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Publication: British GQ, August 2004
 

Leo Houlding: Britain’s greatest new rock climber.

Leo Houlding uses the email moniker ‘Fierce Warrior’ for a very good reason. Rock climbing is, he says, ‘a totally insatiable desire’. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired 23-year-old package of sinuous Cumbrian muscle, bluff charm and peroxide attitude, he has lived beyond the vertical for the past 13 years, scaling the world’s most desperate crags, walls, towers, sea cliffs, cracks, chimneys and overhangs. His profession literally defies death, but his talent is breathing life into a sport long considered too hard, remote and essentially terrifying to generate mass interest.

‘Rock climbing’s changing among my generation - I recognised that 10 years ago,’ he says over lunch, between a casting for the agency Models One and a film pitch. ‘I’m into mountaineering as well, but it’s not what rock climbing is. Snowboarding’s been around for 20 years, even surfing’s only been around for 50. But climbing has been going on since the 1860s. This is the oldest extreme sport, and it’s truly extreme.’

Though it’s easy to see why rock climbing has never caught the public imagination on the same scale as snowboarding, surfing or mountainbiking - a gruesome death being more an occupational hazard than a distant possibility - indoor walls are today proliferating as more discover the sport’s edgy thrills. A generational poster boy whose sunny attitude is translating the sport’s appeal to a new demographic, Houlding bridges eras and times: he is a deadly, steel-fingered technician capable of the toughest competition routes, but also a pure adventurer in the tradition of Himalayan pioneers like Chris Bonnington and Doug Scott.

‘Climbing’s become cool, and part of that is down to climbing walls,’ he says. ‘They’re convenient, and it’s a very good way of keeping fit. It’s not like doing reps at the gym. But I never climb indoors, kind of out of principle. We call it “plastic” climbing. I prefer the adventure: being in the middle of nowhere with a mate where if the weather gets bad it’s gonna be a big deal to get back to the bar.’

Previously the British junior climbing champion and currently one of a tiny minority of full-time professional climbers - he is sponsored by Berghaus - his reputation was sealed at 16 by an outrageous repeat ascent of Master’s Wall on Snowdonian crag Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Extreme rock routes in Britain are indexed by grades E1 to E9, reflecting their ‘exposure’ - the opportunity (or lack thereof) to place protective equipment that arrests a fall; and by their technical difficulty, in which grades 5a, 5b and 5c all the way to 8c describe holds ranging from the fingertip-sized to the microscopic. Rated E7 (extremely dangerous) 6b (preposterously hard), he completed Master’s Wall ‘on sight’, meaning without preparation. As he clambered over the top in 1996 to consider his achievement and the view, the breathtaken British climbing community duly noted the arrival of a physical genius whose audacity and ambition matches his talent.

In March this year he made it back from Patagonia where a second attempt to claim the magnificent 5,000ft Cerro Torre spire faltered in bad weather - ‘bad’ translating as Mondeo-sized slabs of ice plummeting down the face. Two years previously, a disastrous fall on the same route caused Houlding a broken ankle. Far beyond the scope of most climbers, controversy surrounds claims of Cerro Torre’s first ascent in 1959 by the Italian Cesare Maestri using techniques - hammering anchor bolts into the rock and attaching fixed ropes - now considered unethical. It remains one of worldwide climbing’s Last Great Problems.

‘I’m into climbing the biggest, hardest, gnarliest things in the best style,’ he says. ‘My dreams are in the greater ranges out in the middle of nowhere. They are fucking big - Cerro Torre is bigger than any manmade thing.  There’s a snow mushroom on top of the mountain which collapses from time to time, and the last 1,500 ft of rock is plastered with ice. It’s the ultimate adventure because you can’t know what it will be like up there.’

‘But now it’s not so much about conquering things,’ he adds. ‘Bonnington’s expeditions were all about getting the Union Jack onto the summit - it was a nationalist conquest thing, whereas now it’s no longer about the destination, but the journey. It’s more Zen. I consider climbing a spiritual activity. When you arrive at a the point where you can’t go down, can’t fall off and you can only go up - suddenly it becomes very pure.’

Britain is adept at cultivating a strain of climber brassy enough to compete with the French, Italians and Americans - ultrahigh-performance ‘stone monkeys’ of the Eighties and Nineties like Johnny Dawes, Jerry Moffat, Andy Pollitt and Ben Moon. But discernible in Houlding’s ambitions and practices, meanwhile, is a further evolution of the mindset. Once operating at the highest ranges of the grading index, extreme climbing becomes a question of attitude, ethics and style.

‘Britain has the reputation for the ballsiest climbers on the planet,’ Houlding explains. ‘On the continent, most climbing is sport climbing; the government pay people to rappel down and place bolts every two metres.  In France it’s a fully mainstream thing, it’s taught in schools. If it was like that in Britain, I’d never have started. I got into it was because there are no rules. It’s totally about self-imposed rules: it’s better style to get high on a route and come back down than to deface rock or fix bolts. It’s not about prestige. I’m like - do it in good style, or not at all. There are no judges. You do your own thing. It’s underground and anti-establishment: everybody smokes pot and gets drunk, and then does superhardcore stuff in the day.’

Pushing the limits of his mind as well as his body, Houlding devours Chomksy, clubs in Ibiza and shows me Quicktime videos of himself bungee-jumping from a cradle halfway up The Nose route on Yosemite Valley’s 3,000ft El Capitan wall. He and a friend recently finished the route - which routinely takes days to complete - in seven hours. They made sure to pack the essentials for journey: a keg of beer and two ounces of weed. ‘I like climbing big-wall routes in what’s called the Alpine Style - two people, fast and light, no fixed ropes. But that this what we call Party Style’.

It’s a technical innovation unlikely to draw the approval of the British Mountaineering Council. Nevertheless in his search for serotonin buzz Houlding just can’t help but progress the sport. In the past year he’s climbed in the Slovakian Tatra, Australia, Costa Rica, Majorca and the US. A current obsession is ‘Deep Water Soloing’ - climbing coastal cliffs straight out of the water without ropes. ‘The trick is jump off the cliff and into the water as soon as you arrive. That way you get rid of the fear.’ A further suicidally-inclined new challenge is ‘Freebasing’: ‘Climbing up with a parachute and then base-jumping. There’s still loads I want to do within the normal parameters of climbing. I’ve always loved how subversive, adventurous and exciting rock climbing is, and because I’ve been a full-time professional climber for six year, it’s not that different any more. I did 50 skydives in two weeks and my first base jump last year. Basejumping makes climbing look safe…’

Still grasping his way to the pinnacle of his career, Leo Houlding hasn’t seen Joe Simpson’s mountain docu-drama, Touching The Void. But with experience like his, doesn’t really need to.

© Kevin Braddock 2004


 
 
 
All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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