During climbing month we caught up with a heap of Aussie pro climbers, from jacked boulderers to larrikin mountaineers. We asked Tom, Amy, Ben, Lee and Dom a bunch of questions to find out what keeps them running up ruthlessly bare walls on the daily (we’ve already worked out that there might be a 3-letter name thing…)
Meet The Climbers
Hailing from Camden, Tom’s Australia’s 2016 Australian Boulder Champion and is regularly seen at the Boulder World Cup Semi-Finals. Despite his bouldering focus, he’s now sending some of Australia’s hardest roped outdoor routes. Tom’s sponsors are Nomad Bouldering Gym and Scarpa Australia.
Amy is one of Australia’s best outdoor female boulderers and she still manages to work a full-time job! After moving from Canberra to Sydney she continued her climbing and is a member of the Nomad Bouldering Team along with Tom.
Growing up in the Blue Mountains is a sure-fire way to boost your climbing ability, so when Ben started climbing with his brother Lee their skills rapidly ramped up. Ben loves finding and setting new routes – the “Never Stop Exploring” motto of his sponsor The North Face suits him perfectly.
Ben’s older brother Lee loves sport and traditional climbing and has completed many routes above grade 30, as well as big wall ascents in Yosemite National Park. He currently lives and works in the Blue Mountains so he’s always close to the action. Lee is also sponsored by The North Face.
Dom is a mountaineer and trail runner who’s always getting into mischief. His Instagram account swings between sunny training sessions and frosty white expeditions up some of the tallest peaks in the world. He’s an Australian Arc’teryx Ambassador and is also supported by Australian Geographic and Dick Smith Foods.
Why do you climb? What is it about climbing that’s so special?
Tom: It’s a great way to challenge yourself, it’s both a physical and a mental challenge and it takes you to special places all over the world.
Amy: Climbing is very versatile. There’s an aspect within climbing to suit any ability and motivation. It provides access to the outdoors and adventure as well as being fun and challenging indoors. You can climb for fitness, focus on climbing hard routes or competing or simply enjoy being outside.
Ben: Climbing is just great fun. Climbing physically hard routes, scary routes where falling would not leave you in too good-of-a condition, bouldering with pals or by yourself – it has so much to offer a person, it never gets boring
Lee: Climbing is the best! It’s constant play that you can enjoy at all imaginable intensities. A day out climbing is typically a very rich experience and is more often than not a combination of athleticism, aesthetics, problem-solving, nature, and socialising. Oh and it can be an adventure too!
Dom: Climbing gives me a chance to relax and for things to slow down, it forces me to focus on what’s directly in front and shut out all of the noise around. Mountaineering has given me the opportunity to travel the world and see places that very few people have, something that I’m incredibly grateful for.
What’s your favourite discipline of climbing?
Tom: Bouldering. It’s just a super fun way to climb, the movements can be a little more complicated and powerful because you’re not doing as many moves.
Amy: It’s hard to choose. Inside, I prefer bouldering: I like the social aspect. On the flipside, it can be handy to be able to climb alone and not have to organise a climbing partner. Outdoors, I enjoy both sport climbing and bouldering.
Lee: Ah no, the hardest question in climbing! Sport climbing, bouldering and indoor training all have a really positive impact on the level at which I climb. Without these as my core types of climbing days then I would struggle to perform at the level I want to when doing adventure routes.
Dom: Mountaineering has always been my favourite type of climbing. I grew up reading about the early Himalayan expeditions like the conquest of Everest by Hillary and the famous high altitude rivalry between Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka to become the first person to climb all 14 of the peaks over 8000m (a title that Messner ultimately won).
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Do you have any superstitions or rituals before a big challenge?
Tom: I blow chalk off my hands three times before I pull on the wall.
Ben: Nah, not really. As long as my left foot’s in the right shoe and the right foot’s in the left and I spin around 102 times prior to climbing, I’m all good.
Lee: I try to crush those tendencies when they creep in.
Dom: Summit Day Snickers Bars, I’ll take half a dozen!
How do you deal with fear?
Amy: I definitely get scared and will make every effort to increase safety, including top-roping high boulders to learn the moves. When I’m going for the send on a climb that I find scary, I do have an ability to push through my fear. I slow down, focus on placing my feet and trust I am strong enough to complete the moves.
Ben: By trying to be as brave as possible. If I haven’t done much exposed climbing for a while it can be a bit trouser filling, you just need to keep on trucking really.
Lee: A lot of people seem to want a trick to somehow get rid of the fear of falling or of heights but I’m not sure that’s realistic. I don’t want to be limited by fear, however I don’t ever expect to not get scared. I see it as another sense from which you base decisions, but it doesn’t have to have the final say in the decision-making process.
I use fear to help weigh up the likelihood of something going wrong. I try to judge the available information as an outside observer the way I would if I was giving someone advice on their situation. Once I’ve weighed up the situation and if I’ve deemed it safe to continue I go for it regardless of how much my heart may be trembling away. I love that feeling of pressing on fearfully, it’s something that makes you feel small and human; it gives you a very raw and natural experience that’s rare in modern life.
Dom: In mountaineering it can be the fear of the unknown. Most of the time you’re in the back blocks of some crazy country where you don’t know anyone outside of the people you are climbing with and there’s no safety net.
Over the years I’ve found that planning and preparation has been key for me in overcoming any trepidations I have had about an expedition. The more you know and the more scenario planning you do the better you feel.
The funny thing about fear is that I have found myself looking down faces at crazy exposure on mountains, 1000+ metres straight down and I’m absolutely fine, and sometimes I have had a rush of fear on a simple sport route where I’m only 50 meters off the ground.
When I find myself in those situations I try to focus on the small things like breathing and slowing my heart rate down, pretty much the worst thing that you can do is start acting without thinking and making poor decisions.
What’s been your greatest achievement to date? What’s your dream route?
Tom: Airstar (V13) in Rocklands because it was a boulder I had wanted to do for years. It ticked all the boxes I look for in a line: tall, committing and dynamic climbing. It was the last climbing day of the trip and I had three bleeding tips but I got lucky! My dream route at the moment would be Groove Train on Taipan Wall in the Grampians, such a pretty line!
Amy: ‘In The Cloud’ V12 is my hardest ascent. On my recent Easter Grampians trip I was really pleased to also climb ‘Great Expectations’ V10 at Mount Fox. This would have to be a dream route of mine. I remember looking at that boulder a couple of years ago and thinking how amazing it looked and put it on my ‘one day when I’m stronger and braver’ list. It was nice to know that day eventually arrived.
Lee: The relentlessly hard and scary, multi-pitch routes of El Capitan in Yosemite, California and Mt Buffalo, Victoria. It’s so easy to see all the reasons why you may not succeed and why it’s probably ok to not keep putting yourself through such discomfort. Yet the achievement has been in remaining open to success despite the pain, fear, and uncertainty and keeping each limb operating with perfect precision.
Dom: Mt Cook in New Zealand and Denali in Alaska. Mt Cook is a traditional alpine style climb (my favourite) it’s all about being light and fast. There is some crazy exposure on every route and fun tech climbing on snow and ice. Denali is a completely different beast; you have to fly in and land on the Kahiltna glacier to begin the climb. It’s old-school expedition siege style climbing at its finest, where you need to bring everything with you. There are no porters and it’s considered to be one of the coldest big mountains on the planet.
My dream route is also in Alaska, Moonflower Buttress on Mt Hunter. This is probably one of the hardest mixed routes in Alaska and is a test piece for Alpinists from all over the world. I’m also working towards Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, one of the most recognisable and aesthetic mountains in the world.
What advice would you have for people who think they’ve plateaued? Did you ever have problems progressing?
Amy: Plateaus are hard and I’ve definitely had them. I suppose it’s about trying something different and persistence. The versatility of climbing I mentioned above has got me through a few plateaus. At the moment, having outdoor projects to work towards provides the incentive to keep training and working my weaknesses.
Ben: Try something new in your training. As long as you’re psyched and happy enough to try different training methods and climbing types you’ll always progress.
Lee: Be objective, write it down and then ask your friends if it’s really the case. We’re amazingly adaptive organisms but in order to adapt we need to be challenged by that which we hope to adapt to. Physical or psychological. The first step is to work on your perception of yourself as an athlete, start to behave like the athlete you are aiming to become. This is often the step that’s missing.
So many people start with the physical training and hope they will simply become the athlete in that next performance level — it’s rarely that simple. Our performance is more defined by our perception than our physiology! That doesn’t mean it can be ignored. The next step is to immerse yourself in the specific physical situations that you want to adapt to, frequently.
Two simple questions to ask yourself if you’re unsure whether your approach is likely to lead to progress are:
1 – How many times a week am I made to feel psychologically uncomfortable by the aspects of climbing that I struggle with the most?
2 – How many times a week am I physically challenged by the aspects of climbing that I struggle with the most?
Aim to be able to answer these questions with the word, many!
Dom: Plateauing is something that happens a lot in climbing; for me in most instances it’s psychological rather than physical. I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve stared at a problem or been unable to push through the crux on a route. I recommend mixing it up, it can become all too easy to spend too much time on one problem or route and become fixated.
Where’s the best place to climb in Aus or NZ?
Tom: The Grampians has some of the best climbing on the planet.
Amy: I can’t go past the Grampians National Park in Victoria for the abundance of boulders and classics at every grade!
Ben I think the Blue Mountains is the best place to climb in Australia. It has everything: sport, trad, bouldering and an awesome community of climbers and other folk that make it super nice. Great weather too. You can climb all year.
Lee: To live and climb lots of routes year-round – the Blue Mountains.
To climb on the best rock in the world – the Grampians.
To boulder on wild features among grassy fields – Castle Hill, NZ.
To watch vast quantities of rain fall most days and climb the best granite sport routes – The Darrens, NZ
Dom: From Melbourne it’s pretty hard to look past Mt Arapiles, it’s easily one of the best rock climbing spots in Australia with a mix of bolted and trad routes. The best thing about Arapiles is the vibe. At any time of year you’ll find a tent city in the main camping area and a collection of converted vans full of long-term climbers.
What’s in your crag bag?
Tom: Food and hopefully climbing gear.
Amy: Unfortunately water has been missing on a number of key occasions. I always have various pairs of shoes in multiple brands (when my climbing isn’t going well it’s always the shoes). A packet of Shapes and tuna.
Ben: Normally some doggy snacks – they’re cheaper than human snacks, way lighter, yummy and an excellent source of marrowbone – which is hard to come by in a normal diet.
Lee: Too few draws, too much water, not enough chalk, not enough lunch, way more climbing shoes than I need, the wrong clothes for the weather and rarely a headtorch.
Dom: A healthy supply of Snickers bars, a sweet playlist and Bluetooth speaker so everybody can listen to my awesome 80’s and 90’s music, and my thongs; standing around all day at the bottom of a cliff in climbing shoes is pretty unpleasant.
What’s the most dirtbaggy thing you’ve ever done to keep up the climbing lifestyle?
Tom: Baby wipe showers.
Ben: I once snuck into a large guiding company’s camp in the middle of the night. They had a big pot of lukewarm Frankfurters in a billy next to the fire, the skins had split from once-hot water and they had inverted on themselves so were curled around on themselves. There were dying bugs floating on top. I ate all 10 of them because I had run out of food and couldn’t get a ride to town despite trying to hitch the whole day.
Lee: Foregoing study until I was 28, thinking that it would be detrimental to my climbing and impede my lifestyle. I’ve since climbed harder and still had just as much fun!
Dom: Editor’s Note – Dom’s story is an epic so here’s the abridged version: Offered a shot at climbing Denali after recently starting a traditional job, Dom decided to combine his 2 weeks of leave with 10 days of sick leave by calling in sick mid-expedition. (Un)surprisingly, this plan failed when Dom’s crew was pinned down by a storm at Camp 3 without reception. He lost his job but ended up with another 7 weeks climbing in Alaska and confirmed his long held belief that he wasn’t made to be stuck in an office.
Favourite climbing word?
Tom: Nails. As in it’s nails instead of it’s hard.
Amy: Spooge/spoogey. The word sounds exactly like the meaning: slimy rock, often a result of humidity, chalk and sweaty fingers. Gross.
Ben: Einfingerkupenaufleger. [sic] It’s pigeon for ‘one finger pocket’.
Lee: Crush. I’m sure its use as an expression of encouragement has its origins in climbing.
Dom: Whipper. Particularly when pronounced like “cool whip” in this Family Guy episode.