Chris Webb Parsons first made his mark by establishing Australia’s first grade 34 route:White Ladder at Nowra in 2004. A few years later he made the first repeat of the ground-breaking The Wheel of Life “boulder” problem in the Grampians. He has spent the last four years overseas — climbing and competing in World Cup bouldering competitions; and just recently stood on the podium at Arco. Chris has been representing Australia and doing us proud.
When I heard Chris was back in the country after four years away, I wanted to find out what was up. So, I jumped in the Onsight mobile, fanged it to Canberra, caught up with Chris for a boulder at Black Range. Later Monique and I chatted with Chris via Skype and we put these questions to him (13 January 2014). I found it interesting that without the same level of support that some similar world-class climbers have enjoyed, Chris has had to make huge sacrifices — as well as the huge amount of commitment and dedication — to get to where he is today. But first he had to “Believe it”.
Onsight Firstly tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? When and how did you get into climbing?
Chris I was born in England in 1985 and moved to Australia with my mum and Dad and sister when I was two or three years old. Grew up here in Canberra. I was always very active playing a lot of AFL football at the time, went to the climbing gym as sort of a bit of cross- training with a girlfriend. Yeah, that night went out and bought my first pair of climbing shoes and chalk bag and that was it. I quit football and just went for it.
Onsight What did you like so much about climbing?
Chris Well I was pretty good at football, I was playing for State, but climbing I was naturally good at it. And it felt good to have the older guys in the gym being impressed by me. Also the physical aspect of it, in football I wasn’t always the biggest guy, so it felt nice to do something where being big didn’t matter.
Onsight How old were you then?
Chris 15. End of 1999.
Onsight So you first off started climbing around Canberra and Nowra?
Chris Yeah that’s right, the first time on rock was out at Ginninderra Falls on top-rope and I was petrified, totally scared, didn’t fully enjoy it. I liked the gym climbing more, I didn’t know that rock climbing existed… then I got into rock climbing through Duncan Brown, he took me to Nowra on those descent gully walls. That was like the first real taste of it.
Onsight So then in 2004 at Nowra you did White Ladder which was Australia’s first 34. Tell us about White Ladder.
Chris White Ladder had a lot to do with how fast I was improving as a climber I think. I had this strategy, because I was living in Canberra I would train all week, and then going to Nowra most weekends to climb. I would try White Ladder on the Saturday and I would never try it on the Sunday. Sunday was the day to try other routes. I did a lot of first ascents and hard ascents in Nowra and worked my way through the routes in the Blue Mountains and especially at Nowra because I was training for White Ladder. White Ladder was more than just a process of climbing that particular route, it made me achieve so much more.
Onsight So when you did it, did that change the way you viewed yourself as a climber?
Chris Not really. Unfortunately in Australia it was at a time where… you know we had Ben Cossey, he had put up Mechanical Animals and it had seemed like there was a bit of a squabble, almost a competition about who is going to take climbing to the next level in our generation. It was Ben Cossey, Lee Cossey and myself, Garth Miller was maybe in the previous generation and he’d already pushed it so far, and then it was like up to the next generation to take it to the next level. 34 wasn’t heard of yet in Australia and so putting the grade “34” on it was like – unsure. I remember people saying to me, “it can’t be 34 come on”, and “really you haven’t climbed that grade before”. It was a brilliant feeling climbing the actual route but also without travelling and knowing what else is out there, at that level, it was hard for me to say if I’d climbed that grade… At that stage in my climbing it wasn’t in my vision to push Australian climbing to the next level, I was just doing what I was doing — and it just happened that at the time it was the hardest route, potentially the hardest route, in Australia.
Onsight That was 10 years ago, and although there are several Australian climbers now who have climbed that grade, no one has climbed anything significantly harder – grade wise. One thing that’s curious is that none of the 34’s here have ever had a second ascent. Do you think that’s just because the strongest climbers here are more interested in doing first ascents?
Chris Yeh, Australia has a lot of potential still you know. So maybe that’s the case. I know a lot of people have been trying White Ladder still and I’m not quite sure why it hasn’t had a second ascent. Maybe it’s because Australia is so far away from the rest of the climbing world we are isolated, maybe it’s not so much in people’s minds to up the standards, they’re happy just pottering along progressing in their own little world. Maybe that’s got something to do with it, I don’t know…
Onsight So you did The Wheel of Life in 2007, you did the second ascent yeah? Is there anything you can tell us about that, at the time it was graded V16 (now more like V15 or 9a+) and was considered one of the hardest boulder problems in the world.
Chris Yes, that was the second ascent. With The Wheel of Life (WoL) it was never a mental block in regards to the number. I remember going to the Grampians when I was 15 years old and going up to the Hollow Mountain Cave when the WoL hadn’t been climbed and it was the usual, “Wow look at this line”. They talk about it in the classic Australian bouldering movie EOS, this incredible line going out this gorgeous golden cave and how everything was there for it to be done. I was going there as a young kid, and trying all the moves and sections, way back then when I was 15 years old. Then over the years I sort of forgot about it because it was such a future goal, no it was a dream — not even a goal. And then having gotten a lot stronger over the years and having Dai Koyamada come out and do it. It was like “wow man, that’s awesome, it’s cool it’s been done” and then I actually went down there… and was linking sections and thinking “maybe this is going to be possible for me as well”. So then that dream became a goal. It was a full process. I was route climbing at the time and I was trying it but I was actually getting tired, not so pumped, so I knew I needed to get stronger for the moves to feel easier for me to be able to do the route. So, I guess, the WoL could be responsible to a point as to why I am bouldering more often now than route climbing. Which is crazy, because it’s a long problem, it’s essentially a route. But I needed to be stronger to be able to do the WoL so I started bouldering more, went back and I was stronger all the moves felt easier and eventually I did it.
Onsight In doing the Wheel of Life, did that give you confidence to step out into the international arena?
Chris Yeah it did. What happened was when I was trying the WoL I was really close, I’d fallen off the last move about 16 times. But I had to go back to Sydney to work. I remember sitting in the Pitch gym (now ECAT) and Mark Withers came over to me and said, “so do you think you can do it?” and I said to him, “Yeah, I think I can do it, I just need to go down” and he said “well how about this weekend? I’ll drive you down there for the weekend. If you think you can do it because I want to film it”… So we drove down… and Christian Core was there from Italy – I’d hung out with him a bit in Europe, he was a huge inspiration to me. And I warmed up and on my first attempt, just before I was going into the final crux move, where I had fallen so many times, Christian Core said one thing, he told me to “Believe it”. That’s all he said, “believe it” and I had a moment of rest I took that comment, you know, believe it, yeah I can do this you know, and then I did it. I did The Wheel of Life. So I got down and thanked Christian. And Christian afterwards he told me, he said, “Chris I have seen many climbers in my time but I see the most potential in you that I have seen in a long time in a climber”. That coming from Christian Core was huge. From those words that Christian said, and “believe it”, and climbing The Wheel of Life, yeah, it did make me realise that I… can push it and take it to the next level for sure.
Onsight So then you started going overseas after that?
Chris I went to Switzerland… to Magic Wood and did the third ascent of Never Ending Story, a V14 and I think that was the first V14 outside of Australia by an Australian. That again opened my eyes.
Onsight So that was your first trip, but now you’ve been away from Australia for four years. Can you briefly tell us where you have lived and what you’ve been going?
Chris For the last four years I’ve been basing myself in Sheffield and moving between America and Europe with the final goal to move to America which fell though for personal reasons, so right now I’m back in Australia and looking for a new home base. During that time I was generally bouldering, I haven’t pushed myself on a rope since leaving Australia really.
Onsight So you were going in the bouldering World Cups? You did them all?
Chris In 2011 that was the first hit out, being a bit more serious with the competitions and actually trying to do well and I came in 6th place, I made the finals in Vail. In 2012 was a bit of a rough year for me, I didn’t do that well. I was training specifically for the competitions; I put all my eggs into one basket. I had Chris Core train me, I had a proper trainer, didn’t go out so much that year, I just trained for the World Cup. And it just didn’t go well, I was totally burnt out, I over trained for them, it was definitely a hard year. Then 2013 was a really hard year, I was due to migrate to America, on a permanent basis, so I needed a lot of money to do that so I sacrificed the competitions to work. I went over to work out on oil rigs in Trinidad in the Caribbean. After that I got back to England and I was due to go to American, but things didn’t work out in my relationship. I had nothing to do except for one World Cup.
Onsight Tell us about the training you did on the oil rigs. Sounds like that actually worked out well for you?
Chris Basically it was one month on, one month off, then one on. During that time there was nothing to do, no climbing around, so I just took a portable hang board with me and said to myself right “I’m going to see how good a shape I can get into during this time”… So I took my little hang board into the gym after I’d finish work each day and train, train and train… just hanging on a little wooden edge, making up lots of training routines, just became a total masochist for training and got back and was in exceptional physical shape. My finger strength had increased, everything had increased, I could hold on to anything, but one thing I couldn’t do — I couldn’t bend my arm. I knew I was strong cause I did a couple of V14’s in England. Then I went back to Trinidad again for another month and trained strength again and just incorporated bending my arm. So I just did thousands of pull ups on a little edge, and a load of basic training. Then I got back to England, off the oil rig, and after a week of climbing I was in incredible shape. I went to the World Cup in Munich and qualified in 6th place going into the semi-final and ended up in 12th place… the style problems they didn’t suit me. But I was confident that I was in the best shape of my life.
Onsight And then you went to Arco and placed 3rd?
Chris Yes. I tore my hamstring in Munich, I had three weeks in between comps and I managed to do some really hard boulders up to V14 during that time. Went to Arco, and even with a torn hamstring, just felt good. I remember a commentator coming up to me and asking “do you feel good?” and I was able to say “Yes I feel good” and actually believe that I could do well. Did really well in that, came in in third place. That was a super proud moment for me and my climbing. Especially my life at that time, I was having a really hard time in my personal life, so to achieve that was really great.
Onsight Yeah, I imagine it would’ve felt pretty good to be standing on the podium after sticking it out for so many years and having mixed results?
Chris Yes for sure. I guess the thing that’s come out of everything is knowing how much personal sacrifice and how much shape I have to be in to be able to stand on the podium, I wouldn’t have realised that if it had come easy.
Onsight I imagine a climber of your calibre would have no shortage of financial sponsorships? But actually I know if hasn’t been easy. How have you been able to afford all of this?
Chris This will be the first year actually that I could say that I am a professional climber. This year in 2014 I have signed on with Edelrid. In the past it’s been a real struggle. That is a big reason why mentally competitions in the past have also been a struggle. And going sitting under a boulder somewhere in Switzerland… and spending six days on it, or whatever, has been a real struggle. For instance, if I go to a competition in China, if I fly half way around the world, pay for my food, my accommodation, my transport, out of my own pocket and then have the pressure, its pressure that I put on myself “you’ve got to do well Chris, this has cost you thousands of dollars to be here if you don’t do well it’s all a waste”. You could take it the other way, and say if I had a company like Edelrid who will pay me to do these competitions, and now I feel pressure because what if I don’t do well? But I think, for me personally, it’s been mentally hard not being supported…
…I remember a time in Magic Wood it was our last night of the trip and we’d all bouldered really well. Dave Graham, Daniel Woods, Chad Greedy and a bunch from Austria and Germany was there. We were sitting around a fire all talking about where we were going next. They were going to South Africa, here, there, etc, and then it was like — where are you going Chris? “I’m going back to Australia to work. I need to pay off my credit card.”
Onsight Given that your results were as good as those guys, I imagine that could have been frustrating. Do you think these difficulties you’re talking about are why we don’t see more Australians going overseas and attempting to cut it on an international level?
Chris Yes, I think the calibre of Australian climbers is huge and there are definitely climbers out there that could be noted as world-class climbers and be out there with the best guys. But maybe the reason is because, generally, Australian climbers don’t have that support. But I don’t believe that I would have got that support if I hadn’t gone and pushed it and taken that challenge – and thrown all of my eggs into that basket…
Onsight I’ve been following you via your blog and on social media for some years now. You seem like someone who bares all, figuratively and literally. Talking about your downs as well as your ups. Not many other Australian climbers are doing that. Do you think that’s part of the Australian culture? Are you doing it because you have to (sponsors) or because you want to?
Chris …it’s part of being a professional athlete in any sport, you have to self-promote. Whether that’s viewed upon as not being cool in Australia… I guess maybe that’s why, right now, I’m perhaps the only professional Australian climber — because I do do those things. The social media has become a part of any professional athlete’s life. It’s something you have to do. The reason why I have been so open, and maybe not so squeaky clean as others, is I guess I’m trying to remain true to my Australian roots and being a bit more out there.
…At the end of the day we are all human… I’m really open with all my training programs and what I’m doing. I’m not hiding anything, I’m just open. That’s a personal thing… but that’s who I am.
Onsight Speaking of personal things… I was taking some close-ups of your hand and this kinda freaked me out when I first noticed it… Can you tell us about your fifth finger?
Chris Oh, my thumb. I use it like another finger. When I first started climbing I was reading about how to get stronger, about finger boarding etc. I figured out that there was a lot of strength in my thumb and I remember sitting in school, my maths class, and I was just mucking around on the edge of the desk and I was playing with my fingers and I had my thumbs on the edge of the desk and I was like I wonder if you could use that as a crimp? So I began twisting my thumb and really stretching them, every day, stretching them. I remember they were really hurting. But I just kept crimping the edge of the desk and began to use it on certain holds.
Onsight You heard it here first folks. But I’d just like it noted that Onsight Photography does not endorse kids mutilating their fingers in maths class.
Onsight Is there any one thing that you’ve learnt in your travels that you would like to see here in Oz?
Chris I’d like to see an adult team put together, supported through sponsorship and travel overseas. I think that would be the one thing that would push the sport forward and almost bring it into a professional realm. Climbing doesn’t revolve around competition climbing, it’s almost its own entity now, but it’s definitely a part of it – so that mainstream people would see and in turn develop our sport more. I would love to see a World Cup here in Australia but before that I would like to see a fully supported adult team that are going in all of the comps.
Onsight Well Chris, I think it’s really inspiring to see an Australian climber cutting it internationally in whatever field that is. Thanks for representing Australia. And thanks for your time and candid thoughts today. I wish you every success this year and hope you have a blast!
Thanks everyone for reading my blog. I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below and if you’d like to see more interviews like this.
And for the training junkies out there, here is Chris’ hang board program video.