Shy, retiring, wall-flowery, lackadaisical, middle-of the road: these are all words which I would never dare to use in the same sentence as Tess. I’ve known Tess since I moved to Edinburgh about 9 years ago (Well, 7 actually since I disappeared into clubland for a while when I first defected to the East) and I have to say she is one of the most vivacious and enthusiastic climber that I have met in Scotland with a real appetite for adventure.
The first time I went climbing with Tess was during the Foot and Mouth fiasco back in 2001, we had planned to go to Upper Cave at Dunkeld but due to conflicting signs and general confusion, we ended up bimbling about Polney. The highpoint of the day was a lead of Scram’79 E4 6a which Tess seconded up this with relative ease. I could see immediately that she was capable of climbing and leading much harder than this; there was nothing hurried or unconsidered in her approach and even though she was “only” seconding, she gave the pitch 100% attention and focus, which typically characterises her approach to leading routes.
Since then I’ve been out on trips to Pabbay and Mingulay with Tess and her partner Ian Taylor; stayed in the same apartment whilst in Kalymnos; passed each other in the airports as one group starts a holiday just as another is finishing; caught up with on trips up north and generally bumped into her on a regular basis.
However, since she and Ian moved to Ullapool four years ago, I have seen her standard rise significantly from leading the occasional E3 to jumping onto E5s. My immediate thoughts were that there must be something in the local water! But then, it’s not so surprising given Tess’s drive combined with the unfair amounts of quality rock that there is in the North-West.
So Tess, here’s your Starter for Ten:
How long have you been living in Ullapool & how is the lifestyle different to Edinburgh?
We moved to Ullapool in 2003 for a trial summer. And never looked back. Though there was one winter when it did rain every day for 6 months, which got a bit wearing. But there was still dry rock to be found. On the whole life is predictably more laid back and low key, much less manic than Edinburgh days where I was always trying to fit in lots of different things. Now I’m more west coast, where mañana feels like a rush job. I do miss a few things like getting together with friends or going to the cinema. On the other hand, I probably go and see far more music cos everything is 5mins walk away.
Are you still working as a Social Worker and how is that panning out?
Yes. What more do you want to know? It’s the day job: 4 days/week which is an okay work-life balance. Mind you, I’ve just had 3 months off which was very good for the soul. Back at my desk now and starting to pine….
How long have you been and climbing and how did you get into it?
It feels like all my life, but I suppose I get properly hooked in 1990 after going out a few times with a friend and realizing, this is me, this is in my bones.
Tess engaging in some Modern Thinking E4 6a, Reiff. (photo: I.Taylor)
Why do you climb?
I thought you said no deep questions! There is no why really. It’s not a conscious choice. From the beginning I’ve loved the whole experience: spending time in beautiful places, that involvement with the rock, the whole deep play thing. And the incredible buzz when it all comes together. But most of the time, just because…
How long did it take for you to get to E1? And then E3? And to E5 now?
Probably 3 years till leading E1 (1993). Then a decade to reach E3: E2 is a big place. And there were minor distractions along the way - like getting professional qualifications. I did quite a few E4s last year-and then a couple of soft touch E5s this summer.
What do you like most about climbing?
Same things as why I climb- the scenery, the rock, the company (on a good day), the pleasure of moving on the rock (also on a good day).
What do you hate most?
Litter. Crowds. Over-developed egos.
What kind of routes do you like the most?
Anything I can hang around on for hours to place gear and contemplate the meaning of life. I like butch routes – steep with big holds. But I also like technical balancy things. Either way, long and sustained. [Yeah, me too!-Niall]
What kind of routes do you hate?
Unbalanced, with bouldery crux, especially if it involves big reaches, power, or anything too dynamic. And blank slabs. And Lubyanka.
Can I have lots?
Top of the list: Pabbay and Mingulay in good weather-a little piece of paradise.
Sheigra. And I do love local sandstone: Reiff obviously, but also Ardmair - all year round cragging.
North Wales is not bad either.
Tess on the FA of Line Of Beauty E4 5c, Sandray.
I have the world’s worst memory so I generally forget something as soon as I’ve climbed it and every route is an on-sight, even if it’s a second attempt... I loved the climbing on the Galleries on Sandray last year. And Second Geo at Sheigra. Ancient Mariner on Pabbay was fantastic even though I failed on it. Shibboleth….I could go on.
What’s the best thing about being based in Scotland?
The beauty; the variety – of rock types, venues; the lack of crowds.
And the Worst?
Probably the fickleness of conditions: even when it’s not raining/too cold/too windy/the rock’s not seeping, you have the dreaded midge to contend with. But heh, the place would be a lot busier if people thought we were having fun.
What for you has made the biggest difference to your climbing ability?
Moving here, because there’s so much good rock within easy reach. Even if it’s too wet to climb, you can almost always find somewhere dry enough to boulder.
I’m also probably putting more energy into my climbing than I was in Edinburgh – less distractions here! Having an equally enthusiastic partner helps too.
Having moved away from a city with a climbing wall, do you miss using the wall at all, and how do you think your climbing has changed from not using the wall?
I do miss the craic that you get at the wall, and hearing what folk have been up to. But my climbing has improved except on plastic, of course. We will go through to Inverness wall for a bit of therapy if we get a really dire spell, but it’s 120mile round trip, and you have to compete with bouncy-castle kids parties, so we have to be really keen or clucking.
I think we could do with a Highland Adventure Centre: maybe a roof over the local quarry? So if anyone has £20 million to spare….
You recently led a few E5s. How did you find them?
Has this been a goal of yours or have you just tried to see how well you could climb at each stage?
I’ve always tried to avoid chasing numbers, and climb what I want to do. But I like doing things that challenge me (but not too much). Stone Pig routes suit me, and I’d done a couple of E4s there, so I was keen to try Miss Moneypenny, and loved it: no desperate moves, just lots of climbing, and plenty of opportunities to shake out.
My friend had seconded Warpath, and assured me I had to do it, and I always do what she tells me. It’s the easiest in the graded list in the new guide: “Some people call it Footpath”, I was told.
Since then, I failed miserably on the crux of Ancient Mariner. Though it was a reachy move (but I keep vowing to stop using that as an excuse, and learn to jump…). It was also 110 deg, which didn’t help.
I also got spanked on local gneiss on Freakshow at Gruinard, which was a bit annoying, as it definitely had my name on it, but I’ve got to stop placing a dozen bits of gear on cruxes, when 6 will do. I returned for a re-match recently, and did it a bit shakily.
Those are my on-sight attempts – 50% success rate to date!
Tess with One for Q E3 6a, Reiff. (photo: J.Reed)
A recent poll on Scottish Climbs found that there were over 50 men leading E5 in Scotland. One would expect to find that there were at least 5 women in Scotland capable of doing the same but there isn’t to the best of my knowledge. Why do you think this is?
How long have you got?!
You could write whole volumes on this: gender and participation in sport and risk taking: sounds like several dissertations to me!
For a start, why would you expect that proportion of women to perform at that level? Do they in Britain as a whole: 100 women leading E5 - I think not!
My starting speculation would be the time/commitment factor: unless you have shed-loads of talent, you need to put in the hours, and be fairly single-minded (and selfish), with no major distractions – like high-powered career, other burning passions, or family commitments. I would hazard a guess that it’s pretty hard to find the necessary time or energy if you have children under school age.
I’m sure there are other important factors – I learnt to climb on gear, and that has always been what I’ve done most of and what I get the most satisfaction from (probably directly related to my lack of prowess in any other area of climbing). Nowadays, it feels like the majority of people start climbing indoors. It’s a big leap from that to getting on trad routes – and probably a frustrating one, when you know that technically you can climb much harder than you are able to lead. Which is maybe why lots of people put their energies into sport or bouldering which hadn’t been invented when I were a youth... But the best way to climb harder trad routes is to climb trad routes and lots of them. I know that this affects men as well as women, but women are generally more cautious about taking risks than men, so that comes into the equation.
Oh and there’s the whole thing about motivation and why/how you got into climbing. From the beginning, I’ve wanted to climb for myself and as an equal. I’ve always lead and generally climbed with people who are operating at a similar level. I’ve never enjoyed being dragged up things.
I would hazard a guess that a fair proportion of women come into climbing through their more experienced partners, which is not generally the best way to build up confidence and skills – or the motivation to get past the indignity of struggling to follow his routes.
Basically if it aint your passion, you aren’t going to stick with it.
Thank you Tess, for taking the time to speak to Deftmoves
Next Friend: “Mr Mac8a”-Alan Cassidy