Jerry Moffat… He is a Mastermind, a legend of the climbing world! As Climbing Posts, we had the chance to talk about his journey. “Mr. Mastermind | Interview With Legendary Climber Jerry Moffat” would be one of the milestone articles on Climbing Posts. Our friend Arman Zonuzi organized this interview for us, thanks for the effort mate! -Berkay
We would like to start with the last year, how has it been for you?
It was a difficult year for The Foundry because we were closed so we didn’t make any money for a year, and I couldn’t do the normal things that I like doing like visiting friends, going to the restaurants.
One thing I started doing again since December (2020) is that I started coming to The Foundry as I started climbing again. I was here three times a week through December, January, February into March till the end of the lockdown and I had the luxury of having a full climbing wall all to myself. I lock the door, put the music on… Coming down here has really helped keep me sane otherwise I would have gone crazy! Although I really enjoyed it and had a great time climbing, I am 58 now and my fingers, elbows and wrists started hurting after three months. I was always trying to protect myself from an injury which just ruined it a little bit.
I was going to ask if you had picked up any new hobbies but coming back to climbing was your lockdown hobby then I suppose?
When I was climbing (professionally), I always wanted to do a lot of other things with my life. I climbed professionally until I was nearly 40 and I climbed full time since I was 15. I was obsessed by it. I thought about other things too, but all my focus was on climbing. I couldn’t have a week where I didn’t climb or train otherwise, I would have felt very guilty. On the other hand, I always loved loads of other hobbies like racing cars and surfing.
When I was 40, I thought that climbing was going to be the only thing I do for the rest of my life. It’d be really nice to be able to go on a holiday and just surf for two weeks and not feel guilty about not climbing so when I stopped climbing, I threw myself into doing other things. My main passion (after climbing) was surfing, and I really enjoyed it.
Surfing? How did that happen?
It started around 1993 when I was climbing in Yosemite. I was warming up on a boulder problem called “Blue Suede Shoes” (V5). It’s a classic slab problem, it’s quite hard but not that difficult. It was a really hot day and the problem has a mantle-shelf onto small little finger holes. During my attempt, I started falling off it and I said ‘‘I’m not falling off Blue Suede Shoes!’’ and pushed really hard then popped a tendon in my finger. As a result, I couldn’t climb and a friend of mine lived in San Diego and I thought I could either go home and be really unhappy or I can go see him so I went to my friend and spent three weeks in San Diego, surfing.
I couldn’t climb anyway so I stayed in America and did that. After that, every year when I go back to America I finish climbing, then I’ll go and see Kevin for a couple of weeks and go surfing. I enjoyed it but I only surfed for only two weeks a year because I was climbing, and I would be more tired if I surfed so I couldn’t do it basically.
Have you been surfing in the UK as well?
I did a lot of surfing here yeah, I’ve been to the East Coast, Whitby and Scarborough! Also, after I stopped climbing I went to visit my brother who was living in Brazil and I went surfing there a lot.
Going back a bit in your history, you were born in Leicestershire, what made you come to Sheffield?
I was born in Leicester and I went to a boarding school in North Wales. I wasn’t very academic so I struggled with my reading, writing, and maths so the school I went to in North Wales was a sports school which is still probably one of the best schools in the country for sports. It’s a private school and they had climbing, caving, sailing, canoeing… You could do many different sports.
My friend at school, he was a climber and he introduced me to climbing and then I left school when I was 17, kept climbing in Wales but back in the 80s, in winter everybody came to Sheffield because the rock dries the quickest. If you live in Wales, there is no climbing in winter. Same in the Lake District. (In terms of climbing areas) back then you really had the Lake District, Wales, and the Peak District along with some stuff in Scotland and Leeds but the only place everybody went really was Sheffield.
In other interviews, you mention Ron Fawcett’s name. What is his role in your career?
I started climbing around 1978-79 and the top climber in the country during that time was Pete Livesey and Ron Fawcett was starting to come into it. So my heroes were them. When I was 16, I saw Ron Fawcett for the first time on my local crag. At that time, I was just a beginner, and it was like being a complete beginner tennis player and Roger Federer comes to your tennis club to play. I was mesmerised!
I would always get obsessed with things and I was absolutely obsessed with climbing. I read magazines not just once. I would read them again and again so I could recite the articles word for word. It is funny, now when I speak to people who read my autobiography come up and say “Oh, I’ve read your book so many times” it seems funny but if it was back then I would have read it five times!
What was your family’s reaction to your climbing as the sport is inherently dangerous?
My family lived in Leicester, and I lived in Wales so they didn’t see any of it! They were happy that I was happy and they were happy that I was inspired but it was difficult for them because I left school when I was 17 and I went on unemployment benefit so I didn’t have a job from when I was 17 to when I was 22. I had no money at all but they could see I was happy. This was before (the concept of) professional climbing so nobody earnt any money out of the sport. I never thought I’d be able to earn money from climbing, I thought I’d do some climbing and then work in a climbing shop which is what most climbers did. Ron Fawcett and I were the first professional climbers.
How would you define a professional climber?
For me, a professional climber gets paid for what they do. I got paid by Wild Country for using their harnesses and climbing shoes. That’s how I earned my first money, through sponsorships. For me, you need to be sponsored to be a professional climber. You’re not professional if you’re a coach. You are still in the industry but not a professional climber. I was also sponsored by Boreal and then as time went on, I had lots of different sponsors.
If I’m not wrong, there was a model in Boreal’s line-up that was developed in collaboration with you, was it the Ninja?
Yes, I developed a lot of their boots such as the Ninja and other early versions of their boots. I used to go to Spain two or three times every year and work on my climbing shoes, test them and give feedback. I was responsible for designing the shoes everybody has now and (back then) everyone saw those, wanted one! Even now they still use the design I developed for Ace. A lot of their boots even now are still on the same design I worked on. Actually, Ninja was named after my motorbike! I had a motorbike called the (Kawasaki) Ninja and I called the boots after the motorbike.
Back then, all climbing shoes were boots, below the ankle ‘slippers’ didn’t exist. Then the Ninja came along and I thought ‘’oh, I would like to have a ninja with a pull on (slipper) but I’d like to have it with laces’’. So I got a prototype made which is how all climbing shoes now (except velcros). With that pair, I won the first World Cup competition in Leeds.
(Arman’s first pair of climbing shoes were Boreal Jokers so a full circle here!)
The method of designing a shoe starts with a piece of wood. You sand it down (to your liking) and you make the shoe then you sand it down again then you make another shoe (until you) make the perfect pair. Then you can do a lot with the rigidity by putting different thicknesses of rubber on it and (if you put one,) laces make it stiffer.
Rubber on the shoe is a big discussion now with soft, hard, thick and thin versions. Was that the case back in your time as well?
You won’t remember it (Lol!) but back in 1982 I was climbing in America, and I met John Bachar who had a pair of (Boreal) Firé’s with sticky rubber so that was the very very first sticky rubber boot. Apart from them, everybody climbed in EBs. Everybody! When I tried a pair of those boots (Firé) I couldn’t believe how good they were, they were incredible! Around the time when I left America John Bachar was going to import those boots from Spain to America and he needed some money so I lent him $500, and in return, he gave me a pair. They were like gold dust!
Back in England, I was the only person in Europe for one year to have sticky rubber boots. People would offer me crazy money for them back in 1983. That year was my best year of climbing. I did the 1st 8a, 8a+, 8b… (I was) a long way ahead of everybody else and shoes definitely helped. Of course, It wasn’t just the shoes as I was already climbing very well but they definitely helped, like cherry on top!
I thought, what’s going to be really good for these shoes would be smearing on a gritstone arete, so I went and did Ulysses (E6 6b) on Stanage which was the hardest route on gritstone. And then I did Master’s Wall in Cloggy (short for Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Wales) which is now given E9 (the first E9) and wasn’t repeated for a long time, it was a long way ahead. But in my head, I thought the shoes would help on those routes and they did.
Were you expecting that they won’t be repeated for a while?
Yes I knew they won’t be repeated for a while because (don’t want to sound big-headed but) I was climbing a lot better than other people. When I onsighted 7c+ for instance, the next best climber in the world had only done 7b. I went to Germany for instance and I onsighted their hardest climb. So what took four days for Wolfgang Güllich, I did it first go.
A classic interview question, if you had the chance to climb a route you have climbed, which one would it be?
Maybe Liquid Ambar (8c+) on Pen Trwyn (Wales). That was a special one for me because Pen Trwyn is in Llandudno, Wales where I went to school. I used to sneak out of school and cycle down there and go climbing, so it was close to my heart because I love Llandudno and I love the area. This route is special since I think it was the first 8c+ in the world at the time. In fact, I can also add this, I had a younger brother who died when he was 21 in 1986 so I had some time when I didn’t climb, and this was one of the first climbs I’ve done coming back (into sport) after my brother.
Toby loved gardening and trees so before he died, he said ‘‘when I come back to England, I want to plant a liquid ambar tree’’ and the route is named after that tree that my brother was thinking of planting back in England. I thought of Toby when I named that route. I also have a company that I named after him, called Ambar Climb.
Changing the topic, a little towards competitions, what made you compete?
In the very start of competitions, I had an elbow injury so I couldn’t compete. After rehab, I got better. There weren’t very many professional climbers, maybe 20 or so, and at that time all of them were doing competitions. The only person who didn’t compete was Wolfgang Güllich. So, you’re thinking, I want to be the best climber in the world, and it was very hard to see the best climber in the world if you weren’t doing the competitions and winning them, so I had to because that was the game! Also, there were no bouldering competitions, It was all about new routes.
The first competitions I went to weren’t very enjoyable because I didn’t do very well in them. Then, I got very determined! That was a new challenge. I was climbing very well before the competitions but climbed badly in the competitions because I was too nervous. I didn’t climb the same as how I climbed outside. I climbed much worse so I had to find out how to win. It was more of a psychological challenge rather than physical.
In the beginning the competitions were outside on actual rock, does this mean you had the chance to practice the route beforehand?
What they did in Arco and a lot of different places, as these weren’t popular climbing locations, the route setters just went there and made a new route. They chipped it (the rock), used glue to make holds, etc. So back in the early 80s there was a lot of chipping and gluing and the routes were maybe a little bit artificial. Sort of modified, not badly modified but they were new routes and obviously, they couldn’t keep doing it for many years because everybody went climbing to these locations. When competitions moved indoors, it made it hard because in England we didn’t have any indoor climbing walls.
There were some walls in France and the French practiced on them. It was only Entre-prises who manufactured the climbing walls and they said the competition is to run on Entre-prises walls and if you practiced on these walls and used their holds (which there were about only 20 different ones), you had an advantage. The French climbers could look at it and know how each hold would feel like.
There was one big competition in Briançon on a climbing wall where the French-trained on. When I wanted to climb on it, I wasn’t allowed because it would classify as practising for the competition but obviously the French had climbed on it before. This made me really determined to win it and I did! All the French had been out and all fallen off; I was the last climber out. In the end, I got to the top! I was like, YEAH!! This is just a funny story, there are all these stories that get lost in history but at the time they were a big deal.
So you’ve accepted the fact that if you failed, you could’ve died
Yes! I knew if I fell off, I could’ve died. I’ve done a lot of soloing too. That’s what I wanted to do really. I wanted to do the most dangerous climb as well as difficult. If you asked me what I wanted to do back in the 80s, I would tell you I want to climb the most dangerous route I could climb. That’s what I wanted to do. While doing that, a lot of my friends have died too. Just after I did Master’s Wall, my best friend died on a cliff next to where I was climbing after a hold broke which made me take a break from climbing for a year.
Though, England always had a tradition of doing dangerous climbs. Ron Fawcett did it, Pete Livesey especially did some dangerous climbs. Routes that Joe Brown and Don Whillans did on Froggatt were mega dangerous. *(AZ: If you haven’t heard of them, give it a quick search on YouTube)! You would break your legs or die if you fall off of routes like Great Slab (E3 5b) and Cave Wall (E3 5c). And if you fall, you fall on to solid rock. I soloed it onsight, but I practiced the crux a couple of times climbing up and down for a couple of days.
“Compared to motor racing or any other sport, there is nothing more dangerous than climbing without ropes.“
And I was trying to emulate them and become the greatest British rock climber. Joe Brown was my hero. He was a great man with what he did on climbing.
But it’s much safer now hence accessible and hence the Olympics. If it was now like it was back then, every 1 in 30 climbers would’ve died. Compared to motor racing or any other sport, there is nothing more dangerous than climbing without ropes. You have to do it every day and you have to be used to it and you can’t just climb with ropes and one day decide to climb without ropes. It’s just too much psychologically. I used to climb every single day without ropes, and I had a circuit which I did where I was in a position where any mistake would be fatal. This makes you get used to being in a situation where you can’t make any mistakes.
Do you think modern and safe equipment is changing the nature of climbing?
It’s changing, yes but probably for the better. I loved what I did although maybe it was a bit stupid and if I lived my life again, I wouldn’t do it again. I was very very lucky that I survived. I could’ve easily broken a hold. Sometimes I think that I shouldn’t really be here, I had many lucky escapes where I should’ve died or hurt myself, but didn’t. I wouldn’t encourage anyone climbing without a rope or do anything dangerous. You might as well do stuff just safe. You can be safe but scared, that’s OK. 30ft (9m) fall is scary, 50ft (15m) fall is bloody terrifying but it’s safe! You can clip in, run it out big, take a fall but you’d be safe. It’s (soloing) not the fashion anymore, no one is doing it today whereas in my time, all the top climbers were doing it.
*(AZ: On the topic of dangers of soloing) One day in Wales, Ron Fawcett woke up at the bottom of the cliff. Couldn’t remember what climb he was on! He fell off and laid down with a broken leg on his own. He couldn’t remember anything. That was the game back in the time. If you wanted to be a big climber, you had to do these. I wanted to solo routes that nobody would even go near! Same as what Alex Honnold is doing now. But, as well as this (soloing and being the best British climber), I want to be the best boulderer, best competition climber, best in everything! Which was possible back then but I think it’s harder now.
Obviously you were very determined, locked on to climbing. Why?
I think it’s my upbringing. My childhood made me this way. I was dyslexic so I couldn’t read, I was always at the bottom of the class. I think it was that being always at the bottom, not performing well, not being clever academically, pushed me to be better in a different area so I could show everyone that I’m good as well, maybe not in school but in climbing. They might be able to read and write but they won’t beat me in running, high jump or climbing. That’s why I was very determined. I had a mega drive since I had a difficult childhood. And this is similar in many other athletes as well. It’s not normal to have such a desire. It’s extreme.
Living in a cave and going bouldering every day is not normal, most people prefer having a day job, going to the pub after work and doing a bit of climbing on the side. But a lot of people who do well (in sports) have a story like mine in their background. I figured this out when I was working on Mastermind.
I was also lucky that I had the right height, weight and genetics that responded well to training.
In another interview you mentioned a book that made you stronger mentally. Was that the base for Mastermind?
Partly yes. It was ‘With Winning in Mind’ by Lanny Bassham. I read that when I was doing competitions because I had to know how my mind was working. The book really helped me and got me interested in sports psychology.
When I was in Germany, talking to my friend in Café Kraft who published some training books. I said I was interested in these, and he said if I wrote it, they would publish it.
Since Lanny Bassham worked with the American Olympic team, he had all the contacts of the athletes automatically. He could contact all the gold medallists and ask them various questions. So I thought it would be interesting to write a sports psychology book on climbing and because I’m a famous climber, I have accessibility to other climbers like Chris Sharma, Alex Megos, Alex Honnold, Margo Hayes, Adam Ondra etc. If I asked, they would help me out! I thought rather than writing a book on what I think, it would be good to write a book and people would know what Alex Megos thinks right before he climbs or Killian Fischhuber thought before winning so I got all the modern top climbers and asked why they think they win, what’s important for them.
“With Winning in Mind”
I pretty much knew what they thought but, it would be much stronger if they said it all together rather than me saying it alone. For example if I said visualise (a route) people would go, ‘Oh OK, visualise’ but when all the other top 10 climbers said it, it would be much stronger.
So Mastermind is not only what I think. It’s a compilation of what everyone else is thinking as well. I also got help from Lew Hardy who is one of the top sport psychologists in the country who happens to be a climber by chance, and he gave me guidance and feedback on the book.
When you had issues competing, what was the first thing you noticed and fixed in yourself?
It was more of my self image. The way how I perceived myself. I didn’t want to compete, I was thinking that I didn’t belong here. I climbed well in qualifications but made big mistakes in finals. I was thinking that was how I climbed which ended up being how I climbed. So I had to change how I was thinking about myself. I had to brainwash myself thinking I love competitions, I climb my best in competitions, my best climbing is in the finals, I get nervous but that’s OK because I climb better when I’m nervous so I had to turn all the negatives around.
I had to see myself as a professional climber. I didn’t like it when I got told when to climb as I was used to going to the cliff and climbing when I wanted to climb. There were all these rules, time limits but I climbed because there were no rules and you weren’t told what to do.
It’s odd because you’ve done many more difficult as well as dangerous routes successfully but when it came to competing, didn’t perform as well.
When you are climbing out without a rope, there is a danger. You know what danger that is. If you fall, you’re going to die. You can focus on it and control it. In a competition, there are more things to get nervous about, there is the crowd, it might have cost you a lot to drive to the competition and you want the prize money. If it’s an English competition, your family might be there…
It’s like a dark cloud of ideas that make you nervous which is difficult to pinpoint down and focus on. From that aspect, climbing outside is much easier. I had to think to myself, it doesn’t matter how long they kept me in isolation because I’m here for the competition, I’m still going to win it!
Isolations are much easier now. Once, I turned up in isolation at 10 am in the morning, it was in a school room and waited until 10 pm in the evening, locked in a school room in Leon, all day. On top of that, the warm-up area was horrendous too. It’s much better now.
We didn’t have any federation to cover expenses either, the prize was good but you had to drive yourself. If you weren’t going to win it wasn’t worth going.
Who was organising the competitions back then?
Federations. French had a federation. Sometimes it was private organisations. Sometimes local councils supported it for tourism.
People you have interviewed for Mastermind are going to be in the Olympics, who do you think has the edge mentally?
I don’t know them well enough now but I do know that the most successful climbers were Ondra and Killian. The key is usually not to be too optimistic. Being a bit pessimistic and preparing for the worst is usually a good thing. What Lew Hardy told me was, if you are too optimistic, you won’t prepare enough. It’s better to be pessimistic and try to sort out all possible issues. This is what Killian was thinking before the competition. Same with Ondra. He was thinking if he didn’t have a good warm-up it would worry him but he would think two weeks ago he warmed up really well and he won’t lose it in two weeks.
This mentality makes them win because they are prepared for everything. And if you didn’t know this, you would think of all the people, Ondra and Killian would be optimistic as they’ve won so many times but it’s the opposite.
When I was competing, I also was thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Write them down and also write my response down if they happened. Say I was climbing, all prepared, almost at the top and I didn’t tie my chalk bag up properly and my chalk fell off, what do I do? I think about a route I climbed without chalk and tell myself I can climb without chalk since I had done whatever route before without it.
Let’s get back to where we are right now, the Foundry. What was your aim with the place? A place to train yourself?
We always aimed it to be a commercial climbing centre. I started it with Paul Reeve in the early 90s when I was a professional climber in my mid 20s. It was a future plan for the time I stopped climbing, an investment.
Have you doubted yourself that it may not work as the Peak District is just next door?
Oh absolutely! We weren’t certain at all.
But you’ve still done it?
I haven’t done it all by myself. I could’ve done it with just one other partner but we weren’t sure and I didn’t have enough money so I didn’t want to refinance and potentially lose my house if it didn’t work. So we’ve got Wild Country involved. When we opened, they owned 51%. Paul and I had a quarter of the shares each. When they were short on money five years later, Paul and I bought Wild Country out. So we’ve got 50% each now.
The first week we opened, it was winter, it was bad weather so it was the perfect time for climbing indoors and nobody came in! I was so disappointed, I told myself that I knew it wasn’t going to work! Nobody would climb indoors but then slowly people heard about it and started coming.
How about the layout? Is it still the same as it was first built?
Originally, the Furnace *(AZ: a part of the Foundry where you can find some additional lead climbing and autobelays) area was the shop. It was the Outside *(AZ: now it’s a great independent shop in Hathersage, Peak District) which was owned by Wild Country.
Wild Country’s interest was having a climbing wall for their shop. They were more interested in the shop. If everyone came to Foundry to climb, they would have a monopoly since everyone would’ve bought their equipment from the shop in the wall but In a year or so, there was too much dust in there, all the clothes were dusty, so it didn’t work for them. They took the shop out and turned the area into a warehouse. Outside moved to the building just next to Foundry and stayed there for about 10 years. Then I had planning permission for that building (which I owned at the time) and turned it into apartments *(AZ: they still are apartments). I designed all these apartments myself with an architect.
Recently we’ve got support from the Sports Council to increase the climbing area a bit more just to have some more easy bouldering. And then just when we were about to start the work, the centre had to close for a year! Originally, we were going to close the centre in sections and allow people to climb while the maintenance went on but then lockdowns came in and we shut everything. We were absolutely lucky that the first lockdown came just when we were about to start the renovations. And because of the lockdown, we spent a bit more and did a bit more work that was planned for later.
The Wave (the famous sweeping overhanging boulder wall) is a significant feature of the Foundry. Was it planned like this in the first place? What was the inspiration behind it?
My passion was bouldering back in the early 90s and one of my favourite areas was Fountainbleu. I always liked the slopers. There was a wall like that in Birmingham but it was all jugs, you could climb on it anywhere. I wanted something with the flow and features of an actual boulder problem but didn’t want fixed holds that you could climb on. I only wanted bumps for your feet and all the holds to be bolted on.
Climbing is all about concentrating on your feet, making it stick. If it’s a good big foothold, it will stick easily, that’s why I wanted small bumps as features on the wall. There was some resistance against it but that’s what I wanted. I wanted the uncertainty of an actual problem where you can’t see the next hold, you don’t know if it’s good or bad. I believe the Wave stood against the test of time really well, it’s still known as one of the best bouldering walls due to how well it replicates outside climbing. It’s 30 years old now.
Back in the day, you would have an indoor climbing wall as a training area for outdoors. You would never never ever think there would be people climbing only indoors! At The Foundry, everything we built is supposed to replicate outdoor climbing so you could train and adapt yourself for the outdoors which makes it different from other centres. Nowadays, as a climbing wall owner, you would never build something like that because you don’t want people climbing outside, it’s bad business!
Have you watched any Netflix series during lockdown?
Breaking Bad, Young Offenders, Top Boy Summer House My children are nearly 17 and 18. If there is drugs and swearing involved, they watch it 😀
Do your children climb?
No, not really. My daughter does classes in the gym and my son plays football and rides the scooter a lot and goes to the skateparks.
Favourite crag snack?
Nothing significant really. I like to climb when I’m hungry. When I woke up, I waited until I was absolutely starving then I’d go bouldering. I just had water. Sometimes strong coffee but mostly water.
Sounds like your sessions were very focussed. Usually now when most people go outside (including myself) they enjoy the day, take some lunch, coffee.
Not always, when I was preparing for the competitions, I enjoyed sitting by the Cressbrook Dale, just by myself and the radio in the countryside and I would think ‘’Oh! There is no better job than this!’’
It’s not always about pushing hard, you know, it’s also about enjoying nature, being out in the countryside, by the rivers, listening to the birds, reflecting on things. That’s what attracted me to the sport. I can’t imagine being a professional swimmer and going to a chlorine filled pool everyday doing laps, that would be horrific!
Thank you so much for your time Jerry, we enjoyed it a lot, hope you did as well!
I did! I always enjoy talking about the old days of climbing. You’ve got a lot of work to do now!
As Climbing Posts, we would like thanks to Jerry Moffat, Mr. Mastermind. We are happy to meet with this legend and we learned lots of things about his life, his journey. Thank you so much, Mr. Moffat…