Interview by Adele Long
How long have you been a member of the AC?
I became a member of the Alpine Climbing Group in 1972, which was then part of the AC. It wasn't until 1977, when someone asked me to propose them for the AC and the membership secretary at the time said ‘you can't do that, mate, you’re not an AC member!’, that I joined the AC.
What was the Alpine Climbing Group?
In the early '70s, and this is a rash generalisation, you rock climbed in Britain, then you did some winter mountaineering in Scotland and, if you progressed from that, you went to the Alps. And that was it. To a young climber the few who went on expeditions seemed to have names like Chris Bonington. For most it was simply too expensive and there wasn't the communal knowledge of today.
At the time there was no easily available information; you got that by networking. The ACG was a small, close knit group providing that networking. It was also perceived as a bit of a renegade group: the AC was considered very fuddy duddy and if you wanted to get to grips with more hard core climbing it was through the ACG, which had a high entry criteria. Then, if you were a budding alpinist, being a member of the ACG was something you aspired to. It was the same with the Alpine Club; you aspired to belong. That ethos was there throughout the '70s, but I remember in the early '80s saying to the younger lads coming through ‘you have been doing some really great routes, you should join the ACG’ and they would just say ‘why would I want to do that?’ Five years earlier people would likely have said fantastic… but then that whole ethos disappeared.
Do you think membership of the AC should be an aspiration?
In the 1970s we were in a more 'hippy' era, but in the '80s, with [Margaret] Thatcher, we became very materialistic and the generation that grew up then needed more materialistic reasons to join - e.g. if the AC was offering insurance they might be interested, but just to be part of it - they didn't need it. They didn't need to be part of a group to get information, because that had become far more readily accessible. I think the pure reason for joining is because you aspire to belong to the community, not just for what you can get out of it.
When did you start climbing, and where?
My dad, who had nothing to do with climbing mountains, cottoned on to Outward Bound and got me onto a course in the Lakes. This involved a bit of everything. I remember rock climbing and thought it was horrendous. I had another go in Wales and again I didn't like it. But there must have been some spark, as in my last year at school some other boys and I started going down to Harrison’s Rocks. That was different, because it was a big social occasion; it was small, gymnastic, not frightening and I quite liked that.
One summer - my last year at school - I went briefly to the Alps, and in my first year at university [physics at Oxford] I went to Chamonix. That was one of those classic first seasons, where if you survive you learn a hell of a lot, and I was lucky to survive. I probably climbed about once a month throughout university, as I was far more into athletics, training from the age of 10 and throughout university.
After I graduated I went to do a masters [laser physics] in 1971 at Queens in Belfast; the troubles [in Northern Ireland] were escalating and climbing was a way to get out of the city at weekends. I had a lot of spare time because I was doing a theoretical thesis. This meant putting data into a computer using the old punch cards, giving them to a bloke who told me to come back in 48 hours for the results. So I would go climbing for 48 hours and then would go back and find that I had made a mistake in the first line, so it would all have to go into the computer again! There was a lot of downtime, so I did a lot of climbing. At that time there were regular Irish mountaineering expeditions and the year I was there they were going to Greenland. I got invited, and it was pretty much fully sponsored. It was a wonderful trip and opened my eyes.
Being at Belfast whetted your appetite for rock climbing, the Alps gave you a taste for mountaineering and Greenland gave you a taste for adventure, what happened after that?
I noticed that in the Alps, probably more by luck than any talent, I often managed more and better routes than climbers who were technically much better, so I kidded myself that maybe alpine climbing was something for which I had an aptitude. Maybe I was fitter than they were? I was still doing weights and running, and although I wasn't training for climbing per se, I think the training helped a lot. I probably convinced myself that this was the thing I was least worst at. My whole research was theoretical - I am hopeless practically - and I was never good enough to be a theoretical physicist, so I thought maybe I can make a better go of climbing. I was a sort of cop-out really.
So it was a career move?
Definitely not. I did bits and pieces of work - supply teaching which I absolutely hated - to finance the climbing. I taught maths, so it was easy to go climbing and then come back and get a job.
A lot of people who have had the level of climbing experience you have had, write about themselves; you don't appear to have done that but have channelled your efforts into writing guidebooks and Mountain Info, what took you down that path?
I have written articles about trips I have done, but I certainly don't think writing about myself would be all that interesting to a reader. When it comes to guidebooks, I discovered recently that when I was about eight years old, I made a scrapbook of a family holiday. It was a very comprehensive diary with pictures and it was in a sort of guidebook format. I had a period out [of climbing] in 1973 with frostbite because I had been a bit too pushy in the Alps in winter, but by 1975 I had decided that mountaineering was what I was going to do. The ACG was about to produce new guidebooks to the Mont Blanc Range and the then president, Mick Burke, asked if I would like to do one. I said ‘yeah’ and that’s where it started. It was still research, but along a different line.
Recently you have been quite ill, can you talk about it?
Yes, I am happy to talk about that because it might help other people. After my accident in Mongolia I had bad bone infection and was on high doses of broad spectrum antibiotics for 18 months, which shot my immune system. From then onwards just about every trip I went on to the Greater Ranges I got ill - gut infections and the like. About two years before I got really ill, I went to Tibet and I got sick on the way in with a nasty bug. It took almost to the end of the trip just to acclimatise. After that I was left with symptoms that never really went away. Medics point out that two-three years can be a prime time period for some viruses to take hold and in 2002 I became badly ill with an undiagnosed fatigue problem. It affected everything. I couldn't see beyond about three feet, the world was spinning around, and I felt constantly unwell. Having gone through the conventional heath system, which could find nothing wrong, I went down the route of complementary medicine. I tried lots of things and spent a whole load of money without doing anything that made any improvement. In the end I saw a doctor in Mid Wales who specialised in multiple sclerosis and similar conditions. She said ‘the problem with you guys is you don't understand that you have to completely rest. I want you to go away and do nothing for a year, sit in a chair or lie in bed’ - which I did. I don't think anything else I did really made any difference - it was just a matter of time. I started going to yoga classes after five years and found them really demanding. In a one hour class I was doing 10 minutes at the beginning, lying flat on the floor for 40 minutes and then 10 minutes at the end.
I then started bouldering which I found OK, as long as it was close to a road and I didn't have to walk far. I very slowly started to get better and began climbing. I did a couple of trips to France. I had to go with patient people as a 10 minute walk in would take me a least 20, as I had to keep stopping. The climbing itself wasn't too bad but walking was very demanding. After a period of around seven years I had a breakthrough when I walked to the Idwal slabs, did a route and walked back again. For no reason I can ascertain, I then started to improve quickly. I am still worried about going places where I might get ill and I also find I don't move as fast any more, so I worry that I am not able to move fast enough in a big mountain setting to be in total control. The illness has left a legacy; if I get a bad cold or flu it could floor me for a month instead of just a week. I can’t plan ahead with confidence.
Have you got your sights on any particular climbs?
No, but I have never really had a bucket list. In the early days there were the benchmark alpine routes that you had to do, but the thing that has always excited me over the years is new stuff. I did my first new route in the Alps in 1970. As long as I feel I can still do new stuff, even if relatively minor, I'm still very motivated. Last summer we had a great time on an island off the west coast of Donegal and did about 20 new routes. I am still motivated by exploring and it doesn't need to be going to remote places in Nepal: as someone said to me, ‘you can still have an adventure between each runner placement’. A lot of my far away trips have been to places where I didn't know what to expect - all a bit of a gamble. In the Greater Ranges it was easier to do new routes than it was in the Alps. My first Asian expedition (to the Hindu Kush with Stephen Venables) formed a benchmark - I came back completely turned on to that sort of trip.
Have you got a favourite mountain region?
By definition that means a region I have been to many times, so that means ruling out most of the Greater Ranges. Having said that, although I only went twice, I had two fantastic trips to Bolivia. That’s an area I’d love to go back to, but now I need to acclimatise more slowly and flying into 4000m is an unpleasant prospect! Nostalgically, I think back fondly on the Mont Blanc massif and the Bregaglia, as I climbed a lot in those two areas.
What’s your favourite bit of climbing kit?
I always wear a cotton neck scarf. I never climb without one. I think it came from not wearing one when I first went to the Alps and getting excruciating sunburn on the back of my neck, but now it has become routine, even for half an hour’s bouldering.
As the recent ex-President of the AC, what words of wisdom would you pass on to the Club?
Remind yourself that the purpose of the Club is to facilitate its members in their interest and love of alpine mountains, and that our main raison d’être is getting our members together, getting them climbing, networking, socialising, and doing this through our meets, communications and events. All the major new routes that were done last year by UK climbers in the Greater Ranges were done by parties that included AC members. To preserve our values these people and their successors need the support of our Club.