INTERVIEW: Stu Littlefair on Rainshadow 9a

We recently reported that Stu Littlefair had climbed his first 9a by making the 5th ever ascent of Rainshadow​ 9a at Malham Cove. After years of training efforts, the stars finally aligned for Sheffield's favourite astrologist astrophysicist as he clipped the chains of one of the UK's hardest and most iconic routes. Stu rewarded himself with a trip to his favourite restaurant afterwards - McDonald's!

In this interview, Stu talks Rainshadow, training, McDonald's, horoscopes and reveals all on his rivalry with Alex Barrows - is he now better than Barrows? Wasn't he always?

Stu Littlefair: Astrophysicist, 9a climber and drinker of tea/coffee?, 163 kb
Stu Littlefair: Astrophysicist, 9a climber and drinker of tea/coffee?
© Stu Littlefair Collection

How long have you been climbing and how did you get started?

I started at school - there's a small bouldering crag by the river in my home town. My friends and I used to go and traverse back and forward on it in our trainers. It was my maths teacher's husband who started taking me out route climbing. We used to go to the lakes and climb diffs in the rain. That was 24 years ago now.

You've just climbed Rainshadow - tell us a bit about it!

I cut my teeth climbing at Malham, and am a bit in love with the place. Most sport crags are dingy grim places, but it's a pleasure to be at Malham in the evening when the tourists have gone home. And Rainshadow is probably one of the best hard routes in the world - even Adam Ondra agrees. To be honest, many of the harder sport routes in the UK are minging - the holds are too small and nasty, or the rock is a bit poor. Some of the best moves are on traverses or arbitrary link ups in Parisella's Cave or the Tor, but it's hard to get psyched for them, unless you are Alex Barrows
I first got on it in 2010 but it was apparent that it was completely out of my league! But about the same time my wife had started training with a coach in Spain and I started to see what was possible - with total faith that you can improve and a bit of hard work you can revolutionise any aspect of your climbing. So a plan was hatched and in 2011 I got Tom Randall to coach me with the aim of getting into 9a shape. It took a while!

It had been a long term goal of yours to climb this grade. What changes did you make in your approach to training/climbing in general?

The big thing for me was to start training endurance in a big way. For years I just wrote myself off as a boulderer and thought that I was genetically incapable of long routes. It was seeing my wife improve that made me realise that I could actually change this side of my climbing if I wasn't so damn lazy!
That got me most of the way there, but this year I've thrown everything into getting this route done. If you work for Team Sky you can be all fancy and call it "marginal gains" but really it's more like desperation. If I thought I'd get the slightest advantage out of it I tried it. Special chalk, different shoes on each foot, you name it... I even tried watching what I ate, which is something I swore I'd never do. I like training, but I hate eating carrots.

Training hurts!, 67 kb
Training hurts!
© Stu Littlefair Collection

You have a 'friendly' rivalry with Alex Barrows - how did this start? I believe you made a 'Climbers Against Barrows' tshirt! How does it feel to finally have climbed as hard as Barrows? What's your next goal to one-up him?

I do have a climbers against barrows t-shirt. I got it printed when he climbed Malcom Smith's epic boulder traverse Pilgrimage by finding about twenty knee-bar rests along it. It's important to take a stand against climbers like Alex - weak people shouldn't be able to climb hard, and no amount of knee-bars should change that.
To be honest, I don't feel like I've climbed as hard as Alex. I feel like I've climbed harder. I just don't think routes in Spain should count. We've all heard the rumours...

Alex and I now have a bet to see who'll get to Font 8B first. He probably feels quite confident, but I'm going to have a word with his PhD supervisor on Monday and see if I can't get his workload increased.

Are you now the world's strongest astrologer - does your job help your climbing because you can use your horoscope to plan your training? (this question may or may not have come from Alex Barrows...)

Yes, very funny. I was born in July, which makes me a Cancerian apparently. Cancer rules the stomach, which explains why giving up chocolate was such a hardship.

What do you consider your greatest climbing achievements to date? (I suspect one is obvious!)

Rainshadow is by far the hardest thing I've ever climbed, and one of the most satisfying because I committed so much to it when I genuinely had no idea it would be possible. But some of the things I'm proudest of haven't been very hard, but were a challenge for me because I'm such a coward! Climbing the Brandler-Hasse, for example, probably stands out as something I'm equally proud of.

How would you describe your relationship with climbing?

I love it! I'm not one of those people who dabble in lots of sports. As a teenager I used to run, cycle, canoe etc, but when climbing turned up I just did that to the exclusion of everything else.
Climbing's been so important to me over the years as well. As a kid I was skinny, bullied and had pretty low self esteem. Climbing gave me a lot of self respect and a community I could feel part of. I don't know where I'd be without it!

Having previously focussed on bouldering, you turned to sport due to injuries sustained whilst bouldering. What injuries were you suffering from and how did you deal with them?

If you're looking for advice about dealing with injuries you've come to the wrong place! I still really struggle with this - my connective tissue is basically rotten. For me it's my fingers; they're always getting injured. Ned Feehally thinks it's because I only eat fish fingers.
Routes are so much less intense than bouldering, so that helps a lot. Structured training helps too, since you are less tempted to do too much.

Tarantula 7c, Nuda's Tartan, Peak District, 217 kb
Tarantula 7c, Nuda's Tartan, Peak District
© Stu Littlefair Collection

You are Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics at Sheffield University. How do you manage to combine work and training?

It's not that hard, to be honest. My job is pretty demanding but it still leaves lots of time to train. The biggest thing that makes it easy is that we don't have kids. People think of someone like Steve McClure as a full time climber, but really he has as much work as me, and a lot of his work is physically exhausting. Then he gets home and and has a family to look after.
I just sit at a desk doing science and go training when my brain is tired. You don't need a brain to campus.

Fingerboarding at work, in the basement of the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma
© Stu Littlefair Collection

Many top British climbers seem to be scientists working in academia - do you think working in science makes one more structured and meticulous in the approach to training? Or is it purely a coincidence?!

I don't know to be honest. There's a long history of very bright people making excellent climbers in all styles - look at all the alpinists that came out of Cambridge over the years for example. I couldn't begin to explain why that is though.

Your wife Jules is also a strong climber. Does it help having a partner who understands what you're going through on a hard project?

Oh god yes. We never have to try and decide what we're doing at the weekend, and there's always someone prepared to come out and belay you. It took some time to get climbing together to work though - we used to have some blazing rows at the crag! Luckily Jules is a very patient lady and good at explaining what I was doing wrong and now it works very well.

Who or what inspires you?

As you might have guessed I'm in awe of the way Jules has improved her climbing over the years. She's the most impressive climber I know in that respect. I'm inspired by people who work hard, not those who coast through on natural talent.
Beyond that I tend to be impressed and inspired by people who are good at the things I'm bad at. Climbers like Ben Bransby or Ryan Pasquill who have incredible boldness, or Katy Whittaker and her impeccable technique.

Espacio Tiempo 8c at Wildside, Sella
© Stu Littlefair Collection

What advice would you give to your 18 year-old self?

Cut your hair and talk to girls more.

What's next for you - any big goals?

There were many times when I was indoors training in beautiful weather that I swore I'd give up sport climbing if I climbed Rainshadow. Now I've done it though, I'm not so sure.
I'm going to relax for a few weeks and see if I can still find my trad rack. After that I have some unfinished business with Evolution at Raven Tor...

Describe yourself in three words...

Better. Than. Barrows.

Quickfire Questions...choose your preferred option:

Alex Barrows or Astrology?

Astrology. You can ignore astrology.

Big Mac or McFlurry?

McFlurry. Sugar!!!

Sport or Bouldering?


Peak grit or lime?

Peak grit.

The Wave or Raven Tor?

The Wave! How can you even ask?

White Dwarf or Brown Dwarf?


Stu is sponsored by: La Sportiva

Forums 15 comments

This has been read 9,953 times
Return to News from June 2018

Related posts