Fall Speaker Series: Julian Lines






The season is upon us here at the Gunks. Crisp days followed by cool nights, and, for the climbers among us, a sea of sticky stone. While your day might be filled with plugging gear or even a Catskills run and hike, join us at Rock and Snow every Saturday night from September 27th to November 15th for our annual Fall Speaker Series. We’ve hand-selected the most entertaining, stellar speakers for the series, which is free of charge. Check in at our Events page to stay up-to-date and follow our blog every Monday for musings on the upcoming speaker.




One of the UK’s most accomplished free soloists, Julian Lines is known in Scottish circles as “The Dark Horse”. Humble and with a quiet demeanor, Lines' accomplishments have long been held close to his chest, his stories told only to his friends and acquaintances along his nomadic travels. But this 45-year-old climber now gives us a rare glimpse into his past, his motivation and his philosophy of climbing. Documenting the past 30 years of his climbing life, his book “Tears of Dawn”—an intimate, sometimes introspective book with beautiful prose—gives an autobiographical glimpse into the mysterious mind of this climber once called “one of the best climbers you’ve never heard of.”


Over water or over land, Lines is relaxed in his soloing element. Photos provided by Julian Lines. 


At a young age, Lines was drawn to the open, empty spaces of the English hills. Going camping in the English Lake District, he discovered a insatiable taste for roaming the fells.  


“It was a freedom issue,” says Lines,  “and being tied into ropes with many technicalities such as tying knots and learning climbers’ calls didn’t interest me.”


Lines fist got into climbing when he was 15 years old through ice climbing in the Scottish Coires. After he scrounged up a guidebook and pair of rock climbing boots—and after he walked up all 277 3,000-foot mountains of the Munros in Scotland—Lines became hooked on climbing. That was around the age of 17, while he was able to go climbing twice a week at school. Attracted to climbing in what Lines calls “ the purest form possible”—without a rope—Lines' climbing only progress from there.


Today, Lines is known for his free soloing of hard, scary routes. In June 2013, Lines added a direct start to the route Holdfast (E9 7A), which Dave MacCleod (a Scottish climber known for his bold, dicey ascents of trad lines) put up on Whale Rock in Glen Nevis. Lines’ addition, which he called Holdfast, Hold True (E9/10 7a), was a trying process.  Prior to sending, Lines took a 40-foot ground fall from which he, luckily, walked away unscathed.


Some of Lines’ other first ascents include: Obsession Fatal (E8 6B) at The Roaches, Staffordshire; Fever Pitch (E6 6a) at Gleann Einish; Firestone (E7 6B) on Hells Lum; Buddha (E7 6b) on the Dubh Loch; and a slab testpiece, Gecko (E6 6a) on the Etive Slabs.


Lines commits to the crux of Shere Khan (E5 6a). Photos provided by Julian Lines. 


Supporting himself as a Rope Access Technician inspecting pipelines in the North Sea for the last ten years, Lines maintains his passionate life of climbing by living a frugal, focused life.


Lines slabbed out on miserable slopey holds atop Guardian Angel (E5 6a) at Northumberland. Photos provided by Julian Lines. 


Most recently, a film, "Stone Free", produced by award-winning filmmaker Alastair Lee, gives us a glimpse into Lines' life. The film is a part of the Brit Rock film tour, which had its world premier at the beginning of October 2014. 


Join us at Rock and Snow on November 1, 2014 for a stellar show. Below, Lines shares a few thoughts:



First of all, the most existential of the questions: why do you climb? How does climbing give you life?


Humans are primitive creatures and have evolved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, therefore basic activities like walking, running, climbing etc…. are natural to us. I feel natural when climbing, it harmonizes my physical and mental strengths in a fabulous (usually) environment, and it shuts out the everyday pressures and competitiveness of the now normal ‘civilized’ lifestyle.


Climbing gives me freedom. Up there on the rock (or ice) you are in charge of your own destiny and truly free and totally insulated from harm or life pressures, a state of being that might appear diametrically opposed to the popular perception of free solo climbing.


I have tried to answer this question, what motivates me, why I do what I do in the way I do, in my book, “Tears of the Dawn.” Perhaps the title of the book itself gives an insight into being in a place where you can have the peace and clarity of thought to observe all of nature’s most impressive phenomenona.


It seems that the strongest part of your climbing skill set (which is strong in and of itself) is your mental stability that sets you up for keeping calm on solos with little margin of error. Can you talk about this? Where did this mental strength come from?


I certainly have strengths and weaknesses in climbing. Overhangs thoroughly frighten me whether they are 10ft or 100ft off the ground. In contrast to this are slabs; I have a remarkable knack of staying very calm when there aren’t any holds. I’ve never fully understood that phenomenon myself. I suppose if my arms aren’t shot and I have time to figure things out and assess the situation then I can stay relaxed and climb well; if I’m getting tired then all hell will break loose in my mind and that’s potentially fatal.


However to fully answer the question, I do have a lot of inner drive and determination, which anyone must have if they are going to put themselves in such danger for their own fun. I can only put this down to genes. Neither my mother nor father climb, but they are both very hard working and driven in their own way.



Lines on his solo of Vulcan Wall.  Photos provided by Julian Lines.


What are your biggest attractions to soloing? Is it the absolute need to execute a climb perfectly? Or is it the hyper focus, the zone, (or the experience of "the zone") you must get into?


I think my biggest attraction to soloing is that there aren’t any rules and its unbounded freedom. Over the years my experiences have been different. I went through phases. One phase was just wandering into the mountains to see what I could find to climb, especially routes that had never been climbed before. It was all about critical risk assessment beforehand, utter control and wariness during the climb, and the sheer pleasure of pulling it off; feeling cheeky as I have broken all the rules. 


Another phase was on much harder routes that have had a lot of pre-practice and preparation. I need to feel physically fit, rested and just wait for the day that everything aligns and feels right; I guess that is ‘the zone’.



Tell me about your book "Tears of the Dawn" documenting nearly 30 years of your climbing life. You're known as a humble climber with little mention of your ascents; what spurred on this book? What was the writing process like?


There are a few reasons that spurred me on with the book. When I was very young, I wrote an essay and my father read it and ridiculed me. I was trying to be quite creative, and ever since then I wanted to stick the proverbial finger up at him to prove him wrong. I did start writing a book as a teenager, but that book was on a different subject matter and has been shelved for the time being. So about ten years ago, it was winter time, the weather was lousy and I was bored. Then I began to think of the adventures I had as a soloist, which I thought might make great reading, for example the night that I got stuck on a cliff 200ft up at the onset of darkness. I had to take my chalk bag cord off and tie a knot in one end and wedge it in a crack and tie the other end round my wrist, essentially handcuffing myself to the cliff. I never told anyone about a lot of the scrapes I got myself into. Anyway, I wrote a couple of articles for the SMC (Scottish Mountaineering Club) Journal and they were well received, so I continued with my writing.

I wrote for the most part whilst I was working offshore, in off duty evenings. Writing was the only thing that kept me sane and it gave me great headspace—there were no distractions stuck out in the middle of the ocean. And because of this clear headspace, I found that I could create literature that sometimes shocked me into thinking ‘where did that come from’.


Julian Lines rides the wave to the top on Mega Tsunami. Photos provided by Julian Lines. 


Do things like taking a 40-foot ground fall (like on Hold Fast, Hold True or Whale's Rock) seem to be a stroke of luck? How does a fall like this play into your confidence soloing? Did it give you pause?


I’ve taken a few falls in my lifetime of similar distance and into worse landings, although I was a lot younger then. I assessed the route meticulously, pulling out small rocks and flattening the ground with moss just in case something like that would happen. When I came off, it was a slip rather than falling from failing arms. This was probably beneficial as I had no time to think and knowing that I’m so high up I automatically shut down. I mean there is no fear or tenseness in the bones and joints; it’s a matter of going all rubbery like a cat and accepting what’s done is done. I barely had a bruise although my head missed the pool-table sized boulder by 3 inches - that was the luck bit.


Falling off and getting away without injury gave me more confidence when I returned for the successful ascent. I am very tenacious; I never give up when my mind is set.


 I must mention here, that in 2007, I did fall over 100ft out of the sky in a paraglider. The consequences of that certainly answered some of the previously imperceptible questions about my mortality and I thereafter ‘sort of’ gave up on soloing high stuff because I became afraid and wasn’t enjoying the fear induced in me hundreds of feet above the ground. I wrote at length about that incident in Tears of the Dawn as it was a critical catalyst in my career, almost a turning point, or a point of involuntary evolution.  I think in truth, Hold Fast, Hold True at 60ft was right on the height boundary of what I can cope with nowadays.  (Note: I still solo big climbs occasionally, but they are of lesser difficulty than I used to climb previously).


How do you measure risk in your climbing? Are you risky in other aspects of life? 


If I wasn’t such an accurate risk assessor, I would probably have been dead long ago. I’m very much in control, and each route I do is carefully chosen and thought about. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but there is so much more to it than that. I assess risk in terms of viability, rock type, potential landings should the need arise, required weather conditions, the feel of the place - can I be inspired enough to achieve this, the possibility over the probabilities, that kind of thing.

I’ve taken risks in other aspects of my life over the years, such as shares and financial things but nothing out of the ordinary or extreme.  I don’t drive fast or anything like that; generally, outside of climbing I am pretty boring really.