Perfect Partners #16 - Malcolm Bass and Simon Yearsley Interview

© Paul Figg

In this series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and find out what they really think of one another...

In the late 1980s, a chance coming together of parts of the Leeds caving/cave diving scene and the Sheffield climbing scene started a climbing partnership that has lasted 31 years, spanned many continents, and created some memorable lines on Scottish winter cliffs and beyond. Malcolm Bass (53) and Simon Yearsley (56) both have full-time family relationships, and full-time professional careers: Malcolm as an NHS Clinical Psychologist, and Simon running his two businesses in Highland Perthshire, Big Tree Campervans and The Scottish Deli.

Big smiles on Beinn Bhann during the first ascent of Wonderland VII, 7.  © Paul Figg
Big smiles on Beinn Bhann during the first ascent of Wonderland VII, 7.
© Paul Figg

When they first met, Malcolm was making a name for himself as an exploratory caver and diver in the Yorkshire Dales, and Simon was a rock climber and winter climber based in Sheffield. For a few years, Simon gave up climbing and took up exploratory caving under Malcolm's wing, but a few years later, the pair swapped to Scottish winter climbing. They first emerged on the Scottish winter new-routing scene in March 1996 with a clutch of routes on an unclimbed cliff on Ben Alder. They have subsequently created dozens of new routes in Scotland in winter, often in remote locations, although occasionally hidden in plain sight on well-trodden cliffs.

Their Scottish winter stand-out routes include:

FWA Pobble VII 7, and The Long March VII 8 - Foinaven 

Realisation VI 6, Wonderland VII 7, Haigha VI 7, and Nam Fhamarian VII 7 (with Neil Silver) - Beinn Bhan

The development of Eilde Canyon in Glen Coe

Twisted VII 7, Stob Coire nan Lochan

Free Range (with Jim Higgins) VII 7 and FWA Turkish (with Helen Rennard) VII 7, Ben Nevis

They have also shared alpine adventures in the European Alps, North America, and five expeditions to even bigger Himalayan mountains. In 2012, along with Paul Figg, they made the first ascent of Dunglung Khangri 6365m in the East Karakoram and came within a whisker of the summit of Janhukot 6805m in the Gangotri in 2014. Malcolm, along with Paul Figg, was nominated for the Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the West Face of Vasuki Parbat in 2010

Malcolm on Simon

How did you first meet?

It was in winter at the bunkhouse at Achintee at the foot of Ben Nevis. The late eighties. I was a keen caver at the time, and the Leeds University caving club booked the bunkhouse for a winter week each year so we could discover a new dangerous environment, but one for which we were totally ill-prepared. Simon and some of his climbing friends from Sheffield knew one of the cavers, and had inveigled themselves onto the trip. It was probably a bit like Everest base camp; people being shown how to put their crampons on.

Did you know Simon by reputation before meeting him?

No I didn't. But Simon and his crew ("the climbing mateys") quickly established a strong reputation when one of them, Donald Kingsnorth, took a 120-footer off Point Five.

What was your first impression?

We really got to know one another through caving, which Simon got into after the Scottish trip. Simon seemed affable, but also focused, determined, organised, and obsessed with the mountains. He smoked heavily and liked a drink. There was a lot of common ground.

What was the first route you climbed together?

Pumpkin on Meagaidh. Me in strap on crampons and bendy boots placing my first ice screws. The illusion of safety from having Simon, a more experienced climber, on the team. And an unusual double leader system with me and Adrian Mellor leading the top pitches simultaneously.

Glacier bivi, Argentière Glacier, winter 2008.  © Andy Brown
Glacier bivi, Argentière Glacier, winter 2008.
© Andy Brown

Why do you enjoy climbing with Simon?

Most of the time we are having an enormous amount of fun. If we are in earshot of one another we talk constantly, mostly utter shit. We both feel very happy, free, joyous, even slightly manic in most mountain environments. Simon is knowledgeable, conscientious about planning and research, and creative about finding exciting targets. He's focused on getting stuff done, but has broad interests so we have plenty to talk about on long drives and walk ins. There are also advantages to climbing with someone who owns a camper van company and a deli.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

Distant Lights, a new route on the south face of Kahiltna Queen/Humble Peak in Alaska in 2003. We had a perfect three week trip. Snow and ice conditions were superb. We went in early Spring and saw no one else in the Range. We climbed two new 1100m routes, both in single push style. The second, Distant Lights, had great ice and mixed pitches as well as lots of romping up nevé. From the summit, in the brief Alaskan night, we saw vague lights in the distance and never discovered what they were; a settlement? The Northern Lights? A creation of our over-taxed brains? When we got back down, after 40 hours on the go, we managed to hail a plane within a couple of hours, and were back in Talkeetna for lunch. We were invited to a barbecue party in the sublime birch woods that night, and eventually stumbled back to our pits in the first light of yet another day in a euphoric state of exhaustion, sleep deprivation and drunkenness.

Sum up your partnership in three words.

Longstanding, fun, and surprisingly effective given our actual abilities.

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

There is no getting away from the fact; climbing in the mountains is dangerous. A number of potentially very bad things have happened to us; luckily they all turned out alright. But they were sudden events, without much time to feel scared. It is prolonged exposure that really scares me. The second pitch of our route Wonderland on Bheinn Bhann dragged on like this: Simon was questing up a corner on delaminating thin ice. The gear was either rubbish or non-existent and he was 35m out. I was worried that if the ice peeled his fall would be onto the belay, and I could see us going to ground. Simon's understandably cautious approach to the pitch was ultimately effective, but it certainly drew out the suspense.

If you could change one thing about Simon what would it be?

Speed up his bowel movements. I have spent an alarming amount of my life waiting for him to have a dump.

What are your plans for the future?

There are plenty of Scottish winter new route targets lurking in The Project document (which in itself dates us, it was named after the New Labour "project"). Some of those might get done this winter, but many will survive to keep us entertained for years to come.

Further afield we are planning a Himalayan venture. Then there's stuff we need to go back to in Canada, we haven't finished with Alaska yet, and we have plans for some long mountain journeys. And we need to learn to rock climb properly.

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Simon?

Any one of several easily forgotten polished, perma-dry, low grade sport routes at Finale. They represent the least successful phase of our partnership. In March 1997 we climbed the Frendo Spur in winter. It was a superb adventure. The mountains were quiet, the route felt committing and remote even though we were looking down at Chamonix, and we only needed to take a one week holiday. We thought that in European winter alpinism we had discovered the way forward for adventurous alpine climbing for the time poor. But then we had a long series of utterly fruitless trips characterised by epic snow falls, clueless skiing in the fog, desperate attempts to escape to the Med., and a memorable projectile vomiting bug. After a few years of these I remember walking into a pub full of climbers back home, and someone saying "Here come Europe's least successful winter alpinists." We had no grounds to disagree. But I remember even those trips fondly: once we had both stopped vomiting we enjoyed driving around Europe in a hire car failing to find dry rock or approachable ice, but reliably finding beer and pizza over which to plan future trips.

Whiling away time before an attempt on the SW Face of Rimo III in 2012.  © Paul Figg
Whiling away time before an attempt on the SW Face of Rimo III in 2012.
© Paul Figg

Has Simon ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

Not one from The Project, not without asking: we are quite strict with one another about that. And the ones we agreed he could try he didn't get up: you can imagine how disappointed I felt for him.

But there are things that Simon wants to do that I am just not prepared to do. I would find it degrading. So he goes off and does them with someone else. There is this grassy little corrie just off the Lagan road that Simon is obsessed with. He thinks it's unexplored, but it's in the guidebook. If you look at it through squinted eyes the hillsides can just about be made to resolve into low angled buttresses. Most winters he goes there, gets avalanched, and that seems to satisfy his urge for a while. You have to allow your partner these little freedoms.

What have you learned from climbing with Simon?

When we first started climbing together Simon taught me an enormous amount of technical stuff: rope work, good gear placement, foot work, winter conditions etc. Then a lot about the lay out of the Alps; the glaciers, huts and uplifts. Latterly he has taught me to be more comfortable in asking other climbers for help and information, and to take more pleasure from the company of other parties on the hill. Since he took over the deli I have learned quite a lot of detail about coffee. But mostly I have learned that I would like to keep climbing with him for as many years as we can.

Simon on Malcolm

How did you first meet? 

In the winter of '87 a bunch of us from Sheffield were staying at the then old (if I remember correctly, then rather damp and shabby) bunkhouse where the Ben Nevis Inn now stands. We shared the bunkhouse with a group of (if I remember correctly, then rather damp and shabby) cavers from Leeds Uni who were pretending to climb. On rest/pub days we jousted tales of whether Scottish winter climbing or exploratory caving and cave diving was the tougher sport. It was fun, and we repeated these unofficial "meets" for the next few years.

Did you know Malcolm by reputation before meeting him? 

Yes, in a way… during the jousting of Achintee egos, the cavers kept mentioning the name, "Malcolm Bass". He apparently had an impressive caving and diving CV, and was one of the team responsible for pushing the kilometres of flat-out crawling in the Pen-y-Ghent Pot extensions, with such evocative passage names as "Psycho-Crawler", "Gloom Doom", and "Night of the Living Dead".

What was your first impression?

I was hugely impressed with his smoking and drinking… the infamous "Fort William lunchtime gallon" episode. Also his infectious enthusiasm for "new" things - whether unexplored caves, lines on Scottish winter cliffs, or unclimbed Himalayan summits. As far as Scottish winter climbing, quite frankly, like a lot of the Leeds Uni cavers at the time, he didn't have much of a clue: I recall one conversation about whether it really would be snowy on the top of the Ben; and another about the best way to put crampons on securely. Worrying.

Simon racking gear prior to a nighttime lead on a new route at Beinn Bhann.  © Malcolm Bass
Simon racking gear prior to a nighttime lead on a new route at Beinn Bhann.
© Malcolm Bass

What was the first route you climbed together?

Pumpkin on Creag Meagaidh, with Ade Mellor (another caver) on the rope as well. It was fun, and wet. In fact very wet, and Malcolm's attempt to find a belay spawned the now infamous exchange of: "I can't find anywhere to belay!" "Then just belay to a passing salmon... "

Why do you enjoy climbing with Malcolm?

I can't imagine having a 31-year, reasonably successful climbing partnership with someone who was only interested in climbing. How boring would that be. Yes, the actual climbing with Malcolm is enjoyable, but the main reason I enjoy our partnership is the diverse range of interests we both have, and the resulting "stuff" we blether on about. We've always been able to endlessly discuss: politics; social justice; wildlife; ornithology; fishing; music; military history; beer; wargaming (ooops, we've let that one slip, matey); friends; antagonists; contemporary art; made-up Lancastrian climbing personalities; weather systems; sex. Occasionally we talk about climbing too.

What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

Coire na Poite on Beinn Bhan is a very special place. In 2004 we'd established the destined-for-classic-status route, Realisation, and we were back in 2009 to try the wall further right. The resulting "Wonderland", (VII,7) 370m is another high quality outing, and occupies a memorable place in both our hearts. We'd pulled through a final steep wall on pitch 5 or 6, and we knew the route was in the bag. We were super-excited as we racked gear on the belay ledge. At that point, the biggest, fullest, brightest full moon you've ever seen emerged from round the corner of the buttress and bathed the whole coire in magical moonlight. We switched our head torches off and romped up the final few easy pitches whooping with the simple pleasure of being there.

Sum up your partnership in three words.

Hardworking. Supportive. Fun.

Hardworking, because together we enjoy putting a lot of effort into training, researching objectives, and learning from our climbs.

Supportive, because you learn a lot about each other when you're climbing big mountains with someone you care about and we've both experienced the value of physical and emotional support on tough multi-day efforts. We've also both been through tough personal mental wellbeing challenges in our lives, and having your climbing partner as one of your key pillars of support is one of the things that a real partnership is about.

Fun, because we've spent a lot of time over the past 31 years laughing with, and at, each other in a multitude of pretty cool places around the world.

What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

Climbing mountains is dangerous, and you can die doing it. Malcolm and I have had a number of close calls together, and sadly have lost some good friends. I think we are actually quite good at managing the fear aspects of our climbing together, and we talk about this dynamic a lot. Back in the alpine winter of 2005 we were abseiling back down the North Face of Pointe Migot in the dark, in a growing storm, after an abortive attempt to make the first winter ascent of the Bonnington/Patey route. The ab rope stuck. We'd pulled it through almost to the joining knot. God knows what the rope was jammed in. Malcolm started to prusik the single rope. He disappeared up into the storm. The belay was really crap. I distinctly remember shivering convulsively on the belay ledge, partly with the alpine winter cold, partly with fear of what would happen if the rope pulled and Malcolm came hurtling down through the dark. He didn't. Thankfully.

If you could change one thing about Malcolm what would it be?

Switch the downstairs bathroom light off. Every time Malcolm stays at mine and Sarah's house, he leaves the light on in the downstairs bathroom. He leaves it on. I switch it off. It happens every time... every time… I mean absolutely every time. Not that this really really eats into my soul... no... not at all... not in the least...

Simon acclimatising in 2014 on the lower slopes of Kedar Dome.  © Malcolm Bass
Simon acclimatising in 2014 on the lower slopes of Kedar Dome.
© Malcolm Bass

What are your plans for the future? 

A good Scottish winter season is the most immediate priority. We're in the midst of planning our next Himalayan trip and just now seem to have too many possibilities, so we do need to get these whittled down so we can focus. Much (much) further into the future we do have our "Dotage List" for when we are really old grunters, and this has some cool-looking mountains, and some inspirational mountain journeys.

What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Malcolm?

Malcolm and his partner, Donna, live close to the North York Moors. There is some good climbing around there. And there is Scugdale. Malcolm will hate me for this, but each time we go to Scuggy I really don't enjoy it at all. Too high for a boulder problem. Too short for a route. And he's done them all a million times, so he totally burns me off.

Has Malcolm ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

No. We have a list of new routes which we have complied together and take great pleasure in adding to all the time. We call the list "The Project." Whilst we both climb with a variety of other partners, we are very strict about agreeing up front if whether we're happy for the other to climb anything from The Project with someone else.

What have you learned from climbing with Malcolm?

Malcolm is a Clinical Psychologist by trade. He knows a lot, and thinks a lot about how we humans relate to each other, and how we behave in different environments. Being around this rather special mind for the past 31 years has taught me volumes about my own motivations and my own behaviours. Far too much to begin to explain here.

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6 Mar, 2019

Sod the climbing, what a lovely friendship!

6 Mar, 2019

Great article Tom. And I know what Simon means about Scugdale from my one visit there - high enough to be terrifying boulder problems but being there with a mate who has done lots of them before telling you to just get on with it and his teenage daughter who rarely climbs had done that one on a post Xmas-lunch family walk and boulder. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

I met the team once and chatted briefly one very early winter morning in a Lake District carpark. Not sure if it was Simon or Malcolm I spoke with, but I only realised that it was the Bass/Yearsley dream team when I saw the names pop up in the UKC winter ascents lists near ours.

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