Interview – Leah Dempsey

Vertical Life speaks to Blueys climber, Leah Dempsey, possibly the smoothest, most stylish climber since Patrick Edlinger glided over the rocks like a cheese-eating French serpent.

Can you give us a brief bio?
I’m 27 years old and I’m Brisbane born and bred. After having quit my psychology degree and discovering my love for climbing, I decided to move to the Blue Mountains and I’ve been living here for the past three years. Aside from climbing, I’m a clichéd lover of food and coffee, online shopping, reality TV and lookout hopping.

How’d you get into climbing?
I started climbing about five years when I came to the realisation that dancing in night clubs probably wasn’t the best form of exercise. Initially I just did it for the fitness aspect, and then once I’d formed some awesome friendships with people that climbed outside, that made me realise that there was a lot more to it. The social side of climbing is definitely what really sparked my love for the sport.

Leah climbing Cave Girl (V9) in the Hollow Mountain Cave, Grampians. Matt Norgrove

Leah climbing Cave Girl (V9) in the Hollow Mountain Cave, Grampians. Image Matt Norgrove

We know you climb routes and boulders – do you have a preference?
There are different things that I love about climbing routes and boulders, depending on the weather, and how I’m feeling physically and mentally. I find winter in the mountains especially difficult, so I tend to spend more of my time bouldering down in Sydney, or climbing bouldery routes down in Nowra. I also find bouldering much easier to approach from a psychological perspective, as for me there is less anxiety and time pressure that comes with having to climb more moves on a rope. In saying this, I usually gravitate more toward climbing on a rope whenever the optimal opportunity arises. There is that part of me that enjoys the mental and physical challenge of having to climb hard moves when you’re feeling a bit pumped, and maybe a bit scared! It always feels more rewarding. Also, there’s nothing quite like getting out after work and climbing with your friends until the sun goes down in those spring and summer months of daylight savings.

How does climbing fit into your life at the minute?
At the moment I’m working four to five days a week at Scenic World, and training maybe two to three days a week at Camp St Climbing, as well as some basic stuff at home. I’ve been doing more bouldering on my days off lately, just because of the logistics of weather, psych and climbing partners. In saying that, I’m pretty psyched on some sport projects so hopefully this season the Spring Sending Gods will be nice to me!

Leah flexing on August 1914 (29), the Glen, Blue Mountains. image Matt Norgrove

Leah flexing on August 1914 (29), the Glen, Blue Mountains. Image Matt Norgrove

In the last year or two we’ve noticed that you’ve been steadily ticking harder and harder routes and boulders, what have been some of your proudest moments?
Ticking August 1914 (29) was definitely a highlight. Mainly because it felt so impossible when I first tried it, and I hadn’t really seen many other women on it. It was also one of the hardest routes I’d tried grade wise at the time, so there was always going to be that mental barrier.

What do you put your progress down to? Training change? Mindset shift? Years of toil finally paying off?
Interestingly enough, I would probably put it down to injury. Two years ago I had a pretty bad shoulder injury which had me out for a while. Prior to this I didn’t really train properly, so I definitely got a kick in the butt to start doing proper body conditioning to address my many weaknesses. Luckily it worked out in my favour and I’m feeling much stronger.  

Leah climbing Worm Saloon (V8), Campground Boulders, Grampians. Image Matt Norgrove

Leah climbing Worm Saloon (V8), Campground Boulders, Grampians. Image Matt Norgrove

You recently ticked Garth’s Arete RH Variant, your first V11. How did it go down?
I got pretty lucky in being able to send it in two sessions, probably due to the nature of my strengths. To be honest, I went down that day to try Myology (V12) instead, but thought I’d warm up on the holds on and near Garth’s Arete, and the rest is history. It’s an awesome textbook, crimpy, campus-y climb that you definitely want to have your fingers and skin primed for!

We’ve seen a few videos in which you look like you glide over the rock in stark contrast to the rest of us heavy-bodied mere mortals – how does one become so smooth?
Ha-ha, I don’t know how to answer that question. I’m not sure that I feel quite as smooth as I may appear! Although, I would say that practicing and refining moves until they feel high percentage is definitely an effective way to enhance one’s smoothness, as well as having a good physical base for that specific route to start with. I don’t usually try something until I know that I have the physical capabilities for a climb. I also find that it is when I feel the least confident executing a move that I find myself more likely to do the ol’ double tap with my feet and hesitate.

Your partner, Matt Norgrove, is also a very talented climber, which has lead us to speculate that the two of you are making a play for the title of ‘Australia’s Most Crushingest Couple’ – is anyone ahead of you and how do you plan to bring them down?
Ha-ha this is news to me! Although it is true that my partner Matt Norgorve is a very talented climber, who I look up to a lot. I think there are many couples out there who rival us for a lead in ‘Australia’s Most Crushingest Couple’, and we might have to hold a lot more pizza and dessert nights to get a sneaky lead…

What’s your favourite climbing area (and why)?
Hollow Mountain Cave is definitely hard to go past. Nowra would also have to be one of my other favorites. I’m such a sucker for short bouldery routes!

Are there any climbers that you particularly admire (and why)?
There are a lot of climbers that I admire, such as Paige Claassen, Margo Hayes and Alex Puccio. These women inspire me in their ability to challenge foreseen capabilities of female climbers, be psyched, train hard, persevere through injuries, and have fun at the core of it. In saying that, I hold a lot of admiration for the people in my personal life, juggling work, school, parenting and injuries, along with being able to train and climb with an undesirable amount of time left over.

What does success in climbing mean to you?
Apart from reaching physical goals of strength, being able to stay in control of my mental game when it comes to psych, determination, and fear is probably one of the most important things. Being successful to me is the ability to enjoy the whole process of climbing every step of the way, whether or not I’m climbing super easy routes, or projecting something at my limit. Hopefully I can manage this well into my elder years!

Leah on the crux of August 1914 (29). Image Matt Norgrove.

Leah on the crux of August 1914 (29). Image Matt Norgrove.

What’s your greatest strength as a climber?
Probably my hands? All those earlier years of barristering came in handy when it came to my finger strength and love for pinches!

And what’s your greatest weakness?
Apart from sucking at dynos and run and jumps, my head is definitely the weakest link…

What mental aspects of climbing are your weakest, and what you have done to try and overcome them?
My fear definitely gets the better of me at times, particularly with my ‘above the bolt’ syndrome and wildly overactive imagination. Some days I feel as brave a lion, other days I struggle to make it up a slightly run out grade 13 slab (probably because I hate slabs). The best way for me to overcome this fear is just by choosing climbs that look visually inspiring, and that excite me enough to outweigh my fear. Usually my fears are completely irrational, but I just have to tell myself on those slab 13s that it’s most likely in my physical range and I am probably not going to fall. I’m definitely trying to learn how to trust myself a lot more.  

Do you have any future goals that you’re happy to share?
There’s a couple of projects that I have on the shelf, some boulders others sport. I’m heading down to the Grampians this November, so hopefully I can tackle some unfinished business on Sleepy Hollow (V11). On rope I’ve been pretty psyched on a climb called Better Than Life (31), a super fingery, bouldery route down in the Glen. In terms of long-term goals, probably just to stay psyched, be as uninjured as possible, and a well-rounded climber.

Leah is sponsored by Madrock and BJR Climbing Equipment.

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