Like most desert rats, I first heard of Tom Randall during his and Pete Whittaker’s infamous off-width tour of the United States in 2011. Both hailing from the United Kingdom, with very little access to actual off-widths, they constructed their own in Randall’s basement, aka “the cellar,” and began a ruthless training regimen. The training paid off with countless quick sends of difficult off-widths, including Whittaker’s mind-blowing onsight of Belly Full of Bad Berries (5.13) in Indian Creek and each climbers successful ascent of Century Crack, a 5.14b located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Ever since then, American climbers have known this duo as “The Wide Boyz.”
by Luke Mehall, publisher of The Climbing Zine and author of American Climber. Banner photo of Pete (left) and Tom (right) in the White Rim, Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Photo: Tom Randall Collection.
Foreign climbers coming through the United States sweeping up projects and onsighting test pieces can incite jealousy and bitterness, but these two did it with such grace, humility, and humor that it was impossible not to love them. Quickly, these two became heroes to many, including myself, and a perfect representation of the modern professional climber: humble and hungry, always training at their maximum for projects that were equally aesthetic and futuristic.
If you haven’t seen the Wide Boyz film, by Paul Diffley and Chris Alstrin, documenting that 2011 off-width tour, stop reading this article and find it. Just be prepared for the dizziness that might ensue picturing yourself with your heels above your head, on the Century Crack, which is easily considered the hardest established off-width in the world. Something that really struck me in the film was Randall’s reaction after he sent the climb: he wept, and he credited his wife for his success.
That was the image that stayed with me over the years when I heard of Tom Randall, a man with a family, who with humility and grace sought out some of the world’s hardest crack climbs, training in a place where no such climbs really existed. I mention this because most of the crack climbs that Randall and Whittaker have done are right in my proverbial backyard; I can be leave my house after morning tea and be in The Creek or Canyonlands before lunchtime. Yet, my fire, my passion for first ascents was only a tiny fraction of what burned inside their souls; they had the hunger, the fire—they had “it.”
I’m sure I’m one of thousands that these two inspired after sending Century Crack to try a little harder, give a little more gusto, and dedicate more training to what you love. The Wide Boyz film was instant inspiration in a bottle, and even more inspiring was that their motivation didn’t seem to come in any way from ego. Around this same time, my friends and I became more drawn to first ascents than to repeating those tired desert cracks that we all bleed into and carve away at with each cam placement and ripped pieces of misplaced gear. Whether we were aware of it or not, the Brits had elevated the standard, raised the bar with an elegance that we had to chase.
Five years of chasing that pursuit and I was completely hooked. I still enjoyed the classics, but always felt more engaged when the climb was something new that was above my current limit. Climbs that don’t have grades yet are the best because it turns the struggle into something more natural.
The Wide Boyz standard of try hard guided our crew, but I didn’t dare reach out—what would I say anyway? To my surprise, one day on Facebook, I received a friend request from Tom. A mutual friend wanted to connect us because of our shared love for the desert and new routes out there. I found out he and Pete were soon visiting again, and I told him I’d be stoked to meet up, if only for a brief interview. They went out of their way to make it happen, and we chatted at their room in the Lazy Lizard hostel in Moab for an hour or so.
I’d hoped to create an article out of the interview, but I ran into a few problems. Immediately, I realized Pete was the kind of guy one would have to spend more than just an hour with to get a series of great quotes. He was shy and reticent, but so driven I knew he would be interesting. I began to think I’d have to get out climbing with him to really get to know him and to see what made him tick. To simply bust out a short article with a series of one-line quotes would be a disservice to the man. Tom was more of an extrovert, but I realized the same about him; I wanted to see them in action to know what they were really like. After talking for an hour, I could sense they wanted to get back out to their current project in Canyonlands, and my climbing partner and I were headed in the opposite direction, to Indian Creek. I left with scattered handwritten notes and more curiosity than ever about this duo.
Though I think we’ll always call them The Wide Boyz, Tom and Pete had moved on to slimmer cracks. The object of their desire then, and now, is The Crucifix Project, another horizontal roof crack in Canyonlands, which demands a series of continuous mono finger jam campus moves that he estimates check it an a minimum of V14. In the meantime, while projecting The Crucifix on their last two trips, they’ve established several more roof climbs in Canyonlands, up to 5.14a, some that are three hundred feet long and require two lead ropes!
During our brief exchange, I gave Tom some zines and a copy of one of my books. After finishing the book, which, among other themes, highlights my quest to find a lady while still living out the lonesome dirtbag dream on the road, Tom sent me a very kind message and also shared his own perspective. He shared how difficult it was for him to live the dirtbag dream while also being a good father and husband. That was something I’d never thought of and began to consider the fact that maybe not finding my partner in life until later on would be a blessing.
At that point I thought, even if I didn’t have enough material to write about the Wide Boyz duo, I could put together a piece about Tom. One zine came and went, and I’d only asked him a handful of questions via e-mail. When Tom and Pete returned to the States last fall, I was too entrenched in my own climbing projects in The Creek to venture up to Moab and Canyonlands to check in on those guys.
So far a feature on the Wide Boyz has eluded me. I would need to spend quality time with them, and thus far it’s yet to happen. However, I have had some good conversations over e-mail with Tom and wanted to share a little Q and A from those here in this zine. And, in everything I do in the desert, these two metaphorically stand above, with constant inspiration to try harder, give it more, and do it with humility and strength.
Q: Can you tell me some about your most recent trip to the States? Are you finding that the Canyonlands region continues to provide more than enough challenges for you and Pete?
A: The most recent trip to the States in the autumn was really a follow-up trip to the spring trip. Basically, we identified two really appealing objectives: The Crucifix Project and also loads of amazing first-ascent projects. The incredible thing about this region is the density of routes at the 5.14 and above mark…everywhere else in the world, it’s really hard to find cracks at this kind of standard, but down on the White Rim, they’re literally everywhere!
Yes, maybe some of them might not be of the best quality, but if you reduce the total list down to perhaps 10 of the 5.14s down there, then you still have first-ascent projects that are waiting that would blow anything else out of the water. The aesthetics of the lines are incredible too. On the last day of the trip this time, we found yet another roof crack that was two hundred-plus feet and would easily be 5.14…and this is in addition to the other ten that are still unclimbed!
Q: Would you describe climbing down there to be the ultimate in what you’re seeking in climbing right now?
A: So the White Rim area perfectly suits what Pete and I have spent a long time doing—hanging upside down for long durations and doing reasonably hard climbing. We’re definitely not bouldering specialists, so these stamina-style routes really suit us, and let’s face it, the cellar underneath my house doesn’t have a single vertical crack, so I think we could even say that Pete and I are now specialised within the niche of crack climbing itself. We’d probably have a nightmare on something like Ruby’s Café (in Indian Creek).
Q: Is The Crucifix still the long-term goal, or has that subsided? Was there some significant progress this year, or was it too wet?
A: No, The Crucifix is a big, burning fire in my heart. I know Pete feels the same. This thing is so unfathomably hard for us that it taps into a new part of our psyche and preparation. It’s hard to describe that when you wake up each morning, you kind of only have one focus in your life—yeah everything else has to get done—but it’s with the thought of “would this work out ok for The Crucifix Project.” I think people on the outside might see this as too singularly driven and boring to the point of not being an adventure anymore, but to me it’s exploring a new part of myself and what I can deal with. It’s been easy for some time to keep rolling out 5.13s/14s as FAs, as it’s within our ability, but taking on such a big project and potentially failing gives you access to better understanding about yourself.
Q: I would be psyched to hear more about your love for the American Southwest desert. Is it just the climbing, or are the downtime/slow moments just as important?
A: The desert for me is a very important place, and I think you’d find my wife agreeing with this. Last year was incredibly busy, hectic, and hard work for me personally, and each time that I visited Canyonlands, I was kinda close to the breaking point. I need a lot of stimulation in my life as I have a really busy mind (I think that’s the way to describe it?), but this stimulation can be a bit of a killer as well.
Our constant ability to be able to access information, communicate with others, and progress multiple facets of our life is exhausting, and I’m terrible for pushing it too far. When I get into the desert, the total shut off from my work, my family, and responsibilities is extremely beneficial. A bit of a “system reset” if you like. I couldn’t just hang out on the desert doing nothing of course (it’d drive me mad) but climbing on complex roof cracks is mentally involving but in a beneficial way. Then once you’re done for the day, you just sit down and eat and talk. Nothing more. As it’s always time spent with Pete, I end up laughing a lot, messing around, and just enjoying myself, like being a kid again. Yeah, maybe that’s it.
The desert is like a kid’s playground but in an adult setting.
Q: In some of our other conversations, you talked about the balance of climbing and family time. Can you tell me some more about how important the support of your wife is for your pursuits?
A: I’ve often tried to explain to people how important Kim is in my climbing, my work success, and the ability to have a family, but I think they want to see the glamorous side of “whooh, Tom doing some training again…oh nice…another first ascent…” But the reality is that I’m training because Kim’s happy for me to spend good chunks of my home time doing this, and when I need to stay in the UK and work, then she’ll go away on holiday without me and with the kids. That’s really hard work for her, and if you add it all up, I’m definitely the one who gets to have a lot of the “rewards” of what I do, and Kim quietly supports in the background. One element that is significant for how we happen to work as a couple is also that we do it as a team. We think through what’s going to happen for the year and work out if it’s good for both of us long term. This does mean that I frequently turn down climbing days outside that would be “just for fun” because I know that I have to make my own sacrifice and work on those days to provide for the family. I can’t have the whole cake and eat it.
Q: It seems like you have quite the scientific mind. In what ways does this help your climbing?
A: I’m a very analytical person and process driven. In many aspects, I couldn’t care less about the outcome, except for the fact that it’s a challenge to do it if on first appearances it seemed impossible or unlikely.
Underneath, I probably have quite a low opinion of myself, so I see amazing achievements as being really hard and not for me, but I’ve learnt that if I can break the big stuff into little chunks and take them on then, even I can do it. Having now done that for a lot of years, I’d say I’m learning to appreciate that self-worth isn’t that tied into success. It’s how you deal with it that counts.
Q: Where are you at with your training in the winter? Do you create your training to peak at certain times, and do you rest heavily at other times?
A: Training for me and Pete now almost entirely centers around mono finger strength and basic strength training. That’s it. The real thing that matters on The Crucifix is the ability to do mono-style V14 fairly easily and to be able to boulder very basic hard sequences. If you think that both of us have done perhaps just a few V11s in our entire climbing history (we hardly ever go bouldering), it might be a bit worrying! But, I trust the process, and I know that neither of us will ever be disappointed in ourselves if we put everything into it. Everything. That’s got to be the bottom line
Q: Do you find that your passion for climbing comes and goes? Do you think you’re a lifer? Or do you think another interest might come along?
A: Ah, this is a hard one! I’m not completely sure actually. I was talking to my mum about this the other day, and she said that since being a kid, I’ve been completely obsessive about things until I’ve won them or completed them, and then I’ll utterly change direction. I was like that with computer games, challenges, new skills, and other sports. If I felt like I’d “won” the thing, then it didn’t interest me very much afterwards. I do worry that The Crucifix will be like this, but then I think about how much enjoyment and friendship climbing has brought and also for so many years! Too much of my life revolves round it now I think, and I feel so relaxed in the climbing environment.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. His fourth book, Graduating From College Me, was published late last year. His fifth book, The Desert, will be published this fall. More of his work can be read at his new site: www.lukemehall.com.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.