The great brooding limestone cliff of Kilnsey is recognised as one of the UK’s most impressive crags. Its most distinctive feature is an enormous roof that caps the already severely overhanging South Buttress. This feature was first aid climbed in the 50s but shot to prominence in 1988 when it was freed by Mark Leach to give Mandela – so named as ‘they said it would never go free’. This summer Neil Gresham added his own take on Kilnsey Main Overhang but at a much higher grade with his route Freakshow. 8c in difficulty Freakshow is very different to your typical British sport route – almost 40m in length and with 18 clips the route climbs like the Spanish ultra endurance routes currently defining modern sport climbing. Success for Neil came after 14 days of effort. Ian Parnell caught up with Neil to find out more about this brilliant new route.
Congratulations on your new Kilnsey route Neil, how did you find such an impressive unclimbed line at one of the UK’s premier crags, were there other suitors to the route and did it surprise you that such high quality routes are still there for the taking?
Thanks Ian. I guess the thing I’ve learnt in climbing over the years is to keep an open mind. People say there are no decent new lines left in Yorkshire, but having had a fifteen year break from British sport climbing, on my first day back at Kilnsey I spotted a gap that was almost too glaringly obvious to be true. The horizontal break that Freakshow follows can be seen from half a mile away and is even more prominent than the break that Mandela follows. I guess it just looks hard to get to it and to leave it, which it is, but my experiences of bolting new routes in places like Cuba, China and Kalymnos have taught me that you just have to go and have a look. If you get shut down then they make nice presents for your strong friends!
The route climbs out through the main overhang at Kilnsey – one of the most dramatic features on British rock, but at 8c the climb is also close to your current sport limits – what motivated you most about this climb – the aesthetics or the difficulty?
It was certainly both those things but there was a third factor that was even more important. When I first arrived on the Peak and Yorkshire sport climbing scenes in the late 80s, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, I had missed the boat as far as new routing was concerned. The likes of Moon, Moffatt, Atkinson, Leach and Dunne had already bagged all the best lines and they were also climbing way harder than me. It was reading about these guys and their new routes that inspired me more than anything else at that crucial stage in my climbing. I think that deep down, I always hoped to follow in their footsteps and climb a decent new line on one of our top sport cliffs. Of course, it’s not for me to say whether I’ve managed this and the critics will always have the last word.
Describe how the route breaks down, and where you found the biggest challenges on the redpoint?
Well it starts up a very pleasant 7a+ bridging-corner called Hardy Annual, which I’m quite bored of now! There’s a good rest at the top of this and then it turns mean fairly quickly. The rock tilts over at an ever-steepening angle and there’s a crux sequence which is about V8 in difficulty and which involves a crucifix move. I really struggled with this last year but thanks to some specific training on the rings, not to mention a new foot sequence courtesy of Charlie Woodburn, it started to feel more do-able. This move takes you to the horizontal break that leads from left to right through the middle of the roof. It’s covered in jugs but there aren’t many footholds so you get pumped. There’s a poor ‘bat-hang’ rest, hanging from a toe-hook at the end of the break and then it gets hard again. You launch out into some crazy horizontal terrain, making big moves between pockets and slots, with poor footholds and you have to skip all the bolts here in order to avoid rope drag. All told this is probably a V7ish sequence, leading through Gaz Parry’s route, Guns in the Sky 8b+ and it’s probably the redpoint crux of the route. You then join Mandela 8a+ in the middle of the crux cross-through move, at which point you’re looking at taking a 40 foot pendulum, so this certainly focuses the attention. The last moves of Mandela aren’t really that hard in relative terms (Tim Emmett joked that they’re probably on V3) and I vowed never to fall off there, although this proved to be famous last words. I actually dropped it their twice before eventually hauling myself round the lip. I think this was probably caused by summit fever more than anything else.
Did you train specifically for this route, and if so what did you do?
It was probably more a case of what I didn’t do. I literally trained harder for this route than any other and this was the main reason I contacted Stevie (Haston) for advice. It’s not that I’ve ever been too lazy or unmotivated to train hard in the past, but more the opposite – I’ve simply been too scared of getting injured. Regardless of all the coaching I’ve done, it’s virtually impossible to apply the same principles to yourself. You just can’t be objective, but with Stevie watching my back, I felt sufficiently confident to ramp things up to the required level. As well as all the usual specific training on replica boulder problems and the standard endurance training on steep circuits, Stevie added a load of pull-up and leg-raise training, some for strength-endurance and some for pure endurance. I’d always worried that this sort of thing would wreck my elbows, but it actually made them feel more resilient! Stevie also got me doing yoga, which is something I’ve always known I should do but have made my excuses in the past. But when you have someone as mean as him to answer to there’s no way you dare shirk out!
Did you have any doubts about the final redpoint and how did you deal with the stress?
It’s funny isn’t it – why is it that no matter how many routes we do, we’re always so quick to think that that perhaps this might be the one we’re going to fail on. That said, I’ve improved so much at this part of the game in recent years. Sure I’ve taken the tips from the greats like Sharma and McClure about removing the end-goal and being process-focussed, but there are so many other little things I’ve adopted myself to diffuse the pressure. For a start, having been living in London for the last decade, now that Kilnsey is just down the road for me, I was pretending that what I was doing was just ‘outdoor training’ and infinitely preferable to being stuck indoors. I was also constantly reminding myself that I managed a route of a similar level in Spain two years ago, and it’s infinitely harder to deal with redpoint nerves when you’re away on a short trip with a fixed time limit. But fundamentally and above all else, I just kept reminding myself that the whole reason you enjoy it so much is because the route feels slightly too hard, or as Like Leo Houlding famously said ‘If it wasn’t hard, it would be easy, wouldn’t it?!’
What is next on the horizon for you this year?
Funnily enough, I’ve bolted two more lines, one at Malham and one at Kilnsey so my hands are still well and truly full. I really ought to take a break and do some trad but I’m finding the sport stuff irresistible at the moment.