UK’s Iron Man | Interview With Neil Bentley and His Climbing Life

When we analyze the climbs by Neil Bentley, we started to think that his mental side was made of iron. He had a narrow escape from death in Dolomites, he climbed many hard routes and he’s still pushing his limit on bicycle and several nature sports. He probably has nerves of steel to be able to do all of this. We talked to Neil Bentley, one of the pioneer climbers in the UK, his managerial career, climbing, successes in the other sports, the memory of stunning with Matt Damon and much more.

As a climber who had been a manager at The Foundry Climbing Centre for 21 years, how would you evaluate the changes and developments in indoor climbing?

Here is a brief history to answer your question although there is a lot more that could be written. 

The first major indoor wall in the UK (The Foundry) opened in December 1991.

Most of the tall indoor walls (lead and bouldering) which followed were opened in the UK and were in converted buildings like churches, old industrial buildings. 

First Climbing Gym in UK, The Foundry Climbing Center/Sheffield

In 2006, the tall walls which offered lead and top rope and bouldering would have a new wall contender in the market, ”bouldering only walls” ; Climbing Works in Sheffield being the first.  In the last 10 years in the UK most of the new walls opening have been bouldering only and are built in modern warehouse like buildings. It is generally easier to find an existing building suitable for bouldering.  The existing tall walls are still thriving also and offering the full range of indoor climbing.   I have not worked directly in the industry for 4 years and during this time climbing on artificial walls has become an Olympic sport.  I would therefore say it has come a long way indeed! 

What is an unforgettable memory from your first days at the Foundry?

Within a month it became the place to be in the autumn/of winter. People travelled from all over the UK to come and see the new facility to climb, meet friends, drink tea! I seem to remember it had over 100,000 visits in its first year.

I want to go past in time a little. How did your path have crossed with rock climbing?

Very young me, leading the classic scary route ‘Old friends’ E4 5c Stanage Edge

When I was a child I used to love being outdoors, usually walking in the nearby hills of the Yorkshire Dales with my parents and scrambling around Ilkley Moor. I had a real attraction to anything rocky.  However, I was not able to start climbing until I was 16 and at college where I met some like-minded friends. Also, a college tutor who would take us climbing on Wednesday afternoons to Almscliffe Crag, Ilkley and Stanage Edge in Derbyshire (fantastic gritstone crag just 4 miles from Sheffield).  This was in 1985 when there were few indoor walls. Most climbers started climbing outdoors and if you did not have transport it was not easy getting to the cliffs. Within 6 months I was completely taken with climbing.

Leading Beau Geste E7 6, Froggatt edge, Peak District.  Photo: Rachel Nicholson

The legendary climb: Equilibrium, first E10/7a in England… Ben Moon tope-roped it in the 90’s but the first red- point ascent is yours. What could you tell us about the discovery of Equilibrium and your relationship with the route?

Equilibrium (E10/7a) . Burbage, Peak District. Photo: Rich Heap.

I had climbed some amazing hard gritstone routes between 93’ and 99’.  When I climbed Parthian shot (then E9) my attention was drawn by the impressive arete just next to it. This was the line of Equilibrium.  I was really taken by the challenge to climb this stunning arete. So, I tried it in Autumn 1999.  It had a couple of moves high up which were extremely difficult.  Then a small pebble was noticed by my climbing partner Rich.  We worked out a new sequence and then I knew I could climb it. 

Equilibrium (E10/7a) . Burbage, Peak District. Photo: Rich Heap.

The climb was only possible for me when it was cold, so I was limited to winter months.  After a few visits with the right conditions I was confident I could lead it. There was good gear but low down on the route.  My first lead attempt ended with a big fall, just skimming the ground as my belayer ran to take the rope in.  A couple of weeks later everything went well, and I successfully lead the route in February 2000. Mark Turnbull, a friend and film maker, made a film of my efforts leading to my ascent.

(There’s a brilliant climbing film made by Rich Heap and Mark Turnbull, called ”Hard grit” which is a ”must see” film for anyone interested in the grit routes of the Peak and Yorkshire – lots of great routes being led by different climbers).

Besides Equilibrium, which route you have climbed is unique and special for you? Could you also tell us why? 

Film telling the story of climb of Neil Bentley and Rich Heap in El Capitan.

This is a very difficult question as I have climbed many incredible routes on cliffs around the world. I have therefore had to choose 3 routes (I have so many others too…) which provided vivid, unique memorable experiences. 

The places and my climbing partners are a big part of my memories, not purely the rock climbing. ”Salathe wall /Freerider” on El Capitan in Yosemite (2000) was a really memorable adventure.  Rich Heap and I attempted to free climb the 30 pitches which we did with a few falls and rests! The film ‘Blood, sweat and bagels’ tells the story. 

On the crux of ”Punks In The Gym” (8b+) Photo: Chris Plant

I also have to mention a route in Australia, ‘Punks in the gym’ which was such a battle as it was much harder than anything I had climbed back in 1993. It takes an intricate line up a beautiful piece of orange quartzite, the ancient rock which Mount Arapiles is made of. It was so inspiring, the hardest sport climb in Australia back then, first climbed by Wolfgang Gullich.

Moses Tower, Primrose dihedral climbs up the wall. You can see a climber at the top of the first pitch.

My third route is a stunning multi pitch climb called Primrose Dihedrals on a huge desert sandstone tower called ‘Moses’ in Utah. A truly awe inspiring 200m narrow finger of rock. A fantastic climb which holds a very special place in my climbing experiences.

I would like to ask about the route “Rhapsody E11 / 7a” in Scotland / Dumbarton. Have you tried this route before? Is it possible to see you climbing this line in the coming years?

British climber Dave McCleod on the ”Rhapsody”

This route looks stunning and super hard.  However, I only know this from watching the film of Dave McCleod climbing it.  It is much too hard for me and always will be. I climb at a much, much lower level these days!

Of course, the success in your career is not limited to rock climbing and management. You have also appeared in Matt Damon’s films as a stunts person. Could you tell us more about this experience and share the story? How did you utilise your climbing skills while filming?  

Climbing scene from ”The Bourne Identity”

This was back in 2000 which was when I was climbing really well, not long after Equilibrium.  My friend, Ruth Jenkins, a climber (first British woman to climb French 8a+ and 8b routes back in the mid 1990’s) and stunt woman.  Ruth was working with a stunt coordinator who had asked Ruth if she could suggest a climber to try a stunt climbing sequence for a new film ‘The Bourne Identity’.  I got the job after a test climb on the building in the film which was actually in Prague.  It was a brilliant time. 

Making the second ascent of Clipperty Clop, (E7/6c) at Ramshaw rocks in the Peak District. Photo: Rod Eddies

I worked one to one with Matt Damon showing him climbing movement and sequences.  We filmed in the building outside and on a replica of it in the massive film studios in Prague. It was down climbing a 30m wall with horizontal slots in it which I could just get my finger ends into (probably a difficult f7b). I was also able to climb on the Czech sandstone with local climbers. I had met one of them who was working as a medic on the film, so he took me out with his climbing club friends and they gave me a tour of the local climbing.

You have made a decision in 2016 and quit your job at The Foundry Climbing Centre to become a teacher and studied at Sheffield Hallam University accordingly. How this decision has changed your life after The Foundry? Do you miss working in an indoor climbing centre?

I wanted to expand my work experiences after managing the centre for over years.  I still enjoy climbing at The Foundry and it was a good place to work.  No, I do not miss the work.  I am enjoying the new challenges and working in different places and meeting and working with different people and clients and being outdoors, usually in the beautiful Peak District.

I work as an outdoor activity instructor/coach and do not teach in a school.  I love being outdoors and although I specialise in climbing instruction, I also instruct caving, mountain walking/navigation, mountain biking and team building activities.

From a climbing centre manager to a teacher… What thoughts were behind this career change?

I was ready for a change of working environment and wanted to expand my interest in educational and instructional work.  I still go climbing to The Foundry for myself or taking clients as it is a great climbing centre.

We are fighting a major epidemic that is affecting the whole world. Hoping that you and your family are in good health, how do you evaluate your time in the past few months?

I have spent time at home as all outdoor activity work and my geophysics work stopped in March.  I have kept busy doing lots of jobs on my house and garden, cooking for my family and lots of cycling.  

Probably the fittest I have ever been on my bike! I have been working again in the outdoors recently. All outdoor work stopped in March and it has been, and still is, quiet.  The UK Government has not allowed schools/colleges to restart outdoor education as yet.  This will hopefully change in the very near future.

In addition to climbing, cycling is also a part of your life. Is the bike a means of transportation for you or do you use it as a sporting equipment as well?

Competing on ”Monsai hill climb 2019”

I have always ridden bikes, before I took up climbing, I was in a local cycling club when at school.

After climbing intensely for over 20 years I began cycling more again around 2008.  I like competing in hill climb events – you have to ride up a specific hill as fast as you can.  I seem to do ok for a veteran rider. It is a great way to keep yourself fit and the cycling in the Peak District is fantastic.

On the topic of cycling, have you ever thought of competing on a triathlon?

I have competed in a few local triathlons over the years.  I do not run too far though as my foot gets sore (previous climbing injury).  I managed 10th position in a local event a few years ago and decided I was not going to better that without a lot more training.  I prefer doing different activities, cycling, climbing, surfing, hill walking. Yes, there is good surfing on the East coast of Yorkshire in the North Sea and it can be brilliant in Autumn/Winter, with a good thick wetsuit of course.

From your perspective, how did Covid-19 affect the climbing industry? What awaits the climbing gyms, competitions, athletes and us in the upcoming months/years?

The ”lockdown” completely closed outdoor work for a couple of months.  Larger groups over 5 people are still not allowed and for some activities it is not possible due to social distancing.  Climbing walls were all closed until the 25th July.  They are now open with Covid-19 rules in place.

I have been able to work with very small client groups outdoor climbing.  There is no school/college group work. This may change in Autumn.  Hopefully by next Spring the situation will have improved and there may be a vaccine? 

Have you ever been to Turkey? We would love to welcome you in our country and climb together in world-famous rock climbing gardens such as Niğde / Aladağlar, Geyikbayırı and Datça.

I have not visited Turkey.  The furthest I have been in recent years is France for family holidays.  Looking through the different cliffs on the internet is impressive, so much rock all over your country with some amazing looking sport climbing.

What are your plans for your climbing life and career in the future?

n 1995, Red pointing a classic sport route, ”R n’ P” (8a+), on the Cornice in the Peak District.  Photo: Stefan Deny

I have climbed for 36 years now.  It is part of me though I have shared my activities time for the many years now.  I like climbing good routes with impressive lines and features but at a very much lower intensity and grade than I used to.  I am more focussed on my performance when cycling than when climbing at the moment.  However, I am still ok at climbing. I may refocus at some point on sport climbing as it would be good to red point f8a again and I would really like to go back to Yosemite Valley. The West face of El Cap looks great.

Bouldering at Grinah Stones. An isolated crag in the middle of the Peak Distrct moors.  Photo: Bill Hine

Special Thanks

We are delighted to have Neil Bentley accept our interview invititation. As, we would like to thank you very much for sharing your photos and information that are not available anywhere else.

I would like to thank my Turkish climber friend Arman Zonuzi, who communicated with Neil Bentley and translated to Turkish the interview.

Look at these too:

The Foundry Climbing Center

Video from Blood, Sweat and Bagels

A scene from Salathe Wall/Freerider

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