The World of Stevie Haston: The Education of a Mountaineer

by Stevie Haston Apr/2010
This article has been read 13,900 times

Stevie Haston is one of the World's greatest climbers and he has a new article series at UKClimbing.com - The World of Stevie Haston.

Over the next 12 months Stevie will share his climbing life, from the very beginnings described in this first article, through the slate scene of North Wales in the 1980's, passing by the valley of Chamonix and his cutting edge alpine ascents and landing firmly at the World class sport climbing achievements that have shot him once again to fame in the last couple of years.

Stevie's climbing life started properly back in the 1970's and his climbing CV is virtually unparalleled. For a full run down of his climbing life see this UKC Article: Stevie Haston - The Timeline.

This new article series is supported by Grivel , one of Stevie's sponsors. There is a message from them below.

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+Grivel UK, 20 kb

A message from Grivel:

Grivel have produced climbing equipment since 1818; we are now 190 years old. Our headquarters are in Courmayeur, Italy, at the foot of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc.

Our company is considered to be one of the world's leading brand names in mountaineering equipment producing crampons, ice axes and ice screws. We also design and manufacture helmets, rucksacks and this year are introducing a range of quickdraws and karabiners.

We want to maintain our traditions, keeping in touch with our mountains and the men who challenge them.

We are proud to be a sponsor of this series of six articles by Stevie Haston at UKClimbing.com, and hope you enjoy this first one, The Education of a Mountaineer below.

+Stevie Haston, 65 kb
Stevie Haston © Laurence Gouault Haston

The Education of a Mountaineer - by Stevie Haston

I grew up, if I ever grew up at all, in two places; the Dickensian jungle that was the East End of London and Gozo, a small cliff encrusted island paradise that sits in the Mediterranean a few miles north of Malta.

I grew up in the Sixties, I was born in 1957.

It's a long time ago and the world has changed, but I am almost the same as that long lost boy.

I climbed before I knew the word and what it meant; on Gozo it was up Carob trees or chasing my goats up hillsides or scrambling up loose crumbling sea cliffs. In London I climbed derelict buildings and wire fences that tried too keep me in, or keep me out.

There were three male figures in my early life.

My Maltese grandfather was an ex-sailor; my Uncle Jock a political activist and ex-sailor; and my Dad, Scottish, an ex-sailor, and a steel fixer on high buildings, a strong and staunch union man. They all loved the outdoors, they all had huge lives, and bizarrely they always treated me like a younger brother.

My mother was Maltese, a dark skinned Dolly Parton, totally bonkers and yet very kind. She hardly spoke a word of English. She fell for the red haired Viking, my father, and out of this union came me. From the earliest age I was attached to a leash, a real leash that kept me from wandering off, my parents were always losing me you see. I was a wanderer. There was a tag around my neck stamped with name and address, and this was also sewn into my clothes. Kind policemen would bring me back to a distraught crying mother and a raging, worried father. Neither the tears or the beatings ever had the slightest effect on the bemused young adventurer or on the fledgling climber. I kept wandering.

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Stevie Haston: Early days at Almscliff, Yorkshire
UKC Articles, Apr 2010
© Haston collection

On Gozo you were either a farmer, a fisherman, a teacher or a priest; some of my family did the lot.

On the friendly island of Gozo, unlike hostile London, there was never any danger from people, but there were huge overhanging sea cliffs and dangerous seas which made the birds eggs harder to collect and the fish harder to catch. All my relatives spoke really loudly and were always deeply passionate about something, even when speaking with their hands. The cacophony from the people around me was like a colony of sea birds on a cliff ledge, deafening. On Gozo you were either a farmer, a fisherman, a teacher or a priest; some of my family did the lot. Two doors down from our house my second cousins Peter and Paul, twins, were both priests. They were pretty average fishers of men, but brilliant in a small boat 50 miles off the coast fishing for swordfish. One had a stutter and one a twitch, I acquired both afflictions.

Peter and Paul's brother Pio kept bees and a flower garden, he taught me the catechism while the twins would make me repair their fishing nets.

Just before secondary school I spent more than my summer holidays on Gozo. The reason? I was sent there for a few years to keep me out of trouble and to civilise me as I was running around in London with street urchins and on a fast tract apprenticeship to Artful Dodger status.

The Maltese teachers still had contact with the land and sea, they were still real and knew the real desires of a child like me who was born to roam the cliff tops...

But somewhere along the line I started reading books on caving, climbing and exploration. These books seemed to justify and glorify all the stuff that got me into trouble, so I gobbled them up. There were no Everests locally but there were 60 foot high boulders to conquer, and slippery cliffs of clay to cut steps up with carpenter hammers and a screw driver in hand. The Maltese teachers still had contact with the land and sea, they were still real and knew the real desires of a child like me who was born to roam the cliff tops, talking to Golden Orioles and Hooppee birds, rather than struggling with long division.

Back in the other world of London, the supposed sophisticated real world, the Cold war was on.

There was a blossoming of spiritual freedom, there were plans to land men on the moon, and black people in America were starting to be classed as human by their white brothers, their former captors. It was an interesting and optimistic time. But at the same time this world of hope started to fade from my horizon, the Vietnam war raged, the Cold War was at its height, and politicians who were meant to serve us were exposed as liars and thieves

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Stevie Haston back to his roots: Malta
UKC Articles, Apr 2010
© Laurence Gouault Haston

As a teenager I started desperately to look for an alternative path in my life, I escaped into sport and books. Fairness, right and wrong, morality, these were abstractions it seemed. I passed my eleven plus examination and went to an elite grammar school where I found that the rich kids had been tutored through there entrance exam. I was for a time the most caned kid in the school and to this day I can't understand how the best kids, the unique kids, the gifted, were the ones who were often expelled. The school did however have an excellent library and a few of the teachers were dedicated and believed in their work.

My thumb represented freedom in those days and school was just a prison that tried to trap my immortal soul.

Was this school there to kindle my spirit and help me find my own peculiar talents and gifts or was it there to break my spirit and make me a slave to the machine?

A book I read at this time was I Chose To Climb by Chris Bonington. I liked the man's climbing, his spunk, but he was the opposite of me, middle class, a man who chose climbing as an occupation, a military man, a toff. The big thing of course is that you don't choose to climb, climbing chooses you or that's what I thought. If it wasn't for the books about Don Whillans and Joe Brown, two working class lads, who somehow rose above their impoverished upbringings to lead interesting lives and become great climbers, I don't know what would have become of me. Perhaps 10 useless O levels and a career in lower management was the way forward instead of bunking off school, sticking my thumb out and hitching up the M1 to gritstone cracks, and my real vocation of climbing. My thumb represented freedom in those days and school was just a prison that tried to trap my immortal soul.

What is climbing?

For me it is the vehicle to explore the natural world where strength and skill overcome difficulties. You are not just flotsam in the social sea, you make real decisions that govern your life and death. It is a special place where you enjoy yourself like an animal, feel your pulse racing, experience the sweat of fear and anxiety, and the taste of well-earned success.

Climbing is my life, climbing is life. How can there ever be anything else?

In the last few months Craig Luebbin, Thomas Humar and Guy Lacelle died. I knew them and loved them, each one very different from the other, but the one thing they had in common was their genuine, deep love of climbing as a way of life. There was something of the boy in them all, a boy who had no wish to grow up. Their journey is over, I will miss them. Growing up is not linear it is like the sea, learning comes in continuous little waves and each of those dead men taught me something

Their obituaries were inadequate, especial Humars. Yes he used the media; well it was only fair, retaliation really, the media used him, so quid pro quo. The fire in his eyes warmed the cockles of my heart. He was like one of my mad Maltese cousins, passionate and loud, a Cyrano de Bergerac of the climbing world.

Enough of death, what of life? Life is for living. It's not about sitting in a classroom reading books about geography; it's quietly slipping out while the teacher turns to the chalk board. Geography is escaping and discovering Soho and little Chinatown. Sport is not playing dumb team sports like cricket, it's soloing stupendous icicles which will come thundering down around your head if you don't hit them for six. A level art is time spent in Spain snaking your way up beautiful tufas, all orange and blue, a little bit Dali, Gaudi and Velazquez.

There were no streetlights in my grandfathers street when I was young, there were stars that made your soul long to explore wild spaces. Climbing is that vehicle to explore, outside of yourself, and inside. Climbing is dawn starts with my Pappy all those years ago, a sac on our backs and a few miles of cliff to fish, soloing up and down. Pre-dawn starts with a bowl of bitter black coffee as breakfast, then we wouldn't exchange a word all day. No shoes to worry about, limpets and sea weed to chew on. Pappy's story was that he had left his fiancť immediately after she had accepted his proposal and sailed around the world for two years. When he came back she was naturally still cross, so he handed her the money for a house and a farm.

I always remember a conversation about my uncle Jock spending time in prison during the war, he was a revolutionary communist and a conscienous objector. My dad was a man who had run blockades. Their father lost a leg during the first war. Was there any animosity between them, about so called bravery? No, in fact the greatest respect was shown for Jock, the conscientious objector, the bravest of the brave as my dad called him.

My parents were desperately poor at times. But it is clear they gave me one special thing, 'vaster than empires' a thing called freedom.

My dad recalled this conversation years later when we were climbing at Almscliff. He was enjoying the view after climbing a stiff overhanging crack called Western Front, when he suddenly turned to me and asked about climbing and bravery and principle and who and what was right? I stuttered trying desperately to think of something clever to say. He said 'Nay mind son, you have balls but nay brains, but Jock had balls and brains', he laughed and agreed that climbing was the thing for me and that we should let the world go to rot and go find a pub.

My parents were desperately poor at times. But it is clear they gave me one special thing, 'vaster than empires' a thing called freedom. My Pappy's gift was teaching me to swim the Gozo way. He threw me in off a wharf and watched me nearly drown a few times and when it looked like I wouldn't sink forever, he strolled off smiling, content in his schooling.

If you saw the Gozo technique being applied today most people would call for the police. It was this kind of schooling that saw me in the Alps as a teenager, soloing winter routes in Chamonix at 16 years of age. It was also the early lessons I learnt on loose rock and clay that helped me understand the peculiar material that is snow an ice. I somehow knew that it was only the frozen manifestation of the dangerous sea. The greatest lesson was that my soul and heart were the most important parts of the thing I called me, and that you were supposed to dedicate your life to the service of goodness. The fact that I failed to find a vocation for greater good is sad but the ideal of service has percolated into my climbing just like my Pappy's bitter coffee. Uncle Jock stood as a Revolutionary Communist Party member for the Neath election in 1948 and that clearly was not the done thing and yet in my family Jock just did it.

One day I will perhaps climb a giant Himalayan peak and surf the snow down the other side and I will have finished the journey that was started by those three men. It won't change the working conditions of the ordinary man but it might make them smile. It won't be a sermon, it might be a pointer to something sublime. The trick will be for it not to being a crass act, but a class act. And if I do surf that mountain I am a sure that my holy trinity will smile.

But it will never be a bigger journey than my dad cycling to London when he was 14, living off turnips and sleeping by the side of the road. And it certainly won't be a bigger adventure than my mums. For a very young woman to leave peasant Gozo, and travel to the excitement of London, is an adventure beyond my ken. They gave me life, and more importantly the courage to live it.

It's a long time ago and the world has changed, but I am almost the same as that long lost boy.



You can follow Stevie on his blog as well as in this series of articles at UKClimbing.com over the next 12 months.

Stevie Haston is sponsored by:

Grivel/V12/La Sportiva, 51 kb


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