Age and Tolstoy?s Bicycle

© Henry L Buckle
Henry L Buckle
© Henry L Buckle
Adam Ondra, what a pain in the arse. He's 15 and he's led 9a; one incredible day he led a 9a, 8c+ and an 8c. Unbelievable. I'm almost twice his age, I've dedicated over eight years of my life to climbing and I'm not even close to his level. I'm not even close to being close.

Now, I know that I should be happy to have found a sport that has inspired and motivated me to put in so much effort and sacrifice, but it's not easy. Glossy magazines constantly remind me that I'm not the climber that I should want to be, i.e., I have no sponsorship deal, no 'out there' photos and, worst of all, attractive climbing girls show absolutely no interest in me whatsoever.

So, when Master Ondra climbs his umpteenth 9a it only serves to remind me that I haven't. And since he's only 15 it suggests I never will and furthermore, the moment in which I should have I was in my bed room, in my parent's house, nodding along morosely to Green Day.

I can't help but feel that I've missed the train, the train to be a climbing legend, the train on which Adam Ondra is drinking stella bought in the buffet car with a fake ID and having a good laugh at us bumbly wannabies trying to organize a day's cragging amid the work, family and weather limitations. Worse still, I have recently turned 29 which means that the unwanted milestone of 30 is now nearing the door knocker.

Sorry for whinging so, but perhaps I'm not alone. Maybe you've also asked, “what's the point? I've climbed for ages, I seemed to have reached a fairly average plateau. Why keep training? Why keep suffering the injuries and the cold and the early mornings? Why don't I just go to the beach and try surfing?” Well, don't throw away the rack quite yet because I've discovered a survival trick. Actually, much to my surprise, my Dad did.

I think my father would be happiest living out his years as a war pensioner having been wounded fighting the fascists in Spain. As far as life plans go they probably would have involved nationalization of industries and redistribution of wealth. A profile such as his leaves a lot of room for disappointment, especially for someone who spent most of their adult life in Thatcher's Britain.

But the wily old commie has a survival trick; a book, called Tolstoy's Bicycle, based on the premise that Leo Tolstoy, of War and Peace fame, only learned to ride a bike when he was 67.

The book lists, in order of age, the impressive achievements of thousands of famous personalities. For example; King John was 41 when he signed the Magna Carta, the basis for English law, and Leonardo da Vinci was 67 when he finished the Mona Lisa.

So at low ebb, my old man the Marxist only had to flip open the book to read of the hundreds of people that have achieved not only something truly memorable but at a later stage in their lives. Hey presto, eternal youth. It's the holy grail of motivation.

Needing something similar, I began to root around climbing facts to make my own feel good list. Finding great deeds for the 30-40 year old range was reassuringly easy and though truly stunning achievements are less, they still exist way into the 40's and beyond.

Below is the first copy of my list. I say 'first' because in reality this list is just the beginning and I would love that one day it can be mapped all the way to 100 so that even the bumbly climbers awaiting a letter from the queen are motivated to keep on getting out to emulate their heroes.

Youthful Feat
Donald Desbrow Whillans sees off the Italians, the Pope and the Patagonian weather to nab the first ascent of the Central Tower of Paine, Chile
Andy Kirkpatrick spends an awesome 15 days in the Alps with Ian Parnell. Not a feat in itself but most impressive because it was done whilst making the second ascent of the Lafaille route (weighing in at an impressive A5, M7, V) in winter, on the Dru, the hardest wall in Europe. If that's not worth a few bragging points in the pub then what is?
Ueli Steck breaks his own record and climbs the 1938 route on the north face of the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes. That's over ten metres per minute you know. Equally impressive, Lynn Hill makes the first free ascent of The Nose, Yosemite.
Pete Livesey, just a few years after taking up climbing, sets a new standard for trad. routes with his climb, Footless Crow (E5 6c) in Borrowdale. Whillans also pops up again, this time in 1970 with Dougal Haston on the summit of Annapurna having just climbed the incredible south face.
Soon to be Sir, Edmund Hillary picks the best cherry of all, climbing Everest with Tenzing Norgay who, incidentally, was an even more impressive 39 (although perhaps it's a little unrealistic to aspire to equal the high altitude feats of the most famous sherpa in History). Pat Marrow also climbed Everest on his way to being the first person to complete the trickier seven summits circuit (the highest mountain on each continent) including the Carstenz Pyramid. • Meanwhile, down on Froggatt edge, Pete Livesey keeps up the good work with his now infamous route, Downhill Racer (E4 6a). Finally, it's worth noting that at 34, Warren Harding made the first ascent of The Nose, Yosemite, a mere 47 days after starting.
Sport climbing now. First Big Malcom Smith's return to the limelight with his ascent of Metalcore 8c+ at The Anvil. This is also the magic age for Steve McClure who led Overshadow, F9a+ at Malham. Walter Bonatti climbs perhaps his last great route, a winter ascent, solo, on the north face of the Matterhorn.
In Patagonia, Argentine Rolando Garabotti completes surely the ultimate alpine traverse, climbing, over four days, from Aguja Standhardt to Cerro Torre via the trifling matters of Punta Herron and Torre Egger. In order to gain the summit of Cerro Torre, Garabotti and his rope mate, Colin Haley, first had to spend over three hours digging a tunnel through the summit mushroom of ice.
Joe Brown makes the list with his televised ascent of a new route on the south face of the Old Man of Hoy. E2 5b
Big Dave Birkett completes his new route on Scafell, Return of the King, E9 6c. Rich Mayfield, along with Mark Steveson, puerilely ticks all the routes in Ken Wilson's hard rock book. This meant climbing 60 routes, almost 7000m of climbing, up to E4 6a, in the worst British summer weather on record. None too shabby.
Jerzy Kukuczka becomes the second person (after Messner, see below) to climb all 14 of the worlds summits over 8000m. This is truly outstanding when you consider that many of the ascents were by new routes, four, unbelievably, were in winter and all 14 were climbed in just 8 years.
Achille Compagnoni leaves a young Walter Bonatti to suffer the first +8000 metre bivvy in order to become the first man to climb K2 (8661 m).
Nick Bullock joins Andy Houseman to climb the 1938 route on the north face of the Eiger in just a day and a half.
Steve Haston climbs his new route, the hardest of its style in the world, ever, The Empire Strikes Back (M10/M11).
Little known Austrian Reinhold Messner summits Makalu (8462m) and becomes the first man to climb all 14 of the world's 8000m+ peaks. Incidentally, all but 2 of the 14 were climbed when Messner was over 30 years of age.
Mick fowler wins the piolet d'or for his ascent of a new route on Siguniang (6250m) in China with Paul Ramsden.

Now, the cynics will cry, “This is all very well, but you're not Mick Fowler” or, they might point out, correctly, that Malcom Smith was already climbing f8c+ when he was just 18, but that's to miss the point. The important thing is not that I will be a great climber, but that age, the one thing I can't change, is not preventing me from being so. I have 17 years to win the Piolet d'Or. That's loads of time; Adam Ondra went from being an embryo to climbing 9a in just 15. Admittedly, I may have to make some serious changes in that time (quit full time work, finish with my girlfriend to spend more time at the crag, move in with my parents to save money for the expeditions) but, it's possible, the goal can exist, my best years are not necessarily behind me, and I'm motivated again. So, when I read of Ondra climbing the world's first f10, instead of feeling weak or 'past it', I'll just remember that Mick fowler won the Piolet d'Or at 47. Mick, you are my hero. You will always be better than me and you will always be older than me.

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11 Aug, 2008
Good article - I too am approaching 30 but have a distinct disadvantage in that I only 'discovered' climbing last september. Therefore its been a mad year of training, weight loss and pushing myself sometimes harder than I should. So far top roping E2/E3 and leading E1 (accidentally soloed E1 too - eek!). Previously thought time was very much not on my side but this is encouraging... One thing... Wasn't Violent New Breed the UKs first 9a+ in 2004?
11 Aug, 2008
11 Aug, 2008
Excellent! Tom 29yrs
11 Aug, 2008
brilliant stuff and a very good point! Ondra, Schmondra - bet Henry can beat him in the true test of gnarly alpinism, which, as we all know, is: who can grow the best beard? :-)
11 Aug, 2008
Thanks, though I'm not sure about the beard. Perhaps I'll need a new list soon of good climbers with pathetic facial hair. I like your car fotos. They reminded me of Cherrylog Road by James Dickcey H
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