Friedrichshafen, Friedrichsschafen, Friedrichs-hafen… a small town with countless spellings. Very few know how to pronounce its name: does it matter? This hamlet on Lake Constance hosts a superb fair: Outdoor. Trade representatives visit it to discover new trends in the outdoor industry; mountaineers and climbers show up en masse, to the joy of the visitors. And so you can easily down a glass or simply chat with renowned faces, from Nina Caprez to Liv Sansoz, Christophe Dumarest to Nicolas Favresse, Arnaud Petit and Stephanie Bodet, James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini…
Neil Gresham was also there and I caught up with him. Neil is a superb all-rounder with routes like Indian Face – Johnny Dawes’ unparalleled E9 masterpiece – under his belt. He has travelled extensively – Sweden, Brazil, Mongolia, Vietnam, China… – and is one of the few who succeeded in climbing an E10 route (the second ascent of the notorious Equilibrium, Derbyshire). He is also a climbing coach – check his climbing academy http://www.masterclasscoachingacademy.com/index.php – and I wanted to ask him a few questions about this.
What is coaching for you? Do you see yourself competing with other ones, such as Dave McLeod – who has written a book about this subject, 9 out of 10 Climbers make the same Mistakes http://www.davemacleod.com/shop/9outof10climbers.html?
No, not at all. I would say that we need as many coaches as we can get. In the UK, most instructors are either former top climbers, or are the ones still going strong, Their main focus in one-to-one coaching, and do not seem interested in implementing any training system. The result is a lack of consistency and quality control: if often happens that what one may judge as a fatal error, may be encouraged by another one. I don’t agree with this pattern at all, and I also know that elsewhere things are different, for instance in Austria and France, where a clear structure is in place. I am keen on following this route, something which varies from what other people, such as Dave, are doing. I created an Academy, which follows a ten-year project and has a well-defined scheme; it abides by written-down instructions, which makes the whole thing more trustworthy, if you like, giving us the certainty that our training methods can be the same regardless of where they are taught. I strongly believe that following this outline is the way to go.
That’s really interesting and is bound to get good results. Are you working alongside the BMC (British Mountaineering Club)?
No, the BMC is trying to adopt the same system, but starting from the bottom of a climbing ladder, so to speak, while we start from the top. They aim at creating four levels of coaching, which is a very ambitious project, but it may take a long time to complete. I would say the greatest demand comes from high-level climbers, rather than the beginners, for whom training is of course essential, but is not that laborious. You need to be really expert to give advice to someone who wants to onsight an 8b route and know your wits in sports physiology, nutrition, psychology, as well as have a superb tracking record of sent routes yourself. So my Academy focuses more on the intermediate and elite climbers, while the BMC is more geared towards beginners, probably moving on to intermediates and elites as time goes by.
Where is your Academy based?
We’re at the Westway in London and also run course in Exeter, Devon, in the south-west. The aim is to branch out and have other centres, although quality control is what I care most about. I also try not to see it as a business, but rather as a well thought-through and respected system, so rather than having many centres scattered around the UK, I am keener on keeping quality levels high. Our assessment grid is also very strict: we qualified three instructors this year, which is not a lot, but I can be certain of their remarkable degree of competence. Our coaches need to be able to onsight F7a or redpoing F7b+. Some may deem these grades as high, but they are not, if you think about it. The lowest level of instructor or moniteur in France, for instance, requires these grades, so anybody accusing us of being elitist should think twice, because we do not feel that we are at all. You do not necessarily have to be a better climber than the one you are teaching, but it is vital for you to know what a training regime is, what it’s like to perform well and to fail, what it means to make sacrifices for your climbing, to follow a diet and so on. Somebody who has climbed, say, 6b is unlikely to have this level of expertise. It is also a matter of respect: the people you are teaching need to believe that you have gone through the same sacrifices and have had similar experiences to the ones they are expected to go through. If they feel you have not, their respect will not be that deep.
Are you then dividing your time between your Academy and developing your personal projects around the world?
Well, I also carry on with one-to-one coaching sessions, in addition to overseeing the Academy, and I clearly try and find time for my own projects such as ice-climbing in the winter, deep-water soloing in the summer, trad, sport climbing… I just love climbing so much, I am not ready to give it all up to become a coach.
And why should you? You have accomplished a great deal; I think there is room for a lot more! You also write for specialist magazines, don’t you?
Yes, I used to write for Climber and I now write for Climb and Rock+Ice. I have been doing that since 1993, and I really enjoy it. I like writing “ethical” pieces on ethics in climbing: I believe many people are scared to talk about such contentious topics, as they don’t want to be accused of holding a particular view. I feel very protective of British climbing, and when you go abroad and see certain controversial ethics in place, such as chipping, the use of glue or the exaggerated use of bolts, you feel like you have to do something to avoid them spreading back home. In the UK, we have the best of both worlds, with some bolt-free trad crags, but also sport crags. Problems may occur when you have mixed crags, with sport climbers putting bolts in the trad routes, and trad climbers chopping the bolts far too easily.
When I went to Sweden fifteen years ago, everybody was trying to see what could be bolted and what should be kept bolt-free, with substantial arguments from either side. There were both types of routes in the same crag we visited and that caused debates.
Yes, “to bolt or not to be” is the eternal debate in the climbing world. I think, however, that hearing what people have to say about this is important. Being a coach, you are probably more interested in the topic itself, so as to better educate people on this matter, rather than taking one side or the other single-handedly.
Yes, and I would like to add something about my experience in Sweden, which reflects views on bolting versus debolting. There is a specific reason why I went there. A Swedish climber called Richard Ekehead visited the Peak District in 1997 and climbed some of the most difficult routes in the area. He went back home, in Gothenburg, and put up a very difficult and exposed route, which he graded E8. He was very proud of it as it had been an amazing effort, but the climbing community was outraged and deemed it too dangerous. They told him that, had the route not been repeated within the following two years, they would retro bolt it. He then contacted Seb Grieve and myself and asked us if we could come and repeat it. Seb went out for a week-end and did not have enough time to do it, while I stayed for a week and succeeded. So the route, called Minaret, in the Halle crag in the region of Bohuslän, can still be climbed today. We also had Leo Houlding with us on that trip, and he put up an E9 route.
I think this whole thing made the Swedish climbing community aware of the importance of trad routes. A type of climbing which seemed to explode after our visit.
A very interesting story, thank you for sharing it with us.
You have released two DVDs. Will we see some books written by you in the future?
I wrote a book about climbing travels with Tim Emmet, called Preposterous Tales http://www.neilgresham.com/books.php, and it would be fun to do another one, but I still haven’t written anything about performance or training. In a way, I fear it may date very quickly, so it’s a project I keep on postponing!
Are you going to come to Italy to climb?
Well, I have been to Arco and the area around there, but I should really explore more! So watch this space…
Neil Gresham is sponsored by Sherpa, Petzl, La Sportiva, Osprey, Beal, Icebreaker and Mule Bar.