Climbing with Maidstone Climbing Club Secretary Malcolm Phelps


Maidstone Mountaineering Club Secretary Malcolm Phelps has been rock climbing for over 50 years and has climbed mountains across the country and beyond, recounting his many adventures in a book titled Leading the High Life.

He continues to climb and uses his expertise and passion to attract others to the sport while encouraging them to develop their skills. He tells us all about the sport which will hopefully make its Olympic debut this summer in Tokyo.

Malcolm Phelps has been climbing around the world for over 50 years

IS IT EASY TO ENTER?

Things have really changed since rock climbing walls became so prevalent.

It used to be that they were scattered around and you would climb up a wall where someone had chipped off a piece of mortar and hang on with your fingertips.

There are a lot of modern ones now and it’s really taken off. It is a way for people to try the sport and it is very safe.

Anyone in average shape can safely climb a climbing wall and it’s an easy way to get started in the sport. Some people never leave the climbing walls and go out. Once people have been introduced to the climbing walls the rope is working and being safe then I see my work to encourage the development of these skills outdoors.

I really love to encourage new people to come and watch them develop and learn to love it.

There has always been a competitive edge. If you can do something well that your partner can’t, there is a little satisfaction enough!

It will be interesting to see what happens if we host an Olympics this year.

Interior walls are a great place to learn climbing techniques
Interior walls are a great place to learn climbing techniques

CLIMBING AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES

There are three disciplines: speed climbing on a predefined route on a top rope; Bouldering (short no-rope problems – competitors score by completing the problem in the fewest attempts) and lead climbing (rope climbing from the ground and snapping into bolts along the way). Scores are awarded for the distance covered by competitors.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with regard to participation afterwards.

There was a big explosion in Olympic sports after London 2012 and I’m sure there will be a lot more people going to climbing walls after the Olympics.

The big question is whether people are going to stick to the climbing walls or if they are actually going to transfer their skills to the outdoors and for me that is the big test. I’m sure the climbing walls themselves will be more popular and quite crowded. I really enjoy them, I really think of them as a gym, but I consider real rock climbing to be outdoors and some people never make the transition. I hope to help them make this transition.

Toby Ernster on Double Diamond on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel
Toby Ernster on Double Diamond on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel

IS IT DANGEROUS?

I have had twisted ankles and damaged shoulders, but nothing more than the normal sports injuries you tend to have. I didn’t hit the ground or anything like that. Not bad in 50 years.

Sometimes there can be a large ledge below you and you can catch a toe on it and injure your ligaments. I think I had three ankle injuries and a few shoulders.

You just have to look at footballers and the problems they have with the knees and that sort of thing. I don’t think I’ve done anything where I would describe it as being in a really hairy situation, just a few unintentional evenings, but that makes it more memorable afterwards.

I don’t snow and ice but some of our members would normally go to Scotland in the winter, they would use their crampons and ice axes, things like that, the techniques are different and it’s a whole new ball game. We have a few members who would be watching the weather now and would like to be in Scotland.

Jim Unwin climbing on the Stately Pleasure Dome, Tuolomne Meadows, California
Jim Unwin climbing on the Stately Pleasure Dome, Tuolomne Meadows, California

DIFFERENT WAYS TO CLIMB

There is free climbing and solo climbing – often confused. Free climbing can involve a rope but means not using anything other than the rock to climb (i.e. not pulling on any equipment). Solo climbing is climbing without a rope and alone – potentially much riskier because if you fall you will hit the ground!

On a “top rope”, the rope will be in place, held by the top and bottom. As you go up, the partner takes the rope. If you fall, you are simply swinging in space. This is the top roping.

The most interesting thing is to go up in front, so you start at the bottom with the rope tied around you and going up you clip the rope with a carabiner (snap-link) and if you fall your partner will hold the rope and you fall just twice the distance to the closest. Hopefully not too far! It’s lead climbing.

The kind of climbing on climbing walls is the kind of sport climbing, all the protections are fixed. You have bolts in place and as you go up you clip them on.

Outside there is also some traditional rock climbing where you start from the bottom, the boulder has no equipment and you take a bunch of stuff with you. People used to pile pebbles in the rocks and put slings around them. There is now specially designed equipment in the form of nuts or friends (expandable spring devices) that will accommodate a variety of cracks. The idea is that the second climber goes up and takes out all the material, leaving the rock clean. This is very much the British tradition.

Harrison's Rock at Groombridge is one of Kent's favorite climbers Photo: John Westhrop
Harrison’s Rock at Groombridge is one of Kent’s favorite climbers Photo: John Westhrop

CAN YOU CLIMB IN KENT?

There is a group of famous outcrops around Tunbridge Wells the best known of which is Harrison’s Rocks near Groombridge.

It is the best climbing in Kent and very popular. It is almost always done on a top rope because the sandstone is quite crumbly and not very reliable. It’s kind of like an outdoor climbing gym, but there are some really good climbs there.

WHERE WILL YOU MEET?

The Maidstone club used to meet at the pub on a Wednesday and decide what we would do on the weekends, but now we tend to meet on a climbing wall with an occasional social event.

The Internet has also changed things in terms of the organization of meetings. I’m a bit of a nice weather climber these days but looking at my old diaries and was on a rock in January in the Peak District but wouldn’t consider doing it now. I am still very active.

GOOD FOR YOUR BODY?

You get a full body workout and I find rock climbing walls to be really good for that. We use The Reach in South East London and Climbing Experience in Maidstone. It’s a great way to keep fit.

If you have been on the climbing walls for a few hours, you will feel quite tired and very satisfied too.

The more you get better at working indoors, the easier it becomes to work outdoors.

It helps to be strong enough, but I’ve seen grown people who are very good at delicate things, they can’t stand on almost anything but it helps to be fit enough and reasonably strong and having vertigo helps !

Sue Luck on the Armorican north of Pembroke
Sue Luck on the Armorican north of Pembroke

FAVORITE PLACES?

There are some fantastic limestone cliffs in Pembrokeshire and in the UK this is one of my favorite places. I really like Cornwall and the granite rocks there.

One of the great things about the UK is that it offers fantastic variety, all with different types of rocks and different styles of climbing.

One of my favorite places to climb abroad is Morocco and the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

Last year the sport lost one of its most famous climbers, Joe Brown, who died at the age of 89 (not from rock climbing). He developed some of the UK’s best climbs in the 1960s and was an icon for climbers of our generation.

He explored Morocco in his retirement and it has become a bit of a mecca for those who want to go out and discover new places. Finding new climbs where no one else has been before is not something you can easily find in the UK. There are variations you can do, but not much new.

In Morocco, the weather is nice, the rock is good and I went there twice a year from 2008 until this year. There are no emergency services, so you have to take fewer risks and be very independent. It depends on you and your friends.

I’ve been doing this for 50 years and have made friendships that go back all those years. I made some great friends and people you could literally trust in your life.

Natalie Cheeseman on a climb called Guillotine Direct in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco
Natalie Cheeseman on a climb called Guillotine Direct in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco

If anyone would like to know more about Maidstone Mountaineering Club and how to get started in the sport, they can contact Membership Secretary Raz Parmar by sending an email to [email protected]

Copies of Malcolm’s Leading the High Life book are still available by emailing [email protected]

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