I first met Gwen in Ceuse in 2011. With socks pulled up to her knees and sporting ginger pigtails under a big half dome helmet she was easy to pick out from all the moody skinny French wads. Due to my (mostly) subconscious elitism I assumed she’d be walking to the next sector for some 5+ action. Then I saw her climb. She started cruising up a 7b tech fest (which if you’ve ever climbed at Ceuse you’ll know is no joke). In between looking down to apologise to Anna for taking too long she managed to smear her way up the polished footholds. Given that she had big socks on and her shoes looked to be three sizes too big I could only imagine that she was defying the laws of physics.
Since then I’ve kept an eye on Gwen’s adventures from North Wales trad to Tasmania, to Canada. She’s probably one of the UK’s most travelled, most psyched and most talented female trad climbers. She just onsighted the free route on the Totem Pole recently which is hard for the grade and requires a myriad of skill sets from setting up Tyrolleans to placing funky wires, to technical free climbing. But with a cool demeanour and a humbleness bordering on ridiculousness, no one knows just how much she’s done. I wanted to do an interview with her to see what she thought about these things. Mostly I just wanted to ask her about the Alex Honnold selfie song her and Helena created after meeting him in Taghia. Maybe they have a future in the music industry?
The Totem Pole
When did you start climbing?
Both my parents climb, so I was brought up around climbing. It was always something we did on holiday and where we went was determined on whether or not there was climbing nearby. It wasn’t something I was very interested in until I was about 14. I went to the edge climbing wall a lot in Sheffield and got out in the peak whenever possible. I feel like I properly started climbing when I went to university. There I met a lot more people to climb with and North Wales to Explore.
Tell us a bit about your climbing history - what you’re in to, where you’ve traveled, that sort of thing.
I grew up learning to trad climb and that’s the type of climbing I enjoy the most. It’s been the reason I’ve I travelled around the UK and why I left last year to explore the climbing in other parts of the world. Before setting off on my trip I had climbed sport in Spain, France and Morroco, dabbled a bit with Alpine multi pitch, checked out climbing in the States on a recce road trip as well as a trip to Candada where we spent about 5 weeks in Squamish. I started my current trip by heading to California in the States then travelled up to Canada to climb in Squamish and the BugaboosI then went to Australia as I got a year working visa. So have been here since August. I’ve spent most of that time in Tasmania which is similar to the UK in some ways
What sort of climbing are you most psyched for?
I’m most psyched for trad climbing but I really enjoy sport climbing and bouldering. I haven’t done much alpine climbing but it’s something I really want to start doing because of the places it takes you to. I haven’t done much projecting of routes but I recently had a go and it was quite cool to see what you can achieve.
Lots of people say to me that you’re their hero. How does this make you feel?
I guess it makes me feel a bit self conscious as I would never consider myself a hero at all. I am flattered to hear that though.
What motivates you to climb harder?
I think it’s the thought of overcoming a challenge that you didn’t think you could do. It’s also the physical aspect that drives me to, it’s nice to feel progression. I would also like to be able to feel confident going into unknown terrain and be able to climb through it if I was in the mountains.
Do you think it’s nice to get recognition for what you do from your close friends and/or wider climbing community?
I usually feel a bit embarrassed but it’s always nice to hear if you’ve done well on something.
Do you ever see yourself becoming sponsored or similar?
I’ve never really thought about it as Im not pushing grade boundaries or doing anything that other people aren’t doing.
Do you actively engage in climbing media I.e check ukc on a regular basis?
Not really. I used to look on ukc to see what other people had written about routes that I wanted to do and sometimes read the stories. Since leaving the UK I haven’t really looked at it.
Do you get inspired by what other climbers are doing in climbing? If so , women more so than men?
I think I get inspired on where climbers have been. The place inspires me the most. I am inspired by my friends and people around me as I find that easier to relate to. I think it’s impressive when climbers push the grade boundary or are incredibly bold but it doesn’t inspire me to do it. If I hear about an amazing route in a cool location but it’s out of reach in terms of grade then I would be inspired to get better so that I could climb that route. Women’s feats don’t inspire me more than men but they do make me whoop inside as if saying ‘go team!’
Do you have days where you just can’t be bothered to push yourself mentally and/or physically? Or do you think it’s a day wasted if you haven’t challenged yourself?
Oh yes. I like to push myself climbing but I really enjoy lots of aspects of climbing so it’s nice just to go out and climb easier routes. I enjoy the places that it takes you and it’s nice to climb routes that aren’t as physically taxing. Some days it just doesn’t feel right to be bold, I get the fear and just have to back off. I used to feel disappointed in myself but I feel it’s better to back off and climb another day than it is to push on due to a pressure that I’ve put on myself. In sport climbing I find it hard to push myself physically when I’m tired or I’ve been trying hard every time I’ve gone out. I used to feel like it was a day wasted if I hadn’t challenged myself but I find I have a much better time if I go more with my feeling of the day. For me it’s important to take it easy sometimes, it allows me to regain physche and reminds me why I like climbing when I am getting frustrated with myself.
Gwen’s not scared of a bit of bush-wacking. Descending Federation Peak Tasmania
Have you always tried hard? Do you think this is habitual for you now?
I don’t feel that I have always tried hard, I don’t think I had much confidence in my climbing to start with. I think also I was brought up with the thinking that you shouldn’t get on a route unless you know you can climb it, therefore I didn’t probably try routes that would really push me. I started trying harder routes when I went to uni, I then felt I should try a route at the top of my grade each time I went out. Now I don’t feel I have to try hard every time so I don’t think it’s habitual. I like to push myself though so sometimes if I haven’t tried hard the last couple of times I’ve been out I get this weird kind of worry and I have to try and get on something a bit harder next time. There’s something satisfying about trying hard, even if you don’t succeed. I think it makes you feel like it was a productive day.
Where do your dreams lie in climbing? Free climbing el cap? New routes? Mountains? U.K. Trad? Sport?
I’d really like to climb the lotus flower tower. I’d like to raft in, climb it and then raft out again. Id also like to climb all along the watch tower in the bugaboos. I need to gain more confidence and experience in the mountains first though. It would be nice to spend some time sport climbing and challenge myself with the physical aspect of climbing. There are so many adventures to have with climbing. I generally decide on a place I really want to go and then make my goals up along the way according to how it goes.
What are the lyrics to the alex honnold song you made up? Seriously I can’t die without knowing this.
Haha, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t think I made a song about Alex Honnold but he was in Taghia when I was there with Helana. He wasn’t impressed that we took a lunch box up the routes with us, he said “holy shit, you brought a lunch box”. He also said that one of the belays on the route was “ totally trad”. While we were on a route we made up a climbing version of that let me take a selfie song. So it was something along the lines of
I can’t believe you guys brought a lunch box on this route with you, I’ve got to make this belay, which is totally trad but first lemme take a selfie!
I don’t like these verbatim interviews I would like to hear you recount the interview using your fantastic prose and bringing that otherly bit of yourself to the conversation. in admiration.
thanks hazel. i enjoyed it. go team.