Ben Davison on 8c+ and the Dangers of Sport Climbing Interview

© Micha Vanhoudt

Sport climbing in the UK is presently having a bit of a resurgence after a long spell playing second fiddle to bouldering and headpointing. A new bunch of young climbers are now operating in the upper 8th grades such as Will Smith, Ellis Butler-Barker and Buster Martin; all attracted to the safe physical challenge of sport climbing over the mental side of traditional routes.

Ben Davison on the crux of Little Badder 9a  © James France
Ben Davison on the crux of Little Badder 9a
© James France

Twenty year old Ben Davison is another of these climbers. Having rapidly jumped through the grades to 8c last year after only climbing for 3 years (UKC News Report), he set his sights on an 8 week trip this summer to Norway's new mega crag; Hanshelleren in Flatanger, with the goal of climbing 8c+. The training was obviously pitched perfectly as after only 5 days of trying and 9 days into the trip he succeeded by climbing Eye of Odin, 8c+. This was quickly followed a few days later with another, Muy Verdes, although Ben feels this is only 8c.

Having surprised himself with how quickly his target was achieved, he upped the ante and started to work on the 60m long Little Badder, 9a. Things were going really well on the route, big links were being made, and with 6 weeks of his trip still left it looked as if the route would go. However like a lot of things in life plans can change in the blink of an eye.

Due to the length and steepness of the routes in the cave it has become usual to work sections of the routes by jumaring up fixed ropes in various positions. Ben had been doing this each day without any issues, ascending the ropes to the middle crux section of the route, transferring to his lead rope, and then climbing. Somehow on this morning the transfer didn't happen correctly and Ben found himself falling 12 meters to the ground. The impact left him with a shattered ankle, wrist and pelvis and required the call out of the Norwegian rescue services to airlift him to Trondheim hospital.

The injuries to the ankle and wrist required extensive surgery and the fractured pelvis, whilst being stable, prevented him being transferred back to the UK for 3 weeks. Ben is now back at home, the operations have been successful and the prognosis is pretty good for him to be climbing hard again with time.

Ben Davison &copy Micha Vanhoudt  © Micha Vanhoudt
Ben Davison © Micha Vanhoudt

Gavin Ellis headed to Ben's family home in Newcastle for a chat:

Gavin: So Ben let's get the painful bit out of the way first. Not really the news you wanted to be asked about, but what happened?

Ben: The route I was trying starts up the first 25m of Nordic Flower, 8c, which I was sort of saving for a decent flash go up to the first chains. So I was jumaring up a fixed rope to the point the routes split to work it. I had done this a good few times already without issue but for some reason on this occasion, having transferred from the jumars to the belay, I just set off climbing without clipping my lead rope into the belay. I had got three tricky moves away from the belay before I noticed this and in a position where I couldn't reverse so I had to commit to doing one more hard move to a jug before I could clip any gear. Unfortunately I didn't make the move.

Gavin: Were you aware you were going to fall?

Ben: I remember seeing my hand fall short of the next hold so I had time to at least make sure I was falling feet first. Alan Cassidy spotted me, shielding my head and also stopping me bouncing down the slope. I really feel had he not my injuries would have been much worse.

Gavin: I guess it hurt a lot?

Ben: Surprisingly it didn't. Initially I thought I had got away with it but then I saw my wrist which was already swollen and a weird S shape. My foot felt a bit wrong and I thought I had just strained my groin. It was Alan who realised I had potentially injured my pelvis and stopped me from getting up. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur as once the rescue services got there I was pretty much drugged up straight away. I do know that the rescue was really helped by all the other climbers in the cave so thanks to everyone who was there.

Gavin: You then woke up in Trondheim hospital where you had to spend the next 3 weeks before you could fly home. When did it dawn on you what you had done?

Ben: After a few days in hospital I was aware of what I had done but due to the swelling on my foot they couldn't operate straight away and I couldn't fly home due to being unable to sit up for more than 10 minutes. The fracture to my pelvis just needed rest but the heel and ankle needed surgery and now look like a meccano set. I eventually flew home a week after my operation and the surgeons here have remarked on how good the work on my ankle is so that's good news. Hopefully I can get my pot off my wrist in a few weeks and be weight bearing on my ankle in time to start back at university at the end of the month, and with a bit of luck climbing again by the end of October.

Ben Davison being rescued after his incident in Flatanger, Norway  © Matt Hardy
Ben Davison being rescued after his incident in Flatanger, Norway
© Matt Hardy

Gavin: Anyway back to more climbing related stuff. Tell us about Eye of Odin. What made you pick that route?

Ben: I really wanted to climb 8c+ this year and this one looked the best in the cave, it is an incredible line and the eye feature is pretty special. Plus I had seen a lot of footage of it which helps enormously with working out sequences. It's a long route (45m) but breaks down into boulder sections with good rests. There are four obvious crux sections all around font 7B+ with the section out of the eye around 7C+. The rock is perfect, the holds are perfect and the line is perfect. What's not to like.

Gavin: Then you climbed Muy Verdes soon after?

Ben: I tried this a couple of times whilst working Eye of Odin and it felt pretty hard but once I found a good sequence it went pretty quickly. It's a totally different route as the hard climbing is over at 10m. It's basically two 7C problems split by a decent rest followed by 15m of 7b.

Gavin: 8c+?

Ben: No way, I think it is bottom-end 8c even though many people still take 8c+ for it. It's 8c in the new guide now so I am happy with that, I don't want to take soft holiday grades.

Gavin: Why did you choose to go to Flatanger rather than the traditional sports crags of France and Spain?

Ben: It's obviously been in the news a lot with Ondra's routes, it looked amazing and it's a summer venue, which are few and far between in Europe. It fully lived up to my expectations, the rock is the best I have ever climbed on, much more interesting than limestone; the routes have lines, perfect rock quality, no loose holds, no glue and no chipping. The location is amazing as well, a very special place that I can recommend to anyone as there is a really good spread of grades, but definitely if you climb in the 8s and above.

Gavin: Prior to this trip I know you pretty much trained for 12 months without doing much outside. A very different approach to how you climbed 8c which you did by going climbing a lot. Why the change in tactics?

Ben: I am now at university in Sheffield so don't have the time to just climb every day like I did before so it wasn't an option. I therefore went with something that fitted into my life. Prior to climbing I was involved in Triathlon at a reasonable level so have always enjoyed training and specifically goal based training like I did for this trip. Luckily I managed to do the route I trained for before I hurt myself or all the hours spent going round and round the works circuit board would have felt like wasted effort. I did very much put all my eggs in one basket so I will probably try to have some intermediate ticks during the next phase of training.

Gavin: Any secret methods?

Ben: Not at all just lots of focused climbing, some dead hanging and I try really hard, which I think a lot of people don't do. I had a plan to follow that I worked out myself with some input from Alex Barrows, Will Smith and Tom Randall but I didn't do any special new exercises, I just always have a goal.

Ben Davison on the crux section of Eye Of Odin, 8c+  © Gavin Ellis
Ben Davison on the crux section of Eye Of Odin, 8c+
© Gavin Ellis
Resting after the crux, Eye of Odin, 8c+  © Gavin Ellis
Resting after the crux, Eye of Odin, 8c+
© Gavin Ellis

Gavin: The future?

Ben: My obvious focus is to get over my injuries and back to the level I was at, but long term I want to climb the hardest routes I can. Dura Dura looks pretty inspiring and is the cutting edge of our sport at the minute so why would I not aim for that, I might not get there but it will be fun trying. I am not really motivated by bouldering other than as a means to get stronger; it's fun and an important part of my training, but I just can get excited about it compared to routes. I was trying a 9a when I fell and whilst it felt hard I am confident that with time I could have done it so I don't feel that it was at my limit. I don't see why, with hard work, I can't keep progressing through the grades, I have plenty of time and I know that I can train much harder than I do now. I obviously want to go back to Flatanger again but also would really like to climb more in the UK, Steve's routes at Kilnsey and Malham look amazing and are obvious targets, but it seems strangely more difficult to do them here than abroad when you add in the weather, cost, travel. It's easier, more motivating, and cheaper just to go on a trip for a month. I really would like to do them though, they look world class.

Gavin: Thanks Ben and good luck with your recovery.

Ben was lucky enough to have Matt Hardy and James France out in Norway filming Alan Cassidy for Coldhouse Collective. They managed to turn their lenses away from Alan's Adonis like figure for 10 minutes and filmed Ben on his ascent of Eye of Odin. So here it is in all its glory:

At we would like to wish Ben a speedy recovery back to form.

26 Sep, 2014
Very good article in many respects. However, he says Eye of Odin is soft 8c not 8c+ (and is pretty negative about people taking 8c+ for it) and also that it is 8c in the new guidebook. So it doesn't make sense for the article to keep calling it 8c+. Could you please fix the article?
26 Sep, 2014
It's Muy Verdes that is soft 8c+ (8c) not Eye of Odin
26 Sep, 2014
Great article. Is it just a weird angle in the first picture, or does Ben have an ape index of about +1ft?
26 Sep, 2014
Oops - apologies all round!
26 Sep, 2014
Amazing slow and controlled climbing style! Kudos to Alan for spotting him from 12 m up too, that must have been terrifying. I can't imagine that feeling of doing a few hard moves from a belay and then realising you're not clipped to anything...
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