, other than setting priorities.
Rhi and I plan ahead a lot as a family, which helps when the odd half day might land around work and kids. I find this helps to 'frame' the objective that is most worth chasing, who's available to also get out, and what training might work. With luck, weather allows me to get out with these bigger blocks of time.
If not I'll use this time at one of the walls to have a bouldering session or route session trying to replicate what I would be doing if I could get out. I fill time waiting for kids at various activities with running or work. Only watch TV if you're stretching! (I wish I could adhere to this all the time!). Getting decent sleep is essential, I rarely make it beyond 10:30pm.
Having training facilities at home is a massive benefit, opening up early morning and evening sessions to leave space for everything else. I'm regularly up at 6am to get a session done before the working day starts. This also allows two sessions depending on how the day unfolds.
Little and often seems to work well. I've a few key sessions I go to all the time at home which I'll vary depending on how I'm feeling and the time I have available. Switching things up using weights, reps, sets, and exercises helps manage niggles and tiredness.
Sometimes I go no further than the end of my warm-up but I try to make sure something happens most days. Avoiding injury is crucial else you lose consistency, so if I'm tired I just drop sessions.
Finally, what is it that inspires you most about climbing at the moment?
The same stuff as always, getting out to climb quality lines in amazing places with good people. I've loads of Scottish classics still to try, and various projects in the UK to get back to.
I'm motivated for a challenge in whatever style. Keeping the training going hopefully creates options depending on the time available. If life allows I'm keen to find another '9' close to home, and maybe one with some travel. I've good friends in a similar position with work and/or kids, offering loads of inspiration and psyche to keep smashing on!
We'll see what life throws up, and for now it's nice to imagine what can be next!
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