Interview: Caroline Rees
Photography: Ian Parnell
Is there loads of cash in climbing?
No. If you want to make a living as a climber, you have to spend a lot of time not climbing. I worked in climbing shops at first then developed the climbing more and more until I had enough money from speaking and writing about it to pack in the day job. The plus side is it’s actually quite cheap to have an amazing adventure in a different world. Climbing Everest might cost $50,000 in fees, but you can go to Patagonia or Alaska for only $1,000.
What type of climb really gets your adrenaline going?
I like going to very remote places in winter, and I like routes that take a long time so you become intimate with the mountain. My favourite is probably El Capitan in California. It’s 900m of smooth granite that comes straight out the ground like a building. There are huge areas of totally blank rock that have no hand holds and you have to use little hooks and pegs, so it’s very intricate, intense climbing.
Do you prefer climbing solo or with others?
The problem with climbing with a partner is people are getting wimpy. They want to do routes in a day, then be in the bar drinking.
So you go solo then?
Mostly, but I will also often climb with complete strangers – you can usually judge if someone’s okay. When I climbed El Cap with my girlfriend, Karen Darke, who had previously broke her spine climbing, it was too much work with just me and her, so we found two women to come with us. It turned out they had no experience, so I was on this scary rock with my paraplegic girlfriend and two novices. But that made it fun.
Is that the stupidest thing you’ve done?
No, that was soloing the Reticent Wall of El Cap. It took 13 days and every day I thought: “Will I still be alive at the end of this?” The scariest bit was when I had to climb along a flake of rock the thickness of a dinner-plate, which was only attached at one end. You’re fighting with the part of yourself that wants to go back, and you’re so focused that you’re almost blacking out.
What was the scariest fall you’ve had?
When you’re falling it’s almost a relief because it’s out of your hands. It’s when someone shouts, “Watch out, it’s loose!” that you get scared. I fell 150ft on El Cap once. Every piece of gear pulled out apart from one 5cm rivet. I was hanging in space in the dark, spinning around, and all I could hear was my friend shouting: “Make sure the rope’s not chopped!”
Would you ever cut off your mate to save yourself?
I think most climbers would if there was no alternative and you’d tried your best. If I was in Simon Yates’ position, I would. His mate broke his leg and was slowly pulling Simon off the mountain. Eventually, Simon had to cut the rope. It’s not worth both people dying.
Do you have a death wish?
I don’t know if I care about myself enough, so maybe. But you gain so much from it. When you’ve been living in a snow hole, eating horrendous food, being trapped on a mountain in 120mph winds and you almost die, it really doesn’t matter when your neighbour complains that you put rubbish in their wheelie bin.
We guess not. Was that the worst weather you’ve been stuck in?
Yes. It was climbing Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia. Within 100m of the summit, the temperature was minus 15-20ºC and too windy to get to the top, so all four of us got inside this homemade tent, like an envelope, attached by screws in the ice. There was a 600m drop where our feet were. For 11 hours, the wind was lifting us and slamming us down. We hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for three days. Then the following day, the tent started ripping. We had to get down. We were climbing down this couloir – like a big funnel – where all the debris falls down, thinking: “There’s no way we’ll all survive.”
Any strange hallucinatory experiences?
I nearly died of hypothermia once when my sleeping bag got damp then froze. I’d taken a small one so it was light to carry. I could hear sitar music, voices and a train. As I came round, the music and the voices stopped but the train was me. I was hyperventilating.
Has a mountain ever broken you?
I’ve tried the Troll Wall in Norway three times and failed. It’s very loose and dangerous. Huge sections fall off regularly. The last time, I tried it by myself. But because some gear didn’t work and it looked so high, it made me doubt whether I could do it. I was so demoralised, I felt like throwing all my gear in the river.
Litterbug. What’s the strangest piece of rubbish you’ve come across?
Where I climb, there isn’t a lot of rubbish like on Everest where there are old ropes and dead bodies. But I did find a business card sticking out of a crack once – for banjo lessons. Bizarre.
Is Everest genuinely the toughest climb?
It’s the toughest walk. You can tell it’s a walk because you have to step over dead bodies; if it’s a proper climb, bodies fall to the bottom. The problem is, you could be Lance Armstrong and drop dead because of the lack of oxygen.
Which peak are you keen to tackle next?
I’d like to solo Denali in Alaska, in winter. Lots of people have lost noses and fingers doing it. It’s hostile, it’s big and you’d be by yourself in the dark. You move up a bit, dig a snow hole, move a bit further, dig another snow hole.
What’s the longest you’ve spent in a snow hole?
In a huge storm, I spent seven days in one without getting out of my sleeping bag until I had to have a crap. They get so sordid. The smoke from the stove goes to the ceiling and drips black stuff on you, and it stinks because you’ve been weeing in your cup.
Nice. What’s the art of going to the toilet in extreme environments?
Be fast! On El Cap, you’re supposed to crap in a paper bag, then keep it in a shit tube. But some people, like French people, throw them off. My music player was hit once and covered in shit. Elsewhere, you’re supposed to smear your crap everywhere, so it dries and disappears quickly. But when I skied across Greenland, smearing it looked disgusting, so I’d dig a hole instead. Trust me, it’s much nicer than standing on the flat with the wind blowing up your arse.
Andy’s book Psychovertical is out now in paperback, Arrow, £8.99