Mountaineering is in my DNA
There is a faded old photograph of me somewhere aged 9 months standing in my Dad’s mountain boots outside a tent. I guess it all started from there.
I grew up in the country. From an early age I loved exploring what was around and was curious of what was in the next field, down that old mineshaft, over the hedge, where the stream came from – or went to. What is it like to climb the tree? Could I climb the tree? What is over that hill? As I grew older, my sense of adventure found refuge with rock climbing in the Peak District and from there eventually to higher, further away places in the mountains.
At university, I climbed with the rising stars of the time. Most weekends, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and sometimes Fridays, we could be found fighting our way up various routes on the gritstone edges around Yorkshire. The stars would be there gliding up blank overhanging walls way beyond anything normal people could do. I was always touched by the way they took time out and came over to see my scratchy attempts on simple climbs around the corner. Always with a word of encouragement and advice without ever being patronising, although they easily could have been. Great guys. It is no surprise that they went on to become world-class international mountain guides.
Out and About
I never really mastered rock or ice climbing. On a good day, I was just about mediocre. It was the beckoning serenity of the high mountains that drew me. I often found myself being out in front on the sharp end of the rope, high up on the face. Finding new ground. Out on a limb. It made me feel alive. In those moments, nothing else mattered and the trivialities of normal life fell away. At times it felt as though I was part of something much bigger. I liked that.
There are thousands of days out I’ve had in the mountains all over the world. Small ones, big ones, easy ones, scary ones, popular ones, unclimbed ones. Every single day is a unique experience and a rich source of memories that keeps me going back for more.
I feel more at home in the hills, in the cold, in the mist with the wind stinging my face, than I do in my own living room watching telly by the open fire.
Resilience, Endurance and Managing Fear
Back in the day, there was no backup and no easy rescue. Nobody to call for help. The was a strong requirement of having to look after yourself and others if anything went wrong. Which it did from time to time. We had to be self-reliant, endure hardship and never ever give up. Usually because there was no choice.
Once, we were making our way through the remote Upper Eskdale in the Lake District in the winter. It was towards the end of a very long day and my climbing partner collapsed with a suspected heart attack. There was nobody about. Mobile phones hadn’t been invented and darkness was approaching. Don’t know how I managed it, but I eventually got him to safety 4 hours later on my own. He was my University professor and he publicly thanked me at my graduation for saving his life. Looking back, that was probably the scariest time I’ve ever had. It also taught me a lot about myself.
On another occasion we were in a tent in the dark, with a bed made from rock hard glacier ice, at 4,000m with no contact with the outside world, when a rockfall started high above us on the cliff face. For the next few hours (probably only minutes) rocks rained down all around us. We giggled nervously as there was nothing we could do other than hope that the thin tent wall would save us.
First Ascents and New Routes on Virgin Ground
Undoubtedly the peak of my high altitude climbing career came when I joined an expedition to an unexplored mountain range in the Tien Shan in Asia. I was lucky enough to make the first ascent and name 6 mountains around 5,000m. Looking down over onto another mountain range for the first time knowing that nobody had ever seen it before, was for someone who loves exploring, like finding my very own Shangri-La.
Memories that Last a Lifetime
There have been many delightful moments over the years that have burnt themselves into my soul.
Belaying on top of Froggatt Edge in the early evening sunshine. Feeling the crisp air and the crunch of snow in a pre-dawn Alpine start. Topping out in the dark after a dangerous ice climb. Fighting through the summit cornice on Ben Nevis. Being mistaken for Mountain Rescue (all the gear, probably a bit of an idea). Moving quickly over difficult ground. The sudden breaking of the clouds to reveal a way forward. A solid ice axe placement. Crawling across the icy summit on Helvellyn in 100mph winds. Seeing a range of hills and knowing that I’ve stood on top of every single one of them. Gingerly peering down the North Face of the Matterhorn. Bivouacking high up in the Black Cuillin on Syke and watching the shooting stars disappear across the Atlantic horizon. Wandering through Borrowdale in the Autumn mists. Doing the Snowdon Horseshoe in a day and back from Essex on a very cold November day. Catching ‘Jed’ the dog in my arms after he fell down a cliff on An Teallach. Seeing a fawn being born in the heather. Unroped and exposed high on the North Face of Ben Nevis in winter, peering down through my legs and seeing the rotor blades of a rescue helicopter far below. Carrying my Dad down drunk off Grey Friar celebrating his birthday after doing his final mountain.
Seeing an eagle fly high above a rock face. Being altitude sick on Mont Blanc (although not at the time). Reaching safety at last.
About 10 years ago I had too many near misses over a very short period of time. I lost concentration and took a few falls. I saw a young climber hit the deck in front of me and sustain life-threatening injuries. On another occasion I found myself high on a knife-edged snowy ridge in Glen Coe having to force myself through the fear bubble into making a committing move on sketchy ground, knowing that if I got it wrong it would be the end for both me and my mate.
My guts were telling me that my luck was about to run out. It was time to back off. My attitude to taking the biggest risks by pushing my own limits changed almost overnight.
These days, I probably get more enjoyment than I ever did wandering around the same hills all over again and seeing them for the first time through other people’s eyes. I relish taking out new people into the hills that have shaped my character so much. Being able to mentor my young son having his own mountain adventures and building up his resilience and self-confidence is wonderful.
I guess after running out of climbing partners over the years, I’ve now bred one of my own.
For me, getting to the top isn’t important. In fact I don’t really like summits because by definition they are exposed, cold, windy and only halfway. The day is about banking the experiences that last a lifetime and can be relived over and over again. I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I can recall with clarity every single day I’ve ever had in the mountains.
I’m like a stick of rock. If you broke me in half, the word ‘Mountain’ runs right through me.