For over two decades Neil has been one of the leading all rounders of the climbing scene. He’s climbed some of the toughest routes in Britain as well as first ascents on various climbs around the world. Not only that, but he’s also pioneer in coaching for climbing and a ruddy lovely bloke.
We tracked down Neil at an Osprey event – for which he’s an athlete ambassador – to have chat and find out why he decided to follow his chosen path.
Why did you get into climbing?
I got into climbing because I didn’t get on very well at school with sports. I wasn’t very good at them. But I did enjoy scouts and I enjoyed camping and hiking. He took me backpacking in North Wales and I just loved being in the mountains and going on adventures. It just seemed to appeal to me more than kicking a ball around or getting beaten up on a rugby pitch.
He took me to these sandstone outcrops in Tunbridge Wells to do some very basic top roping. The minute I touched the rock it just felt like it was what I was put on the planet to do. I was just so excited by it. That was at the age of 12 – I still feel that way about it today.
What’s the most memorable climbing experience you’ve ever had?
There’s so many climbing experiences, it’s so difficult to choose. If you really forced my hand it would have to be making the third ascent of a climb called the Indian Face which is in North Wales on the side of Snowdon. At the time it was coveted as one of the most serious and most difficult traditional routes in the world. It’s a big, long pitch. It’s a slab, which means that it’s not quite vertical, so all the weight is on your feet, but it’s very precarious, very “balancey”. The initial half has some protection but then the top part isn’t really protected at all, so there’s potential to take huge ground fall from the upper part of the route.
So the preparation I put into that was like no other. It was very, very scary and a huge relief to do it. But definitely really memorable.
What’s your favourite place to climb in the UK?
My favourite place to climb in the UK would be Pembroke. It’s just a beautiful place to go; to go walking, to go camping, to go on the acres of beautiful gold, sandy beaches that are deserted. It’s just very sleepy. It’s the part of the UK that the tourists just miss out, with nice, quaint little pubs. But it has these fantastic limestone sea cliffs. I studied geography at university so I was always quite interested in coastal erosion and landmark features, and Pembroke has these kind of archetypal arches, caves and stacks.
So when you’re climbing there, you’re climbing on these really amazing rock features. Also there’s the opportunity to do my favourite type of climbing, which is what we call deep water soloing. It’s where you climb solo, without any ropes, but above deep water. So when you fall off, you just splash into the sea. It’s not dangerous. It feels adventurous and exhilarating but without that real fear that you can hurt yourself. So yeah, I’d say Pembroke.
Where would you say is the most convenient place for Londoners to go climbing?
Well first of all, being in London, you’ve got the highest concentration of indoor climbing walls, and these places really are superb. When I started climbing, indoor climbing walls were an acquired taste. They were kind of dark, dingy, dusty places that smelt of body odour. Now they’re incredible light, bright gymnasiums that have these coloured holds and these boulder problem tours that you can do. So first up, if you’re interested in climbing the thing is to go and check out your local climbing wall.
From there, going climbing on rock from London is a challenge. You’ve got to be motivated, you need a like-minded accomplice, and if you’ve not done it before you need someone who can certainly show you the ropes. Or you need to go on a course. You can’t just go from an indoor wall straight out onto rock.
The most obvious places would be the sandstone outcrops in Tunbridge Wells where I started; Bowles or Harrison, because you can top rope there. The rope work is relatively easy to master and it’s safe if you know what you’re doing.
After that we’d be looking at going down to the sea cliffs at Swanage and Portland. There are some bolt protected climbs on the island of Portland which are fantastic. The cliffs of Swanage are a little bit more dangerous, a little bit more involved. You need to know about traditional safety methods for those.
You’ve got cliffs in the Avon Gorge. But really it’s not that far to even go to the Peak District. If you’re in North London the Peak District is viable. You’re straight up the M1 and you could be climbing on the great stone edges of Stanage.
How do you think climbing has changed over the past few years, and where is it headed?
Climbing has changed massively in terms of how the discipline have appeared; the different genres. When I started it was just mountaineering and rock climbing. Now we have bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, deep water soloing, and I guess there are all rounders like me who are kind of jacks of all trades and have a bit of a go at everything. Then you get the absolute masters who focus on one thing. For example I was down at a competition in London a few weeks ago, and to see the level of athleticism of the top boulderers now – it’s insane. That sort of climbing has become a fusion of rock climbing and parkour. They’re doing these incredibly complex, dynamic movements like jumping for holds or running sideways across the wall. I could never have conceived of that when I started.
That style of climbing, of course, is headed towards the Olympics, which has major implications for the sport, good and bad.
The walls have evolved, training methods have evolved massively, and now of course, information is just more available than when I started, through the internet. I could go on forever.
What would be your activity passion in life, if it wasn’t climbing?
I guess if I wasn’t climbing, I’d return to just hiking in the mountains, if that counts. I just love being out in the mountains. A lot of people presume that elite climbers are just tunnel visioned about hard climbing but I really enjoy just being out. When I go climbing with my wife, she doesn’t climb at a high standard. We do easy multi-pitch scrambles or we do mountain runs or just go out with the kids and swim in the lakes. That’s really what I enjoy, that and skiing or boarding in the winter. I’d be in the mountains for sure.
If you could climb anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Japan. I’d go ice climbing in Japan. Because they have ice sea cliffs. I’ve been somewhere like that before in Iceland where they have ice routes forming on the sea cliffs. It’s an incredible experience to do that style of climbing. You’re not exactly going to get the conditions for that in Scotland. Also there’s the myth of the perma powder you get for snowboarding and skiing, so I’d be ice climbing on the sea cliffs one day then surfing on perma powder on my snowboard the next day, then riding one of the high-speed trains and going clubbing in Tokyo. That sounds pretty good to me.
What’s your favourite bit of Osprey kit and why?
That’s even harder to answer than choosing my favourite climb. I’d almost have to do it by category because I use their kit for such a wide variety of things. Not just for my climbing, but for my air travel, my business stuff, my excursions into the Lake District, I use their child carriers, I use their running packs. I use most of it.
Of course , I’m a climber, and the pack I use the most is the Mutant. I’ve followed the product through its history of evolutions since the first Alpine packs came in from Osprey around the turn of the century.
The Mutant does me for my rock climbing and for my ice climbing. It’s one of those do-it-all Alpine packs, and they just hit that sweet spot between lightness and durability – because of course climbers want both. You want your pack to be light and tough, you don’t want to make the choice. The same with features, there’s a tipping point. If you load it up with too many features and it looks fussy or you take all the features off and it just looks like a bag that you can’t do anything with. You need to be able to extend the lid, get all your clutter underneath it, take the lid off, compress it, stash all your external bits; your shovels, your helmets and your axes. It sucks it all up. It’s also very streamlined on the back, not restrictive, when you’re climbing on it you’re not aware of it. That’s kind of all you can ask for really, that this thing isn’t distracting you in any way when you’re doing what you want to do, which is climb.
To find out more about Neil’s favourite pack, the Mutant, and to see the other products in the current Osprey range, head over to the website here.