Andy is a mountain guide, leading British mountaineer, and now author with his new book; Learning to Breathe.
At the age of 16 Andy followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and became a miner at Grimethorpe pit in Yorkshire. Weekdays were spent 3500 feet below ground, but at weekends he discovered freedom through climbing. His memoir weaves together the two equally inhospitable worlds of mining and high altitude climbing, culminating with the audacious ascent of the North Face of Changabang, which cost the life of his climbing partner Brendan Murphy.
If I hadn’t started climbing I’d probably have killed myself. On a motorbike. Luckily I sold my last one in 1984 during the miners’ strike to pay for my first expedition.
The book is really about the journey. It starts with an incident in the Himalayas, and then the rest of the book tries explains how the hell you’d end up in such a situation, which as a climber, you’d take for granted.
I was first asked to write a book in 1997. After a lecture in the Palm Tree near Mile End. This girl from Bloomsbury Books approached me, but I was in the middle of my PhD, so decided not to do it. Also, she wanted it to be just about Changabang, and I wasn’t too keen on that. Then more recently I thought, yes, I would like to write a book, a different book, a broader one, more of a memoir.
I got my PhD. In language and identity in the coal mining community, it was an anthropological study. I spent a lot of time, just over a year, interviewing people, and a lot of the material finds its way into the book.
It’s hard writing about climbing. There’s so much terminology. Things like “free climbing”, if I had a quid for every time that’s confused someone.
The miners’ strike was like going to university. That’s when my climbing grade really improved. Freed from shift work and only escaping every third weekend, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands - but no money. People like Johnny Dawes were around on the dole too, and we were all climbing non-stop on the grit, walking from one crag to another, getting incredibly fit. But I always kept an eye to the mountains, that was what I’ve always been keen on.
My first new route was called Lucky Strike, at Stanage. And the strike was lucky in one sense, in that it gave me that time to concentrate on climbing. My grade went through the roof. I started climbing in 1983, aged nearly 17. Then the strike happened the following March, when I was climbing VS, HVS, that sort of thing. Then with all the time off I was breaking barriers every few weeks or so. Soon I was soloing Downhill Racer. Sticky rubber had also just arrived, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with it of course.
I’ve always bouldered. But it was never the be all and end all. Soloing on grit had the real kudos back in the day. Solo circuits were where it was at, cruising Wuthering and Old Friends above a John Smith’s beer towel. There’s no way I’d do that now though - it’s more a case of a couple of huge mats underneath Crescent Arete these days.
At the top end people are still doing amazing things. The focus may have changed, but look at the young lads like James Pearson on Equilibrium. It’s as fierce as it’s ever been, and I personally think a lot of things are better. It’s more accessible to women and those from a wide range of backgrounds. All that “in my day the parties were wilder” stuff is mostly rubbish - if you say that, you’ve obviously lost touch with the scene.
I’ve never done the Old Man Of Hoy. But it’s in the pipeline, and I’m excited about that. Other plans include heading to The Scoop, and Strawberries at Tremadog. And heaps on the grit, heaps - but I won’t got into details in case I commit myself too much!
Barnsley library has got a really good mountaineering section. God knows why. It’s where I first got really inspired by climbing books. In particular Bonatti’s work and the Boardman and Tasker books.
There are the famous people. Then there are the people you just climb with. It just happened, climbing with people like Mick Fowler, not because you consciously only want to hang out with named people, but you simply share the same objectives and plans.
It’s very easy for people to think they’re good climbers. When in reality they’re just the best on their street. You’ve got to place yourself in that wider context. There’s a lot of very good people out there, believe me.
My first encounter with the BMC was taking out insurance. It became quite a tale, I just managed to get it in time before I had an accident in Bregaglia. I only really took it out in the first place on the advice of some older and wiser friends. They said, look, you’ve got no money, but you’ve got to have insurance if you’re off to the Alps. So I left a cheque with my mum to post, and after the accident happened I didn’t really know if the cheque had actually reached the office yet. It was quite gripping ringing up. It all got sorted though, although there was a worrying helicopter bill on the mantle piece for a while. I still use and recommend it to this day.
I remember the BMC Winter International Meet in 1997. The Slovenians came over and really shook things up. I was teamed up with Janez Jeglic, but hadn’t actually had my crampons on yet that winter. We did a new route on the first day, and on the second day freed Citadel, reaching the top by 2 pm. The speed at which those guys climbed was phenomenal. But look at their credentials, Janez had climbed 8b, Everest, three new routes on Cerro Torre, the list goes on. He’s not alive any more though, tragically he died on Nuptse. The connections made at such events are really important if you aspire to climb serious routes in the big mountains. The circles are small, and somebody might only want to get involved for a short span of their life. You’ve just got to broaden the net and find partners overseas.
British alpinism is in a really healthy state. And it’ll be interesting to see where people take it, especially since many of the main players are becoming guides. When you become a guide, you have to make a decision of how much time you’re going to spend working, and whether to allow that to impinge on your personal climbing career. I did a lot of work initially, but felt I was losing my way, so backtracked. And I think the clients get a lot out of that, you’ve still got the fire in your belly.
BMC/MEF funding is absolutely fantastic. If you’re leading the lifestyle I am, you ‘re not on a fixed salary rising every year. OK, you’re not destitute like the early days, but money’s tight, and it really makes the difference when planning a trip. I think it makes people quite proud too. Imagine, you’re going on your first trip to Alaska or something, and someone gives you 500 quid, that’s given you some confidence already. They think you’re capable of doing it; it’s a real boost.
Climbing is about constantly having to push yourself. Many climbers appear relaxed and laid back, but they’re mostly well organised and driven beneath the surface.
Now I’m older, I appreciate Britain. I know it’s a cliché, but you come to realise that the quality and variety of climbing here takes some beating. When I was younger, I was always looking to Europe, to the States, thinking the best places were somewhere else. And yes, those places are awesome, but if you’re a climber, Britain’s a pretty good place to be. Why? Because everything’s accessible, and there’s heaps of people around who are massively up for it. And that’s what counts.
The day I stop having fun. Is the day I stop climbing.