Dave Barnes takes a look at one of climbing's most promising talents, Theo Blass. He finds out first hand from family and friends what drives the ten-year-old, who recently became the youngest person to climb 8c.
Theo walks along a familiar path to his local limestone crag near Montpellier in the South of France. For a thousand years, this part of France has basked in the sun and has witnessed the trade winds bring people and produce from faraway places and plant both here. Students fill the city and families work the earth out in the villages amongst the limestone hills that interrupt the plough and the lines of grapes. Amongst these, a climbing prince is making his way up a steep path to the king lines at the crag. Theo Blass is ten years of age, a lover of science, a mad mountain biker, a whizz on the ski slopes and a climber on the rise at his local crag where he recently climbed an 8c. He may be 4'5" and a featherweight, but he pulls big numbers on his way to the chains.
I heard of Theo earlier this year, his name was mentioned in climbing journals throughout the world. I didn't think much of it, but in one of them was a picture of this kid and I was immediately interested in learning more about this climber who had been rapidly progressing towards the tippy-toe reaches of climbing. So this is that Theo? I began digging and found that Theo was born into a lineage of climbing, with both parents, Aurelia Blass and Vladimir Arnaoudov being devout converts to the limestone of their country and friends of the people who practise in that high church. They have raised their enfants amongst the rock, baptised them in crag culture and French freedom. No adventure is too much for the Blass family; mountain biking, climbing trees, cutting turns skiing as well as wickedly steep routes - these are family passions.
I caught up with Theo's family and asked them about this son and sibling who had managed to cause such a ruckus in the international climbing community. I had to talk to them, as every time I tried to catch Theo he was climbing trees, training, at school, doing yoga with mum out in the field, or playing with friends. You know, doing kids' business. Theo has energy, the type teachers hate but friends love. Dare I say it, the good kind of energy for a climber.
Theo has been climbing for a smidgeon over three years. His passion for climbing came out of the blue. Even though he has been in amongst it since birth, it wasn't his thing, so to speak, but he enjoyed building stone castles, then loved getting out on his bike, then moved onto top roping the beginnings of his parents' projects. As a seven-year-old he found it difficult to read the rock and to remember sequences and was not sold on the climbing game. Even now, he's easily distracted.
Theo often climbs on a top-rope as the routes at his local crag are pretty run-out for a little one, so he and his family have developed a practice to rehearse routes, freeing Theo to climb at his limit, find his flow and then have the confidence to lead them. This practice has helped him advance, with his fears listened to and managed by his folks. There remained a problem, that of top roping steep climbs and the fear of falling. Theo got lucky as inspiration came calling - Angie Scarth-Johnson from Australia. Angie had spent a few seasons in Spain and crossed paths with Theo in Margalef. She gifted him a quickdraw which was specially made for her by her sponsor and had her name engraved on it, Theo calls it his lucky QD. Theo finds her amazing for good reason. Angie is young (15 at present), and is another young climber pushing envelopes. I discussed Theo's admiration with Angie whom I had worked with previously and she replied:
"I have been following Theo on his recent sends and know he almost took my record for the youngest person at 9 years old to free 31 (8b). I don't know how I did that at such a young age. What I do know is that when you are young and have drive and determination to achieve your goals, well anything becomes possible. For me, there are always doubts that creep in about my abilities, especially as I have gotten older, but Theo just needs to keep believing things are within his reach if he wants it bad enough." About that quickdraw, Angie added, "I'm so honoured that he used my quickdraw...."
Angie's vibe had an immediate effect and he quickly climbed a 7c+ and an 8a at his local crags before consolidating grades at this level at more frequented crags like Rodellar and Ceuse. Last summer he top-roped an 8b after only 5-6 sessions. Theo wanted to lead it but it featured his fears, being close to vertical with long fall potential. Theo wasn't playing with matches anymore and his fire for sending hard routes was now self-evident. In the autumn of 2019, he climbed his first 8b clean and realised he could do this stuff.
Behind successful young athletes, there is a support crew to feather them from the harsh reality of a competitive world and the demands of training. Theo has been nurtured by his climbing family. Vladimir just loves it; he is super proud of his family and to see Theo excel at the climbing game.
"In our case, it's been a matter of trial and error and we are conscious of devoting too much attention to Theo and of keeping our family balanced. It's important to care for Theo's little sister's progress too as she is a great climber, but she's also a little girl who needs love and attention."
Aurelia, Theo's mum, says this of her little one: "We are a climbing family and Theo has spent most of his weekends and holidays at the crags since he was a baby. If on a Friday evening we tell him we are not going climbing he anxiously says, "What are we going to do then, Mumma?"
Aurelia and Vladimir have found climbing to be a good fit for their family, but Theo can be a little rowdy if left untethered. Aurelia explained that Theo is very active, energetic and easily distracted, while at other times can be very shy in social situations. Climbing has become a middle ground. "Theo has a huge amount of energy and at home, he is like a lion in a cage, but after a day out at the crag he is relaxed."
Theo is thoughtful of his family too. His mum continued:
"Theo has a little sister, Alizée, she is his faithful playmate at the crag. People have not been paying attention to her, but Theo is very proud of her when he sees her climbing. Theo has realised that his sister is quite a bit stronger than him when he was her age." Watch this space.
The Blass family's life is fairly typical, with school, sports and play all jostling for time. Brotherly and sisterly love is a beautiful thing. I asked Alizée what she thought of her big brother. "Sometimes Theo is so annoying and can drive me crazy but I would not exchange him for anything in the world."
Earlier this year the family made their regular journey north-west for some climbing at St Léger du Ventoux. It's a two-hour drive for the Blass family but the goal was longer. Theo had been working an 8c there, La Théorie des Cordes, and even though he could not link its sequences he was making good progress. Add ominous music here: COVID-19 came and lockdown was imposed, forcing the family to return home to see it out by training on the woody in the basement.
The first month of lockdown went OK and Theo and his sister bunkered down in the basement becoming wall rats, but like the rest of the world became bored with training and started getting out in the garden, riding their bikes and playing with stick insects. Theo loves bugs but he also loves climbing. What's a kid to do? As restrictions eased the family returned to their local crag, St Guilhem le Désert. This was Theo's favourite place anyway and he was confident there having completed an 8b on a top-rope not many months earlier. That climb is the upper section of a harder route called Souvenirs du Pic (8c). It was a lightbulb moment. Theo was at home at the crag, he was familiar with the route and it was a grade he was ready to project.
When the restrictions were eased further, Theo was psyched for climbing and busting to return to Souvenirs du Pic so he could focus on the bottom section, which he knew was difficult. He says:
"It's steep and powerful with reachy moves between tufas. It's tricky to feed the rope on a couple of the clips."
Theo was making good progress but a few of the holds were moist and he got stuck on a move that was annoyingly reachy (being short is a problem for kids, climbers don't bolt for little people and little people need to find unique sequences which are quite different from adults). In Theo's case, he found a key. His dad explained how Theo turned it:
"Eventually Theo found a precarious kneebar on a piece of flat tufa that allowed him to pass this section and then after several sessions (after the entire route had dried) he managed to send the route."
Theo was pleased but not over the top; for a ten-year-old kid 8c is just progress. Theo's family and friends knew he had heralded new ground in becoming the youngest person to climb that grade, resetting the record books. On the morning of the send, Theo received a parcel from his sponsor, Petzl, with some gear and most importantly a thin and lightweight orange rope which would assist his small hands to manipulate the rope at the clips and lessen the drag on the route. Theo also received a chalkbag that was orange (his favourite colour!). Oh boy, now that was c-o-o-l. News travelled quickly. Jan Virt is one of Europe's great climbing sharp-shooters and he came to photograph Theo on Souvenirs du Pic. Theo tied into his new rope for Jan and redid the route. Even though the route was seeping he cruised it. Jan has witnessed the strongest climbers in Europe send the hardest routes and he said this of Theo:
"Theo is a sweet kid as are his family. When shooting the route Theo would constantly ask me if I was OK or if he should redo the sequence one more time? I felt a little guilty once when I said yes to his offer and had him redo a reachy dyno from another angle. Theo loves to share experiences with others at the crag and the walks back to the parking lot will remain unforgettable when, within half an hour, we covered topics from world-class climbing to the nutritional value (or lack thereof) in a McDonald's Happy Meal."
I asked another of his countrymen and a hero of Theo's, Seb Bouin, for his take on the little man's send. He said this:
"Theo is young and has potential to become one of the strongest climbers in the world. The road will be long and he has to continue to work hard to reach the top."
He also had a message for Theo.
"It's a great start, Theo - keep your mind fresh, stay a beginner in your head and learn from everything to become a pro on the rock. Take the next project as a step and not an end in itself. There is no limit. See you at the crag."
And it's not just world class photographers and rock stars who admire Theo's achievements. He has inspired local climbers. I asked one of them, Simon Bauldry, to share his take on Theo.
"A few years ago we would be at the crag and look down and see that tiny Theo had shyly come to show us a bug that he had found in the dirt. Now I look up and see a not so tiny Theo working the same routes as us. Observing Theo reminds me to stay humble, that it's OK to be scared and when you put your mind to it pretty much anything is possible."
With family and friendships like these, the French climbing renaissance is looking healthy and like all growing boys, Theo remains hungry. His dad shared his take on his son at this moment.
"Theo's dream was to break a record and now that this has been achieved, he does not have a new one yet, although he is keen to be the youngest person to reach the magic number of 9a if he can find a route that inspires him. He knows numbers are just numbers and that it's all relative and just a game, but he does love the game."
Since the lockdown, Theo's family has been experimenting with home schooling which may enable them to travel more often to Spain where there are hundreds of routes that Theo can project.
So, what are we to look forward to? I wanted to find Theo's character and style and investigate how that transfers to the rock. The easy way to answer is that Theo is a complete space cadet! He can be scatty and reserved in one session. Often he leaves a boot behind only to realise his mistake when he arrives at the crag. His dad shared with me how this can interrupt progress.
"Theo can be a pain in everyday life and when climbing he has a strong character and it is often in opposition. Sometimes he does not want to use the beta we present to him because it comes from his parents."
I love his dad's honesty and as a parent myself, I know full well that lots of parents share this struggle!
It's not all candy and cream, though; reality has bitten Theo and he knows that climbing is a delight but also dangerous. Recently a friend, 15-year-old French climber Luce Douady, died in a fall from a path at her local crag and Theo felt this deeply. Growing media interest in his progress will only increase and being a child he would rather be playing than posing. He will need to learn about handling media and interacting with adults earlier than his peers.
How Theo will embrace climbing as he progresses into adolescence will be a new chapter for people to witness and for Theo to explore. I showed him a picture of an icebreaker here in Hobart, Tasmania and he loved it. He enjoys playing with his friends and exploring new crags. He is taking in all the world has to offer, but still has time to sit at the bottom of a crag and look for a caterpillar finding its forage for the day. Theo is living in a world of wonder and so are we, as we wonder just what he will explore next and what he will find when he gets there.
Photos by Jan Virt.