The Phil Schaal Interview
But pissing on hard blocs hasn’t come easy for Phil, who’s gone from struggling to do a single pull-up (OK that was awhile ago) to world-class send status. His secret? Pure determination.
Phil ranks Roses and Bluejays in Great Barrington, Mass., among the best problems on the East Coast. “The rock is amazing, really fine-grain granite, kinda crimpy. It’s a pretty standout line. It’s seen a lot of ascents but as far as East Coast quality it’s probably top three. Chelsea Smile you get on and it’s like ‘Ow it hurts’.”
Phil’s boulder-crushing rampage is about to pick up speed as he heads for Colorado’s high alpine gems this summer.
C-Note: You just climbed your first 5.14, Supernova, how’s it feel?
Phil: Yeah, my first four-bolt 5.14. It was long overdue. I tried Supernova a lot like three years ago and kept falling on the last move. This time I nailed it. It felt good finally to get that confirmed 5.14.
C-Note: Yeah, you made it look pretty easy.
Phil: I was pretty stoked. I would have been upset if it felt the same as three years ago.
C-Note: How did you start climbing?
Phil: I started climbing when I was 15 in the gym. I couldn’t even do a pull-up. 5.9 was a challenge. I remember just barely getting to the top of this slightly steep wall, using all the holds and stemming on the other wall, and it was only like 18 feet tall.
C-Note: So, you’ve definitely improved since then…
Phil: Yeah. I’ve definitely improved since then. The first year and a half I just climbed so much. I got the point where I could do 20 pull-ups. After two solid years I could climb 5.12. Just out of pure tenacity—it didn’t come easy.
C-Note: So what’s the secret to your recent comeback?
Phil: I wouldn’t say a comeback, but I broke through a huge barrier last summer. I think a lot of it was strategic. I definitely feel stronger, but it’s not like night and day strength. Definitely training, strategy and conservation.
C-Note: What do you mean, conservation?
Phil: I have all these little games I play with myself, little thoughts. I try to relate the skin on my finger tips to my body’s condition. When I wear my skin down til it’s really thin, I know my body’s messed up. So, I try not to let my skin get too damaged. I limit myself to a few tries and stop when I’m still feeling fairly fresh. I try to think about the next day. When I was younger I’d just go at it and get completely devastated, not taking any body conservation into account.
C-Note: What’s your mental approach to climbing?
Phil: I’m definitely hard on myself. I don’t really know why. I look for little successes in climbing to make up for the fact that I didn’t have a great success that day. I make smaller goals, just being real realistic with myself. Like today, if I don’t feel so great, but I make a move further, it’s a good day. Looking for incremental success helps me avoid negative thoughts.
C-Note: How do you train?
Phil: My training’s always evolving. There’s not one thing I ever do regularly. Lately, I’ve been climbing 4-5 days in a row with easy days in between. If I’m strategic, I can climb at my limit, fourth and fifth day on. Sixth months ago, I wouldn’t even be able to think of that. I try to do one arms, but I don’t lift weights or anything. I like to campus. I try to keep my fingers strong on a crimpy problems. And I keep my sessions short, like two hours.
C-Note: So you don’t really have a routine?
Phil: I kinda feel like, If you get a routine and then something’s off, it can tweak your head. Things will always be changing. I want to climb at my limit under any condition.
C-Note: I hear you’re pretty superstitious, black cats and stuff. Got any climbing rituals?
Phil: Whenever I kick my chalk bag over and chalk spills out everywhere, I usually have a decent day. Like today, I walked up to Satan’s Choice, spilled my chalk all over the slab and I had a pretty good day. I have a lot of little weird things like that. I’m constantly knocking on my forehead to make sure bad things don’t happen to me.
C-Note: What’s your climbing diet?
Phil: I don’t skimp out things. I eat a lot of candy, I’m addicted to sugar—gummy bears, anything gummy. My favorite candy is peanut m&ms, and my favorite Cliff Bar is Banana Nut Bread.
C-Note: How do you balance climbing and real-life responsibilities?
Phil: I’ve definitely sacrificed work and academic ambitions to climb as much as I can. My credit card statement will prove that, but I still feel like it’s worth it. I guess there’s a point I might be in the poorhouse collecting welfare just so I can go climbing.
C-Note: What about climbing and love?
Phil: My girlfriend, Nikki Keeney, and I have been on the road a lot recently—she loves climbing. When we were in Hueco was working Sex After Death and climbed some other V7s. I like watching her improve and get motivated to climb. It’s fun ‘cuz we’re both into the same thing.
C-Note: So you two are on the bust-ass/road trip cycle?
Phil: Lately we’ve been working a lot but yeah, we kinda live that work- climb, work-climb lifestyle. Having Nikki in my life is a real positive, she’s my psychiatrist when I’m stressing. She’s always there to give me the reality check I need.
C-Note: What’s your home crag?
Phil: Bradley, definitely. It’s 20 min from where I grew up. I was 16 when I started going out there, so it’s been eleven years. I’ve probably spent like 6000 days climbing there, and counting. So many, so many days.
C-Note: East Coast vs West Coast climbing—what’s the difference?
Phil: Climbing in the North East generally isn’t as open as out West. It’s definitely not as accepted in C.T. anyways. People don’t really understand rock climbing that much. I don’t know if it’s just the Hartford area. Bradley, my local bouldering spot has been closed for the past 12 years. And yeah, I’m guilty of trespassing or whatever I’m doing, but I’ll be the first one to admit it. I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to do?
C-Note: Uh, trespass.
Phil: You have to take some risks in the North East. If there’s really nice climbing right off the road and we’re not hurting anyone, sometimes we just go for it. But I guess it’s like that everywhere. And the weather definitely quite unstable.
C-Note: Do you prefer rope-climbing or bouldering?
Phil: I guess you could say I’m a product of my surroundings. There’s tons of bouldering here in C.T. There’s also good trad climbing that’s kind of scary. I used to guide for EMS in the Gunks. I really like trad climbing and I love sport climbing but Rumney is so far away.
C-Note: Who has influenced your climbing the most?
Phil: Climbing with Ty Landman and Nick Sherman on Robyn and Theo’s wall last year definitely made me stronger. Climbing with a bunch of different talented climbers really helps, pulling motivation, watching how other people train. In Boulder, there are a lot of people really serious about training. Climbing with Ty over the past couple years has been really motivating, but I don’t wanna give him too much credit.
C-Note: Future plans?
Phil: Return visit to Boulder looks positive. I’d like to see if I could do Jade, the Diamond would be fun too. I’d like to at least visit Rifle, never been. I just wanna kinda get back to that Rocky Mountain High.