INTERVIEW: Perfect Partners #18: Rob and Craig Matheson

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


Browse through the first ascents section of any Fell and Rock Climbing Club guidebook, and from the 1970s onwards the name Matheson starts to appear. Initially it is R. Matheson (Rob) with first ascents of Cruel Sister (E3), Grand Alliance (E4) and Holocaust (E4), all of which feature in the hallowed Extreme Rock and are now considered some of the best of their grade in the Lakes. Together with a team of marauding Cumbrians, Rob also made the first ascent of the Welsh Extreme Rock tick, Lubyanka.

Craig and Rob Matheson on a day out in May 2019.  © Matheson collection
Craig and Rob Matheson on a day out in May 2019.
© Matheson collection

In more recent years the name C. Matheson (Rob's son Craig) has started to appear in the back of guides too. His first ascents, nearly always climbed with his dad - including Stopper Knott at White Ghyll (E8) and Thy Will be Done on Scafell (E8) - take some of the blankest and steepest sections of rock in Cumbria. In addition to his new routes, Craig has also made second ascents of a number hard Lakes routes, including Welcome to the Cruel World (E9), Hasty Sin Oot Ert Hoonds? (E9), and The Keswickian (E8). Read on to find out what this intergenerational climbing partnership really think of each other…

Rob on Craig

How did you first meet Craig?

As with most fathers I met him shortly after birth.

Did you know Craig by reputation before meeting him?

Yes. For about 9 months prior to his arrival.

Rob Matheson (L) and Craig Matheson (R) - Racking up for Internal Combustion E6 6c, Raven Crag Threshwaite (2012).  © Matheson collection
Rob Matheson (L) and Craig Matheson (R) - Racking up for Internal Combustion E6 6c, Raven Crag Threshwaite (2012).
© Matheson collection

What was your first impression of Craig?

As a boy he was athletic, fit and flexible but I never pushed him into climbing. Shortly after he was born in 1980 I virtually stopped serious climbing anyway. Only starting again in 1990, after the sport climbing revolution. From his first climb he was totally motivated to learn the systems, develop flow, and climb on his feet. An early lesson was 'you can't hear the feet of the best climbers'. There was little indoor stuff, very few bolts - just pure trad I suppose. Craig was very much under the influence of the 'Barrow lads' during his early years – particularly the 'guru of Lakeland climbing' Keith Phizacklea.

The ‘Barrow lads’ beneath Yellow Walls, Gogarth (1997) Greg Fell, Steve Merry, Al Phizacklea, Craig Matheson, Keith Phizacklea.  © Matheson collection
The ‘Barrow lads’ beneath Yellow Walls, Gogarth (1997) Greg Fell, Steve Merry, Al Phizacklea, Craig Matheson, Keith Phizacklea.
© Matheson collection

What was the first route you climbed together?

Giants Crawl (D) – 1990. A proper climb on a mountain crag! Not sure it would have passed the BMC health and safety test.

Why do you enjoy climbing with Craig?

Initially the pleasure of seeing him develop as a climber, but it used to exasperate me the number of runners he wanted to place – simply because they were there. I can remember one particular event on Eastern Hammer, a superb E3 on Gimmer, where he must have placed over 20 runners on it! And when he became stronger it got even worse – he could hang on forever! When he couldn't find the time to climb (career and family) Craig trained intensively as he saw that this was the only passport to the higher grades. Over the last few years it has been great to explore with him and hold his rope on some pretty hard routes.

What is the most memorable route you have climbed together?

Early on it was probably Pagan (E4 5c) on Red Walls, Gogarth, which was a lesson in mental control on wonderfully suspicious rock with sparse protection. Recently it has been his ascent of Welcome to the Cruel World (E9 7a) on Scafell. I played my part by holding the rope and telling him to breathe!

Sum up your partnership in three words?

Dad knows best!

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

From the belay perspective it was watching Craig on Mr Cuddles (E8 6c, Browside) because he had already smashed his ankle falling from near the top. When he finally went for it, several months later I knew it would be a ground fall from the crux.

On the lead it was the first ascent of Barad-Dur (E6 6b, Scafell), I had unexpectedly committed myself to the crux runout above the RP protection in baltic conditions; you know that feeling of 'I wish I hadn't done that' and my fingers conveniently went numb. A fall would have been bad (very bad) but I don't think Craig was that bothered because 'dad never falls off'. I suppose this is just the trad way!

Llanberis Open 1998 – Keith Phizacklea (L) tees off from the Cromlech, with Steve Hubbard and Steve Merry.  © Matheson collection
Llanberis Open 1998 – Keith Phizacklea (L) tees off from the Cromlech, with Steve Hubbard and Steve Merry.
© Matheson collection

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

I'd make him less safety conscious!

Any climbing plans for the future?

Just to keep fit and injury free (the 50% of max rule with strength training) so I can continue to push my grades. I never trained strength when I was young, so there isn't much chance of serious gains now. I'd like to do an E7 when I'm 70!

What's the least enjoyable route you have done with Craig?

Numerous routes that Craig has led in his trainers and I can't do any moves on. Ian Cooksey has suffered on this front numerous times claiming psychological damage.

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

He wouldn't dare.

What have you learned from climbing with Craig?

Strength is indeed a virtue. If you really want to do something, find the path to do it. Training is the path. Long term determination and not instant gratification.

Craig on Rob

How did you first meet Rob?

I believe I was handed to him shortly after I was born.

Did you know Rob by reputation before meeting him?

I can only really answer this from the perspective of what life was like growing up as his son (very much in his shadow). Although he didn't really climb in the 80s due to family restrictions (having kids tends to curtail activities) I knew from magazine articles/books around the house that he had climbed and whenever meeting family friends I was constantly reminded of what a good climber my dad was. I knew he had a reputation for being a cool headed climber, particularly on slabs. I remember being at Hodge Close in 1992 and watching him on-sight the Whillance classic 'Stage Fright E6 6b'. Stevie Whittall was videoing the action on an old VHS recorder and kindly informed me (at the tender age of 12) 'You know if your dad falls here he's dead!'

Family holiday 1984 – Scafell new route book at Brackenclose hut.  © Rob Matheson
Family holiday 1984 – Scafell new route book at Brackenclose hut.
© Rob Matheson

What was your first impression?

When we started climbing together (August 1996 after my GCSE's) I was leading Severe and he was leading E6, so there was a massive difference in ability. Naturally I wanted to be able to climb as well as he did and so the first impressions were inspirational I suppose. I remember trying to lead Praying Mantis at Goat Crag (E1 5b) and getting thrashed by the initial crack. My dad just soloed up it, demonstrated the required techniques and reversed back down. As a young kid you were just left thinking 'How did you do that?

What was the first route you climbed together?

We did a few family expeditions around the back garden in the mid 80's as preparation for those future 'big leads' but I think our first proper outing was Giants Crawl (D) on Dow Crag - probably about 1990. I can't remember much about the route, but I recall being sat on a ledge and receiving instructions on multi-pitch technique. There was much emphasis on not untying the knot connected to my harness! 30 years on this remains sound climbing advice.

Back garden expeditions in the mid 80’s with my younger brother (Ross Matheson (L), Craig Matheson (R).   © Matheson collection
Back garden expeditions in the mid 80’s with my younger brother (Ross Matheson (L), Craig Matheson (R).
© Matheson collection

Why do you enjoy climbing with Rob?

He's always keen to get out and is willing to take weather risks. In the Lakes you're going to get many disastrous days out and you need someone who doesn't moan when the weather turns against you – especially when you've just walked 2 hours to get to a damp crag. I remember walking up to Scafell on a marginal forecast and it was soaking when we got there. Undeterred we had a cup of tea under the crag, walked back down, drove to Langdale and went climbing on Pavey. It was a great day, but most teams would have thrown the towel in at Wasdale.

Scafell (2013) – shortly after the first ascent of Thy Will be Done (E8 6c).   © Matheson collection.
Scafell (2013) – shortly after the first ascent of Thy Will be Done (E8 6c).
© Matheson collection.

What is the most memorable route you have climbed together?

Eliminate A (VS) on Dow Crag. We soloed the route together in 1999 and I have strong memories of the delicate rightward traverse moves above the big roof on pitch 5. I remember climbing along just behind my dad as he pointed out the holds and the sequence. I wasn't concerned about the situation we were in, 50m above the ground: 'Dad said it would be ok'. Total trust. I'm sure I'd have a few heart flutters if I did it today!

Sum up your partnership in three words?

Never give up.

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

Probably hanging on an abseil rope watching my dad lead Camouflage (E7 6b) at Cam Crag through a camera lens - hoping he didn't disappear out of shot! I think being detached from the situation was worse than actually belaying.

Rob Matheson on Camouflage E7 6b.  © Rob Matheson
Rob Matheson on Camouflage E7 6b.
© Rob Matheson

The pathetic skyhook, blu-tacked and taped to the rock on lead.   © Rob Matheson
The pathetic skyhook, blu-tacked and taped to the rock on lead.
© Rob Matheson

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

I'd like to say his attention when belaying, but I could be being a bit hypocritical here! I think coming from the 'leader never falls' generation he sometimes forgets that I might be off at any second. A quick glance down often reveals coffee and sandwiches have taken priority.

Any climbing plans for the future?

Obviously – but I can't give any specific details, it's all top secret here in the Lakes.

What's the least enjoyable route you have done with Rob?

Probably anything at Tremadog. I just don't seem to be able to enjoy the climbing there.

Rob Matheson (L), John Eastham, (C) and Ed Cleasby (R) in 1976.   © Photo – Matheson collection.
Rob Matheson (L), John Eastham, (C) and Ed Cleasby (R) in 1976.
© Photo – Matheson collection.

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

No. But if you get a chance to do a route then you should do it (regardless of who it's with). Very often you don't get second chances to do some classic lines, particularly on mountain routes where weather/conditions are huge factors. A good climbing partner knows this and should accept they just weren't there at the time.

What have you learned from climbing with Rob?

Climb on your feet and there's always an easier way.

Like the sound of the Lakes? If so, get involved with the 2019 Arc'teryx Lakeland Revival...

The Arc'teryx Lakeland Revival aims to celebrate the climbing in the area and encourage everyone of all abilities to get out trad climbing in these beautiful mountains. Now in its sixth year we have another selection of suggested routes for you to get your teeth stuck into.

The idea is very simple, Fell & Rock Climbing Club have put together a list of suggested routes. If you climb one of these and document it, in exchange one of our retailers will reward you with a free goodie.

Find out more

Craig Matheson is sponsored by: Ocun


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Really enjoyed this one! Beyond having heard their names I knew very little about the Mathesons... now I know a bit more

4 Jul

Great article due to excellent subject matter! I learned something as well, that I've done all the Lakes routes (bar the hardest) attributed to Rob in this article but didn't know they were his (to my shame). They are all glorious outings. I love the banter on the YouTube videos and the lo-fi way they are shot. That's mainly due to these two having to get out and line the camera up and leave it running while Rob belays. You should check them out as the banter confirms all that they've said about each other here. The thing about the trainers is true as well. There was a 7b+ at Kendal that Craig did in his trainers this winter. I'd done it lots of times so the next week I thought I'd give it a go, in trainers... I did manage it but unlike Craig, who that day went on to climb many more routes I had to go and have a lie down in a darkened room 😀

4 Jul

I've met Craig a couple of times in the last few years. He seemed unfeasibly psyched for someone with two small kids. I couldn't fathom how he had the energy and determination. I was left thinking he was definitely someone I'd want on the other end of the rope if I were in a spot of bother. One of the good guys. 🙂

5 Jul

Such a family team psyche, I wish Rob was my dad! E7 when 70, right on! So good. I bet none of their routes are soft touch either. I love the picture of Craig in their garden expedition, says it all