Interview by Glyn Hughes
Mike, could you start by telling us about your earliest climbing experiences.
When I turned up in Cambridge in 1962 I had done very little real climbing, but I was very keen to do more, and I had already discovered that I seemed to have some talent for it. I went on a meet to the Derbyshire gritstone as soon as I could, and, wearing my mountain boots (I had not heard of PAs at the time), I got up a few climbs. Shortly after that I fell about 25ft off a VS because the rubber on the toe of my boot was worn away, and I tore my ankle. The more experienced members of the CUMC (Nick Estcourt, Rupert Roschnik, etc) were not amused by this novice showing off. However I managed to show them that I was actually able to climb, and that I could be competitive with them. That winter I joined the Club’s Ben Nevis meet and got my first taste of ice climbing, which I also enjoyed. I think the reason that I was competitive with the best of them was that I was quite strong, and was able to keep my nerve on rock climbs. I reasoned that if other people had done it before me, even if I could not see how to do the next bit, it was obviously possible and there must be holds there, and so I should be able to do it too. I did not frighten easily, and my (flawed) reasoning worked, so I went up the grades quite quickly, and become one of the better climbers in the CUMC.
You had your first trip to the Alps in the summer of 1963, and this proved a pattern for future years. You achieved some impressive routes in the Dolomites including the Pilastro di Rozes on the Tofana and the Cassin route on the Cima Ovest, and also had an early taster for the epics that became a regular feature of your climbing in the Alps. You watched your climbing partner (who shall remain anonymous for reasons of taste and decency), unroped and carrying the rope, disappear into a crevasse above the Geant icefall while en route for the Grand Capucin, and had to descend solo to the Requin Hut to call out the rescue. Later in that holiday you endured a bivouac in a thunderstorm on the West Face of the Petit Jorasses. How did you build on these experiences?
In 1964 I partnered John Clements in a climbing spree in the Dolomites, which included the Gabriel-Livanos route on the Cima su Alto, and an early ascent of the Phillip–Flamm route on the Civetta, which had a reputation for being very hard, but we found it fairly straightforward, and managed it in less than a day. I also climbed with John in Wales, where we did a lot of the harder routes of the day. Unfortunately John had a fatal accident in Glencoe that winter – a terrible loss to his family and to climbing.
The final steep section of the 'Via Degli Inglese' on Piz Badile
Then the real epics started.
Yes, I quickly discovered that I seemed fairly impervious to bad weather and storms, and seemed to be able to survive bad conditions. I still tried to avoid getting caught out in the Alps, but often was. I think my first big epic was in 1965 on the Bonatti Route on the Grand Capucin. We completed the climb, but were caught out by darkness near the summit, and bivouacked below an overhang about 100 feet below the top. There was an awful storm that night, and sitting on a small ledge on a needle sticking up into a thundercloud was a once in a lifetime experience, and I do not recommend it to anybody. When it became light in the morning we looked out on a snow plastered scene, and had to work out how to get down. The normal descent was not feasible, so we abseiled straight down the North Face into a snow filled couloir. We swam down this to the glacier, where my partner suddenly collapsed. I dug a trench in the snow to give him some protection, gave him all my spare clothes, and set off in the whiteout to bring help. After a six hour epic, walking and swimming through thigh deep snow, I reached the hut and a helicopter rescue was called out.
Was that the end of that Alpine season?
No, not at all. I then partnered Mick Burke on the second ascent of the Robbins-Hemming route on the West Face of the Aiguille du Dru, which is a beautiful and difficult rock climb straight up the face, joining the standard route just below the big diedre about halfway up the face. Up to this point we thought this was the best route that we had climbed in the Alps. We made it up to the ledge where we were going to spend the night, and were joined by two young French climbers who were on the standard route. During the night it snowed and rained, and in the morning had to decide whether to continue in the wet and slippery conditions, or go straight down. The two French climbers were clearly in over their heads, and said that they would follow us whatever we decided. We decided that the only thing to do was to go down, and we shepherded the other pair very carefully down to the bottom of the face. While descending steep snow to reach the path, one of the French pair slipped on the snow, slid down the slope, and disappeared into the gap between the rock and the snow at the bottom. Mick went down into the gap, and found that the victim had a badly broken leg. We managed to pull him out, and persuaded his partner to walk down to Chamonix and call out the rescue, while we looked after the victim throughout a very cold night in soaking wet clothes.
There seems to be a pattern emerging here!
Yes, I believe that I developed such a reputation for attracting bad weather that, if I headed up into the mountains, some climbers would come down to avoid the expected storms.
In 1966 you had your only experience of climbing in the Greater Ranges.
Yes, I did have the opportunity to climb in the bigger mountains of the Peruvian Andes, when I was invited to join an expedition consisting of Malcolm Slessor, Ian Howell and Dez Hadlum, to attempt the 22,000 foot high Yerupaja by its East Face. As I had been envious of my climbing partners’ expeditions to the Himalaya, Hindu Kush etc., I accepted immediately. I had no experience of high altitude climbing, had no idea of what it entailed, but was anxious to find out. We failed to reach the summit because there was a very long steep sided ridge for the final thousand feet, and because of our inexperience. However, I did discover that climbing at high altitude is an exhausting occupation, and one to which I am not suited. Climbers who can perform well at high altitude are a slightly different species, and I am not one of them. Unfortunately this was my one and only experience of mountains bigger than the French Alps.
Tofano di Rozes, Pilastro
In 1968 you experienced another very cold and unpleasant night in the mountains.
Dick Isherwood and I were attempting a second ascent of the Corti-Longhi route on the North East Face of Piz Badile in the Bregaglia. We did not notice where the first ascent traversed off to the left, continued straight up a fairly difficult crack line, and established a new route. We ran out of daylight about two pitches below the ridge in a steep groove with no ledges, and with a large roof about a hundred feet above us. Fortunately there was a thin flake behind which we placed a few pitons. We spent a very uncomfortable night standing in loops of rope with a bivouac sac over our heads. We needed this because there was a patch of melting snow above the roof, and we were bombarded by large drops of cold melt water all night. I was half asleep and very cold when I noticed Dick seemed to be moving downwards. I grabbed him round the neck and hauled him on to my piton, the piton which had been holding his weight having given way. After a very long, cold and wet night it became light enough to see, and we slowly climbed to the summit. When we returned to the hut on the Italian side of the mountain, to our surprise we were greeted as heroes, and given free meals. The route is now called the Via Degli Inglese, and is apparently the hardest route on that face. It is now done completely free in one day with no need for a wet night out, and is regarded as a classic climb.
Perhaps at this stage we could introduce the subject of your academic career, which was to become so important in later years.
I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and although I got a good degree it was not good enough for me to get into the research group there that I wanted, and I went to Oxford and took a PHD there. After writing my imaginatively titled PHD thesis ‘Problems in in High Energy Physics’ I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship from the Royal Society which I could use anywhere in Europe. After a bit of thought I applied to the Istituto di Fisica Teorica (FIAT) at Torino University which was chosen mainly because it was close to some good mountains, but also for the physics. With my girlfriend Berit I drove my Ford Escort across France to Torino, and found an affordable apartment not too far from the Institute, which we shared with another newly minted PHD from Oxford. For the first few months I could not find anyone to climb with but, fortunately, the skiing season started shortly after we arrived. I learned to ski downhill, after a fashion. My technique was not good, but I was young and very fit, and got by with strength and ignorance. Berit and I even skied down the Vallee Blanche. We knew that this was technically too difficult for us, but we decided that, if a section was too hard for us, we could take off our skis and walk until it became easier. We made it down to Chamonix, and took the bus back through the tunnel to Italy. When we told our friends in Torino about our trip they were more than surprised. They were much better skiers than us, but had never dared to ski this run.
When did you get back to the serious business of climbing?
After the ski season I was desperate to do some rock climbing, and finally met some young Torino climbers who worked at FIAT. One day we were driving along the road through the Val d’Orco north of Torino, when I noticed a big boulder with a narrow crack in one of its steep sides. I shouted ‘stop the car’, pulled on my PAs, and went up the twenty foot high gently overhanging crack. It was fairly difficult, and high enough to hurt oneself by falling from the upper moves, but I had done harder cracks in Wales, so I did not think much more about it. My companions were not able to climb it, and to my amazement it was not repeated for ten years. Now it has become known as the ‘Fessura Kosterlitz’, and climbers come from all over to try their luck. In February 2018 I was given an honorary degree by Torino University, and was also honoured by the local village. To my astonishment I was told by the mayor of Ceresole that my boulder was responsible for the flourishing of the local economy, because the climbers attempting the 6b crack spend a lot of money in the village. My climbing in the Val d’Orco at this time marked the beginning of the end of my climbing career, as the physics became more important, and I began to feel the early effects of the illness that ended my climbing ambitions a decade later.
Fessura Kosterlitz in the Orco Valley
The position in Torino lasted only one year, so where did your work take you after that?
In 1970 I applied for a number of jobs, and one that was offered was a tenured lecturer position at Birmingham University. Birmingham was a big industrial city in the flat middle of England, without a mountain in sight, and was the last place that I wanted to be, but I reluctantly accepted the offer. However, as my life turned out this was the best decision I could have made, because there I met David Thouless, and was converted into a condensed matter physicist. Together we worked on a problem in two dimensional statistical mechanics, and published a few articles in a low impact journal. During this period I climbed a lot with Dick Isherwood, and we did several of the hardest rock climbs of those days. Then in 1977 I was hit by an illness that which destroyed my balance, and was initially diagnosed as either a brain tumour or multiple sclerosis. The neurologist suggested that multiple sclerosis was the better of the two, because that would give me about fifteen more years until my probable death at age fifty, while the brain tumour would be much faster. I went into deep depression, and left Britain to join the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where Berit and I have lived since 1982.
Mike, in the past few years you have received significant honours for your achievements in two entirely different areas in which you have excelled. If I can ask a question probably impossible to answer, which has given you most satisfaction?
In early October 2016 I was in an underground car park in Espoo in Finland when my cell phone rang, and a Swedish accent informed me that I had won the Nobel Prize for Physics. It was almost fifty years since we did our work, and we had long since given up any thoughts of the prize. Things only became real when I found myself on stage at the concert hall in Stockholm shaking the hand of the King of Sweden and escorting the Crown Princess to dinner afterwards.
In the summer of 2017 I was awarded a ‘Citizen of the World’ award by Rock Masters of Arco for having introduced modern rock climbing methods to Northwest Italy, and also for my Nobel Prize. Actually, to me this is just as important as the Nobel Prize itself because it recognises the climbing part of my life which was so important to me for many years.
Thank you so much Mike for sharing your experiences with us, and good luck with the Physics problem that is still exercising your mind.