As a climbing news website, we tend to report on top-end, groundbreaking ascents of the world's hardest routes and boulder problems, climbed by the best climbers out there. With so many ticks, First Ascents and sponsors to their name, there's little to no mention of bad days, failure and goals unachieved. Behind the veneer of a proud status update or Tweet of success are moments of frustration, doubt and struggle that rarely surface.
In this new series of interviews and anecdotes, top climbers reveal all about their nemesis climbs and unfinished business. Tom has an outstanding crack project to compete, but first off, he couldn't wait to tell us a story about one of his lesser-known projects...
Tom vs The Sheep (V5)
Many people who know me well (and perhaps more embarrassingly, many who don't know me so well!) are aware that I had a big nemesis project in the Peak District for many years. The Sheep V5 at Burbage South is an innocuous looking crack feature which requires a lurch from a sidepull to a big sloper and then a bit of a grovel top out. It seems simple, but for me it felt impossible for many years. It sort of still does!
The funniest story that I have surrounding this problem (there are a few as it's so embarrassing that I'm too rubbish to do it) is from around the time when I'd first joined Wild Country as a sponsored climber. I think it was about 2007/2008. It was an Autumn day and I'd just been out trying The Sheep for the hundredth time with absolutely no success (I was barely pulling off the ground) and realised I had a spare hour before work and it might be nice to go and see the Wild Country people in person at their Tideswell office. This is how the conversation went (more or less!):
"Hi Tom, nice to meet you in person finally. What have you been up to? You look chalky... Something hard?"
"Well.... er..... yeah actually I've been trying a long term project but it's really nothing. It's not hard and I can't do it. It's a boulder and I really struggle with that power-based stuff"
"Oh cool! What is it?"
"[cough] The Sheep at Burbage"
"Ah nice! That's supposed to be pretty tricky. I heard those first few moves are very powerful"
I'm thinking - how can they be saying this? Have they got the wrong problem?!
"I guess though, once you've got those moves on the sitter, at least you're into the easier top part on the stand-up version of the problem."
"Oh, no..... no.... that's not what I'm trying. It's the stand-start to The Sheep. I've been on it since around 1999 and still battling away"
This was then followed by everyone in the office at Wild Country debating how I could be so rubbish at climbing and still be sponsored. They were all looking up The Sheep on the UKC logbooks and showing me how many people had ticked it...just scrolling down reams and reams of names. Laughing at me! I've never been allowed to forget it since and when I thought I finally did it last summer (I'd bouldered 8A at Raven Tor by then) I was still told it was wasn't official as I'd stepped off a small boulder at the base. Looks like I know what my main aim for 2016 will be then!
Watch a video of Tom's debated 'ascent' below:
Tom vs Gondo Crack
When did you first hear about Gondo Crack?
I think I first knew about it from James Pearson actually. I’d seen him out in Italy and if I remember rightly, he’d suggested that I go and try it as he’d heard it was a crack line that no one had been able to do.
What attracted you to it?
Simple - it’s a crack and it’s unclimbed!
What were your thoughts upon first seeing and trying the line?
I was actually fairly underwhelmed to be honest. Il Cippo (where the route is) isn’t the prettiest looking crag in the world and as the line is a very thin, incipient finger crack, you don’t really notice it. However once I started trying the moves and found them to be utterly desperate, then I got inspired!
Describe it briefly.
It’s certainly a route of two halves. There’s a 7c introduction which is OK once you know it, but tricky to onsight. This takes you to a good resting hold that’s not a total recovery, but is enough to compose for a minute or so. From there, you launch into a really powerful 7C+/8A (?) boulder crux sequence that all centres around two very hard index mono jamming moves.
How much time has gone into it?
I had about 3 or 4 trips over the space of 2 years to try it, spending around 3-7 days each time. I’d say I’ve spent so far about the same number of sessions on it that it took me to do Cobra Crack.
What has made it unachievable so far - is it purely the climbing, or are there other factors?
One of the biggest factors was the pain and difficulty on one single move. It’s absolutely hideous. For a while I couldn’t convince myself to twist and pull hard enough on the mono that I thought it was impossible. But like many other routes, you plug away and suddenly you can see it’s verging on the “possible” and you’re thinking about the link and redpoint.
What have you learned from trying and failing on this climb?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I’m not as attached to completing a project as I once thought I was. This is probably because I learnt to take away learning points from the experience and convince myself that despite the ego hit on not completing it, I could be a slightly better and more knowledgeable climber going forwards.
Have you ever felt like giving up on it?
I’m not sure that I haven’t given up already! My last day of attempts a while back ended with me injuring my index quite badly and I had to take some time off afterwards. It has improved hugely since, but I’ve been left with something that now clicks and gets a bit locked up in the final joint of the finger. Mostly I don’t notice it, but it’s pretty evident that I am still injured if I do any harsh finger crack climbing.
Why do you think some people are more drawn to persevere despite failure and struggles than others?
For me it has to come down to what you get out of the failure. If you perceive that there’s something positive from it then I’m pretty certain it becomes something people can deal with and even enjoy a little! The people I see who find it very hard are either in the difficult situation of having low self-confidence (sorry, I know no quick fix!) or that they think it’s close to a 100% negative experience.
You have had similar long-term projects in which you have invested a lot of time and effort. You have taken on a fair few long-term projects with Pete Whittaker. Is it easier to have a partner to keep up the motivation, or does it sometimes mean added pressure if one of you does it and the other doesn’t?
Ah yes, an interesting question! Well I think there are two parts to this. One is that when you do something as a partnership then you both commit to an idea / concept / route and therefore you share the burden and expectation of what will come. You’ll suffer the lows together and experience the highs at the same time… it’s massively helpful and of course I completely acknowledge that many of my best achievements would probably never have happened without such a motivated partner!
The second part comes in the “trying” part of the journey. This is where if you have the right climbing partner and they genuinely want you to do as well as them, then it’s a positive day out whether you both succeed or only one of you does. It’s like when one of your siblings has an amazing thing happen to them - you’re not even slightly jealous, just over the moon that they’ve had a great day! The only exception that I can think of on this was when me and Pete were trying Cobra and he did it a few days before me. I felt pretty ok about not doing it, but I could see that Pete felt bad that I wasn’t climbing as well…I think maybe he thought I was gutted about the whole experience. But honestly, for me, it was cool that Pete had done it and I still would have got on the plane and claimed a “team tick” ;-). Ha ha!
Does it feel more satisfying to finally tick something you've had an epic on, or is it just more of a relief? Or maybe you immediately seek out another project?
Every route is very different for me and I don’t think there’s a pattern. I do like to succeed when I thought something was impossible for me, and even more so if I perceive that I’ve learnt something along the way. That learning process is mega important for me and I always hope that other people can see it as something beneficial in their own climbing. After all, we’re all looking for that next slightly out of reach climb aren’t we?!
Tom is also a part-owner of The Climbing Station and a Director of Sublime Climbing.
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