“The reason climbing is so exciting, life-affirming and powerful is because of the omnipresent mortal risk if you do it wrong,” says mountaineer Leo Houlding, who recently ascended the Spectre, Antarctica, possibly the remotest mountain on earth.
“You can mitigate that risk to a very high level through experience and being cautious, but ultimately it’s always there, and if it wasn’t, climbing mountains wouldn’t be what it is.”
Over a two-decade career, Houlding has established himself as one of the faces of modern British climbing. He is a skilled free climber, which uses ropes and protection solely to prevent injury during falls and not to make progress, providing a unique view of the world.
“Being up on those cliffs is a profound experience,” says the 38 year old. “We often make an analogy with sailing. Once you leave the ground you’re cast away to a giant vertical ocean of rock. I definitely found my poison.”
Houlding was born and lives in the Lake District. He began climbing aged 10 after persuading his father’s friend, the climber Malcolm Cundy, to “show him the ropes”. His natural ability soon became apparent and within six months he had tackled the Old Man of Hoy.
Favouring the natural playground of Cumbria over indoor walls that were “central heated and risk assessed up to their eyeballs”, he nevertheless became British junior indoor climbing champion in 1996, aged 16. Two years later, he became the first Briton to free climb El Capitan, the centrepiece of Yosemite Valley, California, returning every climbing season for many years to master his craft alongside fellow climbers, many of whom became close friends.
“You just can’t imagine how big El Capitan is the first time you stand at the bottom of it,” says Houlding. “If you see someone up there it just doesn’t look real – it’s like an ant on the wall.”
There followed a series of increasingly difficult modern expeditions, combining climbing and exploration, in the Arctic, Patagonia, China, South Africa and Venezuela. “There’s kind of been a natural progression throughout all of the expeditions I’ve done,” he says ahead of his UK speaking tour. “After several visits to Yosemite, it doesn’t quite blow your mind in the same way. To find truly rewarding emotions from climbing you need to do something different. You have to go bigger, better, faster, harder and aim higher.”
Houlding subsequently found himself at the forefront of para-alpinism (a combination of free climbing and base jumping) in his twenties, as featured in the film The Asgard Project, which documented his journey to Mount Asgard, Canada in 2009. Such extreme adventure was as perilous as it was exhilarating.
“There’s very little margin for error,” he explains. “By the time I started base jumping in 2004, the equipment and the knowledge base were good, and it became exceptionally safe. However, just when we figured out how to make it safe we decided to make it way more dangerous again.”
In 2013, Houlding completed his first Antarctic climb, taking on the fearsome, jagged north-east ridge of Ulvetanna – the “wolf’s tooth” in Norwegian. He was accompanied by Sean “Stanley” Leary, a talented American climber and long-time friend from his Yosemite days. Sadly, the perils of base jumping became all too real when Leary died in an accident the following year. “When that happened, I put my wings away and I haven’t been base jumping since,” he says.
In honour of his friend, Houlding decided to go one further with the Spectre Expedition. In December 2017, he led a three-man team, with France’s Jean Burgun and New Zealander Mark Sedon, on their unsupported journey. Despite temperatures reaching minus 40 degrees and the risk of rockfall, the trio were successful, helped by the revolutionary polar travel technique of kite-skiing, which Houlding cites as “the future
of Antarctic exploration”, enabling long-distance travel at high speed with heavy loads. Their movements across the snow were documented for the film Spectre: To The End Of The Earth, released online next month.
As a repeated explorer of Arctic locations, Houlding has seen the gradual devastation of climate change but explains that its impact can also be seen within Europe. “The clearest evidence I’ve ever seen is the Chamonix valley in France,” he says, having lived there briefly. “You can see how drastically the glaciers have receded. They used to almost come down to the valley, but now it’s halfway up the side of the mountain.”
His worrying accounts come with a stark warning for the future. “The world should be quite concerned about what is happening,” says Houlding, who saw further evidence whilst training for the Spectre Expedition in Greenland. “In our lifetimes – or certainly, in our children’s lifetimes – everyone will know about the effects of the melting ice caps. We can slow things down, but it’s going to happen.”
Further to the physical dangers of climbing, Houlding has regularly faced the personal struggle of leaving family behind in Cumbria whilst on expedition. He finds it tough being separated from his wife Jessica, five-year-old daughter and two-year old-son.
“My wife is very supportive as this is the way I have always lived. However, it’s been more of a challenge since the kids came along. We want them to have high aspirations and to try to achieve their dreams, so I believe it’s important to lead by example and not forsake all your own ambitions when becoming a parent, but there must be give and take.”
Houlding is determining an as yet unknown expedition pencilled in for later this year. Until then, he is enjoying family time and gently introducing his children to the peaks. “We have lots of adventures together and are out every weekend doing something,” he says. “Jessica and I taught the kids to ski at Christmas and we took them up their first real mountain last summer – Triglav, the highest summit in Slovenia. Freya made it all the way up and down on her own two feet.”
But Houlding still wants to push the limits of mountaineering. “The Spectre Expedition was the culmination of going out of my comfort zone, but it doesn’t end there. I think now, with the skills and knowledge we gained on that trip, it potentially opens the door to something even more challenging down the line.” ν
Leo Houlding – The Spectre Expedition visits the Dukes, Lancaster, 9 February; Rheged Centre, Penrith, 11 February; Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, 21 March; Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, 22 March (speakersfromtheedge.com). Spectre: To the End of the Earth is released next month. For photos from the Spectre Expedition visit Instagram: @leo_houlding
Spectre: The Journey
The Spectre stands over 2,000m high within the Gothic Mountains, a stretch of granite spires and peaks in Antarctica. Houlding’s polar expedition utilised modern techniques to enable high speed, long distance travel across a region previously out of reach for independent explorers. His three-man team completed their 1,700km journey unsupported over the course of 60 gruelling days.
Ski plane drop-off
In mid-November 2017, the team boarded an Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) flight from Punta Arenas, Chile to Union Glacier in Antarctica. From there, a ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft flew them to their drop-off point, 200km from the South Pole.
Kite-ski to Spectre (17 days)
From the drop off point, they travelled the 350km to the Gothic Mountains by kite-ski.
Climbing Spectre (13 days)
Bad weather hindered their efforts, but the team got to the top of the Spectre. They also conquered another unclimbed, unnamed peak and explored the most remote mountains on Earth. All climbs were made in Alpine style, carrying no fixing rope, drill or bolts.
Man-haul towards the South Pole (10 days)
The team then retraced their route back to their drop-off point, using traditional man-hauling techniques alongside revolutionary and highly technical, upwind kite-skiing.
Kite-ski across the continent (20 days)
The final 1,300km downwind leg of their journey was made by kite-ski in erratic winds and difficult snow. They returned home from Antarctica in late January 2018.
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