We are excited to have Mick Ward as our guest blogger this month. Mick is a veteran climber who has been climbing for over 50 years and racked up countless climbs across the UK and many other countries. He was there at the beginning of the climbing scene and we took the opportunity to have a chat with him to find out how climbing has changed. Mick was told he was rubbish at climbing but that was clearly just sour grapes. Aside from climbing up a storm, Mick is a prominent local figure in Portland bolting many new routes, retro bolting old routes and helping keep the crags safe. He's a true outdoor climber at home on the rock.
Mick, you’ve been climbing for a while now. Where did it begin?
I started in 1966, when I was 13 and at a pretty gnarly boarding school in Ireland. I hadn’t been well socialised, didn’t fit in and hated team games (at which I was crap anyway).
We had a tiny school library. One day I found a children’s novel based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Seven people reached the top; four died on the way down. Not exactly selling it to you. But, for some bizarre reason, I was hooked instantly.
What were things like, back then?
It was the era of the Beatles, Kinks, mini-skirts... oops, you mean climbing? Well things were pretty basic. Sport climbing hadn’t been invented. No belay devices, chalk bags, mats, harnesses, cams or wires. And sadly no clipsticks!
People generally wore thick climbing breeches, big mountaineering boots and used nylon ropes. If the nylon ropes rubbed against each other, they melted. Not a problem for me though, as I hadn’t got a rope, breeches, boots or, well, anything really. There were only about 30 active climbers in the country; I didn’t know any of them. There was a climbing club but I was about five years too young to join.
So things were kind of challenging...
I guess so. I didn’t know about established routes, just thought you went out and climbed any old thing. So I soloed choss, in disused quarries and on crumbling sea-cliffs. (Don’t do this folks!)
My first day in the hills was memorable. I was out for about 14 hours, got back at 10pm. My mum was going frantic. Didn’t see another soul all day. Had a great time but also made a fundamental error. Came up with an inspired recovery but then very nearly came to grief. I knew I should have died that day. I only survived because I fought hard. I was 14.
A steep learning curve?
Vertical! Some time later, I fell off soloing on a remote Mourne crag. Was very lucky to survive. I ripped my arm open. A doctor cleaned out the dirt with a scalpel and no anaesthetic. Ouch! When I got home I went round in a thick jumper (in a heatwave) for the next few days, so my mum wouldn’t see my arm. By the time she found out, the arm had swollen up and gone all horrible. I was probably lucky not to lose it.
That was exactly the problem. I was traumatised. Nobody talked about trauma, back then; it wasn’t generally understood. (Post World War II stiff upper lip; keep quiet about stuff.) I couldn’t work out why, every time I went climbing, I’d start shaking.
This made progress slow. Also several people told me I was rubbish at climbing – and I’d always be rubbish at it. I didn’t have any confidence (still don’t have much), so foolishly I believed them.
How did you make progress?
After a couple of years, I could lead VS – then the gold standard. This was with rubbish gear, so you couldn’t really fall off. And I only had a polypropylene rope which would have snapped anyway. It was blue. I was so embarrassed by it but pretended a blue rope was dead cool. I don’t think anybody believed me!
The platinum standard was XS (which might be E1, E2 or E3 – or even E4). It took me seven whole years to climb my first XS, First Slip, at Tremadog. I had food poisoning, threw up at the bottom, fainted at the top. My climbing partner wasn’t bothered. He left me there and drove back to Bradford. Thanks, mate!
It didn’t matter though. I’d broken the magical barrier. Two weeks later, I’d gone from E1 (about 6a) to E3 (about 6c). Then my girlfriend binned me (she had her reasons) and my climbing went to pieces for the next couple of years. When I eventually regained some kind of form, my childhood love, writing, had become more important than climbing.
Did you climb abroad?
A little bit. I first went to the Alps in 1975. (There was no Euro-cragging, back then.) Quite by chance, my partner and I happened to rescue the president of the French Alpine Club. My partner wasn’t too keen on the rescue; at one point, we were getting badly raked by stonefall. But there was absolutely no way I was going to abandon the poor guy. He was in terrible pain. His face was so swollen that, when they wheeled him into the hospital in Chamonix, his wife, who was a nurse there, didn’t recognise him! Thankfully he made a full recovery.
What was it like living in Sheffield?
Full of the Sheffield climbing mafia! I couldn’t be doing with any of that stuff, avoided them like the plague. Mostly I’d solo on gritstone.
So you weren’t using a clipstick, back then?
Well, sport climbing still hadn’t been invented. Interestingly though, the first clipsticks were used to bypass the starts of aid climbs. Often routes like Central Wall at Dib Scar and The Prow, at Raven Tor, both then done on aid, would have tree branches conveniently lying at the bottom. (Not very environmentally friendly!) You’d tape a krab to the end of the branch, clip the highest bolt you could reach and then either jumar up or get pulled up by your mates. The aid bolts were usually old caving bolts, only in a little bit, not like modern bolts which are far, far safer.
I remember doing the start of The Prow in this manner. I’d been told there were holds on it but, “You won’t be able to use them...” And indeed I could spy the odd hold, here and there. A couple of years later, Jerry Moffatt freed this section, to give Revelations, F8a+ (now F8b). In the words of one wag, “The hardest route around - if you live in Sheffield.” Ouch!!
How important do you think training is?
Very. In my mind, I divide climbing into fun climbing (what the French call ‘pour plaisir’, i.e. pleasure climbing) and performance climbing. If you simply want fun climbing – then great, do it. But, if you want to push yourself with performance climbing, then you really do need to train.
One way or the other, I’ve been training since 1974. A lot of early training was done on the outdoor walls of buildings – the infamous brick-edge cruising. This gave you steel fingers. But, for steeper stuff, you probably need to boulder and/or use 45 degree boards. I preferred the latter. Sadly, for many years I’ve not had easy access to such a board, so the power has all gone. And it goes, with age too. But the Hangout Climbing Gym will hopefully open soon on Portland, so – who knows?
Do you use a clipstick now?
Of course! I had an ancient one which finally fell apart, after about 25 years. So I bought a Pongoose. Who wants to risk their ankles on snappy rock and a high first bolt? And it removes those nagging doubts about getting your gear stuck on routes.
What do you say to people who claim they’re cheat sticks?
I’ve got really strong feelings about this one! For me, it’s a put-down, a form of bullying. Because I was bullied as a child, I won’t tolerate physical or verbal bullying now. In fact, you rarely hear the ‘cheat stick’ jibe anymore; clipsticks are pretty much accepted by everybody. It’s the same with bouldering mats and crack gloves. At first, people moaned about them – but now they’re accepted too. Before that, people moaned about chalk. Before that, they moaned about rock shoes. (Yup – remember those big mountaineering boots that absolutely nobody wears now?)
Mick on the bottom deckio at the Cuttings, Portland. Image credit: Janice Gaudin.
What do you think is the biggest advance in climbing?
Women climbers. Back in the day, climbing culture was very macho, highly competitive. There are lots of women climbing now and many of them climb far harder than men. They’ve been a highly civilising influence.
How do you think climbers have changed as a community?
Climbers are definitely nicer now. You go out to crags these days and practically everybody is friendly and supportive. Most people are competing only with themselves. The grades are yardsticks, no more. What does it matter whether you climb 6a, 7a, 8a or 9a? We’re all in this together!
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