The ‘mountaineers’ mountaineer’ Mick Fowler talks to Trek & Mountain about his recent expedition to China’s Tien Shan range and his love of climbing…
Over the last 30 years, Mick Fowler has established himself as one of Britain’s foremost climbers and mountaineers, having forged new and bold routes on everything from British sea stacks, chalk cliffs and ice walls to unclimbed lines and first ascents on many peaks in the greater ranges. What’s more, he’s done all of this while holding down a full-time (and very senior) job with HM Revenue & Customs. While his unwillingness to commit to more than four weeks a year of climbing has ruled out the 8,000m peaks that many mountaineers crave (due to the time needed for acclimatisation) Fowler’s prowess and incredible track record have earned him huge respect among his peers, culminating in him being voted the ‘Mountaineers’ Mountaineer’ in a poll by The Observer. Just back from a successful expedition to the Chinese Tien Shan range where he and partner Paul Ramsden climbed the north face of Sulamar (5,380m) on the north side of the Xuelian massif, Fowler tells us about the expedition and his life-long love of climbing.
You’ve just returned from climbing in the Tien Shan range – was that an enjoyable expedition?
Very much so, thank you! It’s always good to climb with Paul Ramsden and also to be in the company of old friends such as Mike Morrison and his climbing partner Rob Smith. Aside from the people it was an excellent trip in several ways: interesting cultures, a beautiful walk in, great climbing and some excellent exploration at the end… and the Xiate hot springs were pretty memorable too.
How long had you been planning the trip and how did you decide on your objective, Xuelian East?
I suppose it was about a year from start to finish. Bruce Normand, who led the only two previous mountaineering trips to the area, was incredibly helpful and sent me numerous photographs that he took in 2008 and 2009. Having added these to my box file of interesting objectives, Paul and I met several times in a pub in Nottingham to ponder possibilities – and in the end it was the Chinese Tien Shan and the north ridge of Xuelian East that came out top for 2010. That was partly because of it being an eye-catching line and partly because it sounded to be an interesting, rarely-visited area that neither of us had been to before.
Your objective changed to the north face of Sulamar because of the weather – how crucial is it to have flexibility in plans you make?
Well sometimes it’s just not possible to build in any flexibility, particularly in areas where there is not very much information available – which is, of course, part of the attraction of exploratory mountaineering. But this year we had seen plenty of photographs of the area and so we had several objectives in mind. In fact, much as we had earmarked Xuelian East we were always a bit unsure of it as an objective. Firstly, we always knew that there was a 25km approach from base camp, much of it up a crevassed glacier; secondly it was very difficult to gauge what the climbing might be like. From some angles it looked as if it might be mostly easy but with a short, very hard section. The thought that we might be carrying all our technical gear for 50km to do a short section of technical climbing did cross our minds! So, in fact, when there was a huge dump of snow (which made covering that sort of distance dangerous and impractical) we were not too disappointed and turned readily to Sulamar.
You had one or two hairy moments by the sounds of it, including a couple of crevasse falls – did the conditions surprise you?
Yes, they did! The snow just didn’t seem to consolidate very well and the crevasses were difficult to spot and by far the most dangerous that either of us had ever come across. The snow bridges were just so weak; Paul fell in one [crevasse – Ed] first but stopped just below the surface. When I took over in front I walked about 30 feet forwards and then fell about 30 feet vertically. And after I had got out we both spent quite a bit of time crawling across snow bridges in white-out conditions.
Tell us about the ascent up Sulamar?
We had a base camp on the edge of the Muzart glacier but to climb the north face of Sulamar we had to retrace most of our walk in and then strike off up another valley to reach the foot of the face. The trouble was, our rudimentary map had been destroyed when a horse fell into a lake on the walk in, so we didn’t quite know where we were going. As far as we knew, no mountaineers had ever been up the valley towards Sulamar, let alone to the foot of the face. So it was a bit of a journey of exploration just to get there and a real moment of elation when we finally knew that, firstly, we were in the right valley and, secondly, we could actually get to the foot of the face. We were feeling pretty pleased at the outing before we even started climbing!
What particular problems did you encounter on the climb?
The start was very low, probably only about 3,500m and we were lucky to have a good frost to hold things together. The climb was in several sections; a rock band low down was challengingly loose but good mixed climbing saw us through onto precarious snow-covered slabs. Steep ice in the form of a huge cone then led to a gully line where huge spindrift deluges made for some memorable moments. Above that we were out onto the crest of the buttress and finally good climbing up a long, shallow gully line to technical excitement in a wild lightning storm and a hanging bivouac before we broke through the summit cornice. And then, a much longer and more exciting summit ridge than we had expected. All in all we were really pleased. It wasn’t technically desperate but it’s a great, eye-catching face and has opened my eyes to the pleasures of climbing on sub 6,000m peaks in the greater ranges. There is just so much to be done!
Did you actually get any sleep in your hanging bivvys?
Surprisingly, yes. We always moan about how terrible they are and then, in the morning, comment that we must have dozed off quite a lot!
You also recce’d the Chulebos peaks while you were there – did you spot any potential objectives for future trips?
Good unclimbed objectives, yes, but nothing inspiring enough to add to my box file of objectives. But we saw enough to sense that the lower mountains a bit further south have some very challenging technical lines. One day I may have to pay a visit.
What do you look for when deciding your next expedition and how long do you allow for expeditions each year?
My ideal objective is a technically-challenging, safe, eye-catching line leading directly to the summit of a prominent mountain in a culturally interesting area that I (and preferably no other mountaineers) have ever been to before. The maximum time I allow myself each year to pursue mountaineering objectives is four weeks.
Tell us about a few of the highlights from your climbing career so far?
That’s a tough one as I’ve been climbing for nearly 40 years! Some of my early rock climbs, routes like Stairway to Heaven on Skye were particularly memorable as were many sea stack climbs. The whole day of varied adventure involved in stack climbing (nautical, loose rock, epic descents, unclimbed summits, incentive to visit new areas and so on) has always particularly attracted me. And then mountaineering, I suppose Taulliraju in Peru back in 1982 was perhaps my most eye-opening experience. I had never been outside Europe before, let alone come across anything like Peruvian climbing conditions. More recently, trips to East Tibet have been fantastic, what with so many unclimbed, spectacular mountains and so few mountaineers. One highlight I can think of was a local headman in the Nyainkentaghla East range telling Paul Ramsden and I that he had never seen a white man in the flesh before; only on his satellite television!
Which climbers were you inspired by when you were younger?
In British mountaineering terms people like Doug Scott, Al Rouse, Alex Macintyre, Joe Tasker, Pete Boardman and Dick Renshaw to name but a few. I saw them as leading a move away from siege tactics and climbing Alpine style – a style that I could relate to – in the big mountain ranges of the world. They made me realise that it was possible to get great climbs done in distant places on a short timescale. In fact it was Al Rouse who gave me the idea of going on my first trip outside Europe – to Taulliraju (Peru) in 1982.
And who of the younger generation do you think is carrying the flame?
Depends what you mean by ‘younger’! Climbers like Andy Houseman, Nick Bullock, Jon Bracey, Malcolm Bass, Bruce Normand, Ian Parnell and Tim Emmett are putting up some fantastic routes. And I am sure there are plenty I have missed (sorry everyone!).
What do you consider to be the cutting edge of mountaineering today?
I think Alpine style is certainly here to stay. Harder and harder climbs are being done and we are seeing technical routes being established using Alpine style on higher and higher mountains. Ascents such as the Steve House/Vince Anderson route on Nanga Parbat and the Valery Babanov/Victor Afanasiev routes on Gasherbrum 1 and Broad Peak show what is possible – but there are obvious tougher challenges out there for future generations.
You were testing kit out for Berghaus on this trip – how much of your feedback contributes to finished products?
I feel I have a very good working relationship with the design team in Berghaus. This year we have been focusing on a mountaineering rucksack. There just isn’t a sack on the market that Paul or I are completely happy with at the moment. I used a prototype on Sulamar which was based on suggestions that I had already made. On the trip the whole team chipped in with further suggestions; we looked at every feature of the sack and asked ourselves if it was really necessary. The prototype I used was actually very good but I am now working with the Berghaus design team on a final product that we hope will become the rucksack of choice for Alpine style mountaineers.
What have been the most satisfying climbs in your career from a pure enjoyment point of view?
That is an impossible question to answer! I suppose the most satisfying are always those where you think you might fail but somehow you manage to succeed. The odds are always stacked against you on greater range climbs so I have had plenty of experiences like that. Perhaps the climb I would single out is the Golden Pillar of Spantik that I climbed with Victor Saunders. That was particularly satisfying because on my one previous trip to the Himalayas I had spent six weeks failing miserably and after four weeks of the Spantik trip it looked as if we were going to be equally unsuccessful. And then the weather cleared and suddenly everything changed; we went on to climb the pillar, achieve my first Himalayan success and get my first addictive taste of big mountain euphoria.
Tell us about your climbing partnership with Paul Ramsden?
Paul and I met on the Wednesday evening climbing/outdoor action scene in the Derby/Nottingham area. Our attitude to mountaineering, and climbing in general, is much the same. We both have families and full-time jobs and, much as we love our climbing, it’s not the only thing in our lives. Most importantly for a good mountaineering partnership, our mountain judgement is very similar; firstly we are attracted to the same sort of objectives and secondly the judgements we make in the mountains are very similar. For example we both take the view that, on a big mountain route, some grim conditions are to be expected and we should press on unless there is a very good reason to turn back. We have actually only ever turned back once after getting established on the route, on Vasuki Parbat in India, and it said a lot to me that we both decided at more or less the same time that, much as we could physically have continued, it would not have been sensible to do so. And we both still sleep comfortably with that decision – which leads me to think it was probably the right one!
How did the events on the North Face of Changabang [where fellow climber Brendan Murphy was killed in an avalanche] affect you?
Obviously they were very upsetting all round. We went off on a climbing holiday and one of the four of us didn’t come back. The incident itself was upsetting enough but witnessing the grief it caused Brendan’s family was a very sobering experience. There will always be a danger element in mountaineering but I would like to think I learned from the Changabang experience and am safer because of it.
What climbing ambitions or objectives do you have for the future?
Too many to mention. I would love to climb in more locations in East Tibet but an email I received this morning suggests that getting permits is as challenging as ever, if not more so. But, as I often say, if it was easy then everyone would go and it wouldn’t be such adventurous fun on the occasions when the bureaucratic challenges are overcome.
You’re on tour at the moment – tell us what people can expect when they come along?
A brilliant show, obviously! Firstly, there will be talk about adventurous exploits in the UK. Most people don’t realise it, but there are still a vast number of eye-catching unexplored cliffs – and summits – in Britain. I will also be talking about expedition experiences – eye-opening ethnic sights, the amusingly dismal failure of my first Himalayan efforts and finally a short section on the recent climb Paul Ramsden and I managed in Xinjiang Province – watch out for the hot springs shot!
What keeps you climbing and when will you stop?
Climbing and, increasingly, fell races are just about the only things that get me off my bum and exercising. The fell races (at least originally) were really only done to keep me fit enough to do the climbing. I continue to climb because I enjoy it and I will stop when either I am too old or when I don’t enjoy it any more. At the moment I am enjoying it as much as ever.