Reading Between the Lines - Nick Bullock Interview

Tales of climbing and mountaineering adventures have long been written, read and shared; stories of fleeting moments of fear, survival epics and questing on peaks unconquered. Our rich heritage of mountain literature has inspired climbers and writers of today to continue documenting experiences in the outdoors; the extractions from the quotidian that encourage us to reflect on life as we sharpen our political or philosophical beliefs and calibrate our moral compass.

With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating climbing stories are ones that go beyond gear and grades - ideas and commentary on wider society permeate mountain literature. In this series of interviews, we talk to prominent climbing writers about their reading habits between - or even during - routes and expeditions, focusing not only on the growing realm of mountain literature, but also on books of other genres that have informed their thinking and writing.

Nick Bullock  © UKC News
Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock is succinctly summed up in his Twitter bio as a 'Mountaineer. Climber. Writer. Author. Prison PE Officer Escapee. NOT an adventurer.' Between the full stops, much remains to be said - although Nick's forthright personality jumps off the screen. His first book Echoes - shortlisted for the 2013 Boardman Tasker prize - follows Nick's 'hard road to freedom' as he leaves behind a career in the prison service for a nomadic life in the mountains. Introspective and candid in his writing, Nick weaves tales of violent prison episodes with life or death situations on remote climbs to blur the lines between life inside and outside.

Nick's upcoming book Tides is a memoir that focuses on the highs and lows of a life lived both through and for climbing. Once again, Nick adds depth to his writing by reflecting deeply on the motivations behind his actions; drawing on his upbringing, personal relationships and influential encounters with some of the world's top climbers. Having won the 'Best Mountaineering Article' prize at the prestigious Banff Mountain Book competition last year for his Alpinist essay 'Threshold Shift', Nick's writing skills are starting to attract similar recognition to that afforded to his bold first ascents in the mountains - notably his Piolet d'Or awarded for the first ascent of the North Buttress of Nyainqentangla South East in Tibet alongside Paul Ramsden in 2016. I sent Nick some questions to find out how he approaches his writing, reading and thinking between bold lines...

'I wanted climbing. I was prepared to put in the time and effort to gain the experience. But then, for repeat criminals, there's also the thrill of the chase, the uncertainty, the tension, the excitement – how much is that part of their drive? Crime or climb? Were they just two intoxicating drugs to get some of us through the sterility of modern life, the consumerism we learn in our schools, from parents and on TV?' - Echoes.

What was the first book you ever read?

I really can't remember as it's so long ago now, but I do recall reading many of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books.

Which was the first mountaineering or climbing book that you read? Which is your all-time favourite, and why?

I think the first mountaineering book I read was Chris Bonington's I Chose To Climb. I can't really choose a singular all-time favourite climbing book or author, but a collective of books and authors would be as follows: Mark Twight's Kiss or Kill, Paul Pritchard's Deep Play and The Totem Pole. Most things by Greg Child. Joe Simpson's Touching the Void and Game of Ghosts. Joe Tasker's Savage Arena.

What's your all-time favourite non-climbing book, and why?

Again, its difficult to single out one book, but it would possibly be Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy closely followed by The Border Trilogy, also by McCarthy. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by this as I think he is almost unrivalled when it comes to writing a novel.

In a different vein, I would also include Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light, Mathew Clegg's West North East, and a collection of Ted Hughes' poetry. Coming in a close third place would be Phillip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, I have always loved the brilliance and imagination and madness of Phillip K Dick's writing.

Fiction or non-fiction? Which do you find yourself reading more of?

I mainly read articles and poetry now unless I'm on a trip, so a mix of both and when I read a whole book it's generally a mix of biography, crime detective novels or the occasional bit of sci-fi. I've become more interested in reading about people and what makes them tick, generally in article form.

I suppose I'm very interested in people, even fictional people. The authors of fiction who grab me have strong lead characters that often have flaws; Rebus in Ian Rankin's books is a perfect example. In fact, Ian Rankin would be one of my favourite authors - I think he's brilliant in the way he can write what could be classed a bog-standard thriller but on occasion throws in a fantastic bit of writing that says so much about the character. This is where, in my opinion, other authors fall flat. I don't want to be told how amazing this person is at something because often in life people aren't that amazing and often the most interesting characters are flawed.

A little while back I also read The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett - based on a true story. Again, a very interesting, but flawed character. A brilliantly written and endearing book.

Matt Helliker and Nick on the summit of Huantsán Sur after the first ascent of Death or Glory.  © Nick Bullock
Matt Helliker and Nick on the summit of Huantsán Sur after the first ascent of Death or Glory.
© Nick Bullock

How do you prefer to read - proper books or ebooks?

I like to read what I consider to be books, so made of paper with a cover and not prone to running out of power or breaking. I have a small dog-eared collection in my van that I often dip into. Paper books have history, they have creases and stains, they become battered and this condition in itself tells a story and has attachment. I get no attachment from a piece of electronic technology, although I can see the advantage of ebooks as the writing becomes more available to everyone around the world.

Do you devour books whole or dip in and out of a few? How's your attention span?!

I very much dip in; my attention span has become poorer. I blame this on writing my own stuff, because I find it difficult to dedicate the time to reading a whole book without becoming inspired to begin writing myself.

'In Echoes Bullock is seeking his own voice.' - Paul Pritchard writes in the foreword. Do you think you've found your voice as a writer, or is it an ongoing process?

I'm not sure I'll ever find 'my voice' to be honest because it tends to change tone almost daily. On occasion my voice is an angry tenor (but not that often nowadays, I'm happy to say.) More commonly it's a moderated and considered baritone and on rare occasion it's a bass. When it's a bass, that's the time to watch out or at least to understand I'm being challenged and becoming very cautioned and thoughtful in my response.

I really like learning new stuff and being told new things. Writing has helped me in this because I try to research subjects, to a greater or lesser degree, that I know nothing about and in doing this my opinions change constantly. I was not trained to write and didn't study writing nor English (that's obvious, I can hear people say) and because of this I also learn about the writing process mainly through trial and error, which is also enjoyable.

The foreword to Echoes also mentions your strong desire to write - even if what you write has no hope of getting published. You keep a regular blog. Do you see this more as a means of writing practice, rather than self-promotion? I know you struggle with being a sponsored athlete and the expectation of 'spray' and blowing your own trumpet, etc.!

It would be very easy for me to answer this by saying yes, I write my blog purely as a means to get my writing out there and as you say, 'practice.' But…as you have mentioned, self-promotion does rear its ugly head too.

I do have an extremely strong desire to write. Writing is in its own way a form of therapy for me; it exorcises the demons and through writing and the act of thinking about my motivations, I become a more honest with myself. Hopefully I also become a better person (in my opinion anyway) because sometimes what I find is not that nice.

'I had a guidebook, a pair of sticky shoes, and a chalk bag. Combine this with determination and a large library, and I convinced myself the climbing world had no idea what force of nature was about to be unleashed.' - Echoes

My writing does also require practice on a regular basis. Writing for me is like climbing. I'm not a natural at it and it's only through constant hard work and practice that I become better and as I have an ego, I like becoming better at most things I try. And now the ugly…

Unfortunately, on occasion, I do write something and publish a piece of writing that is for self-promotion (although I always attempt to make an interesting or informative story). I have a very enjoyable, privileged and fortunate lifestyle which I love and to maintain my lifestyle I need to have some form of online presence I suppose? I'm a writer who needs to sell work or be commissioned and I'm a sponsored climber whose sponsors, as relaxed and understanding as my sponsors are, require some form of return and rightly so. I could say it's a small price to pay, but on rare occasions, feeling the self-induced pressure to write about what I've done, to quote facts and figures or to write something that I think to be a boast, does have quite an effect, and it can make me feel shitty. Obviously not enough to say to sponsors, keep your gear and money, I'm only writing about the things that really interest me from here on in, but maybe even then my sponsors would still support me as they are all friends now and love what I do and how I live. Maybe I should have the courage and test it out; truth be told, I'm not far off anyway. I've come a long way in understanding my own motivations and in what I write about on my blog and the reasons for it.

'I began to appreciate that there was another side, another way, a different view.' In Echoes you write about seeing things in 'black and white' as a result of your upbringing; your Grandad and father's approach to life which rubbed off on you. Working in the prison service and travelling through climbing seemed to broaden your perspectives. In what ways do you think your writing also benefited from your tougher life experiences? Do you believe that 'happiness writes white,'? (Henry de Montherlant).

When I started to write I generally thought a rip-roaring story would do it, be it in a prison or on a cliff face. I hardly ever go back to those early pieces so I can't be sure, but I don't think I included much of a message between the lines. I probably thought a good yarn was enough and maybe at times it is! Now I mostly try to have a moral or some meaning locked away inside the story that hopefully, if I've done a good enough job, the reader will get and connect with. I think my writing naturally comes out as pretty dark, or at least the pieces I really enjoy to write. Here I am writing dark prose enjoying myself. Obviously, to write happy is possible and I think it's possible to see it, but to have experienced darkness and then write about it from a brighter place carries a moral in itself, I think? I also think that sharing some of the things I have seen and experienced might make the majority of readers appreciate where they are and possibly give them hope in their own times of doubt.

It's funny really that a lot of my writing is dark and people of course get the impression from it that I am also. When I met Steve House for the first time he told my friend afterwards that he was surprised how cheerful I was because he had read something I had written that was particularly dour. Writing in a way is exorcism; it makes me a happy person. I think more people should write.

Paul Pritchard writes that you 'loved the added challenge of writing, of translating the intensity of the ascent into text.' You artfully weave episodes from bold climbs with harrowing incidents in the prison to add to the intensity. How easily did these stories slot together? I assume you were often drawing on prison experiences mid-climb, but to be able to shift focus from one to the other in writing to share with the reader must have been a challenge? Climbing stories naturally have their highs and lows and I felt that the addition of your prison excerpts enhanced the highs of the climbing in some way.

Juxtaposing an experience from my time in prison and on a climb wasn't really difficult. I prefer and really enjoy crafting a piece of writing, certainly more than writing a first draft. In some way I'm fortunate to have these prison experiences from which to work and use as a comparison or at times a metaphor or to pull the reader away and jump their mind to another place, which, on return to a sea cliff, or a mountain, hopefully enhances their appreciation of the situation or the story as a whole.

The difficulty, or the skill with using flashbacks, I have found, is knowing when and how and how often to use them. Some people find flashbacks confusing or annoying and some people like the break from the main theme, although with many of the flashbacks there is generally a reason for the insertion beyond just breaking the pace or giving the reader a rest. In Tides I hope I have become more skilled with the insertion of flashbacks and that they enhance the reader's overall understanding and add to their perception, even if at the time of reading the flashback isn't obvious in its connection. Many of the flashbacks in Tides are about my Dad. Taken as a standalone they are possibly not that interesting, but when used as a flashback to another story, hopefully they add, not only to the stories theme or pace, but also to the book's narrative arc. I still have a way to go in being skilful with the insertion of other stories within a story, but I'm getting there slowly.

In the early days, who or what were you reading to inspire your own activities? You mention Chris Bonington and Julie Tullis' writing.

In the early days of my climbing I was a member of several libraries in Leicestershire and would take out any books on the subject. I devoured climbing and mountaineering books including Rene Desmaison's Total Alpinism, A Mountaineer's Life by Al Rouse, anything about Joe Brown and Don Whillans, everything by Chris Bonington and then more modern stuff by Mick Fowler, Victor Saunders, Joe Tasker, Pete Boardman and of course Joe Simpson. When I had read almost everything out there I began on Polar exploration and biography. Shackleton's biography was a favourite as were many of Ranulph Fiennes' books. I really enjoyed trying to imagine the hardship and what it takes to endure such extremes because at the time, working in the prison, it felt like being in such a harsh but beautiful environment would be preferable.

Your writing is peppered with references and imagery relating to birds - especially during climbing sequences - and I know that you are a keen birdwatcher. 'Since finding climbing I had already changed from a homemaker looking for comfort and stability to a migrating bird that leaves behind the known and flies to the new and challenging. [...] We hatch and look from the comfort of the nest [...] scared to take flight for fear of the unknown.' Why do they feature so heavily? Are they an important thread in your writing personally?

I have always been interested and attached to wildlife and the countryside. In my teenage years I shot and killed animals, but now I much prefer to see them in the open; wild and alive. Birds are animals taken for granted by many, but they are fascinating and enhancing. They endure and survive some of the worst the weather can throw at them. They have energy to migrate thousands of miles. Swifts sleep on the wing and hardly ever land in their life. The strength and tenacity as well as the beauty and intelligence of birds are remarkable and they are all around us on a daily basis. My life is deeply enhanced by the presence of birds; when a wall creeper appears, or an owl breaks from the low branches, an Egyptian vulture soars on a thermal, starlings collect in murmuration, or a dipper pops from the water, these things are gifts that as climbers we see and it adds to the story of a day. The world would be a better and more peaceful place if everyone became interested in birds!

Lord of the Flies. I’m not sure what number ascent this was, but I’ve now climbed Lord ten times. A great route.
© Graham Desroy

You mention an occasion where you were reading in the outdoors and being disturbed by people discussing their problems with others as they walk past you, while you wonder why they can't simply enjoy the open space. Do you often read outdoors?

No, I hardly, if at all read while climbing now. At that time in my life I was in the Prison Service and if I didn't have a climbing partner I would go to the Roaches for the day to boulder and solo and to stop myself burning-out too quick, I would read a book between problems or routes. Reading was just a way to stay out in the open for the whole day or to reserve a bit of energy to reduce the chances of cratering while soloing.

You talk about 'crime or climb' and describe both pursuits as being addictive drugs to escape from everyday monotony. Your outlook on the criminal justice system/prison life changed through your work there as you witnessed how many inmates struggled to adjust to life outside. It brings to mind The Shawshank Redemption. You were involved in ensuring the physical fitness of the prisoners, but how was education and reading managed?

I left the Prison Service in October 2003, so I can only talk of what was happening then, but in Gartree Prison, which was a high security prison when I was first posted there in 1988, but changed to a main lifer prison later on, there was a large education department where qualified teachers worked. The education departments inside our prisons at that time did great work and really helped incarcerated people improve their life and give them opportunity on release. Some prisoners in Gartree were studying to a very high standard. I'm really not sure how it is now with all of the financial cut backs. If anything, more money should be put into the education of incarcerated people. It would really help with a person's self-esteem, job prospects and rehabilitation, which would help the individual and society as a whole. Also, at that time, all prisons had a library, I don't know if this is still the case. I hope it is.

You mention reading Mark Twight's 'Kiss or Kill' and being inspired by his 'uncompromising, angry prose.' Did he inspire your writing as well as your climbing? Would you describe your writing as 'uncompromising' in some ways?

Yes, in the beginning Mark Twight's writing certainly influenced some of my own writing, or at least the style. I enjoyed the punk rock shoutiness, direct and in-your-face, but if I did attempt to emulate a similar style it was never really me. I think Mark did a great job of portraying a character which people either loved or hated; he is a very skilful writer. I have found my own way now and that's being as honest as I can, which in a way can be as shocking.

The definition of uncompromising is 'showing an unwillingness to make concessions to others, especially by changing one's ways or opinions.' I would say at one time in my writing and in life I did have an uncompromising attitude, but that was because I was part ignorant, part trouble maker, part immature. Now I would like to think I have grown up and become more tolerant and understanding. I still have an opinion and I'm still a little bit of a trouble maker, but I would like to think I'm not opinionated and most willing to change my stance when presented with a better alternative as long as it is delivered in a moderated and intelligent way.

When I write now about an emotive subject, or a subject that I know some people may not agree with, I work exceptionally hard at making it as non-combative as possible and attempting to explain myself as clearly as I can. A lesson I have learnt is what is the point of ranting? By ranting you turn people off and in doing so lose them, which makes the whole thing pointless and worthless.

I also learnt the hard way that personal attacks are not big nor clever. It's easy to sit behind a computer screen and be derisive and attack people, but it takes time and courage to enter into reasonable debate that does not turn into a slagging match. As a writer, unless you talk to the person, you never know what is motivating them or what is going on in their life to say the things they have said or take the stance they have chosen. I have found that the better way is to look at myself and question my motivations and what is going on in my head to make me act a certain way. Most of the time, when I found myself becoming angry, it was brought about by insecurity or fear. There is a lot of insecurity and fear in our modern social media society. By writing about my faults and inadequacies it may help some people to see their own, or maybe not?

'I began to write.' Your friend Mark Goodwin, a climber and writer, first encouraged you to write about your climbing life. You say that it was the first time in years that you 'began to trust someone outside the confines of climbing.' How did it feel to start exposing your inner thoughts and feelings - something you weren't able to do much of in the prison, I expect. It's interesting that you chose the word 'confines' of climbing - like it's a kind of prison! You describe it as a 'release' of sorts. I wonder if this prison imagery was intentional, or if it is simply ingrained in your way of thinking about space and freedom through your experiences, etc.?

I do intentionally use words that connect in ways other than the direct story line, I'm sure some readers pick up on it, while some don't. It doesn't matter, but for those who do it hopefully adds to the interest in my writing. I'm quite sure this technique is nothing new in the realms of writing. Sometimes it happens by accident or at least on a subliminal level and when this occurs it's a bonus. Mark Goodwin pointed this out to me years ago. Mark has been a very good and patient friend for a long time; he has taught me a lot and is still a solid sounding boulder.

At the beginning, writing some of the more personal stuff was terrifying because I had become something of a recluse. For many years I had repressed my true feelings. It was a survival technique I had to pack each day and take inside the prison. After years of doing this it became very difficult to separate the front from the real person beneath. Writing has helped me more than many people would believe. Writing certainly taught me to open up and not be afraid to talk about what I really feel. Writing has made me a better communicator, a stronger person who has more skill in saying what I mean and also understanding what motivates, not only myself, but friends and other people when they say or do things that are not very attractive or have underlying motivations. Writing has made me more relaxed, less stressed and less introverted. I owe Mark and writing a lot.

As for climbing being confining, well, in my experience, climbing can be a wonderful pill that opens up the world or the person. Climbing can help illness and climbing can give life, but if we are not careful climbing can also become a prison.

'Having no writing paper, I scribbled short punchy sentences on used envelopes I had stuffed beneath the dashboard. There was no editing or re-writing, misspelt words tumbled from my pen without punctuation or much concern for grammar.' - Echoes.

You discovered that as with many things in life, writing is largely dictated by set rules, which is something that your non-conformist attitude disliked. Your early experiences at school with a critical teacher didn't help matters. Your work wasn't always well received by editors at first. How did you push past this and keep up the determination to write how and what you wanted?

Interesting, (to me anyway), how long have we got!

Given a few more years under my belt, let me say for starters I'm certainly no anarchist or rebel, I'm definitely a conformist, who was I kidding when I wrote that! And as for pushing through, well, maybe I'm just arrogant with a big ego who wasn't bothered if people 'understood' my writing or liked it - it was doing me good and I enjoyed it, so why stop?

For many things there are rules, or at least guidelines to be followed and in many cases, this is because the tried and tested methods are generally sound, or at least the most relied upon to reach a bigger audience or hit an audience expectation, or to sell more copies. But if you happen to fall into something with no understanding of what it is you are supposed to say or do, or the 'rules' you are supposed to abide by, you just go for it using instinct.

At times what you do will be wild and untamed, a few people may enjoy it and see its worth, but you will lose a lot of people along the way. In itself losing people is not a problem if you are content with what you are saying and only having a small or select readership. That's fine, but if you are writing, not only for the things already talked about above, but for readers' enjoyment, satisfaction, inspiration, hope, and encouragement, and you want to make a living, you have to appeal to a reasonably large audience and to do this, at times you have to mediate your work or make concessions, and of course it has to be understandable through some form of recognised grammar. I still struggle with grammar, but I have a trusty crew of friends who advise!

BUT, and I do feel it's a big but, there should always be encouragement, understanding, open-mindedness and room in a person's head to open-up and allow for things like bad grammar and poor spelling and take a thing for what it is, and see the worth, or the brilliance in something, for what it is saying. People who can't see beyond perfect grammar, who follow the exact guidelines and rules are possibly missing out. I wonder what we would have if people on first hearing the Sex Pistols had said "But they can't play, this is not how it should be!" while possibly still listening to Chicago! And as for Cormac McCarthy writing whole paragraphs without using any punctuation, well that's just not acceptable!

I have learnt a lot and I'm still learning on a daily basis and have a big rock face yet to climb but, what did surprise me, and still does, is how things in writing can be political. So often other things are going on and this affects who will publish you. I do feel it was like that when I began sending work to editors, but I'm happy to say it appears less so nowadays.

You won the 'Best Mountaineering Article' at the Banff Mountain Book competition last year for your Alpinist piece 'Threshold Shift.' How do you feel about writing competitions, since you describe yourself as competitive with yourself? 'Competition for me is about having to struggle.' It is a highly personal piece and an emotional read. Was it a 'struggle' to write, in dealing with mortality, family illness and ageing, politics and mountaineering - all in one piece?

I have mixed emotions about writing competitions, I think the comps can be a wonderful platform to lift and encourage and promote, or they can be at times a severe disappointment that may unravel a writer's confidence. The thing I try to remember when my work is not selected or fails to make a shortlist is that the comps are the personal opinion of the few. The Banff mountain literature competition in my mind is possibly the fairest because their selection process is rigorous.

All in all, I learnt a while ago that whatever you write there will be people who like it and people who don't. Writing is subjective and people are subjective. Just because you don't like something does not make it rubbish, it just means it's not to your taste and that's OK.

Denali summit. Words cannot express my feelings on reaching this summit.  © Andy Houseman
Denali summit. Words cannot express my feelings on reaching this summit.
© Andy Houseman

The competitions with all their faults - and I do think they have quite a few - do give writers and publishers a big boost, and for a writer who has won a competition this gives a credibility of a kind, which means they have some standing so they can possibly go on to write even more in a style they prefer and this is a good thing I'm sure.

You ask if it was a struggle to write the article 'Threshold Shift' with all of its themes? No, not at all, it was possibly one of the most enjoyable experiences in writing I have had, made even better by working with the exceptionally gifted Editor in Chief of Alpinist Magazine, Katie Ives, and my girlfriend Zylo Zylinski who is also a very gifted writer and editor.

Your latest book Tides is a memoir about what it means to dedicate one's life to climbing. You liken the rhythm of your life and its ups and downs to the ebb and flow of the sea. It's even more personal and revealing than Echoes. Do you think you've grown more comfortable with writing about life outside of climbing over time?

The book is called Tides for several reasons and one is to use the action of the sea as a metaphor for how my life, at times, is. I'm told using the terminology 'ebb and flow' is considered a cliché, so I'm pretty sure I haven't said that, but ups and downs, highs and lows, covered and exposed. Yes, it is, I think, a quite different read to Echoes - in some respect, it's still a climbing book, though.

I have certainly become more confident and comfortable writing about non-climbing subjects to the point that I prefer to write about non-climbing topics; I find it more interesting and I learn new things about myself. Each to their own, but even within climbing literature I always preferred reading about what makes people tick and what is driving a person to do the things they do. I don't really engage anymore with straight forward tales of climbing and so, I attempt to write what I would personally prefer to read.

I'm also very selfish. A while ago I discovered that to be completely honest and to share your secrets, the things that embarrass, the true reason you have acted in a certain way, the real reason behind what you have said, or done, is a release; it's giving yourself away and having no secrets. Once you are in this position, there's not a lot that bothers you. You lose those niggles that constantly burn into your subconscious and life becomes a whole lot easier and happier. I used to be terrified by people finding out stuff about me, but once I discovered that in general - especially nowadays with social media and the internet - people don't even care and generally move on to the next thing very quickly. It really doesn't matter what people think about me. The most important thing for me is to have my friends and to try to understand and get on with people and for my friends to like me for the person I am, not for some façade.

To what extent does your reading influence your own writing?

My reading influences my writing greatly, just read Cormac McCarthy and you'll see, although of course I don't have a speck of his talent and never will.

How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Never. I struggle to find the time to read in my comfort zone.

Which book on your shelf would surprise or shock us the most?

I don't have a shelf, I have a van door pocket.

Zylo bought me Jo Nesbo's latest Harry Hole book, The Thirst for Christmas because she was fed up of me singing the praise of Nesbo's The Snowman. I read it on an expedition to Nepal with Andy Houseman a few years ago and thought it brilliant, something that Zylo very much disagreed with.

I started reading The Thirst a few weeks ago in Spain, but had to stop at chapter two. It was terrible. Maybe The Snowman appeared so good at the time because it took me away from minus 17 degrees Celsius at basecamp and the pain of spending all day in a tent, but on saying that I remember not even being able to finish Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code when stuck in a tent for eight days in Alaska once, so it must be better than that!

I always wanted to go back to Mister Softy after falling from the third pitch. I eventually climbed it with Tim Neill.  © Tim Neill
I always wanted to go back to Mister Softy after falling from the third pitch. I eventually climbed it with Tim Neill.
© Tim Neill

What are you currently reading?

My answers to this article, over and over and over!

In which direction do you think mountain literature is heading? What do you think people want to read about in climbing and mountaineering these days?

I think with Vertebrate Publishing out there, mountain literature in the UK is pretty healthy - let's support them. I also think we should support magazines like Alpinist. The writing in Alpinist, the quality and the creative platform it gives is as good as it gets.

If you could invite two climbing/mountaineering authors to dinner...dead or alive, who would they be and why?

Greg Child and Mark Twight. No, thinking about it, Mark is way too health conscious and wouldn't want to drink, so how about Barry Blanchard? Yes, that would be a good evening, A boozy evening with Greg and Barry, both a bit drunk and recounting tales of Gasherbrum IV, K2, Wall of Shadows, Nanga Parbat, M16, North Twin and Infinite Patience on Robson, yeah, that would be a great evening.

Desert island books - pick some formative or favourite books with a short sentence describing why each one was important at each stage. Which one would you take to a desert island?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings

I read The Hobbit first and then Lord of the Rings which I suppose is the correct order. Great books with great characters and a brilliant story.

Tales of a Rat Hunting Man and Modern Ferreting. Brian Plummer

When I was a teenager I was possibly as obsessed about hunting as I was later to become about climbing and so I read everything there was to read about the subject. Brian Plummer's books were always my favourite. Down to earth and dirty, Plummer inspired me as much as Twight and Bonington did in later life.

Book of British Birds. Reader's Digest hardcover

My Grandad gave me this book; it belonged to my Uncle who was killed at the age of 28 in a car accident. What a wonderful and beautiful book this is and I treasured it more because it belonged to Uncle Dave.

Come Dawn, Come Dusk. Fifty Years a Gamekeeper. Norman Mursell

I took to gamekeeping like I took to hunting before it - like I later took to climbing - and as for the other things in my life I read about it and often the people who wrote about it were as obsessed as me.

I Chose to Climb and Game of Ghosts

Both of these books at the time of reading inspired me tremendously as they both told a story of climbing obsession, passion and devotion and they both told that story well.

Shackleton Biography

A man on a mission. From what I remember because it was a very long time ago that I read it, Shackleton had issues, but he also appeared to have integrity, a man whom I could relate to.

A Scanner Darkly

One of Philip K Dick's fifty or so books. The first one of Dick's books I read. It almost blew my mind. What a fantastically imaginative genius Dick was.

The Handbook of Climbing, Fyffe and Peter

I learnt to tie many a knot by reading The Handbook of Climbing and I've now forgotten most of them. This book became my bible.

Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy

The reader may already have the message that Cormac McCarthy is my favourite author. Just to reinforce it, McCarthy writes so brilliantly. Poetics, brutality, no rules, strong characters, wide open landscapes. Dark, dour, depressing… Truly enlightening and wonderful.

Any Rebus book by Ian Rankin

A fallen hero who could be almost anyone, but a character with obsession and integrity. Rankin is brilliant. He gives the reader a great story and a great anti-hero and adds a touch of brilliance so sparingly it shines from the page.

Ariel. Sylvia Plath

Possibly my first book of poetry, given to me by my friends Mark Goodwin and Nikki Clayton. So much has been written about Sylvia Plath I'm sure I can't add anything. Just great and honest writing.

H is for Hawk. Helen Macdonald

Again, a story about obsession that is very well written and includes one of my favourite subjects, birds.

Anger is an Energy. John Lydon

Anti-hero or hero, I'm not sure, maybe both, maybe neither. Not that well written really, but a great read with some absolute classic quotes from Lydon, a person who has been somewhere in my life for most of my life.

The Wrecking Light. Robin Robertson

I first discovered Robin Robertson when my friend Clare Carter sent me a link of the man himself reading what has become one of my favourite poems: 'At Roane Head.' Since then I have read much of Robertson's writing and he has reached the number one position of my favourite poets alongside Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath!

What's next on your reading list?

Editing and re-reading another of my pieces of writing possibly!

I'm also going to China later this year with Paul Ramsden, so hopefully we'll have some poor weather and I'll be able to sit down and read without interruption a few biographies so I become more knowledgeable about some of the people I think inspire me; Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Tony Ben, Guy Martin, Neil Young.

Maybe I'll just re-read The Crossing, the second in the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. It's been a while since I read it and maybe Blood Meridian again also - I can never get enough of Cormac!

Buy Nick's new book Tides here at Vertebrate Publishing.

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22 May, 2018

Thanks UKC, a very good interview.

I don't know Nick and have never had anything to do with him, though I admired his climbing from afar. I didn't think much of some of his early writing though, and said so, which didn't go down well with his considerable fan-base. I guess that was just my opinion, and what would I know.

So when I read 'Threshold Shift' (the version in CLIMB, then in Alpinist) I made a point of saying in as many places I could that I thought it was one of the best pieces of climbing writing I had ever read. I guess that was just my opinion, and what would I know.

But I do wish more climbers were as honest as Nick has been. As he explains here, it's a release, and I think it would serve them, and all of us, better than the trite and disingenuous dreck we've been served up for years as 'climbing writing'.

22 May, 2018

Thanks, interesting and honest as always. Look forward to the book. I thought the prison flashbacks is what made Echoes a great book. Writing about climbing alone is fine for a bit but ultimately becomes a bit dull. 

22 May, 2018

Well, to be honest most climbers just aren't very good at it. It's both a skill and an art, and it takes study and practice.


22 May, 2018

I think it's more surprising just how many good climbing/mountaineering writers there are / have been. Definitely more than most other adventure pursuits.

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