There's no doubt that Ned Feehally has left his mark on the climbing world. The unassuming Sheffield-based climber has put up a wide array of first ascents and repeated many of the world's hardest boulder problems, and is part of an elite club of those that have flashed Font 8b+ (V14). Alongside fellow British climber Dan Varian he has also established one of the strongest brands in the sport: Beastmaker.
You launched Beastmaker nearly a decade ago. What made you first decide to design those early fingerboards?
At the time, all the existing fingerboards just weren't what we wanted. Either a poor choice of holds, or a harsh resin texture. You'd need a number of boards to get all the holds and variation you needed, and even then they would be resin and quite unpleasant to train on. We had both been independently making our own fingerboards for a while, so we knew what we wanted and it made sense to team up and make exactly what we thought would work.
At the time it felt like you brought a structure and standard to hangboarding which had been lacking before, as well as making a better design. Did you set out with a goal to change the way people viewed it as a training method?
We didn't particularly set out to change people's views on training. We realised that fingerboards were a fairly underused piece of equipment at the time. But we didn't expect to change people's ideas about finger strength training. We made the fingerboard for ourselves first and foremost. But as people started to see/use them they also jumped on board, and it snowballed from there. I think people have embraced fingerboarding now as an important part of training for climbing. I'm not sure whether we had a part to play in that, or whether it would have happened naturally as more climbers started to take training more seriously.
It's interesting that you made them for yourselves to start. How did that change the way your developed them? Did you do a lot of tests and refinements on the design?
After spending some time discussing fingerboard designs we both independently made what we thought would be the best possible fingerboard to train on (albeit very badly, by hand!). It turned out that we both made something very similar (what would become the Beastmaker 2000). We were really happy with most of the design so I drew a CAD model of it so we could tweak it and iron out a few imperfections. After that we got the first one off the CNC machine, and it's remained pretty much unchanged since then.
Did the gains you were making at the time tell you that you'd got the design right? How did the Beastmaker improve your level at the time?
I think the Beastmaker allowed me to train my fingers way more efficiently than I had been able to beforehand, and as a result I started to notice big gains. Back in 2007/8 I was probably climbing about Font 8a (V11). After a year or two of really specific finger strength training on the Beastmakers I was climbing up to 8b (V13) and I'd made a final at a World Cup (compared to nowadays the level was a lot lower; it was a lot easier back then!) We have never really questioned the design. Once we started to produce the boards we got really positive feedback from a lot of people, and we loved training on them ourselves. A few years down the line, I still think both of our fingerboards are brilliant, and I don't think anyone else has managed to produce a better board yet! I love training on them and there isn't a single thing I'd change on either of them. We continue to get really positive feedback from people across the globe, which is great to see.
Beastmaker hangboards have had a big impact globally on the climbing scene. Visit any gym and you'll likely find one. You recently released some new training crimps. Are you looking to expand into further products?
We're really pleased with the feedback we have got about the Micros so far. People are loving them. We have some other ideas in the pipeline at the moment, but I don't want to give too much away for now...
You've managed to make a living through building a business in climbing. As climbing continues to grow and the climbing startup scene develops what advice would you give to anyone looking to do the same?
When we started Beastmaker we weren't really sure it was viable as a business. We were more interested in making the perfect fingerboard for ourselves and our friends. I think we were fortunate to get things going just as climbing was starting to get really popular, and as a result we have been fairly successful, and continue to grow. The only advice I can offer is to make a unique product/service and keep the quality high. And with a bit of luck you'll have success!
Since then your climbing seems to have gone to a completely different level. What problems over the last few years stand out to you as defining points in your progress?
That's a tough question. I can think of a few problems but they reflect progress in terms of getting stronger as well as learning how to be a better rock climber. In terms of strength alone it would have to be things on my board, unfortunately! But the problems that reflect my progress as a climber include: Karma in 2010. It suits me fairly well and definitely wasn't the hardest thing I'd done at the time, but it was my ultimate goal since I started climbing. When I did it, it felt like climbing was something I was really starting to get my head around. Suddenly a load of other boulder problems felt a lot more possible than before.
More recently, probably climbing Jour du chasse and Méchanique Élémentaire on the same day (2015). I had injured my ankle not long before, and spent a couple of months pretty much exclusively training in the cellar on my board. When I emerged I felt like I'd made huge progress in my basic strength. Fortunately I'd not totally forgotten how to climb, and I managed to have a pretty productive year after that. For the first time I had confidence in my strength. Up until that point I felt like my strength was my weakness—my ability to figure out the best way to climb things was always something I relied on. After this I felt like my strength was actually a decent attribute! Injuries are always frustrating, but it can be great to force you into mixing things up a bit.
How key are goals to you in your training and climbing?
I think it's good to have goals, but if you get too fixated on them they can spoil the fun a bit. On the rocks I tend to have pretty relaxed goals which would be nice to achieve, but at the same time I don't mind too much if I fail. A lot of rock climbing (weather and conditions) is out of your control anyway! I think the same goes for training. It's hard to predict how strong you'll be from session to session so it can be useful to play it by ear a bit more than being very regimented. But I do have specific long term goals which I always try to work towards.
You had a goal to flash Font 8b (V13) and recently flashed 8b+ (V14) in Rocklands. Can you talk us through how you prepared yourself to flash at that level and how you executed it?
Flashing 8b only became a goal after I realised that it was definitely possible for me. I came close a couple of times then actively started thinking about it. I don't do any real preparation as I think I climb at my best when I'm not thinking about it too much. Flashing hard boulders is a great challenge as you need the physical ability, but mainly you have to be able to understand climbing well enough to make your strength count.
I flashed Trust Issues by just rocking up and pulling on! From looking at it I knew it was the sort of thing I'd get on well with. Fortunately Dave Graham was on hand to shout the beta when I started to look lost, but aside from that I just climbed. The crux was not messing up when I realized I was about to do it! I guess the preparation for that was just 20 years of climbing and training all coming together at the right time. I was lucky to find the perfect boulder on a decent day, and not mess anything up.
It's interesting that you attribute a lot of those gains to time on your home board. How important do you think training on a good board is to improving strength?
I think boards are incredibly useful. At least if you have a decent board with a decent set of holds on it. On a board you can effectively create a caricature of hard climbing moves—hand holds that are hard to use, and poor footholds on a steep wall. If you're careful to focus on the right kinds of holds and moves you can make huge gains in overall strength. A big advantage of training on a board is that they are fun to climb on, so training rarely feels like a chore.
I'm not that strict with structure. I generally have a few different sessions that I try to fit in per week, and I try to spread them out sensibly (ish). These sessions vary throughout the year depending on what exactly I'm training for, but they mostly include fingerboarding and climbing on my board. When you're fitting your training around everything else in life—job, friends, family, other hobbies etc. I think it's a lot easier to train hard if you're willing to freestyle your training to some extent, and not stick to a concrete structure.
You've built a few boards at gyms across the U.K. A lot of climbing gyms lack a decent one. What do you think is important in the way you set them up?
I think the most important thing is to get the holds right. A nice selection of wooden holds is a lot better to train on than plastic holds. The last thing you want is for your sessions to be limited by skin. It's useful to have a good spread of hold types in every area of the board. The best way to ensure you get this right is to put your holds on the board slowly and add to them bit by bit. Boards that have had all their holds thrown on in one go often have a lot of badly placed/redundant holds which just don't get used. It's also important to have a good foothold selection. Having identical footholds helps you to avoid milking a couple of good feet on every problem. We tend to make symmetrical boards. I really like being able to mirror problems; it helps you to identify weak areas, and it also means you only have to make up half the number of problems!
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