Sarah Stirling quizzes Nick Bullock about his latest 7,000m new route in uncharted Tibet and what under-the-radar hero Paul Ramsden is really like.
Paul Ramsden is a stoic. He’s a Shar Pei. One of those wrinkly-skinned fighting dogs. You have to do it Paul’s way, but that’s fine by me. I’m easy-going, as long as the idea isn’t dangerous and I can see the point behind it.
I don’t look at maps or study things. I’m not very good at that navigation rubbish. Most of the people I climb with are OCD about that stuff, and if they can get me to the bottom of a route I’ll put in a pretty determined effort to get to the top of it. Even in the valley, Paul would be tinkering with stoves while I was reading Cormac McCarthy and lying in bed. He's on it.
Paul and Mick Fowler were on it for several years as a team — three Piolets d'Or — but they’ve had a natural parting of ways. Paul was looking at unclimbed and technical 7,000m peaks, while Mick didn't want to go that way.
I think Paul’s one of the best mountaineers Britain’s ever produced. He's super-natural in the mountains — his family call him the Homing Pigeon — but he's not as well-known as Mick because he shuns the media. I’ve decided to be his PR.
I didn’t make the shortlist of people Paul wanted to climb with in place of Mick. He approached a lot of the younger climbers like Andy Houseman and Matt Helliker but they turned him down.
The emphasis these days in new-routing seems to be sponsorship: wearing certain gear while making a film and tweeting. Paul’s not into any of that. And I think they were probably intimidated. Paul’s earned his stripes, and he’s a Yorkshireman. He drinks tea not coffee.
The man. The myth. Paul Ramsden. Photo: Nick Bullock.
Who you climb with is as important as the climb. If I’m going to be spending a lot of time with someone – an emotional time – I want to enjoy being with them and bouncing off them and sharing my experiences with them, and it was all of those things.
Do you know anyone who's climbed new routes in Tibet? That’s because it’s difficult to get a permit, and it’s adventuring into the unknown, and it requires imagination. Paul drove past this range eight years ago with Mick Fowler; it was covered in cloud, but it caught his eye. It's a 1,000 mile-long outer range that's not connected to the Himalayas.
We didn’t know that the buttress we climbed existed before we saw it. Paul had seen some shadows on Google Earth, that was all. We had permission for the whole range, and were originally going to go for this big arete, but then we stumbled across this face and without speaking to each other chose the same line.
Everything about the mountain oozed quality. A 7,000m peak. An unclimbed face. The shape of the face. The line. The style. Grandes Jorasses Colton-Mac-style iced-up runnels and big wild cinematic situations. And the higher you got, the more you could see the second largest lake in the whole of Tibet.
Paul didn’t tell me till after we arrived that the area has a shaky reputation for weather though. We were watching the air lifting off this huge lake and coming from nowhere to hit the mountain range with all this humidity. You couldn’t gauge the weather. But it would be rough for an hour usually and – maybe we were fooling ourselves – but the line seemed pretty safe and we’d just hope that it would pass.
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Self-reliance is the true essence of mountaineering. I was looking at our footsteps while we were climbing and thinking: there’s a chance that someone would figure out where we’d gone if we got stuck up here. There’s a chance that when the donkey men came and picked our stuff up, or with the miles of Chinese army convoys going through, there’s a chance that they might send a helicopter.
I was also thinking on the route about that thing people say – "He died doing what he loved". Paul, for example, is a family man. For the first time on this expedition I think he came to the conclusion that what he was doing was dangerous.
I said: you’re being dishonest if you tell your daughter that what you do is all fluffy; you don’t tell her that you might die. He was adamant that he could get down any mountain. I said: are you trying to fool yourself because you have a family?
Paul Ramsden, Homing Pigeon. Photo: Nick Bullock
Avalanches don’t pick and choose, and neither does crazy weather. You are naive if you keep putting yourself in these situations and think that nothing will ever happen to you. When we were descending, one of those snow slopes could easily have gone. My biggest fear was starting off down this techy ridge and getting stuck, and that happened. We got shat on for 24 hours. There was so much snow. It was scary.
Paul said he doesn’t really care about winning Piolets d’Or, but it makes his life easier. His family like that he wins prizes, so then they see the benefit of him going away.
He was adamant we were going to come off the mountain a different way because in some respects that’s the ultimate in new-routing. It’s seen, by the powers that be, the people who dictate our rules and put you up for Piolet d’Ors, that it’s more aesthetic and adventurous and challenging.
Why I climb is definitely partly wanting to be accepted and wanting the admiration of my peers. What’s good about standing somewhere no-one’s ever stood before? Ego. And pushing yourself, inside yourself, to somewhere that you’re uncertain about is very exciting. I’m excited by going round the corner and not knowing what will be there. I don’t want to follow crowds. I don’t want certainty from life. I don’t want a guarantee.
It’s nothing to do with climbing hard. What we did there, technically it’s no more difficult than what a lot of people would do on Ben Nevis on a weekend. The hard thing is how you cross that step in your mind to go from the valley onto the face, knowing you will be on it for a week. It’s a very difficult line to cross. Putting yourself in that position for an extended period.
Nick Bullock. Photo: Paul Ramsden.
It’s bullshit if any mountaineer says they are completely in it for the experience and they don’t care about the summits. It’s got to be about the experience, but the summit is the icing on the cake, and I like icing. It’s the culmination of everything you’ve put in. It’s studying for that A level and then finally getting it.
After a month off-radar it’s like Christmas, checking your emails. Getting down off the mountain again is definitely a large part of why I do it. Just eating avocado and sourdough like this. Just sitting on the toilet. The feeling is more addictive and dangerous than crack cocaine, I imagine.
We stayed with the village leader before climbing. I say village, it was three houses. He was very generous and friendly, wearing red robes and living in these wild plains of rounded hills. From the outside his house was like a castle, square and made of mud blocks. Inside it was like a yurt. He’d go and sit by the road with yaks and flags with his friends and drink rancid tea and chew the cud and make money from tourism basically.
Stripping base camp. Photo: Paul Ramsden
You’re a hard person if you don’t come back from somewhere like Tibet with more insight, understanding and compassion for people around the world. That’s become more important to me as I’ve climbed more and travelled more. I grew up in a small town and didn’t go on holiday apart from to Wales and Scotland until I don’t know when.
I’ve retired from the Greater Ranges now. I could never improve on what I’ve just done. I don’t know if I’m prepared for all the disappointment again. I've failed a lot. I'm good at turning around.
I can live off what I’ve just done for a long time. That’s the first expedition I’ve been on for three years and it knocks me back on other styles of climbing. It wears me out a lot. Mentally. But then, Andy Houseman is already talking about a mountain and says he going to send me a photo. And Paul doesn’t seem convinced I’m retired, and he has some pretty good ideas.
But next I’m going to Spain for a month of clipping bolts and wine and tapas. And right now I might get another latte.
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