Nick Colton is an accomplished alpinist with numerous expeditions to some of the world’s most famous peaks under his belt. He’s also Lead Safeguarding Officer of The British Mountaineering Council and has been a key cog in the BMC machine for many decades. We caught up with him to discuss his famous first ascents, changes at the BMC and his future plans.

Nick Colton climbing on the SE ridge of Annapurna III in 1981, a rocky face falling away beneath him to the glacier belowNick on the SE Pillar of Annapurna III in 1981 by Tim Leach

How did you start climbing?

I started climbing with my dad in the mid-1960s. I was quite a lively child, forever climbing trees and smaller features on buildings. Our local park even had, still has, a mounted medium-sized erratic that I bouldered on from a very young age. I think he thought it would channel my energies positively.


When and why did you join the Alpine Club?

I first joined the Alpine Club in 1976 at an ACG event at a pub in Buxton. Alex MacIntyre was also there and I think he joined the ACG at that time. Tut Braithwaite said that a new route on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses merited joining the ACG. Sometime later I received a letter requesting payment of subs. Being out of work at the time I had no money. I wrote back to say that, and don’t recall whether I got a response back or not. However, I eventually did join the AC in the mid-2000s.

A black and white photo of Nick and the late Alex MacIntyreNick and the late Alex MacIntyre by Bernard Newman

You mentioned your route on the Grandes Jorasses. You've given your name to two very famous alpine routes. How does it feel to have a route you climbed so early in your climbing career become a lodestar for climbers today, something that appears on ticklists and news reports? Do you still feel you have a relationship with a route like the Colton-MacIntyre or is it now just something you once did?

It’s pretty flattering, especially as the routes have become popular. In a way they were things I did a long time ago when I was young and clearly I’ve moved on. Although people do still ask me about the routes, as you have, and I get invited to give slide shows on the strength of the ascents. So, although it was a long time ago, it’s not quite as simple as saying it’s just something I once did. Because, in a variety of ways, people still associate me with the climbs and some people do see that as part of who I am. Which I’m comfortable with.


Could you tell us a little about your work for the BMC and any projects that you're currently excited to be working on there?

I was the Deputy CEO at [the] BMC for 16 or so years. I’ve done a number of things in that time. Most visibly, I suppose, I’ve been the BMC’s Lead Safeguarding Officer for much of that time and also secretary of the BMC’s International Committee for a number of years. I also helped set up GB Climbing and was their Lead Officer for the first year of operations. As retirement comes into view, I’m now downsizing my time commitments and currently work 3 days a week.

Some things that excite me are: the possibility of working with the AC and MEF on proposed expedition planning symposia – one specifically for women; and the coming appointment of a full-time Safeguarding Manager at the BMC funded by Sport England.  I’m also excited by the work the BMC does on environmental and climate issues. For the most part unsung, but no less important for all that.

Nick Colton in Alaska in 1981 wearing a large blue crash helmet and staring into the camnera as he deals with the ropes.
Climbing in Alaska in 1981 by Tim Leach
The Team of 3 from the Annapurna III expedition stand in red jumpers with the mountain in the background
The Annapurna III Team by Tim Leach

We're just entering another Olympic cycle. As someone who saw the process closer at hand than many of us, what did you take away from climbing's first Olympics last year in Tokyo?

I think the Olympics was an amazing spectacle that has done a number of things. Firstly, it was very exciting to watch. I mention this because some people I know in the climbing world have long said that competition climbing would never catch on because it’s so boring to watch. They said it was like watching paint dry. The Olympics proved that wrong.  For me it comes down to the belief that different people get different things from different facets of climbing. 

Secondly, the Olympics have inspired more people to accept climbing as something reasonable to do. It’s shown that climbing is amazing but it’s also shown that climbers are not all odd-balls doing some crazy, outlandish activity. Which, in turn has inspired more people, from all ages, backgrounds, etc to try it and have a go. Which will bring a fresh crop of people into these activities with all their enthusiasm and passion. In turn will eventually help with succession and refreshment in all parts of climbing and mountaineering and keep our passion healthy and vibrant for the future.

Thirdly, the Olympics really have cranked up standards, particularly in bouldering and rock climbing, both indoors and outdoors. It’s amazing to see what some of the kids and even some of the newer older starters can do within a relatively short space of time since starting these days.


What was the last big trip or expedition you went on? 

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever been on a big trip. However, if one could be described as “big” in some sense I guess that might be an attempt on the SE pillar of Annapurna III that I went on in 1981. A route which has only recently had its first ascent, by a Ukrainian team, alpine style and over 18 days!

Having said that I do still go to West Nepal exploring remote valleys where there’s no record of mountaineers having been and trying to climb unclimbed peaks. In fact, I’m going in September with Julian Freeman-Attwood, Ed Douglas and Jim Fotheringham for more of the same. However, I wouldn’t describe such trips as big. They’re purposely small and uncommercial with a leave no trace ethic and consideration for local people.