One of the unexpected outcomes in producing The Firn Line, are the connections I’ve made with people around the world.
Sometimes I get emails from folks who are more armchair mountaineers, and they really just love the stories. Other times, I get emails from people who are just starting out, and hope to one day test their skills in the big mountains of Alaska. And then there are times I get contacted by full-on alpinists, the ones who are defined by their experiences in the mountains. This was the case a few months ago when UK-based alpinist, Malcolm Bass, reached out to me to say how much he was enjoying the podcast, and how the stories brought back vivid memories of his adventures in Alaska.
Due to our geographical separation, we haven’t been able to sit down face-to-face for a taped interview (yet). But I still wanted to get to know Malcolm a bit more, especially since he’s done some great climbing in Alaska. So in the first of a blog series called “Peaks & Valleys”, here’s a little long-distance Q & A, accompanied by some great photos of Malcolm’s adventures. Enjoy!
What first attracted you to the mountains and climbing?
My family are adventurous. British culture values adventure, or certainly did in the 70s when I was growing up, and it is just part of my nature. We often went walking on the hills as a family, and my Dad took me rock climbing with some dubious bit of rope a couple of times. When I was twelve I went on a short rock climbing trip to Wales with school, and I loved it. It was exciting and I was actually relatively good at it , quite a change for someone with no obvious sporting talent.
From about fifteen we had a club run by a teacher at school, and we would go to the sandstone crags nearby. Dad had been a keen caver when he was younger, so when I went to University in Leeds I was keen to give that a try. I got totally embroiled in caving, then cave diving. Some of us were really driven by this urge to explore, me more than most, and we would push ourselves really hard physically, and into frankly dangerous situations, to find new stuff. And we found a lot. We went to places that no one had ever seen before, and to my sort of personality that is intensely compelling.
There was some cross-fertilisation between the climbing and caving scenes springing from Leeds and Sheffield Universities, and this put me in contact with some more experienced winter climbers, including Simon Yearsley (who nearly thirty years on remains my main Scottish winter partner). I tried to keep the cave diving going for a while, but after an epic dive on which I finally succeeded on a long term project, and then nearly died on the way out, I decided it was time to stop. But the legacy the caving left in our minds was that the idea that exploration was the thing, and that it was achievable by us, and so we turned that energy towards trying to climb new routes in Scotland and beyond.
What’s the most important experience you’ve had in the mountains?
Recently the beauty of the Scottish mountains in winter has become incredibly important to me, the emotional impact keeps surprising me and I get a bit teary. I have this odd sensation when I am there that no amount of looking at it is enough, that my eyes can’t extract all the value that there is in the scene. This winter, for a bunch of not entirely positive reasons, we have been climbing a lot on a rather rambling cliff in the Cairngorms. The routes are kind of ok, but the view up this famous old mountain pass, the Lairig Gru, has me rapt every time. So that has been important.
And if I had to pick one other experience I would go for The Prey on Hunter/Begguya. This was in 2001 when Paul Figg and I climbed one of the buttresses in the same cirque as Diamond Arête on the east face. It was a ten day climb up the buttress, onto the east ridge and up to the summit, then down the west ridge. We were committed to going up and over as Paul Roderick was not keen to come and pick us up in the cirque, it’s threatened by seracs all around, so we got out of the plane with packs and harnesses on, put our crampons on and started climbing.
It’s importance to me comes from the fact that we were out there so long that we totally relaxed into the climb, into being on the mountain. We had no desperate urge to be down. Objectively we didn’t have enough food, but somehow everything seemed sufficient to our needs. It took us so long because when we got to the summit it socked in; thick cloud and light snowfall for days. We didn’t know the west ridge, and the light was so flat we had to edge our way down slowly following a map and compass. We fell over one ice cliff when we just didn’t see the steepening. But I can remember climbing up a short pitch near the bottom of the ridge, so on day 9 or 10, and enjoying the act of making a few technical moves, and wishing it was longer. I felt at home in a way that I never had before in big mountains. It was this experience of being comfortable with being out there that got Paul and I up the west face of Vasuki Parbat a few years later.
You’ve done some alpinism in Alaska. Where does that experience rank in your climbing career, and why?
I’ve had three trips to Alaska (2001, 2002, 2003), all to the Central Alaska Range. I’m writing this in early April, and when I see that northern hemisphere pale spring light ( we get that here, but not as good) part of me thinks I should be on my way back to Alaska. Climbing there rekindled my love of alpinism, and my faith in my own abilities, after a couple of hard Himalayan failures. I loved that it was properly cold and the mountains didn’t rain rocks on us as soon as the sun hit the the face. I loved how white the range looked after the endless rubble of Himalayan glaciers.
We got so much great warm support from people on the Alaskan scene. Jack Tackle gave us great advice about Hunter: “Arrive fit and acclimatised and start climbing straight out of the plane” (we did). “Research the west ridge descent thoroughly” (we didn’t, we brought some photocopies of the relevant bits of High Alaska, but I let go of them on the summit and they blew away). Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller, who we shared a shuttle with to Talkeetna in 2001, were polite enough not to point out that we were in totally above our heads. Paul Roderick has been super supportive, and extremely skilled , and got us into two new landing spots. Lisa Roderick looked after us when we eventually crawled in a bit debilitated after Hunter. I met Kiwi Pat Deavoll, my climbing partner for many great subsequent Himalayan trips on the Tokositna. And the two routes Simon Yearsley and I did on the south of Kahiltna Queen / Humble Peak were the most enjoyable alpine routes of my life so far. I know I have just scratched the surface of the state, and I can’t wait to return.
You’re a clinical psychologist by trade. How does that part of your life impact your experiences in the mountains?
I find it a pretty full on job in terms of its emotional and intellectual demands, so it exhausts me sometimes and leaves me too wrung out to go well in the mountains. I find alpine (and Scottish winter) climbing with people quite an intense emotional and social experience too when we are trying hard, so one doesn’t always balance the other. But I am proud to be involved in something that generally does some good in the world, although mental health services and psychological therapy are flawed in many ways. It also means I can never climb as much as I want to, and I think that is part of why the flame still burns brightly in me at 53. I use many of the tools of my work on myself, and they help me, an emotionally reactive person by nature, to get things done when my brain is playing tricks on me. Alpinists, and people entering psychotherapy, may both be looking for similar things, to know ourselves better, and perhaps to transform ourselves in some way.
And, to speak more prosaically, and hence more comfortably for this Brit, the pay is good , and that allows me to go gallivanting off to Asia and Alaska.
What makes a good partner in the mountains?
Above all the ability to sit out bad weather without fretting. Good partners will either sleep peacefully, or converse interestingly. I have a morbid fear of being stuck in a tent with someone who whines about the snow for a week. It hasn’t happened yet, so I think I can trust my judgment on this one. Kindness is important to me in a partner – I need to feel ok to be weak at times. Everyone is at some times on a big trip. But even with a kind partner I promise I won’t whine for a week. Someone who is determined to love it, to see all the beauty and strangeness there is to see, not just in the climbing but on the road. And someone who helps us keep up the pretence that it is vitally important that we get up this thing. I try to bear in mind that I might die by their side, and that makes the choice important.
If you could do one alpine climb, what would it be? (and why?)
The very beautiful unclimbed face in the Karakoram that I hope to be heading off to in May. Or the south face of Shishapangma solo with a day pack after having lived in Chamonix for a year to get fit. These are both slightly fantastical ideas, the first because of the permit situation, the second because of the Malcolm situation.