Piolet d'Ors are the most sought-after awards in mountaineering. Yorkshireman Paul Ramsden has just received his fourth, yet we know very little about him. It's always his climbing partners and fellow trophy-winners who appear in the climbing press. Sarah Stirling tracks him down to find out his opinions on his latest award-winning route, sponsored climbers and the media spotlight.
Paul Ramsden and Nick Bullock have just been awarded a Piolet d'Or for making the first ascent of a 7,000m peak in Tibet last year.
Previously, Paul and Mick Fowler received three Piolet d'Ors over their years as climbing partners: in 2003 for opening up the North Face of Siguniang in China, in 2013 for their ascent of the Prow of Shiva in India and in 2016 for climbing Gave Ding in one of the remotest regions of Nepal.
Paul Ramsden: When I go to Piolet d’Or award ceremonies I always meet climbers whose lifetime ambition is to win one. They tend to be the full-timers and the bloggers. I find it amusing I’ve got four and I don’t tell anyone about it! I had no idea I’d won one until you told me, and I think I’ll celebrate by cutting my lawn. I’m chuffed, though, don’t get me wrong.
I’m not a self publicist, but I wouldn’t say I’ve avoided media attention either. You’re the first journalist who has ever phoned me up! I don’t have a blog, I’m not on Facebook and when Rab asked if they could sponsor me I said, “As long as I don’t have to do anything in return!” They were a bit surprised but they went with it.
I find the idea of sponsorship a bit distasteful. I understand why people do it and I don’t have anything against it, but I personally prefer to go climbing and do my own thing. I’m self-employed, which means I can have as much time off as I like, but in reality I don’t get paid if I’m not working, and I have family and other commitments so I don’t take much time off.
I’m an occupational hygienist but no-one knows what that is! Essentially I make sure people don’t get exposed to chemicals, and if it does happen then I measure how much they have been exposed to. In recent years I’ve mostly worked in Saudi Arabia. It’s great training for the Himalayas — last summer temperatures reached 57 degrees there!
Back in 2003, Mick Fowler and I were the first Brits to ever win a Piolet d’Or, and we had absolutely no idea what it was. The award ceremony was huge. It was held in Paris back then and there must have been 1000 people. When we collected the award, we said something like, “Cheers.” I think they were used to more tears and thanking people!
Walking in to climb the new route in Tibet. Photo: Paul Ramsden
After the ceremony there was a big party in a night club but, despite being the winners, Mick and I were refused entry because we didn’t meet the dress code, so we trooped down the road to this seedy bar. Slowly, the proper climbers trickled out of the night club and into this bar. The Piolet’ d’Or has become more of a celebration and less of a competition over the years, and is now a much more pleasant thing to be involved in.
Despite being a French award, the Piolet d’Or is actually very British in its ethics. Not many French people have won one recently and, generally, I don’t think many French people climb in a way that would get you one. To meet the award credentials a route needs to be hard, committing, covering new ground and completed in good style, so no bolts, fixed ropes or fixed camps.
I would describe my style in the Himalayas as ‘fastish and lightish.’ I’ve done lots of fast and light mountaineering in my time, for example in the Alps and on Denali. In the Himalayas, though, you need more food to sit out storms and so on, unless you are a phenomenal athlete like Ueli Steck. People emulate that style these days, which is why most people who go into the Himalayas fail. Style is key. It’s not a big Alps, it’s a different thing.
As a mountaineer, when you are at your fittest you are at your least experienced and vice versa. It’s a balancing act, and I’m just going over the hump of that. To succeed on unclimbed 7000m peaks I think you need a lot of experience.
Experience makes you more relaxed and able to predict what will happen. I think most people fail on big mountains because they panic. You read the expedition reports and they are usually vague and it’s hard to get to the bottom of why they made the decision to go down.
I was drawn to Tibet because no-one has really been there. It’s an amazing place — thousands of unclimbed mountains and culturally and ethically really interesting. It’s a very controlled and tense occupied society full of army camps and tanks, though. The country as it was doesn’t exist any more. It’s too late for Tibet.
I first went there nine years ago with Mick Fowler. Every year since then I have applied for permission to climb various peaks in Tibet, but have always been turned down. Last year, though, my application to climb there was accepted. China like to say Tibet is open to tourism so I think they occasionally let people in. It’s a bit of a lottery!
Packing up basecamp in Tibet. Photo: Paul Ramsden
I tend to do one big climbing trip a year. I’d not really climbed with anyone except Mick for years, but we had a natural parting of ways, so I shopped around for someone else to climb with. I’m 15 years younger than Mick and I wanted to find someone about 15 years younger than me, who could last a long time as a partner.
I asked all the obvious people but couldn’t find a partner who was interested, fit, experienced and committed. I’m not sure the style is popular these days, and the generation below me, quite a lot of them died in the Himalayas or became guides, which is kind of the same thing!
Then I contacted Nick Bullock, and he agreed to try the new route in Tibet with me. I’ve known him a long time — we first met in Namche Bazaar in Nepal. He was still working in prisons and was really intense and stary-eyed back then. Since then he’s retired. He’s been living out of his van for years and is more relaxed.
Nick and Paul on the summit in Tibet
I nearly always find mountains I want to climb from looking at climbing journals or spotting peaks in the back of photos. I’d actually driven past the mountain Nick and I climbed when I was there with Mick nine years ago. It looked rubbish from the south though — rounded lumps and indistinctive — so I’d dismissed it. Then I saw a photo taken from the north, which showed this massive face hidden from the roadside.
When it comes to the route I choose, usually it’s the aesthetics of a line that catch my eye. It’s nearly always some kind of buttress line that won’t be in danger from avalanches, seracs or rock fall. A sharpish buttress or pillar with hopefully enough ice for ice climbing, and reasonable rock. I then study Google Earth to understand the layout and the descent route.
When we reached the foot of the mountain in Tibet, Nick and I changed our minds: we ended up climbing a different line from the one I had originally looked at, which was bigger, better and more sustained.
The line Nick and Paul climbed in Tibet. Photo: Paul Ramsden
The granite was good, but there was thin ice and powder snow to contend with higher up. It turned out to be more poorly protected than I would have liked, which would have made descending the same way difficult. The ice wasn’t thick enough for a thread anchor.
The higher we got, the more it was better to keep going over the top and go down a different way. I think abseiling the line you climbed is a bit disappointing anyway. I prefer to descend a different way because it’s more aesthetically pleasing and a more satisfying adventure. Everything is going onto something new.
It snowed every day when we were on the mountain, and there was a lot of snowfall as we descended. Yes, it was dangerous from an avalanche point of view, but if you don’t have a plan B you just have to work out the safest line down. Inevitably you get close calls sometimes, but I try really hard to minimise those dangers.
I can’t claim it isn’t stressful for my family when I’m away on a trip like this but they do trust me. I’ve got to basecamp and turned around and said it wasn’t safe enough before. It’s disappointing at the time, but it does show to everybody that you have the right judgement.
On the other hand, I know from experience that I’ll be really happy afterwards if I push on and get to the top of a route. Retrospective pleasure is a great thing. There’s a fine line between knowing when to press on and when to back off, but I think I can judge now how likely I am to get to the top of something.
I’ve been climbing all my life, it’s intrinsic to me. I like the freedom and simplicity. Life is complex but when climbing you can just focus on one thing and not worry about all the other rubbish.
Climbing life is simple. Photo: Nick Bullock
In order to make climbing as safe as possible I choose my line, partner and equipment really carefully. It’s about experience. I’d done all the famous North Faces in the Alps by the time I was 19, and I’ve soloed routes, but then I made a conscious decision not to climb like that any more.
I think there is only one outcome from continuing to solo, and trying to tick things off is another reason why people start dying. They are so driven to get to the top that they don’t make the right decisions. You have to sit and look at your climbing and decide: am I in this for today or for the rest of my life? And then plan your climbing accordingly.
Not many people keep mountaineering for a long time. They get tired, they get scared, they believe it’s not sustainable and they are going to kill themselves, but then there are people like me who learn to climb in a certain way that keeps you as safe as possible.
Safety is a complicated equation. Looking at yourself and your partner and thinking about how you’re feeling and thinking. Looking at the quality of the ice and how safe you can make it. If you can’t make it that safe then you need to be much more positive about what you are doing. On the other hand, if you are getting tired but protection is good then you can keep going.
I was meant to be going to Alaska today with Twid Turner but I’ve been refused entry to America. The rules changed a couple of months ago and my visa was cancelled because I’ve been on a couple of business trips to Libya. So that’s blown it for this year and next year I will go on another trip with Nick.
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