Date: January 25th, 2019
About Tom O’Halloran
Tom O’Halloran is the first Australian climber to climb 9a (5.14d), and he’s done that 2 more times as of this interview. He also sent Wheel of Life, an iconic V14 boulder problem in Australia. There are a handful of climbers at this elite level of climbing, but not many of them hold down full-time jobs while raising a family. Tom has a 4-year-old daughter with his partner, Amanda, and he works pretty much full time in his home of Blackheath, Australia, right by the Blue Mountains.
Tom describes how he and Amanda manage to get out climbing together – alone – 1 day every week and at least 2 days a week total, despite their busy schedules. We discuss how he makes his training sessions efficient, when he fits them in, and what has worked to get him so strong.
He also talks about how they go sport climbing with their daughter and what works to keep her occupied and having fun at the crags. This interview is about declaring priorities and setting your life up to stay true to them. I really enjoyed this talk, not only because I (like every American) love a good Australian accent, but because Tom is a thoughtful and inspirational person who really is living an intentional life.
Tom O’Halloran Interview Details
- How his set-in-stone schedule helps his climbing
- How they take care of their daughter at the crag
- How he makes time to climb outside regularly
- Why he changed jobs to accommodate his priorities
- When he trains and what he does
- His successful hangboard routine
- Why he weighs himself before every hang session
Tom O’Halloran Links
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Photo by Kamil Sustiak of Tom on Schweinebaumeln, 35, 9a, 14d
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and I want to remind you that the TrainingBeta podcast is an offshoot of the website www.trainingbeta.com that I started that is all about training for rock climbing.
Over there you’ll find a regularly updated blog. You’ll find training programs for rock climbers that are online and easy to use. You’ll find online personal coaching with Matt Pincus and nutrition coaching with me. I hope that all these resources together, along with the podcast, will help you become a better rock climber. You can find that at www.trainingbeta.com.
I don’t know about you but I have some lofty goals this year with climbing. I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can try to attain them. Last year I had some lofty goals: I wanted to climb my first 5.13a after having shoulder surgery and I did a couple of them. I was really psyched on that. This year I want to have clear intentions again. This time I’m going a little bit bigger and I want to be stronger than I’ve ever been within the next couple years. I’m really psyched to try to do that.
What’s been coming up for me, trying to plan my training and plan my year and figure out what I need to do to attain these goals, is that I need to rearrange my priorities and place climbing and training a little bit higher up on the totem pole. I think that that’s something that we struggle with a lot in this culture. Being okay with having this – what we’re going to call a ‘fun hobby’ – and making it be something much more than that because culturally we’re just supposed to work and raise families and that’s it.
I bring this up because it’s something that I am thinking a lot about right now and it’s something that came up a lot in this interview with Tom O’Halloran today. I talked with him yesterday. Tom is the first person from Australia to do a 9a and he’s done several of them now. He’s also done The Wheel of Life which is a V14 boulder.
He’s really, really strong but he also has a family. He has a partner and they have a four year old daughter together and he has a full time job, and so does his partner. They have really had to consciously and intentionally make it so that climbing can be a major priority. He talks about how they balance everything and how he fits his training in while still having a really, really close relationship with his daughter and partner.
I found this interview and this conversation to be really inspirational and sort of validating in thinking about how I’ve been thinking about climbing lately. I hope it’s the same for you. Here’s Tom O’Halloran and I’ll talk to you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the show, Tom. Thanks very much for talking with me today.
Tom O’Halloran: Thanks very much for having me, Neely. It’s pretty cool to be on.
Neely Quinn: Do you listen to the show?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, definitely. I used to do quite a bit of driving and traveling for my work and the podcasts got me through the long hours in the car so I got to keep some training psych while I was driving off to do horrendous work for 12 hours a day.
Neely Quinn: Oh wow. Twelve hours a day? What were you doing?
Tom O’Halloran: I do rope access work and was doing work in mines and stuff like that, so gold mines and coal mines and all sorts of other horrendous places. Gas plants and all that sort of thing. Where I live they’re all quite a long way away so you have a load of time traveling and a load of time trying to stay psyched in crazy places.
Neely Quinn: Does that leave not much time for actual training? Just listening to training?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs] You need to try and make sure that when you do end up training, hopefully at least some of it can be pretty good.
Neely Quinn: Efficient and time well used?
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. With the amount of time that I end up spending away from climbing I end up getting pretty psyched anyway so it’s pretty awesome.
Neely Quinn: I actually have a bunch of questions for you already but why don’t we back up for a sec. Can you tell people about yourself a little bit?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah. I’m Tom O’Halloran. I’m 26 years old and I live and climb in Australia, which is a pretty awesome place. My partner, Amanda, and I have got a four year old daughter, Audrey. She’s nearly five, actually. It’s pretty crazy how quickly she’s growing up.
I do a bit of work and just try to get out and climb as much as possible. Kind of in the last 12-18 months I’ve gotten really quite psyched on training, which after 15 years or something of climbing now it’s pretty funny that it’s taken me this long to find some psych in training. It’s pretty awesome, getting into it and learning about it all.
Neely Quinn: It seems like all of that training has really paid off for you. You were the first person to – would you like to tell us about that?
Tom O’Halloran: Haha. So in 2015, maybe it was 2016, I became the first Australian to climb a 35, or 9a. A 35 in our Ewbank speak.
Neely Quinn: 9a European and that’s 14d in American speak?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, exactly. It was a route that I bolted at a new cliff in the Blue Mountains, just kind of a direct start into a 7c. What’s that, a 12c I think?
Neely Quinn: Yes.
Tom O’Halloran: So a 27. It added a fairly intense 13-move sequence into this upper headwall. The whole route is probably 20 meters long. It’s quite funny, just going through it. It was the first route that had really given me some grief and you have brain farts and malfunctions and all the anxiety of trying to get it done and that sort of stuff. There were days that I fell off the last move that you can fall off on and then couldn’t get back there for another six or seven days. Then the season shut down so it turned into quite an ordeal. It was super awesome to get it done.
I’ve done two more since. I did a route called Kitten Mittens that was actually the first route I ever bolted, so that was pretty cool that the first one I ever bolted became that hard. When I bolted it I thought it was going to be about 8a+, so a 13c, and then the first time I tied in and tried it properly I could barely touch any of the moves. That went on the back burner for a little bit then a few years later I came back and gave it some proper curry and got it done, which is pretty cool.
A few months ago I just did a route called Schweinebaumeln which Alex Megos did the first ascent of when he was here in I think 2017. A friend, L’Cossey, who is a super talented climber in Australia and probably the best ever Australian climber overall bolted it and let Alex knock it off while he was here. I did that one recently as well.
Neely Quinn: That was a 9a as well?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, and a quite hard one. I think Alex said, “You wouldn’t want 9a to be any harder,” when he did it.
Neely Quinn: At the top of the grade.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of tricky because you don’t have much to compare it to other than your own opinion on two routes that you’ve done yourself, so…
Neely Quinn: Right. That was a question: how hard were you climbing before this?
Tom O’Halloran: I’d done a couple of 8c+ but one was sort of a variation on the other. You do the hard climbing and then a different kind of finish so it didn’t feel like it was properly two different routes, it was just kind of a different version from the other. I had done another 8c+ which was a bit of a link-up. It was a training route for Kitten Mittens, which was the second 9a that I’ve done.
This one climbed up the route just to the right of Kitten Mittens and it’s about 8b+ up to this really good rest. Then, it goes left to finish off for probably five meters and there’s a bit of a crux there but you end up climbing it and it’s 8b+ or 8c. Instead, I went right into the end of Kitten Mittens which I ended up counting is 30 moves of climbing without a rest. That’s probably 8c climbing so it was a good training route for Kitten Mittens. You climb the 8b+ into the 8c headwall and that gave me a lot of confidence when I got through the lower part of Kitten Mittens.
Neely Quinn: So you sort of eased your way into it.
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. It was good to get there for the first time and be like, ‘Alright, you know you can do it. You’ve done this before.’ Luckily enough I was able to execute it. It would have been a bit of a bummer to fall off that top bit.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Yeah, for sure. Did the other two 9a’s give you as hard of time as your first?
Tom O’Halloran: Not so much, I think because as I was saying with Kitten Mittens I had that little stepping stone route, which I ended up calling Sue’s Last Ride. Where Kitten Mittens gets to that same big rest of the route just to it’s right that’s probably 8c+ to get to there. The first time I got to that jug on link I was able to go to the top because I had that stepping stone and the confidence to get it done.
Schweinebaumeln was a similar kind of thing, actually, because I had never really tried it properly, like with the intention of trying to redpoint it, but I had spent a whole bunch of time on it over the summer. Summer in the Blue Mountains is pretty hot and humid and everyone just kind of knuckles down into a little bit of training. I just kept to that route, just ticking along in the background, so I spent a lot of days on it but when I actually decided at the end of last year to try and get it done it took only four days, which was a bit of a surprise. I’d spent probably 20 days on that route in the three years prior to it but never really with the intention of trying to send it. I was just doing little laps on sections and just keeping fit and keeping your hand in the honey pot. As soon as it came round to trying to do it I had all the beta, knowledge, and all that sort of stuff ready to go and I was able to just get into it.
I think I had just developed and become so much more confident as a climber as well. I feel like I’m quite a confidence-based climber, although I don’t like to think of myself as being that. I think when I’m feeling good I get to climb my best. I guess that’s everyone.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I think we all have a little bit of that in us.
Tom O’Halloran: Nothing really gave me quite as much grief as the first one.
Neely Quinn: And that probably boosted your confidence, too, doing the first one.
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. It was a bit tentative throwing that 9a grade out there, just because it’s the first in Australia and everyone is kind of waiting for one. There was a few around at the time and there were a few of us getting close to different things. I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, look at me. I climbed the first 9a. Ha ha ha!’
It was kind of scary throwing that first 9a out there but with putting it out there part of it was not believing that I was good enough to climb a route of that grade, just because we don’t get exposure to hard climbing in Australia or hard climbers in the same way that maybe you do in America or in Europe. It’s kind of hard to think of yourself as someone climbing at a level that your heroes climb at. It was kind of funny but it definitely gave me a lot of confidence to carry through to the next few years.
I had a similar experience on The Wheel of Life when I did that. It was the first time I had pulled on to give it a redpoint go and I was able to climb it. That was a route that I’d seen the video of Chris Webb climbing it when I was in my year 10 library class and had just always had it on a pedestal of ‘this is the piece of climbing in Australia’ and the other year I was able to do it.
Neely Quinn: Can you tell us what Wheel of Life is?
Tom O’Halloran: It’s in the Grampians National Park in Victoria and it’s this big, 60-move long – or something close to that – horizontal roof, basically. It’s just this super unique ribbed feature that just weaves its way out of the cave and it’s probably something like 20-25 meters long. It’s incredibly crazy.
Dai Koyamada did it first in the early 2000’s and I think he proposed V16 for it but with new beta and all sorts of other things I think it’s probably somewhere around the V14 range. I think other people have said 35 or 36 but it’s one of those ones that whatever grade is on it is not the point. The fact is that it is The Wheel of Life and climbing that was pretty incredible. For me, it had this aura around it of just hard climbing and what was possible or whatever else.
As I topped out I broke down in tears and cried and all sorts of stuff just because it happened so serenely. I just found this weird flow state with the climbing and it was a crazy experience. I got to the top and came out of that weird flow bubble that you get into only every now and then and just cried. I guess because I’d climbed as good as my heros had climbed. It was a funny kind of thing to realize that wow – I’m there and this didn’t take that much out of me so maybe I’m capable of a whole lot more and maybe I need to love myself a bit more and believe in myself a bit more.
Neely Quinn: That’s really lovely.
Tom O’Halloran: It was a special moment.
Neely Quinn: I think that it’s noteworthy that you actually let yourself feel that because I think a lot of the times we get to the top of our projects and we’re kind of like, ‘Okay, I just did that, I should have done that. Next.’ We don’t take a moment to sit there and I think that speaks a lot about you.
Tom O’Halloran: We only have one version or one of ourselves in life and we need to find what is in us that makes us feel loved and special and good because I think that’s so important in life, to really love yourself. You’ve got to find those moments where you really can be kind to yourself and love yourself and give yourself some happiness. There sure is a lot of crummy stuff out there but finding that goodness is pretty awesome.
Neely Quinn: Do you feel like climbing lets you find those things in yourself often?
Tom O’Halloran: I guess so, yeah. It’s one of those ones – and I guess everyone has a different experience in climbing but a lot of the time people hear or people say that it teaches them how to deal with adversity or how to commit yourself to something and that kind of thing. I definitely think that’s kind of true for me. It just teaches you so many different things and often my reaction when maybe I come off a route and I get a bit cranky is more to do with what’s going on with the outside world and there’s just that pressure release valve when you fall off your route. You’re cranky because of other things in your life and I think that’s then like, ‘Oof, what’s going on? Let’s deal with this and let’s try and make things better.’
I’m always trying to work on myself and make myself the best version of me. It’s pretty easy to kind of fall into bad patterns or habits or whatever else but to try and make yourself the best version of you can be confronting and hard but I think climbing has definitely given me a place to make it happen and realize it more.
Neely Quinn: You’ve been doing this for a long time. You said 15 years?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, so my parents signed me up to a new climbing gym in Brisbane when it opened up. Some family friends were into climbing and they said, “Oh, bring Tom down,” because Mum tells the story of me always climbing out of the cot when I was little. I’d go and watch Tarzan movies on the video at home and run down to our mango tree in the backyard and try and be like Tarzan and swing around on the branches. I’d traverse around the house and this was all before I knew what rock climbing was. I think they were pretty psyched to find a safer place for me to be able to express my love for moving around.
I started climbing when I was 12 and just kind of went from there. I just loved it. It was one of those things that clicked and I guess because I’d climbed a bunch around the house and in the tree I kind of felt comfortable doing it. I felt comfortable at heights and was not too bad from the beginning. There was something about it and the group of people I fell into and all that sort of stuff as well.
I had a pretty awesome opportunity to go some crazy countries when I was little as well, like I went to Ecuador in 2007 for the World Youth Championships by myself, a 14 year old or 15 year old. I was hooked in with the Australian team but no parental supervision as such. That was pretty cool. It was pretty crazy that my parents let me go to that country without really too much supervision. I guess that comes back to what you were saying before: climbing has given me, not just within the climbing but a whole bunch of things outside of climbing to grow as a person and that was pretty cool.
Neely Quinn: So you were a competitive climber at that time?
Tom O’Halloran: A little bit, yeah. Well, not really. It’s funny. In Australia we don’t really have a strong competition scene. The competition was kind of just one of those where we’d go into the climbing gym and just climb and go out on the weekend and do a little bit of rock climbing. It just happened to be a competition in the gym that weekend so you’d go along and then well, I qualified for Nationals so we might as well go to Nationals. It was never something that I was super psyched on.
World Youth Championships came up and Mum and Dad were pretty cool to let me go and experience that and let me have a pretty unique life experience. The competition climbing was never really something that got me super motivated. I was just psyched to climb and it was just another opportunity to climb.
I think on that trip I came in 12th, which I think at the time was the best an Australian had gone at a Youth World Champs, which was kind of cool. It was funny. I didn’t know anyone from the other countries and I think I was climbing 7a+ or something, maybe? I thought that I was pretty bloody strong and then met this person, this gangly kind of kid that had this weird mop of hair, Mr. Bean socks, sandals, funny cargo pants that didn’t really fit him, and this oversized checkered kind of strange shirt. One of my friends in the Australian team said, “Oh, Tom this is Adam. He’s climbing in your category.”
“Nice to meet you, Adam.”
I think I must have asked him, “How hard have you climbed?” and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve climbed 9a+.’ I was like, ‘Whaaaa?’
It was Adam Ondra. I didn’t know who he was.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] That was your competition.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah. He was the first person I had met in my competition and he’d climbed 9a+. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to get slaughtered.’
Neely Quinn: That’s so funny. You’re like, ‘Oh, this is who I’m up against. All of these people climb 9a+?’
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. I’ve climbed 24 and he’s climbing 36.
Neely Quinn: That’s funny. Well, you’re not too, too far off from where he’s at now.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, I’m not far off from 14 year old Adam Ondra.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Right, right. That’s a good point.
Tom O’Halloran: He might have been 13 at the time.
Neely Quinn: I wanted to ask you, because there are a lot of firsts here like the first Australian to get 12th place, the first Australian to do 9a – were you also the first Australian to do Wheel of Life?
Tom O’Halloran: No, there’s quite a few Australians that have done it, actually. Chris Webb-Parsons, which some people may know, did the second ascent of it a couple years after Dai Koyamada. I think he did it in 2007. It’s a pretty awesome piece of rock climbing and it’s one of those ones where the first time you walk into the Hollow Mountain Cave you just can’t believe that there’s these holds and that feature for that length of time. It’s unbroken and it’s possible. It’s crazy. It’s such a unique feature. There’s not just some jug rail bit for 10 meters. Every section you could conceivably fall off, for 25 moves, which is pretty awesome.
Neely Quinn: It’s the epitome of power endurance, which is part of what I would like to talk to you about now: how you got that way. Obviously you had some time to train and climb before you had a child but then since then you’ve increased your climbing. I think that a lot of people worry about that when they’re thinking about the prospect of having children, or they worry about it when they have them. ‘How do I make time for all of this?’
I would love to hear from you about how you balance your work life, your home life, and your climbing.
Tom O’Halloran: It can be tricky to make it happen but Amanda, my partner, and I just make it a priority, our climbing. Family life is a priority and work is a priority and those three things, we set time in the week. It’s like: Saturday is my climbing day. Sunday is her climbing day. We do training on these nights. It’s just kind of set in stone and both of us love doing it and we both want to be there and do our climbing and get the most out of our climbing but also, we both want to spend time with Audrey and not miss out on those pretty awesome years of her being a cheeky little monkey.
It can be tricky but we’ve just got it planned and we’re both on the same page. We know that both of us love to be there at home and want to help out but to be the best version of ourselves we need to go climbing as well because whenever one of us hasn’t climbed enough we start getting cranky and all that. You’re like, ‘Uh, what is it that’s making me just cranky?’ and it turns out you haven’t climbed for a couple of days or whatever it is.
I think as well, for me, I had her quite young. I think I was 21 when she was born so I didn’t have years of bad habits. It wasn’t 10 or 15 years of just lazing about at the cliff and going, ‘Oh, I’ve got all day,’ and sleeping in and doing all that sort of stuff. I didn’t have to break bad habits. We just got into making a new routine and I think making it a routine is what gives you that access to climbing more. We’ve got it booked into our weeks so I’ll say, “Amanda is climbing on this day so I’m going to do the housework and then she comes home, we do a hot handover, and I run up to the gym and do a bit of fingerboarding as she makes dinner.”
I get up early for work and that’s a little tricky but sometimes I try and get up a bit earlier or on my days off, when you really feel like a sleep-in, you get up and just squeak in a fingerboard. We’ve got a fingerboard up at home, we’ve got some TRX straps and a few light weights so we can get a quick fingerboard session in or a quick strength session. Having that access to it so close by is really important if you want to maintain that climbing life and maintain a bit of training and fitness. I can be making dinner and doing a strength session in the other room.
Audrey joins in with us as well which is pretty fun. She does a little TRX strap routine which basically involves sticking her legs in in and swinging about. Crazy kid. I’ll be like, ‘I’ve got to get back on! Jump out of the way!’ but involving her in it as well has been super cool.
We went to Ceuse last year and it was a bit epic trying to get 17 kilos of her plus 17 kilos of climbing gear up that hill each day but she was really psyched to be there and we brought along a whole bunch of activities for her, like some drawing and coloring sort of things and some toys and the iPad with a bunch of movies and all that sort of stuff.
Getting her involved in our climbing life is, I think, really key because it means we get to be out climbing and not be away from her as well. It’s really awesome having time to yourself at the cliff but to get the trips in that Amanda and I both want to do, she needs to be able to be at the cliff with us and have her own life at the cliff. Whether that’s climbing or whether that’s just hanging out and doing drawings for us when we get back down to the ground, she’s psyched to be there and involved in it and gets to feel like it’s her thing as well. It’s kind of a team effort from all of us to make it happen.
Neely Quinn: That’s one of the things that I think people worry about the most is: who’s going to take care of my child when by partner is belaying me? Do you always climb just the two of you or do you bring other people along on these trips?
Tom O’Halloran: As it turns out, there’s some pretty cool climbers out there. In Ceuse we met some cool climbers there and they were pretty happy to just hang out with Audrey at the base and keep her a bit distracted with a drawing while we were belaying but she’s generally not too much of a rat bag, mostly. [laughs] Unless she’s over-tired.
We just kind of get her engaged in something and make sure she’s engaged in her drawing or her coloring or whatever it is before we leave the ground. We’ve got a little helmet on her head and she’s close by as we’re belaying, which can be tricky sometimes. She can lose it and want Mummy to come down or whatever else and need a Mummy cuddle halfway through a redpoint but yeah, the climbers that we met in Ceuse were super cool in helping us out.
We’ve got some people in the Blue Mountains that are kind of babysitters for her so Amanda and I get to go out climbing together without Audrey in tow, which is pretty fun and pretty free to just be able to move around and not think about whether you’ve got the other four kilos of baby stuff with us.
I think to approach the family climbing life in the same way you approached it when it was just you and your partner, I don’t think will work. It is different and it is trickier but it’s also more fun sometimes. A lot of the time you just get to share such a unique experience with your kid and as a family. Not many kids get to hang out in France with their parents on a climbing trip at the top of a huge mountain. That’s kind of a fun place to be as a family so you need to come up with some different routines and structures around how things are going to happen at the cliff.
Basically, for Amanda and I we’ve worked out that that’s just being super prepared with every single bit of food that she’s ever eaten and liked. You have that there. Every single game that she’s ever liked. Every single coloring and pencil just so you can keep it as stress-free as possible and be like, ‘Oh, if you’ve gotten bored of that try this!’
Neely Quinn: Yeah, which is parenting in general.
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. It’s pretty crazy. Climbing teaches you a lot about yourself but I think parenting teaches you even more. It’s the art of keeping cool and calm under a fairly stressful situation sometimes. Parenting brings the best and worst out in people, I think.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] I’m sure.
Tom O’Halloran: You get this pretty awesome little ray of sunshine all the time.
Neely Quinn: Well yeah, that’s amazing that your daughter is a ray of sunshine most of the time.
Tom O’Halloran: [laughs] Mostly.
Neely Quinn: I have these friends who are a couple and they have two kids. Their kids go to Spain with them, they go to the Red with them, they go everywhere and they’re little. They’re like six and four or seven and four or something. They actually buy them a toy or something after every climbing day. I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve ever thought about doing or have done or what you think about that?
Tom O’Halloran: That kind of stuff has certainly come out. ‘If you just let me have this one last route we can have a look at the shops on the way home.’ [laughs] She has the most extravagant range of Beanie Boo toys – I don’t know if you guys have got them in America – but they’re these cute little cuddly toys with these massively oversized sparkly, glitter eyes. Audrey loves them, especially the unicorn ones because she’s hardcore into unicorns at the moment. She’s got so many cute little cuddly toys as little thank you’s for being so super good at the cliff for letting us do a little extra training or whatever else. You try to encourage your daughter to be well behaved so she can get a treat and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if that’s the best.’
Neely Quinn: You’re kind of bribing them.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, exactly, but at the end of the day you’re like, ‘Well, I’ve come out at the end happy,’ and we explain what’s going on and she doesn’t always get what she wants. It just means that you get more opportunities as consequences as well. ‘We’ll take Rainbow Sparkle-corn away if you don’t stop.’
Neely Quinn: The more toys they have the more consequences there are. [laughs]
Tom O’Halloran: Yep, which also then means that the impact of one unicorn going out of a flock of 60 doesn’t actually seem like that big of a drop in the ocean. It seems to work well enough.
Neely Quinn: I’m curious about your regular routine, like your schedule that you guys have. You think about, ‘What do I need to do to train to get stronger?’ and a lot of people are like, ‘I need to climb and train at least four, maybe five days a week.’ I know that it can be done in less time than that and I’m assuming that as a parent you don’t always get that many days, so can you tell me what a typical week looks like for you and your partner?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah. To start with a weekend, Saturday is my climbing day and Sunday will be Amanda’s climbing day. That will be the days that we get to go out to the cliff. If it’s raining or too hot or something we’ll go to the local climbing gym and have a boulder session or whatever else. During the week I generally take Tuesdays off and Amanda has Tuesdays off as well so we take Audrey to school and we get to go out and have a fun climbing day together, which is pretty awesome. We get to just hang out and be our normal selves for a moment in time, which is pretty awesome.
Generally, it’s just the two days a week that we get to go out to the cliff and then we generally throw in three or four sessions during the week in and around work of training, whether that’s a fingerboard session at home or a strength session at home or a bit of free bouldering at the local gym or something like that. Generally, I’ll get up early in the morning before work and try and get a fingerboard in. I’ve made it a pretty small fingerboard session but I feel pretty worked at the end of it so I take that as being pretty good. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: I’m curious, actually, about that since you are strapped for time. What do you do in your finger session?
Tom O’Halloran: I’ve actually only just gotten into the fingerboarding routine. This past fingerboard session…
Neely Quinn: Cycle?
Tom O’Halloran: Cycle. That’s the word. I’m new to this training thing. This past fingerboard cycle is the first one that I’ve actually written down and completed in its entirety, which is really cool. I wrote down 16 sessions for myself and committed to one protocol which was Eric Horst’s thing of 7 seconds on/53 seconds off, three times. Rest for three minutes then do it again via different grips.
That takes me – I’m sure someone with quicker head maths than me can work it out – about an hour and that’s really, really good. I do two sets of chisel, two sets of an open kind of crimp, and two sets of a three finger drag just on a 14-mil edge. It feels like a nice size. It’s not too small and it’s not too juggy.
Then, in the 53 seconds rest between each of those hangs I’ll do some strength stuff so that might be some TRX flys or Superman-type things or a little bit of stretching or something like that so I kind of get twice the amount of training in half the time.
I think that’s a big one, actually. Putting that together like that so getting your eight TRX flys done in your rest period from your fingerboarding. You end up taking half as much time which means that you get twice as much done, which is pretty awesome when you are strapped for time between work and family kind of stuff. It’s been pretty good.
I think the other thing with having Audrey is it has made me more aware of how little time there actually is, even just in life in general. I realize this year that I’m turning 27. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. How has that gone by?’ Everyone older than me says, “Yep, it just keeps happening.” It’s kind of the first time that I’ve actually realized how quickly it happens. Having Audrey made those time crunches harder and has made me become a bit more focused on stuff within climbing and stuff outside of climbing as well. I don’t think I would climb as well as I have if it weren’t for her because it means I want to make every session count in some way, whether it’s at the cliff or whether it’s at the hangboard or on the 45 at the bouldering gym.
Neely Quinn: It does fly by.
Tom O’Halloran: It’s crazy.
Neely Quinn: I have a couple questions. What is a ‘chisel?’
Tom O’Halloran: Like a half crimp, I guess. All your fingers are at 90°. Is that a half crimp?
Neely Quinn: All your fingers at 90°?
Tom O’Halloran: Maybe your pinkies a little bit dragged out but at least the index, middle, and ring are at that 90° at the joint.
Neely Quinn: That was just a little Australian thing that you pulled. I think you said ‘drags’ for pockets?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, so just three finger open, I guess.
Neely Quinn: And you call that a drag?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, that’s probably just Australianisms. There’s plenty more if you come down on a trip. You’ll hear some pretty crazy things.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I bet. You’re doing 7 seconds on/53 seconds off so you must be max hanging?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, I was doing max hangs with that and have added weight onto the harness. I’ve got some weights at home so I just add some weights. I’ve been able to progress from – basically, all those my chisel or half crimp and my open, four finger drag on the edge went from 20 kilos of resistance, like an extra 20 kilos on top of my bodyweight, to 27.5 across about 16 or 12 sessions or something? My three finger drag or three finger open went from 15 kilos to 25 kilos extra.
Neely Quinn: Woah, so you were increasing every session.
Tom O’Halloran: I had an effort rating. I’ve got a training book and I just write down my session and how each hang felt. In an effort rating out of 10, how does that feel? Or how does my finger feel? Is it a little tweaky or whatever? I can keep track of how everything is. It means if you do get injured you can look back and be like, ‘Well, I could see that coming.’ Or, you look back and you go, ‘Cool. I was doing a lot of training then,’ or, ‘This is the numbers I was hitting.’
It also/for future sessions, I can go, ‘That felt like an 8.5/10. I’m going to increase that by maybe 2.5 kilograms,’ which is five pounds or something like that. I just add a little bit more on. It was a really cool way. If I was at a 9 or a 9.5/10 I would maintain that level of weight but if it dropped down to about an 8.5 I would increase it a little bit.
I made sure to weigh myself before each session and work out – I wanted to be looking at how much overall weight was going through my fingers, not how much extra I was putting on. Depending on the time of day or how dehydrated you are or whatever your weight can fluctuate by a couple of kilos throughout the day. If you just knack a liter of water before you pull onto the fingerboard you’re a kilo heavier. I wanted to try to maintain some consistency through all those sessions so I’d weigh myself and then work out how much weight to add. I generally stayed fairly even.
Neely Quinn: I’ve never heard of anybody doing that, in all of the times that I’ve interviewed people about fingerboarding. You are the first, which makes a lot of sense, though.
Tom O’Halloran: It just means, ‘Okay, I know that I’m putting 95 kilos or whatever it is of force through my fingers,’ rather than one day it’s 92 kilos and then it’s 93 and then we’re at 95 and back to 92. It’s not a consistent loading. It would almost be like a sprinter doing sprint efforts and going, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to 97 meters this time and then I’ll go to 84 meters and then I’ll do 100.’ Just keeping that consistency is, I think, pretty key.
I’m going to change my protocol now. I’ve done it for 12 sessions of that 7/53 and saw some really good gains so I’m going to change it again now and stick to a new protocol for a bit.
Neely Quinn: Did you see gains in your climbing as well?
Tom O’Halloran: It’s hard to tell at the moment because we’re in the middle of summer in Australia and it’s 35°C at home, which is…
Neely Quinn: Really hot.
Tom O’Halloran: Really hot and just stormy and humid and it’s fairly uncomfortable to climb. I feel fairly good in the climbing gym and I’m pretty psyched. I’ve got a few projects that I really want to get done this year so I’m really motivated to see where all the training goes.
Neely Quinn: So you’re ramping up for the fall.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, exactly. It’s generally around April-May that the conditions start to get pretty good here. You get those blue sky days where it’s 15°C and a nice breeze and it’s just pretty magic. The rock can feel like Velcro.
There’s one project in particular that I’ve spent more time on than any other route by a long, long way that I came kind of close to doing last season and then it just got too hot. That’s the big goal.
Neely Quinn: What’s that project?
Tom O’Halloran: It’s one that I bolted at a place called The Underworld. It’s funny. It’s 16 moves long from when you get yourself established above a small band of ferns. Sixteen moves from the first move to clipping the anchor and every single move is really, really hard. It took me three months to work out how to clip one of the bolts.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Oh my god.
Tom O’Halloran: I’ve fallen once trying to clip it and nearly decked, which is kind of funny, but it’s probably two V13’s on top of each other without a rest. It would be – I’m sure at some point when I’m going for proper, proper redpoint goes I wouldn’t bother taking a chalk bag because it’s just not all that worth it. Maybe to stick a brush in my pocket so I can brush the holds when I fall off?
Neely Quinn: What does two V13’s equal?
Tom O’Halloran: I don’t know. It’s flippin’ hard. Really, really hard. My highpoint so far is move 10 of 16, which is pretty funny.
Neely Quinn: Two-thirds.
Tom O’Halloran: Exactly. I’ve probably spent 60 days on it, I reckon. A lot of time and it’s been so fun, actually. It’s funny. Other projects that I’ve had in the past have been where you kind of hit that point where you just kind of want to get it done and it’s like going to work. You’re like, ‘I’m really motivated to make this happen but I’m kind of over it and I just want to do it.’ The whole process of it has been pretty incredible and I feel like maybe this year I can get it done. I think it’ll be something like 36, or 9a+. I don’t know what it would be in boulder grades.
Neely Quinn: So it’s harder than what you’ve done before?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, by a long, long, long way.
Neely Quinn: I have a question going kind of way back in our conversation. That is: you said that you take off Tuesdays every week and so does your partner. Can you tell me how you guys manage to do that?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, so I’m pretty lucky to have fairly flexible work. I’m doing kind of maintenance stuff at a tourist park sort of thing that’s 12 minutes from home, which is much better than flying 6,000 kilometers to the other side of the country and going to work for two weeks.
Neely Quinn: So you’re not doing the rope access work anymore?
Tom O’Halloran: No, I’m doing the rope access work but it’s far more local than the other side of the country.
My partner is a sport dietician so she runs her own business with that. She’s able to block out Tuesdays so we get to have time together like that.
Neely Quinn: That’s amazing.
Tom O’Halloran: We’ve got fairly flexible schedules which is a blessing and a curse. It means you can kind of put work off when you probably shouldn’t but it also means we went to Ceuse and Saint Leger last year and she could work and do stuff remotely while we were there so that was pretty awesome as well.
Neely Quinn: When you say that your schedule is flexible does that mean you don’t work on Tuesdays but you do work on the evenings or the weekends?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, so I end up working – it changes every week, basically, which is kind of cool and kind of annoying. Sometimes I work Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and they’re 10-hour days, from 7:00am-5:00pm. Then other times there’s work that needs to be done out of hours. There are rides and stuff where I work at the tourist park and once they shut to the public at 5:00 we can get in and do some work. We might come in at 4:30 on that day and work through till 10:00 at night, which is kind of great because it means we get to climb during the day and then you work at night. It kind of chops and changes around.
It’s kind of tricky to have a solid training routine around that because I always end up wanting to prioritize rock time because that’s what motivates me the most, but generally you can find a bit of routine in the madness.
Tuesdays are kind of set in stone that I don’t usually work during daylight hours so that we can hang out and climb, if that makes sense.
Neely Quinn: So you can at least say to your employer, “I don’t work on this day. Every week I do not do that.”
Tom O’Halloran: Yep, exactly. It’s pretty awesome that they’re pretty understanding of that.
Neely Quinn: Is that the reason that you chose the job that you have? Because it’s flexible?
Tom O’Halloran: In a way, yes. I was doing rope access in Brisbane and I was working where I grew up, in the town I grew up in. I was working Monday-Friday, 7:00am-4:00pm everyday. I got a bit over that. I was working with awesome friends but I got a bit bored of having to wait until the weekend.
I moved to the Blue Mountains and started doing work flying around the country. It was kind of good because it meant when I was home I didn’t need to think about work and I could just climb all the time but it meant that I had to go to the other side of the country to go to work, which meant that I was away from family and friends and climbing and all that sort of stuff.
I’d do a little bit of fingerboarding and TRX while I was away but I was away from actually climbing for two, three, or four weeks at a time. It was a bit crummy so I ended up getting a full time job doing that, because it used to be just small contracts for a few weeks at a time. I got a full time job flying over to western Australia and it just didn’t work for our family life. Amanda and I like spending too much time together for that kind of life to work. I was starting to lose a good relationship with Audrey as well. She just didn’t like me, essentially, which was a bit of a bummer. She got sick of Daddy having to leave every two weeks to go to work.
I quit that and just got a small – it was only meant to be a three week job at the current place I’m working. It was some guys I had worked with before and I said, “I’m going to quit my job working away, do you guys have anything local?” Cookie, the guy I work with, said, “We’ve got a three week job. You can come and do that for a little bit.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I had nothing else planned. I had no plan B. I just quit for mental health and said, “Something needs to change.”
I got this other little gig for three weeks and it’s been two years. They just have heaps of work. They’re quite understaffed on their maintenance team and it’s just kind of kept on going on a casual basis. They’ve always got work there for me and they’re really happy to give me time off. The other guys I work with are climbers and the boss, the head engineer, he’s a climber and he was over in Switzerland doing stuff in the Alps earlier in the year. There’s guys that were heading off to Yosemite and all that sort of stuff so everyone kind of understands all of that.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it sounds like a really good culture for you.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, exactly. It’s really different from some of the crazy people you work with on mine sites that are shooting at different goal posts in life. That would be the nice way of saying it.
Neely Quinn: I know that work like that, that high demand, high stress kind of dangerous work can pay really well. Is that something where you took a big pay cut to have this stability and access to climbing and your family?
Tom O’Halloran: When I was working in Brisbane I was getting really consistent, fairly good money so then I moved down to the Blue Mountains and the work, working away, was pretty good money as well. That was kind of how I always justified it. ‘I’m earning pretty good money and I can’t earn that kind of money locally because it’s not there.’
Then in the end I worked out that the money isn’t worth it. There’s no amount of money that will give you those years with your daughter and your partner and so it was spooky walking away from quite a well paying job but I have picked up a fairly well paying job where I am now. It’s given us flexibility and freedom.
It’s a tricky one, I think, that financial stuff. You want to earn good money and provide for your family and give yourself the opportunities to travel and have fun and do all those things that money can bring us but it’s almost important to prioritize the actual experiences with your family and friends, day to day. You can’t put a price on having a cuddle with your daughter each morning before you go to work or seeing her happy little face run out of the front door when you come home each day.
I’ve taken a bit of a pay cut with the work that I’m doing but to have a life that is just so much more rich in love, basically, is pretty awesome. I think that’s something that I always want to try and prioritize.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. I think this is a really good thing for a lot of people to hear because so many people feel trapped and they work too much and they don’t have the freedom or flexibility that they really want. They’re in their 20’s or 30’s or 40’s and 50’s when they can be really active and they don’t figure out a way to make that happen. I always think that it’s inspirational to hear stories like your’s where you figured out a way to make it all work.
Tom O’Halloran: I think that you don’t get this time again and the money is great but if you can prioritize your happiness as number one, then number one should be happiness. Everything else kind of will flow on from there.
There’s people that are psyched on their careers and that’s fine. That’s something that makes them really psyched and it’s totally awesome to explore that and do it but if you are unhappy in the situation you’re in you’ve got to look at doing something different. I’ve taken a few scary jumps with that kind of stuff and it’s always worked out because you just work it out. You force your hand to make it work.
My partner is making a similar decision at the moment with her work and dropping a fairly significant portion of her income because it’s not making her happy. There’s other things that she’s not able to do that she wants to do because this dark storm cloud is hanging over her head with this particular part of her work.
Neely Quinn: What’s your response to that? Like when she says to you, “I want to stop doing this. It’s going to bring in this much less money and it will make me happy.” How do you respond?
Tom O’Halloran: I think it’s awesome. I think it’s really, really cool because whatever happens, happens. We’ll work it out but it’s her and I and Audrey and so long as our little team is okay and we’re together, we can sort it out.
It’s spooky. You sit there at night going, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ but you can’t work out what’s on the other side of the brick wall if you don’t hit it with a sledgehammer, basically. Sometimes you just need to commit and smash through something that seems a bit scary to give yourself new opportunities.
Neely Quinn: I agree.
Tom O’Halloran: It’s scary but I think it’ll be worth it. I know it’ll be worth it.
Neely Quinn: I hope it all works out for you guys.
Is there anything that we missed? I wanted to talk about your family balanced with work balanced with training and I think we did that. Is there anything else you want to mention?
Tom O’Halloran: Not particularly, I don’t think. I think just that main thing is finding that balance. Looking for those things in people’s’ lives that gives them joy and prioritizing that stuff.
I listened to Eric Horst’s – probably the most recent – podcast about how to make your life awesome. He spoke about priorities and listing down the things in your life that are a priority and saying #1, #2, #3 through to #10 or whatever it is. He says, “You’ve only got enough time in your life to do the top three.” For Amanda and I our top three are: family, climbing, and work. Anything else is kind of a bit of a distraction and a bit too much to add in.
Having those priorities set in stone and always at the center of your decision making – like saying, “How does this benefit our family?” or “How does this benefit our climbing? Does it?” If it doesn’t then get rid of it because it’s just too much to add in or it’s going to detract from one of those facets.
I think at the top of the list for each one of those three things is: does it make us happy?
Neely Quinn: It seems like they’re in order, from what I’ve heard you say. Your first priority is family, then climbing, then work.
Tom O’Halloran: Yep, exactly. Family makes us happy and if we get that nailed then everything else happens from there. If you’re happy at the cliff then you’re going to climb well and if you’re happy at work then you’re going to work well. Family is happiness and everything goes from there.
Neely Quinn: I think those are really nice words to end with.
Tom O’Halloran: Awesome.
Neely Quinn: It’s been lovely chatting with you.
Tom O’Halloran: Thanks, Neely. It’s kind of cool to verbalize some thoughts as well.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. You get to verbalize thoughts on your own podcast, which is called what?
Tom O’Halloran: Baffle Days. When I was younger we had a holiday house. My mum, dad, and brother and I had a holiday house at a place called Baffle Creek. It was just a super simple little shack and I’ve just got some very, very fond memories of spending a lot of time there and the simplicity of it all. It’s kind of a throwback to that, basically. Climbing is just such an awesome, simple, fun thing and I always want to keep that childish play element in it.
Neely Quinn: And the podcast is about climbing?
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, and I’m sure we’ll end up talking about different things at different times but at the moment the idea is to provide some Australian climbing content, which there just wasn’t any. Australia was in the Dark Ages of not having a podcast, which is crazy. There are podcasts all through America and Europe. I was pretty psyched to try and get an Australian climbing podcast because there’s some pretty cool people in Australia and some pretty cool stories of epics and triumphs and all sorts of other things. It would be cool to chat to climbing travelers as well, when they come over, and find out their experiences of climbing in Australia and all that sort of stuff.
I guess if anyone needs any information on climbing in Australia they can find us on Instagram and flick either Amanda or I a message on that and we can hopefully point people in the right direction. There’s some pretty incredible climbing in Australia and it’s not really spoken about too much, funnily enough. It doesn’t seem to be at the top of peoples’ priority list but it’s unreal, the climbing here. Taipan wall, apart from scary bolting, is probably one of the best pieces of stone in the world and it’s a busy day at the cliff if there’s one other party on that wall.
Neely Quinn: Not anymore. Not after this episode airs. [laughs]
Tom O’Halloran: Let’s cut this, actually. [laughs] The Blue Mountains as well, where I live, you can get to the cliff with your take-away coffee still hot and it’s some of the best climbing in the world as well. It’s pretty awesome.
Neely Quinn: You’re making me want to go there.
Tom O’Halloran: You should! It’s pretty awesome. It kind of times in well with other seasons around the world as well, I think, with our season and other peoples’ seasons.
Neely Quinn: For sure. We don’t have anything to do here in the winter. I mean, we do but not as much. I mean, it would be our summer and your winter when we would want to go.
Tom O’Halloran: Yeah, if you came anywhere between April and October it’s kind of hard to go wrong. Winter in the Blue Mountains can be pretty cold but if you’re prepared with a Thermos of tea or soup and a nice warm jacket, and you find the sun, it’s pretty incredible. It’s harder to fall off your project than it is to climb it. The friction is that good.
Neely Quinn: Nice. There was one other question I had – oh, your Instagram. How do people find you?
Tom O’Halloran: @tom_ohalloran and that’s just kind of photos of my climbing and our life and bits and pieces there. Hopefully I’ll get people psyched on trying to climb and show a bit of Australian content and stuff like that.
Neely Quinn: Cool, well thanks for representing Australia and giving us a little glimpse of your life.
Tom O’Halloran: Thanks so much, Neely.
Neely Quinn: Talk to you soon. Take care.
Tom O’Halloran: See ya.
Neely Quinn: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Tom O’Halloran. I know I did. He’s very soothing to listen to, not just because of the Australian accent but because of his philosophy on life. I really enjoyed it. You can find him on Instagram @tom_ohalloran but also the website for his podcast is www.baffledays.com.au. Then you can also find it on iTunes and everywhere else.
Thank you very much, Tom, for your wisdom and congrats on your major accomplishments as an Australian climber.
You can follow us on Instagram @trainingbeta, Facebook at TrainingBeta, and then also remember we have a training community on Facebook. It’s a group page and it’s got 6,000 members at this point. You can find that at www.trainingbeta.com/community.
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Thanks so much for listening all the way to the end. I’ll talk to you next week or the week after.