Neil Gresham talks about the first ascent of Lexicon (E11 7a)
- Tuesday 14th September 2021
Neil Gresham recently did the first ascent of Lexicon on East Buttress, Pavey Ark, Lake District. Graded E11 7a it’s now one of the hardest trad routes in the country.
As an established, well-known climber, first ascensionist and coach Neil Gresham needs little introduction; his CV is little short of outstanding. Neil’s third ascent of Johnny Dawes’s Indian Face (E9 6c) in 1996 proved he could endure hard climbing in life-threatening environments. He followed this up in 2001 with the second ascent of Neil Bentley’s technically demanding and serious gritstone masterpiece Equilibrium (E10 7a). That proved he could combine cutting-edge difficulty with seriousness in a manner that was beyond most. Neil continued to climb and train hard and develop his climbing and then in 2016, he made the first ascent of Sabotage – his first F8c+ at Malham. Last year, he swung back to trad climbing and completing a series of new routes which culminated in the first ascent of Final Score (E10 7a) at Iron Crag.
His latest route, Lexicon, once again combines both difficulty and seriousness. Neil’s assessment, based in no small part on comments from and discussions with Steve McClure (who has done numerous E10’s as well as Rhapsody E11 and has been on Lexicon on a top-rope) is that the F8b+ climbing on Lexicon, whilst looking at a massive and likely dangerous fall, makes it either a very stern E10 or E11 7a. Fully aware that a consensus grade won’t come until Lexicon sees one or more repeats and that trad grading seems to have become ‘stuck’ in recent years, Neil has opted to grade Lexicon E11 7a; as such, it’s now one of the hardest trad routes in the country.
That Neil continually sets and delivers such extending goals is quite remarkable. The first ascent of Lexicon raises numerous topics; how did he prepare for his latest ascent is the obvious starter and whilst strength and conditioning training are clearly crucial considerations so too are thinks aspects like goal setting, motivation and mental fortitude, to name a few others. Add into that mix that Neil is now 50 years old and has been doing cutting edge routes for 25 years and we have another facet that is really interesting.
In the following Q&A, Keith Sharples talks to Neil to get the minutiae of how he found, prepared for and then finally led Lexicon.
Obviously, it must be very satisfying to add yet another amazing route to your CV and to the catalogue of British trad climbing?
It’s funny how these things go. After climbing Equilibrium (E10 7a) in 2001, I decided to give up headpointing/hard trad permanently. This was mainly because that route pushed me to my absolute limit and I felt that I’d given all I could give to the discipline and I didn’t see any point in continuing to put myself in the firing line for the sake of it. Sure enough, I stuck to this pledge rigidly until the last three years, when a different picture started to emerge. Having pushed my sport climbing grade up a few notches, I felt that this opened the door to doing trad routes that were physically harder, provided the level of boldness wasn’t unreasonable.
Sure enough, having moved to the Lake District, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the tastiest most direct lines on the steeper crags were still up for grabs and to be honest, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt them. So yes, I guess it’s all gone full circle and it feels amazing to be doing routes that allow me to combine all the skills that I’ve gathered over the years.
Let’s kick off with a few basics. Firstly, when did you first become aware of the potential on East Wall and why did it appeal to you?
I think Impact Day is an obvious target for anyone who’s keen for some ‘sport-style’ trad action (featuring steep F7c+/8a face climbing with reasonable protection) and it seemed like a good route to get going on at the start of the season, so I went up there for a recce with Anna Taylor in the spring of last year. We were amazed to discover a major gap up the middle of the headwall between Impact Day and Sixpence. To me, as the eye sees it, this is the way you’d want to climb up this feature and it just seemed like a glaringly obvious target.
Can you describe the line of Lexicon?
Lexicon starts up a clean-cut shallow groove between Impact Day and Sixpence. This groove trends naturally leftwards to a junction with the easier middle part of Impact Day. Then you follow the middle part of Impact Day (past a stacked knife-blade peg) to the horizontal break at two-thirds height. From here Impact Day moves left and traces a sinuous, reverse-question-mark pattern up the left-hand side of the headwall. Lexicon just blasts straight up to gain a faint shallow groove for the final six feet.
Let’s drill down into the difficulty. Can you describe the various sections of the route and how hard they are?
The new bottom groove is around E4/5. The protection isn’t great but the climbing is fun and relatively straightforward. I think it will provide a popular alternative start for Impact Day for those who don’t have a long reach and I was really inspired to see that Hazel Findlay has already repeated the Impact Day this way. The middle part of Impact Day is around F7a and it’s fairly well provided the knife-blade holds. Rumour has it that this peg is pretty poor and I think you have to climb this section presuming the worst, which probably means it’s an E6ish proposition. If you’re aiming for Lexicon then really the lower part represents a warm-up as the difficulties go through the roof as soon as you leave the rest at the break. The climbing is sustained at V8/9 level all the way to the top. I think different climbers will find different sections to be the crux but for me, the last two moves are fractionally harder as they are less about strength and more about accuracy and coordination. These are also the moves that you don’t really want to fall from.
Next then, can you outline the protection and how that relates to the climbing and hence the fall potential?
There’s good gear in the break but after that, there’s no further protection on the headwall and you’re looking at falling the length of the wall if you drop the last two moves. When Steve (McClure) came to look at it, he was ferreting around at the base of the crag and commenting that it was a good thing that the ground sloped steeply downwards. I didn’t suss what he was on about at first but it was pretty chilling when I twigged. I took some test-falls from the fourth-from-last move and went about 65-70ft, including rope stretch. I hit the wall pretty hard and ended up about 20 feet off the ground. From the last move it would be close but you definitely won’t deck, provided the belayer keeps it snug!
The main concern (other than the length of the fall) is that the lower wall isn’t as steep as the headwall, so the higher up the headwall you go, the harder you’ll strike if you fall. There is, potentially a placement for either a skyhook or an RP in a tiny flared pocket at the midpoint in the runout but you would need V11 boulder strength to be able to take a hand off to place it. Even if you were strong enough, the placement is blind, so you wouldn’t be able to assess if it had gone in properly and it would almost certainly rip, so I doubt it would be worth the effort. I think pieces of micro-gear like this can be a distraction and lure you into a false sense of security. Personally, I’d rather know where I stand and look at a bigger fall onto reliable gear. I also think that the hook would break the rock and that something could land on your head.
When I asked you to compare Equilibrium and Final Score last year you said that it was hard to compare routes of different styles but you felt that Final Score took more out of you. You also added; “It [Final Score] required a broader range of skills and you need to have sport fitness as well as bouldering ability and a cool head for the bold sections.” Lexicon must ramp that up even more so?
I still standby Final Score as being the bigger test of all-round ability, even in comparison to Lexicon. With Final Score you have to deal with the crux section of If 6 Was 9, which involves a hard move above marginal gear and then go straight into the new direct finish, which involves a massive runout above bomber gear. There are hard moves, rests and endurance sections on that route so it tests everything, yet it’s still an easier route than Lexicon overall. Lexicon is at least two French grades harder and the sliders for boldness and difficulty are optimised. It’s a simple equation really and you have to sprint up that headwall knowing that the further above your gear you get, the more likely you are to fall off.
Although Lexicon is a trad route in every sense - i.e. it has leader placed protection and it’s situated in a mountain environment, it’s a fair bet that you prepared for your ascent using a mix of old and new techniques?
Haha, I’m not sure if I used any old-school tactics, or at least it depends how far you go back! There were certainly no drinking or pull-up competitions in the Dungeon Ghyll the night before! That said, there was some brick-edge traversing on the side of my house during lockdown, so maybe that counts! I think the original Lakes pioneers such as Brown and Whillans would’ve been appalled if they’d seen what I was getting up to in terms of training and nutrition schemes. It’s funny how when I started climbing back in the early 80s there was this widely held view that training took the fun out of climbing and it was something that you couldn’t admit to doing through fear of scorn. Yet nowadays there are so many who just train and don’t really climb. It’s amazing how the attitude has changed. No doubt, my training campaign for Lexicon was the most in-depth and extensive of my life, yet there wasn’t a second where I lost sight of the end goal. There’s no way I could find the discipline to train like this if it wasn’t heading for a very specific prize.
Let’s talk about your strength work first. It goes without saying that all the obvious aspects such as your finger and all-round strength needed to be on point for Lexicon. Lots of fingerboarding and bouldering then?
Much has been said about strength training for older climbers in recent years and without wishing to go over old ground, let’s be clear that this is by far the most important physical component. Whilst this isn’t the same for everyone, the vast majority of vets (including myself) find that endurance virtually takes care of itself and that maintaining strength is the main challenge. I believe strongly that much of the research info on this topic is misleading, unhelpful and just plain demoralising.
The fact is that in climbing, it isn’t age that makes you weak, it’s stopping strength training! Providing we keep things going and drip-feed the training in small, high-quality doses, not only can we maintain strength but we can improve, and I’ve hit countless PBs in campusing and deadhanging between the ages of 45 and 50. Climbing strength isn’t just about the ability to heave up some massive weight. It’s about coordination and neuromuscular efficiency and I think that with age, you start to understand this better.
I also think it’s a total myth that you’re more likely to get injured with age. I was constantly injured in my 20s and early 30s, yet I haven’t had a classic ‘climbing injury’ (finger/elbow/shoulder) in nearly fifteen years. So yes, hangboarding was a huge part of the build-up for Lexicon. I did a major campaign in lockdown and enjoyed it more than ever. There’s a whole ‘zen thing’ hidden in hangboarding that I hadn’t dialled into before and it’s as much, if not more about the mental side. And sure, as soon as lockdown was lifted, I was back on the Digital Training Board at Kendal Wall with my weight-vest doing my replica boulder problems. I think it’s fantastic the way you can use the interface on these boards to store various different versions of your project (harder, easier, variations on holds and so on). No doubt these facilities have brought something new to the table when it comes to specific training as I don’t think I would have had the mental capacity to memorise all these options previously!
Although Pavey is one of the shorter mountain approaches, it’s still an hour’s walk-in so you’ll need a good level of overall fitness too. What sort of exercises did your conditioning programme include?
I went for a short, easy run virtually every day in lockdown but this was more for mental health and to warm-up for hangboarding than to train cardio. I think I have a good base in this department, left over from obsessive running in my school days (a trait inherited from my Dad) and I’ve also kept up with winter climbing over the years, so have stayed reasonably hill fit. With my campaign for Lexicon, I was extremely mindful of overall time and energy expenditure. If you put too much into one area then you’ll dilute the effects in other areas. I was confident that I could get up to Pavey fairly comfortably so as such, I didn’t want to overcook the cardio component. I did, however, do some major leg strengthening exercises, which were set for me by my physio, Cris Costa. These were designed to enable me to express more power through the footholds on the last couple of crucial moves, which involve high-steps. I did these in conjunction with some ballet drills, which were set for me by dance tutor, Rosie Mackley with the aim of increasing my dynamic mobility and coordination. I’d say that the combined effect of these two components made more difference than anything else. However, this was pretty specific to Lexicon and I don’t necessarily think I’d do this for other routes.
Endurance then. I’m really curious to hear whether you went new or old skool for your endurance training. Did you train lots of mileage on similar angled climbs/walls or on circuits or a combination?
Definitely both. As mentioned, I did some longish stints of easy traversing on the side of my house, partly to toughen up my skin, but mainly to refine a relaxed movement style and become mentally acclimatised to the feeling of being on the route. The aim was simply to become at ease with the sensation of hanging around on a vertical wall as if it were no different to standing on the ground or sitting in an armchair. This required some commitment and time-in-the-saddle but I think I virtually achieved it with the aid of some good tunes! I guess there would also have been some spin-off ‘aero cap’ training benefit here but for me this was secondary. I guess this was old-school methodology but with a new-school twist.
Regarding circuits, I think I took this to a whole new level to prep for Lexicon. My training partner, Adrian Nelhams and I renovated the entire training room at Kendal Wall, with a very specific objective in mind. I developed a new system with colour-coded wooden holds which afforded endless scope, not just for targeting energy systems but for simulating the precise style of a chosen project. In the case of Lexicon, I centred things around two boards: a 15-degree board, which felt identical to the route and a 30-degree board which offered a more intense version of the same thing. The common theme was small crimps and side-pulls with the poorest footholds I could possibly stand on.
For Lexicon, feet-follow circuits on resin holds just wouldn’t have cut the mustard, so I used these evil sloping wooden domes from LX Grips/Hardwood holds. I figured that if I could use footholds that were worse than the ones on the route then not only would I develop a margin from a physical perspective (in terms of core strength, accuracy, coordination and so on) but more importantly from a mental perspective. How many times have we found that the footholds on our project are worse than the ones we used in training and how often has this affected our confidence!? I just couldn’t afford this to happen on Lexicon and for me, the conversation was less about the minutiae of the ratios of different energy systems, and more about training as close as possible to my project both in terms of holds, angle and intensity.
It’s clear that Lexicon has been a major project and that you’ve been training for it for some time. How do you programme your training and peak period? More specifically, how do you assess when it’s time to exit project and training mode to tie in and go for the big lead?
I have a clear timeline for the year mapped out in my head, or at least it’s as clear as it can be, taking into account the British weather. I started training for Lexicon last November with the aim of peaking for a spring sending campaign, which would last from April 1st to the end of May. The only snag was that it was way too cold in April and I had epic problems with split fingertips in the dry conditions. It then rained all through May, which was pretty frustrating and meant that I had to hold my peak and gamble on June. Sure enough, there were a couple of near-perfect days at the start of June but I needed to re-familiarise and by the time I felt ready for the lead, it warmed up and I just missed the window. This meant it was back to the drawing board: a week’s rest and then repeat the cycle.
I trained all the way through July and August, which was a challenge with the kids off school and when all my friends were out climbing. I was aiming for another sending period from September 1st to mid-October but fortunately, I hit my peak slightly earlier than planned, and this coincided perfectly with a dry period in the first week of September, where conditions were just about cool enough. After the frustrating near-miss in spring, when the right day came, I didn’t hesitate and grabbed it with both hands.
Having taken the decision to tie in and go for the big lead, did you have any on-route ‘checks and balances' to go through before fully committing to the headwall?
Yes, for sure and I think these things are extremely helpful on bold trad routes. They’re almost like on-route benchmark tests, which you can use to assess your progress. The first one for me was to climb the bottom wall without getting the slightest bit pumped. Whilst there’s a good rest at the break, you should only be using this because you want to and not because you have to. Next, at the mid-point in the hard sequence on headwall there are two consecutive moves where I need to be able to chalk up. This is partly a test to see if I’m feeling strong enough, but also, you’d be playing a dice game to commit to the final crux moves with no chalk on your fingers. I’d said to myself that if I couldn’t chalk at this specific point, I’d jump off. This would still mean taking a solid 60 footer but it would be much better than risking pressing on. Of course, these tests don’t provide any firm guarantees but they can, at least, help to make things seem more calculated and controlled. Or maybe they just lure you into a false sense of security, who knows!