Neil Gresham is good at climbing. Neil Gresham is really, very, good at climbing. While some of his peers find their niche, stick to it, and get very good at that niche, Neil is a proper all rounder; the Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff of climbing, if you will.
Whether it's in deep-water soloing, sport, ice, or traditional, this is a man who has spent the last two decades nailing it at a high level in every discipline. His first ascent of Pembroke's Olympiad 8b, for example, is the stuff of legend.
We caught up with Neil at an Osprey day, and asked him some questions about, among other things, the increasingly popular indoor bouldering scene and climbing at the 2020 Olympics.
Maybe this is a city thing but there seems to have been a notable increase in people doing bouldering, doing climbing, have you noticed that and, if so, what would you put that rising popularity down to?
Well, I'm from London and when I got into climbing in the mid eighties, when I was at school, there was about three climbing walls in London. And they were not the nicest places to inhabit. They were dark, and dusty, and a bit sweaty. Back then we would never have dreamed of the scenes we witness now. I mean there's climbing walls on virtually every street corner. And they're really attractive, cool, places to be. You know, they're well lit. They're exciting. They've almost got this nightclub type atmosphere in them.
So much has been responsible for this shift. There's better exchange of information now. Like when I was a kid, nobody had even heard of climbing. So awareness is increasing. Training methods have improved. Standards have risen. The weird thing though is that you can't necessarily say that it's correlating to outdoor climbing. It's really the indoor explosion that's happening. Whether or not outdoor climbing will explode in the same way is yet to be seen. I think there's a disconnect between the inside people and the outside people. A lot of people don't necessarily know how to take those indoor skills, outdoors.
"There's climbing walls on virtually every street corner. And they're really attractive, cool, places to be"
They maybe realise that they don't have the right knowledge and that you can't just rock up at a crag and start climbing. These people don't know what the pathway is to acquire the skills that they need. It's a difficult transition.
So, Tokyo 2020. Climbing is going to be at the Olympics. What are your thoughts on that inclusion, and do you think it's been handled in the right way?
I really have got mixed emotions about this. I don't feel some burning need for climbing to be popular and mainstream. I think one of the reasons I got into it was because it wasn't. We climbers have liked operating under the radar for a while and I think a lot us are quite nervous about how it's going to feel when suddenly it's all out in the open.
The positive aspects to it though are obvious. It's going to be good for the brands. Good for the athletes. There's going to be an injection of money. Advancement of facilities, training methods. I think that's clear.
There are concerns though about it impacting on outdoor climbing from an environmental perspective and also how the whole culture of climbing will change. Because we're very much a community and it's all about goodwill, and fair play, and respect. If it all starts to get very commercial, that might all change. The refreshing amateurish feel of the sport might start to disappear. There's a chance that the sport will become a lot more clinical and science based. It might lose some of its collaborative charm.
Shifting it off Tokyo 2020, where is your favourite place in the world to go climbing? Have you got a spot that, for want of a better expression, is your spot?
My favourite place to go climbing in the world is probably Kalymnos. It's a Greek island. It's like a paradise island. It's got beautiful beaches, lovely tavernas to eat at in the evening, and it's got fantastic limestone sport climbing. I've put up quite a few new routes out there and just for the fun factor, I'd have to choose that place.
Obviously the world is a big place but is there anywhere you've got burning aspirations to climb that you simply haven't got round to yet?
Honestly. I'd love to go to Japan. They've got ice falls on the sea cliffs there. I did something similar to that in Iceland, when we went to this amazing cliff where you were literally climbing on vertical ice falls that were plunging into the sea. They've got the same in Japan. And, also, of course... rumours about this perma-powder which is amazing for snowboarding. So yeah, definitely fancy going there.
"It's about being part of that climbing community and working together with other climbers"
Have you got any tips for people either just getting started in indoor bouldering or for those making that transition into outdoor from the gyms?
First of all. Tips for people getting into bouldering. Don't get too sidetracked by training and strength. If you get strong too early, it can really make it difficult to learn the technique. You learn technique better when you're weaker. So you're better off focusing on skill first and then getting stronger later. And also, from the perspective of avoiding injury. We see so many climbers getting tendon injuries because they're jumping on the fingerboards too early. Pace yourself. It's all about pacing yourself.
In terms of getting into outdoor climbing. Well, there's no quick answer to this. Sure you can go on a course. Or just ask around at the wall. Get to know people. Socialise. And you'll meet some outdoor climbers. Although, these days, perhaps in the centre of London that's less likely. In all seriousness, it's about being part of that climbing community and working together with other climbers.