HALFWAY up a towering rugged crag and hanging by a fingertip, climber Robbie Phillips’ stomach churned horribly as he realised the brittle rock beneath his grip was crumbling into dust.
With a terrifying sheer plunge beneath him, he stretched, heart pounding, to clip his ropes securely into the next bolt – and fell.
It was a terrifying moment that makes the real-life Spider-Man-style climber still shiver. For while Hollywood’s Spidey superhero has been thrilling cinema audiences with his latest wall-climbing stunts in The Amazing Spider-Man, in real life scrambling up a sheer skyscraper-tall crag – even with rope and clips to prevent a certain death fall – is pure drama.
“As I pulled up to clip into the bolt in the rock, the hold snapped,” recalls Robbie, one of the country’s top sports rock climbers. “I fell. There was lots of rope slack so I swung and took this full front hit, my head missed the crag by inches and my hands were a mess.
“It was a really bad fall, the worst I’ve ever had.”
His hands scraped across the jagged rock face, ripping skin from around his nails and knuckles and leaving – as one graphic photograph taken moments later shows – fingers raw and bleeding.
For some, it might have been time to call it a day. But for Robbie, who has just notched up his most impressive climb ever, it was a case of dusting himself down and getting back up, and doing it all over again.
“It’s actually relatively safe,” grins the 22-year-old, who lives in Burdiehouse but is usually found at the climbing centre at Ratho putting the next generation of Spider-kids through their rock-climbing paces.
“I know it doesn’t look it, but when you’re going up the crag there are metal bolts in the wall that secure you. So I just climb up and clip in as I go along.
“The really big challenge with sport climbing is getting from the bottom up to the top without falling and without any assistance.
“If you do fall off, you have to come back down to the start and get straight back up there again.
“It’s a huge physical and a mental challenge.”
Robbie recently ticked the box on his rock climbing to-do list when he conquered an 8C graded route in Spain. Routes are graded depending on the technical difficulty, strength and stamina required from the climber and, of course, the level of danger, with 1 being the easiest. Indeed, the routes he tackles are so challenging that if anyone attempted to tackle them without using the bolts already in place – known as traditional climbing – they would almost certainly plunge to their death. Which, admits Robbie’s mum, Margaret – whose legs buckle at the notion of climbing a ladder – is something she would rather not think about too much.
“Every time he heads off somewhere, the last thing I say to him is ‘stay safe’. But how can you control a passion like he has? You just can’t,” she shrugs.
“If you’re a mother and love your children, you want them to be happy. But I don’t particularly enjoy looking at some of the photos of him climbing.”
Margaret, who with Robbie’s dad, Peter, runs Splash Bathrooms in Currie, says she saw Robbie’s determination to climb grow from the first time he tackled a climbing wall at a friend’s party.
“No-one in our family climbs,” she says, “so when he started, I’d be the one at the bottom of the lead wall holding the rope with my heart in my mouth. I have no idea where he got the climbing instinct from, but it wasn’t from me or his dad.”
Yet it’s obviously stamped somewhere in his genes. For having started to climb just eight years ago at the relatively “mature” age of 14, he’s now ranked among the country’s leaders in the sport.
Hopes are high that should his style of climbing be granted Olympic status for the 2016 Rio games, Robbie Phillips will be there in some capacity or other, either taking part himself or as team coach to the next generation of rock-climbing stars.
“There are some kids that I’m coaching just now who are absolutely amazing for their age,” says Robbie, who is British and Scottish junior team coach and takes youngsters for specialist training every week at Ratho.
“The important thing in climbing is how you move on the wall, so you make it as easy as possible. When people get into climbing a bit later, it’s difficult to learn this particular stable body technique, while kids pick it up really quickly.
“Kids love to climb and some have no fear. Some are just incredible.”
Starting at 14 meant Robbie had to battle hard to work his way up the grades. And with his school, George Watson’s College, tending to focus more on field sports like rugby, cricket and football, indulging in climbing meant finding time at weekends and in evenings.
“My mum would drive me to Alien Rock 2 and then to EICA at Ratho, then sit for hours and wait for me. Eventually, when I was old enough, she’d drop me off and I’d spend the whole day there just climbing.
“Now I spend most of the year training in the gym and at the climbing wall, five to ten hours every day, seven days a week. I keep training to build myself up so when I go to do outdoor climbing at some of the really hard climbs, I can do them fairly easily.”
He funds his climbs thanks to sponsorship – his latest backer is porridge bar firm Stoats – and private training sessions, while the prospect of climbing entering the Olympics means more cash may soon flood into the sport.
Backing is vital if he is to top his latest and most impressive 8C climb in Spain, finally achieved after a daunting series of climbs that pummelled him physically and mentally.
“Only a few people in Scotland have achieved an 8C climb,” he says. “The higher the grade, the harder the rock face – 9A level is where I’d like to get to. Only a few people in the UK have ever done that.
“It’s not a question of just getting one grade and going straight for the next – I did around 20 8B+ climbs before even trying the next one up. What’s good is that I’m doing 8C climbs relatively quickly, I want to break down a few more before I try anything else. Achieving my 8C has motivated me. I now feel that 9A is not that far off if I keep going at my pace and training hard.”
While the sight of him clinging on to a towering crag or dangling on a rope hundreds of feet above the ground looks terrifying, Robbie shrugs off talk of danger and risk.
“I’ve actually never really had a ‘proper’ injury,” he points out, admitting he rarely even wears a protective helmet. “I train intelligently, so by the time I’m climbing I’m physically at a peak.
“As for a helmet, they’re mainly to protect you from rock falling down from above. In isolated areas where there’s not a lot of traffic then there’s more chance of that, but most routes I’m on that’s pretty unlikely.
“You make your own decisions. If I decide it’s too much of a risk, then I’d wear a helmet.
“Yeah,” he concludes, “there’s always that risk something could go wrong, but that’s part of the sport and in some ways part of the fun.”
n Go to http://www.robbiephillips.co.uk to read Robbie’s climbing blog or find out about personal coaching
Height of success
If he’s Spider-Man, then Robbie Phillips’ girlfriend, Natalie Berry, far right, must be Spiderwoman.
The 19-year-old from Glasgow now lives in Edinburgh and is among the leading women climbers in the country. She is currently climbing 8A graded routes.
Natalie, who trains at Ratho along with Robbie, has competed at world and European level. She is currently a member of the Great Britain senior team.
Robbie currently trains brothers William and Alexander Bosi. Broughton High pupil William, 12, climbs at 7B+ level outdoors and has been selected for the Great Britain climbing team. He clocked up the titles of British Champion, for boys aged 11 to 13, in the Youth Climbing Series and Scottish Youth Climbing Champion last year.
Brother Alexander, 15, of Stewart’s Melville, was crowned Under-16s British Speed Climbing Champion last year after scaling the 20m wall in 14.5 seconds.