INTERVIEW: Lucy Creamer - The Road to Recovery

by Natalie Berry - UKC Nov/2014
This article has been read 16,708 times
If asked to name a British female climber who stood out at a time when British women's climbing wasn't especially on the radar, then Lucy Creamer must surely come to mind as a woman who pushed the boundaries nevertheless. Whether on the competition circuit, on a trad climb, sport route or an ice/mixed adventure, Lucy was inspiring countless women - and men - with her achievements. She was the first British woman to redpoint 8b+, climbed trad routes up to E8 and became British Lead Climbing Champion seven times alongside impressive results on the international circuit. 
 
In the last few years, however, Lucy has slipped under the radar. Injuries resulted in sustained periods of rest and frustration, coupled with turning 40, which all added up to - in her words - 'a bit of a mid-life crisis.' Fast-forward to earlier this month and Lucy reports an 8a onsight in Kalymnos - Fun de Chichunne - marking her return to fitness. She may not be climbing at her best just yet, but Lucy's story of battling with injury and the consequent road to recovery is one which will resonate with many a climber. I interviewed her to find out more about this determined return to climbing.

 

Lucy relaxing by the sea on the Gower Peninsula, 199 kb

From 2009-2012, I couldn’t really climb properly, I was just coasting [...] So those three years were annoying and disheartening, as I felt things were taken away from me before I was ready to stop.

Lucy Creamer
 
Tell us about your injury - what was it and how did it happen?
 
In April 2009 just after I did Kalea Borroka 8b+ in Siurana, I realised I had a problem with my shoulder. To cut a very long, boring, frustrating and expensive story short, it took until April 2012 to get a correct diagnosis of a SLAP lesion for which I needed an operation and had this in June 2012…meanwhile in January 2012, I broke my leg quite badly (spiral fracture to my fibula) and had to have this operated on too. Weirdly it was the day before the MRI scan on my shoulder…quite handy, as I was already in the right hospital! Just as my leg was getting better, I had surgery on my shoulder, which has quite a long rehab process in itself. So from Jan 2012 to October 2012, I was completely out of action. To answer the second part, I have no idea how it happened, there was no specific traumatic event but I suspect it was a case of a winter in Spain doing burly big moves and just general overuse and wear and tear.
 
How long did you have to take off climbing?
 
From 2009-2012, I couldn’t really climb properly, I was just coasting. It was an incredibly frustrating period, as I’d just climbed my hardest sport route and was psyched to train and climb harder. But instead, I couldn’t train and just had to potter about, which is all well and good but not what I wanted to do at that time. So those three years were annoying and disheartening, as I felt things were taken away from me before I was ready to stop. I was forced to ’slow down’ but wasn’t mentally ready for that, it was hard to deal with. I turned 40 in 2011, which didn’t help matters, haha, and I kind of had a bit of a mid-life crisis, not a good time. Then from Jan-Oct 2012, I could do zero, I went to Spain in October 2012 and in a week I went from top roping f6a to redpointing a f7c first go—it was mad! Yet still I was struggling with stuff and being (or not being) a climber, so didn’t really get back into climbing properly until the start of this year. Last year was spent working - repointing a clock tower on a church in Leeds, which was quite therapeutic. I barely climbed but did quite a bit of running, which was a new thing for me and helped me to take my mind off not climbing.
 
Lucy running during her "Mid-Life Crisis", 211 kbLucy running during her "Mid-Life Crisis"
© Tim Glasby
 
How did this affect you mentally?
 
Good question! It’s safe to say, this has probably been one of the worst periods of my life. Melodramatic or not, it wasn’t just about being injured. Quite a few things happened in this period on top of the injury that meant it was very hard for me to lift my mental state. I broke my leg badly on top of the shoulder, I turned 40 at a time when I was already mentally down and was not able to do my chosen thing in life; moving from 30’s to 40’s felt like my metaphorical end and to top it off a few days after coming out of hospital, my dog collapsed with terminal cancer and died 10 days later. The shock and grief of her dying was very difficult to deal with at the time. I know some people have way more than this to deal with on a daily basis but we each have different stuff that pushes our buttons. So even after the months of grind of all the rehab/physio after my shoulder operation and even though I was able to climb (redpointing the f7c to my shock), I just couldn’t bring myself to get back into it. But I am glad to say, after a concerted effort at the start of this year, things are looking up mentally and physically.
 
Lucy's broken leg, 98 kbLucy's broken leg
© Tim Glasby
 
Did you manage to do any other forms of exercise in the meantime?
 
Well, I’ve mentioned the running (off road) that I got into last year, which was great. I’ve never seen myself as a runner, definitely not a natural but I got quite into it. Although, it never felt easy but I’d enjoy it retrospectively. I got into extreme weeding in the garden! That was therapeutic. And the dogs need walking (got two now), so twice a day, I’d be out doing that. I did bits of swimming and the occasional weights and was trying to do assisted pull ups when I felt able.
 
You recently onsighted Fun de Chichunne in Kalymnos - was this an objective before you left? Did you have any specific aims for the trip?
 
I was working on a coaching week for Adrian Berry, so had no personal objectives. Added to which, I’d never been before and didn’t really know what to expect. I’d been working my way up through the grades on Peak limestone this year but didn’t know quite how this would translate anywhere else! Because I was working, I didn’t have any time for my own climbing but in the middle of the week I easily onsighted ‘Tufa King Pumped’ f7b+, which I was pleased with and realised my endurance was pretty good.
 
photo
Lucy on Unleashing the Wild Physique, 8a, The Cornice, Cheedale
© Tim Glasby
 
Tell us about the route!
 
So on the last day, we all had a free climbing day and I was psyched to try an f7c. One of our clients (Helen) was trying to redpoint Priapos in the Grotte, so I said I’d try that and take the clips out for her which was quite hard work, if you’re not that experienced on steep stuff. Anyway, time was ticking away to our flight and a Russian guy got on it. He took a while, so we arranged for him to take them out. As I wasn’t going to have time to get on this, I realised the route next to it had the clips in, so I thought I’d try that instead. Turned out it was Fun de Chichunne, I just thought, what can I lose, I’ll just climb it until I get pumped and fall off—don’t have to retrieve any clips—bonus! Anyway, the route was probably one of the most unique lines I’ve ever climbed. It’s an incredibly steep cave just dripping in tufa and stalactites. So even though at times you feel like you are 45 degs overhanging, you can almost make yourself vertical by standing on drips and even sitting on things—the rests were incredible, which definitely worked to my advantage. I would say it was a few boulder problems in between amazing rests and jug hauling in a steep roof. Baffling at times and long and mentally tiring but a completely amazing experience. The hardest move for me, maybe mentally more than physically was when I had just got through one of the hard sections and was then faced with a jump. I was gutted because I was high enough to think there was a chance that an onsight could happen. I hate jumping as there is no room for error but there was no way round this one, I tried everything! So I just thought get on with it and threw everything at this fin of tufa. I managed to latch the hold just as my feet swung off and was left swinging by one arm—not something that happens to me very often—and somehow got my feet back on and carried on. At this point everything started to matter. And I knew I was tensing up, so kept having to tell myself to relax and just keep it together, it was a cool experience.
 
What was harder - the mental or physical side of returning to fitness after injury?
 
Hmm, tough one. I’d say this time probably the mental side. I’ve had plenty of injuries over the years and have learnt that getting things back physically, although hard and demoralising at times, always seems to happen and before long the injury and time off is forgotten. But I think what has made it harder mentally this time, is that being the age I am and how much fitness and muscle I lost, I just don’t know what actually is physically possible. Can I gain muscle in the way I used to? Who knows, it’s all a new area for me and is quite daunting…
 
photo
Pumped arms whilst getting back into training
© Oli Edwards
 
Even though you feel like you are at rock bottom and you have your mountain to climb, you don’t. You only have to climb the top half because even if it doesn’t feel like it, you are already starting from advanced base camp rather than still doing the trek in.

 

 
What would your advice be to an injured climber struggling to find the motivation to get back to climbing fitness?
 

It will happen! Especially if you’ve already had it. The body remembers and it never takes as long as it did to gain something as it does the first time you do it. So that’s a definite bonus. Even though you feel like you are at rock bottom and you have your mountain to climb, you don’t You only have to climb the top half because even if it doesn’t feel like it, you are already starting from advanced base camp rather than still doing the trek in. Hmm, not sure that analogy works, haha! Also, you get the chance to climb easier routes you may not have considered before. That’s what I enjoyed the most, just climbing loads of classic grit routes that I had never really considered before.

 

When you climbed Kalea Borroka, it was the first 8b+ ascent by a British woman. Recently we've seen more British women climbing 8b and above - what do you think this boils down to? What was missing before?

I think harder grades are being climbed because people are much stronger and because they are more up for getting on hard stuff. There is a confidence in abilities and it seems the belief is there. Previously, you felt a bit on your own trying stuff, whereas now there is such a strong depth in women's climbing, people get spurred on by what other women are trying and doing.

Lucy with one of her dogs, Buis, in Val Pennavaire, Italy, 119 kbLucy with one of her dogs, Buis, in Val Pennavaire, Italy
© Tim Glasby

 

'I think in society in general, we are all taught from a very young age what is expected of us and what roles to adopt. This has a massive carry over into climbing and interactions at the crag. It can be detrimental at times in terms of achievements and perceived ability.'

 

What role (if any) does gender play in your climbing?

I'm not sure gender has a role as such but it is something I am very aware of. Men behave differently when women are about and that's no different in climbing. There are assumptions made subconsciously whether a woman will be able to do something, so the inference comes across and can be influential in decision making on whether to try something or not. I have always tried to be independent and not rely on anyone else to do things for me and this has stood me in good stead. But I think in society in general, we are all taught from a very young age what is expected of us and what roles to adopt. This has a massive carry over into climbing and interactions at the crag. It can be detrimental at times in terms of achievements and perceived ability. Breaking these gender habits can be very hard, in fact sometimes there isn’t an awareness that roles have been adopted, so the behaviours just carry on. I find it interesting and surprising observing even in young women and men that these gender roles haven’t changed much and it seems that thousands of years of evolution will not be changed overnight—even in my egalitarian utopian daydreams.

What’s next for you?
 
Well, I’ve got some psyche back but as I said, it’s all new to me and I don’t really know quite where I can get to. Can I get back or even close to where I was, hmm, don’t know but I’m very intrigued to try. I’ve spent this year just very gradually and methodically working my way up through the grades and allowing my body to acclimatise to climbing again. But I’m now psyched to spend the winter trying to get more powerful - a perennial weakness of mine, compounded by a lot of muscle loss, so as long as my body plays ball and I don’t injure my elbows (again!), I would like to try some harder stuff next year. There are some trad routes that I never got round to trying to onsight and also I’ve never spent longer than 6 days on a sport climbing redpont. This may be the time for that, if I want to get something harder done, so we’ll see…
 
Read Lucy's blog on her Kalymnos trip here.
 
Lucy is sponsored by: Scarpa, Grivel and Marmot and DMM
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