The Climber Interview: Robbie Phillips

by Keith Sharples

 

Robbie Phillips has, by any standards, had an outstanding summer last year having climbed not one but three of the hardest multi-pitch rock-routes in the Alps. Phillip’s performance, founded on several years of hard climbing at the world’s hot-spots and his success the previous year on Bellavista (F8b+/8c), has confirmed the young Scot’s position has one of the country’s – if not world - leading proponents in this extremely demanding arena. Without a doubt, it’s one of the stand-out performances of the year. Keith Sharples got in touch for the low-down on his background, his remarkable climbs this summer and future plans.

Robbie Phillips takes a selfie at the bivi on the Eiger during the ascent of Paciencia.

Let’s the scene back at home – where were you born, tell us a little about your early family life, your parents and whether you have any siblings.

I was born and raised in Edinburgh – my dad is English, my mum is Scottish and I have one older brother. I spent most of my childhood with my granddad. I would spend hours listening to rich exhilarating stories of his time travelling the world as an engineer on oil tankers. I was totally entranced by his world – far off exotic lands, pirates and adventure! This I feel helped foster my desire for travel.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was born; he was given a year to live. There has always been a lot of strain on the family due to the illness and yet he held us all up by being strong. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever known – he supported a family, ran a business and was unwilling to let cancer take it away. His determination inspired me and gave me too the strength to battle on despite the odds. My father is now in his 60s and still going strong!

Was school an enriching experience or couldn’t you wait to get away into the outdoors? What did the young Robbie spend time doing before climbing?

I certainly enjoyed school on the weekends i.e. the days you weren’t actually there. If there were categories for people, I’d be under ‘Space Cadet’ – most of school time was spent daydreaming of where I would be going on my next big adventure. A popular pass time during class was visualising imaginary big walls in the classroom. I have always had a lot of excess energy. I can’t sit still for very long and concentration on something sedentary has always been something I struggle with. When I was a kid I spent most of my time either playing rugby or running around the hills of Edinburgh with my friends. 

Did anyone in your family climb before you, how old were you and how did you get started climbing?

Nobody was a climber before me – my uncle was a professional footballer, my cousin a semi-pro and my brother is a mountain biker. When I was 15 I joined the school climbing club and that was that. George Watsons College does have a history of climbing, the earliest of which being a huge inspiration for me, the late great Robin Smith.

Many climbers have had ‘close shaves’ when they were starting out. Did you have any and did you pick-up any valuable lessons from these early climbs?

Only weeks into climbing, I was walking the dogs by a local quarry. Without even owning any climbing shoes at the time, I tried to climb something that looked easy. I was working my way up a fissure in the rock when I came across a bird’s nest; spending a little too long here I slipped and almost fell from around 10m high. I scrambled to the top a little freaked out and walked off the back of the climb. Lesson learned – nothing is as easy as it looks.

What were your early successes?

This early memory marked a big change in how I viewed myself and others around me. When I was about 16, I climbed a lot with the competition team at EICA. Some were GB Team, others regional champions and in my whole life the most I’d won was a game of monopoly!

The team met up for the first session at the start of the school term and I expected to be the worst climber there (again). Throughout the day I noticed that I was actually doing alright; I wasn’t just keeping up, I was climbing well! A summer of nothing but climbing and pushing myself had done wonders. I discovered belief in myself that day… I learned that you don’t need medals or accolade to be a good climber; all you need is passion and determination.

Was there a point when you’d been climbing a while and thought that you wanted to really ‘go’ for being a climber?

The day I left school I was completely bewildered as to what was next… I had two choices; either go to university or get a job – I couldn’t believe they had missed out the third option; become a homeless climbing bum? I never thought I was good enough to be a professional climber, so I became a climbing coach and route setter instead. It’s like being paid to go climbing but feels a tad more like work; and yet a lot less so than sitting in front of a computer clicking a mouse.

In the last few years my climbing has gone from strength to strength and my passion for it has never been stronger. The opportunity to climb more or less full-time came about and although not the most glamorous of lifestyles, I have never been happier!

You came second behind Ed Hamer in the 2011 BLCC at Ratho. You didn’t pursue comps like many young climbers but switched to the big outdoors instead – obviously to good advantage. Do you see this as the ‘only place that matters’?

I love every aspect of climbing whether it’s indoors or out. My outdoor goals are what really matter to me and I use indoor climbing to train for them, but I have a lot of respect for indoor climbers who train for the competitions or simply the enjoyment of climbing indoors. 

Climbing is for everyone and the beautiful thing about it is you can do whatever you like with it. I do like to think that climbing might possibly be the most pointless thing on earth… Climbing does nothing for the world and nobody cares about the fact that I climbed that rock/tree/building but me… When I die, I will have spent most of my life doing something utterly meaningless. But it was bloody good fun.

Robbie making an ascent of the Lord of the Rings (F8b) in Arapiles, Australia

Since 2010 you’ve developed an impressive CV as a climber by going on road trips to France, Spain and Oz ‘collecting’ numerous ascents of hard routes. What are the ‘stand-out routes’ from this period and why?

The ‘stand-out-routes’ are those that offered me a challenge beyond the norm. I’d say Haggisaurus Rex; the F8c first ascent in Australia was a special one for me. It’s my hardest first ascent to date and still the most unique style of climbing I have ever experienced!

Climbing New Statesman (Ilkley in Yorkshire) was pretty out there. It really required me to look within myself and question the choices I make; was I doing the climb for me or for some other more selfish ego-driven reason. New Statesman taught me that I love to push the envelope of my climbing abilities in every direction for my own self-exploration of what is possible. I proved this by climbing my hardest trad FA to date, a scary sandstone E8 in Arbroath called Deil or No Deil – these routes stand out because they force me to question my motives and beliefs; you just can’t afford to climb for the wrong reasons when you risk more than a bruised ego. 

You believe in doing loads of routes at a given grade before moving onto the next grade. What’s the rationale behind that – for example - is that because you believe in building-up and banking experience? 

Exactly! Whatever you do in life there is no substitute for experience. You can get stronger and fitter in the gym but it won’t overrule this fact. The tactics and techniques you learn not to mention the mental strength and confidence you gain from experience are your most valuable tools.

Was your ascent of Bellavista last year the hors d'oeuvre for the trilogy this year?

Bellavista was a really special moment for me – it wasn’t just my first multi-pitch climb and the inspiration for this years ‘Trilogy’, it was a reawakening. Bellavista reminded me of what inspired me about climbing to begin with… Adventure! 

How did you prepare for the harder climbs?  

Truthfully… I went bouldering. I am clinically weak – My affliction is I struggle to hold on small holds. Doing 1-4-7 is harder than F9a in my eyes. For most climbers they are already very strong – I would say I make the most of the strength I do have by moving efficiently and using tactics. When I do get stronger through bouldering, I see huge transferable gains immediately.

There’s a lot of info now about physical training and you’re a trainer as well. What sort of training you do today and how do you prepare for the mental challenges or do you rely on gathering fortitude from your climbs and hence look to your past experiences to help you through your current endeavours?

The amount of training knowledge saturating the web is unbelievable. The two most important principles I follow for my own training are (1) Specificity is KEY. - (2) Work Weaknesses.

Indoor training is really useful for outdoor projects, but I am really particular with how I go about it. I don’t follow a strict training plan anymore – I have an idea in my mind of what I need to do and I listen carefully to my body. Mental strength for me comes directly from past experiences… It’s so important but also one of the most challenging areas to train. It requires a lot of self-discipline and will power.

You’ve said that you’d set Silbergeier as a goal in your teens. Are many of them set right back in your early climbing days?

A lot of the time yeah. Silbergeier was a 10-year objective; I have wanted to climb it since I was 15. I tend to set short and medium term goals with the intention of them acting as stepping stones towards accomplishing the long-term goals. Silbergeier was truly a 10,000 hours of dedication to climbing moment and as much as it was a long-term goal, it is really only a stepping-stone towards much bigger things in the future.

Many climbers keep quiet about their objective till they’re ‘in the bag’ but you’ve quite open about your objectives going public with them before you start out. Some climbers see that as a bit cocky. Do you do that to help with the focus and the psyche or is there another reason(s)?

I am a social butterfly. I like to talk to people about climbing and what better way than to talk about stuff you’d like to do? Talking about my projects makes them real… before that they are just ‘ideas’.

I don’t worry about failing on climbs, its just part of the process - it means nothing to me if I declare I’m going to try a climb and then fail… I’ve got nothing to hide. The more people seeing me punter of climbs too hard for me the better, keeps me grounded! 

Let’s talk about this year’s Alpine Trilogy; Silbergeier (F8b+, Ratikon, Switzerland), Project Fear (F8c, Dolomites, Italy) and Paciencia (F8a, Eiger, Switzerland) over the space of a few months. Special trip?

Totally. By far my most successful and enjoyable trip yet.

Which one of the trilogy are you most pleased with and why?

On a personal level I’d say Silbergeier – This was a 10-year goal and for me the most technically and physically challenging of the trilogy. With two pitches at F8b+ in a style that are both intense and mentally demanding, it was a lot to ask to climb in one push! I had to keep things together the whole day and be ready to do battle with the hardest pitch right at the very end! I had heard stories of friends having epics on the final F8b+ pitch, falling at the last hard section then having to re-climb the whole thing again just to fail on the final pitch a 2nd, 3rd, 4th time. I climbed it in one push on my first redpoint - it felt fantastic.

From your films about your climbs you seem to derive energy climbing with regular partners that perhaps you don’t get with others, how critical to your success is that?

For the multi-pitch big wall style routes its imperative to have a good partner. I look for someone like-minded – driven but chilled. I like to have a laugh, not take anything too seriously and if the shit hits the fan to know that we’re cool and can deal with it. 

Your climbing partner on many of these has been Willis Morris. Tell us a bit about him and do you think you would have gone back to and done Paciencia without Willis?

Willis has been my climbing partner for the whole summer – it was awesome to team up with him. We get along really well and he’s similarly motivated to just be up there on the wall hanging out! We’re always having a good time, mucking about, cracking jokes and generally just taking the piss out of each other.

Climbing the Eiger was both of our dreams… I couldn’t have done it with anyone else. Willis and I put everything we had into that climb and were denied. It was emotional for both of us when we realised it might not happen; but I never lost hope. Climbing on the Eiger as any mountaineer knows is special and being stuck in a storm on the North Face is another thing entirely. Willis and I knew we weren’t finished up there so I think going back with anyone else would have felt wrong in my mind.

A wonderful altruistic gesture from the anonymous benefactor funded Willis’s trip back out to the Alps – your adventure obviously touched his/her heart strings! What aspect do you think appealed to them to do that?

The anonymous benefactor had enjoyed watching our progression throughout the summer – they’d been following the blogs and social media stream. Much like a good story, it’s hard to watch the characters fail. When we were knocked back by bad weather on the Eiger after having been so close to completing it, they wanted to offer us another chance.

Your ascent of Paciencia was the fourth yet the American team (Sasha DiGiulian and Carlo Traversi) were on it at the same time, so it’s obviously getting big on the climbing radar. Was that difficult at all being on a major wall like that where the rock isn’t brilliant and with limited weather windows when there was another team on it as well? 

Not really. The first time we went for the route Sasha and Carlo used fixed lines to bypass easy pitches they thought were too wet to be climbed – because Willis and I went ground up, we climbed the wet pitches anyway which meant we didn’t bump into the other team. Second time we were on the wall was three weeks later and Sasha and Carlo had abandoned their attempt the day prior so we had the wall to ourselves. 

You’ve been on a number of other big wall multi-pitch climbs. How much of that experience helped you out on Paciencia and do you think that gave you the edge to top out? 

I always knew that the Eiger was going to be the hardest to climb due to the conditions. That’s why we left it until the end hoping that the experience of having climbed in the Alps all summer would have left us hardened by the process. There is a lot to be said for preparation – Willis and I were ready for the Eiger when we arrived.

You have climbed harder than the crucial pitches on most of the routes you’ve done this summer. How important do you think that is to have a bit in the tank that you can pull out when necessary?

It’s not super important but it makes a difference. I’d say having spare left in the tank allowed me to do these routes quickly. On Paciencia I was onsighting some really technically demanding pitches (F7a-7c+) when I was exhausted! Waking up at 5am with numb hands and raw fingertips then warming up on F7c+ is something I just had to be comfortable with. If I wasn’t onsighting most of the pitches then we wouldn’t have made the top on our second day; I’d say having that extra in the tank allowed us to be fast.

Climbers have always liked to create lists of must-do routes and do enchainments – especially in the Alps, do you think your Alpine Trilogy is part of that ethos or rather they were three projects that you set yourself as part of your evolution and journey as a climber?

I would say a bit of both. The trilogy was a personal challenge I set myself to both test and train my capabilities. Each route in this trilogy did something different. Silbergeier was to challenge my technical skills on the wall, Project Fear to deal with exposure and conditions whilst Paciencia was a pure endurance challenge with the addition of being in a dangerous environment. Climbing is a never-ending journey and we never stop learning; this summer I have gained the necessary experience to allow me to deal with much harder and more challenging projects in the future. 

Robbie hangs out at the end of the huge roof on his ascent of Bellavista (F8b+) in the Dolomites.

You seem to fit into the definition of a modern climbing professional. You’re media-conscious and happy blogging and posting on social media?

I enjoy writing, photography and sharing experiences with people. It is part of the modern professional climber to deal with this sort of work and I’ll be the first to admit that personally, I don’t find it difficult. 

How important is it to you to be sponsored and how much work do you do with your sponsors?

If I wasn’t sponsored and had a full time job I would have less time to go climbing and less flexibility, so for me it is essential. I do a lot of work for my sponsors. A big chunk of this work is expected of me e.g. blogging, social media, writing articles, working on media content, organising lectures, writing reviews and helping aid with product development… I don’t get paid directly for this work; I just have to do it. When you stand back and look at what I do, you realise it’s not a 9-5… it’s 24/7. My whole life revolves around climbing and everything I do in the day has a ‘climbing’ purpose.

Did you feel under any pressure to perform for your sponsors when doing the trilogy?

Not at all – The concept of doing these climbs for sponsors has never crossed my mind until you mentioned it. I have a great relationship with my sponsors; we are all really good friends. 

No doubt you have a clear goal that you want to do next?

This year I’m planning another alpine summer – I’d like to build on what I’ve done this year with another trilogy: Des Kaiser Neue Kleider (F8b+) – Kaiser Mountains, Germany, End of Silence (F8b+) – Austria and Voie Petit (F8b) – Mont Blanc Massif, Chamonix. The former two being the completion of the official ‘Alpine Trilogy’ from Stefan Glowacz, Wolfgang Gullich and Beat Kammerlander of which Silbergeier is one third. If successful I will be the first brit to have completed the trilogy.

In the autumn I am planning to immerse myself in Yosemite granite. This is where I am hoping to get properly spanked and learn how to be a ‘real’ climber. If I leave the U.S. having successfully lead ‘Monster Off-width’ pitch on Freerider then I’ll be happy.

 

Robbie is sponsored by Edelrid, Evolv, EICA: Ratho, Steedman and Company, Monkey Fist Climbing and Urban Rising (charity ambassador). 

 

This interview was first published in Climber magazine.

 

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