Climber Magazine Interview
Career and mountaineering ambitions seldom fit comfortably together. Their struggle for our hearts and minds usually means that for those who are fortunate enough to have jobs, the life journey via financial security usually wins and all consuming passions for mountains are compromised in their truest fulfilment and expression.
Andy Perkins is one of the lucky ones, balancing an exceptional climbing CV for someone of 39, with a rare professional position with Troll, operating as Dalloz Fall Protection in the development of mountaineering technology.
Troll’s plant at Uppermill near Oldham is a strange contrast of 21st century testing technology, bright colours and state of the art harnesses, tapes and webbing and cramped 19th century premises, reminiscent of another time.
Perkins joined the company in 1987 while completing his three year Troll sponsored PhD in Textile Industries at Leeds University. Given his knowledge and the established connection, it was an obvious move for him and the firm. As their Climbing Products Manager, he is involved with designing, developing and testing new harnesses, tapes and webbing, not only for climbers, but increasingly for industry, where developments in climbing technology are proving of real benefit. He explains: “It’s a bit like motor racing. Just as some of the lessons learnt in Formula One are ultimately of benefit in the mass market, the use of lighter and more comfortable equipment that’s been tried and tested by climbers attracts the guys operating in industry.
Surely with his qualifications he could earn more money working in mainstream industry outside mountaineering.
“I worked for two years for a computer from after the undergraduate degree at Nottingham, but it wasn’t what I wanted. Yes I probably could command substantially more with a conventional manufacturing multinational for example, but the job here has allowed more time each year to get away climbing. I’ve arranged a month’s unpaid leave every year which would be virtually impossible in main stream industry.
“Money is not the most important thing. Besides, the trips I go on don’t usually cost that much in total. The trip with Jerry Gore to Patagonia for example probably cost no more than £1000 for two months”.
We leave the factory for a couple of hours cragging on Wimberry, a gritstone gem high on the edge of the Peak District moors just a few minutes away. I follow on four wheels, behind his newly acquired 1200cc Yamaha.
“You get pretty worn out riding home on a smaller bike after a weekend in Pembroke. A bigger job means you can just cruise along the motorway without having to work at it.”
He hasn’t yet fallen off this precarious car engine on two wheels although he did have a couple of scrapes on a previous smaller model and as we walk up to the crag we inevitable get onto the subject of risk, an issue which Perkins is probably better placed to reach conclusions on than virtually anybody.
His climbing adventures each year for the past 12 years are more than most would be proud to acquire in a lifetime. He has toyed with the edges of survival and endeavour in five continents. As well as his adventure on Sunkist he's been rescued in Cornwall and Creag Meagaidh following falls of immense proportions and he’s walked over a Camingotin cornice in a blizzard.
More than once he’s also been a rescuer, most recently helping the Oldham team save the life of a heart attack victim in a remote snowbound farm, while still hobbling from his own injuries. He has trained fire brigades and others in rope access and safety techniques. He has lost friends in climbing accidents.
He recalls the response of Denny Moorhouse and Tony Howard during a discussion with a French companion concerning British attitudes against bohing “Climbing is not war” asserted Wilfred, to which both replied ‘Oh yes it is!” I believe there are only two activities, which can be compared with mountaineering – war and sailing. Obviously without wishing to in any way condone war, it has a number of, I suppose call them, positive aspects which climbing shares; the collective focus on a single shared objective, watching out for each others backs and dealing with risks together.”
These are not throwaway remarks. Andy Perkins has experienced the positive and negative sides of climbing. Only a few days before we’d attended the memorial service for Paul Williams, the victim of a fall when a hold broke while soloing. As we gear up below the crag I observe that tragedies like this can prompt questions about whether or not we want to continue taking such risks. Andy who’s done a lot of climbing free from ropes and other ‘impediments’ has come to terms with such soul searching. “you don’t stop driving up and down the motorway because somebody’s been killed on it, even when it’s somebody you know.”
He sets off up our first route and after what seems like only a few minutes we’ve completed several lower grade Extremes. Andy knows these climbs well and leads effortlessly and economically on the rough ripples that are sheer pleasure to follow. As we gaze down from the top he points out the holds on a past on sight solo exploit, a Johnny Dawes E5 6a creation – A Climb With No Name.
“I had looked at the finishing moves beforehand from the top, but didn’t know the crux, which is just below, was as difficult. The landing is a complete nightmare, I had to lie down on the top for a few minutes after finishing it.”
His more than respectable cragging achievements began in the early 80’s while still a mechanical engineering undergraduate at Nottingham University and continued through his Leeds days when he was most active.
“I was training as much as twice a day then, on weights and doing Karate. I enjoyed training. Now I’m not so fit but can still just about manage to do the same climbs by, say, working round moves.”
We descend to Wimberry boulders and watching him move across slabs and overhangs, he has clearly maintained both enviable upper body strength and flexibility and subtlety of balance and footwork – in physical terms, a sort of Brian Moore/Christopher Dean hybrid.
In addition to his fourth ascent of Appointment With Fear E7, the list of British rock routes he’s worked round since his early student days include L’Obession F7bI, and El Coronel E5 6b. (Malham), Barbarossa E6 6b (Gogarth), Psycho, E5, 6b (Caley), White Wall, E5, 6b, (Millstone), Castellan E5 6b, (High Tor) the list goes on. On near rock at the white cliffs of Dover he did the second ascent of Great White Fright, VI and the first of Dukes of Hazard, a grade VII or as given in the guidebook V/A3 which breaches an overhanging wall of chalk using ice climbing/aiding techniques.
Indeed, Andy Perkins’ list of ice routes is perhaps more impressive: the first ascent of Postman Pat on Creagh Meagaidh with Mal Duff in 1991 given V1 at the time but VII in the new guide, another new V1 on Meagardh followed 1991 called White Knuckle Ride after his 700 foot fall when pulled off South Post Direct by his partner later that day, first winter ascent of Moss Ghyll Grooves on Scafell, repeats of many mixed and ice classics, and impressive solos of Zero and Union Direct on the same day after a roped ascent of Smith’s.
When not soloing, his partner on many of these winter routes has been Mal Duff, an important influence on his climbing. Perkins observes “He’s really persistent and seems to have thus amazing capacity to get out ot a sticky situation.” Andy Cave, whom Perkins has been on several trips with, has also been a significant influence even though he’s seven years younger. “Andy Cave probably has a grade on me in all aspects. He reads situations very well and is very strong.”
Reading situations is something that Perkins has based his own survival on and he’s emphatic that “it’s all very calculated.” On bigger challenges his calculations have proved either accurate or erred on the side of safety. Nevertheless, mind arithmetic and its consequences can be very complicated and if success is measured in terms of topping out or not, the result of these calculations on the face of it are varied. However, the accumulated knowledge and experience is immense and priceless.
Andy’s first major expedition to Baffin Island in 1983, was a great disappointment. Having packed in with the computer firm to start his PhD, he reached the foot of the objective on Mount Asgard's’ West Face, only to find his party did not share his commitment. He says he learned a lot from what was a very sobering experience.
Subsequent seasons in the Alps and trips to Kenya and Yosemite furnished more fruitful pickings: the Diamond Couloir and the Scott/Braithwaite route on Mt. Kenya; the Gervasutti Pillar, Supercouloir, Freney Pillar, South Face of the Fou and American Direct in the Alps and Separate Reality, Astroman and Salathé Wall in Yosemite.
In 1987 he went to Nepal with Andy Cave, getting to within 300 metres of the summit of Ama Dablam climbing alpine style . In 1988, he experienced further disappointment on Annapurna III with Cave, Duff, Ian Tattersall and Rob Fairley, reaching only 6000m, after contracting conjunctivitis from giving 30 minutes artificial respiration to the expedition cook, who died of oedema.
“Apart from the bad weather, there was too much rhino action – the phase rhino action was coined by Mal who reckons that when you have to deal with an avalanche it’s like having a white rhino running at you!”
The following year he was part of a strong team again including Cave on ‘an outrageous’ unclimbed line on the Ogre but was beaten back by desperate weather and more rhino action.
1990 saw a change in horizons when he followed up his company bosses explorations in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, doing among other climbs, the second ascent of the 16 pitch Muezzin E1, 5c. However, he kept the mountain flame flickering with the first all British ascent with Chris Smith of the South Ridge of Pumori (7162m).
The bait of the big hills drew him back to the Himalaya in 1991, for an attempt on the North-West Face of Cerro Kishtwar (6100m) with Brendan Murphy. Andy’s own inspiration for the capsule style attempt, was Peter Boardman’s account in The Shining Mountain of his 1976 ascent of Changabang’s West Wall with Joe Tasker. The Murphy/Perkins attempt on CK, involved running out fixed ropes from each bivouac, facilitating relative ease of access to, and retreat from the previous days climbing high point, before establishing the next ‘capsule’ and pulling the fixed ropes up. After spending sixteen days of highly technical climbing utterly alone on this big wall, battered by wind and cold and running low on food the pair decided to retreat 150m from the summit.
Given that in 1993, Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad succeeded in alpine style, on a more obvious rampline to the left, it would be easy to cast doubts on the style of the ascent and the time taken, but Perkins has no regrets on either aspect.
“We had seen the rampline they took, but we wanted a different kind of challenge that would not have been possible in alpine style. Our climb on CK gave us that. Mick and Steve also knew when they made their ascent that there were secure and obvious abseil points all the way down our line from the high point.”
Very different calculations were made with Jerry Gore about how they should attempt a new route on the North West Face of the Shield on the Towers of Paine in Patagonia in 1992. After patiently sitting out weeks of bad weather, they put up the 28 pitch Adventures of Don Quixote in a 22 hour light weight push in an area where most routes succumb to weeks of siege tactics.
In 1998, an attempt was made on the South ridge of Gasherbrum IV also with horrendous weather. However, he never really got going even though Perkins was again part of premier division outfit that included Andy Cave, Chris Flewitt, Andy Macnae, Brendan Murphy and Kate Phillips.
And so, the sunkissed rock of Sunkist in Yosemite beckoned as an alternative in 1994. When hit by bad weather high on the face that should have been all sun and solid rock, Perkins drew upon his resourcefulness and priceless experience.
“You have to remain positive. If you get into the downward thinking spiral you are done for. There is no question that if you remain mentally positive, your physical chances are much improved.” Indeed, he’s a natural optimist. When he talks in his adopted rich Northern accent, he remains much of the get up and go vocabulary of his student days, but there’s clear thinking and a determined outlook behind the amiable demeanour.
Despite protestations about not wanting to get involved in mountaineering politics, he takes a healthy interest in the influences on our pastime and in the past was interviewed for the post of BMC National Officer. In 1991 he pointedly told MPs calling for mandatory climbing insurance and licensing to ‘get off our case’ and they have.
Apart from advising on climbing equipment standards he has also publicly expressed sound views on rescue and environment issues. As we descend from the crag he tails about the ‘climbers’ who ‘for a few pieces of silver were prepared to assist in the removal of tree top protesters opposing the M65 extension.
Returning to his house we meet officers from the RSPB to discuss a return trip in November to the Sand cliffs of Morocco’s Souss Massa National Park for more work to protect the endangered bald ibis. the previous trip two years ago was supported by Troll and supervised by Andy.
In the meantime he’s chasing the midnight sun for three weeks on the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway, extending his horizons along another track to yet another field of exertion. With his ability of mountaineering whether it’s rock-climbing. Scottish ice, the Alps, big walls or Himalayan giants, analogues spring to mind with a decathlete a sort of Daley Thomson of the mountaineering world.
Given his recent encounters with gravity and rescue. Andy’s colleagues at Troll have a rather less generous interpretation, saying Deck Athlete would be more appropriate.
If there are any clues to his further ambitions, Andy now finds that the buzz from a rock route lasts about 20 minutes, that from a Scottish ice route about a day or a weekend, an alpine route several days and the buzz from an expedition, if successful, several months.
I for one look forward to the results of his next calculations.