The story goes that I walked all the way up Pen y Fan and all the way back down again refusing to be carried. As I was four years old at the time I don’t remember anything about it but my parents assure me the story is true. I do remember a family walk around the Pembrokeshire coastal path when I was about ten years old, staying at Youth Hostels for the week long trip. I must have been a misery for the first couple of days, hanging back and thinking only of my aching back and feet. But something happened half way through that made me appreciate what was around me and look forward to discovering what I might find round every corner.
I’ve relished the chance to explore new places ever since. When I was seventeen I jumped at the chance to go to Iceland with another sixth form student and a geography teacher to spend four weeks cycling across the central volcanic ash deserts and back round the south coast. We rode 1100 miles across some of the bleakest landscape I’ve seen. It was brilliant, even the day we only managed 6 miles because of the headwind and the day we had 7 river crossings. I enjoyed the physical challenge and loved the big open spaces. It all felt very natural.
The first opportunities to try other activities were at university in Birmingham where I studied Sport and Exercise Science to get a degree that would also get me a career in the outdoors. Rock climbing trips right across the country as well as a bit of kayaking, paragliding and biking reinforced my decision to find a job in the outdoors and focussed my direction into mountain guiding. I also discovered Scottish winter mountaineering on a five day trip to the Cairngorms one New Year. The four nights were an exercise in survival in the storm force winds spent in a tent but the days revealed a landscape of even more potential. I discovered ice climbing solo on a grade II cascade with bendy boots and strap on crampons with two walking axes and thought it was magic!
Working for a trekking company, after I graduated and survived my first Alpine trip, I got to spend two months in East Africa followed by a month in Russia where I learned to ski. Going from equatorial Africa to Russia at the end of winter was quite a shift both in temperature and in culture. I learned to ski (badly) and got bored of piste skiing within a week. With my new technical ice axes I had a play about on the frozen streams in the valley and discovered climbing back down was harder than carrying on up to the top. I survived my second ice climb (solo) and was keen to do more. I tagged on to a climbing team from Minsk and got frostbite after three nights out in -25 celcius on a 5000m mountain in the Caucasus. My parents picked me up from the airport and took me to Bath Royal United hospital with swollen feet where I got some strange looks at first (frostbite in March in Somerset?) and then a lot of very curious doctors just coming in to have a look. I thought I was now a real mountaineer since all the best mountaineers in the books I’d read got frostbite at some point!
Being based on the south coast of England was not giving me the experience I needed for the mountain guides qualification so I moved to Fort William in Scotland. Arriving in March of 1995, one of the best winters for spring ice climbing on Ben Nevis, I was keen to get stuck in. Point Five Gully seemed to be the obvious target and not having found any climbing partners was not going to hold me back. So my third ice climb was Point Five Gully, solo.
I took a liking to solo ice climbing for a while and worked my way through many of the Ben Nevis classics. I felt very secure on ice and enjoyed the freedom of being able to move at my own pace. Unfortunately a climber’s natural tendency to try to push the grade meant there was a limit to the duration of my solo climbing. I got as far as Mega Route X and called it a day there. Over in the Alps I enjoyed a few solos as well including Les Droites North Face. This went a bit too well resulting in me arriving at the crux before it was light so I had an excuse for half an hour’s sleep. Being sat on top on my own with all the Alps laid out in the sunshine below was a brilliant moment. Missing the last train down from Montenvers was not so good. As ever, the hills give respite from every day hassles.
Many years later I am still finding plenty of inspiration in Scotland. It’s a tough playground but all the more rewarding for that. Winter climbing here is such a great mix of physical and mental challenge demanding the full range of mountaineering skills as well as climbing technique. You never quite master the dark art of judging the climbing conditions but when you get it right the reward is great. We get to enjoy big adventures in a relatively small package. Staying warm and dry on a Scottish winter’s day is a big challenge itself and made more difficult by the humid conditions. It’s a real buzz though when I’m all wrapped up warm and dry when it’s properly horrible weather. Having the best gear is essential for me, gear that works in the worst conditions imaginable.
I get to go to the Alps regularly, skiing or climbing, and enjoy my time on world icons like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. It’s the same for me over there as it is here; I enjoy it most when I’m going to new places or climbing routes I’ve not done before. It’s a great way to stay sharp as a guide and it certainly keeps me inspired. However, I always enjoy coming home. The sense of open space and the complete beauty of the landscape make it the best place in the world for me.
Mike operates Fort William-based Abacus Mountaineering, providing skills training and mountain guiding in Scotland and the Alps. It is our pleasure to welcome him onto the team and we look forward to sharing many hours amidst the spindrift.
Jöttnar's Pro Team pass on their frontline experience in helping us create the exceptional gear that bears the Jöttnar logo. Their ideas and feedback allow us to focus on the demands of those who live and work amongst the mountains and to ensure that what we produce has been validated by the most challenging of users in the most demanding conditions.