As part of our Lifestyle Climbers series, we interview climbers that have made climbing their lifestyle.
In today’s article, we speak to Sophie Cheng and Brett Ffinch, also known as The Climbing Nomads. The pair run two YouTube channels, one based on their climbing adventures and another based on their experiences living and travelling in a van. They are also certified rock climbing and mountaineering instructors.
I caught up with the two of them over lockdown to learn more about their life on the road, motivations and how they took the plunge to dedicate their life to climbing.
Both a video and a written version of the interview are available below, check them out!
First of all could you guys give an introduction for those who may not know you?
Brett: So I’m Brett.
Sophie: I’m Sophie.
B: We run a YouTube channel called Climbing Nomads and we make videos about our own climbing adventures. We also do climbing tutorials and gear reviews, all based around climbing. When we’re not doing the YouTube stuff we’re also qualified Climbing and Mountaineering Instructors so we run climbing courses teaching other people how to climb, how to do the rope work and all that kinda stuff. So we travel around a lot and go climbing as much as we can.
S: Or teach climbing!
When did each of you get into climbing?
S: I was about 13 or 14 and it was through my school. They had a climbing club so I started climbing with them and just continued through university and beyond.
B: I got into it fairly young. My dad was actually a Marine so I think I was about five and some of my earliest memories are being dangled off cliffs and climbing mountains and abseiling off everything we could find. So I’ve kind of been climbing as long as I can remember in some form or another.
At what point was it something that you thought you could possibly turn into a career or a lifestyle?
S: For me it was when I was about 18 because the school I was at had an instructor programme as well. So they did a whole outdoor education programme so when you got to Year 11 you could become an instructor and teach the younger years. I started doing that and when I got to 18 decided that’s kind of what I wanted to do. So I went to university, did a different course but was always trying to work my way through my qualifications in the background and just do it that way and carry on climbing as well.
B: Pretty similar for me. I went to university but I wanted to study something I was actually going to be interested in, so I actually did a degree in Outdoor Education. Kind of just worked through the qualifications and jobs at different outdoor centres and different companies. I’ve never really done any other jobs so I guess… it’s what I’ve always done.
S: I had a bit of a break and did my teacher training and became a teacher so had a little bit of a…
B: You had a normal job for a while!
S: A secondary line of work for a little bit.
How did the Climbing Nomads and committing to YouTube come about?
B: We’d kind of reached a point where we were both working a lot.
S: I had a full time job, 9-5 and a lot of the weekend was taken up doing trips and things and Brett was still working freelancing and running a company for climbing and mountaineering. Every spare opportunity we had we were away at weekends or holiday time just doing what we do now, basically. It got to a stage where we decided to flip the lifestyle on its head.
B: Yeah we decided the work-life balance wasn’t quite working. We reversed some of that. With YouTube there were lofty ambitions.
S: Almost a curiosity in a way, I guess.
B: I think there were so many different bits. First of all we thought we might be able to make some income from this which would allow us to travel more and hopefully do some more climbing. That’s turned out to be… harder than we thought it was! It’s not a very good income. But it’s been a really fun process learning how to make the videos and it’s kind of been a new challenge. My life up until that point had been about chasing qualifications, about getting the next level of qualification, about trying to get higher statuses, trying to establish companies, that kind of side of it. I’d kind of reached as far as I was going to get and I guess this was a new challenge to start.
Did you feel that committing to van life after getting these qualifications, did you feel any societal pressure?
S: There was a lot of societal pressure to stay in a house.
B: Everybody was almost saying ‘aren’t you too old to be going off in a van and doing that stuff?’
S: It kind of makes sense.
B: It makes sense for us.
S: The more we thought about it before doing it, the more it made sense, logically and financially.
B: To be able to just go to the places we wanted to go to.
S: And not have all the overheads. So you cut down your lying expenses but then you don’t have all your massive overheads like bills and rent.
How would you define climbing for yourselves? A hobby, a lifestyle, a job?
S: Probably all of it.
B: Yeah, I think climbing, certainly for me, it’s what my entire life revolves around. All of my work is based around climbing. My social time… nearly all of my time is based around climbing, so it kind of I guess provides for me that central part of my identity or focus.
S: I think you identified as a climber before I did. I used to climb. I used to do instructing and working towards instructorship but I didn’t necessarily identify as a climber but I suppose now we both do because it’s quite all consuming. You climb for a living, you climb for a hobby and when you’re not doing either of those you’re still climbing or training for climbing.
B: Or watching other people climb. Yeah, I think it affects every aspect of our life in some way or another.
Being part of the climbing community on YouTube, that’s something that’s grown quite a bit over the last few years. Is that something you’ve found community in?
B: Yeah, a little bit. Again, we’ve made friends through our YouTube videos. People that we wouldn’t have got to know otherwise. We’ve got some great people who follow us who regularly comment on the videos and you do kind of build up a bit of a community through the videos and share in the successes and failures. And the same on Instagram, the people we follow, you’re kind of sharing in their journey as well. I feel more ingrained in the climbing community since we’ve been doing YouTube and the related social media side of that.
S: Yeah I suppose you feel like you have a bit more of a voice as well. We’re quite careful sometimes in how we phrase things and what we’re saying, because you know people are watching and could take it to heart or take it as gospel.
B: So we always try to set a good example and follow all the best practices and everything else as well.
Going back to the van, I’m curious to what sacrifices there are with living in a van?
B + S: Space!
B: Space is a premium.
S: Also weight, because we have to keep the weight down in the van as well, it can’t go over a certain limit, so there’s even more reason to buy alpine lightweight kit.
B: If we didn’t do climbing we’d have so much more space in the van! If we got rid of the bouldering pads we’d have loads of room, if we just did running or something. Space is a premium but also you just have to be really really aware of your logistics. Living in a van is all about how much water have you got, how much gas have you got, how much food? All of that sort of stuff. You’re continually monitoring it and trying to balance those out. In the house you kind of take for granted that you can turn on the tap and get water or you can plug things in and get electricity.
S: it’s quite amusing because if we go to a climbing centre we take all of our electricals.
B: We spend as long sat next to a plug socket as we do climbing.
S: You become more opportunistic!
B: It’s definitely not a carefree lifestyle, no stress or anything like that.
S: it can be more stressful I think.
B: Yeah I think it’s more stressful.
S: Just the living side of things. I know normal life has a lot more stresses but I think because water is at a premium I find something like a shower… we don’t have as many showers, you can’t just wake up in the morning and have one, get a bit dirty then have one in the evening because that would be all the water gone. We’re a bit more frugal with water.
B: Climbing walls with showers…
S: Are the ones we go to!
B: More climbing walls should have showers.
S: If there was a climbing wall with baths…
What advice would you have for anyone following in your footsteps and thinking of committing to van life?
B: Do all the research on it. Don’t just walk into it lightly and assume that it’s going to be an easy transition or think you can just live that way easily. There’s quite a lot of stuff that you might not initially think about. From just getting your post to where you can fill up with water, what happens if you get sick… there’s a lot of factors that you have to think about. It’s a bit more of a roller coaster. The highs are really good when it’s on a roll and everything is going great and you’re in a brilliant location and everything is working amazingly. Then it’s the greatest thing ever.
S: When you accidentally turn on the shower and soak all of the wardrobe that’s a low point. [laughs]
B: Or something breaks or you get the vehicle wedged somewhere then the low points counteract. If you’re thinking about doing it then look into it and if you think it’s going to work then go for it.
S: I think moving out of a house has it’s own logistics as well because our entire house contents isn’t in the van. We were umming and ahhing about getting storage somewhere centrally in the UK so we could always go back to it as a base to pick up stuff. We’ve got winter gear as well and camping equipment and things but they don’t travel with us… we split it between family members in the end! Our stuff is spread quite around the country.
B: Having a good support network definitely helps for sure.
You guys have what a lot of people might view as the quintessential climbing lifestyle. A lot of people in the past who lived this kind of lifestyle were quite carefree and weren’t necessarily thinking of the future. How does it work for you guys with this. Is it a longterm plan, are you doing it for now because it works?
B: I think a bit of both.
S: That kind of lifestyle in the past they were fresh out of school or university and they had no responsibilities. They weren’t married and they didn’t have mortgages to look at. We’ve kind of gone through various stages of life already to the point where this isn’t quite like that.
B: We said from the start if we were going to do it we wanted to do it fairly comfortably. We were willing to make sacrifices but we wanted to have heating in the van and a shower in the van. We weren’t going to full dirtbag rough it.
S: Future-wise I have no idea how long it’ll last. As long as it can I suppose.
B: As long as it can. It’s working right now and we’re doing everything we can to make it a sustainable lifestyle for us.
S: I suppose the ultimate dream is to get completely financially self-sufficient through YouTube alone to earn enough money to then fully commit to just travelling and YouTube and have that take over from the freelance climb based work. That would give us the freedom to move all around the world, not just Europe. But you’ve kind of give YouTube enough time to grow to see whether that is working and I suppose at what point do you realise if it is or isn’t working? I guess that will be the crunch time.
Alongside this you guys do mountain instructing and climbing instructing. How does that fit in?
B: That actually provides the bulk of our income, running climbing courses either for ourselves or freelancing for other companies and other people running courses. And we do little bits of routesetting at climbing walls or whatever we can to earn money by the side because YouTube doesn’t pay loads right now… hopefully in the future.
S: We don’t earn a lot of money but we don’t need a lot of money.
Have you found that YouTube has helped get your name out there a bit more for those jobs?
S: Weirdly enough I’d say yes.
B: A little bit. I think it’s helped… I think people like to book a course almost knowing the person, knowing the face of the person hey’re booking the course with. Like when we first spoke to you, you said you felt like you already knew us, so I think that helps some people.
S: I don’t think people realise a lot through YouTube that we can run a course for them. So it’s only relatively new that we’ve had people approach us via YouTube or we’ve had people say, “We’ve watched you on YouTube, can we have a climbing course?” So the climbing company and YouTube were a little bit separate to start with but they seem to be slowly merging into one.
B: Yeah, it helps.
What is it about climbing keeps you coming back and led you to commit to it so heavily? What do you think it is about the sport?
B: I find it such a varied sport, particularly because we do all the different disciplines within climbing, we do bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, indoor climbing and outdoor climbing. It’s always varied and there always seems to be a new challenge to work towards. I’ll go climbing somewhere and inevitably come away with a new project that I really want to get done so I have to go away and practice and get stronger or better. And it just takes you to the most amazing places as well.
S: I think it’s quite all consuming. It’s very physical but also mental as well. The nature of figuring out a move or a problem or something. There’s all the other side of it like tweaking your diet to maximise your climbing, or the way you live, how does that impact on your climbing. I don’t know there just seems to be quite a draw to it because there’s so many different aspects to it which is quite interesting.
B: I’ve had lots of bad days climbing but I’ve never had a boring day climbing.
S: I’ve had days where I’ve wished I’d chosen something else [laughs]
B: Yeah… I don’t know… it’s fun!
S: It’s addictive in some ways. You incrementally get better so you want to do a bit more and get even better and it just continues. So you’re continually trying to get better and better. I think as a beginner you can quickly see gains so it draws you in very rapidly because you feel like you’re accomplishing something rather than having to master some elite sport straight out.
Last question. What are your current aims and goals at the moment?
B: Long term goal is to try and get up to 8A/8a in both bouldering and sport climbing. I think it’s going to take a little bit more work. Lockdown has definitely slowed down progress somewhat on that.
S: You’ve made serious gains in some of the training.
B: Yeah, my fingers are stronger, just everything else has forgotten how to climb.
S: I think our goals are very similar. Pretty much the same. Climb an 8A/8a. If I climb one I probably won’t be satisfied so I want to establish that grade I guess, 8A boulder and 8a sport.
B: So that’s the goal and it’ll be a fun journey whether we get there or not.
S: Or old age hits us before then!
B: Yeah I mean that’s just the latest goal. There will be another one.
I guess that’s the thing as you were saying Sophie, there’s always a new step and a new goal and a new target.
B: We don’t really have any competition or trad goals. We do trad climbing but we’re less willing to push ourselves on our trad climbing. Yeah, see how long it takes.
Fingers crossed for you, good luck!
B: Thanks, we’re gonna need it!