Ahead of his book launch event at Kendal Mountain Festival 2018 next month, we speak to Mick Fowler about No Easy Way by Vertebrate Publishing...
As one of Britain's leading mountaineers with three Piolets d'Or to his name, Mick Fowler is accustomed to Type 2 fun and suffering. Navigating red tape, surviving car journeys on treacherous roads, herding donkeys and yaks, avoiding bears and sewing clothes at altitude - not to mention the committing climbs and sketchy descents undertaken in remote corners of the Greater Ranges. In 2017, however, Mick was faced with an altogether different challenge: a cancer diagnosis. In his latest memoir, Mick reflects on the challenges of balancing expedition mountaineering with family life and his full-time job at HM Revenue and Customs, culminating in his diagnosis last year. If there's one thing Mick's learned, it's that there truly is No Easy Way to overcome life's hurdles.
'Your cancer … I've been asked to update your obituary.' I read the email again. It was from a reporter at The Daily Telegraph who was updating a draft obituary they had on file. 'It's quite an honour,' he continued. 'We don't do this for everyone.' The email brought my mortality into sharp focus. Sixteen years earlier my challenges in life had been rather different."
You write that in some ways annual expeditions made for easy planning, being organised far in advance, once a year etc. With your job and family commitments, could you imagine yourself differently as a high level alpinist or rock climber in today's sponsored athlete climate, where a constant stream of achievements is more typical?
Aside from a short period early on I have never wanted to apply myself exclusively to climbing, so being a sponsored athlete in a way that demands a constant stream of social media hype would never have appealed. Sponsorship is a tricky issue. A constant steam of ground breaking achievements obviously gives sponsors useful material, but punters are influenced by more than just the achievements of top flight athletes. For example the arrangement I have with Berghaus involves low key blogs and kit design throughout the year leading to kit testing on my annual Himalayan trip. This enabled me to continue with my tax office job and family commitments and the relative normality of it all resonates well with the average outdoor enthusiast who struggles to keep fit and find the time to get a couple of weeks away. Personally I enjoy the variety and wouldn't want life to be any different.
'Climbing left my mind as I was dragged into my working world. I have always kept the different aspects of my life very separate, even to the extent of being called 'Mike' at work, 'Mick' in my climbing life … and 'Michael' when in trouble at home.' 'If climbing had been my job I don't think I would have kept as motivated to enjoy my own climbing as Victor has.' Do these different identities ever overlap at all? For example, transferring mountain skills to difficult work situations, taking your kids outdoors etc.?
I have always been known as Mick to climbing friends but when I joined the tax office Mick seemed a bit informal and I introduced myself as Mike which just kind of stuck. Being called Michael is usually out of my hands although strangely enough when asked for my name in places like the hospital I do introduce myself as Michael. Odd isn't it. There's virtually no overlap. Perhaps I am three different people in one body?
'A wave of middle age washed over me. This was not a place to be silly. My last runner was five metres below and it was a further ten down to my last decent gear. Physically I could have carried on but instead found myself gibbering back to my last runner and down to a shivering Andy.' - Mount Grosvenor, Daxue Shan range, China. Have you found that your confidence and risk-taking ability has decreased with age? If so, in what ways?
What I had in mind writing that was that we could have placed a bolt to make it safe and carried on, but cheating that way would have taken away any sense of achievement and simply reduced the climb to my level. That said, my willingness to take falls has definitely decreased as I have got older as has the level of objective danger I am prepared to expose myself to. But that is not the same as confidence declining. In fact, I feel more relaxed and comfortable in the mountains now than I did years ago. In the early days peer pressure led me to believe it was safer to rush up and down climbs as quickly as possible. Now I am relaxed enough to just enjoy being up there, taking my time, soaking it all in and not rushing at all.
'The mental side of mountaineering can be as challenging as the physical side. Mount Grosvenor had won.' Which is your stronger point, in your opinion - your physical ability or your mental strength? One trait that stands out from the book is your sense of humour and positivity in tricky situations - would you agree?
If by mental strength you mean determination, motivation and confident judgement then I think that is far more important than physical strength. Humour and positivity are great attributes but reliability and competence combined with mental strength are much more important when it all starts going wrong.
''At least these little problems keep the crowds away.' This has become a stock phrase of mine. I can say it quite cheerfully when not caught in the thick of stress-related action, but right then I had to admit I didn't feel quite so appreciative of the bureaucratic lines of defence that play such a large part in keeping these peaks unclimbed.' - Kajaqiao, Nyainquentaglia East Range of Tibet. A significant portion of the chapters cover the bureaucracy and logistics involved in planning expeditions to the Greater Ranges. Has your line of work in the tax office given you a different perspective on the paperwork to your fellow expedition members - are you any more tolerant of it?
I think it probably has, yes. There is definitely a side of me that takes pleasure in grappling with bureaucratic problems and overcoming them. On one occasion our permit was withdrawn when we were on the way to India and I spent a whole week in Delhi working to persuade officials to re-instate it. I think the other members of the expedition thought I was mad but the moment a very senior official finally re-authorised our expedition sticks in my mind as a highpoint of the trip. The other highpoint was the climb of course. I suppose I just like facing up to challenges and overcoming them.
The trouble was that everything was in Chinese and the only people I knew who might be able to translate were those at my local Chinese takeaway. I duly headed in that direction and joined the queue of customers. The man in front of me ordered crispy duck with pancake and I ordered translation services.
'Like-minded thinking is crucial to Himalayan success.' How important are character and personality when considering potential expedition members? Looking at your regular partners (Paul and Victor amongst others) it seems that they are all quite different to each other and to you in many ways, but clearly are like-minded on the mountain.
The really important thing to me is that my partners are of roughly the same ability as me and are like minded such that our judgement in any given situation on the mountain is likely to be the same. I get on pretty well with most people and getting on well with partners obviously helps as far as having a good time goes – but, within reason, I don't see it as essential to success on the mountain.
'Additional challenges confront the exploratory climber as the years pass by.' Do you think you will continue to explore and climb as long as you can? Victor Saunders appears to be an inspiration to you in this respect. In what ways would your objectives and locations have to be reconsidered?
Absolutely. I have every intention of continuing to climb and explore while I enjoy it and am physically able. The level of difficulty will inevitably decline but enjoyment of climbing is a very personal thing and I certainly don't feel any sense of the enjoyment level tailing off. And yes, super-ager Vic is an inspiration. We are planning a multi-day technical Himalayan climb together next year when he will be 69. That sounds mad! I can't think of another 69 year old that I would want to climb that kind of route with.
On sea cliff climbing in Scotland: 'I can't honestly say that the retrospective pleasure of such climbs is as enduring as that enjoyed after a big mountain climb, but the rarely visited nature of the cliffs, the challenges of getting there, the uncertainties inherent in the climbing and the sense of achievement on getting up a long-anticipated objective ticks a lot of the criteria boxes I have for greater-range objectives. And it is amazing what great memories the smell of fulmar vomit can induce.' Do you plan to spend more time on rock objectives once (and if!) bigger mountains become too much?
Yes. Now I have retired from the tax office I intend to spend more time doing all of the outdoor activities that I like so much but have never had enough time for. Scotland in particular appeals. There are so many remote crags and cliffs that I have always wanted to explore.
'One of the worst nights I've ever had. My back hurts, weather's crap, view's crap. Let's get up and get out of here.' - Paul Ramsden complains on Manamcho, East Tibet. What are the most memorable bivvy spots of the ones you wrote about in the book? The best and the worst?
As to the worst nothing can compare with the Torture Tube bivouac on Taweche with Pat Littlejohn in 1995. That was just so awful it cannot be beaten. For the best…… there have been so many wonderful bivouacs that it is difficult to choose. Off the top of my head I particularly recall our top bivouac on Kishtwar Kailash in 2013. It was a west facing site which caught the final rays of the sun, the weather was perfect, there wasn't a breath of wind, it had been a great climb and it seemed pretty clear that we would be able to reach the summit of this wonderful unclimbed peak the next day. Just sitting in the evening sun chatting to Paul Ramsden and looking out at the jagged skyline of East Kishtwar was very special.
'At the last house, well beyond the roadhead, we were invited in and the whole extended family gathered to marvel at the white-skinned men who had just climbed the mountain that dominated their valley. The thought that it might be possible to reach the summit had clearly never crossed their minds and they fired non-stop questions at us about the detail of our ascent. The photographs we showed them on our new digital camera screens were a source of great fascination.' - Manamcho. Interacting with local people on your trips is an important aspect of an expedition for you. In some areas you expected Western/modern influences but were pleased to see the opposite, whereas in others you weren't expecting much infrastructure and found a surprising degree of development. What are your general first-hand impressions of how tourism and international relations are affecting mountain communities and landscapes in the areas you've visited?
In certain mountain areas tourism has completely changed the way of living of the local communities. The Khumbu valley in Nepal is a classic example. But tourism tends to stick to tried and tested places. Many of the mountain valleys of the Himalaya, East Tibet, Xinjiang, etc. have not seen any tourists at all. From what I have seen it is the actions of governments making the biggest difference. Government funded infrastructure schemes are resulting in roads being blasted further and further into once remote valleys. And electricity, mobile phones, satellite televisions and the internet are connecting remote communities to the world in a way that has never been possible before. All this has gathered pace hugely in recent years and ways of life are inevitably being changed forever. Whether for the better or the worse is debatable!
'In a world where weight is so important it sometimes surprises me that we cut our toothbrushes in half but still carry superfluous weight in the form of reading material.' What genre of book do you take on an expedition?
100% light hearted, trashy and easy to dip in and out of. I remember being fully shocked when Crag Jones brought Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time as trip reading material. That's exactly not the kind of genre I would take.
You despise abseiling, jumaring and sack hauling, judging by your book. Any big-walling plans for the future?
'Retreating from something you had set your heart on is never easy and there will always be unanswered questions.' Although you write that you don't like returning to places you've been before, if you had to pick one objective to return to what would it be?
I honestly don't have any objectives that I have failed on and would like to return to. I returned to Cerro Kishtwar after failing on my first attempt and there have been quite a few climbs that I would have returned to if I had failed – Taulliraju, Spantik, Taweche, Siguniang, Mugu Chuli, Shiva, Gave Ding, Kishwar Kailash and Sersank to name but a few.
'As I get older, my list of objectives seems to grow longer. I suppose that's a good thing. If it got shorter I might run out and have to think about changing my hobby.' You've added a hobby and taken up fell-running in recent years. What was the appeal and does it complement mountaineering well?
The appeal was twofold. It was something that would keep me fit between expeditions and I was attracted to the thought of people of all abilities running about over trackless upland terrain in appalling weather conditions. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it would introduce me to a new selection of fine, mildly eccentric characters. There is a lot of overlap between climbers and fell runners and there is no doubt in my mind that fell running has been invaluable in keeping me fit enough to tackle multi-day Himalayan climbs.
''It's important to make mistakes,' I commented. 'One day we might learn from them.' We looked at each other and burst out laughing.' - Sulamar, Xuelian Range, China. What's the most important mistake you've ever learned from in mountaineering?
Never ever climb behind another party on a multi-day technical Himalayan climb.
An inspirational climb ahead makes such starts easier than early rising for tax office days, but even so I don't exactly find them easy.
'It's like going to a health farm for four weeks each year,' I explain to incredulous tax colleagues who quiz me about why I put myself through the hardship of multi-day climbs in sub-zero conditions.' You are clearly quite different to your colleagues and your climbing trips have often been cited by you at appraisals as your most proud-of personal achievement of the year without any hesitation. Were your bosses and colleagues as understanding as they appear to be in the book?
I always made very sure that my colleagues would suffer minimal inconvenience when I was away and they were always very understanding. With my early bosses it wasn't so much they were understanding as they found it difficult to say 'no' when I asked for leave for 'the trip of a lifetime' a year or 18 months in advance. Fortunately they changed quite regularly in the early days and didn't seem to latch onto the fact that every year featured a 'trip of a lifetime'. As I became more senior my bosses did show more interest. In fact, I found that the more senior they were the more likely they were to be interested and supportive. Some were keen on the outdoors and knew my name through outdoor circles, others found me useful for contributing 'inspiring' pieces to in-house magazines and the like.
Once the relationship between HMRC and a big international bank had become very poor, some big-wig in the bank was interested in climbing and I was asked to give a climbing focused break-the-ice motivational talk to delegates at the bank's international tax conference. So, gradually as the years went by I was recognised as useful in areas outside my direct area of responsibility. I was also conscientious and generally regarded as good at my job such that it was almost accepted that allowing me the freedom to enjoy the 'trip of a lifetime' every year was a condition of my continued employment.
'A few weeks after Tawoche, Pat and I were copying each other's slides and generally wallowing in retrospective pleasure. But the newspaper headlines had drastically changed. Now they were all about Alison's death on K2 and the debate was over whether she had been an irresponsible mother to take on the risk inherent in climbing K2.' - Mugu Chuli, West Nepal. You had met Alison Hargreaves in Kathmandu shortly before her death, which you write about briefly. As a father, have you ever received comments about the risks you take and your responsibility as a parent?
Only once from a very traditional Civil Servant work colleague who I did not have a very good relationship with at the time. Ironically we eventually became quite close and I think he began to see how much my climbing means to me and started to understand that I did actually give risks and responsibility a lot of thought and aimed to moderate them to a level I was comfortable with.
'People sometimes ask me why I never go for the headline-grabbing objectives on bigger mountains. Here, on this wonderful climb in a rarely visited part of the Himalaya, I had my answer. Shiva was giving me everything that I could possibly want from my mountaineering.' If you had to pick a headline-grabbing objective on a big mountain, what would it be?
I'm no expert on objectives above 7,000m but the north buttress of Masherbrum does look rather fine. Just a pity it isn't at a lower altitude.
Sometimes the mountain wins. We didn't get up Vasuki Parbat, but we did our very best, were sound in our judgement, had a great time and came back safely. And these are the important things. If we were guaranteed success in everything we tried then life would be pretty boring.
'Contentious from the outset there was controversy over whether awards were appropriate in mountaineering and the fact that it is very difficult to make meaningful comparisons between different climbs.' You've won 3 Piolets d'Or by now and praise the fact that the format has evolved into a celebration of multiple mountaineering ascents, compared to its former single choice of one 'winning' climb. You were also president of the Alpine Club and mention your keenness to get young people involved in alpinism and mountaineering. What do you reckon to the new generation of mountaineers, globally and the UK in particular?
In the UK the Alpine Club is actively encouraging young mountaineers and we have a new generation achieving amazing climbs in the Alps and, increasingly, further afield. That enthusiasm and is being replicated in other countries and as access gets easier more and more mountaineers are able to enjoy the Himalaya. Crowding outside the honeypots seems unlikely and there are still plenty of fantastic objectives for the new generation. It is a good time to be an alpine style Himalayan mountaineer.
'Your body is used to being under strain for a month or so every year. It will just be a different kind of strain this year,' she explained. Rightly or wrongly her words gave me hope.' You were diagnosed with cancer shortly before your big Himalayan trip with Victor last year, which had to be cancelled. You talk about the fear of hassle and disruption to the trip almost eclipsing the fear of a diagnosis being serious, since you were feeling fitter and more well than ever. As an active person, do you think this was a kind of denial/disbelief of sorts that it could possibly happen to you?
It wasn't so much denial or disbelief, more that the issues I was having seemed very minor and I really didn't think that anything serious might be wrong. I now realise that this is one of the frightening facts about cancer. It creeps up on you and by the time significant symptoms occur it is often too late. I might well owe my life to Nicki, my wife, who nagged me to see my doctor rather than just go to the Himalaya and 'keep an eye on things.'
'It's all very difficult, this business of getting the most out of life.' Did your mountaineering experience help you process your illness and treatment, as the nurse suggested? Do you think the positive mental attitude and resilience is a useful transferrable trait, since you understand that there's not always an 'easy way' to overcome something?
I honestly don't know. I am lucky in that I am generally a positive person, but I have been surprised that a year of cancer grief doesn't seem to have affected my attitude at all. I don't know whether the discomfort of so many tricky bivouacs prepared me well, but I certainly think it is easier to accept these things as you get older. Shit happens and you just kind of deal with it.
'My objectives file still bulges with possibilities in the Hindu Kush, Chinese Karakoram, Tien Shan, Altai, Andes, east Tibet and even Antarctica. And of course all the time there are wonderful opportunities for interesting adventures in the UK. It's a worry really that there is so much to be done and so little time.' Your cancer is back following an all-clear, but you've vowed not to give up. What are your plans for the next while - do you have more treatment to undergo shortly?
Immediately after I signed off the book it was decided that the only way to stop me dying was to remove my entire anal canal and give me a colostomy. My lack of buttock blubber caused an additional challenge for the surgeon, but the brilliant team at Northern General in Sheffield tell me the prognosis is good and have me back on my feet exercising again in preparation for a Himalayan trip with Victor next spring.
Kendal Mountain Festival (15th-18th November) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 18 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.
The No Easy Way book launch will take place on Sunday 18th November 14:30-16:00. Mick will be present at the event to speak about his experiences.
- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE
- INTERVIEW: Liv Sansoz - Liv Along the Way 5 Nov
- ARTICLE: Gwen Moffat on Climbing and Crime 4 Oct
- REVIEW: Waymaking - A Women's Adventure Writing Anthology 2 Oct
- OPINION: Difficultés de Croissance - Une Féminité Pesante 25 Sep
- ARTICLE: When UKC April Fools Go Wrong... 10 Sep
- ARTICLE: British Climber Problems: 70 Quirks of the UK Climber 3 Sep
- ARTICLE: Helicopter Rescue in Pakistan - The Past, Present & Future 29 Aug
- DIGITAL FEATURE: Humans of Climbing: Volume 2 2 Aug
- INTERVIEW: The Man Who Climbs Trees 30 Jul
- FEATURE: Social Climbers - The Evolving Indoor Climbing Industry 5 Jul