Alan on Anabolica 8a, Siurana (Photo: Hotaches)
It’s no secret that Alan loves his sport climbing and with over 70 sport routes of 8a standard or above, he is the “Mr Mc8a” of Scottish climbing. Personally, I think it’s madness to operate solely as a sport climber in Scotland due to a large number of factors but Alan has worked hard at this discipline despite this and the results speak for themselves.
Favourite climbing area/crag and why?
Ceuse probably - I've had a great time every time I've been there, the routes are great (if sometimes a little similar), great scene, good views and fit climbing birds ;-)
- At the moment I like climbing at my physical limit, pushing myself as hard as I can, so as I am a bit soft, that generally means sport climbing and bouldering. But I have got good trad pedigree too and I have a lot of trad routes I want to go for in a few years time. I love all climbing and hopefully I'll be out on mountain severes in my seventies (though really I'd still like to climb 8a when I'm 70!).
- My opinion of my own climbing is that I am equally strong/weak in all areas. There isn't really one area of climbing that I excel at over others, I just seem to get by on what Ive got. I'm not the strongest boulderer, but I can hold a level close to my maximum for a reasonable amount of time, so I guess power endurance is my strength.
What do you see as your biggest weakness?
-Strength is my weakness, plus a complete inability to open out my hips. I cannot frog to save myself. Some much so I think I could gain a grade just from being able to do this.
- I just love it pure and simple. I love feeling at my absolute limit, struggling to do things which feel impossible and being so pumped you can't even speak. Its the best feeling.
What is the best thing about being based in Scotland?
- For climbing, nothing. I like the Scottish climbing scene though and my mates are here. For my mental well being, being in Scotland is good and I am close to my family. Plus I love Scotland and am proud to be from Scotland. I'd rather be in Europe though. Scottish trad climbing is however brilliant and I really should be out there making the most of that, but for just now it’s just not what I am interested in. I reached a level where I could on-sight E5s no problem, and did a few E6s and technically I can climb much harder than this. I just don't get off on scaring myself on routes which are easy for me and I don't want to die doing routes which are hard but deadly. I guess that is why I enjoyed Requiem E8 as it has the physicality I'm looking for but is safe.
What is the worst thing about being based in Scotland?
- Where do we start? No limestone, no tufas, no sport crags; yes that's right, no sport crags [Oohhh! Controversial Al!...Niall]), no bouldering areas (yes, you heard). In summer; rain, midges, seepage, too hot or too cold. In autumn; seepage, rain, snow, freezing cold. In winter; rain, snow, rain, cold... In spring; rain, seepage, too cold etc etc. Whinge whinge, moan moan...yes I know, I'm too soft.
O.K. so you say there's no "real" sport climbing in Scotland but what's your opinion on the bolt debate that is raging right now and do you think there is place for lower grade sport climbs in Scotland?
-I hate all this ethical high ground bullshit, it seems like if you’re mates with those stripping the crags you can bolt where you like if not then tough. I don't see why there shouldn't be easy sport crags, not that I know of any good venues actually worth bolting. It doesn't really affect me so I have to say I don't really care that much about whether Lower Lednock is stripped or not - it sounds like a shit crag for sport and trad, but if people were getting something out of it then that is good. Now no one will go there, I find it hard to believe Lenny (Gordon Lennox) and Boo Boo (Craig Adams) are really going to go back there to repeat loose E2s when there is so much good trad that they can do elsewhere at their level. It does seem a shame though that people on both sides take unilateral action and are unwilling to accept the consensus of the majority of climbers. It feels like I'm in a time warp to the early 90s when I started climbing, Ken Wilson et al were bemoaning how the bolt would take over and there would be no trad left - things didn't really pan out like that and I don't see that there is such a threat now. I love sport climbing but I don't want to see the trad crags retro-ed and I don't know of anyone who really does. Some people are really reluctant to open climbing up to greater numbers but the evidence on the crags is that so many great routes aren't getting traffic - I don't see the harm in more people being allowed to enjoy Scottish rock-climbing and if they take there first steps on sport climbing crags then that’s fine by me.
In Scotland, do you think there is still an attitude that you are not a "real climber" if you go sport climbing and bouldering? And has this held you back at all?
-Absolutely, I feel like people judge you for preferring to go sport climbing. Generally its people climbing at a lower level than you too. I love trad, but as i said before I'm at the stage where my ability far out strips my boldness and I don't really get a lot out of doing lots of routes that are easy for me - ok, that is fun now and again but I'm into pushing my limit. I'm saving the classic trad for when I'll appreciate it most. I don't expect anyone to understand that, but I'm getting less embarrassed about being a sport climber (though I wouldn't call myself - there is still too much shame). Britain is pretty backward in accepting other forms of climbing as valid (though I bet most if not all the critics have clipped a bolt in Spain/France etc or enjoyed the boulders of Font). Has it held me back? Maybe when I was younger and cared more of what people thought of me. Now I don't really care, I'm close to climbing 8c a level I thought was physically impossible for me when all I did was trad climbing. Now I'm not sure if that is even my true limit.
Alan does climb in Scotland too! On the classic Precious font 7c, Glen Croe (Cassidy Coll.)
Tell us a bit about your first International comp at Kranj, Slovenia last November?
- It was a shock, I really enjoyed it. It was amazing just being in the presence of the best sport climbers in the world, watching them doing there thing and learning from them. It really opens your eyes to what is possible. I also really surprised myself. I got a lot further than I thought i would in the qualifier and fell from miss reading the route - I basically hadn't seen a hold hidden behind a big feature. At that point I'm sure I had 5-6 more moves in me. Had I seen that hold I would probably have made Semi-finals. As it was, I tied with Gaz Parry in 36th, but 10 places equated to getting only 2 holds further! This made me think there was hope for me to still improve to a new level. The main problem is that to get better at comps you need to do lots of comps. The BICC is now a one off event and there are no other lead comps in Britain. What's more the routes and the walls we have in this country are never of the right standard for what you compete on. That is why young Nat (Natalie Berry) is so impressive - I strongly believe she is the best comp climber in Britain at the moment.
What is it like being on the British Team?
- Basically there is no cash. It's so frustrating cause a lot of the time you come away from training really motivated thinking yeah, I'm really psyched to go do lots of internationals and improve etc, but they can't send anyone, so its makes you feel like, what is the point in there even being a team? If I had the money and time I would self fund to go to comps, but I don't and the little cash I do have I'd rather spend on trips to the crag. The only perk is free entry to climbing walls but as we have to fund travel to training meets ourselves, I see that as paying for the free entry.
Since you have repeated a large majority of all the 8s in Scotland, how consistent do you think the grades are at this level?
-I think they are getting a lot better, thanks to more repeats and the graded list on Scottish climbs, unfortunately there is only about 6 of us actually repeating these things so I think it'll be a while yet before the grades completely settle. The other thing with Scottish sport routes is that they are either pretty cruxy or bouldery and this can often leave you confused as to the grades once you do something - this type of climbing tends to feel alright when you finally do them.
You say you are close to climbing 8c, how are you finding the transition to this level of climbing?
-Well I have found it a bit of a shock that I was able to get on these things and make quick progress. It has really inspired me. I think that ticking a couple of 8b+s [Happiness in Slavery, Dumbuck and Body Blow at the Anvil] quickly has helped raise my confidence but I am nowhere near consolidated at that level (nor really at 8b). I believe that next year will be 2008c for me! I think I would have done True North [Classic 8c at Kilnsey, Yorkshire] this year if it hadn't been wet over the summer because I nearly sent it on the day after my 1st year exams at the start of june- my foot popped just as i was going for the last properly hard move and I was feeling like I still had a lot in my arms. Oh well next year! My focus for the winter is to train harder than before on sick power endurance so I can get these super hard routes done quickly. I'd love to climb 8c abroad which requires having a good margin. A lot of people don't like power endurance training because it hurts - I guess I must just be sick!
Making links on True North 8c, Kilnsey (Cassidy Coll.)
You have just completed your first year of medicine, how have you found balancing out all the different demands on your time, training, studying and socialising?
-Its been OK actually. I managed mixing my training and studying fine (though the exam period was quite stressful). I'm not a big social animal (though i need to address this one as it's about time I had a girlfriend) and I must admit my social circle in the last few years has included fewer and fewer non-climbers. When I was living in Perth, all my school friends were about, in Glasgow I only really know climbers well. I might climb hard but I am too shy for my own good! Or maybe its just the climbing chat that scares them away [aye well, talking about cracks and thumb sprags can have that effect…Niall].
Thanks Alan, for taking the time to speak to Deft Moves and best of luck on getting the 8c tick (although I don’t think you really need any!).