London: not well known for its big-wall routes. Until July 11, when six female climbers snuck in under cover of darkness to quietly start climbing the 310m-high Shard. Their aim was to make a very public stand against drilling for oil in the Arctic. We caught up with them to find out more about the protest and, most importantly, just what grade it went at.
At 4.20 am on the night of July 11, six Greenpeace activists were quietly starting an operation that would take the sport of buildering to new heights. The all-female team were setting out to climb one of the most iconic buildings in the UK. London’s Shard, standing at 310 metres high, is the tallest building in Europe, and a perfect rooftop to shout from if you have a message.
After sixteen hours of climbing, followed with great interest by the media, the international team reached the summit and unfolded their Save the Arctic banners for the world to see. They then lowered down to balconies where they were promptly taken into police custody.
We caught up with one of these climbers, 32-year-old Victoria Henry, a Canadian now resident in London, to see what was behind their climb.
So, the big question: what grade was the Shard?
Well, our lead climber Liesbeth Deddens proposes a French grade of 5c overall and the name of Sigmund. To be more precise, the first three pitches are 5b, the fourth 5c, and the fifth 6a. The final pitch contains free climbing with overhangs and climbing inside the structure from balcony to balcony with pull-ups and foot hooks.
What was the idea behind the climb?
We were hoping to make a very public stand against drilling for oil in the Arctic, one that could not be ignored. We chose the largest building in Western Europe because we had a message so important that it needed to be, literally, shouted from the rooftops. In the last 30 years we've lost 75% of the Arctic sea-ice volume. And as the summer sea-ice melts, Shell and other oil companies want to drill there for more climate-wrecking oil: a vicious cycle that serves only to line the pockets of oil executives. Shell’s headquarters are in the shadow of the Shard, and we needed to shine the light of the world’s attention on their Arctic drilling ambitions. A spill like Deepwater Horizon in this area would be utter devastation, and Shell’s safety record when it comes to drilling is very patchy.
What climbing technique did you use – aid climbing or free climbing?
Both. We climbed in two teams of three, with each climber on each team climbing in a different way. Due to the amount of weight we had to carry, we decided that we’d climb it with one person leading, one seconding, and the third using rope access to get the equipment up. I found it was possible to free climb almost the entire building (seconding), using a series of laybacks and high foot rockovers on two offset sets of rungs and railings. My small size was an advantage in allowing me to wedge myself into gaps along the side to free my hands to remove protection as I climbed.
Did you have to train specifically for it?
Yes. Although we’re all experienced climbers, we practiced specific elements of this climb, especially setting up the belay stations in a way that would allow us to arrive at and leave the belay points in the correct order without rope tangles. We also spent extra time practicing abseils in case we had to come down early, and rescues in case any of us encountered difficulties.
Did you think you weren’t going to make it at any point?
The first pitch was very difficult and we didn’t have our rope management systems working smoothly. I was hanging almost horizontally from the bottom of the building by a single point with a huge bag of ropes on my back, belaying our lead climber. We had a lot of weight to carry and haul which certainly slowed us down. But we never once talked about giving up or coming down.
Was it harder physically or mentally?
It was a very mental experience, one which took me some time to recover from. The hardest bits were at the start and finish but when we were climbing it was just a case of turning the brain off. It was surreal, especially with hundreds of metres of air directly below. Can you imagine it?
What happened after you got to the top?
When Wiola Smul reached the very top peak of the building, she unfurled a banner reading “Save the Arctic”, our message behind the climb. An hour later, we lowered onto various balconies between the 87th and 72nd floors, and were taken into custody by the police.
Was the climb a success?
It’s been a huge success. We were expecting to get criticism but the response has been hugely positive. People were interested. We timed it so we’d cause minimal disruption for transport so no one got messed around. On the way we were active on Twitter and there was an overwhelming amount of support coming at us live. It got lots of media attention and a Yougov poll showed that 53% of the population had heard about it. Greenpeace signed up 70,000 new members in its aftermath. So yes, I’d call that a success. And I imagine a few people at Shell might have noticed too.
(It even made it into the BMC Regional Access Database for a little bit...)
What do you think now when you see the Shard?
I feel joy and empowerment every time I see the Shard in the distance. It’s changed my entire relationship with London! When I moved here from Canada five years ago its construction was just getting underway so it has always been a part of my story. Now it’s a sort of monument for me for what the passion and dedication of activists can achieve.
In your views, what’s the biggest environmental issue we currently face?
Climate change is the biggest environmental issue we face, and one of the main reasons we’re campaigning on Arctic oil
As a climber, you must travel for your sport, and use oil-based products, how do you square this with protesting against oil?
This protest was not about telling people to stop using oil-based products instantly. As a society, we’re addicted to oil, and it will take time to wean ourselves off it. But if we keep investing in expensive, dirty projects like Arctic drilling, we’ll never have the money or the push we need to invest in developing the alternatives. Personally I don’t drive and never fly short haul. I take the train to climb in places around the UK, and the tiny amount of overseas climbing I’ve done has been combined with other travel.
As a Greenpeace activist, are you pessimistic or optimistic for the future of the planet?
Hugely optimistic and full of love for the millions of people all over the world who are succeeding at making this world a better place to live in.
What would be your ultimate building climb?
If I told you, I bet the police wouldn’t let me anywhere near it ;)
Watch the film of their climb:
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