Vertical Life speaks to long-time boulderer, Tom Farrell
For someone who’s not even 30 it feels like Tom Farrell has been on the Australian climbing scene for a long time – and he has. Having started as a six-year-old, Tom’s now been climbing for 26 years. For much of that time he’s been one of the leading lights of the Oz bouldering scene, whether it’s competing indoors or out on the rock. Tom probably first entered the Australian climbing consciousness in 2005, when as a 16-year-old he came third in the Australian Bouldering Nationals. Since then he’s had many more successful comps. In 2016 he was crowned the National Bouldering Champion, while last year he came second. Overseas he’s had some great results as well. In 2014 he came 12th at the Toronto Bouldering World Cup, 13th at the Vail World Cup and 15th at the Innsbruck World Cup. Outdoors he’s been bouldering at a high standard for a long time, putting up new lines like Double Demerits (V13/14) as well as repeating many hard classics around Sydney and further afield, including The Manhattan Project (V13) in Sydney, Cherry Picking (V13) in the Grampians, the massive dyno of Airstar (V13) in the Rocklands, along with many others.
Can you give us the Thomas Farrell elevator pitch.
I’m a 29-year-old roof-fixing, mountain-biking rock climber.
How did Little Thomas get his start in climbing?
My dad was into climbing. He used to take me to The Climbing Centre at Penrith every Friday from when I was about six years old. A couple of years later my parents opened a climbing gym and that was that.
You’ve been climbing a long time now, what is it that has kept the fire burning within?
Motivation can be a tricky thing. There are times when I just climb because it keeps me fit, but at some point I’ll find a cool project or get schooled by some mates and then motivation becomes easy.
As well as climbing outdoors a lot, you’ve also competed indoors with a great deal of success – what do you get out of competing that is different to climbing outdoors?
I like competition. I think it’s just another way to test yourself. Also, having that one day where you have to perform gives me a certain amount of motivation that I don’t always have on rock because I have time to climb myself into good form or I can always come back.
Are there differences between what makes a good comp climber and a good outdoors climber?
At the pointy end, I don’t think so. In comps and outdoors, to have success you need to be well rounded, strong, confident and have a solid head game. The top guys seem to be able to crossover with great success. The ones that struggle to crossover I think are missing one of those attributes.
How do you approach a comp boulder differently than an outdoor boulder?
For comp boulders I always look for the crux and try and figure a few different options for that sequence, but I never lock myself into one option because once you’re on the wall things can seem very different. On rock it’s kind of the same process except you have to prepare a nice runway first.
Why have you concentrated on bouldering as opposed to roped climbing?
When I was a kid there was no bouldering at the World Championships, only onsight climbing. At the time I hated that because I was a much better boulderer and being a kid I got a little bitter about rope climbing. So when I got my driver’s license all I wanted to do was boulder either in comps or on stone.
That said, lately we’ve seen you getting out on a rope, what’s motivated you to make this change?
At first it was because summer in Sydney sucks for climbing and the Blue Mountains is a lot nicer this time of year. Once I got out a few weekends in a row and found some fitness I really started to enjoy it and wanted to see how fit I could get. Turns out it’s pretty fun too.
You’ve instantly had some success on a rope, climbing Mechanical Animals (33) at Boronia, how have you found the transition to the cord?
It’s been fun and a totally different process to working hard boulders. Most of the time I have been able to do the moves of climbs quickly but have to spend a lot of time refining the small details to make it more efficient. It has also been a little less frustrating because there are so many ways to make progress. For me, figuring out a climb or boulder is the fun part, trying to send can kinda suck.
Have there been any particular ascents that you’ve done – on either boulders or routes – that have been particularly memorable for you and why?
Airstar (V13) in Rocklands because it was a boulder I had wanted to do for years. It ticked all the boxes I look for in a line: tall, committing and dynamic climbing. It was the last climbing day of the trip and I had three bleeding tips but I got lucky!
Few people could have bouldered around Sydney as much as you have, what would be your top five Sydney boulders and why?
- Pizzarete (V8) – prefect slopey arête that feels impossible until it feels easy.
- L’homme obu (V11) – it’s world class and would be great anywhere.
- The Manhattan project (V13) – Two move wonder. I spent more time on this than any other boulder. My favourite in Sydney.
- J1 (V13) – The only boulder I’ve ever done with a bat hang.
- The Pincer Movement (V5) – A sharp fin that I repeat every time I go to the Balkans.
Apart from being a serial killer or working as a professional dismemberer of our animal cousins, how does one end up with the nickname Thomas ‘the Butcher’ Farrell?
‘The Butcher’ was given to me randomly by Matt Adams when he was commentating at a comp back in the day and it stuck from that. I like to think it’s because I ‘carve it up’!
Are ‘powerful’ legs a help or hindrance in climbing? And is it true that you used to deadlift until you passed out to get your pins so powerful?
It goes both ways – I definitely can’t hold tiny holds as well as some of the leg-day-skippers but there are times when it’s a big advantage. Like toeing down or hucking and I consider those things as some of my strengths so there must be a connection.
Haha no, no passing out was required in pursuit of powerful pins. I mountain bike ride a lot and there have been periods when I ride way more then I climb. Only in the last year I have started doing gym work.
How has your training evolved over time? What do you do nowadays?
My training has always been based around doing hard moves, I spend most of my time making hard boulders and campusing on a woody. Up until about one year ago that was pretty much all I did. I would hang board every now and then but never for more than a couple weeks. I would also climb a lot and have maybe one or two rest days a week. This year that has changed quite a bit. I now do two weight sessions, two climbing sessions and rest Friday so I can get on rock Saturday and Sunday. This came about because I was struggling with a few niggling injuries after 23 years of climbing. The extra rest between climbing sessions has been great! I have less injuries and have been feeling stronger than ever.
Do you have any climbing heroes (and why)?
Not really heroes but when I was younger I got a lot of help, advice and lifts to crags from a heap of legends. Al Price, James Kassay, Chris Webb and Ben Cossey were guys that really helped shape me into the climber I am.
What is the best piece of advice that you ever received?
Just to be consistent. This has always been hard for me but I get the best result when I am consistent.
As one of the elder statesmen of Australian bouldering, do you have any advice for the up-n-comers?
Work on your weaknesses!
Who are the bouldering kids that we should be keeping an eye on?
There is a group of young guys that are taking over Sydney at the moment. The best part is they are all super supportive and have great attitudes. The Healy twins, Elijah Mercado, Yossi Sundakov-Krumins and Tom Hislop are the ones I would be keeping an eye on.
We hear that there are increasing access issues around Sydney, what do you think this can be attributed to?
From what I have been told its due to Aboriginal significance, which is a tricky issue. There were whispers that a few people may have been playing loud tunes and having BBQs at the area that was closed, which is 30m from houses. This is a bad look for climbers and is something that we as a community will have to address as climbing continues to grow. Climbers need to be respectful outdoor enthusiasts.
Tom is sponsored by Nomad Bouldering Gym, Scarpa and Outdoor Agencies.
Banner image: Tom on Airstar (V13), Rocklands, South Africa. Image by Nuno Monteiro