Jordan Buys Interview
Jordan Buys (pronounced Base) is one of the finest all-round rock-climbers in Britain having climbed at, or very close to, the highest levels in sport, trad and bouldering and even doing well in competitions. This, at a time, when many climbers specialise and rarely cross over to other disciplines. Climber's Assistant Editor, Ian Smith, spoke to Jordan about his background and his attitudes to climbing.
Let's start off with a bit of background, where are you from?
I was born in South Africa and then emigrated to the UK when I was about 11, brought over by my grandparents, and I now live in Burnley. I used to have an accent, but I think I camouflaged myself and lost it.
Do you have any memories of South Africa and which part are you from?
I do, yes, fantastic memories. I think it is a great place to grow up as a kid. I was born in Paarl, which is near Cape Town and then I lived in Durban which is in Natal Province on the east coast. Really nice places.
And have you been back?
Not very recently, but I went something like every year until I was 16, and then we stopped going.
And how did you start climbing?
Through my friend, who happened to be Naomi at the time, and her and her brother, Joel, did a bit of climbing. I just got taken along really and it was just something I fell into and just did with friends. I ran it parallel to football for quite some time.
Where was your first climbing experience?
Actually in Burnley, where I now live, in a little climbing wall in a school. Quite an old-fashioned climbing wall, I guess, but it had a slab and overhang and a campus board and things.
And what was your first outdoor experience? Can you remember?
It might have been when I was really young actually, probably taken by my uncle to Brimham Rocks, but that was more sort of dropping a rope down a green chimney or something. But climbing outside with Naomi and Joel, and I have been trying to remember actually, generally involved midges. I never took to it because we were always in a three and I would go up last so I would be the food for the midges. But I think it would be the Lancashire quarries, or somewhere like Heptonstall.
Did you take to it straightaway? Was it something you immediately fell in love with and immediately were good at or did it take time?
I think I took to it, yes. I was quite persistent with trying things that other people were trying at the climbing wall. It did not matter what, I did not have a grasp of difficulty. I would just try anything that anybody was doing and there was no concept of failure. So, yes, I think I took to it.
And at what point do you think you were starting to get good at it? How long did it take?
Ages, absolutely ages, because we didn't know what we were doing. We would just head out with a rope and a bit of gear and just do some stuff. But I think the turning point was when I nearly redpointed a F7a at Sella in Spain, by the Refugio, on a holiday and I had only done F6s before. I think it was the first ever time we had been sport climbing abroad and I nearly did it but I fell off trying to clip the chains all afternoon. We came home and both Naomi’s brother Joel and I on-sighted an E4 at Crookrise and that was the turning point. Wow, we realised we could get good.
And your friend Naomi became your wife? How old were you then? How old were you got married?
21? 21, yes. Yes, so we were friends for five or six years before that.
And you are still climbing partners and still climb together on a regular basis?
Yes, yes. I think I liked her a lot, so I kind of wanted to impress her a bit.
You are best known for being a rock-climbing all-rounder. You don't really specialise in any one type of climbing, which a lot of other people do at the moment. Is there a reason for that? Do you have any theories as to why you climb that way?
I think I see other people doing various different disciplines and I want to be also trying that. I see one route in one discipline, say a sport route, get done, so I think, 'Oh I’d like to try that'. But I think I am just that sort of person who likes to try everything. I would get bored, I think I would probably stop climbing if I focused on one area; I would just plateau.
I have heard you say you had a stab at ice climbing at one point, but things did not work out so well. What happened there?
It was with Naomi’s brother and I think it was our second ice-climbing trip. The first one went really swimmingly and we survived but the second time, I think we were queuing for a route, an ice pitch, and the second in front of us fell and just missed me with their crampons. It would have ripped my shoulder open. I still really had no idea what we were doing. The first time we went out I was in a pair of jeans and my granddad’s fly-fishing trousers over the top. We still did up to grade 5 or something. We slept next to the lake for five days. The second trip, we were a bit more prepared, I had Gore-Tex and gloves.
Before we move on to more detailed discussion about your climbing, do you think ice-climbing and mountaineering is something you will go to later on in life? It's not an unusual trajectory for people who are very fine rock-climbers when they are young, to move on to the mountains later in life. Is that something you might be interested in?
I can see myself being drawn to, first of all, the dry tooling. I put some feelers out to do that and that was my plan a year or two ago, I was going to get into dry tooling and then maybe go further into the mountains, possibly. But it is not something that appeals to Naomi. So, unless something happened that she took to it, I do not think I would do that really. I would not rule it out, but just all the books I have read, all the accounts I have heard of people, it just sounds dangerous. There is enough in other styles of climbing to do without going further afield and potentially wasting money, I think.
So let's talk about danger. Let's talk about one aspect of your climbing, some of the trad routes you have done, particularly on the gritstone, particularly in Yorkshire, where you have repeated some extremely bold and dangerous routes. Does the danger aspect appeal to you, or is it purely the difficulty?
I like testing myself in tricky situations, but now I have come to realise those routes were not that hard of a climb. I have realised what I can actually climb and it was well below my limit without me actually realising.
So things like Widdop Wall (E9 7a) at Widdop, for example. Technically you were in control?
Sort of, yes. I was never falling off in the danger zone, as it were, though on one early attempt I did fall off, but well-positioned bouldering mats and spotters saved me.
And the one in Ilkley Quarry, Loaded (E8 7a)?
That was more safe. Again, I have definitely gravitated towards the harder climbs, well-protected climbs, because there is no point hurting your legs nowadays, with a job.
And have you got some plans for others, or have you sort of ticked hard Yorkshire grit now? Ate there others you want a go at?
I have been currently busy for three months solid, just developing new crags in new areas. Footage will be released soon. So yes, still at it.
You mentioned work there. You actually have a job, do you?
Yes, a window cleaner, I have just recently started my own business.
And is that on ropes, or domestic?
No, no, old school, ladders and a bucket in the little villages round Pendle Hill.
So you fit that around your climbing?
So essentially you are self-employed and can make your own time?
I can juggle things around and it's good work, keeps me fit. And it's nicely separate from climbing.
Is there anything in the Lancashire quarries you are looking at at the moment, or is Yorkshire your focus?
No, Naomi and I have just developed a new quarry near Pendle Hill. New Church Quarry, which is technically Lancashire, and we just developed some new stuff there. We do constantly pop into the Lancashire quarries. When I hear something is clean to have a go at on-sighting…
So is that what you are more interested in, trying to on-sight routes?
I run things in cycles. I am always running in cycles with all my climbing (bouldering, sport, trad, trad on-sighting).
So you are not averse to working a route, headpointing?
It depends if I do not ever think I will on-sight it or flash it, I will headpoint it. But I think most of the things I have got left in the quarries now are on-sight stuff. I have learned to save routes actually.
And what about the bouldering side of things? Is that currently in your cycle, or are you off bouldering?
I used to do a lot. It mainly stemmed from when Naomi broke her leg quite a few years ago. So I was just partner-less, so I went bouldering. I am sort of gravitating away from bouldering just because I get a lot more excitement doing many moves in a row but if I see something that crops up that looks amazing, in the UK, I will go and have a crack at it.
But you have some bouldered to some pretty hard levels?
Yes, Font 8B.
That's pretty hard.
I guess so, yes, but I have never really focused on it truly.
You had a brief go at competitions as well, which were, I think if I am right, mainly bouldering competitions?
Yes, I did do lead competitions for a few years, but again we were just playing. And then, yes, we got on the British Bouldering Team and did that.
I remember you competing in a British Championship. You got a decent result that one year?
Yes, I was fourth, a bonus hold away from third or something. I will hold on to that.
And is that something you have drawn away from at the moment?
That is the one thing you just cannot dive into and do okay. You have got to focus. The people who are doing it now are just completely focusing on it. My problem with competitions now is I will have been out on routes the day before and just not taking it seriously enough. I see the appeal, but I think it's not likely I'll go back to competitions in the foreseeable future, not at my age.
So let us move on to the sport side of things. Obviously the big one was Rainshadow (F9a) at Malham. How long did Rainshadow take you?
It's a hard one really. I cannot remember when I first tried it. I do not really keep account of that sort of thing. Some people are quite pernickety with how many days something takes, I'm not somebody who has got a record of every day and hour spent on a route. I went on it by accident because the route I wanted to try was wet. I think I tried it at the end of… maybe the end of 2011, just briefly playing on it. Nothing too seriously. I trained all winter for it and then in 2012 I nearly did it. And then I got injured and it got wet. So I did it in 2013, so is that two years?
And what is your opinion of it? Is it good solid F9a?
Compared to the ones I have been trying recently, yes it seems so, yes. And Ondra confirmed it, so I cannot complain. Other people have been on it, haven’t they, from abroad, I think, Enzo Oddo came and tried it.
There have only been the two repeats, you and Adam Ondra.
Yes, good company.
And what is it like for quality? Obviously it's hard.
It's amazing, amazing, yes. I think if I was going to climb any hard route that would have been it. I have been trying some other routes recently, and although they are hard — and the hard moves are quality — there is the situation and the position and just everything about it, they are not as good as Rainshadow.
Jordan Buys on a redpoint attempt of Rainshadow (F9a) at Malham. Photo: David Simmonite
Are there any other memorable routes in Yorkshire? Any other sport routes that really sick in your mind as being very high quality?
They are all really good. Things like Mark Leach’s Cry Freedom. They’re amazing. Just about anything off The Catwalk at Malham, if I am honest, any of the F8s.
So nothing head and shoulders above anything else?
I guess they are just all good, True North is amazing actually, on Kilnsey, if you can include that crag. We are including Yorkshire as a whole, aren’t we?
Yes, they are all brilliant.
And are you part of the scene in Yorkshire? When you go up there, are you amongst friends? Is there a good social scene up there?
I guess so, yes., it is a good scene. A lot of young faces are coming through, which is really good and a lot of the older generation, as it were, are still going.
Have you done any new routes?
I have done a few, yes, but nothing significant. I've got some at Kilnsey, some at Malham. But I struggle with new routeing and limestone, for some reason.
Really? Can you explain that?
Holds tend to break off, and things like this, and you are never sure if you are going to do it. I have got a lot of respect for people who have been pushing themselves to the max, but I really like to repeat everybody else’s routes before I put up my own. On the gritstone I have tried to generally repeat everything that I think is classy and do-able before doing my own routes and that is the way I have always been.
And is Naomi up for first ascents as well? Is she inspired to new route with you?
I think she has got no desire to do new routes on limestone. I think she has got enough to repeat because there is no stress, you can just turn up and it goes, it is do-able. I think she might do new routes on trad, now she has done a bit.
Have you done much trad limestone yourself?
Yes, I have done quite a bit actually. I am doing more and more. I have done a few at Gordale; I have been scared a few times there. I have done a lot of the E5s but I have still got a lot of E6s and E7s yet to do.
So they are still on the list?
They are to do, but with the likes of Steve Crowe and Karen Magog not around, who have done them all now, they were the amazing activists for cleaning up routes. A bit like when Gaz (Parry) and Ian (Vickers) were about, things were clean. So you need someone like those who is a bit of a worker and is quite a self-sacrificing spirit. So yes, hopefully it will get in vogue. I would like to keep a rack in the van and if I want to trad climb I will.
So you are perfectly happy to just mix it up? Any plans at the moment, what is current? Is it these Yorkshire quarries that you are developing? What is on at the minute?
No, that has been and gone, I think. The grit season might have finished now. We are developing crags like Hawkcliffe, New Church and a few other venues. What is the plan? Lakes trad, I think. We have been going to the Lakes recently, just putting the fitness to use. Because the problem with redpointing and sport climbing in this country is, as soon as you tick it, you are on to the next thing. You never lie back and rest in the glory; it is always the next thing. So we have cottoned on to now enjoying doing something and moving on.
So how much have you done outside of the Peak and Pennines? If we start talking about North Wales, the Lakes, Scotland, Pembroke, Cornwall, are they areas where you have done very much, or is that where you have got plenty left to do?
Yes, I am probably climbing up to E5, E6 routes everywhere. Cornwall, Pembroke, Devon, Northumberland, the Lakes, everywhere.
And are there any routes in the Lakes or Wales that are on your immediate horizon? Something that you would really like to go and get done?
That would be telling wouldn’t it, what I'm going to do tomorrow! Just obviously Dave Birkett's stuff must always get a mention. So, just putting in the hard work and repeating great routes.
It must be hard to find routes that are in climbable condition.
Yes, you have just got to sacrifice the time and go and clean them yourself. I did try with Scafell a few years ago, but we had an epic fail due to really weak legs. So I have been training on my mountain bike now for three months to try and get fit, so when I walk into these crags I am okay.
I think Wales may be easier. There is much more of an active scene down in Wales, with the likes of James McHaffie and Calum Muskett doing routes. I think those sort of hard routes probably get a bit more looked after than the Lakes.
I'm sure, when Birkett was doing these things they were in good nick. Yes, I will just try anything but I tend to go where the weather is best, if I am honest. In the UK, you have got to have an eye on your weather website, whatever, bookmark all the areas and just go where it looks best, because you cannot be too fixated because you will come a cropper.
There was a lot of publicity last year about The Indian Face on Cloggy. Would that be the sort of route that would tempt you?
No, maybe years ago I would have been when I was more bold and strong
So you would be looking for things that are really hard and would test you but that you could survive?
Yes, those you could fall off.
Who are the climbers that you look up to? Who are the climbers who you respect? And that might be from the past as well as current?
The people who we used to see climbing when we first went to the bouldering wall in Burnley. So you've got Mark Radtke and Dave Barton and others who just went off and did it, whatever the weather. They were quite a strong influence because I think, without them, I would not really have known what trad was about, because they were always telling these tales of daring adventures on crags such as Gordale. And then people like Ian Vickers for sure, and Gareth Parry — big influences. Again, they did multiple disciplines, you could not pigeonhole them. And more so, Steve McClure actually now, I have come to realise how good he is. (Do not tell him!) But I think this country has got a fantastic set of climbers, from Adam Hocking to James McHaffie and Leo Houlding. Just a lot of good climbers.
Just to finish off, we have been talking a lot about Britain and British climbers. You have mentioned Spain briefly but do you do a lot of climbing abroad? You have been to France, Spain, but have you been to America?
Not America, I would really would love to go. Because I used to have a South African passport I could not travel into Europe for many years without visa problems. So now I have a British passport it is fantastic just to get cheap flights. But they are mainly holidays, I know a lot of people get stuck into really hard things abroad, but I like it to be a holiday.
So you might drop your grade and just get some footage in?
Yes, a lot of mileage and on-sighting, an occasional redpoint. I have never been fixated. I redpoint hard in this country because I have run out of routes, but abroad I just go on-sighting.
In conclusion what about your original home, South Africa, have you done much climbing there?
I have been back to sport climb and do a bit of trad, but I think I will go back some time. There is too much in the world to try.
Jordan is sponsored by: Boreal, Edelweiss, Outdoor Research and Wild Country.
This interview first appeared in Climber magazine August 2014