The famous climbers in the world have huge social media followings, are sponsored by a raft of outdoor companies and spend their lives jumping from country to country, crag to crag showing off their adventures.
Yet climbing is a sport, a hobby, a way of life even that doesn’t always lend itself to the commercial. Many of the country’s best climbers are unknown names, local specialists that almost fill the 'urban legend' category. You’ll be at the crag and someone unassuming, in battered clothes and boots filled with holes will quietly sit in the corner minding their own business, only to astound you when they get on the rock.
Sam Taylor looks like a happy go lucky chap, complete with the sort of tan that can only be associated with someone who spends as much of their life outside as physically possible. He’s lean almost to a fault, although with arms hanging ridiculously low down his sides and knuckles that have seen better days, any climber would recognise a positive ape index and mark him out as one of their own. A ready smile, a batch of floppy hair and eyes that crinkle at the corners complete the carefree look of a youngster who hasn’t been touched by the stresses and strains of modern life.
Appearances can be deceiving. A Southern Sandstone specialist, with Harrison’s Rocks literally out the back of his garden, Sam was rapidly turning into a local legend, a Tarzan figure who solos barefoot, the hardest routes tumbling like dominoes as he honed his craft on the uniquely fragile rock. But it was this fragility that cost him dear when he fell from the top of Unclimbed Wall in May 2019, sustaining two broken feet and an L4 compression burst fracture to his back.
Sam scrambled over the rocks as soon as he could walk. Barely a day went by when he wasn’t hopping from boulder to boulder, up in the trees or running around in the dirt, having the sort of childhood that most dream of. Having climbed on and off, he truly fell in love with the sport the summer he turned sixteen – hitch-hiking to the local wall in between exams. He soon found himself under the tutelage of a raft of local heroes, including the Tullis family and Sarah Cullen. Progress was rapid but it wasn’t long before he found himself questioning why he was pulling on plastic indoors with so much rock on his doorstep.
Knowing no better, with no experience on other types of rock, he soon adapted to the unique way of climbing the sandstone. With a thin, hard outer crust and loose sand beneath, this rock is incredibly prone to erosion and needs to be handled with care. The locals soon taught him the top rope set ups and how to boulder safely and he was away. As a free-spirited child though, he took to bouldering more naturally, something he could easily do alone whenever he had a spare few minutes before dinner to run down to Harrison’s and do a lap here and there.
When he did want to climb higher, Sam learned the art of tying in round the waist. In some ways more accessible as it negated the need to buy a harness, tying in like this also gives the climber more feel for the rope and prevents any form of dogging.
“Sandstone is not sport climbing,” Sam is keen to point out. “French grades gives climbers the idea it is okay to hang around and keep trying. Sandstone is about climbing ground-up in as few goes as possible. Repeating the same move over and over just damages the rock. In addition, added French grades to the guidebooks and websites has further confused the issue of what routes are actually like and how hard they are. Sandstone is not sport climbing.”
Tying in this way is an old-school method of climbing, and its unsurprising that Sam took to it, given his foremost climbing influence is his Grandfather who told stories of his infamous Great Uncle, both prolific climbers in their youth. His Granddad might even hold the record for the oldest solo on sandstone, completing Dark Chimney last summer aged 82 years young.
Soloing exists the world over. For some it is a foolhardy occupation, a quick fire way to an early grave. For others, it exists as the purest form of climbing, just you and the rock, no distractions. Alex Honnold’s film ‘Free Solo’ about his dizzying ascent of El Capitan – all 3,000 foot of it – brought this art form to a wider collective, but there is still some mystery to soloing and so much that is misunderstood.
“You accept your fate on the ground,” says Sam. “If a hold breaks, a bird flies at you, you accept it as being out of your control and so not worth worrying about. Just as you don’t assume you’ll get hit by a car crossing the road, or that every plane you ever get on will crash. You take care of the things inside your realm of control, and accept those that aren’t.”
Sam started soloing a few years ago, and found it one of the most calming climbing experiences. By always staying well within his ability level, the fear or doubt subsided and left him with a sense of peace. He doesn’t go as far as to describe it as a zen-state, but does admit that mindfulness and climbing go hand in hand and success on the rock can depend just as much on your head game as your physical strength.
Climbing barefoot was another historical trait he liked to exploit on the sandstone, although this one he admits he isn’t sure protects the rock more than wearing shoes. But he finds the grip and feel better, that is until on a hot day the unique challenge of trying to avoid clammy feet slipping on the notoriously unforgiving sandstone has to be addressed.
He was wearing shoes on that fateful day last May, and had just finished a busy shift at the local climbing wall. He turned up at the rocks to do circuits to clear his mind, and soon got into the rhythm of climbing. Unclimbed Wall was a classic route that he had soloed many times before, and conditions were good after a few weeks of sun. Unlike many sandstone routes that have a sandbagged start or a tricky finish to build up to, Unclimbed Wall was consistent and technical, and at nine metres a decent venture compared to many of the smaller boulders.
With no climbers on that section, there were no distractions. No idle banter, no jokes. Sam flew up the route as he always did, and was safe on the last jug, one move away from topping out. There was no warning, no slippage. The top hold simply gave and gave fast. He had enough time to kick away from the wall and then the clock stood still as he fell, bracing for impact and able to articulate enough quick-fire thoughts to know this wasn’t going to be good. He landed on his feet in what would have been decent form had he been bouldering. But from nine metres up with no pads below, he felt the pain radiate up from his feet and threw to one side. Miraculously he missed all the small boulders littering the fall zone, and his subsequent cry was enough to bring help rushing to him.
The adrenaline wasn’t enough to curb the pain which throbbed up both legs, feet ensconced in ruined climbing shoes and the damage as yet unknown. With the climbers worried for his back and neck, an air ambulance was called but it was subsequently decided to stretcher him out to a waiting ambulance.
“I was in hospital a month or so, and in a back brace a further three months,” says Sam in a surprisingly cheerful voice when asked to recall those initial moments. “They couldn’t really decide what to do. Both heels were badly broken and the compression fracture wasn’t good. In the end they decided to operate and plate the worst foot and leave the other.”
“I managed to stay positive. I had bad days but ultimately, I had the knowledge that I hadn’t fallen because of me. The hold had broken, I wasn’t overdoing it or pushing the envelope. Knowing it wasn’t my fault helped make sense of what had happened.”
An injury like that, where learning to walk again replaced leaping from rock to rock with carefree abandon, would test most people’s reserve. Did he want to come back to a sport that seemingly had robbed him of so much?
“You can’t look at it like that. You have to look at what it gave you too. Climbing is freedom of movement, freedom of expression. A connection with the outdoors. Coming back has been a challenge, but a good one. You learn to test different parts of your body, and rely on different things,” he said. “You get enjoyment differently. Learning to push weight through my feet has been the biggest challenge but I’m happy with how my upper body has held up, strength-wise.”
Those dark days in hospital when he could have given in to self-pity, instead were spent trying to find the hardest trad routes in the world that had enough protection to make them tough but safe. Compiling a new tick list kept Sam’s mind occupied, as he sought to realign his goals with his new capabilities and weaknesses.
“Everyone always thinks my grip or upper body is my biggest strength,” Sam continues. “But I think my mind game is by far my best asset. Four months after my fall, after I got my back brace off I repeated Unclimbed Wall on a rope. I basically hauled my way up it on my arms as my heels were still too weak to stand on, and was crazy pumped as a result. But mentally, to do it again, man that felt good! Albeit some idiot had broken off the last jug so the top out was a bit harder than is used to be…”
With a slight self-deprecating smile, Sam certainly seems ready to put his accident behind him and move on to the next chapter. Since lockdown eased he has been climbing more regularly than at any point since the accident, and is well-placed to comment on what that he’s seen down at the rocks of late.
Southern Sandstone has sustained a vast amount of damage in the last month, some of it due to the sheer volume of climbers who have visited, which in part is due to the walls having remained shut. But a lot of the damage could have been prevented by better knowledge of Southern Sandstone and its specialist nature.
“Not enough respect is given,” Sam said. “Too many climbers assume rock is rock. But Southern Sandstone is so different and is often derided for being top rope only. Sometimes it is just ignorance but the attitude needs to change. The locals are doing their best to educate in a friendly way and repair the damage but it isn’t enough.”
“Look, I’m the first one to admit, holds break. But what we are seeing now, foot holds worn clean through, people still trying to use them when sand is pouring out – the rock won’t survive a sustained attack on it like that. It’s worth so much to so many, and to see the recent damage is close to heart-breaking.”
“I’d love to climb High Rocks one day, as I’ve been told those are the very best routes on Southern Sandstone,” he continues. “That would be an absolute dream. But High Rocks is shut and we are in danger of losing other crags too if this continues. Eridge is under severe threat, Bowles threatened to shut last year. It can’t continue.”
When a local of some repute tells you what is going on down at the rocks, you listen. Southern Sandstone might not have the reputation of The Peaks, or the slate quarries of North Wales, but it still has its place in the climbing world, and has fostered a strong community of locals who don’t want to shut newcomers out, but do want to protect the rock. Which means that even quiet climbers who just want to get on with their business and have a chill day at the rocks have had to start taking a public stand.
“Maybe if I tell my story, people might start to understand more about sandstone,” Sam muses as our time together grows to a close. “But really, I just want to climb. I just wish everyone had the same attitude. Climb hard if you want, climb for fun if you’d rather, but learn a bit of the history of the place and give it some respect. Don’t hang-dog, set up right, clean your feet – shoes or not. It’s not hard is it?”
With that he jumps on his bike to cycle the short distance to Harrison’s Rocks. Where he might have run in the past, he makes do with a bike to get him there that bit quicker. And once there, you can bet he’ll quietly go about his business, unaware of the glances as people watch in awe at his ease on the rock. Injuries or not, Sam still climbs with grace and strength that make others take notice. The grades might not be where they were, but the sandstone technique is evident to any who care to pay attention.
You can learn technique indoors, you can build strength in the gym, but it takes something special to climb on sandstone, and Sam still has that in spades.
Note: This interview was originally published in July 2020.