Johnny Dawes on Climbing Back to 8b+ Interview

© Talo Martin

Johnny Dawes recently redpointed 8b+ - his hardest climb since 1990 - with an ascent of Inuit at La Pedriza (Anterior) in Spain, near Madrid. Johnny's return to fitness at 54 is especially impressive considering his diagnosis of Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune illness which affects hormone balance by suppressing thyroid activity.

Johnny Dawes on Inuit 8b+, La Pedriza.  © Talo Martin
Johnny Dawes on Inuit 8b+, La Pedriza.
© Talo Martin

Spanish climber Talo Martin helped Johnny with the process of climbing Inuit. He is currently making a film about Johnny's journey back to fitness and kindly recorded an interview with Johnny for UKC using our questions, which we've transcribed below.

Prior to ticking the 8b+, Johnny also managed an 8a and later did the moves in his trademark no-hands style on a top-rope. This year, after losing 9kg, he completed his first major goal, Inuit, on his second attempt.

The film is due for release in early 2019, featuring footage of Johnny on James McHaffie's 9a Meltdown - his project from '85 - wearing old-school EB shoes and including shots from La Pedriza.

When were you diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and what were your thoughts about continuing with climbing?

I think it was 2011 or 2012, quite a long time ago now. I started finding that I had no energy, I looked strange in the mirror. I thought 'Something's going on here.' The doctor diagnosed an underactive thyroid. My body was actually attacking my thyroid as it's an autoimmune disease. For a lot of people it's the start of a cascade of problems. It was quite full on really, so I wasn't thinking about climbing at all. I was writing a book on climbing technique at the time, which will be published soon. It was a horrible thing really, depressing and heavy. A lot of people suffer from this Hashimoto's disease, it's not rare. Some people think it's got something to do with fluoride in the water and it can be triggered by great stress. You stay alive but your hormones go out of whack. After this summer when I had done lots of exercise, I came down on my meds and I'm currently on some herbs to try and deal with leaky gut. Now that I'm just a really impressive buff athlete, it's not so much of a problem.

How do you manage your illness?

By taking herbs, sleeping properly, drinking spring water and cutting down on gluten and alcohol. I also took up Tai Chi. I do more exercise and try not to sweat the small stuff, because stress and the cortisol it releases doesn't help it at all.

What was the last 8b+ that you climbed, and when?

I'd actually never done an 8b+ before, to be honest. I'd done 8bs in France: Mauvais Sang, Tabou Zizi and Chouca. I think The Very Big and the Very Small is 8c - good climbers have taken 8c time on it and I never gave it 8b+, and I don't know think anybody has downgraded it to 8b+ so I'm at a bit of a loss to know why it's given 8b+. I don't lose sleep over that, though - the rock is the same. I didn't train specifically to do Inuit; I'm not really aiming for 8b+, I'm aiming for projects that are way harder than my limit. Inuit is a hard, precise, fantastic sport climb. You have to be climbing well to do it, but it's playing at home for me as a friction climb, since the way you move your body makes the holds grip up. It's a memory problem and a belief in yourself problem; if you start to get shaky it will spit you off. It's really precisional. It's like an onion that's moving around really, really fast, but if you're watching it carefully and you cut it, you will continually get nice small bits of onion off it.

You lost weight, but did you follow a specific training programme?

I lost weight through swimming. When I was in Wales I thought I didn't want to go and do routes I'd already done on the crag as it was really, really hot and I didn't have people to climb with and didn't want to go bouldering, so I thought I'd go swimming and started ticking-off swimming across various lakes. I swam across eight different lakes and while attempting one of them I got to the other side, but didn't have enough beans to get back, so I had to run back past all the ramblers and down the road where all the tourists were beeping their horns at me in my tighty whities!

Did you have to take the style of route into consideration? You are famously good at slab climbing, so was La Pedriza an obvious choice?

I was always interested to see what I could do in La Pedriza. It's one of - if not the greatest - friction climbing areas in the world. I like to climb all sorts of different routes on different rocks but equally it's nice to climb on your main territory and do what you can, particularly when you're overweight.

Tell us a bit about Inuit. You climbed it second go - did you expect it to go so quickly?

The last time I was there I briefly tried it, but it is valid to say it was 8b+ second try because I couldn't remember the way. The method I used to do the first move last time I couldn't do this trip, and I thought it was incredible for someone to have done that first time at 12 stone 2! My friend Talo marked the climb with chalk so we could get on with it, basically. So I tried exactly his sequence. It was quite a cold day and Talo had ground down the boots with a rotary grinder in the car park and everything was sort of aligned. I was just concentrating really well, I'd been playing a lot of chess and doing a lot of no-hands climbs, which were technically way harder than Inuit to do because you've got no hands and some of the holds on Inuit are actually better than some of the no-hands holds that I'd used on the same angle. So technically, the moves weren't as hard as those that I'd been doing on a regular basis. I was ready to rock, basically.

What are your next goals?

On granite, I've got wind of 4 or 5 projects that are recommended to me from people who already know the rock, know what I've done and have seen me climb, so they know what they're putting where. I also found some projects of my own after wandering round. If I stay the same weight I could climb 8c+ on this rock, but if I lost weight I could climb something that would take me into new territory, and maybe friction climbing into new territory as well. It's really exciting and that's not including a change in boots, because I could imagine a much better boot than what I've worn as well and how to make that, but there isn't any curiosity from boot manufacturers to do anything about that it seems, but maybe I will get the chance to do something like that myself and put them all out of business, which would be lovely.

On gritstone, there is a climb from 1990 that I didn't quite do and would like to do, but really I'd like to travel and find a feature and let the feature choose what I do. I like exploration to be the goal; I like exploring more than anything else and that's what sets me off on new ideas. I'd like to go to Madagascar and onsight that horrendous long route...Tough Enough. I think if I were a lot lighter with the right conditions and if somebody could climb it and chalk it up, I could maybe do that. I will just see. I've got an ambitious perspective. I can usually do what I can imagine, but I need to be more surgical. There are also lots of things on limestone playing away. I'd like to do Mecca, maybe something at Malham - which doesn't suit me at all, but that would give me some proper power. I'd also like to do some benchmark 8As in Font, not just Duel or similar but something more powerful that isn't overly reachy, which is actually quite hard to find.

Would you like to finish off your unfinished business on Meltdown 9a, too?

I'd like to do Meltdown as well. It'd be great to do Meltdown. It's ridiculous I never did it in the first place. I made this beautiful link on it until the hold fell off, then everyone went mountaineering and I didn't have anyone to climb with on slate and then I just never went back because I wasn't living in Wales at that point. I'm not really a brilliant completer. I really must go and see a psychologist and work through this...

What advice would you give to someone trying to return to fitness after illness, or wanting to improve later in life?

Find out what you love, and turning up is the main thing. Just doing a little bit and getting some enjoyment from it and realising that that worked and doing a bit more of it. Find people who want to do the same thing and make some totally adjustable goals and get your kit together. Take care of business, basically, but enjoyment is the main thing.

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3 Dec, 2018

 Does he mean taking the same "herb" muliple times or different varieties of "herbs", I wonder.

3 Dec, 2018

Top effort Johnny on your return to form & congrats on finding your mojo! I love La Pedriza for the cracks, its a stunning place. When it comes to getting older & climbing I agree with your thinking, I'm 57 now & the key for me is definitely doing what makes me tick, find what you love & get out there and do it! Inspiration fuels motivation.  

3 Dec, 2018

Wash your mouth out!

Horses for courses...


3 Dec, 2018

"Talo had ground down the boots with a rotary grinder in the car park"

Huh? Is this yet another bit of gear I need to be taking to the crag?

3 Dec, 2018

The very first climbing slippers ever produced to my knowledge were from La Sportiva. They had a sole that can't have been more than 2mm thick - maybe less - and had no rand whatsoever, just very thin, supple upper material.

I had a pair and they were a revelation to climb in. Required an utterly different approach to footwork compared to the relatively stiff alternatives at the time (mid 80s) but were impressively effective on the right kind of route. Main problems were that they tended to roll badly around your foot, and wore out really quickly.

Edit: I think I first saw and tried them in the winter of 86/87.

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