INTERVIEW: The Human Fly - Andy Pollitt and Mark Leach

by Andy Pollitt May/2017
This article has been read 5,984 times

Andy Pollitt follows his interview with Chris Hamper by reminiscing with another of Britain's top climbers in the 80s, Mark Leach.


I suppose we should pick up ‘our story’ when we first met during the 2nd Great Orme bonanza season in Llandudno, North Wales. You lobbed at Pen Trwyn with Mick Johnston from your neck ‘o woods in Lancashire and I was there with Jerry and the others - ‘Steve the Pro’ Lewis, the two Bens (Moon & Masterson), Zippy (Mark Pretty), Chris Gore and Basher and a host of other miscreants.

Mark Leach, 117 kbMark Leach
© Helen Kay

As with Chris Hamper, I and some others had heard of you well before we met that fine summer’s day and I definitely recall how us two just ‘clicked’ within moments. It was in ’84 and I was living at 84 (Hunter House Rd, Sheffield) and Gore offered you a doss anytime you crossed the Pennines for a Peak District trip.

I can’t recall the exact time-frame, but ‘Scotch’ Ben was about to move out, so you took on his room in our shared house. Gore said something in one of his contributions to my book that ‘Andy was very much responsible for putting together one of the great climbing households of the time...’ and he was spot-on for the period in question. A few came and went, such as Pete Kirton, Zippy, plus John ‘Spider’ McKenzie from Scotland.

In 1985 I blew my shoulder out - and story goes - Gore ‘had a quiet word’ with you about not talking about climbing ‘coz Andy can’t hack it’. I think that’s where we really cemented our friendship 'coz we talked about love, life and the universe and pee’d ourselves in hysterics. Of course we would’ve talked climbing but it was most definitely a rare thing from memory. If recollection also serves, it might’ve been you who got me into running and I’d do a 60 minute circuit through Endcliffe Park and up ‘n out to the edge of The Peak on a daily basis. Roxy Music’s Avalon was my preferred cassette tape cost I ran to the beat and shaved 15 minutes off my time to get home just as the last song faded.

photo
No. 84 Hunter House Road
© Jon Barton

Skip 16 months and I was back from surgery yet weak as a kitten and we both craved the same things: Climbing. And Money. Pete Walker, Tim Freeman, Dick Turner and Mark Noble who owned and ran Technitube Limited threw as much access work as they could at us and our merry little band of ‘dopes on ropes’ like Tim’s brother Paul, Joe Healey, Matt Saunders and Nick Plishko. Matt and Joe were absolute shocking teases and you copped a fair amount – always in good humour. I recall one over-nighter down south when they shoved all their empty beer cans and bottles under your thin mattress and you woke in the morning complaining of a sore back. We all knew and could hear the cans crunching (stifling our giggles) but you never twigged!

But it was time to climb and we both had new projects so drove out to Froggatt then Raven Tor almost daily where you finally succeeded on The Screaming Dream and myself Chimes of Freedom.

It was only a short time later that we bummed a lift to North Wales with Bernard and Janine (Newman) and stayed in that adorable CC hut in the Ogwen Valley. We’d been drinking in the Padarn in ‘beris earlier that evening and your good Lancs mate Paul Pritchard was in there with Nick Dixon and Johnny Dawes. They mentioned they’d recently thrown a rope down The Bells, The Bells! on North Stack Wall and top-roped it. I didn’t flinch but the hairs on the back of my neck started bristling and I knew – I just knew - where we’d be heading tomorrow.

Mark's famous 'Human Fly' billboard, 262 kbMark's famous 'Human Fly' billboard
© Prof Ian Horrocks

Sure thing, Bernard & Janine took us to Gogarth and they went to South Stack as we headed off towards the North. When you kindly contributed to Punk in the Gym you reminded me of the dreadful nosebleed I had on the walk over. I’d completely forgotten about that. You also mentioned on Vertebrate Publishing’s website that you nearly slipped off the belay boulder, which would’ve ripped me clean off the face from about 80’ – Classic!

So really, around about that time it was pretty much a case of ‘what’s Ron done this week?’ so off we’d all head to Chee Dale, WCJ, the Tor, Yorkshire or wherever ‘the big man’ had either put up or freed the latest test piece. Five, six, seven or eight rapid repeats would ensue within a fortnight from Jerry, Gore, Dougie Hall, Chris Hamper, Basher, yourself and me. Such great times eh! Super-competitive but always super-friendly too.

I was big into doing new routes and ‘you lot’ would just be straight in before they’d even been publicised in the mags (though having Bernard, Glenn [Robbins], Richie Brooks and Neil Foster game for the re-shoot, I had a wealth of quality slides for the annual 30-date lecture tour, adverts, cover shots and posters but of course, I made way better photo-fodder than anyone else back then, Ha, blush!)

So, ‘Leachy’, rattle us off a few of your fondest and proudest moments of those glorious eighties.

photo
Lycra above High Tor
© Bernard Newman

Here’s a free kick to get you on a roll:

I don’t remember you making just the sixth ascent of Strawberries at Tremadog. I know I did the 9th as Basher had done the 8th the day before. So; Ron FA, Jerry 2nd, probably Redhead next then 4, 5 & 7? Jonny Woodward was in there somewhere as I was doing Bananas at the same time.

You must’ve been pleased with that – then Dream Topping (my gift to Basher) shortly after.

ML: I remember once coming home and Glenn Robbins was in the front room - he and Helen are good friends - and I thought, shit that is the famous Glenn Robbins, I was stuck for words. A famous person in your house, unbelievable but true. I could be wrong on the 6th ascent of Strawberries. I climbed it in June 1984. There was an article about all the hardest routes in the UK in Mountain magazine called “A Different Sport”. I simply ticked off most of the list and made a note in the magazine that I had made the sixth ascent. Please correct me if I made an earlier ascent, but not if I made a later ascent. I went back and climbed Dream Topping with one fall just after Wolfgang Güllich had made the 2nd ascent.

The eighties were great for meeting so many friends from around the world. The period saw major development in both trad and sports routes and standards rocketed. Most of all I remember the people I met who are all still good friends, if I mentioned them all it would read like a who’s who of climbing and mountaineering and that would be showing off, it’s not me. Sorry about nearly killing you on The Bells, I didn’t like to mention it at the time. But now you are on the other side of the world I think I’m fairly safe for the moment.

But Yorkshire was your main stomping ground so it was early repeats of the cave routes and Supercool at Gordale and Main Overhang, Zoolook, Free ‘n Easy, Cry Freedom, Herbie, Bat Route, New Dawn and repeats of everything John Dunne did over at Malham.

Favourite memories?

ML: Great times climbing and travelling with John Dunne, dossing out and having the crags to ourselves most of the time. We just picked off the routes we wanted to climb. It’s fantastic to hear that some of my new routes are still making the headlines when they get repeated. The fondest memories are of my friends.

photo
La Rose et le Vampire, 8b, Buoux
© John 'Spider' MacKenzie

Just to mix things up a bit, you came to the Peak a few times and proved your prowess on the gritstone with the 2nd ascent of Ron’s Master’s Edge and the 3rd of Beau Geste – both scary E7s.

ML: I always liked gritstone and those routes caught my imagination. I remember going around to Ron’s house to borrow the Amigo, which fits the shot holes on Master’s Edge; we had a cup of tea. I also borrowed a tricam from you - cheers. Later that day I met Ron and Gill in Stoney Cafe and Ron had just climbed Revelations and I Master’s Edge; we both had another cup of tea.

photo
Master's Edge
© Richie Brooks

Johnny Dawes just beat me to a repeat of Beau Geste, we were both trying the route together in a snow storm. I fell and hit the deck and I ended up with a badly sprained ankle. He still made me belay him though, which of course I did not mind; I was climbing with a God, although also trying to ignore the pain in my ankle. Good times. The best part of climbing Master’s Edge was Stevie Bancroft coming up to me in Sheffield and shaking my hand. My hand being shaken by a gritstone God. Made my day. Not washed that hand to this day.

It would’ve been around this time that we had a few Pen Trwyn trips and we rattled off early repeats of Statement of Youth, Oyster and Masterclass. How fun was Llandudno back then eh!

ML: It always felt like it we were on our holidays; we always had great fun climbing and hanging out. The main thing was and always is having fun.

photo
Andy on Statement of Youth
© Andy Pollitt Collection

You were fortunate to have met the wonderful, delightful Dr Helen Kay who was/is so sweet and accommodating and settled down in Sheffield to a more domesticated lifestyle between climbing trips and our rope access work.

Accordingly, it was more early repeats for you: Revelations, Verbal Abuse, The Prow and Little Plum.

ML: It was great climbing those routes with good friends. I like Sheffield and the characters that seem to be on every street corner. Helen is my lovely partner and soul mate of 27 years plus; she is the brains in our household and keeps me, our lovely daughter Courtney and our dogs all in check. As an aside, Helen was already friends with Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert before I met all three. Our paths were meant to cross. How privileged am I? Small world. Not that Helen was/is a climbing groupie; great people always chance upon each other and meet.

Mark and Jerry Moffatt in East Germany, 185 kbMark and Jerry Moffatt in East Germany
© Bernd Arnold

Back to Yorkshire though for you whilst Basher, Jerry & Gore were competing in French competitions. It was an amazing time really as we returned to our house having been away for a few weeks and you’d freed Kilnsey Main Overhang and cleverly re-named it Mandela coz it was ‘finally free after 28 years’ and the local newspapers and TV shows headlined you in typical journalistic fashion by shrieking out ‘It’s the Human Fly!’ which we ribbed you mercilessly about. Your other huge one was Bat Route and as you know, I’d placed two bolts on the headwall and done it on a jumar from the big hole previously.

So Mark, do tell:

ML: Strange how the media made headlines of Mandela. I remember having my Christmas dinner in '88 and the news highlights of the year came on the telly: “Kilnsey Main Overhang free climbed". I nearly choked on the turkey, although I could have been vegetarian at the time, and so may have nearly choked on a lentil. It would have been great, if you had continued with Bat Route. I can see the headlines: Pollitt does it again, all reported on the telly of course and by Geoff Birtles our great friend. I remember going round to Geoff’s house with you and low and behold the legendary Tom Proctor was there. I was stuck for words. I think I may have curtsied.

Filming Mandela, 192 kbFilming Mandela
© Prof Ian Horrocks

Of course nowadays the climbing plays second fiddle to your family, legal work and Helen and you have a teenage daughter named Courtney. I often go all ‘warm & fuzzy’ looking back at the 80s as Gore met and married Judith, Basher married Fiona, Hamper married Hilary and you too (no, you didn’t marry Hilary as well) but I never quite met the right lady.

Anyway, we’re running out of space and that guy over there’s nodded off so please regale us with your final words and tell us all just how it was to be Mark Leach.

ML: You always had more than your fair share of the ladies being a handsome chap and legend. The right one is out there for you, she has just not realised that you live just around the corner. As our good friend Derek Hearsey said, “Always look around the next corner”. I have a great loving family and I am so proud of them and their achievements.

Overall, the eighties were a little surreal, as I found myself climbing, living and hanging out with the world’s best climbers. I was just the belay boy to the climbing superstars. Although that said, I was belayed by Lynn Hill when I did an early repeat of Maginot Line, whilst the French legend, Laurent Jacob, shouted encouragement. I must admit, I had a few connections to help me along my climbing journey, including: Tony Nichols (Troll Wall and the 2nd ascent of Wall of Horrors), Bruce Goodwin, Ian Conway and Mick Johnston to name but a few. Magical days indeed. I just climbed a few new routes and repeated the superstars' test pieces.

Peak Rock Book launch: Ron Fawcett, Niall Grimes & Mark Leach as 'Manuel', 174 kbPeak Rock Book launch: Ron Fawcett, Niall Grimes & Mark Leach as 'Manuel'

On another occasion I gave a lift to Simon Nadin (World Champion), Jerry and Ron Kauk across Lyon to a climbing competition we had all been invited to. I got lost and we all got majorly told off by the organisers. Luckily my mates did not mind too much. In my opinion the chauffer should have been sacked for having the legends turn up late. Even Lynn asked 'Where have you lot been?'

Hanging around with Wolfgang Güllich on a lecture tour , 214 kbHanging around with Wolfgang Güllich on a lecture tour
© Prof Ian Horrocks

It would take a whole book to mention my travels and adventures with Jerry, you, friends and the rest of the world’s climbing legends and the epics and laughs we had on the way.

Thanks (and drag yer arse down ‘ere before I die OK!).

Yes, I must. Cheers for the invite my very good friend. I regret not going with you to Oz back in the day. May be we should get the old gang to come and visit. Hamper, Basher, Horse and et al.

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