Malcolm Smith on Training, his legacy and Greatest Achievement

Malcolm Smith on Training, his legacy and Greatest Achievement
Malcolm Smith, Photo: Rich Heap

Malcolm Smith, Photo: Rich Heap

If Jerry Moffat and Ben Moon set the British climbing scene alight, then Malcolm Smith poured gasoline on that fire. After bursting into the spotlight in the early 90s as a teenager he remained at the top for over two decades. Famous for his intense training regimes he inspired a generation to push themselves on the training boards that were now common place in cellars across the country. If you go looking for him online you'll only find a handful of images and the odd video. Unlike many of his peers the unassuming Scotsman shunned the media limelight, choosing instead to let his achievements speak for him.  

It's easy for other people to just point at the grades, but looking back over your career, what do you see as your defining ascents - the ones that truly stand out to you as progressing your climbing at the time?

The first of significance to me was my first 5:10b, 'Flying Fish' at Bowden doors, Northumberland. It was a boulder problem really but I was pleased to get the tick. After than the next big leap was in 1990 with 'Fated Path' in Glencoe, a poorly bolted French 5.13a. 1991 brought 'Magnetic Fields' 5.13d at Malham. I then had a big jump to 'Hubble' at Raven Tor in '92, now considered possibly the world's first 5.14d route. The hardest climbing I've done is on my two traverses at Kyloe In The Woods in '94. These are both unrepeated, mainly because of the difficulty but also because those capable would rather invest the time in a 5.14d route. The 'big link' in Parisella's Cave in Wales was so satisfying and represented a high level of power endurance to me. In recent times,meaning within the last 10 years,my V14 boulder at Dumbarton 'Gut Buster' and also unrepeated proposed 5.14d 'Hunger' at the Anvil in Argyll are memorable. Competition results are the most telling given that you have to perform on the day against all comers. I was four time British Bouldering Champion and runner up in the Boulder World Cup of 2002, I also won a few one-off open competitions. These results mean as much or more to me as the outdoor stuff. I dislike crowds of people and am a total introvert but I fought my shyness and the climbs and I still did well. 

So many athletes in other sports thrive on being extroverts and their confidence in front of crowds feeds it. Yet climbing can be a great escape for many introverted people. How did you deal with the shyness you mention when it came to those crowds and competing? Did you use certain techniques and did it feel like you were battling with the weight of it as well as the other competitors?

Climbing is a great sport for all character types. There's so many facets to it and there's no need to compete unless you're competitive. I was driven to prove I was good so I chose to deal with competitions. I had to get really psyched up and aggressive, as if I was going to war. If the first few climbs went well I was ok and the nerves settled, if I didn't climb well then the fight turned to flight and I wanted out of it. The best competitors tend to be extroverts, showmen who are totally in their element and loving it in front of a crowd. Extroverts thrive on stage, introverts tend to freeze and become overly self conscious to the detriment of their performance. My only mental technique was knowing that I was stronger than every other competitor, that helped.

Where do you think that drive came from, to push past your fears and be the best? Did you have to sacrifice a lot from everyday life, that others around you were doing, to get there? 

I think that needing to be good is a character flaw, it's ego. Competition and grades are about social status. I don't want to be part of a hierarchy or scene anymore, it's weak. Strength is about doing your thing for you and not seeking approval. So I think that what I 'achieved' in the past with climbing was an attempt at seeking social status, a way of feeling good about myself. Of course at the time I sacrificed everything, when normal people were slotting into jobs and building careers. These days I've got my own goals and I don't measure my success in grades or my position on social media. I've become less socially needy and much stronger.

I had the mindset that I was stronger than the route.

As an introvert that must have been a strange position to be in, your climbing helping confidence yet putting you in the spotlight. That obsession to succeed is something which links all top athletes. During your early career with your drive coupled with the intense dieting you were doing at the time for the likes of your ascent of Hubble, were there ever moments were you felt you'd pushed it too far and it was badly effecting the rest of your life? 

I think it was good for my confidence but it's easy to let past achievements define you. It's a common thing for athletes to struggle to find their new identity after the party is over and it's so easy to become attached to that status. At the time of my dieting, and weight is so important in climbing, I wasn't effected other than being a bit grumpy. Now that I'm into lifting weights I realize that the lightness required for hard climbing takes away from every other measure of strength. Climbing hard requires a very low body weight with no leg or 'pressing' muscles. This low muscle bulk would help with being a jockey or maybe a distance runner but in all other measures of strength it doesn't work. I think a climber could get away with muscles if they were very short and hence light, similar to gymnasts. Adam Ondra and Alex Megos are extremely slight and this boyish physique is what's needed. People cite Chris Sharma as being a bigger build, but he's still around 160 lbs I reckon. I don't think I'd sacrifice general strength anymore to be a hard climbers build, not at my height of 5'11". I need to be under 154 lbs to climb hard, I've not got Sharma's forearms, and to get to that weight I'd have to loose 22 lbs of muscle and abandon my other strength goals.

Photo: Ray Wood

Photo: Ray Wood

It's probably fair to say that your approach to training had a huge impact on the generation of climbers who followed you. How much of that approach was influenced by the likes of those around you such as Ben and Jerry, compared to it coming from the relative isolation you had in Scotland from the hub of British climbing - Sheffield? 

The Sheffield scene and the likes of Ben and Jerry had a big influence on me from '92 onwards, when I first lived there. My most formative training happened from '88 to '92 though, before I experienced Sheffield and I worked most of it out for myself. As a teenager I read a lot about training and bought body building books and magazines. I'd also seen an article called 'Cellar Dwellers' in a climbing magazine about the underground Sheffield training scene. One of my early influences was Rick Campbell, an Edinburgh climber who built a board in his flat and glued on bits of Rock for holds. I wanted one too but ended up making wooden holds instead. I built my first board in 1990, before that it was fingerboards, weights and traversing along Dunbar's sea walls. In a way I think the isolation helped, as my best work seems to get done when I'm on my own with no distractions. I actually found Sheffield a bit overwhelming. I lived there in stints from '92 until 2002 often running back to Scotland to recoup and focus more clearly on my own training before returning for another intense bout.

You left a legacy of not just hard training mentality, but also some incredible problems for the next generation. Monk Life has become a classic testpiece for those who have taken those methods and new techniques to the next level in the UK, a pilgrimage as it were. Did that feel like a career defining problem for you at the time? The name, the location, the basic rawness of the it seems to speak volumes about your climbing. What went in to getting that done?

It was good to get Monk Life done but also a bit of a relief. I'd tried it on and off for 10 years using the same duff sequence then Andy Earl found a better way. Within a couple of days of using the improved sequence I'd done it. I don't think it's as hard as some of my other stuff and in fact a local hotshot Mickey Page did it multiple times in a day for photos. It's such a classic problem visually though, and as is often the case with sandstone it looks impressively hard. At the time I didn't have to do any special training for it, it was well within my level. 

With that level in mind, was there anything you ever wished you'd done when you were at your peak - unfinished business?

I'd love to have done some more long hard routes. I think I was capable of doing more 5.14d's but it didn't work out. I tried 'Northern Lights' at Kilnsey when it was a project and latterly 'Rainshadow' at Malham, but did neither. 20 years ago at my lightest I think I had the fitness needed. My build has changed now so as I said earlier I can't go back. In general though I feel I got a lot out of myself and applied my obsessive streak to productive use. 

You spent a couple of decades at the top of the sport, looking back on what you learned from that experience both training and on projects what advice would you give to the next generation?

I don't feel qualified to give advice to the next generation because they're much better. I'd like to take their lead and suggest to myself 20 years ago that I do more circuits in training. Of course the facilities now are so much better, long steep climbing walls etc. All I had in my teens was a few sheets of plywood with wooden holds, which by the way only trains one type of strength and does little for technique. I suppose the monastic dedication goes a long way but in my day that level of training was considered unusual, in climbing now it's the norm.

Those boards you trained on were perfectly captured by Ben Pritchard and Rich Heap in the movie Splinter, where you climbed your problem mimicking Hubble. Training is one thing, but executing on problems and routes is an entirely different skill which separates the best climbers from the rest. How did you put yourself in the right mindset to complete your projects?

I had the mindset that I was stronger than the route. What worked for me was hold specific training to reduce any crux moves down to a manageable level. Once the moves felt easy compared to what I was doing in training then that gave me a big psychological boost. I also wrote everything down and tried to get an improvement each session on the climb, whether a bigger link or achieving the same link more times in a session. Climbing is great in that the technical improvement aspect on new moves allows for a perceived strength gain for weeks. With weights I've discovered that genuine strength gains take a long time once you master the movement. Another thing that works psychologically is losing weight for a project, if you pull on 2 pounds lighter then you immediately feel great. That's maybe not a long term solution but it works in the short term.

Many climbers of all levels suffer from frustration and doubt on projects, which deeply effects their performance - what advice would you give to anyone going through it?

I think most climbers do, I did myself often. It's important to keep chipping away no matter how stressful it is at times. I had long term boulder projects but luckily most of my routes went down without too long of a siege. Routes are more stressful and long term projecting a route is hard, I experienced a bit of that on those routes in Yorkshire but I gave up on them. I don't suppose it makes sense to get very stressed and focused until you're close to doing the climb,until then there's a lot of fun and relaxation to be had by making small improvements. Also at times you need to feel the stress and do it anyway, I did that all the time on hard red points, it's worth it in the end.

To rectify the lack of online photos we have put together a Malcolm Smith retrospective photo essay, with the help of a few photographers who were with Malc back in the day.