Ricky Bell pushing climbing boundaries as Northern Ireland man scales new heights around the world

a man riding on top of a rock

© Ricky Bell climbing a perfect grantite arete above the Atlantic at Owey Island, Donegal. Picture: Pa…

Bell got his first taste for rock climbing at the age of 10 when his parents would bring him and his two sisters to the Mourne’s before it progressed into holidays around the United Kingdom and Ireland, filled with climbing and exploring.

That sense of adventure has continued throughout his life, setting off around Europe as a teenager while also visiting North America, but the 37-year-old says the experiences in his home country are at the top of his list.

“I started going away on my own when I was 17,” he said.

“My mum made me sow my passport into my back pocket and I was allowed to go!

“I got to do a lot of travelling when I was in my late-teens and early-twenties. I got to travel all around North America, Europe and in later years I would go away in my little van.

“Ireland is as good as anywhere. I’ve had more exploratory adventures travelling around Ireland than a lot of other places. It’s totally world class,” he added.

“We have cliffs up on the North Coast near Ballycastle called Fair Head and it’s one of the best climbing destinations in the UK. It’s quite a famous climbing destination now and it has recognition worldwide.

“If you grow up in Belfast it’s brilliant because you have Fair Head an hour away and you have the Mournes an hour away to the south, so you have two totally different rock types and settings for world class climbing. I’m very lucky in that respect.”

The sport has continued to gain traction and popularity in Northern Ireland with more access to indoor climbing centres and climbing walls.

Bell, who also works as a climbing coach and route setter, believes it will only continue to grow when sport climbing makes its Olympic debut next year in Tokyo.

“I think with more climbing walls opening and more access (it has gained popularity),” he said.

“I do a bit of climbing coaching and route setting, so I work in the climbing walls and I have seen it grow and grow over the last 10 years.

“It was meant to be in the Olympics this year and we will see it there next year, so it is becoming a mainstream thing as well. You’ll get to see what goes on and see what this sport is all about.”

Throughout his career, Bell has been able to open a number of new routes, such as The Complete Scream and Long Runs The Fox at Fair Head and Mental Crack and The Lost Forgotten in the Mourne Mountain range.

Each route is graded in terms of difficulty (which Bell admits “can get quite confusing” for people not familiar with the sport) and he is driven more by creativity rather than a desire to be first.

“It’s more an exploratory and creative thing,” he said.

“I’ve been climbing in Ireland for the past 25 years and I’ve still a big list of things that I want to do and I’ll probably never finish it.

“It’s not about being the first to do it but more about going out to find new things to do and exploring. It just happened that I grew up somewhere where there is still a lot of rocks to explore.”

El Capitan, situated in California’s Yosemite National Park, is one of the most famous climbing locations in the world and its tallest face stands at around 900m, which is the equivalent of three Eiffel Tower’s stacked on top of each other.

Bell has visited multiple times to climb on various granite routes and says it’s a humbling experience even for the most veteran of climbers.

“The first time we went we were too afraid to climb on the big cliffs at El Cap but I’ve been back five or six times and found different routes. I’ve climbed around the valley because there are incredible shorter routes around there too. Everybody gets a little bit humbled in Yosemite.

“The climbing is quite difficult and the granite is quite slick and slippy. At Yosemite you can get a bus right to the bottom of El Cap, whereas if you wanted to do that sort of thing elsewhere in the world it’s bigger expeditions, bigger risk and bigger expense to go do it.

“Yosemite Valley is very user-friendly and is like a massive playground and that’s why it has become so big.”

Bell has dedicated his life to climbing, spending a period from 2013 living out of his van so that he could freely travel and make even more memories.

He continues to explore around the country and still has a list of things he wants to achieve.

“I just wanted a climbing lifestyle so living in the van meant I could work eight months of the year and travel the rest of the time. I’ve a frugal lifestyle but am very rich in experience,” he said.

“It’s a funny lifestyle but it exists and you’d be surprised how many people choose that slightly alternative lifestyle to get more free time and to do the things they want.

“I’m quite happy pottering along with the list of things that I want to do. I know what I need to be doing to keep myself happy and a lot of that is climbing here, developing new things and pushing my boat here.”

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