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Jumping In At The Deep End On The Eiger’s Hardest Route

After legendary climber Uli Steck made the first ascent of ‘Paciencia’, he declared it the hardest route on the Eiger’s North Face – but when bold young Scotsman Robbie Phillips made the fourth ascent he had only been adventure climbing for a couple of years...

There’s a lot to be said for gradually working through an apprenticeship, but sometimes the most jaw dropping achievements can be made by being bold, and just trying really hard. Robbie Phillips was a Team GB competition climber, doing indoor comps and ‘comfortable’ sport routes before he had a lightbulb moment on the hard, adventurous climbing of ‘Bella Vista’ in the Dolomites.

He had high level technical climbing skills but lacked the experience of established adventure climbers – not that this stopped him from hitting the Alps in 2015 and climbing three of its hardest routes in single summer, including ‘Project Fear’.

Next he turned his attention to the big walls of El Capitan in Yosemite, making it to the top of El Nino despite admitting in his blog that he ‘knew nothing’ about big wall granite, and relying on his ability to just try really hard. Fast forward a couple of years and he’s now on the cusp of realising a dream to make the first ascent of a big wall – La Junta in Patagonia’s Cochamo. This ‘just have a go’ style may not always be the most stylish but it’s proof that pushing your limits really can make you excel...

I was punching through the snow with my hands to try and grip the rock below

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Q: The exposed multi-pitch adventure climbs you do are very committing – do you thrive on being thrown in at the deep end?
A:
‘Yes I’m that sort of person – I’ll learn to swim some way! But there’s no one on earth who is completely devoid of fear. They just put themselves in scary situations for them and the more you put yourself in those situations, the better you become at dealing with them and assessing the risks. You can be scared but go for a climb and overcome that fear in an effective manner. It’s all about weighing up the risks, telling yourself what you need to do and how you need to execute it.’

Q: What was your mindset going into the Eiger’s hardest rock route?
A:
‘Me and my friend Willis went to do it a couple of years after I got into more adventurous climbing, and I just didn’t realise the seriousness of the route. It was awesome, but it was hard and we had to fight hard for it. The mind is such a funny thing in climbing – if I had known how gnarly it could be and the people who had done it prior I could have been scared off. Preconception is one of the biggest things that holds people back. We had no preconceptions about it.’

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Q: What was the scariest moment?
A:
‘I got to the end of a rope 400m up the wall but I was actually halfway up a 45° snow slope! I didn’t bring any snow gear because we didn’t think there was going to be any snow so I was punching through the snow with my hands to try and grip the rock below the snow, and creating steps for my climbing shoes. I was gripped!’

Q: You made the switch from comfortable sport climbing to extreme adventure climbing – you think it’s important for your progression to push yourself out of your comfort zone?
A:
‘You’re always trying to push your comfort zone a little bit. I’ve known life-long climbers and they always climb the same level because they do the routes they know they can already do – they don’t learn anything. A lot of people are happy with that but if you want to perform and get better then you do need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.’

Q: You’re currently working on a brand new 750m high big wall in Patagonia’s Cochamo – that sounds adventurous?
A:
‘Yes, imagine Yosemite and El Capitan but in the jungle. I went there with my friend Ian Cooper and even getting to the base of the route is a challenge – we had to set up tyrolean rope bridges to get across the rivers, and carry all of our food in for five weeks on horses. There’s so much vegetation on the walls that you have to climb with a nut removal tool an cut away at it like a surgeon.’

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Q: You must feel pretty exposed all the way up there on a new route?
A:
‘One of the final pitches is called the Skywalker Traverse, which is an incredible ramp, the lip of which is over the most exposed section in the entire wall. There are no distinguishable handholds or footholds on the entire pitch – the only thing that’s keeping you on the wall is The Force! You just have to have complete belief in yourself and will yourself along it.’

Q: You seem to have combined your early sport and competition climbing with the ability to push out of your comfort zone on big walls – was that intentional?
A:
‘It’s being on the lead on the sharp end of a climb, with bad gear but still being able to climb relatively hard. I think a lot now about being the best all-rounder I can possibly be because I like the idea of just being dropped somewhere random like Baffin Island and being able to just walk in, climb a big wall and walk out again – and dealing with the polar bear that tries to hunt me down!

Find out more about Robbie Phillips’s adventures at www.robbiephillips.co.uk

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