When he was seven years old Leo Houlding was introduced to mountaineering by his dad, Mark. They went climbing 10,000ft peaks in Morocco and Turkey and then in 1990 his dad took him up the Old Man of Hoy. Leo was hooked, he went climbing as often as he could, spending his summer holidays with friends in the Peak, Wales and near home in the Lake District.
He gained wider attention with his ascent of Lord of the Flies (E6 6a) on Dinas Cromlech by headtorch, then at 16 he made the only onsight to date of Masters Wall (E7 6b) on Cloggy, as well as becoming Junior British Bouldering Champion twice; but it was on the big walls of Patagonia and Yosemite where Leo matured into one of the world's best adventure climbers.
Leo, Joe Mahole and Al Lee on a hanging belay mid-way through the 13 pitch Ocean's of Fear on the Klein Winterhoek in South Africa. The route had only received one free repeat since it's first ascent in 1994.
After a 17-hour abseil off Fitzroy in a storm Leo quickly realised it would be much easier to jump off instead and he discovered BASE jumping which soon evolved into Para-Alpinism, doing a big route then descending by parachute. You can watch Leo and Sean Leary descend Mount Asgard in the, The Asgard Project, an epic film about last year's Baffin Island adventure.
Early in 2002 Leo broke a bone in his foot in a 20m fall off Cerro Torre. That fall, or the decision to go for it when perhaps he shouldn't have, changed his life. It took a year to recover and he got a lucky break when the BBC came calling and the story of his fall was documented in My Right Foot which opened the BBC's new Extreme Lives documentary series.
This paved the way for a busy TV and film career which has included starring in an episode of Top Gear racing presenter Jeremy Clarkson up and down the Verdon Gorge, Clarkson drove, Leo and Tim Emmett climbed then parachuted down to the gorge floor: Leo and Tim won. He appeared in the Adrenaline Junkie television series with Jack Osbourne and Take Me To The Edge a Virgin One series where he traveled the globe performing adventure stunts with five other Britons. As well as the Asgard Project Leo also appeared in film The Wildest Dream, the docudrama about George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine's attempt on Everest in 1924. Leo plays Irvine and whilst filming on that trip he summited Everest.
Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding test out their replica 1924 climbing gear at 23,000 ft.
© Altitude Films, Sep 2010
Leo lives in the Lake District with his wife Jess and recently started to represent Cumbria Tourism helping them to spearhead the Adventure Capital campaign to help the county become the UK's Capital of Adventure by 2012.
Such is the life of the top UK professional climber that filming and business commitments keep Leo busy, but does he still have time for climbing? He is out most weekends like most of us but; is he still at the cutting edge of climbing?
Leo has just turned 30, so we asked Alastair Lee, Leo's filming partner, to tell us: What's Leo been up to recently?
Also included is a brief interview with Leo about his Yosemite project and a timeline of free ascents on El Cap.MR
Britain's teen wonder turns 30 - by Alastair Lee
Leo and Jess at Leo's 30th birthday party...Uhhhh no, those aren't real!
© Mick Ryan
Abseiling in from the top of El Cap on a 'retired rescue rope' my stomach was in knots as usual and I promised myself this would be the last time. 12 months early I was in exactly the same position and had exactly the same thought. June 2009 was my first trip to Yosemite and we'd planned to film Leo and Sean 'Stanley' Leary speed climbing the 'Salathé Wall. 'Things didn't really work out, the weather was unseasonably bad and Stanley landed two weeks work (he rigs the cable cams at sports events) just as we landed for two weeks at his place in El Portel, 15mins from El Cap Meadow.
'The Wild Child' of British climbing shot to fame at 16 years of age and whilst many people retain an ever-lasting youthful impression of him, last month he showed one of the few signs that he is actually human by turning 30. Two months prior to the 2009 Yosemite trip, typically, Leo had torn his meniscus putting his sky-diving rig on, which really throws a spanner in the works for the year you have set out the biggest challenge of your life; in August Leo hoped to be making the first free ascent of a route on the imposing and remote Mt Asgard. It was May and he couldn't walk. This however is par for the course with Leo, whilst we booked out tickets for Yosemite from his crutches and confirmed the Asgard trip from a veritable wheel-chair, I wasn't worried.
If you've seen the film, you'll note that whilst there was plenty to worry about (loose rock, bad weather, polar bears, jumping out of planes, aid climbing) Leo's climbing or cardio-vascular fitness was never an issue. Although if the trip had gone to plan and the conditions worked in our favour, Leo might have actually found himself on a hard head point, it might have been different. We didn't get much climbing but we got a great story.
Whilst the Asgard trip was undoubtedly the greatest adventure any of us had ever been on. It was clear to me that Leo was dissatisfied with having not had a proper chance to free the route. This must have helped Leo to get motivated for a winter of training hard at the climbing wall, soon making short work of Kendal Wall's hardest routes. It was impressive for someone who hates indoor climbing and famously never trains.
Leo on the crux 'Hooks' pitch (8a) on Oceans of Fear
In the spring of this year Leo found the first opportunity to put his new found fitness to the test with a trip to South Africa and a journey to another life ambition to climb the renowned route 'Oceans of Fear'. True to his word 'I'm climbing a lot better this year', ' Leo made the 3rd free ascent of the route in two days, the fastest ascent of the imposing line by some margin. 8 pitches on an unfathomably overhanging cliff in a typically Houlding setting; ie. mind blowing and a day's steep hiking without a trail to reach the ravine at the base of the scramble which reaches the cliff. The crux pitches are 'The Horror Crack' at 7c+, 'The Hooks' 8a+ and 'The Honey' 8a, all of which, again in typical Leo style, came within a hair's breath of being on sighted. He was definitely psyched for some free climbing.
We then managed to get stranded in Cape Town for an extra week due to a certain volcano which meant we got an unexpected tour of some of the local, and fantastic I must add, bouldering areas. Leo got all psyched about a sit start to an established problem that had this rock been in the UK would 'be one of the best lines in the country'. He was desperate to get the problem at around Font 8a+ and you could sense Leo's need for inspiring rock and lines to get psyched, I think if he could have brought the boulder home he would have. With 'Little Font' in Kentmere being his local venue, you have can see his point of view.
Leo on the amazing crack 'A1 Beauty' pitch of the Prophet, El Capitan, Yosemite
UKC Articles, Sep 2010
© Alastair Lee
Moving forward with Oceans in the bag and feeling confident about his climbing Leo once again turned his attention to his long term project in Yosemite. The previous year was the first time Leo had looked at the line from the top and with the limited time of that particular trip Leo was still unsure where the line would go after the first 5 pitches. Leo had previously gone from the ground up on several occasions. One thing he did discover was that the 'A1 Beauty' pitch 80m from the top (the finger crack featured in the Asgard film) was not only one of the most stunning lines on El Cap but also one of the hardest and last year's efforts saw the moves worked out but not even linked on top-rope. As Leo says in the film 'If Asgard is anything like as hard as that; we're screwed'... turns out he was right but that's a different story.
Jason Pickles, Leo's comrade on many adventures, owns a variety of hats.
UKC Articles, Sep 2010
© Alastair Lee
And screwed was how I kept imaging I'd end up if I kept abseiling into these massive cliffs, I'd got off the plane the day before and now I was at the top of the crack pitch with an 80 litre pack dangling between my legs stuffed with all my cumbersome camera kit. Leo had been here for nearly a month with 'bring-it-on' Jason Pickles. They'd figured out the line, in fact things were going much better than expected, this trip was supposed to be the one to suss it all out then return in Oct to send it in cooler temperatures. But Leo began to feel that it might go down this trip, he was climbing like, well, like Leo when he's on form, and the scorching summer temperatures were unseasonably late.
The top of that crack pitch is a surprisingly airy place to be, whilst the crack itself is slightly off vertical, the base is undercut and drops straight to the base of the cliff. Leo and Jas had fixed over half the route for me the rap down to the top of the 5th pitch to begin filming.
Alastair Lee filming Leo on the 'Guillotine' pitch of the Prophet, El Capitan.
UKC Articles, Sep 2010
© Tom Evans
Whilst I was totally shitting my pants with each increasingly steep and sideways abseil, on varying qualities of static rope, over an assortment of 'rounded' edges (I was very relieved when Stanley abseiled into the line to say hi one day and commented that it was terrifying), Leo was climbing like a big walling god and blasted through the first half of the route, I can't give too much away at this stage but this route is wild 'the wildest climb I've ever been on' in Leo's words. Before you reach the crack there are 4 back to back pitches of E7 6c on steep sometimes loose rock involving some crazy climbing, real signature stuff from 'Springer', who gets his nickname from his dynamic and springy style on the rock very much a pre-requisite for some of the pitches.
On the third day of the ascent Leo set up his portaledge camp at the base of the crack pitch and, well, all I can tell you is it looks f**king desperate and we are going back in Oct., which means Leo has to keep himself fit for the summer. So no parachuting or trying to be the last man standing at your 30th birthday party, because if you started to use a sharp implement the day after to help tidying up you might chop the end of your finger off, 'Leo put that down, no not the whisky, the knife... !!!' Too late, there's another two months off, ah well all adds to the story and this time we definitely got lots of climbing done.
Catch Leo on the Prophet in Al Lee's 2010 release Psyche II.
Haven't seen the Asgard Project yet? It's on the telly! On September 26th 2010 spin your dial, or press your remote to Discovery's freeview channel Quest
Leo interview about The Prophet below.
Mick Ryan asks Leo about El Cap and the Prophet
When did you first visit Yosemite?
1998 with Patch Hammond. We repeated El Nino (30 pitches, 5.13c) just after after the Huber's freed it. We nearly onsighted it, falling twice. It changed my perception of climbing forever.
You have a project on El Cap, The Prophet. What other routes have you done on El Cap?
I've done Freerider four times, first time was one fall away from the onsight. The Nose twice - aiding it, fastest time was 6 hours. Passage to Freedom, the first half of New Dawn then finished up the Nose, aided the North American Wall with 6 people big wall party style over 8 days, attempted first free ascent of New Jersey Turnpike, aided Lost In America in a day, Zodiac in 8 hours, plus lots of days swinging around attempting to free pitches without getting to the top. and now the Prophet.
Tells us about The Prophet.
It starts up the first 5 pitches of Bad to the Bone on the right side of El Cap, then three new pitches, a new traverse featuring the epic 'devil's dyno', it shares Nicolas Favresse and Seán Villanueva route The Secret Passage for 25ft then finishes up the last 4 pitches of Eagle's Way. Nico and Seán started up Eagles way then finished up the line I was originally looking at (Bad to the Bone) so I tried to find an alternative finish. The Prophet and The Secret Passage run parallel then cross sharing 25 feet on pitch 9.
The Prophet has been almost 10 years in the making. I originally attempted it from the ground up with Jason Pickles; no aid, no fixed ropes, no drill, in-a-day. It's quite harrowing - hardest climbing I've done ground up; shitty belays, shitty bolts, hard moves. Jason got hurt on third attempt in fall from first pitch, then on the fifth attempt I got half-way with Kevin Thaw. We retreated when faced with a with loose, blank section that needed a bolt to be freed. Tried again ground-up in 2004 with Jason using aid and a portaledge, winter arrived just below previous high point and we got pounded by a storm and we retreated as our ledge flooded with 2 feet of water. Two Japanese climbers unfortunately died on the Nose in the same storm.
Where are you now on it? Will it go? The crack pitch looks impossible.
I eventually resorted to top down tactics on it. At the end of last June Jason and I climbed all 13 pitches from the ground. I led every pitch to the top over 4 days. All free with no falls apart from the A1 beauty (the crack - see photo). I couldn't link the A1 beauty pitch, which is the second to last pitch, in 30 degree C summer temps. I did it in two sections (several times) and all free on top rope whilst working the route top down. We are going back in October when it cools down, rap in and lead the A1 beauty then do whole route from the ground again.
The Prophet will be the hardest route I've done by miles, the A1 beauty pitch alone is the hardest thing I've tried. Big wall redpointing is a pain in the arse. Onsighting is much simpler.
OK old man, you are 30 now. Got any sage advice for young climbers?
Live hard, try not to die young.
Go see a physio even for relatively minor sprains and tweaks and do the exercises - my ankles are screwed from years of abuse and neglect.
Don't save routes for the onsight forever, just get on it and enjoy it. You might never get the chance again. Doing it not onsight, is better than not doing it.
Don't listen to quack advice about alternative medicine - it's nearly all bollocks and you're not gluten intolerant.
Thanks Leo. Best of luck in October
Leo is sponsored by Berghaus , DMM, Adidas Eyewear, Five Ten.
El Cap Free Big Walls (and nearly free)
2010 could be a big year for El Cap free routes, as well as Leo's line The Prophet, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have put much work in on a line on El Capitan's southeast face, a 900-meter route (linking up sections of the Dawn Wall and Mescalito) that is likely the hardest big wall free climb in the world, mind-bogglingly stacked with numerous 5.14 pitches - think 8b and 8c, and E10 if you need a translation, but lots of it - these aren't no single pitch headpoints partner! We'll see what happens and keep you posted at UKClimbing.com.
Below is a timeline of El Cap Free (and nearly free) Big Walls.
Free Blast - 5.11b (The Free Blast goes only to Mammoth Terraces, about 1/3 of the way up El Cap) FFA - Jim Bridwell, John Long, Kevin Worrall, Mike Graham, John Bachar, and Ron Kauk
Image from the film PROGRESSION. Tommy Caldwell attempting to free his project on El Capitan, in Yosemite, CA.
UKC News, Sep 2010
© Photo by Corey Rich
Thanks to Clint Cummins for the listing, there is much more at Clint's website, including full details about each route. If you are considering doing a free route on El Cap (or in Yosemite) check out :Yosemite - Long Hard Free Climbs and of course Chris MacNamara's supertopo.com where you will find everything you need for climbing in Yosemite.