Lifestyle Climbers: An Interview with Oli Grounsell

stills of a zoom interview between oli grounsell and sam peckett

As part of our Lifestyle Climbers series, we interview climbers that have made climbing their lifestyle.

In today’s article, we speak to Lattice Training coach Oli Grounsell. Lattice offer a variety of training plans and assessments to improve performance, and Oli has been working for them since he finished university in 2016.

His climbing experience includes being part of the GB team in his teens, an extended climbing trip across North America, Australia and China and a number of impressive ascents. Oli now lives in Sheffield where he can continue to develop his climbing in the Peak District while working as a coach.

Hey Oli. First things first, how did you get started with climbing?

I went to a birthday party when I was about 10 or 11 and just really enjoyed climbing and carried on.

What was it about climbing that first appealed to you?

I’m not sure really. At the very start I just enjoyed the movement of it. I enjoyed climbing up stuff and it feeling okay. The thing I like most about climbing is making things that initially feel hard eventually feel easy. But also the aesthetics of it, so going to cool places and climbing on good bits of rock.

Can you take me through your climbing career from first getting started up until going to university?

My parents and family don’t climb, so at first I just went to a kids climbing group after this party for a few years. I made a friend whose Dad was really into climbing so he started taking us out into the Peak District quite a bit. 

At the same time I was doing competitions, as they’re quite big within climbing as well. I ended up getting into the British team when I was about 14 and I was on it for a year and didn’t get in during the next trials. But during that time I realised I just really liked climbing outdoors and not so much the competitive element of it. They invited me back for a retrial but I wasn’t keen.

After that I just carried on climbing outside and that’s what I’ve done since. By the time I got to uni I was pretty experienced with climbing outside.

Oli climbing on his home turf in Burbage South.

What was it about climbing outdoors that appealed to you more than competitions?

When I was younger I think I didn’t deal with the competitive nature of the competitions very well, it felt like a lot of pressure. You had to perform on the day. It was very much on their time, not your time. With outdoor climbing if you don’t feel like doing something on a given day you just don’t do it, you just wait until the day you feel good. Having to be at your best on a specific day when you’re 13 or 14 was stressful at the time and I didn’t really like it.

I guess climbing outdoors is more on your own terms.

Yeah it’s all self directed. If you want to have an easy day you can have an easy day. I just prefer being outside to being at a climbing wall and to reach the level you need to be to win these competitions it means training indoors 5 or 6 days a week.

How did climbing impact where you went to university?

When I was 17 in terms of careers I was thinking of going down the mountain guide route. I was pretty adamant I was going to do that but my parents were pretty keen for me to go to university. We kind of made a deal that I’d just apply to Bangor University and if I didn’t get in I’d go down the mountain guide route. 

In terms of universities it was a toss up between Sheffield and Bangor because they’re both great for climbing so I thought if I went to university I could have really good climbing nearby. Given I was from Sheffield I just applied for Bangor and I got in and I ended up doing a Sports Science degree.

You said you were interested in being a mountain guide. Did you think being a climber as something you could do as a career?

At the time mountain guiding seemed like a good idea because it seemed like an easy way to be outside and climbing all the time. But once I got to university and I gave it a bit more thought, even though you are outside all the time and climbing it’s not necessarily the climbing you want to be doing, and it’s pretty tiring so it leaves you tired for your own climbing. So when I was at uni I started going down coaching sport climbing rather than hill walking or mountain guiding.

How did you get into coaching?

When I was about 16 and still in Sheffield I used to volunteer with a kids group in an instructor and coach role, I think it was for my Duke of Edinburgh Award or something. I had a bit of experience from that and did the same at uni and volunteered helping out with the local teams a few times a week.

Did you then start to think that was something you’d be interested in doing as a career at that point?

Kind of, yeah. At the end of uni I planned on going on a long climbing trip and was having to save some money so I was doing a bit of freelance coaching off of my own back. I messaged Tom Randall [from Lattice Training], he owns a wall in Loughborough so I was asking him if I could do any freelance coaching there and at that point he’d just started Lattice Coaching. Instead of offering me freelance coaching work he said that he could offer a few hours work a week helping with some initial plans. So I started doing that, a few hours a week at first.

The good thing about Lattice is that I can do it remotely, so as I was travelling around and climbing I was slowly doing more and more work, so I think within about two years it went from about two hours a week to about 20 hours a week.

Oli climbing in China.

You mentioned this trip after university. Could you tell me a bit about it?

I went to Canada for a few months. We were going to go into the US but we didn’t get let in at the border, so we went to Mexico. Mexico is so cheap that we ended up being there for about three months or so.

We planned on going to Australia for two or three months, but we didn’t have that much money, so we were planning for working for a month or so on a farm and using that money to climb for a couple of months then head back to the UK. But I couldn’t get any work when I first got to Australia, so by the time I got some work it had already been a few months and I ended up staying the whole year and working there a bit. After that I went to China for three months then came back to the UK.

What was your motivation with the trip?

I wouldn’t say there were any specific goals or routes I had in mind. It’s just nice going climbing and not having anything else to think about. Basically we just wanted to go climbing for as long as we could and put off work for as long as possible. For the US part of the trip, which we didn’t get to do, we had some specific goals like Yosemite. A lot of climbers aspire to climb El Capitan and I guess that was the only thing before leaving the UK I wanted to do. But that trip didn’t go ahead and we ended up going to Mexico with no routes in mind, just learnt more and more about the good climbing the more we got chatting to people.

That was probably the highlight really. No expectations and what we found was really good and unique climbing. It was really good.

It’s just nice going climbing and not having anything else to think about. Basically we just wanted to go climbing for as long as we could and put off work for as long as possible.

Did you ever feel pressure to do something not climbing related?

I did some work experience at school at an architect firm and didn’t really enjoy that. I think if I wasn’t working for Lattice now I’d probably do something like routesetting or my own coaching, so probably something within climbing, or some casual labour where I could pick it up and leave it and go on climbing trips in between. 

I think career-wise it’d have to be climbing-based but if I was just wanting to climb, I’d be happy to do other jobs to earn a bit of money and then go climbing.

That was probably the highlight really. No expectations and what we found was really good and unique climbing. It was really good.

How do you think it’d affect you if you couldn’t climb?

I’ve thought about that quite a bit. It’d be really weird. I guess lockdown was the closest I got to that but luckily before lockdown was getting too bad I decided to build a wooden climbing wall in in the garden so I could do a little bit. I’ve never really had it so that I couldn’t go climbing. I think it’d probably affect me less than it would have in the past.

I think in your teenage years or around 20 I think if you’ve been into climbing a long time you can get quite wrapped up into the climbing forming your identity. If you’re used to climbing hard and you don’t climb hard for a while you lose a sense of your identity. I think that kind of thing definitely stays with all climbers probably forever. I like to think the older you get the less you need that kind of assurance via climbing in your identity. But I think if throughout lockdown I hadn’t been able to do any climbing at all it’d have got to me, for sure.

I think in your teenage years or around 20 I think if you’ve been into climbing a long time you can get quite wrapped up in climbing forming your identity.

Do you see climbing as a big part of your identity?

Yeah I still see climbing as a massive part of my identity, but I maybe don’t need to do a hard route, or hard for me, to feel assured of my identity.

So do you think there’s something about proving yourself through how hard you can climb?

Yeah, I think the more climbing you do the better you get and that’s probably the reason. I think when you’ve not done loads and you’re starting to push yourself harder and harder you do think: “If I do this route, it’ll mean a lot to me” and that forms part of your identity and it probably takes a while to get over that.

Thanks to Oli for the great opportunity to chat and learn more about how he made climbing his lifestyle.

Be sure to follow him on Instagram and check out the great work that Lattice Training do.

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