This September, powered by 3Bears Porridge athlete, Robbie Philipps, set out to climb the Cuillin Ridge, also known as the UK's "Holy Grail" of Alpine-style climbing without equipment.
The world famous ridge dominates Scotland's picturesque Isle of Skye, covering 22 peaks with over 4,000 meters of ascent and 20 miles of rocky terrain. For the average climber, this would take days to complete with the use of ropes and climbing equipment. For this porridge-fuelled athlete and his partner in climb, Culan, it was just another day in the mountains.
We caught up with Robbie shortly after his Cuillin Ridge crossing to find out more about his passion for the sport and how he fuels such crazy adventures. Read on to find out more and watch Robbie and Culan take on the Cuillin Ridge without ropes below. (Don't try this at home!)
Hi Robbie. Can you describe your career as a climber - when did it begin, how did you start & when did you go pro?
My climbing career started when I walked into a dusty, grimy industrial unit in Edinburgh. It had been built into a small bouldering wall and it was there for the next 3 months that I learned how to climb, made new friends, and where the early budding passion for climbing began. The only reason I went was because I was taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award – a scheme for young people to encourage them to try new sports and activities; climbing was one of the options and I thought it looked interesting, so I chose that. My Instructor (Johannes) played a big part in kindling my early passion for climbing; aside from teaching me skills, he took an interest in me as a person, he introduced me to other climbers and helped forge early friendships that would last years after that – in a sense I’d say he introduced me to the power of community in climbing, which to this day I appreciate more than anything else!
I wouldn’t say I was a natural, if anything the opposite; I was a little bit chubby, I found climbing physically very hard and was rarely the best climber in the group. I had to learn how to utilise more techniques and tactics to get to the top rather than physical strength, and actually I’d say these skills have supported me throughout my career.
I’d say the day I went pro was the day I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to climbing, and I still remember the day well – it was the day I decided to give up University (6 weeks in) and focus on what I really loved, climbing. I had no sponsors, no job, no real path to take to become a pro climber, but in my mind I had already decided that I wanted to make climbing my life, and so I did. It wasn’t a financial decision because there was no money in the sport back then, but it was what I felt was right. My mum and dad supported my decisions and said only one thing “So long as you can make money to survive, we’ll support you”. So becoming a pro climber wasn’t just about climbing full-time, but making sure I could also make a living from this, and so I spent the next decade of my life (up until now) trying to find the balance between climbing and work, something I am continually working on – but I think right now I have a good balance!
What kind of climbing do you do and can you describe this discipline?
I would consider myself as an All Rounder. In the climbing world that means you do a bit of everything – Big Wall, Sport Climbing, Bouldering, Trad Climbing, Winter Climbing, etc… Saying that, I am definitely more of a rock climber rather than a mountaineer or ice climber. My passions in climbing lie within the realms of pushing my mental and physical limits on rock faces – this tends to manifest itself in technically challenging and often quite scary rock climbs.
In Scotland there is a very long history in Traditional Climbing (climbing protected by removable protections such as nuts and cams) and strong ethics within this discipline. Although you do get this style in other parts of the world, it’s pretty unique in the UK that we avoid bolting the scary sections (bolts on walls are fixed protection – makes it very safe), making it a real head game at times. Because of this I feel it trains the mind well for going and doing climbs in other parts of the world, because you’re more conditioned that sense of feeling scared and learning to deal with it.
What is it that you like about climbing?
There are lots of things I love about climbing, but if I was to hone in on the two aspects that are the reason I want to do it for the rest of my life, I’d say the problem solving aspect, and the community.
I’ve always been a little bit obsessed by trying to find the easiest way to climb something. I’ve never been the strongest climber, in fact I’ve always found it hard to build strength, so efficiency and problem solving have always been the key to my success. Figuring out the nuances of a hard climb is something I take great pleasure in, and when I unlock the sequence and success is in sight, I feel that is one of the best feelings in climbing, far more than the actual achievement of succeeding on a climb. And the climbing community is something I have always loved, you can rock up at any crag or wall and in a short time make new friends who are only too happy to help you, show you the local classics and guide you around.
Although you didn't manage to break the record for the Cuillin Ridge, can you tell us about some of your other climbing achievements?
- Completing the Alpine Trilogy (First British Climber to do this)
- 3 x Free Climbing El Capitan
- The 5 towers of the Tre Cime De Lavaredo in 15 hours
- 2nd Ascent of “Project Fear” on Cima Ovest
- “Bellavista” on Cima Grande
- First Ascent of “Blood Moon” – 700m Big Wall in Madagascar
I would say that the best place I've ever climbed is probably El Capitan in Yosemite… It’s the best climbing on earth!
Describe your most memorable climbing experience.
There are too many… but one of my most memorable climbing days was with one of my best friends Buz. We went out on a day winter climbing in the Cairngorms – I was new to Scottish Winter at the time. We drove up to the Cairngorm Ski centre arriving around 7am and walked into the crag in a blizzard. The climb we went to do was by no means hard, but the conditions were awful and it took us all day, eventually summiting in a white-out blizzard by headlamp. I hadn’t brought enough food and was starving, but the trudge back to the car was the worst part of the day as we couldn’t see two feet in front of ourselves and were trying our best not to get lost in the mountains. The snow was waist deep which made it even slower, and by the time the blizzard eased off, Buz had gone delirious and was saying he could see the car in front of him when there was nothing but snow. We got back to the car eventually, which, when totalled up, took us around 18 hours from the time we left to getting back! I slept the best I’d ever slept that night and the next day I never left my bed as I was totally broken – I have genuinely never had as arduous a day as that one since!
Wow, that sounds really strenuous. Can you tell us how you train to be a climber and to endure such long days like the one you mentioned before?
I usually train 4 days per week. I used to train more, but I’ve found recovery is more important than volume these days. A training day for me would look like this:
Morning: 1 hour fingerboard session
Afternoon: Strength/endurance session at the climbing wall
My greatest weakness is finger strength – compared to other climbers operating at my level, I have abysmally weak fingers, so I train this A LOT!
I have a really high base level of endurance from training as a youngster so I don’t tend to do too much endurance training, but depending on my goals I might do certain types of endurance training.
Which strength do people underestimate when it comes to climbing?
I think the biggest thing people underestimate in climbing is how hard you can try. It sounds a bit silly as most people think they try hard, but they really don’t. When I say “try hard”, what I mean is, on the wall, trying your hardest to not let go! If you let go, you fall off. It’s common for climbers to become less committed when they start to feel the burn in their forearms, but it’s actually the last thing you should do, if anything you need to become more committed! The best climbers have an ability to dig deep when it really matters and continue to perform at a really high level even when they feel like they should be falling off.
Describe your nutrition. What do you eat pre-, during and post-climb?
Regarding nutrition I’m definitely not super strict, but I always try to eat a balanced diet for energy and recovery.
Pre training (morning): Porridge (ALWAYS!)
During training: High energy snacks, bananas
Post training: Nuts / seeds / bananas
Rest day (morning): Eggs / bacon / salad
Dinner: Always plenty of vegetables with some carbs (pasta) and protein (chicken / beef / pulses / fish)
Why is nutrition important for a climber - what kind of foods do you need to eat to ensure your body and mind is fuelled correctly?
No matter what type of climbing you’re doing, nutrition is really important if you want to climb your best and recover properly. I like to make sure I get a good mix of food that fuel my body, but also that I enjoy. During climbing I feel it's important to eat lightweight and convenient foods which is why bars are quite handy. On expedition it’s even more important to get this combination right as you’re often in places where the types of food you’re used to aren’t there.
And now for the most important question... how do you like your porridge? What's your favourite 3Bears flavour? Do you eat it hot or cold? Prefer overnight oats or porridge or oat bars?
Being Scottish, I love porridge, I was brought up on it! And so I think I always like porridge the way my mum made it for me – boiled with water, sweet, and sometimes with milk through it. Over the last few years I’ve gone without milk, but I still like adding plenty of fruit and nuts and seeds through it.
My favourite 3Bears porridge is most certainly Fruity Coconut, but I also love Cinnamon Apple and Triple Berries too.
Every adventure begins with a bowl of porridge. Share your adventures with us using #PorridgeStories and tagging @3Bears_uk. Gobble up and go get em.