That's me: Rab Carrington

Posted by Niall Grimes on 04/03/2006
Rab Carrington. Photo: Niall Grimes.

Rab Carrington was born in Glasgow in 1947, where he also grew up, and stayed for university. His growing climbing passion eventually inspired a move to the drier climes of Sheffield, where he joined in the very healthy mountaineering scene based there at the time.

An interest in bigger mountains led to many trips to the Alps, South America and the Himalaya - many of these in the company of the legendary Al Rouse, with whom Rab formed a very successful partnership.

After his stint of virtually full-time climbing, he set up a company making sleeping bags in the early 1980’s. From small beginnings, this company, Rab, grew steadily and organically, becoming synonymous with high-quality down and shell products. Rab recently sold the company, and has used the increased free time afforded by retirement to both climb more frequently, and offer himself up as a Vice President of the BMC.

I was supposed to do well at university. But as each year went by, and I got more and more in to climbing, the education ended up on the heap.

It rains too much in Scotland. Some people were only getting 30 routes done a season when I was there. That’s no good. So I moved from Glasgow to Sheffield in 1973.

In the 70’s, you weren’t a rock climber, you were a mountaineer. In winter you ice climbed, in spring you tried to get rid of the winter fat, in the summer you went to the Alps, then you did a bit in the autumn before it closed in for the winter - the drinking season.

In 73/74 we started going to the Alps in winter. We went out, a team of Brits, not knowing much, doing our own thing. We were aiming for a speedy style, but the first route took Al and me two days, and we later found out that Patrick Vallençant had skied down it in about 15 seconds.

The whole team of us shared an apartment. That was a wild time, totally drunken and debauched. We didn’t get our deposit back at the end of the season, that’s for sure.

I learned how to make sleeping bags by accident. Al Rouse and I had a completely abortive trip to Patagonia in 1973, when we travelled overland from the USA. We got to Buenos Aires to pick up our climbing gear - which was being shipped out from Liverpool - only to find the gear hadn’t even left the port thanks to a dock strike. We partied instead, but I also ended up working for Hector Vieytes, a friend of mine, for six months in Argentina, and that’s were I learnt the basics.

I fell out with Al Rouse in Kangtega. We were very successful, Al and I, and had gone on lots of great trips together over the years. We’d just done Jannu in 1978, were going to Kangtega in 1979, then on to meet Doug Scott and go to Nuptse, then Makalu the year after, then we’d a chance at Everest. But we’d grown apart, we had a different emphasis. He was more into publicity and success à la Bonington, I was less in to that - we separated.

I started my business when Liz, my daughter came along in 1981. It was the only thing I knew how to do. I worked on a building site in the day and in the evenings I sat upstairs in the attic and sewed sleeping bags.

I felt part of a shared outlook back then. There were a lot of independent climbing shops - Paul Braithwaite’s, Nick Estcourt’s, Joe Brown’s, and the people running them were all my age, doing the same thing. It was an easy way in to commerce.

Initially, the people were fantastic. They had a similar feeling for what they were doing - opening a shop to fund their climbing - but as it progressed it became more commercial and professional. The love for the product diminished as the years rolled on, and at the end of the day there was more consideration given to the margins rather than, “oh this is a great piece of kit and I’ve got to have it.”

I’m glad to be out of it. Two years ago I was just offered a large sum of money and I decided to take it. It was a relief; I knew that to compete in this market I’d have to change. I was working out of Sheffield and paying high labour costs. Going to China was a decision I knew would have to be taken at some point, but I had a very loyal workforce.

I did Body Machine late last year, my first 7c, which pleased me a lot. I’d like to think I could still achieve 8a.

Retirement takes time getting used to. My wife Sue and I worked in same building every day, went to same home every evening, then we suddenly found ourselves wondering what to do. The first thing I did was get an allotment, it gives you another geographical space you can call your own.

I volunteered for the BMC to keep myself busy. I feel I can bring something to it. Lots of things such as access are very much under control, but I’m more interested in seeing how more modern attitudes such as walls and competitions can fit in to the BMC structure. I look upon myself as the young voice of BMC - I’m 58.

Looking back, I survived the 1970’s, but only just. We all lost a lot of friends in Sheffield back then. We went to enough memorial services, we knew what went on, but you also had, as a youth, this idea that you were indestructible.

There’s only so much danger your brain will take. My last mountaineering trip was to Latok in 1981 with Martin Boysen and I’ve not done any alpine since. There’s too much danger and discomfort.


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