As I type this, I’m sitting in the coffee shop of City ROCK Cape Town in Observatory. The staff are buzzing around the front desk and the gear shop, and the route-setters are working their magic on the walls. It was just a few days ago that I was sitting outside in the small backyard (read: grip storage area) interviewing James Barnes. It was far quieter, as we had arranged to meet up at 13:00, when the route-setters aren’t allowed to drill for fear of disturbing the afternoon yoga class.

If you have been to City ROCK recently, you may have noticed a pair of blue eyes and a mop of dark, curly hair running around the gym and up the walls.

That would be James.

At first glance, he appears to be your usual happy-go-lucky guy. You would never guess that he is one of South Africa’s strongest climbers (although he would deny it if you addressed him as such, the statistics  don’t lie).

James recently moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg to take the position as head route-setter at City ROCK Cape Town. This is in preparation for the move from their current location in Observatory to a massive new gym in Paarden Eiland. I’m lucky enough to know him from my time living in Joburg, and this is the first time I’m seeing him since his move to the Cape. When I arrive at the gym, we spend a few minutes catching up before he suggests moving outside so we can get the interview going.

I had originally intended to chat to James primarily about competition climbing. I wanted to ask him about his first place at Rock Masters in December, what drives him, how he trains, what his competitive goals were. But the conversation takes a different turn.

James tackling the Rock masters qualifying route. (Photo credit: Carlo Antonelli)

When I mention his competitive performance, he tells me, “I’m actually kind of falling away from competitive climbing, and I want to actually focus mainly on just climbing outside.”

Well, there goes my plan.

But this also gives me a chance to really chat to him about a far more complex and interesting topic: his outdoor performance.

There are many climbers I know that have hit their plateau and are pretty happy to continue climbing fairly low grades. I also know many climbers that are working to get stronger and climb harder. I know only a handful that are throwing themselves into climbing with everything they’ve got. James Barnes is one of these people. And I want to know why.

He is climbing grade 32 on rock, and projecting grade 34. He has claimed the first South African ascent of Spirit Bird (32) in the Free State, along with sending numerous other classic lines across South Africa. He is currently working Hey Jupiter (34) at the Underside in Cape Town, along with fellow City ROCK route-setter and all-around incredible climber, Chevaan Patience.

This absolutely astounds me. The amount of determination and passion necessary to be climbing these sorts of grades is incredible. I ask James what draws him towards these particular climbs.

About Hey Jupiter he says, “The last person to do it was Steve Bradshaw, who opened it in 2009, and it hasn’t seen a second ascent and that’s why it kind of appeals to me.”

Steve Bradshaw on Hey Jupiter (Photo credit: ClimbZA)

I assume that this, his attraction to routes that haven’t been repeated, is his competitive side showing. So, I ask him about it, and it turns out to be slightly more complex than that.

“I’ll look at routes that haven’t been repeated in a while and I’ll ask myself, ‘Why are people neglecting it?’”

 As I ask him more about this project, his sheer dedication and passion becomes clear. He knows the route like the back of his hand. Without even thinking about it he tells me, “The entire climb is probably about 12m, a total of 8 quickdraws including the chains. The first 4 draws are not that hard, but then you have maybe like a 7c+ boulder problem right at the end.”

The more we talk, it becomes obvious why James is performing so incredibly on rock; he is giving it everything he’s got.

He explains that, since moving to the Cape he is going out to the CBD boulders and Deadwood in Newlands Forest from 6pm to 10pm some nights. The day after the interview, he went out to Underside at the crack of dawn to tackle his project. This in addition to route setting, coaching, trail running and the occasional surf (he is originally from Kwazulu Natal, after all.)

Looking at his incredible achievements, one begins to wonder how seriously he takes his outdoor sessions. Does he approach his projects in the same way he approaches a competition?

In typical James fashion, he surprises me with how easy going his climbing mindset really is. When I ask him about his experience of climbing outdoors, he explains that “you’re literally out there, being in the mountains, finding your own way of dealing with what’s in front of you. And you can sit, take your time, brush the holds, choose your feet, figure out your own unique way of doing it. There’s never a right or wrong way, there’s just a way.”

As I listen to James speak, I can’t help but notice how easily I can relate to and understand exactly what he is saying. I had this idea that his mind works in a completely different way, and that this is what enables him to be such an incredible climber. But rather I find that his love for climbing and the outdoors mirrors my own.

I have often fallen into thinking that I will always be stuck as an average climber because I don’t operate in the same way as remarkable people like James Barnes. But I’ve come to realise that that’s simply not true. The only difference is that James is turning his passion into results.

And if he can do it, maybe so can I.

Feature Image: Emily Wedepohl


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