The Full Johnny Dawes Interview
Climber, Author, Artist, Teacher, Thinker; Hoxton, England
Fiercely intelligent, iconoclastic, dancing to the eternal vibrations of the rock that the rest of us just pull past —Johnny Dawes, 43, the irrepressible English climber who brought solid E8 (Gaia, an E8 6c at Black Rocks) and the world’s first E9 (Indian Face, E9 6c, 150 feet of technical, 5.12c death at Clogwyn D’ur Arddu) to the world during his manic blitzkrieg in 1986. Today Dawes, who continued to bust standards open into the late 1990s, climbs (and well), though he spends much of his rock time imparting his singular knowledge, in his so-called Master Class seminars. He’s the Stone Monkey, the Leaping Boy, Off his Head, Bold as Brass Monkey. And he’s the Dawes. (Visit johnnydawes.com for more.) —Matt Samet
Tell be a bit about your climbing teaching, the Master Class…
Ordinarily, I would probably see people climb around first, to see how they are. And to see whether or not my prejudices are actual or not. If you bring them out into the open straight away, then you have the chance to disperse something. Certain people are easier to teach. You warm to some naturally and not others.
Basic, the jewel in the crown — the way it’s actually grown, sometimes I don’t share that with people till we’ve done it for a while, until somebody’s less resistant. If somebody’s resistant, it’s such a simple idea, that it’s to their disadvantage if they’ve already come across it. It’s better if they’ve tried other things, which imply that you can do that one thing.
How long do you evaluate someone for?
Not very long. The way someone sits down on a chair gives you lots of information, the way they walk or the way they stand. Whether they clean their shoes. If somebody cleans their boots well, you can tell that they care about the rock and that they care themselves, because, obviously, if you stand on a smear and your foot’s clean, it’s both good for the rock and good for you. And if you stand on the foothold in the direction that gives that foothold the longest life expectancy, you’re also going to get the most grip out of that hold. So the historical is the momentary as well in that way.
Tell me a bit about your relationship with the rock.
Well, it’s 29 years of climbing now.
Because I couldn’t really reach holds, I had to try and work out how to hang on worse holds, or how to use holds below to get holds above. So I had to use quickness. When I used quickness, I think it squeezed out the reflections a bit quicker than it would have otherwise been done — speed’s very… you’ve gotta use intuition if you’re gonna be quick.
And also, when I’ve tried to do moves, I worked out — “I can’t use that hold. How can I move my body to make sure I can use that hold.” In other words, there’s been an analytical/reflective part that’s gone on as well. I was noticing that my body has to do it w/o thought when it does it. There’s been a reflective side to it, and an experiential side to it. This is really the coming together of the two.
You don’t have to instruct your liver how to do its job, and the body’s the same way. Our body is something that we’ve landed in, and bit-by-bit you can allow your emotions and your thinking to inform the way that your body works with your mind, so you can make it really, really fast. An interesting experiment is to try and move before you move — which sounds like gobbledeegook — it is gobbledeegook! If you do that, your capacity to hit a hold, you feel the coming shape coming up, and then you wait, and you wait, and you move. If you can sort of move before you move, it has the effect of you moving really fast!
Did you do any bouldering during your last visit to Boulder?
I was in Boulder mall the other day, and there’s a lot of polished boulders that the kids like to climb on. And the kids were really very interested in climbing all these different boulders. Incidentally, they’re very respectful of each other, and they didn’t take risks either. They were very careful about what they did, and were very enthusiastic. I was climbing on there, as well, and they didn’t think it was weird that I was climbing on there. They didn’t ask me what I was doing or anything, they just… it was like a load of birds on some rocks. I was trying stuff in bare feet, cuz I really like that — you can feel the break-away of it and you actually learn what makes grip, particularly on smooth surfaces. If you rotate your body, if your rotating one hand, and you stop that hand, the gyroscopic effect of that will fix into whatever direction you stop moving your hand in, and that can product an effective shallowing in a foothold. So, say a foothold’s five degrees off being usable — you can rotate your hand at 50mph per hour and stop it, and push it parallel even though it’s up the body, you can push it into the foot.
There’s ways of marshalling your body to make strange types of grip for very small amounts of time. And if your understanding of what your body does is really crisp, you can pull off moves that aren’t possible within a straightforward rock-climbing model. Boulderers know this, because they’ll swing and catch a sloper and then catch another sloper, and they’ve never really hung properly on the middle sloper. They’ve done the moves…
Do you climb much alone?
I do climb a lot on my tod. I do like to climb at crags I’ve not been to before and do the established climbs, and I like climbing a lot when I go climbing, and at a certain point I think, it’d be nice to climb something hard, and something comes to my attention, and I’ll try that. But I’m not as light as I used to be and I’m not really super-keen to become… I think my lifestyle would have to change a little bit for me to want to really climb hard again. It’d be interesting to see whether that happens.
As you get older, the relative importance of being strong or fit is different from being content and responsible. You start to know that things are more viable and more useful to do, and this is one of the things I want to do is to share how climbing has helped me become more aware of what a jerk I can be… or that kind of thing.
Where are you living these days?
Live in London, in a place called Hoxton. I like to rollerblade around and ride my bike in the park. And I’m writing a book as well about my climbing life.
What about climbing these days?
On the sandstone, in Kent. I really like going down there and probably just walking along the crag. I really like looking at unclimbed lines. And feeling how it would be to climb them.
I’m too heavy really to try those project outes [Wizard Ridge, etc.] at the moment. I’ve really had to put my mind into other pursuits for a while. And writing is a bit counterproductive for climbing hard. Writing comes and goes when it wants. And also, to make some money with my teaching, I’ve had to move to London, and so getting out on the crag is more difficult. Also, a lot of people that I’ve enjoyed climbing with or felt relaxed climbing with are doing other things. And also, I got heavier. And so the holds on some of the projects I’ve wanted to do – of which I’ve got about 30 of which I’ve worked in the Peak District that I’ve done all the moves on. Which are… I tried them 10 years ago, and they would have been. They’re certainly as difficult as I think can be climbed with what I know. They’re significantly harder as pieces of rock to climb up than what has been climbed, and I don’t think power is enough to do them.
It’s a bit like putting a 400 HP engine in a Honda Civic. You could use it in specific places…. If you went over a speed bump, as you came off the speed bump, you could blatt the accelerator and it would give you maybe 15 to 20mph acceleration, and the wheel spin would need to warm the tire up, and you need to peel that back, so… you’d use massive acceleration for small amounts of time to hit very, very specific shapes on very specific days. And to learn which day to be on which crag rather than another, all the alchemy of it is all that.
And also, climbing boots are not good enough. Climbing boots feel like galoshes on these things that I’m trying to do. They’re dimes, the holds. A lot of them are nail holds, that I can try two or three times in a day. And you need to be able to do box splits on them – side splits.
I used to train on pins on the wall – pins you put in posters with. Small nails, but not the big thumbtacks, the tin tacks. What it is was I didn’t actually put them in to climb, they just happened to be up on the wall for putting pictures up, and then there was a wooden skirting board — some of the moves you moved your foot mid-move. At the beginning you could hang on, at the end you could hang on, but the foot was in a different position and you had to move both hands at different times in the movement. But you’re hitting really, really painful holds. So before you move, you have to hurt all limbs the same in order to hit the end position. And because you can’t break it down, because all the movements are together, you have to rehearse something that you’ve never done before. And it’s our ability to rehearse something that you’ve never done before really quickly that will produce new levels of difficulty.
What is the universal language of climbing?
Strength and power comes from knowing what to do and only doing that. If you shut off all the muscles except the muscle that’s going to do the move, you’re so much stronger. And, instead of taking five years to improve in strength, you can take an hour and a half… if you really learn how to shut those muscles off.
Your muscles presumably are holding a position, otherwise you’d be like a sack of spuds on the ground, like really drunk. Now, if you can go from that drunken position to a position like Rodin’s The Thinker in half a second because you know what The Thinker looks like in 3D in your mind, you can feel what that tenor is. And if you could go from that move to that, then you’d be a good climber. That’s what I’m saying. There you go.
What about the term “headpointing”?
I invented the word headpointing, I think. But I don’t like it — it’s a terrible expression, it’s really… I used to like the term “Eye for a Line.” You’d walk look along the crag and your eye would pick something out, and then you’d steadily solve the problems of how to hang on. Rock climbing really can be brought down to hanging on – hanging on and somehow shuffling your way up between these positions. That’s kind of what seems to be interesting to me.
And your masterpiece, the Indian Face?
I was on it for about 50 minutes. I first saw it being tried — Jerry Moffat did Master’s Wall, which was named a bit prematurely really. The Master would go up the whole thing onsight. And it’s not me either. And really, the Master would have done it in EBs as well. That’s how it was conceived. When it was written about in awe, the thing was impregnable. Nobody had bolted it. It was just this sheet of tiny, impenetrable link-ups between poor holds. It looked really futuristic. It absolutely made your heart race, and was beautiful. It was only just color photography, it felt like. There are some photographs, but they’re kept in a cage and they’re protected by lions. It was like that sort of thing – do you go left or right? If you go left you might die, if you go right, there’s a small fingerhold 40-foot out from the runner.
People had tried it onsight, but they’d always traversed off or climbed back down. There’s been a lot of sort of semi-truths, that if anything ahs added to the mystique of it. Also, there’s been some chipping and the rock has changed. [Had pulled nuts through to make placements better in the cracks], but I never took a hammer and chisel to it or made a hold or knocked a peg in too far. It’s a sliding scale, but I’d say I’ve come up to 2 out of 10, and other people have come up to 9 out of 10 making stuff up there. And the suspicions fall on particular people. So, there’s been all that about it. But the bottom line is, that piece of rock people have really taken to task in a rather grand way.
Anyway, Cloggy is a north-facing crag and it’s really cold. Or it gets the sun, and it gets hot. So how you lace our boots up is a major issue. It weaves a lot, and it’s very complicated – the movements – you might move your feet four or five times in sequence to get a hold, and then move four or five times back to get a hold the other way. So your boots really don’t stay sticky. You have sticky boots, but they go unsticky, or they get covered in lichen. It’s a high-mountain crag, so the humidity varies a lot. You can’t get rescued very easily. And there’s very little protection.
There’s a piece of protection at 80 foot, which is an RP 2, and it’s in rhyolite. And rhyolite is like kind of porcelain, it’s a bit like glass, it sort of shatters. There’s a other pieces of protection, some, like A5 aid gear – it would slow you down a bit or make sure that when your body hits the ground, it’s in a horrible attitude. That it smacks the side or something. And it’s probably 5.12c. If you do it wrong a bit and you stray off it, it’s probably 5.13b. If you climb it well and you’re relaxed, cuz it’s all sidepulls and smears. If you start to pull in, your feet start skating and you get super-pumped, and it’s long: 150 foot high, and it weaves a lot. Probably 120 foot of proper hard climbing in that. The top 20 foot’s easy, the bottom 20 foot’s easy, the in between is a weaving maelstrom of smears, pinch grips, thumb sprags, and blind sidepulls and stuff.
For me, Indian Face was a drawn-out thing. I did it in October, right after the season should have been over. And it had been a crap season, and we’d been climbing on Gogarth and the slate, purely because the weather was crap, and Tremadog received quite a few additions. All those tings sort of turbo charged… so by the time I came to do it, although I was overweight, I’d climbed really well during the year and then I was suddenly up there on this thing, and that was after a party as well. Cuz we didn’t think it’d be dry the next day, and it was dry the next day and we had to go up there.
I was hungover when I did Indian Face. It’s a long walk up there, so you sort of recover. You puke it out. When I finished the thing we all went to the Dolbardarn Disco – everybody would meet there. There were all sorts of inappropriate liaisons and things. It was in a hotel and the music was kind of like quite daggy disco, kind of redneck disco, really. And everybody used to meet there, and it was Thursday. And we all met down at the disco, it was a sort of triumph for Welsh climbing, it was like our reply to all this sport climbing. We hadn’t chipped it, we hadn’t bolted it, and it was quite hard. This was our way of doing it in Wales.
It’s just fantastic climbing, so it just puts you into a trance of how beautiful it is. It’s one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. It’s named after the whole buttress of which it is the body of the Indian. When it’s covered in snow, you see it as an Indian brave. It doesn’t look an Indian when it’s climbable. So for me it remained a Welsh crag – it was a proper Welsh climb. And that was the metaphor of the Indian, was, it remains and English climb or a British climb.
It’s a cosmic climb. It was the last of the cosmic climbs, is how I was trying to mean it.
1986, with Indian Face and the other routes, was a big year for you and for British climbing…
In 1986, there were probably 10 or 12 routes more bold than the Bachar-Yerian, and about three of those or four of those were in a very different league. Both much harder, more sustained, blinder, and probably looser, and not on bolts. But that was what we did. One guy soloed a route (E6 7b), and 80 foot up it started raining, and so he finished it in the rain, and it’s slate.
We were all honest. And everybody’s made up for everybody, including people who were climbing – it was a lovely blend of elitism. If you were really in the top bunch for 20 minutes, you’re at a different table, and it was like “Wow, we’re really doing it,” but the basic fact was that everybody in the room was part of a more important thing, which was Llanberis, and that was what we were doing. And it was everything in a nice balance, and it wasn’t sort of – there were hard moves. We were doing really hard climbing, and some of the things were 8a+/8B and it was 1986, and they still haven’t been done in any better style. They’ve not been done onsight, and they’ve not been done regularly. Some of them have only been five or six times – it’s been 20 years. And you sort of think, “Do people like climbing or not?” They seem to like pulling. I think they like pulling rather than making love.
Do you think you got away with anything that year?
I got away with lots of things. I got away with a wobbly foot on Indian Face and jabbing it up to the foothold w/o being able to look at it, cuz I had to know where it was. And all the dyno-ey techniques and all the kinds of thing I put into my instructional stuff all comes from things I’ve learned of that nature. Your body does know where holds are – you trust it, it’s there. [Knocks on the table]. It’s the suspension of disbelief that produces a belief that’s accurate. And you need to learn how that happens so you’re not conning yourself, and that can be done in a rigorous manner and in an enjoyable manner.
I went up on some things, and I fell off things, but most of it was learning how fall as well. Because there weren’t bouldering mats. But we didn’t used to dig out the ground or flatten it. I used to take 25-foot falls to the ground, maybe five or six 25-foot falls, to do something onsight. So, it was quite a Spartan, hardcore ethic. It was brutal, cause to me climbing was worth that. It was the best thing since sliced bread. I thought the rest of the world was truly embarrassingly shit. I just thought people were really unreal, and a lot of it was just defensiveness.
I didn’t really feel very collected myself and didn’t really feel like I could fit in. I was very self-obsessed, which is why my book has the title Full of Myself. Because I was embedded in this climbing for the sake of doing something unbelievable for itself, because it’s such an exacting and interesting activity, but also for to be part of a group and the joys of acclaim. It was very much a secondary thing, though — I don’t think it would ever generate somebody to climb as hard as I was. I had a natural affinity – a love for the rock – that went beyond that, and also it showed me that something was amiss and some part of me was on the case, and was trying to get to a stage where I felt complete and happy. And so, Full of Myself also means being in a state of composure, and being calm and complete – full of myself is egocentric at one end and complete at the other. I feel like I’ve traversed a fair bit of that story. I’m ready to write that, to face that quite soon.
Tell me a bit about the remaining superprojects on the grit.
There’s onsight, and then there’s climbing up something that nobody’s every climbed up before. And for me, the game I like the most is opening up the feasibility of a piece of rock – not even climbing it. I like to be able to hang on it, and feel how it would be climbed. And those are the climbs that really interest me. And of those, in the Peak, there’s about 10 of them, and I know how to do them, but they’re beyond me. And those are the ones I’m excited to see climbed by somebody. And I’m not telling you where they are.
And they involve ridiculous things like blind dynos around roofs to blind slopers that are 7b to hang, and then subsequent V15 boulder problems. They’re there, and they look unclimbable ,and they’re just up the most gorgeous bits of rock, and they look impossible. They don’t look steep and – if I get fit I can do that – if I mortgage the whole rest of my life – they look, I can’t climb that anyway, because my brain just doesn’t program or work that fast or I just don’t get it! How do I get it?
Unless it feels impossible, it’s just a sport. If it’s impossible, then it’s not a sport – it’s internal adventure and an external adventure. When the internal and external adventure plaque together beautifully, there is a spark of recognition between the invisible and the visible, which sets your heart alive.
Have you ever seen anyone else who climbs like you do?
There’s a kid in Colorado Springs who was 8, she was climbing really, really continuously. She wouldn’t stop between moves. She didn’t get scared. She acknowledged that she felt scared, and then did something about it. She didn’t invent any extra fear. She was 15 foot up, and she just said, “Scared, scared,” and sort of slid down the holds, and then continued on. She was very, very absorbed in what she was doing. It was nice to see the parents trusting the innate sense of the human miracle.