Released a few weeks ago, our new documentary 'Statement of Youth' chronicles some of the key moments in the development of British sport climbing. One of the most important episodes in the film, and a pivotal event in climbing history, is Antoine Le Menestrel's jaw-dropping solo of Revelations.
When Jerry Moffatt climbed the route in 1984 it was ground-breaking for a number of reasons; it was the hardest route in the country and quite a step up from most routes that had been done at the time. It had a short, powerful crux which was unusual, particularly considering bouldering was still considered to be mucking about at the bottom of crags. Jerry also spent three days working the route, something which was unheard of at the time – as Jerry says in the film 'three days was the equivalent of three months' now.
Fast forward to 1985 and Antoine Le Menestrel and Jean-Baptiste (Jibe) Tribout come to the UK to experience our climbing scene. Chris Gore takes them to see Raven Tor and says 'they weren't impressed.' At this point, there's a fundamental difference between how the French and the British climb. Us Brits were still yo-yo-ing routes which meant you would climb up and if you fell off, you would have to lower back down the ground. As climbs became harder, this method became more difficult and as anyone who redpoints routes knows, you need time to practice and work the moves.
It also created some ethical grey areas. Some people would fall off and feel the holds that they could reach, some would continue to climb higher but not allow themselves to clip any other gear and others thought that anyone who didn't lower straight to the floor was in grave violation of the uncodified moral guidelines of the whole sport.
The French method was simple: you climb from the bottom to the top in one continuous push – how you get to that point is up to you. This is what we now know as redpointing.
When Statement of Youth was released there was a strange exchange on social media. Antoine saw the film and really enjoyed it but was slightly confused – he didn't remember anyone filming him during his solo of Revelations. In reality, we recreated the moment using Ned Feehally as a double. When Antoine was told it wasn't actually him and it was a recreation, he said: 'I thought I climbed it a lot smoother!'
He also sent over something very special: the diary that he kept on his trip to the UK. It details what he was thinking at the time of his solo and some key observations of climbing ethics at the time. Antoine's solo of Revelations is still an extraordinary feat of climbing, so let's enter the mind of the man himself:
July 29, 1985
With JB, the challenge is to climb "Revelations" using French free ethics in a day. This is the most beautiful 8a + on the cliff and the most difficult route in England. The route starts with a furious boulder problem and at the end there is a jump with a sloper. The finishing slab is not hard but technical. After working all the moves with our ethics, I pull the rope and I climb the route first try. I'm having a big day out, which confirms that I really want to go even further. Three 8as in twenty days. At the foot of the crag, a crazy thought enters my mind: Climb Revelations solo. It's like a voice coming out of the rock asking me to climb this route solo. I have waves of adrenaline in my body and fireworks in my head.
Still at Raven Tor, I climb up "Revelations" in order to take photos. Ben Moon climbs it using the English technique, meaning that he cannot work each move one after the other - when he falls he must descend to the ground without working the moves and start from the bottom with the rope left at the point of the fall.
It must also be said that the English were as impressed by my speed at climbing Revelation as we were by their attempt at Obscene Gesture, a 6c move on a number 1 cam with ground-fall potential…
With the whole team (Martine, Ben, Chris) we find ourselves at the foot of Boo, which JB does perfectly. The English welcome us, we are welcome. We share cheese toasties; they make us visit all the cliffs of the region. As for me, I'm exhausted and I can't climb properly. I decide to stop for the day.
Rain again like every day since we arrived. It is dreadfully wet and cold. We climb Dock Drive to warm up then Obsession 7b/c that I climb onsight, the first ever done in this style. We decide to try Mahan Mein with the English technique - with each fall we descend to the ground. After 4 falls we decided to return to French ethics - more interesting, less frustrating, more technical. I do it on my first try in French style, completely at my limit.
Rain again this morning, we are soaked to the bone. We decide to go back to Sheffield.
It's raining, I'm still thinking of the Revelations solo. In the evening I can't sleep, I see myself climbing on the route. All the movements are linked in my head and with each move I feel a charge of adrenaline. This solo consumes my head and my whole body. I'm under its influence, I can't get away. I'm caught by a vampire. I know I cannot fall but some movements are random. I have to do something: go back to Paris or try. Never had a route have so much control over me - I'm bad.
The weather's nice, amazing! We will climb on gritstone where we do some classic solo routes. After five routes with JB we get scared and we go down hurriedly. I get the feeling of having shared a great vertical adventure with the memory of climbers past.
The weather is super nice, but soon the rain comes. Motivation dulls, the return to France is approaching. I coach JB to try Verbal Abuse, a mythical route. Although the route is not very appealing we are happy to have found a superb technique for the hard move and it is thanks to the French technique that we are able to refine the moves.
We have fun undoing the myths. I have just made the second ascent of "Revelation" and "Verbal abuse", the hardest routes in England. I repeat "Revelation" 3 times to get tired. I dominate it. In the evening, I cannot take any more of these repetitions as they tire me; this route is too present. I decide to talk to JB, I want to sleep. He listens to me and helps me a lot, tells me that I can do it but that I should rework it with the goal of the soloer. I lie down, I make every movement in my head. I must know each move but I must also feel every movement in my body, every balance, every grip. I hoped the weather would be bad to not have to decide tomorrow, but now it's certain: I must not rush and take the time to immerse myself in every feeling. There is only one solution: climbing it in "top style". I'm not in a hurry. JB will be there, he brings me his experience since he climbed Chimpanzodrome solo. But on the day, I would be alone, the route and me.
My decision is made, and I feel a momentum that carries me. I do not dominate the route; Revelations is in me.
The weather is faithful to its wet habit and we are also faithful to Raven Tor. The rock is greasy, JB tries the first move of "Revelations" again but doesn't succeed because it's too humid. I reclimb the route on a rope to practice all moves, thinking that I'm soloing. I climbed it for the sixth time and even in wet and difficult conditions I always feel good. I'm confident in myself but I'm afraid to crack psychologically. I need to wait for good conditions.
JB links Weed Killer 7b, Rooster Booster 7c and Sardine 7b in a single push – an endurance 7c + he calls "Allo ethics", very appropriate. The English are asking a lot of questions about their ethics and they start working the difficult sections before lowering.
9am. I don't know anymore, maybe it's too much for me? But I'm fine, I'm not afraid anymore, I'm going ...
In the afternoon, we arrive at Raven Tor with JB, there are people there today and weather conditions are perfect. I warm up normally, but I know that I could not try again given the number of climbers present. I need privacy. I don't feel down about it, though, I feel relaxed. I belay JB on the low boulder crux of "Revelations" that still eludes him, I reclimb it one last time, clean the holds, pull the rope and leave the end of the rope at the end of the route tied up with a carabiner. I am as calm as a glass that is filled gradually but not bubbling over. I appreciate my condition, I have no more bursts of adrenaline, it's relaxing. I am malleable and the stone is my sculptor. This fear of not being able to disappear dissipates as the shadows grow longer and the climbers scatter in the cliff.
Around 4 o'clock, an impulse tells me that now's the time, everything is there, near. I am at the foot of the route, my head is empty, my body filled with concentration. JB leaves me for the first boulder and will take pictures. The moves are linked in perfection; no hesitation, no unnecessary movement, no tension, just total concentration all the way to the top. I climbed into a state of grace as I had never before climbed. A small sling around the waist allows me to descend into the arms of JB. Once again, our friendship is deepened. I'm not aware of anything except that I am happy.
Two weeks without great achievement have passed and I'm already missing it. I need something strong, I need it for my balance. I can't be satisfied with token routes. I always want to push further. It's impossible for me to rest on what I achieved, it's in the past and I devalue it automatically.
Back to Buoux, two options are available: I either stop soloing completely because it's too consuming or I concentrate on this alone. I want to climb. I must find a way to satisfy all my ambitions and focus my attention.
Buoux. There are places which emanate vibrations that surge through the body from the feet to the head, spitting through the eyes like a volcano. Buoux is one of those worlds, the sensations that we experience are even stronger when we know that past generations also lived in these places ...
Antoine Le Menestrel
Antoine's solo of Revelations sent shockwaves through the Sheffield scene. Jerry was injured and couldn't respond in kind – he describes this point in his climbing career as 'hell.' Chris Gore believed there was a 'wealth of elitism' amongst the sport climbers and they were ignoring what the rest of the world was doing. Perhaps this was the most significant outcome of Antoine's solo; after he and Jibe left, everybody could climb Revelations, and everybody was redpointing it. They opened the door to these new 'French style' ethics; British climbers stormed through and didn't look back.
When recreating this iconic solo during the filming of Statement of Youth, we were awestruck at Antoine's ability relative to his era. We kitted Ned Feehally out in Boreal Firés, short shorts and a jazzy shirt and laid out one or two pads underneath the route. Ned hadn't climbed Revelations before, but he's flashed Font 8B+, so how hard could it be? It took him a several attempts to climb the crux at the start and suddenly, he was at a very uncomfortable height, even with all the crashpads. Not willing to method act and solo the entire route, Ned opted for a harness under the shorts and a rope clipped in with a carabiner. He'd unclip whilst the camera was rolling and then hastily clip back in again.
Antoine's ascent is surely up there with some of best in history, not only for the physical and mental challenge, but for the repercussions it had on the top British climbers at the time.
Thank you to Antoine Le Menestrel who kindly gave us permission to publish his diary and to Phil Kelly and Chris Gore who arranged the article.