Pete Oxley interviews 12-year-old Hannah Toward about her recent ascent of his route The Roaring Boys (E6 6b) at Boulder Ruckle, her progression in the sport and what she hopes to achieve in the future.
Hannah is very young but she has a very mature outlook and comes across as very humble and reserved. She has a genuine passion for the outdoors, climbing and a will of steel to match her goals. This is all coming from her and it is not forced in any way that I can see. She is focused on the climb, talks intelligently and is not in it for the grades or accolades. I believe she will cope with these and go on to be a future player in our sport. It will be gratifying to think that her traditional roots really blossomed down the Ruckle on this climb.
The following Q and A gives a fascinating insight into her ascent and her approach to climbing. I certainly find her one of the most inspiring people I have come across in a long while in the South and I wish her many successes.
Questions by Pete Oxley to Hannah Toward:
Firstly, congratulations to you Hannah. How does it feel to have led such a tough E6 traditional route at such a young age?
I like to do things that are unusual but that isn't my main drive. I focus on improving my climbing and don't worry too much about what other people are doing. If I was to stop climbing now, I would be happy with what I have already achieved. I have consistently trained hard and worked on my weaknesses for the last five years and for each of my hardest ascents (sport (8b), trad (E6) and boulder (7C+), I don't think that I could have climbed them much earlier.
To me, this is a paradigm shift – a passing of the baton to your generation. Do you sense this, and did it drive you? Are you actively driven to break barriers and set new standards?
For me, doing projects that I am not sure whether I can succeed on or not is what excites me most. It might sound a bit selfish but I like to just climb for myself and not worry about whether it influences others.
There are definitely not that many young people getting into trad climbing and I am very fortunate that I have had people willing to take me out. I guess for a lot of people there isn't an obvious way in.
Previous to this I believe your history is mainly as a sport climber? I am interested to know what has made you want to push into the traditional side of the sport?
Actually, my first experience of climbing was in traditional climbing. My dad was part of the Southampton Climbing Club and from a young age, I went on a few trips with them seconding routes. Since then I have mainly done sport, bouldering and the odd competition but I have also done some traditional climbing along the way including at a few of the BMC trad meets that James McHaffie organises, which have been amazing opportunities to eat lots of lasagne and learn from some of the best climbers in the UK.
I have been really fortunate that my friend Tim Miller has supported my traditional climbing from the start. He runs my local wall (Boulder Shack) and has been climbing with me since I was seven.
How many traditional routes had you led at Swanage before this? I heard from Freddy Mead you have previously led The Lean Machine E5? Did this climb light the fire for this face?
I have only led four traditional routes outdoors - all E grades. The first route I led was Stroof (E1) at Subluminal and Lighthouse Cliff. I dogged it on top rope when I was seven with Tim alongside me, so it was good to come back a few years later with him to finish off the job. It was also his first E1 many, many years ago.
(Pete - and mine as well many, many years ago!)
The second route I led was Ocean Boulevard (E3) in the Boulder Ruckle. This was a big step up from Stroof – the wall feels a lot more intimidating, the route is longer and more sustained, although none of the individual moves were much harder.
The Lean Machine wall was even more imposing, it is steeply overhung and the abseil is 40m down on to boulders with waves crashing around them. The easiest solid escape route is an E3 (other than jugging up the ab line). The top outs can be very sketchy and you need to climb up on the ab rope for the last few metres. The Lean Machine (E5) was suggested to me by Neil Gresham and is one of his favourite climbs. It is very well protected but sustained and follows a big crack on relatively good holds.
Why did you choose The Roaring Boys as the route to push to this next level in your traditional progression?
We had seen Tom Livingstone ticking the route when I was trying Lean Machine. It looked like it would suit me – more technical and crimpy than Lean Machine and just as steep but still with good gear all the way up.
Can you describe your ascent of The Roaring Boys? How did you go about achieving it?
I did the route in two sessions. On the first, I abbed down the route with Tim and we looked closely at all the gear. We also took pictures of all of the gear placements so that I could remember them for next time. I then went up the route on top rope to practise the moves, then again on lead with pre-placed gear. There was a lot of swell and Dad got pretty soaked on the belay.
I found even on top rope I wasn't recovering enough on the rests and working the route was tiring. I was (almost) too shattered to eat fish and chips in Swanage at the end of the day! I went away and did a short block of power endurance and did a bit of running to get my overall fitness up.
On the second session, I abbed down the route again but this time I looked more closely at which bits of gear could be eliminated and really studied the intricacies of the rock and placing each piece. I then went back up clip-to-clip placing the gear and resting on each piece to build up trust. I also tweaked the beta on the crux so that I could do the hardest move statically. I pre-placed the first bit of gear (at about 3m) - the climbing was easy up to there but the rock at the bottom was really greasy and I didn't fancy the fall into the sea. There was a decaying deer, which had fallen off the top, on the boulders near us. It really stank and there was a big seagull pecking at it, so I was pretty glad to set off. After a cup of tea, I then went for it on lead.
The route went first try. On the climb, I felt strong and in control all the way up - I recovered well on the rests and there was no point when I felt that I would fall off. Tim kept an eye on my placements from the ab rope. All the gear went in as practised and I would have been happy to take a fall on any of it. It took me about 20 minutes to climb it, 15 of which were spent at the rests. Even though it was me who climbed the route, it was very much a team effort.
The route is very pumpy with a tough crux at the top. After the FA I upgraded it to E7 6b, but it settled down to top-end E6 with 7c climbing would you agree?
Doing the route on top rope felt solid 7c, so that feels about right and as you say the crux is right at the top. Interestingly Tom's tick marks were still on the crux. I don't think I used many of the holds he used; instead, I crimped off what were probably his footholds. I'm not sure about the E grade as I don't have enough experience but it was definitely a step up from Lean Machine.
The readers of UKC will be interested to know what precautions were carried out to help safeguard your ascent as you are still very young.
As an experienced MCI (Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor), I've thoroughly enjoyed the process of working with Hannah on some incredible projects which have either been personal favourites of mine or more recently on my aspirational list. All the routes we've worked together have followed the same process, where safety is always the first consideration. We'll abseil down together on separate ropes but connected together and place as much gear as possible in the route, usually way more than would ever actually be needed. Hannah will then top-rope the route whilst considering what gear is tactically best in terms of the climbing around it and distance from other placements.
Throughout the process of working the route, I will be ascending a rope next to Hannah to talk about placements, movements and generally support. I've now jugged up and down Boulder Ruckle way more times than I can remember!
From a technical point, we're working big 20-degree overhanging routes that require a lot of secondary anchor points and redirecting gear of ascending ropes. I joke with Hannah that we have to start working some slab routes, but despite the hard work, these overhanging routes will always be safer, better protected and crazily inspiring.
Traditional climbing is quite different mentally to sport climbing. How did you cope with the extra pressures required in traditional climbing?
For the sessions on Roaring Boys, we left the house at 6.20 a.m. By the time we had driven there, walked-in, set up the ab ropes, abbed down and inspected the gear, it would be midday and I would have already expended quite a lot of energy. The routes on the wall are long and sustained, so I found that I could only get two or three good goes on them in a day. There was not that much margin for making mistakes. Maximising the amount of information that I could take in whilst abbing down the route made a huge difference. To help me remember, I drew the gear placements up to the crux and went through them the night before. I included details such as the shape of the crack, what piece of gear I needed to use, as well as any other extra points I needed to remember about how and where to place it.
Has this ascent lit a fire to repeat more of the traditional hard lines at Swanage? There are still second ascents to be had and even some new routes here and there!
I would definitely be up for trying to repeat some more of the hard traditional lines in Swanage. I am inspired to do climbs that push my boundaries mentally and physically, but I am conscious that the routes are safe. I really love the area and the climbing. I have been looking at Laughing Arthur and it looks like an amazing route, through a massive cave ( Blackers Hole). I am really keen to have a look at it with Tim and see if it can be worked safely. I always try to find things that are not my style – the fact that I would have a real struggle on it really appeals to me. I would also like to start doing some traditional onsighting to bridge the gap to my headpoint grade.
(Pete – Note Laughing Arthur has since had the main roof crack retro-bolted but it has not had a real second ascent yet on Traditional gear. It was a 4 pitch traditional climb and was the first E8 in the South when first ascended in 1988.)
What would you say are your main attributes? I can tell you are very driven and think critically about how to get better from every angle.
I am not that naturally talented: when I first started climbing I didn't get into the local climbing squad; for the first three years, I wouldn't go above two-thirds of the way up the bouldering wall and wouldn't take falls on lead. All of these things I have had to work really hard to overcome. So, I guess my main talent is my ability to work persistently on my weaknesses.
Did you find coming from such a solid hard sport background made it go much easier? I came from the reverse progression with years of traditional climbing before sport.
The normal progression to leading traditional routes at these grades would be building up a pyramid of easier routes first. My way of going straight into hard headpoints is unusual but it has worked for me and is easier to combine with other disciplines of climbing. For every gear placement, I have looked in a lot more detail than I imagine most people would go into – placing them, replacing them, weighting them, and being prepared to take falls on them. So, I feel I have built up a good understanding.
Roaring Boys was once the hardest traditional climb in Dorset back in 1987 before Mark of the Beast reset the bar again in October of that year. Does this history add to your interest in climbs you choose?
The history of routes is important to me. Not just in terms of the changing standards of climbing but I also realise how much commitment was involved in putting up these hard routes, not knowing if they were even possible. Probably half of the routes I have ever climbed outside were put up by you and I really appreciate how much you have put into climbing around the South West.
(Pete – Cheque is in the post!)
There are very few girls or women climbing hard traditionally. How does it impact your climbing and does it drive you to show what you can do? Do you face any problems being so young and keen?
I don't consider myself as a female climber – just a climber. Height has been a bit of a problem in the past however now that I am a bit taller I can't really use that as an excuse. I have been lucky to climb with really good role models like Sue Hazel who was one of the women involved in the early skateboarding scene in the late '70s and '80s. She changed focus to climbing and became one of the best in the south doing hard repeats of sport and traditional climbs.
In the future how would you like to perform as a climber? As an allr-ounder or just focus on one aspect? What is your preferred style?
At the moment I guess sport climbing is my favourite discipline as I am able to push myself to my physical limit. I enjoy bouldering and it is good training but I don't get the same satisfaction from getting a hard problem as I do from redpointing a route. I am quite analytical, I have a good memory and I am able to stay calm under pressure. These have been very useful assets in traditional climbing and I think it is an area where I can do well and I also like the adventurous side of it.
A climber that has inspired me is Toru Nakajima because he came to the UK when he was just 15 and soloed some of the hardest routes on grit. More recently he made a free solo ascent of the highest waterfall in Japan - Shomyo Falls. However, he still says that nothing else in his career has lived up to that trip to the UK. I am inspired by him because he does his own thing and looks for things that have meaning beyond the grade.
It would be superb to hear that you want to further SW climbing in some way, particularly to repeat more of the climbs in Dorset?
Making repeats of hard traditional routes would mean a lot to me. Before Tom's ascent, there is not a single mention in the UKC logbook for Roaring Boys. I find this amazing as I can't imagine that there could be many better routes at the grade in the country. It is certainly at least the equal to Ocean Boulevard and Lean Machine which are three-star classics. I am sure there are lots more hard climbs in the area that deserve more attention.
Finally, on a light-hearted note, The Roaring Boys route name recorded new low standards of fashion in 1987 as I wore my signature tiger skin tights from that period. I hope you can set your own fashion statements in the future?
I don't like to be the centre of attention at the crag and like to get on with my work quietly. A good day for me is ticking something hard and nobody seeing it. I don't think I will be setting any fashion statements. I mainly wear cheap clothes from Decathlon!
(Pete – Good to hear, I wore Oxfam jumpers for years!)
Hannah is sponsored by DMM and La Sportiva