You are a Weeble

First impressions are all important. That first climb, first hike, first fell run… your first times outdoors make a lasting impression on your enjoyment, how far you’ll push, and how good you’ll ever get. You are a Weeble, centering on where you began, where you first wanted to go.


A Weeble. He’s grounded and steadfast, but will always return to his roots. That’s reassuring, but it can put a limiter on ambition.

Dave MacLeod
Dave MacLeod is almost certainly the UK’s best all round climber. In fact, his CV would stand up against the very best in the world: Scottish XII, M13, WI 7, trad E11, 9a sport, 8C boulder, alpine ED++, etc etc.. He’s said that the first time he ever went rock climbing, by chance he watched the first ascent of what was then Scotland’s hardest traditional rock climb. He didn’t realise that what he was watching was exceptional, that it was far from typical. As he watched he thought ‘I’d like to try that one day’. For many people there thoughts would more likely be: 1) that looks too hard; 2) that looks scary; 3) hell no. So obviously his ambition and drive were there from the start.

But from that first day out his framework for climbing was built around ‘I want to climb the hardest route in Scotland’.

That he achieved that and far more besides is only half the deal, the other half is wanting to get there, and that first impression, that first day out, was crucial.


Dave Macleod training hard in his garage. Training hard is what makes you the best, but those first impressions can prove vital in determining how good you want to be.

The environment you grow up in has arguably the greatest impact of all on how far you’ll go in life, which is either tragic or empowering depending on how you look at it. With fairly specialist facets of life (e.g. sport, music, needlecraft, painting, etc.) that effect is seen in microcosm, and the more I’ve thought about Dave’s story the more I’ve realised that it is typical of so many people in various different pursuits.


I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who are keen hillwalkers. As a result I’ve been out in the hills for as long as I can remember. Big walks in all sorts of terrain have come completely naturally to me. To me, to be a decent hill walker isn’t being capable of hiking a few miles and then going home. No, it’s big walks in rugged terrain and up plenty of peaks.

My parents are both musicians, and my dad a very good one. As a result, I see the basic standard of a musician to be much higher than what most people might consider. It might be an elitist view, maybe unrealistic, but basically unless you are Grade 8 standard on an instrument I see you as a beginner or relative beginner. For other people who had friends or parents who were less musically talented, to reach what I would regard as proficient would be seen as an almost unachievable goal, maybe an unnecessary waste of time.

Again, my early experiences defined how far I thought you had to get to be ‘proficient’, or skilled enough.

Me as a climber
I started rock climbing as a way to progress up more routes in the Alps and in Scottish winter. Along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake, but those early impressions – this is training, I need to be just good enough – have stuck with me and influenced me greatly.


Me on terrain I’m very at-home in – easy rock climbing on a big mountain. That’s climbing for me, and that’s because of where I started.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a great rock climber, primarily because I don’t want to be, but also because the standard I have always seen as being a decent rock climber is someone who can lead about VS, or about 5.7 in USA terms, or maybe 6a sport. That’s not very high in the grand scheme of things. A major factor in this reasoning is because most of my friends who I spent my early times out climbing with were in the same boat as me: hikers seeking to get better on harder scrambles.

As a result, grades like Very Difficult were interpreted literally, and Extreme grade climbs discussed only in revered and hushed tones.

I’ve since seen that Extreme grade routes aren’t necessarily all that hard, and some of the people I now climb with have plenty of E-points racked up.

But for me I still have an anchor in my head, a Weeble which pulls me back: these climbs are too hard for me.

If I were more driven, more like Dave MacLeod, this would be no obstacle, but that younger me, the hiker me, is still at my core. And those routes aren’t for a hiker.


On a big rock route – didn’t ever think I’d be doing this. With the right people around you the Weeble effect can be reduced, even removed.

Me as a cyclist
Over the last few years I’ve done a fair bit of cycling. I’ve always enjoyed riding a bike, but over the last three or four years I’ve put a bit of effort in, going on regular social and training rides. In this, my mate Adam was instrumental, pushing me from someone who enjoyed riding a bike occassionally to someone who wanted to get better at it and do more challenging rides.

Adam, in Spain on a recent training camp.


From my first times out with Adam I thought ‘I need to keep up with him’ and ‘I would like to be among the better riders in the cycle club’. I was lucky in that I’d picked a pretty good benchmark, someone extremely good at cycling. Adam and I have both improved as riders, but I still considered (and still consider) myself pretty mediocre as a rider, average at best. However, I did have a moment of clarity a few months ago when I realised that I’d got a lot better at riding my bike, and was now better than most other riders.

Because the people I ride with are strong, I assume that is a typical level to be at.

It’s only when you ride with a more widespread group of cyclists that you realise that’s not the case, and you’re a bit better than average. It’s the polar opposite of my climbing background: I thought to be average I had to keep up with riders like Adam and the mates I ride with on training camps, whereas in reality these people are the equivalent of those leading the big Extreme climbs.


Me riding (almost) alongside Andy, one of the country’s best hill climbers. If you look hard you can tell that here, nearing the top of Fleet Moss, Andy is cruising while beneath those sunglasses I am on the limit…

First impressions
If I were to have my initial impressions as a climber again, would I change them? No, not in the slightest. They have kept me safe, grounded, and I enjoyed them immensely.

But one thing I now try to do is, when I am lucky enough to introduce someone new to a sport, I am careful not to define things as hard or easy, because those terms are meaningless.

Instead, I try to give a beginner the best supportive introduction I can, one which not put the brakes on them and will make that Weeble a little less grounded, allowing themselves to choose exactly where they want to go, how far to push it. Oh, and to tell them just how important hard work is if you want to get to be good.


I wrote a related post, more tongue-in-cheek, on the expertise of hikers and climbers a few years ago. Here it is.


Chamonix Photo Diary

I snuck in a great four day trip to Chamonix this summer. As winter has barely got going yet in the UK I thought I’d jog my memory about a short trip where we got a lot done…

Day 1 started pretty late by Alpine standards. Lift up at about midday, down the Midi Arete, and then on to the Arete des Cosmiques.


Guess where we are…


Tacul Triangle.

We blasted up the Cosmiques Arete in good time – I’d done it before while it was first time for my partner Scott – and the atmosphere on the route was fantastic: laid back, stress free, easy going. Even the French guides we chatted to were in a placid mood, happy to join the queues and discuss very specific and extremely boring details about camming devices with us. We finished the route and took the bubble over to the fantastic Torino Hut.


Walking over to Tour Ronde.

Our next day started early as we had the Tour Ronde north face in mind, a route I’d tried to try a few years ago, but conditions hadn’t even let us get to the route, let alone climb it.

We moved together over the bergschrund and made great progress as the sun climbed behind us.


Scott getting going on the face.


The Vallée Blanche.

We pitched some of the steeper ground, but climbing conditions were generally good. The crux chimney was pretty hollow and ‘boomed’ ominously, but good sticks were never too far away. Soon we were out onto the snowfield leading towards the summit.


Solid screws and good ice. Very nice.


Heading for the top.


Legs burning. Feeling the altitude a bit at this point too.

We were pretty delighted to reach the top. We’d made good time on the route and for both of us it was our first ‘proper’ Alpine north face. We walked along the ridge until we reached the guidebook’s abseil descent and then began our six abseils back to the glacier. A rocket-speed run across the glacier meant we caught the last lift back to France from the Helbronner and we were back in the valley for celebratory beers. Fantastic day!


Tour Ronde North Face from the cablecar.

We spent the next day lazing about, getting stocked up on kit, and then we caught the last lift up to the Midi. We couldn’t believe how quiet it was… too quiet. The forecast was good, conditions should still be good, why were we the only people on the lift? We found out soon enough.


The famous Midi Arete…

A bit of micro-navigation found us safely down onto the Vallée Blanche where we prepared for our bivvy. It was very cold, very windy, humidity was 100% – it was going to be a grim night. However, slowly the cloud began to clear and figures and tents began appearing in the mist.


These two guys eventually appeared out of the mirk. They looked absolutely wasted: staggering, slow, falling over.

The forecast slowly came right and we were treated to an amazing sunset and sunrise.


The Aiguille du Midi from a different angle.


Alpine sunrise: utterly freezing but completely beautiful.

The next day we made a quick decision to abandon our original plan of having a crack at one of the Couloirs on the Tacul as conditions looked poor. We instead climbed the Laurence Arete, a fantastic little route and a great end to a very productive few days. Sometimes conditions aren’t perfect, but if you take your opportunities when they’re presented, you take your time and change plans when forced, and you can have a great time. Thanks Scott, awesome trip.