Perfect Partners Series

#1 - Pete Graham and Ben Silvestre

In this new 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...

Pete Graham (30) and Ben Silvestre (27) are two of the darkest horses of British climbing. While some climbers choose to run up routes light and fast Pete and Ben prefer a slower, more stoic approach, with lots of suffering. Inching their way up hard routes on north faces, with big sacks and lots of bivis. Partners in grime for sure.

Pete and Ben at the top of the Droites after climbing the Messner Pillar. Ben's first alpine route.  © Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre
Pete and Ben at the top of the Droites after climbing the Messner Pillar. Ben's first alpine route.
© Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre

As a partnership they have an impressive collection of routes to their names. Like many, they served a traditional apprenticeship, starting to climb together on gritstone, before moving onto Gogarth and then up north to sample Scottish winter. It then notched up a gear, when Pete, who by this point had climbed five of the Alps' six great North Faces, asked Ben - an Alpine virgin - if he'd like to go to Patagonia with him.

To test the water the pair drove out to Chamonix and climbed the Messner Pillar on the Droites as Ben's first alpine route. On this first trip, they also failed high in the Lesueur Route on the North Face of the Petit Dru. Ben passed the test and that winter the two them headed to South America, stopping off in the USA where they made ascents of El Cap's West Face and Nose - both in very long single pushes.

The 2013-14 season was one of the least stable Patagonia has seen in recent years. Ben and Pete were undeterred. The pair climbed Cerro Standhardt's Exocet, made an early repeat of Super Domo and got high on Fitzroy's Supercanaleta, before a big storm turned them around. The end of their trip coincided with the one good weather window of that season; the same window in which Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell traversed the Fitzroy skyline. Pete and Ben climbed the North Pillar of Fitzroy by the modern classic: Mate, Porro y Todo lo Demás, getting back to town only hours before their transfer back to the airport.

The following year the pair visited Alaska for their second expedition. They made the first ascent of the East Face of Jezebel in the seldom-visited Revelation Mountains. Their 1200m route called The Hoar of Babylon involved scary, delicate ice climbing and took them three days.

2016 saw Pete and Ben return to Alaska. This time climbing with Chamonix-based nice guy Will Harris, the trio spent five and a half days making the first British Ascent of Sultana's (AKA Mount Foraker) Infinite Spur.

Pete on Ben

1. How did you first meet?

I first knew Ben from the Sheffield techno/partying scene before he properly got into climbing. I'm not sure exactly when we first met, as memories of such events can often be fairly hazy.

2. What was your first impression?

I can't really remember this either. I try not to judge people too much on first impressions and Ben is quite quiet and unassuming when you first meet him. So I guess he can't have made much of an impression either way.

3. Did you know of Ben by reputation before climbing together?

After first meeting Ben I don't think it was long before he fully got into climbing. Before I ever actually climbed with him I remember hearing about him climbing Long John's Slab at Froggatt, which is an unprotected E3. This was only a few months after he had started climbing. So I guess he had a bit a reputation for being very naturally talented and quite bold.

4. What was the first route you climbed together?

I can't remember exactly, probably something on the grit somewhere.

5. Did Ben live up to his reputation?

Yes. I remember when I first climbed with Ben there being many scary incidents where Ben would show a large degree of confidence and boldness, with maybe not the best gear-placing ability. One particularly memorable incident was when he managed to fall off the crux of Fern Hill at Cratcliff, rip all this gear out and hit the ground from around nine metres. Somehow he got away with just bruised heels. At the time my friend Malcolm and I agreed that Ben should never be allowed to go winter or alpine climbing, as he would probably kill himself. But Ben managed to persuade me to take him out and fortunately he seems to learn from his mistakes.

Pete and Ben on top of Mount Foraker after the Infinite Spur.
© Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre

6. Why do you enjoy climbing with Ben?

I had a few other regular alpine partners before I started climbing with Ben, but they all became jaded with alpine climbing or maybe became jaded with climbing with me. Either way Ben seems to have stuck it out. I think he is the first person I've climbed with that genuinely loves suffering as much as I do and gets as much from it as I do. One of the main reasons I like climbing with Ben is that he is always willing to give stuff a go even if the chances of success are unlikely. And it's generally more about getting stuck in and enjoying being in the mountains than actually getting to the top. Another reason I like climbing with him is that I feel like he makes good decisions and he generally wants to push it to a similar degree to me so we are generally in complete agreement as to whether to push on or turn around. He also likes to defuse scary or unpleasant situations with humour, which is something I'm a big fan of.

7. You obviously went back for more, what's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

There are quite a few to choose from as I've had lots of very memorable climbs and failures with Ben. But I guess it would have to the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker that we climbed along with Will Harris last year. It was both the fulfilment of a life long dream and a serious physical and mental challenge. The memory of topping out will be seared into my consciousness for the rest of my life. We got hit by some brutally strong and cold winds just below the summit, I was definitely the weakest member of the team at this point and had to dig really deep to get over the top of the mountain before the sun dipped below the horizon, putting us in danger of getting frostbite.

I distinctly remember realising that we were going to make it over the top and looking out at hundreds of tiny lakes across the Alaskan tundra glinting in the setting sun. The immensity of the natural beauty, the multiple days of struggle and suffering and the euphoria of realising that we were going to make it, evoked of deep appreciation for my own existence that I find difficult to properly describe in words and reduced me to tears at the time. We were all separated by 30m of rope at the time but when we reached the summit it became apparent that Ben and Will had been crying too. There are only a few things in life that have brought about stronger emotions than how I felt on the top of Foraker and I think it's sharing moments like that that make good alpine partnerships so strong.

8. Sum up your partnership in three words.

The Bivvy Brothers (To give this some context this is the nickname the our friend James Lucas gave us which seems to have stuck).

9. What is the best thing about climbing with Ben?

I think the best thing about climbing with Ben (as well as other people whom I've built up a long climbing relationship with) is the feeling of trust you gain together. I know that if there are moments when the chips are down for me that I'm going to get looked after. There are very few situations in normal life where you are relying on someone as much as you rely on someone when you're alpine climbing at your limit. And it's a very special feeling to be able to have complete faith in someone.

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

When we climbed the North Pillar on Fitz Roy in 2014 there was a point when it got really hot in the afternoon of our second day. All the fins of rime that had formed over a season of mostly bad weather in Patagonia started melting and falling on us. We were getting heavily bombarded and I took a couple of big hits, one of which nearly knocked me out. It's one of only two times when I feel like I've properly had a bit of breakdown whilst climbing. Fortunately Ben managed to lead us quickly and efficiently to the top of the pillar and safety. I guess that's another reason why I like climbing with him, when one person is having a bad time the other feeds off that to try hard and take over the reins.

Pete and Ben on top of Fitzroy after climbing the North Pillar.  © Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre
Pete and Ben on top of Fitzroy after climbing the North Pillar.
© Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre

11. If you could change one thing about Ben what would it be?

I'd make him bigger so he's a better big spoon on bivvies.

12. What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you when climbing with Ben?

I've spent enough time with Ben that I don't really get embarrassed. Once you've watched each other take a dump a few times it's pretty hard to feel any sort of embarrassment about anything. I recently read Steve House's Beyond The Mountain where he describes the deep synergy that he experienced with Vince Anderson when they climbed the Ruple Face together. I think the ultimate test for that kind of synergy is taking a massive shit while looking straight into your climbing partner's eyes without feeling a slither of embarrassment.

13. What are your plans for the future?

We're off the Kistwar region of the Indian Himalaya in September with Uisdean Hawthorn. It will be the first time to the Himalaya for all of us so we're pretty excited.

14. What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Ben?

I've got quite a perverse taste in climbing, which means I enjoy most stuff, so it's quite difficult to think of a particular route that I have enjoyed the least.

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

I got quite upset when Ben cheated on me with Uisdean Hawthorn when they went and climbed the Godfather together. To get my own back I whizzed Uisdean off to Patagonia to cosy up with him on Cerro Torre but unfortunately we didn't make it to the top. It's all fine now though: we're all made up and all of us are off for some three-way action in northern India in September.

Ben on Pete

1. How did you first meet?

I don't remember the initial encounter but Pete and his circle of friends were the first group of climbers that I fell in with when I moved to Sheffield. I knew Pete for a while without getting to know him well, (we're both fairly quiet), but it wasn't until he agreed to take me climbing in Scotland one winter that our friendship really started.

2. What was your first impression?

When I first started climbing with Pete's group, he and his main climbing partner at the time, Malcolm Scott, were sort of the best of the bunch. Being young and impressionable, they were heroes to me then, but it was inevitable that I would get to know them better (they still are really).

3. Did you know of Pete by reputation before climbing together?

Whilst Malcolm was a better rock climber than Pete, Pete has always had a reputation for being a slightly slow but absolutely solid and very safe winter and alpine climber. He also has/had a reputation for loving to suffer, which intimidated me slightly, but I put on a brave face and let ambition get the better of me.

Pete and Ben on top of Domo Blanco after climbing Super Domo.  © Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre
Pete and Ben on top of Domo Blanco after climbing Super Domo.
© Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre

4. What was the first route you climbed together?

We must have climbed some rock routes together, but the route that signified the beginning of the end was my first winter route, which Pete guided me up - Two Step Gully on the Ben. I'd been suggesting that I was keen to go winter climbing for a while, but I think Pete and Malcolm had decided that it was a bad idea (I was more than a little reckless back then). But fate had it that Pete's partners were failing to find in themselves a mutual love of suffering, and were beginning to decline his invitations to go to Scotland and the Alps. So probably a little urgency in finding a new partner, combined with the realisation that he could teach this impressionable youth how to do things properly, eventually led Pete to invite me up to Scotland with him.

5. Did Pete live up to his reputation?

Oh yes. That was still probably one of the wildest days I've had on the Ben in terms of weather, and Pete seemed to relish every second of it. On the route itself he lead calmly and confidently, and I realised that his approach was absolutely the way to stay safe in the mountains, even if I've spent a fair few belays cursing him! Though I've retained the ability to be bold when necessary, climbing with Pete in winter made a big impression on me, and has ultimately made me a much safer climber.

6. Why do you enjoy climbing with Pete?

We're very similar people really - we communicate with a minimum of words, have a similar sense of humour, and we appreciate the same experiences. I think as a partnership we work very well together. I can always rely on Pete to put a solid lead in on a difficult pitch, especially on ice where I often get flustered. My skills are perhaps better suited to getting us through moderate terrain quickly, and I'm probably the better rock climber now, but ultimately we've always been able to rely on each other to pick up the slack when one of us is tired, and we've never had any big arguments. A clash of the egos often seems to end climbing partnerships in one way or the other, but we don't really have that problem.

7. You obviously went back for more, what's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

There are so many to choose from! Blood, Sweat and Frozen Tears on Beinn Eighe was the first route we climbed in Scotland that really pushed us both to a new level, until then I'd just been playing catch up. The new route we climbed on the East Face of Jezebel in Alaska's Revelation Mountains felt like a maturing of our partnership, and it was only after that that I really felt equal to Pete in Alpine climbing terms. But the winner has to be climbing the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker last year with Will Harris. The route pushed all three of us to our limits in terms of physical and mental endurance, and the whole experience was so intense that I am unlikely to ever forget a single moment of it.

8. Sum up your partnership in three words.

The Bivvy Brothers.

Pete and Ben with Uisdean Hawthorn at the top the Needle (IX 8) Shelterstone Crag.  © Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre
Pete and Ben with Uisdean Hawthorn at the top the Needle (IX 8) Shelterstone Crag.
© Pete Graham/Ben Silvestre

9. Best thing about climbing with Pete?

We are more or less always keen to do the same thing, in the same style. Thankfully he's not overly pumped for this super fast and light rubbish, which seems at once unnecessarily dangerous, a recipe for failure, and a waste of potential time spent in the mountains.

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

On the Infinite Spur, as we crested the plateau to the south summit, we were blasted by the coldest winds I've ever felt. It got pretty serious as we staggered around trying desperately to find shelter, and then all of a sudden the wind vanished, allowing us to stroll happily across the plateau and up the summit ridge in a truly astounding position.

11. If you could change one thing about Pete what would it be?

Pete is to slow climbing what Killian Jornet is to speed climbing. If I could change one thing I'd speed up his winter climbing by five per cent. That said, long winter belays are good for your soul.

12. What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you when climbing with Pete?

Can't really recall ever being embarrassed climbing with anyone, thankfully climbing doesn't maintain the strange social dynamic in which embarrassment is possible.

13. What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Pete?

The one with the least climbing and the most suffering was an attempt on the Desmaison on the Grandes Jorasses. We climbed to the crux on a bad forecast then spent an awful night huddled on a tiny ledge soaking and shivering before descending. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.

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

I was a bit gutted when Pete climbed the Walker Spur in winter with Tom Livingstone, as we'd talked a bit about doing that. However I have to expect that when I don't commit enough time to being in the Alps. Don't tell anyone, but I was quite glad that Pete and Uisdean didn't manage to climb the Ragni on Cerro Torre last year. The FOMO would have been unbearable! I am quite jealous of their epic retreat around the ice cap though.

About the Interviewer:

Tom Ripley  © Charlie Low
Tom Ripley has been climbing for over fifteen years in both the UK and abroad: personal highlights include an ascent of Denali's Cassin Ridge and first ascents in Patagonia and Peru. Tom is dedicated to sharing his obsession for all types of climbing through his work as a climbing instructor and guide.

Currently, Tom is part way through the British Mountain Guides' rigorous training scheme. And, as a trainee guide, he is qualified to guide and instruct rock climbing and mountaineering throughout the UK.

Whether you are interested in making the transition from indoor climbing to real rock, working towards your first lead climbs, gaining self-rescue skills, or climbing a classic route that has so far eluded you, Tom can help you achieve your goal. Staying safe, patience and adventure are always a priority. He can be contacted through his UKC profile.
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