Us Brits absolutely love an underdog, and the more amateur and casual their approach the better. So it's slightly ironic that 2012, our Olympic year, is also the centenary of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. It says something about our national psyche that we have celebrated him as such a hero, given that he even failed to return home alive.
Or take one of our best-remembered Olympians - the charismatic ski-jumper Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards. Eddie's eccentric appearance and training methods were matched only by the extent of his underachievement. While jump training in Finland, he lodged in a mental institution (as a guest not as an internee) and skied in borrowed hoots, with six pairs of socks to make them fit. Traditionally our mountain heroes reflect this love for the casual approach. Mountaineer Alan Hinkes is probably best known for sustaining an amusing back injury caused by sneezing on chapatti flour, not for his mountaineering prowess and completion of all the 8,OOOm peaks. Climber Leo Houlding may have ticked impressive and significant ascents around the world, but British climbing loves him best for his night-time ascent of the climb Lord of the Flies - done in borrowed, baggy boots and with a failing head torch.
But is there a flipside to worshipping the underdog? Does our national respect for the poorly prepared, shambolic and occasionally fortuitous, conceal an almost sneering lack of regard for the planned, prepared and successful? Does a desperate desire for our heroes to be ordinary lead us Brits to focus more on appealing underprepared and casual than on our level of achievement? Tom Randall- Sheffield-based crack-climbing specialist and training guru agrees: "Brits love the underdog – the person who somehow pulls it out of the bag whilst looking utterly unprofessional."
Tom, however, has no time for being an underdog himself. He's too busy finding a climb that deeply inspires him, and then making himself into the climber who can climb that line through hard work, research and preparation. It's the very opposite of a bumbling Brit, but it's seen him successfully climb the super-hard Greenspit roof crack in Italy and overcome the immense challenge of Century Crack in Utah. Tom reckons he can feel a shift in the psyche of climbing: coaching and systematic training are now more widely accepted: "I applied myself in a really structured way for climbing Century Crack. But I'm not the only one, you can see the kids coming through in the last couple of years they want a piece of the action and they know they have to train hard to get it."
Training was once regarded as a form of soulless cheating. Rut it's getting harder to believe that when the rewards for hard work can he world-class glory. You only have to look at the domination of GB cycling to realise that these days, sporting success isn't guaranteed by a spark of talent. To reach your potential, you need commitment, practice, training and plenty of hard work. Tom's observations arc echoed by mountain guide Andy Cave - one of the UK's foremost mountaineers: "Things arc changing a lot. Many of my clients now follow serious programmes to get in shape for their peaks. But there's still much to do in terms of finding the right formula for mountaineering. Maybe Ueli Steck would know?"
What about expedition climbing? Andy admits that training for big trips still often involves more beer than running and pull ups: “On the plus side, we still drink a lot more than some of the European alpinists so at least headaches at altitude aren't so alien!”
Andy also thinks that in the UK mountaineering is not seen as a 'sport ' in the same way that it is on the continent. Consequently, the focus is less on times and performance than it is on the objective; choose easier peaks and you never have to worry about training. “Having said that, most of us climb in Scotland and so we soon get used to serious conditions and learn how to look after ourselves, Top French alpinists come over here now to learn the skills of looking after themselves before heading to the Himalaya."
The plot thickens: it seems that perhaps , we're not averse to the rigours of preparation - just as long as no-one else realises that we are doing it, lest we fall short of the mark and be seen as a failure. It's not the work itself that deters us; we just try and hide the fact that it's actually training for a more advanced goal.
Tom Randall has also noticed this trait in British climbers: "I'm happy that some Brits are becoming a bit more openly professional. I'd love to see less of this 'secret training' business that I know many Sheffield climbers do, They go on about how much they don 't train, when I know full well that they're working very, very hard!"
Jules Littlefair - a prominent female climber on the UK sport climbing scene with ascents up to F8b - is certainly not afraid to try hard. For several years, she's been following a gruelling training regime with a Spanish coach, This has often left her weekend outdoor climbing as a time for active recovery while focussing on more long-term goals, Intrigued by this seemingly ruthless approach, I asked Jules how her attitudes to preparation and training have changed since she first started climbing: "I've always enjoyed pushing myself to see how hard I can climb but it is only in the last three years that I've trained in a systematic manner. The more that I do: the more involved in it I become. "Jules really reminded me of the addictive quality of training, and the process of improvement. Like Tom, her motivation sterns from a desire to do particular climbs, rather than a vague idea that she'd like to get better: 'A few years after I started climbing, it became apparent to me that I was never going to get strong enough to climb the routes I wanted to do without some kind of proper training."
Yet, despite her amazing dedication to the training schedule that she follows, she still loves the outdoor experience more: "I much prefer climbing outdoors on red rock. but I do get a real buzz out of training as well. If I didn't, it would be impossible to keep it up at the intensity that I do."
I used to wonder why anyone would ever go to an indoor wall if it wasn't dark or raining – and even then I’d often go outside anyway and climb easier routes - but I now I'll often devote an evening to focused training, rather than repeating a couple of easier routes, I find a certain amount of application to climbing has made it a more satisfying, fulfilling activity for me, The grind and process of improvement is now another part of climbing's heady addiction.
Like most climbers, I often potter around within my comfort zone, A few years ago, I distinctly remember seconding my friend Joe up an amazing classic, a couple of grades above what I thought myself capable of. I loved the climbing but felt intensely frustrated that I was not the one able to lead lines like this and I began to wonder what the difference was between us. Joe seemed to coolly cruise up to the top on the sharp end, whereas I fought up afterwards, a bit gripped and pumped senseless, glad of the rope from above.
Many of the climbers I talked to felt that a streak of envy motivated the beginning of a change in attitude and approach. This was certainly part of my motivation. Whether what motivates you is the ability to climb a peak fast and light, having the confidence to tackle an adventurous sea cliff or burning your friends off on the boulders, is there truth in the old adage that you get out what you put in?
I'm not suggesting that we should all chain ourselves to the campus hoard and give up cakes and beer but that there is a real pleasure and glory in just trying hard, Fully acknowledging this - rather than scorning it – might make us enjoy our climbing more, Climbing is now such a broad church that there's surely room for both relaxed fun and the ambitious 'professional' attitude; for both the simple joy of getting out and climbing rock in a beautiful environment and a pleasure in the intensity of graft and tooth-gritting effort .
There is certainly evidence of a higher degree of preparation in the availability of coaching and bespoke training plans, Stop watches and training diaries are becoming an increasingly common sight at climbing walls The walls themselves have adapted too, providing facilities such as system and campus boards. But we're not quite there yet. In many cases, the desire to graft isn't there before the lust for its potential results.
Back to Tom Randall: "Nearly all my coaching work now comes from people wanting direction in how to structure their climbing, Periodisation and similar concepts have become trendy buzzwords, but some people out there are hoping for a magic bullet. and it doesn't exist."
Whatever snazzy name you give it. getting up an hour earlier before work for a fingerboard session won't be any easier, And as Tom or Jules would testify; all the structure that surrounds modern training practice isn't a magic potion, it's just a way of making sure that all your hard work has the maximum benefit.
It would be a marvellous thing if we could accept a work ethic as something that can really improve our experience and love of climbing and adventure, our hard graft could open up new possibilities and take you to some beautiful places, as well as provide the more introspective pleasure of personal improvement. So, in this year London Olympic year, can climbing capture the sporting spirit of the nation? After centuries of settling for second best, perhaps British climbers will finally start to believe they are capable of something more? We can still find an inspiration in the efforts of people like Captain Scott and Eddie the Eagle, but let's put down the myth of the heroic underdog once and for all, and accept that hard graft and practice - not a magical talent - will make winners of us all.
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