Lee Cujes interview by Whipper Magazine

Whipper Online Climbing Magazine just published an interview with me on their site. I talk a little about my background in climbing and also about some of the climbing camps Upskill has been doing over the past few years, our upcoming camps and our plans for the future. Check it out!

Lee Cujes - Interview on Whipper Magazine (http://whipper.com.au)
(Edit: Whipper is unfortunately no longer operating)

Interview reproduced below:

Whipper tracked down Queenslander Lee Cujes who just won the lotto and is doing what everyone is dreaming about… sort of….

Whipper: Lee Cujes. Who are you? What do you do? And why?

I am a 32 year old climber from Brisbane in Queensland. I’ve been climbing for about 15 years and about four years ago my wife Sam and I started our own very small part-time business Upskill Climbing which is involved in training and coaching climbers, as well as running climbing camps. As for the why – hmm – good question! I seem to have boundless energy when it comes to climbing and I love sharing this and seeing others improve. I also love spending time with people who enjoy climbing as much as I do. I’ve been told I have a very natural teaching style, so I suppose a climbing coach is a good fit for me.

Whipper: How did you start climbing? Looking on the map you come from one of the hottest places in Australia, where the normal people do water sports.

Yeah. I even quit climbing a while back to focus on wakeboarding. It didn’t take though. The time off made me come back hungrier than ever for climbing. Queenslanders are lucky because in the last few years we’ve managed to find some spots in the shade that are climbable in summer. It might not always be pleasant, but it’s still climbing!

Whipper: Word on the street is that you just quit your job… did you win the lotto?

Lotto – I wish! Yeah, I saw the Five Ten ‘Quit Your Job’ ad and just went with it. I guess the whole “travel for a year as a climbing bum thing” is something that most climbers fantasise about. Being married, having mortgages to pay and a stable job, I had just assumed it would never happen for me; and to be honest, I was content as a weekend warrior with a perpetual annual leave balance of zero. Then Sam and I discussed what was really stopping us from taking a trip like this. Of course, all the barriers were in our heads, so we resolved to make it happen. We’re in month number two of 12 and we’re loving it!

Lee kicking the 9-5 for the read deal. Vietnam climbing at its best.
 Photo: Chris Glastonbury
Whipper: You seem to do a lot of sport climbing. Do you do much bouldering? And are you keen for any mountain stuff?

I grew up on trad (we didn’t have any sport routes in SE QLD when I started). I then developed a passion for doing new routes, both on trad, and later with a drill. Traveling to Europe as well as Nowra and the Blue Mountains really opened my eyes to the enjoyment of sport climbing and I’ve been pursuing this for years now. I still love new routes and am always looking for the next big thing. The only bouldering I do is on my home woody for training. I can’t seem to get psyched for boulders like I can for routes. But maybe one day that will change? I think I have a lot in common with dedicated boulderers. They’re seeking out purity of movement and sick hard sequences, and I’m doing the same, just on routes. As for mountains, I’ve done a few aid routes in Yosemite, but nothing alpine. I figure if I’m going to be cold, I might as well have a snowboard strapped to my feet. But, never say never! A lot of that alpine rock is super inspiring.

Whipper: Over the last few years it seems your climbing level has stepped up to the next level. What do you consider your best performance?

Mate, I’m a battler! My improvement since I started climbing has been very slow but very steady. In fact, each year for the last 10 years I have managed to incrementally improve. I will try hard to continue this for as long as I can. There was a time about five years ago when I changed my entire approach to training, and that made a big difference. I used to train on and off (perhaps going to the local gym once per week or something like that) and sure, I was seeing some improvements. But then I decided to add some structure to my training and put some rigor around my routine. Since then, I have noticed a significant improvement on the rock. I’m fascinated by training and I get almost as much joy out of the training and experimenting as I do from the climbing. I spend a lot of my spare time researching developments in training and working out ways I can apply them to my routine. My best performances so far have been first ascents and they are all unrepeated so who knows about the proposed grades, but things like Schadenfreude 31, Bite The Hand That Feeds 31, Below The Belt 31 and The Singularity 32 are routes that took lots of effort for me and are therefore the ones which are close to my heart. It seems the more effort I put in, the more rewarding the eventual send.

Whipper: Does Upskill Climbing Camps take people up Everest?

That would be scary! We stick to what we know, and that’s sport climbing. Did you see Everest was just summitted by a 13 year old? Can’t be that hard then, surely?

An Upskill Climbing Camp hanging out in the best training venue in the world. Kalymnos.
Whipper: I noticed on your web site http://www.upskillclimbing.com that you offer climbing camps with “Delicious breakfasts and dinners; packed lunches on climbing days”. Does that mean I get 2 minute noodles? Or roast beef for dinner? And as much beer as I can drink?

Lol! We do things pretty deluxe on the camps. We’re always joking that things have to be “world class” which is tongue in cheek, but also not. Team members can pretty much choose whatever they like, so mate if you want roast beef – you got it! May we also suggest the stuffed calamari, fresh fish of the day and the moussaka. And if you can still climb 100% the next day after drinking as much beer as you can drink, I doff my cap to you good sir.

Whipper: You have been around the world a couple of times or maybe more. Do you have any stand out cliffs that you could marry or have an affair with?

How good is Céüse? I’ve only been there once but that taste was unforgettable. I resolve here and now to go back there ASAP! You probably know I love Kalymnos (Greece) as I’m doing this interview from there and this is my third trip to this location. There’s still oodles to do here, and the whole Greek experience really appeals to me. And then there’s our very own Taipan Wall in the Grampians which is still the scene of some of my fondest climbs and memories.

Whipper: So Lee you have a climbing camp coming up at Maple Canyon in the USA. Can you give us a little beta on it?

Sure. Maple Canyon is one of the primo summer destinations in the USA for sport climbing and in August this is the place to be. It’s a really unusual conglomerate rock; you’re climbing almost exclusively on cobblestones. Every angle imaginable and a wide range of grades and shade! So we’re going a couple of weeks ahead of time to learn the area inside out, and then doing a sportclimbing camp for two weeks on location. If you enjoy camping, this is probably a good one to attend as it will be cheaper than normal (no fancy hotels), and there are some sub-$900 flights to the US available currently. Our camps essentially have the focus of getting a great group of people together, getting each other on the best routes at our level, sharing our collective knowledge and hopefully working through some of the weaknesses we all have in our climbing. We handle all the transport, food, logistics and admin. You just relax, socialise and climb lots. People can check out more about the camps on the website. There’s trip reports, picture galleries and videos from all the previous camps too.
Lee passing on his knowledge during a Upskill Climbing Camp.
Whipper: You seem to be doing a lot of these training camps. Do you do them in Australia? And where will they be after Maple Canyon?

Yeah this will be the sixth one we’ve done so far. We’ve done one based on a houseboat on the Hawkesbury River in NSW which was super good fun, and I’m sure we’ll look at other unusual Aussie options in 2011 and beyond. I’m most keen to deliver things that are perhaps not so easy for someone to just organise themselves; something a bit special or uncommon, or something where the group really makes the difference (like deep water soloing in Vietnam which we did last year). After Maple in August, we have a camp in Spain’s amazing sportclimbing area of Rodellar in late September which we already have people signed up for (with spaces available). Rodellar is one of the world’s top rated sport areas, so I’m pretty psyched!

Whipper: Upskill Climbing camps seem to be getting bigger and better. Where will Upskill Climbing camps be in five years?

Yeah, things have ramped up this year for sure. I can’t imagine doing this full time, but in a couple of years I can envisage running perhaps four camps per year to various destinations. We are slowly growing our pool of dedicated trip participants, and I look forward to meeting and climbing with more people as word slowly gets around. We’ve been extremely lucky thus far to have participants who have been super psyched, safe, solid individuals and we’re good friends with all of them now. This model seems to be serving us well.

Whipper: Most people are in the rat race or a stuck in it. What advice would you give someone that is in that situation?

I don’t necessarily think the rat race or a full time job is a bad thing. Working five days a week makes you hungry for climbing and you can use this passion to your advantage. Just don’t make excuses. Own your life; your situation. Don’t say you don’t have time to train or climb. You have chosen to prioritise something over training or climbing. Own that decision. If something is truly important to you, you will make time. Do you actually need to work five days a week or could you get by on four? Negotiate flexible working arrangements or extra holidays at half pay. And if you want to do a big trip, save some money, pack your stuff in boxes, put it in a storage shed, rent your house and get on a plane. It really is that easy. Life’s short, so you better do what you want to do now and don’t put it off.

Whipper: Anyone you would like to thank?

I would like to thank my regular climbing partner of many years Duncan Steel who mentored me and taught me a lot of the things I now take for granted about climbing hard routes. I’d also like to thank my amazing clients who give me at least as much psyche as I give them. And finally Sam who is not only the logistical brains behind our business but also the catalyst behind this whole crazy adventure when she asked me, “Why don’t we just do it?”. I’m thankful every day.


Whipper: Thanks heaps Lee! Whipper wishes you and Sam all the best and is so psyched that you are trying to help Australian climbing go forward!

If you haven’t checked out Lee’s site you should! If you have any questions about the climbing camps I am sure Lee will be more than happy to answer them.