In The Bubble
The day that changed Andy Earl's life forever.
Nick Brown and Suzan Dudink
in association with
Andy is one of the most accomplished male British competition climbers. For nearly ten years he was very high in the world rankings, producing some of the best results the Great Britain bouldering team had ever seen.
This photo by Alex Messenger is of Andy competing in the Climbing Works International Festival (2008) in Sheffield, where he placed third amongst a very strong field.
Photo © Alex Messenger
It wasn't until the preparations of the next Urban Climber in 2006, that I saw Andy again. A good friend and I were testing the boulder problems for the Dutch Nationals that year. Late at night we arrived at a warehouse in an industrial estate where the problems had been built earlier that day. When we entered the warehouse I saw Andy and Percy. I wasn't sure Andy would remember me, we only met once a year ago and only had a few email exchanges months before. Assuming he didn't remember me, and not wanting to make a fool of myself I decided to 'casually' ignore him. Thinking back, I was pretty shy and nervous around him that day. I can't remember if we spoke to each other at all that night. At that point it looked like our paths had briefly crossed and were moving in opposite directions. We would probably never see each other again.
On Christmas day (2006), I unexpectedly received a text from Andy saying 'happy x-mas'. I never thought he would think of me, especially not on Christmas day. I was in Fontainebleau when I got his text, and he was in England. It turned out he, and the rest of the British team, were coming to Fontainebleau the next day. Since we would both spend our Christmas holiday in Font, I could see no reason why we shouldn't meet up with each other. So, we picked a venue and a time.
It was a cold but sunny winter's day, perfect climbing weather. I arrived at Bas Cuvier, the area where Andy and I were supposed to meet. I had a quick look around, but couldn't see Andy. So started to climb. While climbing, I heard a loud echoing scream coming from the forest. It turned out the scream of frustration came from Andy who had fallen from the top of the boulder problem 'Neverland'. Not long after Andy came walking towards me. I don't know why, but it felt very awkward. We had seen each other twice before, exchanged some emails and texts, but we didn't really know each other. So again, we just said 'hi' and went our own way, again.
We kept emailing and texting each other occasionally, but it wasn't until I visited the Peak District in February (2007), when things started to change. Andy was the only Brit that I 'knew' so I asked him if he could show me around. We met at Sheffield train station. I remember him wearing a black E9 hoodie, and white sneakers. He walked towards me, said 'hi' and gave me a kiss on the cheek (he gave me a kiss!). Straight after we drove to one of the climbing areas in the Peak district. I was amazed by the amount of people that knew Andy. Everybody we saw greeted him in person. I wasn't at all aware how well known he was in England and the rest of the world for that matter. Later that same day we kissed each other for real for the first time.
Andy Earl on The Young (E8 7a) at Callaly Crag in his home turf of Northumberland.
The UKC logbook description for this, Andy's own route, says: 'An utterly inspiring highball (E8 7a) face climb, rightwards up the shield to a good hold, then weaving left and right linking subtle protuberances, a long way above a decent landing.'
For several years Andy led the pack with his desperate and high routes/highballs in Northumberland. These ascents were often the focus of a set of stunning images created by local professional photographer Mark Savage.
Photo © Mark Savage
In the year that followed, Andy and I would see each other every fourth night, either in Amsterdam or Newcastle, or at a climbing venue somewhere in Europe. Finally, in May 2008 I moved over to England. Leaving everything I had in Holland; my house and belongings, my University job, my friends, family and Dutch citizenship. The only 'thing' I did take with me was Fonz, my dog. Andy had already taken her to England a few weeks before, he said he wanted to make sure I had enough incentives to do the crossing.
Not long after I moved over, Andy, Chris Graham and Darren Stevenson got the opportunity to build a bouldering wall in Byker, Newcastle. Andy used his inheritance from his grandma to build the wall, to invest in his future. Nobody could have anticipated how important this investment would become in the years that followed; financially, physically, socially and mentally.
It took us four months of hard work to build Climb Newcastle. Most people wouldn't have worked as hard, would have probably taken days off, but Andy didn't. He had set himself a deadline and there was no way he wouldn't meet it - even if that meant he had to work past exhaustion. Andy is one of the most determined and hard working people I know.
All this time, Andy made sure I wasn't getting too tired or bored, he always looked after me. He ensured I had enough breaks and that work didn't overshadow the rest of my life in England. It hadn't been long since I'd moved over and he wanted me to like his country and the new life I was living. Starting up a new business and a new life combined with all the physical work eventually drove Andy to exhaustion.
The years that followed were really good. Besides working at the wall, which had become very successful, I started lecturing and tutoring at the University again. Being able to combine work at the wall with work at the University was fantastic. Besides that, Andy and I worked as freelance route setters and climbing coaches. Our work allowed us to go away frequently. We tried to go away every month. Sometimes for a two day trip to the Peak or Wales, but usually we would go away for a week in Europe, sometimes even further. All our trips were climbing related. Our longest and furthest trips were to America and South Africa in 2009. The latter was special because neither of us had ever been to South Africa. It was probably the only trip for which I had really trained hard. My training and Andy's belief in me, resulted in an ascent of the original sequence of the boulder 'Tea with Elmarie', a stunning Font 8a+ and probably one of the hardest problems I've climbed.
Suzan climbing Tea With Elmarie
in Rocklands, South Africa, spotted by Andy.
This is Suzan's hardest climb and she credits Andy for motivating and inspiring her to push her ability.
Before they met Suzan climbed around Font 7b. Tea With Elmarie
is Font 8a+
Photo © Martin Smith
After a year or so, things got much easier. Andy was home for good and very independent, Amber started sleeping through the night and I was back at work. When I stopped living in the moment and started thinking about the future, things settled down. After a year, we were starting to think about the future again.
It is 10 years ago since I first met Andy at the Urban Climber in Holland. If he hadn't approached me that evening, my life might have looked very different.
He said 'hi' to me at that competition. And that's the day that changed my life.
Sometimes it's the little events that change our life the most, the simple 'hi'. The big events are just there to challenge us.
I'm very grateful for the life I'm living. I live in a beautiful part of the country, I enjoy my work, have the best family, friends and dog one can wish for. I climb regularly and I have the most amazing and inspiring partner and daughter ever.
And that's my story. I'm pleased with how it ends.