INTERVIEW: Perfect Partners #11 - Andy Moles and Ferdia Earle

In this series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known - and lesser known - climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and find out what they really think of one another...

Andy Moles and Ferdia Earle are an enigmatic climbing couple whom you've probably never heard of. Together they have climbed bucketloads of hard(ish) UK trad climbs, oodles of amazing boulder problems and a fair chunk of gnarly Scottish winter routes. The pair have also done more world classics than most people have had hot dinners. Their enviable international CV reads like a post from Duncan Critchley's long running UKB thread, Fairly Long, Moderately Hard and Mostly Free. It includes: Positive Vibrations, The Original Route on Rainbow Wall, Regular North Face Route ("The Rostrum"), Moonlight Buttress (almost free), Salbitschijen West Ridge, Levitation 29, Primrose Dihedrals, République Bananière and Free Blast.

Enjoying a beer after flailing up The Rostrum., 165 kb
Enjoying a beer after flailing up The Rostrum.
© Andy Moles

Andy works as a freelance climbing and mountaineering instructor and is a talented writer. His account of an epic he had on the Shelterstone's Sticil Face a few winters back is one of the most gripping I have read. Ferdia works freelance as a Research Officer in child development and children's social work. Read on to find out what they really think of each other.

Andy on Ferdia

How did you first meet?

We met in a pub in Edinburgh when we were students. I was President of the uni mountaineering club and she was the 'new girl'.

Did you know Ferdia by reputation?

In climbing terms, she didn't have one. She had been climbing for years with a teacher from her school, the legendary Andrew Wielochowski, having old-fashioned adventures in places like Lundy and Cloggy and Creag Meagaidh. But she was like a Galapagos penguin, doing her own thing in blissful ignorance of the wider climbing community.

What was your first impression?

My early memories are of Ferdia necking rosé wine from the bottle and climbing the internal architecture of sticky, dark clubs on the Cowgate. When we got talking I learned she had grown up living out of vehicles as a barefoot changeling child of the forest, and she had long mermaid hair, so I was head over heels.

Ferdia on the technical crux pitch of Neanderthal in the Lost Valley, Glencoe., 148 kb
Ferdia on the technical crux pitch of Neanderthal in the Lost Valley, Glencoe.
© Ferdia Earle

What was the first route you climbed together?

Something at Limekilns. Ferdia fell off the top of the route, ripped out her top nut and stopped a couple of feet off the ground. She didn't seem fazed at all. This was both worrying and inspiring – I thought she was a fabulous nutcase. Though it turned out, probably for the best in the long run, that she's not.

Why do you enjoy climbing with Ferdia?

Well, it's hard to overlook the fact that I really like her as a human, in fact she's my favourite one. But then again, not all couples function very well as a climbing partnership. With someone else you restrain your inner infant's mood whims, but with your partner you can get away with throwing spaghetti hoops on the floor. It helps that we climb at a similar level, without being overly competitive, and that most of the time we're inspired by the same things. We're both happy to slide around on the spectrum of climbing styles, everything from pottering around bouldering to winter and alpine stuff, and we are agreed about where the high points on that spectrum lie. At least I think we are, she's recently showed an inclination towards grotty limestone caves and campus boards. Should I be worried?

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

It's hard to pick one, from probably more than a thousand now. Overall, it's the big intimidating things that stand out, routes in the Alps and America. Recently Moonlight Buttress was special, because we put so much into that route, dreaming, planning and getting swollen knuckles before we had even set eyes on it. We had few reasons to believe we were good enough to free Moonlight, but I went around telling people we were going to try it to make sure we did. We trained specifically on wide finger cracks in Indian Creek and got reliably spanked. It went through several cycles of seeming possible, then ridiculous. When we eventually did get on it, there was a deeply committed sense of purpose that I guess you just don't feel without putting so much thought and effort into something. It was a great immersive experience, spending two nights on a portaledge trying to redpoint multiple pitches close to our limit.

Sum up your partnership in three words.

"Another coffee?" "OK."

'More coffee? Ok.', 195 kb
'More coffee? Ok.'
© Ferdia Earle

What's the most scared you've been while climbing together?

Abseiling off a multipitch sport route in Sicily, I misjudged the steepness and ended up hanging in space 400ft off the ground, unable to swing back in to reach the next anchor. The rope was running over some really sharp limestone, and I was absolutely terrified of prussiking on it. Eventually Ferdia managed to squeeze her jacket under the rope as a protector and up I went, but I've never felt so helplessly exposed. I was also extremely gripped one time on Orkney, pumped out on a sandbag route and looking at taking a nasty swinging fall. I dealt with that one by getting her to pay loads of slack and jumping, fully racked, straight into the sea.

If you could change one thing about Ferdia what would it be?

Oo, dangerous territory…not much actually, her rough edges are part of the same fabric as her unique charms. Maybe I would make her more confident of her ability on snow and ice. She has this amazing ability to lead the crux of a grade VII mixed route and then get spooked by the grade I exit slope.

What are your plans for the future?

More trips to do more beautiful climbs, ones that strike the right balance between quality and enough discomfort to make it worth remembering. Climbing is the easy part – there is more than enough to inspire for a lifetime. More generally, I've never shown much aptitude for dealing with 'the future'. I mop up day to day tasks effectively, but Ferdia is more proactive when it comes to the big picture. So I'm hoping to leave that to her, and I will tag along like a remora.

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Ferdia?

It's hard to think of a standout un-enjoyable route, I might have been frozen or terrified at the time, but those sorts of routes usually cross over into the 'memorable' category. So I'll pick a route that Ferdia was leading on Pabbay. I was tucked under an overhang belaying where I couldn't see her. The rope kept nudging out and in like a nervy tortoise. A couple of friends who were also there looked concerned, and I had the impression she hadn't got any gear in. Next thing there was a shriek and she flew past and decked out onto the tidal platform just as a wave washed in. We had to piggyback her to the campsite, soaked through and with two broken heels.

The last hard pitch of Original Route, Rainbow Wall., 141 kb
The last hard pitch of Original Route, Rainbow Wall.
© Ferdia Earle

Has Ferdia ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

Luckily I seem to have a robust immunity to FOMO, otherwise my life would be distressing. It's a permissive relationship. I've been jealous when she's made it to a lot of DWS parties that I've missed and mopped up all the classics places like Pentire while I've done none. I'm more sorry about the parties than the climbs really, the climbs are still there. Except the Lundy ones, probably.

What have you learned from climbing with Ferdia?

When we first climbed together, Ferdia was naturally good at a limited range of climbing (corners and off-vertical walls), but she has tackled her weaknesses and developed herself into a strong all-rounder. When she picks up an injury, she collects advice and has the patience to stick to physio routines and so on. I think a lot of people, myself included, ingrain bad habits out of laziness, and fail to take actions that will ultimately make us happier, out of self-deception. Ferdia is a realist and has no time for bullshit, which is a very healthy influence. Then again, in other ways I'm the disciplined one, at least I get out of bed in the morning and I don't eat pudding before dinner.

Ferdia on Andy

How did you first meet?

When I went along to the pub to join the Edinburgh uni mountaineering club. We got chatting and the night culminated in us scaling the outside of the student union, about four storeys high. This set the tone for things to come.

Did you know Andy by reputation before meeting him?

I was on the club mailing list long before joining. Andy sent out many of the emails including clues for the location of the upcoming Mystery Meet, which he provided in poem form. As many people know, Andy has quite a way with words! This meant I had the unusual experience of being acquainted with his writing before actually meeting him.

What was your first impression?

Irish poet. Daredevil. Slightly murderous resting face.

What was the first route you climbed together?

It was at Limekilns, a cube of quarried limestone resembling feta cheese and with a reputation for being almost as soft, although I didn't know this at the time. I launched up a HVS before pumping out and peeling off high up. My top nut ripped and I bounced off the floor on rope stretch. I think Andy was more surprised than I was – I was probably too busy trying to act as if this sort of thing happened all the time, even though it was my first proper lead fall!

Why do you enjoy climbing with Andy?

One thing I really enjoy is the feeling of launching into whole new areas of climbing together, making it up as we go along – dropping shoes of big walls, bailing into the sea – it's an adventure! We both like to change things up quite a lot and follow weather and mood rather than clinging to Plan A. We've had some surprising adventures that way, new routing on Raasay when the rest of Scotland was a washout, that sort of thing. We are both probably most ourselves in remote places – so getting to spend so much time with Andy where we are most content is important.

Ferdia on the summit tower of the Salbitschijen Westgrat., 89 kb
Ferdia on the summit tower of the Salbitschijen Westgrat.
© Andy Moles

We're pretty lucky to climb at a similar level across the different types of climbing, from bouldering to winter to nugget bothering. We have different strengths and likes though, which is useful (in other words, Andy gets all the snowslopes, awkward flares and unprotected first pitches of Alpine routes!) We've also learnt that we seem to make safe and tactical decisions together and that even if one of us isn't feeling it, between us we manage to get up stuff. For me, these are really important things to know when getting on big or challenging routes and I guess our confidence in what we can manage together keeps growing.

It's not like we are immune to that particular brand of soap opera/comedy that plagues climbing couples, but the fact that we spend half our time in different places having our own adventures means that we look forward to climbing with each other again.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

One route that stands out is Positive Vibrations on the Incredible Hulk. It was probably the route that made me realise long, remote climbs in big, beautiful amphitheatres are where it's at. We had done other long routes before, but everything about Positive Vibrations was a step up for us – the long walk in, the bivi beforehand (the unplanned bivi afterwards), the steep crack climbing… I was also pretty ill with a stomach bug. In hindsight it wasn't a good idea to do the route having not eaten for a couple of days but it's probably partly why the experience stands out!

I remember lying awake the night before, listening to atmospheric music and staring at the dark sky circled by sharp granite peaks. I was so scared about the next day. I've got more used to that feeling now and know that getting on ambitious routes brings out the best in us. I think when the outcome is uncertain, this can prime you to just take things one step at a time and try hard; there isn't the pressure that might be there when you expect to do something. So we now have a tried and tested formula which goes something like this:

Pick a big route that is too hard.

Try some short practice routes.

Fail on these.

Get on the big route anyway.

Portaledging on Moonlight Buttress was really special and one of the main incentives to do that route. Neanderthal in Glencoe was the hardest winter route we'd got on and provided a prolonged mental battle involving both Andy's axes ripping and catching again. Major Domo in Gairloch is important to me as E6 always felt like a big grade and it marked the end of a period of injury.

I had a particularly great experience on Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks too – it was daunting as as it was the hardest and longest multipitch we'd tried at that point and we had some setbacks low down on the route. But the routes that stand out for me are always those where doubt has been high and circumstances haven't been ideal but we've stuck with it and got there.

Sum up your partnership in three words.

We pull it out the bag. Not three words but the ones that come to mind most!

Only a few more feet to go on Moonlight Buttress., 205 kb
Only a few more feet to go on Moonlight Buttress.
© Ferdia Earle

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

On The Long Reach on the Etive Slabs many years ago we got off route. I mantled a body length overlap and padded upwards some way before I realised I could no longer move up. Nor could I move back down. I completely froze, stranded in a sea of granite. A fall was unthinkable. It was 20 metres to my last piece of gear and that was below the overlap. I could hear Andy laughing with someone down below, oblivious. A guy drew level with me a few metres away. My eyes must have been pleading with him because all he said was "I'm sorry!" The longer I stood there, the more my legs shook and the more my shoe rubber curled from the crystals – you know the feeling! A finger edge and a cam placement taunted me just out of reach. Eventually, I managed to will myself to make the move. It was meant to be my first E2 – turns out we'd wandered onto a pitch of Angel which was probably about E4 in its own right!

If you could change one thing about Andy what would it be?

I think I would make him more open-minded about his chances on the harder routes he wants to do. He is naturally very strong but can be very easily discouraged. That said, when he is properly inspired there's no stopping him. Usually this is on climbs that are long, sustained, beautiful and crack like. We call this primo badger territory, because Andy can just course up terrain like this all day like a badger through undergrowth.

What are you plans for the future?

Other than the elusive power high (that I'm told can be gained from climbing hard sport routes!), just more bigness and goodness far from the madding crowds I hope. I'd like to get back to Norway and the Alps. There's so much in the UK and Ireland though, and we both love the adventure to be had on all the islands, sea cliffs and mountain crags here. It's definitely my favourite place to be in spring and summer. Ultimately, I want to still be climbing at 70, which means not decking out or burning out any time soon!

Big seas and selfies on The Prozac Link, E4, Lewis., 246 kb
Big seas and selfies on The Prozac Link, E4, Lewis.
© Ferdia Earle

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Andy?

I recently realised how claustrophobic I am…whilst squeezing through the hole on Crypt Route. What could anyone honestly do to help you if you got stuck inside a mountain?!

Has Andy ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

Working in Scotland so much, Andy sometimes gets to remote crags that I'm still desperate to visit. I'm particularly jealous that he's been to Carn Mor. I'm less jealous of the time he pioneered deep water soloing above a pond in the central belt…

Sometimes Andy doing a route can make me want to do it. London Wall wasn't really on my radar until Andy decided, in the way that he does, that he might give it a go off the couch. He got rained off on his first go but dispatched it no bother next go. It was great to watch. Obviously I then wanted to do it. I fell twice from the top moves – I was pretty pleased to get that far but I've not been back to finish it yet. What's the point? The chance for a burn off has gone. Not that I'm competitive…

What have you learned from climbing with Andy?

Coffee nearly always takes precedent over being first or last at the crag!

We've obviously climbed with each other for a long time now and influenced each other a lot. In the early years the fact that Andy was in his 'tick the crag' phase and climbing harder things than me probably made it easy for me to improve. He's also now an instructor, working towards his MIC, which means I've picked up some pretty useful skills. I remember dragging my heels around the Scottish hills one winter with Andy and his fellow Glenmore lodge trainees – soon afterwards I found myself drawinn on everything I knew to get back across the Cairngorm plateau one night in a white out – I stopped dragging my heels after that! Although my bucket seats probably still leave something to be desired. The skill level of instructors in this country is so high. It's not surprising when you see how much time and effort goes into each qualification.

On Moonlight Buttress.
© Andy Moles

It was probably a throwaway remark from Andy that has had the biggest impact on my climbing. For a long time, I was a jittery E1 wall climber. Bold or steep routes were anathema and cracks were impossible. Choosing a crag to go to that didn't provoke terror could be a fraught process. Andy quite reasonably asked me one day if I even liked climbing! After that I started trying things I didn't think I was good at. I realised I really liked doing this. Since then, my main goal has simply been to make more and more aspects of climbing enjoyable (yes, even peak lime sport!)

To a large extent I think that if you took climbing away, Andy would still be content so long as he could spend time in remote places. This is good as it reminds me of a big part of the reason I started climbing in the first place, when I am chomping at the bit because my forearms haven't burst or I haven't fallen off yet.

Forums 36 comments

One of the things that I really like about the route 'unleashing the wild physique' at the cheedale cornice is that I've never seen two people do it in the same way, it rewards neither being tall nor short, and...
Great article/enjoyable read. Had the pleasure of meeting/climbing with Andy whilst he was working at glenmore lodge, many moons ago.  To a novice like me, Andy's one handed bowline demonstration still beguiles me.   
Oh yes, I once went straight up from the cam slot off an undercut jam just for fun rather than right then up. It's a route I can climb over and over again it's just so lovely. Maybe the fact that it can be done in more...
The Screamer has one bit where the line is slightly unclear, so Heaven Crack must be the most perfect route. Who'd'a thought? There's a fun feature in that for someone, a complilation of the most flawless midget gems....
I would definitely agree that heaven crack comes pretty close. I think the trouble is that every time you get a little bit closer to perfection, the bar is set slightly higher! Its sort of like an experiential brand of...
Well, off the top of my head, Heaven Crack at Stanage and The Screamer at Reiff come close. And I've also had some near perfect climbing "experiences" such as soloing the Innominata. I've also once found a near perfect...

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