18-year-old climber Georgia Pilkington is a British Para Climbing champion and two-time British Deaf Climbing Champion, who was diagnosed with autism two years ago.
In this interview we talk hairy climbing moments, finger strength training, and surviving mental meltdowns on The Matterhorn.
What is it about climbing that you love?
I love climbing because it makes me feel so at peace with everything else. It’s so relaxing and mindful. It’s also extremely fun and very challenging when the grade goes up. I do love problem solving, which is incorporated a lot in the moves on a route or boulder. I also love climbing outdoors and being part of nature. It’s so exhilarating.
You’ve climbed from an early age – where did it all start? Was climbing in the family?
I started climbing when I was 7 years-old, when my dad took me to the local climbing centre in South Molton, North Devon. Dad had never climbed before that point, but had done a lot of rope access for his job, so he learned how to belay really quickly, and then taught me to climb. As it turns out, I have an Alpine heritage; my family were part of the founding members of The Alpine Club in 1857. My Great Uncle, Charles Pilkington, had also climbed a lot in the peaks and Scotland when he was younger. He’s 96 now and is still able to wax lyrical about the Alps.
Wow! You went on to compete in junior climbing. How did your undiagnosed autism affect your competitions?
As I’ve gotten older my anxiety seems to have increased, especially my social anxiety, and in particular in competitions. 2015 was the last time I competed mainstream. I decided to quit competing as it was affecting my climbing and my love for it. I was forgetting why I climbed in the first place. I still compete in the Para Climbing Series as there is no stress involved – it’s very low-key, relaxed and friendly which suits me. I climb in the deaf category although there is an autism one and since my diagnosis this could be an option. Although my anxiety levels have not significantly decreased, these competitions have helped me feel a part of a climbing community with a fantastic group of very supportive climbers. I hope to compete in the next series this autumn.
You climbed the Matterhorn last August, which was an incredible achievement. How was your experience?
The Matterhorn was an epic experience, and one which has inspired me to climb another mountain again in the future. My main goal for this trip was to raise awareness for autism, and prove that an autism diagnosis doesn’t prevent you from doing what you want to do. My experience was a very personal journey. Unfortunately, I didn’t summit, and had to turn back 300m from the summit due to a snow storm. This was, though unplanned, an amazing and scary adventure as we had to suddenly abseil 6 pitches in near zero visibility, and then spend the night up The Matterhorn in the Solvay emergency hut. The next morning I awoke to the most breathtaking views as the sky had cleared and the sun was shining! That was certainly character building.
I’d never actually “climbed” a mountain before, only ‘walked’ Kilimanjaro two years ago, so this was definitely a new climbing experience for me. I got into a really good flow as I was climbing.
What was the most challenging element of your Matterhorn climb?
The most challenging part for me was getting through my meltdowns. Literally, the first pitch of fixed ropes, my brain began to shut down and I couldn’t function. My climbing partner Willis was very good and patient with me though, which I’m very grateful for.
Were there many moments where you just wanted to get off the mountain?
Oh yes, a few moments! Alpinism isn’t for the fainthearted! I call it secondary fun, because at the time it’s enjoyable but also horrendously tough and exhausting, and a big mental challenge, but once you’re off the mountain you just want to do it all over again!
You wrote that you suffered sensory overload during the climb. Do you feel climbing is more a mental test for you than a physical one, because of your autism?
Yes, climbing is definitely more of a mental test for me because of my sensory overload, anxiety and meltdowns. Even at training, it’s a constant battle to stay afloat and focused, which is now having a big impact. I do my best, and I have amazing support from my coach Mikey Cleverdon, and all my climbing friends.
Was your Matterhorn climb a huge confidence boost in terms of what you’re capable of?
The Matterhorn accent has definitely opened a lot of doors for me, and has made me more confident in climbing and in day-to-day situations, like going into a train station to buy a ticket, or the Co-op for some milk. It has helped me to believe in myself and my abilities, and whenever I remind myself that I did it, it does boost my confidence, especially in training, and on hard sport routes.
What type of climbing do you enjoy the most?
My favourite climbing is bouldering, as I love the freedom and the dynamic moves, but I also love leading route too. I love it all!
Do you have any favourite places in the world to climb?
One of my favourite places so far to climb is on Dartmoor Granite in Devon, and the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau in France. The top destination on my wish list is Yosemite National Park. Alex Honnold and Sasha Digulian are the main two climbers who have inspired me to climb there and tick off all the famous routes.
Have you had many hairy climbing moments?
Oh my goodness, the scariest moment was actually at training. I was leading on a slab route that then turned into a cruxy overhang, but at that point of transition I was also having a meltdown. I was so determined to finish the route so I kept going, but I was too focused on not shutting down and actually forgot to clip 3 chains. I then hit the crux move and I fell, but only realising my mistake when I was free falling through the air, nearly swinging into wall. Luckily I had an amazing belayer who caught me safely. Definitely very shaken after that. I won’t try that again!
What does a typical week of training look like for you right now?
My training week mainly happens at home nowadays, because I’m a fulltime college student. Mondays, I go to the normal gym early for a cardio session of spinning, then in the evening I will do a Beastmaker session and core workout. Sometimes, if I’m well enough, I’ll go to the climbing gym after college. Tuesday, I’ll go to the normal gym again for cardio, and also weight training and pull-ups. And sometimes will have a bouldering session on my own gym in the evenings.
Wednesdays are my rest days from training, but I go to the climbing wall and probably end up doing endurance training. Thursday evening is my training session with my Coach and other Quay Squad members, and I will do a lot in that time – endurance training, project bouldering, red pointing, strength and conditioning, core and dead hangs on the Beastmaker. I always do a full body warm-up before each session as well to avoid injury and to get psyched up.
Friday and the weekend will be climbing outdoors (weather permitting) and going for long runs around the country lanes where I live.
Do you set aside time to train your grip strength?
For finger strength training I do dead hangs, mainly on the Beastmaker. I also do reps on smaller holds on training walls, which build up my finger strength.
Do you have any challenges or big climbs coming up this year?
My next big project for 2017 is climbing Am Buachaille and Old Man of Stoer, along with Dan Lane and Final Crux Films, who will be making a short film of the climb. This will also aim to raise awareness for autism. I’m so excited about this, as I have never climbed in Scotland before, only for competitions at Ratho, so this will be an amazing new experience for me.
At present, although there are Deaf and Autistic categories in national BMC Para Climbing and international competitions, these aren’t recognised by the International Federation of Sports Climbing – excluding you from the Olympics. Are you hopeful this will change?
Yes, I’m gutted that Autism and Deaf categories haven’t yet been recognised by the IFSC. I love competing and climbing in the para climbing circuit. I’m very hopeful this will change though and would love to represent my country at the Paralympics one day, if climbing becomes a Paralympic sport. Autism impacts on my life daily, probably more so than my deafness. I don’t let it define who I am, but these disabilities do stop me from doing some things such as mainstream competitions and overly busy/noisy climbing situations which impact my autism and hinder my hearing ability.
What kit do you love for climbing, training and being outdoors?
I love my climbing shoes, and my favourite has to be the pink Five Ten High Angles which I get from Ellis Brigham. For training, I can’t live without my iPhone and earphones. Music really helps me to relax and stay psyched for training and going to the crag, plus I’m as passionate about music as I am with climbing so I am never without my music, ever! I love my little pink Snap Chalk Bag too; it’s an older version of the brand which is why it’s falling apart, but even when I have 5 other brand new chalk bags at home, I still use that one. I think it’s because it was my first ever chalk bag I won at a competition, so it’s like a lucky charm.
Who are your sponsors right now?
I’m proud to be an ambassador for Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports. They have been so amazing with helping me out with kit, and their support has been monumental. Also, I wouldn’t have got this far without the support from the Quay Climbing Centre.
Follow Georgia’s climbing journey on www.instagram.com/georgiia_pilkington