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IRELAND’S RICKY BELL AND MICHAEL DUFFY DISCUSS THE SCENE Words: Briana Palma Ricky Bell and Michael Duffy make a somewhat unusual rock climbing team. Yet despite their differences, the duo have motivated each other to stay in the game and trade in the nine-to-five for a life devoted to the sport. Just like the big wave surfers who put Ireland on the map by conquering Aileens, Bell and Duffy are tackling world-class routes like The Rathlin Effect in Co Antrim and Soul Revolution in Co Wicklow, slowly giving Ireland a name for rock climbing. Briana Palma finds out exactly what makes them tick and what they think about Ireland’s rock climbing scene, past, present and future.

Firm friends – boulderer Michael Duffy and trad climber Ricky Bell. (Photo: Malcolm McGettigan)

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Michael Duffy bouldering in Muckross.

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n paper, rock climbers Ricky Bell and Michael Duff y appear to be opposites in many ways. Bell, who hails from Belfast, is a traditional climber who spends much of his time in the Mourne Mountains; Dublin man Duff y on the other hand focuses his energy on bouldering in the Wicklow Mountains. The two even differ in their appearances – Bell, 29, is slender with curly hair while 30-year-old Duff y is brawny with a shaved head – and, of course, there’s the contrast in their accents.

“Between the two of us, we’ve got completely different skill sets, so it doubles our knowledge. We’ve got a broad base of knowledge that we’re keen to share with people.” Still, despite their differences, Bell and Duffy have teamed up, not only to push each to become better climbers but also to develop the sport of rock climbing in Ireland, which, they say, lags behind countries like the UK and France by 10 years or more. “We’ve got different skill sets, so I can learn from him all the little bouldering tricks that I need to get better at movement and strength training. And Michael, I don’t know, what do you learn from me?” Bell asks his friend with a laugh.

“Movement,” Duff y replies, sincerely. “Our thing is that we basically develop the country. If we weren’t doing it, somebody else would be later down the line but it’s just happened that that’s what we do. We fell into it at the right time when nobody else was really doing it. We share all this information: maps, locations, training information, how to get better.”

Types of rock climbing

Two heads are better than one The duo “fell into it” after years of rock climbing, both having discovered the sport as children of 10 or 11 years old. Duff y began climbing with Scouts, while Bell inherited his love for the sport from his parents, who are also avid climbers. But it wasn’t until they were in their late teens that the two men struck up a friendship, one which has proved to be hugely significant not only for them as climbers, but also for them as people.

Traditional or trad climbing: The climber carries all necessary gear with him, though he doesn’t use any tools to help ascend. They are simply used to stop a fall. Ropes are usually attached to gear that has been placed into the face of the rock in order to protect the climber from a fall before he moves higher. If going solo, the climber will remove his gear from the rock on the descent, but if accompanied by a partner, the second climber will take on this role as he ascends.

Ricky Bell explains the difference between his and Michael Duffy’s styles of climbing: “I go a little bit higher and he climbs a little bit harder.” But what exactly are these two doing when they go out rock climbing?

Bouldering: The focus here is on strength and movement. No harness or rope is used as the routes – often referred to as “problems” – are shorter and closer to the ground, reaching a maximum height of 25 feet. The climber can place a crash pad underneath himself to help protect from falls. Sport climbing: In this growing style of climbing, bolts and anchors needed for safety are permanently fixed into the rock, and the climber clips himself to these. The routes, which have already been set out for the climber, are usually high intensity but shorter than Ricky Bell on Very Big Springs E7 in the Burren. (Photo: Ron Browner)

traditional routes.

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Michael Duffy working on the Pit Project.

“I just feel that it would be a very lonely place without you,” Duff y says looking at Bell. “That’s how small the place is – that there’s nobody else doing what he’s doing; there’s nobody else doing what I’m doing. I’ll tell you, I would have stopped climbing probably about eight or 10 years ago if I hadn’t been inspired by him. I got to that crossroads where I was like, ‘Right, either I get back into climbing or just leave it aside.’ He was starting to develop up north and I thought, ‘I want to get to know him. He’s amazing. He’s inspiring.’” The appreciation and respect is mutual, as Bell says he’s learnt a great deal from Duff y, not only about the physical aspects of climbing – “he’s really, really, really strong”, Bell says – but also about the mental fortitude needed to push oneself to a higher level. Bell explains: “There are a lot of people that have the skills to do things but they just never get them done. Michael’s taught me a lot about how to actually apply

yourself to do things that are closer to your limit, whereas I feel like a lot of the things I was doing before, I was definitely going to do them; my skills were high enough to allow me to do those things.” Reaching new heights in Ireland The two men have no doubt helped push each other to new heights in the climbing world; though both are humble when talking about themselves, each freely praises the other for climbing at a world-class or near word-class level. Likewise, they have worked together to advance Ireland’s underthe-radar climbing scene as a whole. The two say that interest in climbing has been on the rise in Ireland over the last five years, but that we’re still lagging behind. For example, Bell and Duff y talk about Awesome Walls in Finglas, Co Dublin, where they work part time as route setters. “Fifteen years ago, people weren’t climbing on climbing walls in Ireland,” Bell says. Duff y adds: “There are hundreds of them

in the UK, and there have been for 20 or 30 years. So literally, we’re 20 or 30 years behind them if you look at it like that. But the two of us have just ignored all that. We went out, found loads of rock and just fast forwarded the whole development thing.” The two are always attempting new routes and projects, with Duff y devoting himself primarily to bouldering, a type of rock climbing which was virtually unheard of in Ireland a decade ago. Bell on the other hand says he’s adding to a legacy of trad climbing that already exists in Ireland and expects to continue for another 10 years or so before passing the baton to someone else. The two are also trying to develop and advocate for sport climbing, which requires equipment to be fixed into the rock. They admit, however, that it’s a contentious issue here in Ireland despite being a wellestablished and widely accepted type of rock climbing in other countries. On average, both men go out climbing about five days a week, though they say that number depends on a few different factors, such as the type of project they’re working on, weather and family commitments, especially for Duff y who has two small children. One of the great things about Ireland, both Duff y and Bell say, is that there will never be a shortage of routes to discover and projects to conquer. To date, Duff y has been first to crack more than 200 bouldering routes and names Contact (8a+), Wonderland (8b) and Soul Revolution (8b+) – all found in Wicklow – as the most rewarding. Likewise, Bell has a long list of accomplishments that includes first ascents of The Complete Scream, An Bealach Eile and The Rathlin Effect, all grade E8 6c climbs located at Fair Head in Co Antrim. “You know you don’t have the time in your life to do all these things [that are possible in Ireland],” Bell says with excitement in his voice. “That’s really fresh. It’s not like rocking up to the same crag that everybody climbs at and the routes are all slightly polished. There’s less adventure

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in that. We find new stuff all the time. You look at these things and you’re like, ‘It’s world-class and it’s 20 minutes from my house and nobody knows it’s there.’” Duff y echoes that sentiment: “That’s the most inspiring thing – that you haven’t got enough time to do it all. So every morning you wake up and you’re like, ‘Well, I better get going,’” he says with a laugh.

“To date, Duffy has climbed more than 200 first ascents and names Contact (8a+), Wonderland (8b) and Soul Revolution (8b+) – all found in Wicklow – as the most rewarding.”

From passion to profession Though Duff y and Bell spend lots of time out in the mountains on their own – “in a bubble”, as they describe it – in 2012 they decided to put all their energy into climbing, leaving behind careers in architecture and engineering, respectively, to establish their business The Beta Coach, which is based at Awesome Walls. While they admit that getting out climbing is their main priority, the business allows them to further the sport by passing on their knowledge and skills to others through lessons and workshops. It also gives them the flexibility to be outside in the mountains as much as possible. “Could you imagine spending all this time in your life trying to figure out how

to get better at something and then not having the gumption to pass it on or use that as a career?” Bell says. “Between the two of us, we’ve got completely different skill sets, so it doubles our knowledge. We’ve got a broad base of knowledge that we’re keen to share with people.” Through coaching activities, Bell and Duff y have become more a part of the community that’s recently sprung up around the sport, largely in part to Awesome Walls becoming an “epicentre” for climbers in Ireland, according to Duff y. Otherwise, the pair says they would remain quite isolated, whereas the climbing centre allows people to come together to train and share their passion for climbing. The Beta Coach business and the route

Ricky Bell on the first ascent of the Big Skin E8 6c. (Photo: Craig Hiller)

setting work at Awesome Walls have also given Bell and Duff y insight into the future of rock climbing in Ireland, and it looks promising. “When you see the kids, it inspires you yourself,” Duff y says. “All of a sudden you can see that in 10 years’ time they’ll be way better than you and developing way more stuff.” He and Bell are sure that, just as they’ve done over the last 10 years, the next generation of climbers will bring the sport to a new level in Ireland, helping to close the gap that still exists between us and other countries. “We’ve got the rock; that’s all that matters,” Bell says. “You know, whenever we’re old farts there will be wee kids warming up on the things we spent years trying.”

Ricky Bell, jug in hand, on Fair Head’s Rocafella E7 6c

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Outsider Magazine: Lead Climbers