The tables are turned as 80s legend and routesetter Mark 'Zippy' Pretty declines an interview and offers to interrogate Andy Pollitt instead...
Andy Pollitt: 'The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.'
My first memories of meeting Andy are mixed with the sounds of rumbling lorries, the crashing of rock fall and the smell of lime dust in the air; this was Stoney Middleton in the early 1980s. This was the cliff's heyday and, like many others, I was unemployed and drawn there by the accessible rock, free doss sites and the café.
One grey and rather bleak day I had hitched in and met, by chance, Steve Haston. We'd gone up to Windy Ledge where a team had assembled to attempt Circe. I was well out of my depth so settled down to watch the heroics on display. A young lad with lots of hair and enthusiasm who had repeated the route the day before (as he kept reminding everyone!) volunteered to clip the bolt. At the wire before the bolt he had a bit of a wobble, grabbed the wire which promptly came out and he then hit the ledge and bounced off it! The belayer fell over and was dragged towards the 70 foot drop. The quick thinking of Steve, who jumped on the belayer and stopped his slide, saved the day. The youth re-emerged on the ledge, brushed himself down and was keen to go again...! Needless to say he wasn't allowed that opportunity!
After years of living, climbing, scrabble playing, arguing, pool playing etc with Andy it is the energy and enthusiasm that he showed on that first meeting that always come to mind when I think of him. He would climb anywhere with anyone, his passion for climbing was so strong and a deeply emotive experience for him. Although an athlete in body he was an anti-athlete in the mind and a stark contrast to the 21st century's rather bizarre rebranding of climbing as a 'sport' populated by 'athletes'. Andy was a climber of great natural physical gifts but most importantly someone who simply loved climbing. Whilst that love existed he was unstoppable, but once it was gone there was no lingering around - his boundless energy was redirected down a different route and he was gone.
Mark Pretty: Right then Andy, a few easy ones to get you warmed up!
Your five most memorable climbing experiences and why were they memorable?
Andy Pollitt: So many but here goes!
Repeating The Bells! It had been top roped a few times since John [Redhead] led it and as far as I knew only one person hadn't fallen off. They were three Peak E5 leaders whose comments on the route were something like, 'utterly ridiculous', 'think I only spotted one poor RP placement' and 'death on a stick'. Three of the top rope falls were due to a 'crucial' finger flake and two footholds snapping off so I wasn't even sure if the route was still climbable. That intrigued me and I began psyching up for it and when Johnny, Pritch and Nick Dixon starting checking it out two years later it became, in my mind, a 'now or never' situation and I went for it!
First ascent of Knockin' on Heaven's Door was, again, one of those 'Last Great Problems' that everyone had tried so who wouldn't be proud to have done one of those?! I'm not even sure how I came to throw a rope down it in the first place as it looked so hard but the bullet hole scars were just, and only just, usable if I could figure out how to get between them. I worked out this bizarre sequence where delicate foot changes allowed me to move a single fingertip before moving them all the way back to then set up for the 'all points off' dyno for the sloper. I was thankful for that hold as it not only ended the desperate sequence but also saved my life when I slipped off higher up and caught it on the way down!
Thormen's Moth was an amazing line for the Peak! Shame it suffers from seepage but when it's in condition - wow! Big holds across a big roof - fantastic!
Freeing Mayfair with Jerry [Moffatt] when we were sixteen was our best achievement together and perhaps the first spark in the great Pen Trwyn boom of the 1980s.
Soloing Great Wall at Forwyn when I was eighteen was no walk in the park either. I knew it well but still fell off on lead every fifth or sixth time.
Anything I did with Paul Williams was, and remains, precious to me. I loved him like a father so any time in his company was special.
MP: What would your five Desert Island Climbs be?
AP: It'll have to be six Zips!
Skinhead Moonstomp at Gogarth. It just doesn't get any better!
Tales of Yankee Power, as above but not by the sea!
Carousel Waltz, really out there!
Thormen's Moth, really 'in' there!
Surveiller et Punir, Verdon, outrageous place!
Rage, Taipan Wall, WHAT a crag!
MP: Which rock type was your favourite and why?
AP: Tough choice there! Verdon limestone was always the one but then I visited Taipan Wall and that knocks it for six, incredible though that seems!
MP: What is your favourite new route?
AP: It has to be Skinhead. That runout up the flared flake is simply outrageous and the 'bucket seat' belay offers the best view ever when looking back down the line. Having said that Thormen's is up there too.
MP: The hardest move you ever did?
AP: Not sure I can answer that though the starting moves of Revelations and Chris Gore's Kudos wreaked havoc on my damaged right shoulder and are certainly the hardest moves I didn't do! As for did? On a route I guess it was maybe Little Plum that felt the hardest, though I did many harder moves later.
MP: You had a reputation for great self control in very dangerous situations. How did those situations actually feel to you?
AP: This is a bit of a toughie Zips. Any 'reputation' I may have had was just other people's perceptions. I usually had envisioned the ascent without knowing the moves or protection well and would picture myself up there and what it would feel like many times. It was as if I had a mental drone movie of myself climbing the route (not that what I visualised was actually what the route was like). If I was scared and woke from my dream in a cold sweat, as sometimes happened with the North Stack routes, I'd defer the attempt; when the dreams went well however I honestly felt ready and went for it. It was then a matter of just doing them and normally this was a formality. With The Bells! for example: I had no clear idea of where it actually went or what (except for the peg) the gear was but had seen myself doing it in 'drone' vision. What I hadn't seen was the burst fingertips at 85 feet! The resultant strange, deathly scent my skin emitted whilst facing a ground fall from that height remains The Most incredible and defining moment of my entire life. The only thing to match it being snapping a foothold on Wreath, then stripping three runners and landing in a tidal pool on rope stretch held by tiny a TCU. Incidentally, going back for photos was more harrowing in general as there was no psyche for being there.
MP: So, in your dreams you had dealt with the general fear before you left the ground though, if something went wrong en-route, surely you had to then deal with that fear as best you could. How did you do it and what went on in your head on The Bells! to save your life?
AP: 'Fight or Flight' quite literally! There's also that rare 'out of body' experience when you can 'see' yourself from 10 feet away whilst being in the midst of that intense pressure. The oddest thing for me on that route was that weird, pungent scent my body was emitting; I honestly thought that was the smell of death coming. I literally gave myself a few minutes to find safety and thankfully did...
MP: Do you have any regrets about routes you failed on or avoided as being too risky?
AP: For sure, dozens of them when I was a HVS climber trying Extremes, E4's when I was climbing E2 etc. Once I was competent at E5 and above I'd have to say no, not really.
MP: Do you regret anything you ever did in climbing?
AP: Again, not really, though my error of judgement in improving that pocket on Cafe Libre at Trwyn was most regrettable. Rebuilding the crux hold on Punks after it disintegrated brought me then and now grief but given that it is still possible I feel like it was justified. I have to say though that the subsequent re-rebuilding of the hold is a disgraceful eyesore!
MP: What, if any, training did you do?
AP: You'll recall I had a 1cm edge screwed into the rafter of my attic bedroom at 84 Hunter House Road. For months on end I'd do 350 pull ups a night in 50 sets of 7 whilst wearing a 20 pound divers' weight belt I'd bought off Quentin Fisher and am convinced this exacerbated the RSI in my shoulders! When I moved to Nether Edge I had the woody in the garage that we all trained so hard on. My other training was down in the pub with Tim Freeman and 'Basic' Nick!
MP: What was it about climbing that so attracted you early on?
AP: Good question! As a child I was never a team player so an activity like climbing which is all about personal responsibility for placing gear, making belays etc really suited me. The fact that my school teacher Andy Boorman was such a great mentor and enthusiast who guided me really well was also a key factor.
MP: What drew you to doing new routes?
AP: Well, unlike Gary in his interview, for me it was always about the line or the freeing of an old aid route and the excitement of that experience. Better climbers than myself, such as Chris Gore, seemed to prefer early repeats of routes rather than making the effort of inspecting and cleaning new routes themselves even when they were gob-smacking lines. To start with I have to thank Mr. Boorman again. When the majority of our local crag, Forwyn, was banned by the farmer we were forced onto the left hand section which wasn't restricted and we ticked everything, even the Mods and Diffs! After that we started filling in the blanks. As I got a little older, braver and more adventurous the difficulty and quality of the first ascents improved exponentially. On arrival in Sheffield in the early 80's we wandered around the Dales looking up at dozens of old bolt ladders. Can you imagine how exciting it was to look at routes like Chimes, Arch Enemies, Boot Boys, Rumble and Thormen's etc. when they weren't routes?! They were simply screaming out to be freed!
MP: How hard was it to make a comeback after your shoulder injury and operation?
AP: Ha! It was nothing Zips, I was gagging for it though of course I had soft skin and zero coordination and stamina! I never lost the raw power though. At the end of the day my comeback routes were the FA of Chimes and on-sighting The Bells!
MP: Some comeback! Do you think the modern climbing scene with its social media driven focus is something you would feel comfortable with given your own media savvy in the 1980/90s?
AP: More than likely yes, Zips, I was never camera shy was I! Maybe it's coming from a family of stage and TV actors, who knows, but, as Ali once said, 'It's hard to be humble when you're this pretty!' I would milk it for every drop to be honest as I did then. I recently had the pleasure of introducing Paul Pritchard to a packed house at his Melbourne lecture, I loved it and PP was brilliant.
MP: What drew you to take part in the UK climbing scene via the Net, your book etc. and once you had reconnected with climbing did you find a renewed interest in climbing generally or simply in looking back at the past?
AP: For me this is an intriguing question. For twenty years I never, ever, mentioned to anyone having been a climber and 'known about' as well. I didn't even associate with old climbing buddies down here. I then received an unexpected parcel in the post. It was a dedicated copy of Revelations from Jerry and something just clicked in my brain. I punched in 'climbing websites' or something on Google and fell across UKC and Chockstone and registered as a member. It was rather incredible as I'd had so many unknown mentions through my 'silent' years, I was genuinely humbled. I thought I could write a book too and started with one, single line. It read, 'No. It didn't hurt, in fact there was no pain at all.' It sat on the sheet of paper for about a fortnight whilst sub-consciously I had a whole manuscript running through my head which really surprised me when I came to write it down!
MP: You gave up literally within half an hour of climbing Punks. Why?
AP: That's something I've often pondered myself over the years as I was on my best form ever. I guess that my heart wasn't really in it any more. I had a girlfriend in Sydney and the offer of sponsorship to migrate and commence a professional career in rope access. I leapt at the chance but couldn't split my dedication two ways; something had to give and climbing was the loser.
MP: I can see that a new life away from climbing beckoned but in your book you describe throwing away or selling your gear immediately after doing Punks. That feels like a very emotional choice, not a logic driven one. What was going on?
AP: I had 'lost' the passion ages earlier but that darned route was such a thorn in my side that I was determined to succeed before walking away. When I got back to my caravan after finally doing the route I closed the door literally and metaphorically on climbing. I knew that I would never need that equipment again, the relief was palpable and there was barely any joy in having done the route. I washed the chalk off my hands, cracked a cold longneck, thanked the Lord and stepped outside into a whole new world, the world of the Ex-Climber.
MP: Could you climb again or is that too big a psychological barrier for you to cross?
AP: Most likely not Zips though not for any psychological reasons. Disinterest and laziness on my side, though I have fantasised about secretly training at home for six months and doing Punks again, especially since Ben [Moon] did Rainshadow!
MP: Jerry says that he is still a climber even though he doesn't climb at the moment. Would you say the same?
AP: No way. Ex-Climber for sure though. At a climbing gym the other day where my mate Charlie Creese works, a young lad asked me if I climbed and I just said, 'No way, scared of heights,' right next to us were copies of my book, classic!
MP: Looking back did you imagine when you started climbing where it would all end up?
AP: Not really Zips. I'd gotten pretty good pretty quick, had two eyes rather than one for a line and was spoilt by all the new routes on offer at the time. The Lycra looked a lot better than Ron Hills and having full(ish) time photographers certainly helped keep the magazine editors and sponsors happy! I was definitely in the right place at the right time and, by chance, had the right attitude to make the most of it.
MP: In order, what are the three most important assets for a climber to have?
AP: 1. Desire/passion 2. A long neck 3. No brain (last two stolen from Pete Crew)
MP: In five words how would you sum up your impact on UK climbing?
AP: 'That's easy, total legend obviously'! More seriously, 'The right place, right time' or 'drank heavily, settled for less' or even 'Looked good in those Lycras'!
MP: Your life today AP?
AP: Erm, it's alright down here thanks, nowt super-special, my work in construction design is still my hobby really and my new employers are just positively the loveliest couple. So, yeah, I am getting by as an ageing old ex-rock 'star' accompanied by the same old demons who plagued me back then and an entirely different set of wonderful friends. It was a blast being 'done' by you Zippy and revisiting old times!
Many thanks indeed.