Caitlin Connor: The gifted Scottish ice climber chipping away at the world circuit

Competitive ice climber Caitlin Connor is reaching new heights, and is now getting deserved attention at home and abroad. Interview by Roger Cox

You would expect an ice climber to be knowledgeable about different kinds of ice – which to trust, which to be wary of. However, if you’re a competitive ice climber like Caitlin Connor, you also become a connoisseur of different varieties of plywood. That’s because, in order to create as level a playing field as possible, many of the most prestigious competitions in the world take place, not on ice, but on artificial walls, with specially designed holds bolted on to accommodate ice axes and sections of plywood to kick crampons into.

The 20-year-old’s most recent competitive outing, the UIAA Ice Climbing World Championships, saw her ascending one of these walls in the middle of the Canadian oil city of Edmonton – a surreal location, with skyscrapers towering around her on all sides – and a crux point in the climb came when, hanging precariously from her axes, she had to stretch out almost as far as she could reach with her right boot and try to find purchase for her front points on an unforgiving slab of maple ply. As she tried to find a solid toe-hold, commentator Matt Groom noted dryly that this kind of climbing “must be like kicking concrete.”

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“We do kick on wood quite a lot,” Connor says, a few days after flying back to Scotland from Canada, “but Edmonton was definitely the hardest – you could tell as soon as you started kicking it that it was going to be a struggle. Normally the ply’s a wee bit softer, so you get a bit more of the front point in the wood which makes it a wee bit easier. It was hard getting used to it, because you do kick differently depending on the type of wood.”

Caitlin Connor in action PIC: Robert HendriksenCaitlin Connor in action PIC: Robert Hendriksen
Caitlin Connor in action PIC: Robert Hendriksen

Happily, Connor soon managed to sink her crampons deep enough into the wall to progress onto a treacherous-looking overhang, and she ended up finishing 13th. “I was really happy with that,” she says. “I had done quite well in the last World Cup event before that, I’d come 12th, so my score was quite similar, and it was really nice to see that consistency. During the season you’re doing so many comps that it can be hard to stay consistent.

“It’s been a really good season overall,” she adds, “but Edmonton was definitely one of the highlights.”

The elite international ice climbing series, the UIAA World Cup, consists of multiple events all around the world, with the top performer across all competitions named the winner. This season, Connor finished 15th overall in the World Cup standings. The UIAA World Championships, meanwhile, is a one-off competition, although – as the Edmonton event was also counted as a stop on the World Cup tour – Connor’s 13th place there helped to improve her World Cup ranking.

Her success on the international stage hasn’t gone unnoticed back home. She’s now sponsored by Rab, and at last month’s Fort William Mountain Festival she received the prestigious Scottish Youth Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture. “I actually had a wee look through all the past winners when I first found out,” she says, "and it was really cool seeing all these names I recognised.”

Caitlin Connor PIC: Dave MacLeodCaitlin Connor PIC: Dave MacLeod
Caitlin Connor PIC: Dave MacLeod

Fort William gives two Mountain Culture awards every year – an all-ages award and a youth award – and the list of past winners reads like a Who’s Who of Scottish mountain life, taking in not only legendary climbers and skiers like Jimmy Marshall and Kirsty Muir, but also those who approach the mountains from alternative angles: the ecologist Adam Watson, for example, and the photographer Colin Prior. Was there anyone that Connor was particularly pleased to find herself sharing this accolade with?

“The first one I noticed when I looked through it was definitely Natalie Berry,” she says, referring to the climber and journalist who won the Youth Award in 2016. “She’s a bit of a local hero – I’ve met her a couple of times, and it was cool seeing that that was someone who had won the award before.”

Hailing from Cambuslang, Connor was introduced to climbing by her father, and by the age of 13 she was already tackling challenging routes like the 7a+ graded Persistence of Vision on Dumbarton Rock. Her passion for winter climbing soon led her to take on classics like Aladdin’s Mirror Direct in Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms (graded IV 4), and at 17 she became the youngest UK female climber to conquer M10 and M10+ graded routes.

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The Fort William award was not just made in recognition of her many personal achievements, however, but also because of what she has put back into climbing, in particular by co-founding the Scottish Dry-Tooling Club, based at the Glasgow Climbing Centre. A discipline in which climbers use ice axes and crampons to ascend bare rock, Connor says that dry-tooling “felt like a dark art for a while, where people weren’t really doing it,” so she and her friend and fellow Team GB climber Willis Morris set up the club to introduce people to it. “We’ve now got hundreds of members,” says Connor, “and we try to do events every month.”

With the competition season at an end, Connor now plans to spend some time winter climbing on Ben Nevis. “We’re due to get a cold spell,” she says, “so hopefully the ice will be in condition and we’ll get a lot done.” And, of course, no plywood to worry about up there, maple or otherwise.

For more on Caitlin Connor, see

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