As reported on UKC, Mark Vallance passed away on 19th April aged 72 following a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
Tom Briggs reflects on the life of the man who set up Wild Country and brought us Friends, Rocks and sticky rubber.
Mark is best-known for bringing Ray Jardine's Friends (the very first spring-loaded camming devices) to market and for being the inventor of passive nuts, Rocks. These protection devices - Friends in particular - completely revolutionised climbing in the late 1970s. Routes that had previously been impossible to protect could now be 'stitched up' and made safe. Mark saw the awesome properties of sticky rubber, invented in Spain, and became a distributor of Boreal 'Fire' rock boots. He was a classic entrepreneur, seeing the potential and being willing to take a risk.
Mark was diagnosed with Parkinson's over 20 years ago, but he defied all odds and in terms of Parkinson's he was a bit of an anomaly. He continued to climb, bike and generally be active for a very long time.
He was a mentor to me during my late teens, when he became a good friend of my Dad through the Climbers' Club. He took me, his daughter, Jody and Eve Prickett to the States when we were teenagers and drove us from Smith Rock to Tuolumne via Lake Tahoe. He paid for most of the trip and he introduced us to Peter Croft, whom he knew.
Mark gave me a job at Wild Country and I lived in a flat at the end of his house in Foolow for a year in-between school and University. This allowed me to pay for another trip to the States and Canada, where I climbed The Nose and did new routes at Squamish with the late John Rosholt, AKA 'The Gambler'.
I didn't have a car when I was in Foolow, but Mark would frequently loan me (a reasonably sensible 18 year old), his Land Rover Discovery, so that I could drive into Sheffield and climb at The Foundry. I once scraped it against the wall in the Foundry car park (I was terribly embarrassed) but Mark was totally relaxed about it.
Not everyone got on with Mark and you could say "he didn't suffer fools gladly." I don't think he was always a great communicator, but we connected, and he became very much a father figure to me. He encouraged me to develop designs at Wild Country (I spent time in the factory grinding down single stem nuts that would much later become Superlight Rocks and we'd make our own lightweight swami harnesses (no buckle)).
Once I was leading a sport route at a newly-developed crag in France and Mark was belaying me with a prototype self-locking belay device, which had no moving parts. I came off unexpectedly alongside the second bolt when both hand holds snapped. The belay device locked up as it should, and my feet touched the ground on the rope stretch. This example of 'prototyping' convinced Mark to bring what was to become the 'Single Rope Controller' to market.
I did a Business Studies degree on the basis of getting to know Mark and being inspired by his passion for innovation. He generously sponsored me (via Wild Country) through my first year of studies (at that time the business was not in great shape, so he wasn't able to continue with this, something that I know he felt pretty bad about).
Mark did a lot of incredible stuff in his life, but he didn't necessarily shout about it. He did some high altitude climbing (Shishapangma) and knocked off the Bob Graham (whenever you went out for a day with him he'd rarely drink anything, saying that he was training his body to require less water!). I belayed him on one of his best leads - Longships Wall at Land's End.
Of course I heard lots of stories from Mark during that period of my life. I think my favourite is the one where he was Base Commander at the British Antarctic Survey. He described the team having spent the winter in darkness and knowing the precise time when the sun would reappear for the first time over the horizon. Someone had set it up so that over the base speakers came The Beatles' 'Here Comes the Sun'. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house," said Mark.
My Dad got to see Mark before he left us and they said farewell to each other. They were very close and Mark really loved my Dad. Mark was an incredibly kind and generous man. He played a big part in my development as a young man and the direction that my life went in. I have a lot to thank him for. My condolences to his wife, Jan and daughter, Jody.
Tom has asked that his fee for the article be domnated to Cure Parkinson's - a charity Mark supported with a Land's End to John O'Groats sponsored bike ride in 2011.
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