He started climbing in the 60's. He designed the sets for Live Aid, then hung out in Chamonix before starting the Yo! Sushi chain. Tipped as the new Richard Branson, he thinks on a 1000-year lifespan and wants to see the Yo! flag on expeditions around the world. Welcome to the world of Simon Woodruffe.
Let's kick off with an easy one - how did an entrepeneur like you start climbing?
Well, it was a long time ago. I went to Marlborough College, and a teacher called Mr Nash used to drag us out on school climbing trips to Dartmoor. It was great, and I still count myself very lucky to have done that, to have seen and smelt climbing in the 60’s.
Any particular great climbing days that stick in your memory then?
Mmm. It’s still got to be the early days, the first trips to Wales, dossing out in Nant Peris. These were the days of Joe Brown - Cenotaph Corner was still legendary, I remember looking at it in awe, thinking it was the hardest line imaginable. And then, in ’67 we got on a school exchange to Saas Fee, and being the sixties, I managed to experience 4000m peaks, pot, and flowers in my hair all in one go. Now that was an education! But climbing’s given me so much; it’s like a ribbon that’s run through my entire life. OK, I might have only led a handful of E1’s but it’s all about the people, the history, the places. I’ve seen Llanberis since the 60’s and feel like I’ve got a god given right to be there, and I love that.
And what about bad times - any gnarly days out you wish you hadn't had?
Easy. Swanage about 14 years ago. I’d just got divorced and was feeling a bit invincible, so went down on my own, and hooked up with two lads. We warmed up, then showing off a little, I decided to do this VS. I was out of touch though, maybe not placing gear that well. The route traversed across a wobbly flake, but then it petered out - I was suddenly off route. The only way back was across the flake, and of course it came off, taking me with it... I fell 30ft, smashing my head and legs, all very dramatic. The two guys were very good though, one stayed and one ran for the coastguard. The next thing I knew a Sea King got called in with rotor blades whirling two feet from the cliff, and the winch man wildly penduluming in to reach me. Then it was straight to Poole hospital, but after all that drama, the doctors took one look at me and kept me waiting for two hours! Turned out I’d fractured two legs and an arm, but nothing too serious.
Ouch. Talking of epics then, have you got any climbing heroes?
Well, when I stared it was the era of Joe Brown, Don Whillans and Tom Patey. They were called “tigers”, and we really meant it! I’m still in awe of the modern day climbers, but these were the heroes of my formative years, the ones that go deep down. It’s like the music you grow up with will always mean so much more to you. Like Don Whillans, he’s Led Zeppelin. The modern guys, they’re more like Hearsay.
Mmm. We'll tell them that. What did you do before starting the Yo! Sushi Chain?
I left school in the 60’s and it was a revolutionary time in every way. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, well apart from being a climber. As it happened, I ended up falling into Theatre design, then became a roadie. This evolved into starting a set design company, doing lots of rigging for the big US rock bands, early rope access work really. This peaked in '85 when we did the sets for Live Aid, but I’d always felt a fraud, having just fallen into it without a formal design background, so decided to leave whilst the going was good! After that, well, I bought a one bedroom flat in Chamonix, and headed straight down there on my motorbike.
Every climber's dream then. Sacking it all in to climb full time - did you get any big routes done?
No. Nothing too extreme. I just got to know the Mt Blanc massif. Spent my time climbing, ski-ing, the works. I was just getting to know my way around when I decided it was time to come back to the UK.
What about now - do you still manage to get out much?
Yes - definitely. I’ve got a bit more time at the moment. I only live an hour away from the Peak and am looking forward to some good routes there this summer! Mind you, I’m 50 now, so I like to climb with people I can relate to, nothing too hard please...
So, you've been a climber for a while, is there anything going on in the climbing world right now that excites you?
Well, Jo Simpson is a friend, and we share a speaking agent and he keeps me in touch with the latest gossip in the climbing world. He writes in such a beautiful way, his stories of far away places never cease to inspire me. I’m really pro-email actually; it’s totally revived the lost art of Victorian letter writing. Really, these days we think it’s all been done, but it hasn’t, it never will be. When I grew up Cenotaph Corner was unobtainable, the hardest route imaginable. Now there are climbs 8/9 grades harder than that. And it always surprises me how much untouched rock there is out there still, new places to be discovered all the time.
You ended up sponsoring a team in the Italian Job climbing competition at Mile End wall, (and as a result got dragged into doing this interview...) How did that come about?
Well, one of the junior competitors parents got in touch. His son, Tom Arnold, was entering the competition and was looking for some sponsorship. And I thought why not, that’s the beauty of the Yo! name. It matches anything; Yo! Tel, Yo! Below, Yo! Japan, it’s so easy to rhyme. Watch out Summit, I might take that over too – Yo! Summit. In fact, hell, I’ll take over the BMC. Yo! MC.
Hmm. We've heard stranger ideas to be honest. So, sponsoring the comp, was this just a personal interest?
Yep. Purely personal. Yo! is still a pretty small company really. One day I’d like to get involved more, sponsor some expeditions, see the Yo! Flag flying off the back of a ship in Greenland, or outside a tent in the Himalaya.
Er, you probably don't want to say that..
Yeah. I bet I get a thousand letters now. Hey guys, remember Yo! is still small, give me a few years, then start writing in - not yet, please!
No plans to start up a Yo! Climbing range just yet then?
Er, no. Although actually I did very nearly get involved with the Castle Climbing Wall. I was looking at various ventures at that time, and thought that restaurants were only for people who couldn’t think of anything else to do. Hmm. I think I made the right choice though.
There's always a lot of debate about what the BMC should get up to, especially with regard to youth and competitions. How about you - do you think that young people should be encouraged to start climbing?
Well, being British, we’ve got a great tradition of adventurers, and I’m a great believer in living life, taking responsibility and facing challenges. We live in very PC and safety conscious world these days, and it can be hard for young people to discover their independence. My daughter climbs, and I’ve never told her to “be careful”. She’s had to learn that for herself. I used to let her walk along the railings in the park, I never said be careful, she had to learn the consequences of her actions by herself. I was always behind her ready to catch her of course, but never told her that. It’s the same with adventure sports. We’re only ever 60 seconds from a mobile phone now, people need to learn independence, get away from being nannied. So yes, climbing’s great for kids.
And climbing competitions – good or the work of the devil?
Ha Ha. Good, I guess. I’m a long-termist. It’s easy to get caught up in the right and wrongs of the moment, but you need to learn to step back and take the longer view. And I’m talking really long, the next 1000 years or so.
With your experience in business, how do you see the "industry" of climbing developing in the future?
Well, I think indoor rock climbing as an entity in it’s own right has yet to really take off. America is showing signs of it, but it’s adoption as a fitness sport has yet to start. A bit of me doesn’t like that, but again let’s take the longer term view. I firmly believe that the countryside is for all, and it’s value as a recreational area for urban dwellers is just as important as it is for local residents. But the real challenge of balancing the different user requirements is yet to come. All our arguments about climbing ethics come from a very moral stance, but that’s the real issue.
What do you think of climbing increasingly being used to sell “lifestyle” brands?
Er, how do you mean?
You know, clothing or cars being marketed with that whole "extreme" label, climbing companies increasingly seeking new participants to increase their profits...
I’ve personally never had a problem with that. Really it comes down to what you want. It’s better to embrace progress than defend your stance and lament the passing of the old days. The evolution of climbing is inevitable but the wise man will realise that it is certain to happen. The leaders of the sport (be they the magazines or the BMC) would do well to do what business does. Look over a much longer time period, and use “Imagined Hindsight”. Take yourself 50 – 100 years into the future, and then try and look back. Make the effort to think about longer terms than your lifetime, or at least your lifetime in a current position. Have a vision.
OK, that's enough big questions - any long-standing climbing dreams still to be done?
Well, despite having seen it a thousand times, I’ve still never done Cenotaph Corner. That’s my dream – maybe this summer?
And finally, any plans to sell the empire and head off on a world rock tour?
No, but I would like to continue on a whole series of little world tours. My secret is “This Is It” - you only live once. Be happy, and do all that you can. When I’m in LA on business I could hire a car and go shopping. Or I could take my bouldering gear, hire a Harley, and cruise down to Joshua Tree. That’s the thing, integration. Add some adventure to your life wherever you are.
Sounds good to us.