Interview by Adele Long
Hi Uisdean, how long have you been a member of the Alpine Club?
Like many UK mountaineers you seem to have cut your teeth on Scottish rock, how does this prepare you for alpine climbing?
I suppose the thing is you get a lots of technical climbing, so for me when I do lots of winter climbing or trad that really helps to gives you a lot of confidence that you will be able to get up pretty much any of the technical cruxes on a route [in the Alps] because you know they are a few grades lower than what you would climb at home.
A lot of the mixed climbing on the Bheinn, the routes are short and if they were anywhere else no-one would climb them, they are just little bits of rock, but because they are technically really hard and you can just go and do them from your house in a day, you get in a lot of climbing. Its the volume of hard climbing more than any specific climb. You would spend weeks and weeks in the Alps to get that volume of hard climbing.
How old were you when you started climbing?
Nineteen I think. I am 24 now. My dad used to climb but he never used to climb when I was growing up so I never did any of that kind of thing. I started running in high school and did lots of running. Dad started to get back into climbing, so I knew about it but didn't really understand the principles of it; he took me out once or twice, but I didn't really get into it until I moved away from home. I went to Aberdeenshire to do a joinery apprenticeship and started to go to the climbing wall with friends and then met more people. I sometimes used to go with the Uni clubs if some of my friends were in those. If there was a good trip I would go along, but if the weather was bad I would just pull out and not go. [Wise man!]
What was it about climbing that got under your skin?
I’ve always liked being outside a lot. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time in the hills gathering in the sheep and stock and deer, and I was outside all the time at work. Its just like a good challenge more than anything else and I think because I was fit I could really enjoy it.
You have done a number of pretty difficult routes, which were the most challenging?
The one in Canada me and Tom did on the north face of Mount Alberta (ED2/3). Actually when we did the route this year it felt pretty straightforward and all in all, it went really well and the conditions were really good, but the year before we tried land conditions had been really bad but we tried anyway and it was quite difficult getting off the face. The hardest thing about going back was booking the flight again, knowing that you could go back to same place and do the exact same thing and that you could fail again.
Where is the most spectacular place you have climbed?
Patagonia. I went down there with Pete Graham this year and just in terms of the ‘wow’ factor it’s really striking. It is quite flat around most of Argentina and then you get a line of rock on the skyline. I really like the landscape around about; the trees are warped by the wind, really twisted and running through the forest was absolutely great.
Why did you want to join the Alpine Club?
It’s a good way of getting membership benefits in the Alps and a good way of getting to know other people, information from people. There is also the Climbing Fund for expeditions so that’s a big part of it. Also I am keen to get involved with the Young Alpine Group set up by Malcolm Bass and Ina Parnell. Seeing that has made me keen to join the Alpine Club.
Your proposer described you as having good technical ability and sensible mountaineering decision-making; what do you think he meant by that?
If you are climbing with someone its almost like you don't have to think about it, if you don’t get into any bother it means you are making all the right decisions. If I am with a good climbing partner you don't notice them making good decisions, it just happens, everything just runs well, you don't end up in the wrong place or you don’t end up doing anything dangerous; its quite hard to pinpoint I suppose. I remember most of my wrong decisions! The right ones are always so small individually but when you are climbing they add up.
What do you think contributes to climbers making poor decisions?
Tiredness is a big one. More recently in my last trip to the Alps me and my friend Kim were just coming off Mont Blanc having climbed the Hyper couloir, and we were going down the normal Gouter route and we had both never done it before, we got down to the Vallot hut and were following a track all the way and people had been skiing to that point, and so from that point there were only ski tracks. Instead of following the map on my watch or the markers that go back up a small hill and onto the Gouter route, we decided to follow the ski tracks which were going round the small hill and we thought there must just be a slightly different way in winter, which was totally the wrong decision and we should have just followed the map and the marker poles, but because we were really tired and had done a lot of walking uphill that day we just decided to go round. But the ski descent goes a completely different way and we walked for about 20 minutes before we realised we had made a mistake and had to walk all the way back up. So tiredness is a massive one. The other thing is inexperience, because you have never been there before you might think that one bit of glacial terrain will be more crevassed than another, but you if you don't know you can make a wrong decision.
What is your advice to avoid making those wrong decisions?
The easy answer is to be really prepared. Know all the information you can, read as much as you can before going to try the route. Just getting a good idea in your head of the map and know it, don't have to even have to stop and take it out in bad weather because you know you are going the right way. Its when you start to question yourself that is when it can lead to going the wrong way.
Have you got any mountaineering objectives in the pipeline?
I fly to Alaska on Thursday. There is a new route on the Father and Sons Wall we would like to try and something on the south face of Denali - not sure yet. Weather is always such an issue and you need a spell of good weather to commit to anything on that face. I am going with Tom Livingston, we have climbed together in Canada and in the Alps and Scotland.
I think I might move out to Chamonix because I always seem to get back from a big trip, move out to Chamonix spend a few weeks there and then drive home and spend a few weeks at work and then fly off on a big trip again so it feels a bit pointless. I am going to go to Chamonix for a few months and I am also going to India in September with Peter Graham and Ben Sylvester who are both in the AC. We are going to climb a mountain called Ajuana which is around 6100m.
Who is your climbing inspiration?
[Big pause for thinking]. I met Rolando (Rolo) Garibotti, the godfather of Patagonian climbing - he's from Argentina - and has done loads of climbing. He is the most modest, helpful guy you could hope to meet. His house in El Chaltén is constantly full of people asking him for weather forecasts, what they should do, etc. He never tells people to go away or doesn't answer the door, he just helps everybody out and gives them loads of info and he is really happy to see people doing new routes - he is not like saving them for himself. He is really good at encouraging everyone to climb there and that was really interesting to see. He is also an incredibly good climber, the stuff he has done was really ahead of its time, like he did the Infinite Spur in Alaska in a really quick time with Steve House and considering how long ago it was, the time is still really impressive. Also the Torre traverse in Patagonia - even though it has been done in less than 24 hours now - it was just an incredible thing to try to do. Just an example of what a nice guy he is, when he has to give up his attempt on the Fitz Traverse, and Alex Honnold and Tommy Cauldwell are also attempting it but Alex has taken the wrong crampons, he gives Alex his crampons. He just like that, a really nice guy. [Watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOScetWwEwc}
What’s the best book you have read on mountaineering?
This is really easy as I have only ever read one book on mountaineering and that is Nick Bullock’s book and the only reason I managed to read it all is because its not that much about mountaineering and more about the prison stuff. I generally don't find reading books about mountaineering that good. I don't know why. I can spend hours looking at photos but reading about it is not something I do. I get my inspiration from photos and meeting people - I am just not into reading about it.
Thanks Uisdean. Sounds like you have a great mountaineering future ahead of you.