Parent Category: News
Created: Thursday, 03 August 2023 15:44
Alpine Club Vice-President Nick Kekus has been at the heart of the British climbing scene for several decades. He’s climbed with a host of famous faces and attempted some of the most sought-after lines in high-altitude mountaineering. We caught up with Nick to talk about his ‘80s expeditions, his career as a mountain guide and his plans for his time as VP.
The North Face of Shivling - © Nick Kekus Collection
Hi Nick. Thanks for sitting down with us. I’m always interested to ask this question of mountain guides: what did you do before you started guiding?
So I started out as a Civil Engineer working in construction and then got into guiding, but I’ve always kind of run the two in parallel. Sometimes I’ve done more guiding than my “proper job”. I always refer to myself as being “semi-retired from guiding” but the last two years I’ve probably done more guiding than I have for a long time.
And do you still find guiding rewarding?
I think if you’re doing an awful lot, it can be very physically demanding and quite stressful. But doing the bits that I do now makes a nice contrast to my other work. So yeah, I think I find it more rewarding now than when I was always looking for the next job.
When people ask you about it as a career, what do you tell them?
Many years ago I worked in Canada and the guy who ran the business, a Kiwi called Dave Begg, he always said: “When you get into guiding, you have to have a plan for how to get out”. Because it has a finite life. You’ve got to have a plan for the future.
© Nick Kekus Collection
© Nick Kekus Collection
In the 1980s, you went on a lot of expeditions to the Himalaya – the NE Ridge of Everest, the SE pillar of Annapurna III – were you consciously seeking out these routes that are often referred to as “last great problems”?
I probably was [seeking them out] but I don’t think it was that conscious. There was a great groundswell of enthusiasm at the time with what people like Boardman and Tasker and Alex Macintyre were doing. And I always had this idea of aspiring to take alpine climbing, in its purest sense, to the Himalaya.
The route on Shivling in 1982 with Richard Cox, which sadly ended tragically when Richard was killed, it was such an aesthetic peak and such an aesthetic line, that north face. I think for me it felt like a logical step from things I’d done in the Alps.
The previous year I’d been to the Nanda Devi sanctuary and 3 of us climbed Kalanka by the regular route. We climbed light. It wasn’t very technical. But it set my ambition to try harder things in the Himalaya in lightweight style.
I went to Ganesh II with Rick Allen in ‘84 and that was kind of the epitome of what I’d been trying to do. Just the two of us on this great face that had quite a lot of technical climbing. And we basically went with minimal gear; 2 ropes, a big rack and a bivvy tent.
You climbed quite a lot with Rick, who was tragically killed on K2 in 2021, do you have any particular memories of him you’d like to share?
Rick was a member of the Midland Association of Mountaineers, and they had a hut down in Coniston, and we always used to arrange quite a few pre-expedition meetings there. And on a few of these occasions Rick, coming down from Aberdeen, would bring this very talented young Aberdonian climber. But I don't think Rick wanted to climb with him because he was always wanting to do really hard routes. So Rick would always point at me and say: “you go climb with the brat”, and “the brat” would drag me up these horrendous routes on Scafell and Dow Crag.
There were lots of aspects to Rick's life. He was a committed Christian and he had lots of interests in charities and other organizations, not just in the UK, but around the world. He was certainly not a one-dimensional person by any means.
The team below south face Ganesh II in 1984, Rick Allen on the right, Nick on the left, with their Sidar, LO and Cook - © Nick Kekus Collection
You’ve recently become one of the Alpine Club’s Vice-Presidents alongside Adéle Long. Is there anything in particular you’re hoping to achieve in your time in post?
I'm taking my steer from Simon [Richardson] and Simon's obviously very enthusiastic and really looking to take things forward. One of the areas where he's really keen to do something is in developing the future direction of the ACG. It’s not really as dynamic as it used to be and lots of people have talked about wanting to resurrect it or to develop another organisation that speaks to young alpinists. A group of young climbers, not necessarily people climbing at the cutting edge, but people who have just got a real passion and interest in alpinism. I think both Simon and myself are really keen to encourage and develop that.
I think I’m right in saying that you originally met Simon in the infamous Snell’s Field. Do you have any stories of our President from that time that you could share?
We always used to call Simon “Mr Mega” because whenever he talked about something it was always “mega”. He did some amazing things with all sorts of people, and he was really enthusiastic at recruiting people to his objectives and his ideas.
When Simon was working for Shell in Holland, myself Mark Miller and Sean Smith got the ferry over and Simon picked us up. The idea was to do the north face of the Eiger, which we didn’t do, but we did climb a super route on the Mönch – the Lauper Rib.
We drove into Grindelwald really late at night and parked the car in the railway yard. We had nowhere to sleep and there were these old railway carriages, like cattle trucks, in the sidings and someone noticed that they were open. So we all jumped in, got our bivvy bags out and slept in there, because this was the middle of winter.
And then, in the early hours of the morning, we felt this carriage start moving. And we all panicked, thinking the train was off to Interlaken. And we open the door and we’re all throwing our sleeping bags out and trying to get our shoes on. And we suddenly see that there’s no train attached to the carriage. It’s just this little old man pushing the carriage, getting everything marshalled in the yard as we’re trying to get out!
This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of the Alpine Club Newsletter. Previous issues of the newsletter are available to read here.