Interview by Melanie Windridge
The well-known guide, backcountry skier and writer Rob Collister recently stepped down as vice president of the Club and chair of its Environmental Group. Here he discusses his life, his passion for the mountains and his fears for the future of the natural world.
How did you get into climbing and skiing?
No one else in my family was interested in mountains. I had a privileged education – public school and Cambridge – but my parents crippled themselves financially educating their four children and there was no money left for school ski trips. I had to pay for myself. My first climbs were in the Cuillin on a school camp but I didn’t start climbing regularly until I left school and went up to Cambridge. Then, as now, I loved controlled, precise movement, the sense of space and exposure, the satisfaction of managing risk in potentially dangerous situations and the extraordinary places it allows one to get to, things accessible to all climbers whatever their grade. I was not very talented, did not enjoy frightening myself but was competent enough to get by on most things in the Alps.
My first Alpine season was nearly my last. We had two unplanned bivis in three routes and I nearly died when an abseil anchor failed on a retreat. On the other hand, I found that I was well suited to the long sustained effort required in the Alps and enjoyed long hut walks that others hated, an attribute I discovered was even more useful when I got to the Hindu Kush in my second long vacation in 1968.
How did you start guiding and what appeals to you about it?
In January 1976 I was climbing in Kenya when my wife Netti sent a telegram saying, in so many words: ‘I’m expecting. Come home and get yourself a job!’ When we got married the deal had always been that she would work as a vet until we had children when it would be my turn to be the breadwinner. That time had come. I returned home and started applying for jobs in outdoor pursuits and advertised my services as an alpine guide in The Times. To my surprise the paper asked if I had any qualifications. That led to my discovery of the British Mountain Guides Association and my enrolment for a winter assessment on Ben Nevis. In the middle of my summer guides’ test, I drove to Wales for an interview at Ogwen Cottage and to my delight got the job. That summer I had a productive Alpine season and worked for Dougal Haston at ISM in Leysin: an extremely steep learning curve for me in terms of guiding skills but working alongside Alex MacIntyre reassured me I was far better suited to guiding than he was! I think not being a top-flight performer has made it easier to empathise with clients. By the same token, it was less frustrating for me than some of my colleagues to operate at a low technical level. I was never that interested in teaching skills but revelled in living and working in the outdoors. I always tried to share that awareness with clients.
Rob Collister Chamonix 1970s.
How did your involvement with the Club begin?
I joined the ACG in 1970 but my involvement with the AC was thanks to Noel Odell who was then living in Cambridge. He introduced me to people like David Cox, then president, and Howard Somervell, the only person I ever saw wearing spats. Through Odell I also met Eric Shipton, Percy Wyn-Harris and Freddie Spencer Chapman, great story-tellers all of them, at Cambridge Alpine Club dinners. I’m not really clubbable and not at all gregarious. I often wondered why I was still a member of the AC given I rarely went to lectures and only occasionally used the library. One reason was the quality of the Alpine Journal as a celebration of mountains as well as a catalogue of achievement. Also, a sense of being part of history appealed to me, being linked to those great figures from the past whose portraits look down on you as you enter the premises. Being vice-president has been a real eye-opener, seeing what a complex organization the AC is and how much voluntary work gets done.
Gletscherhorn North Face 1972.Photo: Rob Ferguson.
What was your most memorable climb?
Probably soloing Route Major on the Brenva face of Mont Blanc, not because it’s particularly hard but because being alone on that huge face made it really intense. During the 1970s I climbed all the other classic routes on the Brenva face, all of them memorable but for who I climbed with as much as the routes: Sentinelle Rouge one January with Mick Geddes, La Poire on an international rassemblement with Geoff Cohen and the Peuterey Ridge with Rob Ferguson. On the Brenva Spur, climbing with Netti and three other friends, we reached the seracs before retreating in a storm. It was a very long way down not helped by someone losing a crampon. I finally completed it climbing with George Band and Jerry Lovatt in the 1990s when a planned bivouac in a stupendous position high up on the famous ice arête allowed us to reach the summit just as another storm broke. Guiding a president of the AC up Mont Blanc was a highlight of my guiding career!
Netti on ice arete Brenva Spur 1972.Photo: Rob Collister.
You’ve lived in Wales for a long time. What do you love about it?
We moved to Wales in 1976 when I got the Ogwen Cottage job. For 22 years we lived at the head of Glasgwm, a dead-end valley above Penmachno. Almost no one came up there except to visit us; at night there was not a light to be seen down the valley. Then we moved to a small terrace of lead-miners’ cottages on a wooded hillside above Henryd, not far from Conwy. All three of our children are Welsh speakers but neither Netti nor I have managed to learn the language: a matter of regret. I love the cultural landscape, the traces of human habitation going back thousands of years found everywhere in the mountains. It’s the historian in me. Of course, I relish the space found on the high tops but I possibly enjoy the valleys even more, especially what is now called the Celtic Rainforest, though I don’t much like the name. There is so much more living and growing there. I do agree with George Monbiot that the hills of Wales have been ‘sheep-wrecked’ in the same way that deer in Scotland have made a ‘devastated terrain’, in Fraser-Darling’s words. The wider decline in our wildlife grieves me deeply. Plants and creatures are a huge part of my pleasure in the mountains; it would be wonderful to have more diversity here at home. The contrast with the Alps is immense even if they have been ravaged by the ski and tourist industries.
Summit of Carn Etchachan 1974. Photo: Netti Collister
You’re an articulate spokesman for the environment. Are there grounds for hope?
The overriding issue of our time has to be climate change, which, despite the evidence before our eyes in the disappearing glaciers of the Alps, we have been slow to acknowledge. I think that is changing: I would like to think that most members of the Alpine Club are adjusting their lifestyles. We simply cannot jet about the world with the unthinking abandon of the last 30 years or so. It is hard to be optimistic, though, in the face of an almost complete lack of political leadership. I felt strongly enough about it that I joined Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London last October but the Establishment has closed ranks since then and little has changed. I wish I could be positive about what the future holds for my grandchildren. But there are times when the only thing that keeps me from despair, apart from the love of a good woman, is the ability to walk, or maybe run, from my house up into the simpler world of the northern Carneddau.
• Rob Collister’s latest book Days to Remember is published by Vertebrate.