14 Jul Nick Bullock
Interview by Marco Vegetti – UP2008
Being bon on Christmas day isn’t always the best: you only get half the amount of presents! The advantage is that no one is ever going to forget your birthday. Nick Bullock was born on 25th December 1965 and anyone involved in the international climbing environment will never forget this.
Nick started climbing late, in 1993, at the age of 28, but over the past 14 years he has left his mark.
Climbing routes above the grade of 7c in the UK, USA, Australia, Spain and France; a quantity of classical and new routes throughout the Alps, in France, Italy and Switzerland; dozens of expeditions in India, Peru, Pakistan and Nepal, all characterizing new routes on more or less unknown mountains or attempts and repetitions on famous routes which have never been repeated (such as the Boardman-Tasker route on Changabang, still waiting for its second ascent); ascents on ice falls in the Alps from France, Italy and Switzerland to Canada; and finally in typical British fashion, a never ending series of winter ascents in the U.K. from Wales to Scotland.
Since 2003 Nick is a full time mountaineer and a great writer, in the purest Anglo-Saxon style.
Between 1987 and 2003 he worked as a P.E. teacher in Her Majesty’s prisons, and maybe this is what has given him a different outlook, sometimes easy-going, on life, the world and on himself.
In the French Vertical magazine I read about your attempt on Jirishanca with Al Powell. It seems to be a very hard mountain. What do you think about the Egger-Jungmair 1957 climb? Were they forerunners?
Jirishanca is a hard mountain to climb as it is more a collection of difficult climbing combined with the bad weather it attracts and the isolated position of the mountain. To have successfully climbed Jirishanca in 1957 and by the style Egger and Jungmair eventually adopted was futuristic. We found the East Ridge technical and difficult. Maybe it has changed a lot since 1957, but still, tackling the ridge alpine style from a high camp after a previous attempt was bold and adventurous. Peru appears to bring out this type of spirit in mountaineers. Long may it continue.
In the same feature you touch on a sensitive topic: the retreat. Too often mountaineers have had serious accidents caused by persevering despite huge difficulties, bad weather, etc. Do you think this kind of act is due to a lack of humility in confronting Nature or simply due to a sense of superiority/immortality?
I’m sure there are several reasons why accidents happen when parties push on regardless. Yes sometimes I suspect for the reasons you have spoken about above. Pushing on in bad weather is not as simple as the climbers having a lack of humility for the weather. Factors such as how much difficult climbing is left, the distance to the summit, how much food is remaining, how many days have they been climbing, what is the altitude, the type of decent and by which route? All of these have to be taken into consideration and only then can a decision be made.
I do think at times maybe a very successful climber may push too hard with a feeling of invincibility after successfully climbing several difficult summits/routes. Maybe they have been so successful they feel that even greater things have to be achieved to remain at the top of the game and this also brings about irrational decision making.
I am of the opinion that some of the most significant and bold ascents have been made by going-out on a limb. Some climbs would not happen if risks had not been taken. The mountains are dangerous especially when climbing big faces alpine style and sometimes it’s a fine balance between glorious success and tragic failure. Maybe people who do not climb like this do not appreciate that many of the successful cutting edge ascents of recent years have been such a fine line. On occasion the decision is easy. When Al and I turned on Jirishanca it was very difficult. I would have stayed and risked it, it was Al’s call and in the end I think it was right. The weather the following day was bad and we had no food. I think another night up high with no food and waiting it out with wet bags would have resulted in a really desperate retreat or worse we could have been stuck. As it was I was frost nipped due to being dehydrated and running on empty.
Talking about your work, you said that your (unusual) students didn’t often understand the difference between your “drug” and theirs… Mountaineering is a real drug? And can it be curative in some way? Used as a form of therapy?
Yes I think mountaineering is a drug. Some people can dabble occasionally at a certain level and then walk away for extended periods. Some can enter on a deeper level and become long term users, but keep the lid on it, have a regular life, a steady relationship, children, a house etc, but return for their fix regularly, and then there is the person who cannot live without it. They crave climbing, the mountains, the uncertainty, the experience, being on the edge and pushing personal barriers. Life for these people is a challenge to be taken and wrung for the experience. These are the class A users, people who live solely for their drug and everything else comes second place. Yes it’s a drug. Even the recreational users dream of the next route, the next grade, the next height, the next summit. They just have a grip on it that’s all.
Climbing, mountaineering is used as a therapy by everyone at every level. It’s a release, an escape, it helps you forget, it challenges and lets you forget the bills, the problems, the mundane, the insane. It keeps you fit and makes you a part of an exclusive club, it gives identity.
This winter I was in Scotland climbing in the Cairngorms range… I found a huge difference between the Scottish and the Continental approach to climbing: no bolts, a great deal more skill in using equipment… but mostly I appreciated the mental approach to climbing… Do you think there is real difference between the UK and the European approach?
I find this question very difficult. My immediate answer would be yes, but I don’t know if this makes a difference to the final outcome. European mountaineers have been pushing the limits for years in the greater ranges. You say you appreciated the mental aspect to the style of climbing we have in Britain. I also find the most important factor for any of my climbing is the mental factor. I don’t know if it is massively different in Europe though. Hmm, thinking about it maybe it is. I climbed all of the difficult routes on the East face of the Tacul in France last winter and all but one had fixed anchors. I was pleased to see none had bolts, but just having fixed anchors made the whole experience very relaxing as we knew at any point we could descend. For many French parties the norm seemed to be climb as high as you can before abseiling and catching the last train, or climb the first 2 pitches of the climb to include the crux and then abseil. My friends and I were determined to climb the routes to the top be what may then skin back to the Midi and sleep there, catching the first telepherique in the morning. Maybe winter climbing in Britain does still have a feeling of adventure and it’s not just about sprinting as high as you can or just climbing the hard pitch before running away in the name of comfort.
On saying this I think some climbers in Europe are exceptionally adventurous and bold, but maybe it is a small hardcore group. Still, the safety and convenience factors do make for very talented climbers even if they lose out on the adventure and for me that is what climbing is all about.
What is the possible future of mountaineering? A lot of climbers aim at difficulty, it seems just a few of them aim at exploring the lesser known mountain ranges…
I don’t know if this is true, or if it is, is it any different than how it has always been? Super-alpinism has always been the realm of the few. It is not a trendy easy activity. Certain areas have always been popular like the Khumbu, Patagonia, Cordillera de Blanca, and certain parts of Alaska and in these areas there are the popular peaks and difficult peaks. Straying from the easy to access areas, the people attempting new lines or new peaks are small. Possibly this is linked to the question below about terrorism. Maybe people are scared to go to lesser known regions. I think people’s outlook on life and what they want and what they expect has changed too. Time is precious; the thought of spending months and months on one objective is not acceptable or possible. In the West I feel there is a certain amount of ‘money can buy anything’ attitude and when you take the certainty out of something the people handing over their hard won money do not want this. This also touches on the Everest question. What are the real motivations for climbing? If a person climbs for status they certainly would not go to an area where no-one knows about the climb they have done. As for difficulty, are people going just for difficulty and not for adventure?…If this is true, maybe this is a knock-on from professional climbers feeling they have to push the boundaries on difficult well known objectives to justify their position.
It asks the question of why people climb and what we want from our climbing? We all climb for different reasons and just because one person’s reasons are different than another doesn’t make them any less important or worthy (unless it is purely for status, then you need to ask a few questions). The adventure, the uncertainty are two of my main reasons, but also the act of completing many pitches of technical climbing and the physical challenge, so I would not decry a climber who is not interested in spending weeks travelling, acclimatising, waiting out weather before starting to climb. I am lucky that I have given myself this chance to climb full time and I can mix big trips with smaller more technical trips.
The future? I think the future is healthy in general as long as you ignore the Everest circus. Mountaineers are being open and more honest than in the past, the style of many new climbs is good and boundaries are being pushed.
If you could choose one exploit, how would you like to be remembered in the history of British climbing?
I think I would like to be remembered more for the type of life I now live. The one exploit would be giving up a well paid job that was secure for life, a pension, a house, comfort, my own space and walking away from it all to become a nomadic full time climber and writer.
In recent years the Alpine world has been flooded with awards, prizes, and competitions of every sort, and some of definitely dubious quality. Especially on Everest: Youngest man, blind man, legless man, oldest woman etc. etc.
Do you think this is a healthy thing for the mountaineering community?
I personally think that awards are best left to film stars. Competition climbing is fine if that is what you enjoy. It is not an aspect of climbing that interests me. I think Everest should be stripped of all the fixed rope. The use of oxygen should be decried and frowned upon, and ‘climbers’ should climb the mountain unaided by both guides and high altitude climbing sherpas. Only then would the experienced and true mountaineers entertain the idea of going there and then maybe the true values of mountaineering on Everest will return.
The whole Everest circus is not healthy for mountaineering. Some people (I do not include all, as I’m sure some very competent and experienced climbers do climb Everest) just want to tick a box and are lucky to have enough money to do it. If it is a life long dream to climb Everest well so be it, but gain the experience by climbing other mountains first. Why not go to a mountain more remote with fewer people and enjoy the mountains for what they are and not for the kudos at the dinner party. Why are people climbing the route that was pioneered in 1953 in worse style than on the first ascent. In the general public’s eye, the people who are walking past dying people and suing guides for whatever reason are mountaineers and we are all tarred with the same brush. It cannot be good for the long term of mountaineering.
Edmund Hilary “gave back” to the Everest community with his donations and built a hospital and a school and he continued to work “for” the Sherpa people and for the protection of the mountain regions. Reinhold Messner “walked away” as it were…
What would you like to see done to promote the world’s alpine wildernesses?
Once again this is a difficult question as my immediate reaction would be to say the only way totally to preserve the mountain wildernesses would be to stop people travelling to them. This is not going to happen and I, as a climber wouldn’t want it to. Times move on, transport is made cheap and easy and people want to travel. We probably should accept that the days of total wilderness have gone. Things change, the secret is realising this and working with it. Travel and adventure is for everyone and it should not be the realm of the rich. The more people who travel, the greater the understanding and interest in the future of some of the places they have visited.
The countries that have the World’s wildest mountain areas are generally poor places and the income generated by mountaineering is welcomed. Some of this income should be used in the areas where the local people benefit. It is great that Edmund Hillary has found the time and money to help but I think it should also be from the governments or the governing bodies of mountaineering in these countries. The most expensive mountains I climb are in India. I struggle to generate the money to climb here so when I visit the Indian Mountaineering Federation headquarters in Delhi, I find the opulence ironic and distasteful. If some of the money mountaineers pay was used in an education programme for the local people and helping the locals it would make paying the high prices more acceptable.
It seems the UK became the first target of international terrorism. Do you think it has affected the climbing world too? And, generally speaking, how have these dangerous times influenced mountaineering?
Generally I would say that terrorism has not affected climbing, it has affected some climbers thinking though. Fewer people are visiting Nepal, Pakistan and India, but I think it is on the more tourist level than the more seasoned experienced mountaineer level. Generally in all of these countries climbers are welcomed. I think the media blow things out of proportion and people live in fear because of it. Experienced climbers have learnt to quantify risk and I would imagine very few are scared to visit a country because of the threat of terrorism.
It seems to me that climbers don’t like to express political opinions… The only one public exception was an article in the American Alpinist magazine against the war in Iraq… Do you think that it is a problem of lack of conscience or simple ignorance or a fear of losing sponsors?
Climbers are just people, people who work, have a life, families. Just because they climb doesn’t mean they need to have any more of a political opinion as a person on the street. In general I think that climbers probably have as much of an opinion, or more than many people because they see and experience more. You have made this assumption on the fact that nothing political is written about. I think you maybe need to ask the writers, the editors, and the readers why political issues are not discussed in climbing literature. If I read a climbing magazine I would rather read about the psychological aspects of the climb, the climbers’ thoughts, life, motivations and the climb. Personally I find politics boring and full of hypocrites. If I felt motivated to write about a political subject I would, I don’t think any climber would be afraid of losing sponsorship if they wrote about politics and if they did maybe they should look for a different sponsor anyway. The politics of climbing is a much more interesting thing for climbers to read about than the politics of countries. If I wanted to read about politics I would buy a newspaper.
You have written extensively about your experiences at work and in the mountains. Do you think a “literary” capacity is an advantage for climbers to get their exploits noted? Or is it necessary for you to put your experiences into words in some way to “exorcise” the emotions to make space for the new?
Obviously writing about personal climbing experiences will get a climber noticed,(if the experiences are published) but is this the reason why I write?…the answer would be no. I was bullied into writing about my climbing a long time after I began climbing and after I had climbed new routes. I never went into writing thinking this will heighten my profile and I certainly never went into climbing thinking I would have a profile. I didn’t imagine getting to the stage I am at now, and in the grand scheme, even now, I do not think that I am a ‘player’.
I go out to climb for myself and the experience, if I feel motivated after the experience I will write about it. I found that writing is very cathartic. I love the stages of writing an essay and the feeling of when it all comes together. My life has been enhanced by writing. The style of my writing makes me sit and think about the climb, my thoughts, emotions, feelings. I do not go out thinking I will write this for publication as it will heighten my profile. What generally happens is I get motivated to write about an experience or something that is going on in my life and when is it completed if it is a good piece of writing I may send it to one or two people for possible publication. Writers need their writing to be read. It is not about ‘blowing one’s own trumpet’, not for me anyway. I have so many essays that have never been published or sent to anyone except my friends.
The final way to look at the question would be to ask would I continue to write if I were not sponsored nor needed the very small amount of cash I receive from writing and the answer would be yes.
Do you have a mascot that you take with you when you climb? A lucky t-shirt, teddy bear or some food item?
No. If I were going to carry any excess weight I would take a toothbrush and paste. This seems a lot more appropriate than a lucky mascot. It would also help me save money on dentist charges.