In the second of our series of profiles of Australian manufacturers of climbing gear, we speak to Ross Ferguson of Awesome Woodys, a Brisbane-based company that produces portable fingerboards much beloved by climbers.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a Brisbane boy, born and bred. Climber, new router, crag hunter, obsessive trainer and, more recently, trail runner. I like working with timber and my mind is often in overdrive thinking about design, engineering or the function of crazy ideas. I’m married, and together we have a nice mortgage and two girls under ten. My life before climbing was the average suburban life, I guess. After leaving school I was lucky to find myself in an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker at the tail-end of a time when almost all cabinetmakers in Australia still used timber and actually made furniture.
I’d been involved in various team sports my whole life and I was also heavily into my road cycling as a teenager. I think cycling gave me some solid fundamentals about how to train my body and mind to go beyond your ‘limitations’. I’ll turn 47 this year but for some strange reason I keep getting stronger.
How did you get into climbing?
Climbing is something that had always fascinated me, even as a child growing up in the ‘70s. I knew people climbed, but climbing to me was a world away. It was a total fringe activity and not accessible to kids like it is today.
The first time I actually climbed rock was when I was about 20 years old and living in the UK. I got to rope up on a top rope in Cheddar Gorge near Bristol, but I couldn’t get very far off the ground.
When I got back to Australia my girlfriend’s (who is now my wife) brother told us about this indoor climbing centre he was going to. We went along to the classic 1980s inspired climbing gym and had a ball. I instantly knew I was doing this for life.
What is it about climbing that you really enjoy?
I love being a part of the Australian climbing scene. Climbing attracts many truly interesting and intelligent people, the kind of people a cabinetmaker from the ‘burbs wouldn’t ordinarily meet or become friends with. I’ve got a bunch of amazing and intelligent friends who have helped me a lot with the boards and business in general, and the scene is so exciting at the moment. The standard of your average climber has jumped dramatically in recent years and almost everyone is psyched to train, share training beta and get stronger. The bar is being raised in Australia by the new elite level climbers and we have a vibrant and positive competition scene. Climbers more than ever are open to new ideas in training and equipment. I’m really enjoying being a part of it all.
I also love how climbing traverses across age, race and gender. I love how a 12-year-old girl can be the strongest person at the cliff and then the next week it you’re watching a 60-year-old casually flash your project!
For me, personally, though, I’m most driven by new routing. I obviously climb established routes as well, and I really enjoy traveling and exploring new climbing areas, but doing the first ascent of a line is where I get the most fulfilment. New routing is an interesting process that sometimes takes a lot of effort. It’s committing also, as you often spend fair chunks of cash and multiple days cleaning and equipping this line and you don’t even know if it will go. Sometimes it all comes together quickly whereas other times… well, that’s when you see ‘Open Project’ in a guidebook.
What inspired you to start Awesome Woodys?
I guess it was a bit of a natural progression, along with a drive to work in the climbing world. I was so passionate about climbing and obsessed with getting stronger. The initial business was a sideline to my regular renovating business, building bouldering walls and home woodies.
Being a cabinetmaker for more than 30 years, designing and crafting with wood has become second nature. It was natural to me to try to make various wooden holds and create training tools from wood.
I have a small bouldering wall under the house and I began making my own holds at every opportunity. Just like new routing, it is an interesting creative process and I began to think differently about training. I started creating custom shapes that would target my weaknesses and help me reach my limit. Best of all, I realised that timber felt much better to climb on compared to plastic and I could train longer and harder because I didn’t lose all the skin off my tips.
This process got me thinking a lot, and I wanted to make something new, innovative and interesting without reinventing the wheel but at the same time – not just copy the other gear on the market. I wanted to make tools that were unique in design, skin-friendly and super practical for all climbers of all levels.
What kinds of things did you think about when you first started creating your fingerboards, and was it a long process?
I was out climbing with my friend Tom O’Halloran and talking about training and warming up. I’m no brilliant talent like Tom, but I was talking timber fingerboards and we got onto the subject of the home-made portable crag boards we had seen around, how they were fundamentally a great idea but that they had a bunch of problems. Things like being heavy, one sided and usually large but with limited features, plus they all flipped over if you grabbed them by the top or even near the top.
Being a tradie and having a climber’s mind, I like a good problem to solve and I realised I could make something completely unique, so I started prototyping.
I’m a perfectionist, obsessed with quality, so it took a long time (maybe 18 months) before I was satisfied. I feel extremely lucky that my initial design attracted a bunch of attention from some world-class climbers. Of course, Tom O’Halloran had one of the first prototypes along with others like Robbie Phillips, Chris Webb Parsons and Monique Forester. In that initial stage I handed out a lot of boards to pro climbers around the world, but my boards are not just for the elite end of the field, so I also handed out a bunch to everyday climbers, asking them to try it out and give me an honest assessment. The feedback I’ve had from all levels of abilities has been invaluable.
In 2011, I launched the Cliff Board and shyly began selling my gear to local Australian climbers. To my surprise, they were largely well received, and this gave me some confidence to push forward. My original designs are fundamentally the same, but they have evolved and with continued consultation with Tom, Robbie, Monique and other strong analytical friends like Lee Cujes, I’ve been constantly tweaking them towards a point of perfection. I’m still proudly producing the Cliff Boards by hand and prototyping new designs on my own, in my small Brisbane workshop.
What do you think is unique about your boards?
When I started selling my Cliff Boards they were the only commercially available portable fingerboard on the market. They are double sided, so they use every bit of available real estate but remain compact. The cord design gives stability and a handy single central hang point. The cord design also gives the board two hanging positions/pitches, vertical and about 12 degrees. The pitch of the board changes depending on the position of the cord. This makes the features easier or harder to hold. For example flat or slopey pockets.
All of my Cliff Boards have large features for your big muscle groups and a basic warm-up, then edges of 18mm, 15 mm and right down to a tiny 11 mm. Of course, these are all rounded and skin friendly. On the back of the boards are a variety of monos, two- and three-finger pockets for isolating fingers. The pockets vary in depth depending on the model. Any of the four Cliff Boards can be used as a warm-up board or for a full hangboard workout. And, very importantly, they are very strong and light!
The Micro weighs in at a little over 400 grams and the Mini is about 550 grams while the Regular and the Wide Boy are around 900 grams.
What is it about wood?
It’s just so nice to train on. You keep all your skin for when you need it most, at the cliff. For me using and working with the A-grade hoop pine plywood and the solid A-grade clear pine is natural. It’s just common sense to use a renewable resource from plantation stock that also gives each product individual character and a touch of beauty. And, for example, because of the uniqueness of wood, every Cliff Board is made and functions the same, but each one is an individual.
Do you have a favourite that you can pick from your four fingerboards?
That’s a hard one. They all have unique features that offer different things for different climbers. I’m really happy with how the Cliff Board Micro has come together and it’s what I have in my pack right now, but I also have a couple of aces up my sleeve in the form of prototypes at the moment.
For a long time Roland Pauligk, creator of RPs, was one of the few successful people creating gear in Australia, but there seems to be more people making gear at this present moment – what do you think is the reason for this?
I love placing my RPs and when you fall on a #2 and it holds, it’s priceless! They were designed by Roland Pauligk at a time when there was a genuine gap in the climber’s arsenal. I think now with the growth of the sport, its accessibility and the diversity of styles, there are new and genuine gaps in the modern climber’s arsenal.
With the explosion in popularity of climbing it makes sense that there are intelligent Australians coming up with great gear. Like I said earlier, it’s an exciting time and I’m really enjoying being a part of it all.
Lately we seem to be seeing your fingerboards all over social media. It used to be just a very small number of elite climbers who took boards to the crag, why do you think more and more people are using them now?
The standard in Australia has shifted up a couple of gears and more climbers are thinking like athletes. They want to climb well and they want to climb hard so they realise that a tactical warm up is vital to a successful day at the cliff. A ton of people are world travellers these days and my Mini and Micro are very popular and extremely useful in this department. People also want great training equipment and I think the versatility of my boards and the fact that they don’t require a permanent fixing point is tick a lot of boxes.
Do you have a favourite routine for warming up?
I include a couple of short programs with my boards, so when I’m at the cliff I’ll find an easy route or boulder to climb that’s in the same style as the project of the day, then I like to do the first four or five minutes of the ten minute workout. That usually fires up the big muscles, then I’ll do a minute or two of repeaters on the 18mm edge. I don’t time the repeaters, but I usually start with a few seconds on, then rest a few, then increase the time a little till it’s like ten seconds on/off, then rest. This usually gets the fast twitch fibres to attention. Then I’ll usually do a few front levers to wake up the core. The litmus test for me is degree of sagginess in my front levers, ha-ha. If I’m struggling and the levers are saggy, then I’m not warm enough or I’m just buggered from a week in the workshop!
Do you have any tips for warming up?
Everyone is different and some people can just jump straight on the project of the day, and I think this comes down to how many days in a week you climb. But for me, I’ve found it takes a good deal of moving my body in a progressively harder way before I’m ready to have a couple of solid shots at a project.
An example is that a typical gym session for me is about two and a half hours. It takes me about 1/3 of this time to be warm enough to be fully firing!
Experimenting and finding your own ‘firing point’ is vital if you want to climb your best every time you get to the cliff. Go too soon and you will flash pump or simply not be able to hold the crux holds. If you’re only getting a few really good shots in a day, make them count!
Patience is the key. Being properly warmed up is about giving yourself the best chance of sending your project and staying injury free.