I’ve never been very much into competition climbing; something about it never quite matched the pure enjoyment I got from climbing outside and to be any good at competitions nowadays you have to sacrifice a lot of your time to training rather than venturing into the great outdoors. It was with some trepidation then that I accepted the invitation from Red Bull to compete in an unusual sounding event to speed climb some chalk cliffs on the Isle of Wight.
Our first glimpse of the cliffs really showed us just how impressive they were and the rigging teams had put in a huge amount of work to even make this event possible. The cliff we would be climbing was at Alum Bay, just beside the famous Needles of the Isle of Wight. It was over 100m tall with slightly overhanging to vertical climbing the entire length and Scott Muir had placed some Warthogs to help keep the ropes in place on the initial cave section.
My first go felt very embarrassing; I was lowered 40m down to get the initial hooks in place and swiftly encountered a major problem – the chalk was bullet hard! This wasn’t what I expected and every placement took a minimum of ten swings to get in place leaving my arms completely wasted despite numerous rests hanging from the rope. After one day and all ten of us competitors putting in efforts to chisel out hook placements things were looking much more positive and Alexey, the Russian speed machine, had already top roped the entire route in 25 minutes by simply hooking in the now established ice axe placements.
The team that Red Bull had co-ordinated to take part in the comp was a very varied one. There were current and previous world cup competitors of the like of Markus Bendler, Gordon MaCarthur, Dennis Van Hoek, Israel Blanco, Alexey Tomilov and Yves Heuberger as well as the better known outdoor winter climbers like Will Mayo, Jeff Mercier and Greg Boswell. I felt like a bit of a fraud to be amongst these names being almost entirely a rock climber. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy winter climbing, but I’ve never really got stuck into it in the past and the mixed climbing I’ve done in the Alps has mainly been as a result of there being too much snow about!
The competition rules were finalised and this was to be a speed competition – the fastest time wins and if you fall off before reaching the top you effectively DNF. This put us all under a bit of pressure as it was quite likely that at least one placement could break off due to the friable nature of the chalk.
It came as no surprise that Alexey set the time to beat with a staggering 16 minutes spent climbing the 100m+ route. Will Mayo and Israel Blanco proved that age and experience came ahead of youthful power by putting down strong times and when I headed down I just had my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t fall off! Other than a minor technical issue low down, where I spent a while unable to even pull myself off the beach, I set off steadily and just plugged away through the steep section, my forearms beginning to really feel the burn! Fortunately the angle soon eased and as I began to recover I started to gain time up the less strenuous part of the route pelting the bell to stop the clock below the finishing platform in a reasonable time which placed me 5th overall after the aforementioned climbers and Jeff Mercier who was the final climber to go with seemingly never ending supplies of stamina!
Out of all the comps I’ve done this has got to be the craziest and best and it was so fun to finally get the opportunity to climb on the chalk. Thanks to the Red Bull team for inviting me to the event and to the rigging team and Scott Muir in particular for putting in so much work to make this project become a reality!