Ricky making a ground up ascent of Very Big Springs E7 6c, The Burren © Ron Browner
Belfast based Ricky Bell has been the undisputed star of the climbing scene in Ireland since he broke through in the mid noughties. He has dabbled with most climbing styles but is a trad climber at heart; his track record of hard repeats and first ascents in Ireland shows this in spades.
Ricky started climbing in 1994, having already been inducted at an early age into an adventurous lifestyle by his mum and dad.
“My parents introduced me and my sisters to adventures from an early age. They took us out into the hills, down rivers and into the sea. Rocks and ropes where always my favourite.”
Family holidays consisted of camping trips (in a “grotty trailer tent”) to some of Britain and Ireland's best climbing locations, namely North Wales, Scotland, the Lakes and the Peak. Closer to home Fair Head, the Mourne Mountains and The Burren became regular destinations.
“I was lucky to have had a good apprenticeship early on. I went climbing with my family, and that's the best way to start. My mum used to give me beta all the time for the routes she could remember leading. Looking back on this now I think it's lovely.”
As Ricky got older he was taken under the wing of some of the big faces in the Irish climbing scene:
“Phil Holmes took me up harder routes and taught me some valuable skills. Ali Moles and Ron Browner encouraged me onto the harder routes. With these two I onsighted my first E5 and clipped my first F8a.”
While some of his peers (Si Moore, for example) left Ireland, tempted by the Pennine crags and training facilities of Sheffield, Ricky stayed in Belfast and studied Engineering at University. Any spare time was spent exploring the delights of Fair Head and the Mournes.
Ricky’s extensive tick list from 2005, his final year at university, showed considerable progress: Pressure Point E6 6b/c in the Mournes, Primal Scream E6 6b at Fair Head, Mushroom Boyz E7 6c in the Mournes, Jokerman E6 6b at The Burren, Thrill Issues of the Jellyman E7 6b, a first ascent in the Mournes, Faith E7 6c at The Burren, The Complete Scream E8 6b a first ascent at Fair Head (described by Ben Heason as “one of the best routes of it’s type in Britain”), We’re all Learning E7 6c a first ascent in the Mournes, Very Big Springs E7 6c a ground up ascent at The Burren, The Rainbow of Recalcitrance E6 6b in the Dinorwig slate quarries and The End of the Affair E8 6c at Curbar.
First ascent of The Big Black E7 6c, Fairhead © Danny O'Neill
During the following years Ricky became ever more absorbed in hard trad climbing and exploration.
“I'd met one of my best friends, Craig Hiller, photographer and fellow rock cleaner, and we found an amazing partnership in our love for running around the Mournes finding new lines and listening to electronic music.”
In 2006 he soloed the second ascent of Si Moore’s Crystal Methods E8 6c on Binnian North Torr in the Mournes. The following year he made the second ascent of The Rockafella E7 6b, “a perfect line” at Fair Head. Then in 2007 he got the first ascent of Where the Grass is Green E7 6c – another of the best E7s at Fair Head.
Divided Years, John Dunne’s remarkable route on Buzzard’s Roost in the Mournes remained the biggest challenge. Ricky had seen it when he first started climbing and had vowed to himself that he would climb it one day. The route had been repeated by Dave Birkett and Dave McLeod but no Irishman had done the deed. In 2008, and after some epic, sweeping falls, Ricky became the “first Guinness drinker”, as he puts it, to climb the route. Originally given E10, it has settled to E8; regardless of the grade it remains a major highpoint in Ricky’s climbing life.
In the following years Ricky continued to pick off extraordinary first ascents. Highlights included The Big Skin E8 6c at Fair Head, The Thing in the Forest E7 6c in the Cooley Mountains, (which he did ground up), and Sleazy Lover E8 6c on the spectacular East Face of Lower Cove in the Mournes.
In 2011 Ricky produced his finest new route when he succeeded on the magnificent prow of the Rathlin Wall at Fair Head to produce The Rathlin Effect E8 6c:
“It's probably the hardest, and in my biased opinion, the best route in the country. It took about six sessions to actually find the line and clean it before I could climb on it. It runs through some really steep terrain so I had to aid climb the bottom section and clean it that way.”
Ricky has travelled widely around the world, climbing at many of the high profile venues in France, Majorca, Sardinia, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada and the US. Despite all that he lists a number of classic trad routes in America as holding the finest memories for him. That list includes Positive Vibrations 5.11c on the Incredible Hulk in the High Sierra and various Yosemite routes such as The Alien 5.12b, The Bachar/Yerian 5.11c X, Astroman 5.11c, The Regular North West Face – Half Dome 5.12a and The Nose on El Capitan.
Ricky is also a keen boulderer and has visited Fontainebleau almost ever year since he was 16. Back home in Ireland he has climbed several classic first ascents on the impressive Fair Head boulders, such as Carbide 7A and Just Chew It 7C. Pride of place though goes to Spindle 8A, a big, steep arête which he climbed in 2012.
An Empty Book E7/8 6b, Fairhead © Michelle O'Loughlin
During 2013 Ricky was dogged by a bad finger injury but over the following winter he clawed his way back to full strength. 2014 featured some very exciting exploration and development - the fruits of which will be revealed once the big lines have been despatched!
He did succeed on a number of excellent first ascents, mostly at established venues; highlights included An Empty Book E7/8 6b, an impressive corner feature at Fairhead and The Big Black E7 6c, a bold arête line in the boulders below the Fairhead crag. At the nearby Potato Cave in Cushendun he climbed an epic bouldering traverse line, La Potato Potato rates F8b. While at Spellack he made the first ascent of the blank and desperate Peace Donkey E7 6c/7a.
There was time for some classic big routes too – during a trip to Red Rocks in the States he climbed the superb Rainbow Wall 5.12a with his old friend Si Moore. He also did the West Face of El Cap 5.11c in Yosemite.
When he is not climbing Ricky does a mix of rope access work and route setting to pay the bills. He also runs a coaching company with his old friend, and Ireland’s top boulderer, Michael Duffy.
No doubt the future holds many more wild climbing adventures for Ricky, but whatever happens his passion for new routing in Ireland remains undimmed; he will always love the ‘process’:
“It's mad, you invest so much time and effort into these routes or boulders or whatever it is that is your wee 'project', spend weeks training specifically for them, nights thinking about them and dreaming up a name that fits your experience. You climb up it in 30mins and it's all over.
You take one last long look at it as if shaking hands with a close friend that know you'll never really see much of again. And that's it, you move on to the next wee project. Simple.”
Ricky writes an entertaining blog about his climbing life, check it out here.