Remembering Steve Findlay (1954-2023) Article

© Alex Messenger Photo

Steve Monks, Trevor Massiah and Hazel Findlay remember the talented and charismatic Bristol climber, Steve Findlay.

My old diary gives just the bare bones of it, our first climb together:

Il Duce, Tintagel, with Steve Findlay, 30th June '79.

My recollection of that day is hazy now, more than 40 years on, but the memory of the feelings and emotions it invoked are still with me: the trepidation of the early morning sneak across the Tintagel headland; the wariness of traversing an unfamiliar, wave-washed cliff; that internal tightening as we stared up at the unmistakable and daunting line.

As our friendship and climbing partnership grew it became clear that, for Steve, the essence of climbing - of life itself really - was so much about the feeling, the moment, the joy of a shared adventure. From our base in Bristol the sea cliffs of the South West - far less known and explored in the '70s - were the perfect forcing ground to stretch the limits of our abilities and our appetite for adventures.

Steve Findlay at home in Bristol in 2012.  © Alex Messenger Photo
Steve Findlay at home in Bristol in 2012.
© Alex Messenger Photo

Steve was the epitome of a natural climber. Blessed by the luck of genetics with a Ben-Hur physique and a liberal splash of hedonism, the idea of training for climbing was something he openly scorned. But with innate ability, energy and the confidence of youth substituting for any possible lack of discipline, he quickly came to throw himself at some of the hardest and boldest routes of the time.

On a return visit to Cornwall a year later, after warming up on Dream/Liberator, Steve made an early ascent of The West Face in Bosigran's Great Zawn, then one of the hardest routes in the South West. A month later, after another early repeat of Right Wall on the Cromlech, my meagre diary reminds me of a big day shared together on Cloggy with ascents of Daurigol, Taurus, The Hand Traverse, The Axe, West Buttress Eliminate and Curving Arete, all after walking in direct from Ynys Ettws in the Pass.

Of course there were some near-misses along the way too. A ground fall at Cheddar could have spelled an early end had he not miraculously missed the ugly, protruding rocks that he landed amongst. A pendulum point failure while big-walling in Yosemite saw him take a huge fall, held only by the grip of his ascenders on the jugging line. He would forever afterwards sing the praises of the strength of CMI ascenders. In the Alps, our bivouac ledge beneath the Walker spur was raked by rock-fall during the night. Scrunching our bodies up beneath the protection of a tiny rock overhang, our sleeping pads and bivi gear were trashed, but somehow we survived completely unscathed.

In the early 1980s both Steve and I took part in two Himalayan expeditions. The first to the (then) unclimbed East ridge of Cho Oyu in Nepal and the second to the highest peak in Bhutan, Gangkar Punsum – still unclimbed to this day. Although both expeditions were ultimately unsuccessful in their climbing goals, they did leave Steve with an enduring love of the Himalayan countries and their people - together with a passion for photography. He came to develop a great eye for candid shots of the people he met on his numerous trips around the globe and for capturing the colour and essence of the landscapes.

Steve had an engaging interest and curiosity about the people he met and loved nothing more than to talk long into the night, with friends old or new, especially if there was a glass of red or a whisky or two to hand. Later he would lead more than 30 commercial treks and expeditions for the businesses Himalayan Kingdoms and Jagged Globe and his easy, outgoing friendliness made him a popular leader and brought him some enduring friendships with his clients. Earlier in his career, his empathy and patience were clearly expressed in his care for the small group of profoundly autistic children that he taught – and, throughout his life, in the effort, knowledge and skill he devoted to his gardens and his beloved orchids.

At the end of the '80's Steve was living in Bristol and starting a family with his wife Angela. Our lives diverged as they moved for work opportunities and I left for Australia. Steve moved back to Bristol some years later, re-establishing himself at the heart of the climbing scene. Mid-summer parties in his tiny, beautifully tended garden in Boswell Street became an annual, not-to-be-missed tradition and overflowed with climbers, friends and acquaintances old and new. At that time the Pembrokeshire sea cliffs had become a major focus of activity for many South West climbers - Steve included - as an explosion of new cliffs and new climbs were found and developed. Again it was the joy of exploring that beautiful coastline with great friends that had so much appeal for Steve. It was also one of the places he loved to spend time with Ben and Hazel, his two children. As Hazel came to excel in the climbing world herself, his fatherly pride was palpable.

Steve was climbing in Thailand in 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami capsized his small boat. He survived, swimming in to shore and saving the life of his boatman in the process. The aftermath of this tragedy saw him build a strong bond with the country and its people and he spent some extended periods there. With Trevor Massiah he helped to develop new climbing areas on Lao Liang and Koh Yao Noi. His fascination with the original climbers on the islands, the Thai bird nest collectors, inspired him to make a short film about them. Bamboo Climbers, produced by Marcus Taylor with Steve's input and inspiration, is a fine tribute to Steve and a great reminder of the person he was.

In 2003 Steve visited Australia. We climbed together in Tasmania and much enjoyed reasserting our old climbing partnership exploring the sea cliffs and sea stacks of the Tasman peninsula. Camping out at Fortescue bay and rapping in to climb the remote and committing Golden Pillar of Fortescue took us right back to our early days. Steve also spent some time at Arapiles and in the Grampians and, predictably enough, very much fitted in with the laid-back climbing community there. Some years later he decided to sell up in Bristol and move to Australia.

Steve Findlay on the Totem Pole, Tasmania, in 2004.  © Steve Monks
Steve Findlay on the Totem Pole, Tasmania, in 2004.
© Steve Monks

Steve took to rural life in Australia very naturally and quickly integrated into the local community, but a growing problem with his mental health gradually became apparent. The nature of the disease - and a certain stubbornness - made it difficult for him to acknowledge that anything was wrong and this undoubtedly played a part in his refusal to accept the help that he needed. As his psychosis developed, he cut himself off from friends and family who tried to intervene and his condition culminated in him leaving Australia abruptly to return to Thailand. Isolated there, his physical health also deteriorated. Trevor was one of the few friends that managed to maintain some contact with him. In Trevor's words:

"He settled on a beautiful part of a small island Koh Yao Noi near Phuket. The house he shared with his dog Nati - whom he loved and had had flown over from Australia - backed onto the sea and was a great place to sit and watch the many stunning sunsets. Steve was fortunate enough to have a few kind locals to keep an eye out for him when he needed help. There was also some improvement in Steve's mental health in the last few years. His outlook was more positive and he also found it easier to maintain relationships with friends. His passion for photography, growing orchids and seeing the natural beauty in the world never waned. When visiting Steve on the island in the later years I was both surprised and relieved that much of the old Steve I knew was still present. He maintained the ability to be an engaging story teller and never lost that sparkle in his eyes. He had found some peace and settled in a truly wonderful place to start his final adventure."

At the end Steve was able to re-connect with his daughter, Hazel. She was at his side when he died. Hazel shared a reflection on her father:

'My father gave me almost everything I love most - climbing, travel, adventure and the natural world. We were closer than father and daughter, we were great friends. He had a real duality to him; he was very warm, sensitive and sentimental and yet also very brave, strong, stubborn and even intimidating. Unlike the majority of people, Dad lived entirely on his own terms, he did what he wanted to do and didn't compromise much with the norms of society that often become barriers to many people's dreams. This made him a wild, interesting and loveable character who lived life to the fullest. It also cost him a lot, especially in later life. I adored him and already miss him immensely.' 

1 Jun, 2023

That's a moving tribute; my father gave me similar things and I still miss him

1 Jun, 2023

It's Trevor "Massiah".

Edit: Just finished reading: a fine and moving tribute. Thank you.

2 Jun, 2023

Great post Steve.

2 Jun, 2023

Really sad to read about Steve...too young to die. Knew him from his time on the North York Moors. Always good company and a superb rock climber. Great loss.

2 Jun, 2023

Thanks for putting on. Lovely article. Trev previously put something on FB which I wanted to comment on but the skills eluded me! Although I didnt know Steve that well I just want to re-iterate how warm a character he was and how full of passion. Of course I mostly remember him from Bristol parties - his dancing, big smile and exuberance. He was a legend who wont be forgotten

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