Marc Langley interviews Mina Leslie-Wujastyk about dedication, overcoming a head injury and shifts in focus...
With sponsored ads and big brands getting behind climbing, it can be difficult to get a sense of who the climbers we follow and support really are. It is with this observation in mind that I wanted to look beyond the grades, social media and sponsors to understand how they arrived at where they are today.
I caught up with top British sport climber and boulderer Mina Leslie-Wujastyk one afternoon at one of my regular breakfast haunts in Leeds to do just that...
It's evident that a lot of hard work and determination goes into your training, climbing and red pointing. Can you describe what sacrifices you have had to make over the years?
That's a tough question because I truly feel like in a macro-sense I have been lucky to be able to spend most of my time focusing on and doing what I love. Having said that, there are of course choices I have made that have meant giving up other things. For example, I am a qualified physiotherapist, yet I chose to follow my climbing fully, which, I guess, means I sacrificed what might otherwise have been a fulfilling and more stable career. Travelling for climbing means that I often miss events that involve friends and family outside of climbing. I'm just not around as much, and so those relationships sometimes bear more strain than perhaps they would (my family are so supportive and understanding though). On a smaller scale, there are lots of parties I miss in exchange for an early night, I rarely drink and I often turn down pudding (although less so nowadays...I'm finding a way to fit it in!)
Your affair with Rainshadow started in autumn 2015. Why did you choose this particular climb, arguably one of Steve McClure's most influential lines at Malham?
I didn't really plan to start trying Rainshadow - it kind of crept up on me! I spent the spring of 2015 on Austrian Oak (8b) and Bat Route (8c) and having finished those there were definitely other routes that would have been a more obvious next step! There were a couple of events that I remember as having influenced me to look at Rainshadow.
The first was in June 2015, when Ben Moon was trying and subsequently climbed Rainshadow. I remember one wet, cold day (I had already done Bat Route and the Oak and was kind of at a loose end) when a lot of routes were out of action due to conditions and Ben convinced me (I wonder if he even remembers this) to go up on Rainshadow and just "take a look" at the crux. The crux of Rainshadow is pretty perma-dry so it seemed a good option! Needless to say it felt flipping hard! If I remember correctly I could just about hold some of the positions, but was a far cry from doing most of the harder moves. Looking back, I'm amazed this didn't put me off completely! It's just such good climbing…
The second memory is from later that year in the autumn of 2015 when Stuart Littlefair sent the route. I was lucky enough to be there to see it unfold and it was very inspiring! He danced up the route. We were in the same car on the drive back to Sheffield and Stu used some of that journey to try and talk me into trying it. I'll admit it wasn't something I felt comfortable trying; I felt a bit silly really as it was so far above my pay grade. But, as Stu said, it's a perfect project: it's 2 hours from where I live, an amazing line, not reachy at all, no horrible/sharp holds and it breaks down into workable sections (Raindogs, crux boulder, headwall). It was something I could dig my teeth into…
Last year you took a fall while working the moves on Rainshadow 9a, resulting in a head injury. At the time you thought this was the end of your project and potentially your climbing career. What steps have you taken since then to manage the mental trauma and regain focus ?
Yes, it was quite a shock to the system. Initially I had to take a fair bit of rest to recover, both mentally and physically. But, like I said earlier, I'm quite logical and rational and I knew that if I was going to keep trying Rainshadow, I needed to find a way back in. Once the shock had passed and I could think more clearly I decided that I wanted to keep trying. This wasn't just to overcome the adversity or "push though", although there was an element of that. It was because I love the route and all the experiences that go with it and losing that seemed so sad.
Being a professional athlete often means you are in the public eye. Returning to Malham this year, you jumped back on Rainshadow picking up where you left off after last year's accident. You came under fire by some on social media for not wearing a helmet, a contributing factor to last year's injury. How did you manage this critique and did it have any impact on your decision to return to Rainshadow?
The criticism I received following the accident was not unexpected, but it was nonetheless quite difficult at the time, especially because I was dealing with the intense physical and mental hangover of the head injury itself. I was a lot more anxious and emotional anyway, so adding public scrutiny and criticism to the mix made for a bit of a rollercoaster!
But I also understand where people were coming from and I do know that I have a responsibility to consider and critique my past and future decisions regarding use of helmets - as everyone does. It's a discussion well worth having, but at the time I didn't feel robust enough to have the conversation. I made a sort of "statement" about the whole thing in my blog but then I retreated slightly from the dialogue as it all became too much given my state post-accident. I can only hope that people understood that for what it was; a need to rest and recover, not simple avoidance.
I am curious to know how you are continuing to manage the mental fatigue after three years of trying the route?
I think the main thing to say here is that I really love trying it. If I didn't enjoy the process so much I think it would be more tiring and perhaps harder to get motivated for. I love breaking things down into manageable sections, working them out and then fitting them back together. That's what hard repointing is all about really. If it was all about the outcome I probably would have lost traction with it some time ago. Having said that, I do get mentally tired sometimes but I try to notice and take a break at that point if need be. Usually a few days away is all that's needed and I'm dying to get back on it! It's nice that there are two seasons each year (spring and autumn) should I choose to try it in both. I generally find that regardless of weather I have about a 6-week window where I can perform at my peak physically and mentally. Then it's usually time to re-group.
You lost your mum in 2004 to cancer, at a critical time in your life. What lessons did your mum teach you growing up and which of those lessons do you think have been the most influential 16 years on?
I grew up in an extremely loving and supportive environment and I think, although I lost parental support early, that secure upbringing gave me a strong foundation on which to build life skills. My mother was a wonderful woman who still inspires me today on many levels. She was kind and formidable, fiercely intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny; she was a deep thinker and an avid liver. She taught me so much intentionally but even more through her example.
She saw no boundaries for us in terms of capability, no restrictions to engaging fully in life. She encouraged play and adventure but also determination and effort.
Diet seems to be a major part of your training. What role does this play in your preparations for projecting and redpointing?
Diet has been a really interesting journey for me in relation to climbing. I am currently studying nutrition and I feel like the more I learn the more I realise I don't know! You know how it is, one question leads to another five…
Our sport has complex nutritional needs. We operate across a spectrum of energy systems that require varying forms of support, but it is also an activity where strength to weight ratio is irrefutably relevant. That can be a hard balance to strike and it's obvious in our community that it is still something that people are grappling with and learning about. There seems to have been a huge shift towards training methods and understanding the physiology of climbing and with that, really, nutrition should be close behind! It's all well and good pushing our bodies to adapt, but we have to give them the right building blocks and know when and how to safely trim down if that is a contributing factor to performance.
It seems in the period 2009-2014 you had a much bigger focus on your bouldering compared to now when you are predominately sport climbing. You climbed a number of classic Font 8A's in Europe, South Africa and the USA and some testpiece problems here in the UK too, including Careless Torque in 2013. Why this change of focus? Was there a specific reason?
I've always been a sport climber in a sense. I did a fair bit as a teenager and it was a key part in starting climbing as a kid. I did focus on bouldering for a few years but then I started to get psyched for routes…I spent some time sport climbing in the Peak one summer; mostly doing quick sends, but then I managed to climb Mecca (8b+) too in 2012. So there was quite a cross-over due to bouldering a lot, but I think the bigger shift came when I quit competition climbing in 2014. I wanted more time to climb outside; partly so I could boulder and route climb as well. I decided to try Mecca Extension and this was a turning point where I had to really work on getting fitter. With a lot of routes in the Peak you can get away with being strong and not that fit, but the longer ones required more aerobic work. I really enjoyed the whole process on this route and I was basically more psyched for routes from then on.
Competition climbing was a big focus during the early part of your climbing career, you were a regular face in IFSC Boulder World Cup semi finals and took 2nd place in the British Bouldering Championships. How does competition climbing compare to the climbing you do now and why did you decide to quit competition climbing altogether?
I really enjoyed competition climbing for a while. It was fun and gave me a real buzz. I got to see some parts of the world that I probably wouldn't have without that period of time, too. But from a climbing perspective, I eventually found it unfulfilling. It required a lot of training and time spent hopping from hotel room to hotel room - all to climb on plastic and see if you can be better than the person next to you. I honestly do understand how fun it can be and I think good competition climbers are very impressive, because you have to be so strong nowadays to do well in that arena. But it wasn't for me. Perhaps if I had been better at it I would have lasted longer, but in a way I'm glad I wasn't because I think that helped me get out quicker and be able to focus on the stuff that really gets me psyched. Climbing, for me, is about rocks; the wind in my hair, exposure, days spent outside with friends and climbs that stay in my memory for a long time (whether they were sent or not!)
Finally, looking back, what advice would you give to your fifteen-year-old self?
The same advice that I was given by my Mum: Do what makes your heart sing. But maybe I would also really stress the value of working on confidence-building and self-belief. This is something that I have not always had in bucketloads, but only in recent years realised that I could begin to cultivate myself more assertively. It isn't something you just wake up with one day - it's a process like anything else. I wasted a lot of time and energy worrying and not feeling good enough when I was younger (20s) and that is something I would like to have not spent time doing! Of course that stuff still crops up, like it does for everyone I'm sure, but less frequently and less intensely now. On the physical side, I would encourage my 15-year-old self to get a strong body base, that, again, is something I have only recently realised that I have lacked for a long time. Climbers often are weirdly strong in some ways, but very weak in others and it leaves us open to dysfunction and injury as well as limiting performance.