With both feet and hands jammed into a three-inch-wide crack, Robbie Phillips hangs like a spider on the underside of a bridge in Edinburgh, Scotland. Graffiti tags a nearby concrete wall. A canal flows below him, its surface peppered with smudges of ice. The green, brown water flows from the center of the capital.
To clear the crack, Robbie had removed layers of garbage and polystyrene, jammed up in the cavity above him. “This is the best thing I’ve ever found,” he says, releasing a toothy smile and looking over to his friend and cameraman Culann O Brien.
In the YouTube vlog, Culann replies, “So, as a professional climber who has gone to numerous mad locations putting up first ascents, and we’re under a bridge, this is the best thing you’ve ever found?”
Scotland and the UK have few long cracks, so this is a prize find for Robbie who needs the practice to ready for his future goals, including Magic Mushroom on El Capitan in Yosemite, California, and Eternal Flame on Trango Tower, Pakistan. Magic Mushroom is a 2,900-foot 5.14 route that the ‘first ascensionist’ Tommy Caldwell told Phillips was one of his best. For more than a decade, Phillips had dreamed about Eternal Flame, having had a poster in his room since he was 18. The golden granite cracks on “one of the world’s hardest free climbs above 20,000 feet,” says Alpinist, is so high and cold that cracks freeze over with verglas and snow fills gullies and chimneys.
Growing up in Edinburgh, “I hadn’t found anything I was that psyched on,” Phillips says, adding that he dabbled in rugby and played video games. “When I found climbing, that was the thing that changed everything. It just grabs hold of people, and that’s it.”
At 15 years old he began competing indoors and by 18 he picked up his first sponsor, Edelrid, who makes ropes, harnesses and helmets.
The sport became so encompassing in his life that he dropped out of university after six weeks, choosing instead to work as a coach at a wall where he trained the next generation of Scotland’s top climbers. He also set his sights on climbing the worlds’ hardest long rock climbs.
“I consider myself a ‘professional climber,’” he says while miming quotation marks with his fingers. “I’m paid to do things in the climbing framework that allow me to go climbing.” On his channel, Robbie and Culann host weekly videos with topics including Can Robbie Climb his 10 Year Challenge?, The World’s Longest Indoor Climbing Route? and One of Europe’s Hardest Multi-Pitch Rock Climbs.
To keep his expenses down and free up his time for travel, Phillips lives out of his Citroën Relay, a cargo van he’s converted into a home and keeps in Edinburgh. Instead of rent or mortgage, his income goes toward repeating the hardest big walls in the world and putting up first ascents of his own. This includes the Alpine Trilogy, three 250- to 450-meter routes rated 5.14a in the Alps—a crowning achievement for the world’s best climbers.
One notable first ascent consists of Blood Moon, a 700-meter line rated 5.13c in Tsaranoro, Madagascar. Here in 2018, he and his team did a new route and film project, but unfortunately, while high on the wall, Alan fell, resulting in a compound fracture in his leg.
“A hold broke, and he fell. He flipped over my head and hit the slab below,” Phillips says. “When he hit the wall, his body just broke. It was very serious. He could have died. Out here there’s no mountain rescue; we had to get him down off the wall and get him to the hospital.”
While attempting Magic Mushroom last autumn, a long fall resulted in a sprained ankle, forcing Phillips to stop his trip and recover. This month he’s in Joshua Tree, California, where he’s attempting Dihedron, one of the hardest routes in the park. Next month he is returning to Yosemite to give another crack at Magic Mushroom. “I love climbing on El Cap,” he says.
“When I’m going on a climbing trip, it’s just going with my mates, not professional climbers,” he says. “We don’t do it to make sponsors happy. I just go climbing and enjoy it and don’t overthink it.
“Culann and I have the YouTube channel to tell our own stories, and we make it fun and watchable.”