Neil Gresham and a Preposterous Tale at Creation

Neil Gresham, Airdrawndagger E8 6c, 1st ascent, Pembroke
© Paul Twomey, Feb 2006

Creation climbing wall opened in Birmingham in the summer of 2005 in the wake of the sudden closure of the Rockface. It has grown rapidly and has several good lead walls, good top-roping and some of the best bouldering walls I have ever seen. But it doesn't stop there. Recently they had a visit from the legend that is Johnny Dawes doing a workshop for students and tonight, Neil Gresham.

I didn't climb tonight, I purely went for Neil's slideshow, and I am very glad that I did. After some hiccups (including a BMC area meeting and a guy falling down some stairs and being taken away in an ambulance) the lecture started and I was asked to introduce the speaker. This was purely from the fact that I know the staff there, and they weren't keen to do it, so I offered as I've done some public speaking before. As I stood there, looking at a mere 30-40 people, my heart started racing, as I could feel that something good was coming, and even afterwards, my heart was pounding from simply standing in front of a small crowd and saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, short introduction: Neil Gresham.”

Beforehand I had briefly spoken to Neil about using digital slides as opposed to the now usual use of Windows XP or PowerPoint, but as he started talking, I realised that this slightly old fashioned technology was exactly what was needed; it gave the talk a slightly more friendly feeling.

I wrote an article in December last year after being dumped by a girl and the words just seemed to flow; so much so that I wrote it in half an hour in my lunch break at work. Since then I have been trying to repeat it, but everything I have done has come out as the ramblings of an idiot, and despite praise from some of my friends, I really didn't think any were suitable.

One idea was to write about what it was about climbing that I loved so much, but I lacked the ability to convey my emotion and passion for the sport to paper. This is exactly what Neil started his talk with, and I think he did it much better than I would ever have written it. He started with the obvious, as you would obviously do, and as I had tried to do, but very quickly moved on to talk about the scenery, the people he met and the social aspect, with a tasty 'pic of some slacklining in Rio de Janeiro. I could somewhat tell that this was a passion of his, as he spoke of trad, sport, ice and DWS (deep water soloing), but you could also tell that this was not going to be the main focus of the hour.

I have been to a few climbing lectures, from people I had not heard of at Plas Y Brenin talking of climbing big walls in Borneo to an awesome lecture by Sir Chris Bonington as he became Chancellor of Lancaster University and another fantastic lecture by Leo Holding in Cumbria, where we chatted outside with a cigarette, something I often bring up amongst friends. I got that feeling that this was going to be another one of those memorable slideshows.

Neil Gresham, The Wizard F8a, 1st ascent, Pembroke - DWS
© Mike Robertson, Feb 2006
Soon, Neil moved on to the main focus of the lecture with a slide of a road sign in the Peak District. As I desperately tried to figure out if I could work out where the sign was, I listened to him explain that he had decided to try and do his favourite climbs, but failing that, he decided to do it “Brit Awards style”, by having nominations for different categories.

A route made famous by the film Hard Grit won the first of these categories: Meshuga. First climbed by Seb Grieve, the route apparently went a long time without repeat, and as the jokes were made about Seb's futon mattresses, the essential piece of humour was established. Neil almost danced around, explaining one of the crux moves: a lunge from one poor sloper to another, which must be done with precision to escape a ground fall. I listened intently, as he explained that he had not really put enough into the move, and subsequently fell to the ground, missing spotter and mat, (which he had left at home,) and tumbling down the hillside.

After running through Equilibrium, he then took us around the world, with routes far too hard for any non-professional climber to even dream of, and yet keeping the audience enthralled with tales of routes and adventures to make you green with envy. Included in this were tales of Johnny Dawes's suggestion of gritstone in Outer Mongolia, Chalk climbing on the south coast of Britain and DWS in Vietnam and Majorca, but I think my favourite tale was of climbing in Cuba.

Neil explained that he was doing new sport routes in the Caribbean with a team of climbers including Mike Robertson, with whom he bolted the route The Wasp Factory F7b. The route was on a hillside, whose top was overgrown with poison ivy; something which did not dissuade Mike from trying, and which caused him some rather large blisters on his shins. This line looked awesome but was neighboured by a rather large wasps nest. As they couldn't abseil down to bolt the climb, they decided to ground up and bolt en route, all the while worrying about the wasps that were getting closer and closer.

Neil tells this story much better than me, so if you ever meet him, ask him about it, and I sat there silently and listened as he even made the sound effects of the drill. Eventually, they had to come down as Mike was attacked by swarms of angry wasps, but they got the bolts in and finished the climb.

It was around here that the interruptions started, as both the wall and the skate park closed and people arrived in the bar for an after session pint, but as I glanced around the bar, I noticed that most people seemed unphased by this, and continued to listen intently as Neil continued to talk.

He moved on to a climb in Sweden, near Gothenborg, first set by Richard Ekehead, that Neil and a team had gone to repeat. It was given E8, but there were definite problems, as a fall on the second pitch before the first gear placement meant the belayer had to jump from the ledge to prevent injury. It came as quite a nice surprise when Neil explained their major mistake in forgetting to clip the rope into the belay; I've done it before, and it was nice to know someone much better had done the same!

Also in his selection was a very interesting description of his ascent of Bridal Veil Falls in the states, including trespassing three times, and avoiding jail and a hefty fine but the best description of the evening must come to his finale – Indian Face on Clogwyn D'ur Arrdu.

First climbed by Johnny Dawes in 1985, the route went ten years without repeat and was the first to make it into major newspapers. Neil talked so passionately about this route, and finished with a reading from his recent book, Preposterous Tales. There was something here that said to me that he was so enthralled by a route that will forever stand in the history of British rock climbing, and as he spoke, even the non-climbers in the room fell silent.

The evening cost me £5 (plus a pint of beer, and several books, although one signed by the co-author) and I think it is possibly the best fiver I have spent in a very long time. I haven't heard anyone talk so overwhelmingly about climbing in ages, probably since I tried to convey my own love of the sport to others a long time ago.

As Neil talked of Indian Face, and the concentration needed, I suddenly realised what has been missing from my own climbing recently. Since moving back to Birmingham some six months ago now, my grade has dropped slightly, and I assumed it was down to lack of strength from dropping from six sessions a week, down to two, but I think I might have been missing something else. I remember Neil saying, “You're concentrating so hard that if a bomb went off, you wouldn't hear it” and I think he may have hit the nail on the head. I'm off to the Peak District on Saturday with some friends and I'm going to hit the boulders. As usual, I'll psyche up in the car on the way there with some good tunes, but I think as I'm on a route or boulder problem, I'll remember Thursday night, and just concentrate that little bit harder, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be back on form in the not too distant future.

There's very little that grips me at the moment: the occasional song on the radio, maybe a phrase from a film, but this lecture tonight will hopefully stay in my mind for quite a while, and I wouldn't miss another for the world.

Pete Edward's last wrote, Why do we climb? for last December.

Preposterous Tales

Preposterous Tales by Neil Gresham and Tim Emmett is a glossy colour climbing photo-diary by two of the UK's most adventerous and talented climbers. They share their international adventures climbing, BASE jumping, snowboarding and slacklining illustrated with stunning photography by Mike Robertson, Ian Parnell, Ray Woods and the authors themselves. Great words, including an account of Neil's ascent of Indian Face on Cloggy. It features Ice in Quebec and Europe, new routing in Mongolia, Brazil, Cuba, deep-water soloing in Majorca, Thailand and Vietnam, and lots of UK action. Read it, look at it, dream, then get out there and do it. This is not just a 'look at me doing extreme things' advert for two professional climbers, you get real insight into these two characters, heaps of inspiration and a great big dollop of love, love of life and climbing. Worth having a copy handy on your bookshelf and at just shigh of twenty quid, excellent value.


Preposterous Tales
© Neil Gresham, Feb 2006

Preposterous Tales is available at your local climbing shop and online at:

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