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Things weren’t going well for Buster Martin: the crux holds were wet; his finger ached; his feet were slipping; and in a pocket where he normally fit two fingers, Martin only managed to get in one before launching to the next hold. Immediately afterwards, he would say, “Nothing went right there.”
Yet, he sent, and in doing so, Martin became only the second person to clip the chains on both Hubble, in Raven Tor in the Peak District of England, and Action Directe, at Waldkopf in the Frankenjura, each of which is a contender for the world’s first 9a (5.14d).
Action Directe was established in September 1991 by Wolfgang Güllich. The 14-meter line punches through a series of pockets. The crux—a feet-cutting deadpoint from a mono to a two-finger pocket—comes early, right when the route changes from vertical to about 40 degrees overhung. The route doesn’t let up for 15 subsequent moves, making it a power-endurance test piece. The name is both a reference to a far-left French terrorist group that was active in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and to the fact that Güllich considered his training for the route—mono campusing—an act of terror against his tendons. Güllich spent 11 days on Action Direct before clipping the chains. Though Güllich originally called the line 8c+/9a, it quickly was upgraded and was widely considered the world’s first 9a. Thanks to its historic nature, it’s become something of a must-do for strong climbers and has seen more than 20 repeats.
In 1990, however, one year before Action Direct went down, British climber Ben Moon established Hubble. The line is short and bouldery, with just four hard moves rather than 16. Instead of pockets, the climber faces bad underlings and scrunchy feet. Because no 8c+ (5.14c) routes existed at the time, Moon settled comfortably there with the grade. Perhaps due to the less popular location, or because it never quite garnered the fame of Action Directe, or perhaps because it’s just plain hard, Hubble has just over 10 ascents.
Before Martin, Megos was the only climber to have sent both lines. Megos called Hubble 8c+, but over the years the line has settled at the 9a grade, thus re-writing history.
Buster Martin first saw climbers at age 11 while on a walk with his family in the Lake District in north west England. He thought they looked “cool,” so his parents signed him up for a local youth climbing team. He began competing, going on to place as high as eighth in a European Youth Cup. At age 16, he became the youngest Brit to climb 5.14b, with Bat Route at Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.
Then, at 18, Martin stopped climbing altogether.
“I just got distracted by partying, being a teenager, and just enjoying life outside of climbing,” he says.
But he came back to the sport four years later, in 2017, with renewed perspective and psych following a trip to Hampi, India, where he climbed with a different crowd: “Everyone was chill, and there was no chat about grades or numbers or being better than each other.” That difference in perspective was the starter. Then, while in France, Martin saw the Briançon World Cup, and that added the gas.
“I saw the level that some of my friends had gotten to, and that was when I got the psych to start training hard again.”
Martin came back swinging. In 2019, he sent First Ley (5.15a), in Margalef, Spain. In 2020, he ticked Hubble, exclaiming at the chains in an underwhelming and characteristically British fashion, “Brilliant!”
In 2021, there was a hiccup. He ruptured a pulley in his ring finger. Martin was, of course, already accustomed to comebacks. He returned to climbing quickly and just over a year later, in October, after months of rehab and pocket-specific training, he sent Action Directe on his fifth day of attempts spread out over a handful of trips.
Climbing caught up with Martin to discuss Action Directe, training, and grades. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Climbing: Four years is a long time away. What was coming back like?
Martin: Bizarrely, I actually think that the time off made me a better climber. I’m way more chill than I used to be. I realized there was more to life than climbing and found more balance in my life. The actual comeback wasn’t too much of a frustrating experience. I managed to stay patient, calm and build back up to a decent level without getting too stressed about climbing at a lower level. I think without having the perspective of enjoying other parts of life, going back to falling off of 6a’s or 6b’s (5.10 to 5.11) would have been a frustrating experience.
Climbing: And in school you studied sports science, right?
Martin: Yes, sports therapy, or sports rehabilitation. I now work full-time as a climbing coach. I do remote programming and training plans. I also do rehab consultations for rock climbers.
Climbing: So how did your education inform your training methodologies?
Martin: I’m really into science. But I think for somebody who likes science so much, I prefer to keep my training quite simple. It’s not super structured—I think it’s really important to be flexible, and adapt your training around what’s going on with your life and your body, but while staying true to basic scientific principles. So really focusing on getting the basics right. I read a lot, but try not to soak up new science and the latest trends until the evidence becomes more concrete. I mostly just stick to basic scientific principles.
Climbing: Can you elaborate on what the basic principles are?
Martin: The basic scientific principles could be progressive overload. So that would be slowly progressing your climbing, your training, volume, frequency, and intensity. It could be specificity. So how specific your training is to you and your goals? How individualized your training is, so making sure it’s specific to you, your training history, your lifestyle, and the equipment that you have available. Basically, all the well established training principles , which I think people forget these days. it’s important to try and get all of those right before we start thinking about these, specific details, like whether we hang for six seconds, or seven seconds. That kind of thing.
Climbing: Can you give me an example of what an average session might look like for you?
Martin: That would depend on what I was training for, and where I was at in a training cycle. But in my last few weeks leading up to training for Action Directe, I would start the session with some fingerboarding. And interestingly, whilst I was training the pockets and the monos, I quickly discovered that the training I was doing on the fingerboard wasn’t transferring over onto the wall. So I did some hybrid fingerboarding-board climbing, where I was holding positions on monos on the wall. So, typically I’d start with some fingerboarding or some mono holds on the wall, then I would do some hard bouldering, or some circuits. And then I’d finish with something more simple, such as some strength training—deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups, that kind of thing.
Climbing: It completely blows my mind that, in just over a year, you went from having a pulley injury to doing a mono-intensive route like Action Directe. Can you tell me about that?
Martin: I took a bit of a more modern approach to rehabbing pulleys than what most physios recommend. I actually started the rehab quite early. Whereas often people are told to have a long period of rest. So I was able to get back to climbing much sooner. And I think I was also able to prepare my fingers to the demands of climbing more effectively. I was able to make the tissue structure stronger and more resilient because I started doing training and climbing sooner rather than later, in an important period of tissue healing. So the rehab wasn’t anything complicated. I was doing a lot of fingerboarding—very controlled, static loading and increasing that whenever it felt appropriate for me. So if I felt like I could move on to doing something more intense, then I’d move on to doing something more intense. I used my pain and confidence to guide my progression.
Climbing: What sort of advice would you offer to someone who was looking to try a route that is really pocket intensive?
Martin: I think there’s a lot of similarities between the rehab and the pocket training. Both of them are about building up the confidence and also becoming desensitized to the pain. I think the best way to do that is just very slowly: slowly and controlled. I would recommend starting with some longer hangs without going to failure. And then when you become more accustomed and more conditioned, you can increase how close you go to the point of failure then move from longer hangs on the fingerboard to some shorter, more intense hangs. But I think the fingerboard is a really useful tool, because we can really control and measure what we’re doing.
Climbing: Can you share some of your own max hangs stats?
Martin: Yeah, so interestingly, even in May this year, I could barely hang on monos with two arms. And then, by the time I actually came to try the route, I was hanging 58 kilos (128 pounds) on the Beastmaker small pockets. At the end of my rehab, I was adding 91 kilograms (200 pounds) on two arms on a 20 millimeter edge for five seconds. And in terms of the one-arm hangs, that isn’t something I really do much of.
Climbing: Wow that’s impressive. I’m curious: why don’t you do one-arm hangs?
Martin: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the reason I don’t do one-arm hangs is because I’m not very good at them. I haven’t trained them in the past, and so I’m not actually training my finger strength when I do one arm hangs; I’m training my shoulder girdle. So it’s not an effective stimulus for the fingers when the shoulders are the limiting factor. By doing two arms, there’s less of that balance and stability. And it means my fingers are getting a proper training stimulus. But maybe that’s a sign I need to practice that and then move on to that. Maybe that could be something to look at in the next training block. After having spent some time training my one-armed stability on a bar or better holds.Section divider
Breaking Down Action Directe
Climbing: When did you know you wanted to try Action Directe? And how did you know that you were ready?
Martin: I have always been useless on monos. It wasn’t something which I’d really considered. But then, through training a lot of open-handed holds throughout the rehab, and that being a big focus of the rehab, I think I started to build up some strength through that. Then I spent a lot of time climbing in Margalef, Spain, and a place called Cuenca, in Spain, and both of those have got a lot of pockets. I began to feel really comfortable on pockets. And I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should try Action.’ I think I’ve wanted to try it forever, but it was only in this past spring that I thought it could be realistic for me.
Climbing: What were your first few attempts on it like?
Martin: The first attempts went pretty well. On the first go, I did all of the moves other than the first dyno move because I wanted to get warmed up before I tried that. And then second go, I did the dyno move first go and ended up on a redpoint attempt. I got about three-quarters of the way up the route to this heel hook, which I then proceeded to fall off for the next four sessions. So from day one to day five, there was very little progression. It was kind of one of those routes, which I could have done in one or two sessions, but it was just that one frustrating thing that stopped me.
Climbing: I’ve heard of people struggling there, but it seems very unusual that that was the definitive crux for you.
Martin: Yeah, I think I need to work on my heel hooking and footwork.
Climbing: In the video, it looks like you had a lot of shoes. Did you actually try all those different shoes?
Martin: Yeah, I tried quite a few. I don’t know—maybe five or six pairs of shoes, mostly different forms of Solutions. Women’s Solutions, women’s Solutions comp, men’s Solutions, and different sizes. And then I tried lace-ups as well, because I find with the lace-ups you can really crank them tight and they’re good on heel hooks. But then they were too stiff, and on the rest of the route it didn’t feel right. So in the end, I just went for the smallest shoe I could get my foot into.
Climbing: What do you think allowed you to finally unlock the move?
Martin: I don’t think I unlocked it until the next day when I went back to get photos. And then I finally understood the heel. On the send go, I just did it: The heel slipped and I just used strength. I don’t think I unlocked it. I think I just had tried it enough that I got up it with bad technique.
Climbing: You switched from using your middle finger to your ring finger for the first jump move. Are both fingers the same strength?
Martin: Yes, so this is interesting, actually. I used to be much stronger on the ring finger. But then the ring finger was the pulley that I ruptured, and now my ring fingers on both hands have become weaker. I think that might be a psychological protective thing. So now my middle finger is definitely stronger. But it had a cut on it and I just couldn’t use the finger in the mono anymore— it hurt way too much. So I just switched to the ring finger, which definitely made things harder.
Honestly on the day that I did it, I didn’t want to climb. Ben Moon had sent somebody out to film, and I didn’t feel pressure to send it on that day, but I had to get on the route, for footage. I changed my sequence, but still, I wasn’t psyched. It was one of those days where you don’t want to be at the crag. But I went on it anyway. I was falling off, getting really stroppy, swearing… just in a bad mood. But then, you know, something switches in your head. I think I just calmed down a little bit and then had a go and sort of fluked my way up it.
Climbing: Can you tell me a little more about climbing it? In the video, you mentioned that you grabbed one pocket with one finger rather than two.
Martin: Yeah. So, after the jump, there was an intermediate that I would normally use to readjust. That was wet, so I couldn’t use it at all. Then my heel ripped off, but I managed to stay on. And what came next… I just couldn’t believe it. It was one of those moments where I was thinking, How am I still on the rock? I usually could only do this move on the upper section because I could get two fingers where most people get one. And I could never see how anyone ever did it with one finger. It’s this totally flat, two-finger, or one-finger pocket. And I went up to it and for some reason only got one finger in there. I knew I couldn’t adjust. It was one of those times where I could have just jumped off and said ‘Take’ but I just fluked it basically and ended up in the next pocket. It was almost the sharpness of the rock that kept me on. After that there were some wet footholds and wet handholds, so I adjusted the sequence. I probably should have gone home or gone to the pub. I think it might have been my fifth attempt of the day.
Climbing: Wow, that seems like a lot. Is that normal for that route? I mean, I guess it’s really short. But still…
Martin: I did really specific training before going out there. The first time I tried Action Directe was earlier in the summer, in July, and I could only have one or two goes. But I think I just had built up so much capacity through the training that it actually afforded me more goes and my fingers could handle that.Section divider
Let’s Talk Grades
Climbing: Can you compare and contrast Hubble and Action Directe?
Martin: Yeah… this is the question that everyone wants to know the answer to. [Laughs.] I think the routes both have a lot of similarities. They were both done by early pioneers of sport climbing—Ben Moon and Wolfgang Güllich. And now there’s this whole thing of which one was the world’s first 9a.… They’re both quite short and intense. But Hubble’s definitely a lot shorter. So Hubble’s more of a boulder problem, and it’s much more technical. It’s a lot more about body positioning—where you put your hips, where you put your fingers on the rock. It’s more about getting everything perfect. Whereas Action Directe is a bit more power-endurance based. It’s still a very short climb, but there’s maybe two or three times the amount of moves. And I think it’s a lot more basic. It’s a lot more about pulling on pockets, and just how much strength and power endurance you’ve got. So there’s fewer subtleties involved in it.
Climbing: Can you comment on the grade?
Martin: So, Action Directe is obviously established as the world’s first 9a. I don’t think Wolfgang actually gave it 9a… he gave it a grade which equates to 8c+/9a (5.14c/d), and then it was only afterwards where it got labeled as the world’s 9a. And then now a similar thing has happened with Hubble. I don’t really see the point of discussing which one’s harder. They’re very different routes. So it’s hard to make a comparison on which one’s harder. But I think that Hubble was 9a and I think that Action Directe is probably 9a as well, which would mean that Hubble is the first 9a in the world. But I don’t think I climbed either of those routes for the number. I’ve climbed other 9a’s, I’ve climbed 9a+. I just wanted to climb Hubble because it was a cool historical route. And I wanted to climb Action because it was also an iconic climb. Everyone thinks that I’m going to have this bias because I’m British, and I’m sponsored by Ben Moon. It doesn’t make a difference to me. And I also think it’s important that it doesn’t take anything away from Action, if hubble is 9a, Action is still a super historic and iconic climb, whether or not it was the first 9a in the world. Action is a cooler climb: it’s in a way nicer location and the rock is nicer. It’s a better bit of climbing, that’s for sure. So yeah… I haven’t really answered your question, though, have I?
Climbing: Let me put it a different way: Not speaking generally and not speaking about the grades, but speaking for yourself and your style preferences, which one was harder?
Martin: Action suited me more. And I also climbed Hubble two years ago. So I’ve developed a lot as a climber in that time. But I think the basic nature and the power endurance style of Action suits me perfectly. Whereas with Hubble, it’s a little bit more subtle and more of a boulder problem, which doesn’t suit me as much. I think that both routes are 9a, but it’s not because I want Hubble to be the first 9a in the world, it’s just my opinion.