Amy Fenton is one of the strongest boulderers floating around at present. We were in the middle of interviewing her about a couple of her recent hardest ticks – a brace of V10s – when she upped the ante by climbing at least two grades harder, sending Deep Blue Sea (V12/13) at the Black Cave on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We speak to her about the Fenton Formula and Fenton Dreams.
Can you give us the Amy Fenton 101?
Twenty one, based in northern Sydney, five foot two with the ape factor of a T-rex. I coach, set and spray beta at 9 Degrees Sydney and play around with web development when I’m not climbing, wine-ing or wearing black.
How did you get into climbing?
A school friend of mine had his sweet 16th at the climbing gym – I was hooked from day one. Boredom had started to settle in after quitting gymnastics and I was in need of a slightly less masochistic hobby.
Why bouldering over routes?
Who can argue with no strings attached? Climbing started as a solo pursuit and bouldering fit the mould. Along the way roped forays only solidified the infatuation; why get a move first go when after fifty attempts you can discover your right foot was three degrees out of place? Satisfaction out of exasperation, I’m sick.
You just sent Deep Blue Sea, your first V12, and one of the first – if not the first – by an Australian woman (back in 2006 Tilly Parkins climbed Forced Entry, which was given V12 at the time but has sinced dropped to V11), can you tell us about how it went down?
Roof climbing has always been my favourite, a roof next to the ocean is what Fenton dreams are made of.
Deep Blue Sea took just over a month of concentrated effort, it’s by far and away the hardest climb I’ve ever done. The moves are powerful and open handed but ultimately revolve around timing and body position, most of them took a while to figure out but came quite easily with the right beta. The crux alternated between being my main motivation and a giant pain in the arse; it’s a frustratingly-precise right hand bump move with a sorry excuse for a toe hook, it isn’t the hardest physical move on the climb but I found it confusingly inconsistent. I got very close to sending the problem the day before a two week trip to New Zealand, the timing was frustrating and had me convinced that time away would send me back to square one. Luckily I had no idea what I was talking about and sent my first V12 the morning after I got back!
We noticed that you gave it V12 whereas mostly we’ve reported it at V13, is V12 the general consensus grade now?
The consensus probably sits at a slash grade (V12/13) but I am definitely no authority. Before Deep Blue Sea my hardest tick was V10 so the idea of skipping two grades and going straight to V13 didn’t sit right with me.
You’ve also recently ticked not just your first V10, but two of them – Steve Austin and C.O.A.T. – can you tell us about their ascents?
C.O.A.T. took one pad and about ten minutes, it could not have been more out of the blue. At Frontline it’s the first problem you walk past and the last thing I thought I could do, although apparently my fingers are more competent than my judgement. I actually went back and repeated it later that day to make sure I hadn’t fluked myself up the damn thing.
Popeye would approve of Steve Austin, it feels like your right bicep vs the world. Having done C.O.A.T. two days before had me soaring with confidence but there’s nothing like two hours of being ejected from the last move to bring you back down to earth! File that under ‘never again’.
Your sponsor, Steve from Climbing Anchors, tells us your recent success is all down to your all-carrot diet. Tell us about the benefits of the all-carrot diet and whether you would recommend it to other climbers?
Steve is right, the root of all my climbing success is carrot based – I highly recommend making the switch. Benefits include a high concentration of Vitamin A(chievement), increased eyesight, foresight and insight, a summery orange glow (counteracts cave-dwelling translucence) and increased proximity to hummus at all times. Flaws? None. I could say more but I wouldn’t want to rabbit on.
You work at 9Degrees in Alexandria, how has working in a bouldering gym impacted on your climbing?
It was a slow start! I presumed having unlimited access to a facility like 9 Degrees would take my climbing from 0-100, but never considered how oversaturation could affect motivation. Two years down the track I feel like I can have my (carrot) cake and eat it too – constant observation through coaching and setting has refined my climbing more than any physical training could.
Do you think that gyms have a broader responsibility to the growing bouldering community above simply providing a place to train?
Absolutely. At five years climbing I still consider myself to be fairly new to the sport; I remember not knowing where to buy climbing shoes outside of a gym and thinking that the plastic tagged purple 13 was the same as V13. Most of our climbing memories originate in a gym and that is exactly where the education should start. Climbers can and should do their own research but the foundations of climbing, safety and outdoor ethics should be laid down through small, gym-based initiatives like posters and social media awareness.
There doesn’t seem to be many female routesetters in Australia (or maybe Sydney is different to Melbourne), why do you think that is?
From my experience in Sydney I think inaccessibility plays a larger role than gender, a lot of it comes down to setting frequency and budget. The majority of male climbers are stronger than their female counterparts – it’s unfortunate but true. Translate that into the world of setting and you find a male dominated space; if a gym can only hire one setter they need someone strong enough to provide for their entire grade range. Though, as climbing grows, so do gyms and their setting budgets – the big gyms in Sydney have big walls to fill, they’re lucky enough to have the breathing room to build a setting team that is diverse in both strength and ability. I’m happy to report that the bigger Sydney gyms all have at least one female setter.
What does success in climbing mean to you?
If at first you don’t succeed, we have a lot in common. I’ve never been one to set climbing goals, I tend to aim far higher than I can reach and that ends up slowing progress down. Success is hard to define and even harder to achieve – I’d like to think small successes like unexpectedly flashing a problem are the important ones. I could never call my own climbing successful with a straight face, not for the next 20 years or so at least! Words like that should be reserved for the Jimmy Webbs of the world, I think.
What’s your greatest strength as a climber?
Visually uncomfortable heel hooks and child-sized hands.
I’d like to consider myself to be fairly level headed, fits of rage and teary moments aren’t really part of the Fenton Formula. I know what works for me, what I’m capable of and where the line between ‘try harder’ and ‘you’re out of your depth’ sits. I learnt to climb in a gym that set very powerful boulders on what were soap bars shaped to look like footholds, frustrating as it was I owe a lot of my footwork to Palmolive.
And what’s your greatest weakness?
Tim Tams and slabs. Balancing chocolate.
I struggle with motivation more than anything, especially when it comes to injury and forced time off. A few years ago I slipped a disc in my lower back, I was on crutches and away from exercise for about nine months, it was heinous. Even now it’s a real problem child; I get sciatic nerve pain if I miss any rehab and it becomes near on impossible to keep tension in my feet when climbing – frustrating to say the least.
You’ve just gotten back from bouldering in Castle Hill, which is home to loads of soapy footers, how did you find the style compared to steep, grippy sandstone blocs?
The Castle Hill learning curve is certainly a visual one; low angled boulders summarise many a day spent having my arse and ego handed to me on numbers you can count to on Sesame Street. The style is about learning to take advantage of miniscule angle changes you can feel but not see – the ones that flick the switch between confusion and success. Apprehensive trust in chalked forearms and the glassy blind smear your rubber is squeaking on. I think I’ll stick to steep and sticky.
Who are you sponsored by?
Banner image: Amy on Twin Aretes (V3), Castle HIll. Image by Jack Folkes