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The Man Behind the Machine

Climber Gord McArthur couldn’t hang with the Europeans on the World Cup, so he built a monstrous apparatus in his backyard so he could train harder

May 5, 2015
Outside Magazine

Last winter, in a sport dominated by Europeans, Gord McArthur was the only North American to attain a top 15 world ranking on the Ice Climbing World Tour. But McArthur might be best known for the massive training structure called the Machine that he built in his backyard in Cranbrook, British Columbia. McArthur talked with Outside about why the Euros are so damn good, what he learned from Rocky 4, and the sacrifices he refuses to make.

Outside: Tell us about the Machine.
The arch is 35 feet high, and the bouldering wall is about 16 feet high by 35 feet wide. And then there’s a bouldering cave that’s about 20 feet high. The arch itself is built out of two-by-eights and two-by-twelves, and then 3/4-inch plywood. And about a bajillion T-nuts. As far as routes and holds go, everything is replaceable. There are probably eight different routes on the arch and more than 50 problems in the bouldering cave.

Is it true the Machine has taken on a life of its own?
Yeah, instead of replacing, I just keep building. I’m currently building a third leg to the arch. It’s going to start to look like spider legs. I want to have all the angles—vertical, steep, and super steep. I’ve got a 50-degree wall, a 25, and a 35. Now I want to build a 45-degree wall. It’ll be about 40 feet of 40-degree wall. That’s the goal anyway. My wife looks at me and shakes her head. I take that as the go-ahead.

British Columbia
Gordon McArthur ice climbing in the Bull River outside Cranbrook, BC.   Photo: Jason Thompson

And the main goal of the structure is to replicate the conditions of actual World Cup venues?
Exactly. Having that ability to mimic actual competition is a necessity. Until last year, my structure was the only structure in North America. I’ve always had a structure, but it was never what it is right now. It was just a bouldering cave. And you can get by with it, but it’s really, really hard to mimic World Cup competition with a bouldering cave.

The level of competition was an eye-opener for you.
Yeah, when I first started competing, it was a different level that I expected. It’s a whole ’nother world, basically. I was a bit naive to the level that’s actually out there. I thought, I’m pretty good in North America, and then I got my butt absolutely kicked.

British Columbia
Gordon McArthur preparing his tools for battle.   Photo: Jason Thompson

Why are the Euros so damn good?
I’m not sure, but one thing I noticed is that North America is full of distractions. Over in Europe, it seems as though people just live simpler. And then, two, the way they train. The Russians are fairly dominant in the sport. They’ve just figured our how to train better.

What does “training better” mean?
Have you ever watch Rocky 4? It takes place in Russia? There’s so much truth to how that was depicted. Like, they’re on machines. They don’t show emotion. They go until they bleed. I’ve had to transform my commitment to training to match that level.

And that’s why you built the Machine, right?
Yeah. One hundred percent. The entire Russian national team, whether they’re from Moscow or Siberia, they all have structures to train on.

Gordon McArthur gets inverted on the Machine.

How did you go about building it?
A few years ago, I remember waking up at three a.m. with a vision in my head of what to build. I drew this picture up and told my wife, ah, I’m going to build this in the backyard. And she was like… sure. I lined up all the materials, and I had my friend who’s a carpenter tell me, “Well, you should build it like this. Because if you make it according your drawings, you’re going to kill yourself.” So I spent the next three months building this machine in the backyard. And it worked, which is cool.

And the main advantage is that you can train and compete at a very high level and still spend time with your family.
Definitely. That was the whole purpose from the start. Climbing in general is a very selfish sport. It’s all about you. You have partners, and you have a belayer, but overall it’s all about you. Because my goals involve so much training, there was a huge chunk of time that was taken away. With the Machine, it has literally enabled me to hang with my family, put the kids to bed, hang with my wife for an hour, go outside, train for two hours, and then come back inside and hang with my wife before bed. If my wife needs me, I’m there.

The Machine lets you have it both ways.
Yeah, it’s really cool in that sense. I’m sure you’re aware, in the climbing world—I guess in any world, really—there’s a lot of sacrifice. And I’ve always told my wife I’m going to go after this one hundred percent. But I will not sacrifice my family for it.

For more information about Gord, including training tips and his favorite gear picks, as well as more videos and stories about the rest of Outdoor Research’s team of ambassadors, visit OR’s Verticulture blog.


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