Solid Rock Ambitions
Tales of triumph over adversity...
Don’t talk to Kevin (Kev) Shields about tales of triumph over adversity. Born with no fingers on his left hand and later diagnosed with epilepsy, the 37 year-old climber from North Ayrshire (Dalry) could easily have dwelled on the physical and mental challenges meted out to him from an early age.
But Kev Shields isn’t one to dwell on the negatives, a fact he’ll share with an invited audience in Inverness this October (Kev – what is date of the talk?) after being invited to speak at a motivational TedTalk.
Straight talking and approachable, Shields is quick to point out that it’s his upbringing that has allowed the modest climber with a big reputation to consistently defy the odds. “When I was born with pretty much one hand, the doctors said I’d never ride a bike or climb trees and maybe I’d need to go to a different school. My parents never let me feel sorry for myself. They would never let me use this supposed weakness as an excuse and it’s an attitude that has stuck with me.”
He admits school and life in Dalry was tough and after being unable to join the Army for a career of “challenge and excitement” he euphemistically refers to the risk of “almost going down the wrong road in life. I reached a cross roads and I knew that instead of farting around and not achieving anything, I could make my parents proud.”
Climbing, that he describes as “my life, plain and simple – no if’s and but’s” saved him.
Throughout his childhood and youth he felt alienated from school and organised sport. It was his dad’s hill-walking that proved the catalyst for a career in climbing. In 1998 the dye was cast when he soloed Curved Ridge in Glencoe (moderate). He didn’t look back.
In 2006/7 he competed with a prosthetic hand on his ice-axe at two Ice Climbing World Cup’s in Italy and Romania – proving that his attitude of ability over disability was much more than a sound bite.
“I think I managed to place 52nd in the world and was pretty chuffed when you consider I was up against the really top guys in the sport and I was the only person with a disability competing. My confidence grew further when I won the 2006 Scottish Mixed Masters – that was also massive for me.”
By 2008 he’d moved up to Lochaber to pursue his love of climbing. Work at Ice Factor Kinlochleven, the world’s largest indoor ice climbing facility followed in 2012 (can you say anything about the support you’ve had from Jamie Smith?) and in the same year he was asked by the British Paralympic Association to help carry the torch to the summit of Ben Nevis. “I helped carry the Paralympic torch onto the summit. To be honest I initially thought it would be cheesy but when I was standing there with the torch at the highest point in the UK it was an amazing feeling.”
It’s now August 2016 and he’s just out of surgery for further ‘restorative’ work on an ankle injury sustained in a major fall while climbing in Glen Nevis in 2010. It will be two long months before he’s back to climbing but he knows what he’ll then do: “I’ll go and climb something that was harder than before surgery,” states Shields matter of factly.
A wiry, slim build belies the strength of the climber who still considers Cu-Sith (E7, 6c) in Glen Nevis the toughest technical climb he’s ever completed. “Aye, that was the hardest technical climb I’ve ever done and it was also just after coming back from surgery,” laughs Shields.
Though currently enduring an enforced rest from climbing, usually he’s to be found training on the giant ice-walls at either Ice Factor Kinlochleven or at Snow Factor Braehead just west of Glasgow city centre.
“I’m regularly on the ice walls in Glasgow and Kinlochleven because it helps you prepare properly both physically and mentally for climbs outside. I know that when winter comes, I can go outside with my head in the right place and trust my feet and axes. There’s every grade on the indoor ice-walls, from gentle slope to overhangs so practice on the wall ensures any initial doubts before that big first winter climb aren’t there.”
For the same reason, he encourages hill-walkers and climbers with little or no ice-climbing experience to first get a taste for the technique indoors. “You don’t need to learn in a white-out or trek for miles to start an ice-climb. Ice Factor and Snow Factor give you the chance to learn exactly how to place your feet and axes, practice movement and get familiar with the equipment. It’s a fun and safe way to get to grips with everything and a real confidence builder.”
For Shields, full recovery from his latest operation can’t come quick enough. He lives for climbing and the mountains. “The mountains are a great balance in life, they make you feel so small and realise just how irrelevant many other things are in everyday life.”
Against the odds, the mountains have given Shields a focus and purpose that he’s determined to fulfil. Thinking back to the difficulties he encountered as a youth, he has a clear message for those grappling with their own physical and mental challenges: “If you want something and are really determined, you can make it happen. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”