Neil Gresham and his Olympiad climb
Interview with British climber Neil Gresham after his first ascent of the Deep Water Solo Olympiad 8b at Pembroke, Wales.
While Britain, and the rest of the world for that matter, were taken hold by Olympic fever last August, one of England's most talented climbers Neil Gresham succeeded in making the first ascent of the island's hardest Deep Water Solo. The route - the aptly named Olympiad - is located at Pembroke, weighs in at 8b and proved a great excuse to find out more about Gresham's climbing which spans more than two decades at the top of the game. Be it trad climbing, sports climbing, Scottish winter climbing, drytooling, deep water soloing... you name it, Gresham's done it!
Let's start with Olympiad. You've given it 8b. But there is certainly much more to this route than just the grade...
It’s true to say that the new genre of DWS routes in Pembroke require a little more planning and commitment than going sport climbing or even rocking up at Connor Cove or Lulworth with a towel and a couple of chalk bags. The moves are difficult to work on Olympiad because you need to place runners on abseil in order to get in close to the cliff. Additionally, it’s tricky to get to the base of the route. I started off by swimming in with my kit in a dry bag, but it’s not ideal splashing around in the Atlantic before tackling an 8b. In the end I solved the problem by abseiling into a small inflatable dingy and paddling in to the base. Above all else, I was working against a mental barrier, because a few people had assessed it as 8b+ or 8c. It took a while to realise that it might not be quite that hard and that I actually had a chance of climbing it.
DWS is enjoying increased popularity, but beneath the fun lies a dangerous game.
The Pembroke routes are potentially the most serious and require more respect than any other DWS routes in the world, but that’s not to say that they need to be dangerous. The tidal range is huge and you can walk around underneath Olympiad and Hydrotherapy at low tide! Clearly you’re playing Russian roulette if you don't check the tides first. Looking at the broader picture for DWS, like any other type of climbing, the risks are lowest when you take it seriously and respect the safety protocol.
How would you describe the state of play of climbing in GB?
Trad still seems to be at the hub of British climbing. Most, if not all of the best easy routes in the UK are our strong natural trad lines and therefore trad has more significance for the average British climber. Of course our history is all about trad, but that's not to say that we're living in the past. Many of the routes that are being done on trad by the likes of Macleod, McHaffie, Mawson, Woodburn and numerous others have a high level of physicality that can only be learnt from sport climbing. The UK represents an exciting fusion of a wide range of styles and many of our leading exponents can hold their own on sport and trad. It's true that some disciplines cross over well into others, for example there are clearly links between bouldering and DWS. It's not about saying this style is better or more important than that. It's about making the most of the broad range of different rock types that we have in the UK.
One of your highlights is the third ascent of The Indian Face, first ascended by Johnny Dawes up on Cloggy. He climbed it in 1985, you repeated it in 1996 just after Nick Dixon, while Dave Macleod climbed it in 2010. A mere 4 ascents... can you put this climb in perspective?
Indian Face is the route that signifies everything unique and special about British climbing. It's not about flexing and pulling hard on the latest '9-something'. It's about stripping it right back to every climber's most primal fascination, which is the constant mental tug-of-war that is required to push on when we feel scared. It's about realising that the foothold isn't going to get any bigger and so you have to trust it, whilst meantime the runners are getting further away. Additionally, in everyday life it's usually possible to escape many of the tangles that we get ourselves in, but with Indian Face this isn't really an option. I think many people struggle to relate to all the feats of strength that we are bombarded with in the media, and yet a great number of British trad climbers can feel an affinity with Indian Face. You only need to do 3-Pebble slab at Froggatt as your first HVS/E1 to get a small dose of what it feels like to be alone up on that great historical wall. There aren't many routes from a quarter of a century ago that still stand-up on the global stage, so it's a climb that we can all be proud of.
Another of Johnny's climbs, his project The Meltdown, has finally been freed by James McHaffie. What springs to mind about this recent 9a?
I think of Johnny Dawes being beaten by a slab, and this tells me all I need to know about how hard it is. I'm tempted to say a phenomenal effort by Caffe, but what's even more impressive is that he didn't seem to find it that hard. The route has great historical significance, too.
In 2002 you made the second ascent of Equilibrium, at E10 still one of the hardest routes on grit and in the country. What can you tell us about that magical day.
I am not one to chase numbers for the sake of it but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a certain attraction in hitting double figures for E grades in a single route! To deny this would be rather like an Olympic medalist saying that the only thing that mattered in sport was participation. But for me there needs to be something more than just a promise of difficulty and danger: the buzz surrounding Equilibrium at the time made it so compelling. It was climbed during the height of the 'Hard Grit' era and before Neil Bentley's landmark ascent, Ben Moon had pronounced it to be 8b+ on a top rope, which led the Sheffield community to regard it as untouchable. The fact that Neil went ahead in spite of the hype was just such an incredible achievement. For me personally, I had to dig deeper into the reserve tank than ever before to follow in his footsteps. I couldn't even do two of the moves on a top rope the first few times I tried it, and had to go away and develop some special yoga-style exercises in order to strengthen my legs, improve my balance and lengthen my reach. Additionally, I never managed the route in a single push on a top-rope, and was holding faith that the threat of a fall from the last few moves would force me to do what was required. Sure, it was a big day. I also vowed that I would never push it as close to the line ever again, and sure enough I've stayed true to that.
You're about as complete as it might get. How do you view your climbing weak points and strengths?
My weakness is undoubtedly finger strength, but at least the approach for improving this is relatively formulaic. My head is the strongest aspect of my climbing, in particular, my finishing game. I'm always psyched and I find giving up to be an absolute last resort. There are plenty of routes that have got the better than me, but I can honestly say that I always gave them my best.
Indian Face: E9 6c, N.Wales, UK (3rd ascent). Perhaps UK's most respected (and scary!) traditional route.
Equilibrium:E10 7a, Peak District UK (2nd ascent)
Mecca: 8b+, Peak District, UK
Fun de Chichunne: 8a, Kalymnos (onsight)
Boiling Point: E8 6b, Brazil (first ascent)
The Colony: 8a+ Cuba (first ascent)
Pink Panther: M10 Kandersteg, Switzerland
The Tempest: M9 Glencoe, Scotland (1st ascent in 2009)
San Simeon: 8a very high DWS! (first DWS ascent)
Atlantis 8b, Valley of the Dolls 8b, Rebellion 8b (all first ascents in Kalymnos)
Cutlass: 8a+ DWS, Berry Head, Devon (ground-up first ascent)
Hydrotherapy:8a+ DWS, Pembroke (first ascent)
Olympiad: 8b DWS, Pembroke (1st ascent) UK’S hardest DWS
Neil is sponsored by Sherpa Adventure Gear, Icebreaker, La Sportiva, Petzl, Beal ropes and Mule Bar.