Muscles from Brussels: An interview with Nat Bell
Nataleigh Bell was a Mentor at the 2018 Festival. In 2019, together with the legend Jacky Godoffe, she taught our Routesetting Seminar. In 2020 she opened a bouldering gym.
Interview by Natalia Boltukhova
I met this climber-coach-routesetter and my nickname twin at the Women’s Bouldering Festival in Fontainebleau, France: an undisputed holy land of bouldering. After spending some time being around each other, it became clear that we shared more than just one of our many nicknames: she took no nonsense from anyone, her muscles only rivaled her sense of humor, she adored crimps and handled power tools with the grace of Wild West veterans.
Meet Nataleigh Bell (Nat), co-owner of the climbing coaching platform Steelfingers, and of the newly opened bouldering gym, BlackBoxBoulder in Kortrijk, Belgium.
Nat, in a few words, who are you?
It used to be very interesting and exciting until I became a climber. Now I have just become a climber. Ok, I am Nat, my passion is ROCK climbing; Fontainebleau is my local climbing area (I live just at the French border, in Kortrijk, Belgium) without Font I would have quit climbing! Besides climbing I like to make things, from hats to tattoos, silly drawings, music, and of course silly songs.
What is BlackBoxBoulder?
My partner Jan and I wanted to offer high standard training, boulders, and facilities. This was really frustrating to try to accomplish while working freelance in other gyms. We maintain a very high standard as the Steelfingers team.
Many, many years ago we decided to start looking for a location to open a new bouldering gym. Our plan was to do it independently (just Jan and me), but by chance we formed a partnership with like-minded Koen Demuncyk who was also looking for a new location for his gym! Together we bought into Blueberry Hill, a small and super cozy sport climbing gym, one of the oldest in Belgium.
We then created a bouldering gym (BlackBox Boulder, opened on February 29, 2020) and we have plans to open another gym in 2022, Transfo Lead, Speed, and Boulder. Then sadly we will say good bye to Blueberry Hill.
What were you doing prior to BlackBox project?
Together with Jan, I have created a training platform called Steelfingers for climbing-specific training, route-setting, and a bit of brand distribution.
We had all school holidays off, so we travelled a lot for climbing, vanlife-style.
We also did some pretty big trips around the world. I’d say we had a pretty nice life!
It’s crazy to think that we are giving that up for this new life, but we needed a challenge. And a pension plan.
I also started up a women's only training platform. This was amazing, even though I disagree with gendered segregation, I could also see there was a need for it, and it worked out perfectly! I am committed to developing this initiative when the gym is up and running.
The last few years I also levelled up in route-setting, and became the first female and the only national setter for Belgium. I am trying to encourage other women to set. I have some future plans for this route as well.
When, where, and how rock-climbing became a thing for you?
A: I started climbing in 2008 (shoes that were about ten times too big for me, and only trying slab), but it was only when I touched the real rock that the passion came! Thailand (Ton Sai) and Fontainebleau were what got me hooked. In the beginning, I was more into sport climbing, but after our trip to Hampi, India, I more or less became a boulderer! Of course, after I moved closer to Fontainebleau, the transformation was bound to complete.
After spending a few months hanging on different rocks around the world, I decided to become a dedicated climber. I took to climbing really well for being a beginner. I was training gymnastics through my childhood until I was 18, so I felt really at ease with pulling my body up the rocks.
Why do you climb?
Good question, but a difficult one to answer.
For me, I find climbing to be so unique and completely individual! I find it less boring than any other sport I have ever done.
I like that it challenges everyone, regardless of their level.
You get to see the world, and meet so many like-minded people; climbing builds such a great community, and so unique!
Ask yourself: would you still climb if no one was watching? No social media? No 8a.nu account, no bragging of your hard sends? If you answer yes, then you will know why I climb.
If I was one of the last people on Earth, honestly I would drive/take a horse and go straight to Fontainebleau, squat in an abandoned person’s house, eat all their food, and move on to the next house and climb until I die.
I climb because I want to, not because I have to; if I ever “have to” then I will quit and start making pottery!
I don't want my reasons why I climb to be about impressing others which is why I don't often post about my sends or fill in score cards. I want to share my passion not my accomplishments. To be completely honest, I did however get a GoPro for my birthday, because it's nice to have a library of climbs, and maybe I will add them to my tiny video collection on Youtube. It will be climbing at all levels, not only hard sends!
Indoor vs. outdoor climbing.
Outdoor climbing for me is why I climb, it's so different from indoors. It's like two different disciplines for me! Outdoors has the added bonus of being in the nature, chilling out, escaping the world, I love that! I can be social or choose to snooze in the van.
I have no real passion for indoor climbing, it is purely a training tool for me: I can really isolate moves and work on my weaknesses. But of course, I am grateful that indoor exists!
How did you get into route-setting, and why?
I like creating things, so naturally I was drawn to making my own boulders.
Also, the gym where I was climbing at the time, let us climb for free in return for setting some boulders each month. I believe this is the case in most gyms.
Did you encounter any obstacles or difficulties as a female route-setter? What are they?
Yes, of course! Even today, but it is getting better, slowly. Sometimes I would find myself in a purely sexist situation. Getting your opinion taken seriously is sometimes a challenge, but that depends on the team.
Recently someone made a remark (behind my back) about me asking for help to put up a big heavy volume. No one should put big volumes up alone, regardless of gender. It’s work, why risk injury at work? Plus there is a physiological difference: I am very strong, but I am still way smaller than any man around, so of course some things are more physically demanding! I will NEVER stop asking for help with something that I find hard physically.
Luckily I have had more good experiences than bad, and I am strong-willed enough to speak up when something that doesn’t sit well with me, happens.
What is route-setting for you? What does it fu for you and what does it allow you to do for others?
I like learning and I like challenges. As a route-setter, you will never stop learning and it will always be challenging. If you think you know everything and you think you do not need to learn any more, you are fooling yourself.
I also find that route-setting can help you train your weaknesses for climbing. I am getting slightly better at coordination jumps, and I am trying to experiment with making purely unisex boulders that are equally hard for any gender, but that’s hard!
Is there such a thing as an ideal route-setting approach or strategy?
Keys to a successful setting:
● good hold selection
● good zones to work on
● awesome team
● good mindset
● lose the ego
● be open to feedback and don't take negative feedback personally; use it to grow as a setter
● do not overthink
● if the boulder isn't working, take it down, start again
● get out of your comfort zone sometimes
● good music
● wear tape
● never stop learning
Would you describe yourself as a feminist? If yes, define feminism. If not a feminist, then what?
I am a… humanist? I just want everyone to be treated equally. It's getting better though, I think (in the western part of the world anyway). Still a long, long way to go for the non-western countries though. This disturbs me a lot. I feel helpless for those women! I wish I could help them in a more direct way.
I am not angry at men/women who are sexist, I feel sorry for them that they are so narrow minded and old fashioned and scared. I think times are changing, and there is a long road ahead, but it's going in the right direction.
What is your biggest dream/goal for yourself as a route-setter?
To continue the path of learning. Setting in as many different places as I can, and to become a good all around setter of all styles and levels.
What is your biggest dream/goal for climbing in general as a thing that people do, and for yourself as a climber?
My goal has always been the same for climbing, climb for myself. Climb all styles and have a good base, don't run away from “easy” climbs you fail on, work them! Send them! It's training! Then the hard levels come naturally. I remember the first 8A I sent was kind of by accident. It was not on my must-send list. It happened very naturally, because I was ready for it, from all the years building up my base. I felt I had done enough 7C+s, that I was ready to try the next grade. It felt like a little reward to myself.
Climbing isn't always consistent. Injuries, dips, plateaus are all hindering the development, and the level goes down at times. In the end it is all ego, right? Lose the ego...climbing becomes beautiful. Speaking of, I need to get back on track with this whole climbing thing: ever since we were deep in opening mode for BlackBox boulder gym my climbing hasn't been a high priority.
Are there any differences in route-setting in 2011 (when you started) and route-setting in 2020?
2011: shitty, shitty holds! Safe, boring moves, more crimps and basic power. More rock climbing style, less setters in general, maybe more old school setters. No pay, not really a job. Fewer drills, fewer gyms, no women-setters.
2020: dual texture holds, and just in general the hold selection is crazy different. More volumes. Boulders and routes are more ninja style, stronger athletes, more new wave setters, BUT still not that many female setters. Definitely more gyms have opened, and route-setting is now more accepted as a paid job.
What are the major obstacles in the way during the creation of BlackBox?
Nothing major. It went pretty well in terms of work. It would have been nice if everything was finished for the opening, but you can’t buy time.
Main take-aways after opening BlackBox?
That we did a good job! We are giving people what they want and what they hoped for!
In your opinion, what would make the route-setting “pool” more diverse?
Making the pool more diverse is simply having a few guys and a few girls all in one setting and not separating us.
There is a trend of thought among some route-setters that it may become redundant and obsolete, especially if climbing businesses lean more toward the “business” side of development. Your thoughts?
Pre-programmed route/boulders are interesting as a training tool and sharing climbs with other gyms, etc. There are many interesting ways to use such things, but it would never replace the art of setting by a human.
What traits and/or skills do you value the most in the route-setters you work with, in day-to-day and during special events?
The best setters to work with are the ones who are not attached to the boulders they create. The ones whose ego is too attached to their creation, become difficult to work with when their boulder isn't fitting to the job. I like working with those open to ideas, not too stubborn, and not getting bent out of shape when they are not strong enough for the boulder they are trying.
I value team players, people who can have a laugh, who can give constructive criticism, and accept feedback.
Who was your inspiration during the early days of your route-setting career, and who/what gives you the motivation and inspiration now?
Actually I didn't have a single figure of inspiration. Is that weird? I think I just learn from every setter I set with. Some more than others of course.
What is your life philosophy?
Very hard for me to always live by it, but “treat people how you want to be treated”. It’s a difficult path to follow when you come across people that rub you the wrong way.
What is success?
You will be able to confidently say that BlackBox Boulder is a success if and when…
It will be a success for sure. We will offer what we have been searching for in gyms as climbers, for the last few years.
Will it be freedom?
BlackBoxBoulder Gym officially opened with a banger boulder competition on Feb 29, 2020,...and was forced to close two week later due to the global pandemic outbreak. Needless to say, that a lot of people involved in opening, running, and maintaining the gym took the toll. To help ensure the re-opening of the gym, a GoFundMe campaign has been launched. Please consider donating if you're able, or simply share around!