Peaks & Valleys: Malcolm Bass


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. 

Paul Figg on ‘The Prey’, Mount Hunter, Alaska. Photo: Malcolm Bass

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.

Across The Firn Line

In a few weeks, I’ll be releasing the first episode of The Firn Line, a podcast about the lives of mountain climbers.

Carl Oswald on the lower ridge of Icing Peak. Chugach Mountains, Alaska. 1999

This project, which combines my passion for mountains, music and stories, has been a long time coming, and I have to say it’s bringing me a lot of happiness.  But it’s also forcing me to dig into a past that sometimes haunts me, pressing me to relive memories I tried to bury a long time ago.  It sounds cliché, but in committing to this project, I feel like I’ve stepped across my own firn line, where what lies ahead is both familiar and unknown.

The author below Mount Rumble. Chugach Mountains, AK. July, 1998

Carl Oswald descending the north ridge of Icing Peak. Chugach Mountains, AK. April 1999

Having spent the last 15 years pursuing a music career, most folks probably don’t know that I used to be an avid mountain climber.  From the first time I put on a pair of crampons at 17 years old, I knew I’d found my life’s calling.  In a short amount of time, I went at it with everything I had, and little else mattered. After graduating from high school, I quit college almost as soon as I’d started, just so I could spend more time climbing. Every spare second was spent pouring over topographic maps, looking for the next big adventure in the mountains.  I was hooked.

In my early twenties, I worked as a guide on Denali, climbed classic lines in the Canadian Rockies, travelled to South America, and spent winters rock climbing in the desert southwest.  But my true passion was exploring the mountains in my backyard: The Chugach.

In the Chugach, I traversed icefields, crossed obscure mountain passes, and tiptoed along crumbling knife-edged ridges.  I climbed titanic ice faces above the Matanuska Glacier, developed rock climbs in Eagle River Valley, and swam laps in the green, glacial waters of Eklutna Lake.  These were vibrant times, and the possibilities seemed limitless.

But maybe more important than the mountains themselves, were the lasting friendships that evolved in these vast and wild places.  Like a lot of climbers, I was part of a tribe, and we stuck together through the best and worst of times.  We laughed when things were easy, and yelled at each other when things got tough. We consoled one another through the heartbreaks of youth, and held on tight when death eventually caught up to our friends.  We were raw and intensely loyal to each other.  We thought we would climb forever.

But everything changed for me in the spring of 2002 when I injured myself rock climbing.  At the time, I never could have imagined that an inconspicuous groin strain would manifest into a debilitating chronic condition that would end my climbing career.  But that’s exactly what happened. I was 27 years old.

I now know that it’s normal for athletes who get injured to experience depression, and I was certainly no exception. At first I was just frustrated when physical therapy didn’t work.  Then reality started to sink in when a local (and highly regarded) sports medicine doctor raised his hands in frustration and said to me, “I just don’t know how to help you”.  Over the next few years, I had dozens of tests including blood work, x-rays, MRI’s and nerve block procedures to name a few.  Finally, I resorted to surgical operations. When both of these failed, I erased climbing from my life, and sunk into an insidious depression that lasted many years.  Luckily, I eventually dug myself out of it.

One of the things that saved me was music.  In high school I taught myself to play the guitar, and I even dabbled in songwriting and performing.  When I got injured, I immediately filled the void of climbing by starting a rock band called The Whipsaws.  Over the next 15 years, we would release three albums, and play hundreds of shows across Alaska and the U.S.  Although we are currently on hiatus, we are still “together” and remain good friends.

I’ve also been fortunate to play in another band called Easton Stagger Phillips, comprised of Nashville-based songwriter Tim Easton, and Canadian folk rocker Leeroy Stagger.  Since 2008, we’ve made two albums together, and have toured in Alaska and Europe.  In addition to my work with bands, I’ve also recorded and released four solo albums, and more recently, I’ve gotten into the world of recording and producing other artists.  Needless to say, music has been a gift, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities it’s given me.

But even though music is fulfilling, I’d be lying if I said it was a replacement for the mountains, because it’s not.  The truth is that nothing will ever replace those experiences.  When I sold all my climbing gear in 2007, I was trying to force myself to move on, even though I knew it was impossible. When I packed away my beloved maps, journals and 35mm slides, I was trying to compartmentalize those things so I wouldn’t have to deal with the feelings associated with them.  But I knew eventually I’d have to face them again, I just wasn’t sure when.

Camp below Mount Yukla. Chugach Mountains, Alaska. May 1997

Frozen peaks above the Nelchina Glacier. Chugach Mountains, AK. March, 1998.

That time eventually came last year when I started developing the template for The Firn Line in my head.  I wanted to work on a project that would reconnect me with the climbing community, and utilize my skills as a musician and audio producer.  I figured a podcast would be a good outlet for those goals.

I started doing research on other climbing related podcasts, and realized I might have a good niché; crafting stories about mountain climbers that weaved taped interviews, thoughtful narration, and music I wrote and recorded.  I also thought it would be cool to focus the first year on a place that is dear to me: Alaska.

But first, I needed some inspiration.  So I unpacked my dusty boxes of 35mm slides and started digitally scanning them – eventually about 2,000 in all.  Talk about a trip down memory lane!  Then, I started interviewing Alaskan mountain climbers, and working on the basic structure of how the podcast would be formatted. Soon, I had a logo designed, and a website built.  It’s been a monumental amount of work, but looking back, it’s hard to believe how much I’ve accomplished in just five months.

One of the biggest rewards I’ve gotten is the personal interaction with the people I’ve interviewed.  As you’ll hear in the podcasts, I’m not much into spraying, but rather, I aim to tell stories that deal with the feelings, motives and experiences that shape climber’s lives. I’ve been fortunate that all the participants so far have been incredibly honest about their experiences in the mountains, as well as their lives.

But I’d say the most meaningful aspect for me is the opportunity to contribute again, and to be a part of a community that I’ve missed greatly over the last 15 years.  The climbing world is really one big family.  We get to see and experience things that most folks would only dream of. We understand each other on a level that often times doesn’t need to be expressed through words, and that is a powerful thing.  My ultimate hope is that The Firn Line inspires people in the mountains and in life.  If that happens, I’ll know all my hard work was worth it.