‘No Easy Way’ (The Challenging Life of the climbing taxman) Mick Fowler. 244 Pages, Perfect bound paperback: Published by Vertebrate £14.95.
‘A sight to make an old man young’ Tennyson
Recently I was invited to attend at the Leeds Central Library, for there on the third floor was a large double door safe, which had not been opened for three or four decades and the keys lost in the mists of time. Professional safe crackers had been brought in and finally the doors opened. Inside was a huge amount of historical climbing material, lantern slides of Slingsby and Frankland, some of the latter leading Whisky Crack, Central Climb and the Green Crack at Almscliff routes which he had originally pioneered; there were old Journals, and a stack of black/white photographs mostly by the Abraham brothers etc. One item that I found more than interesting was a copy of the ‘Times’ supplement celebrating the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.
This illustrated how different Himalayan exploration was at that date compared to the ascents now being made by such as Fowler and his contemporaries. These climbs rely on the fact that there are hundreds of lesser altitude unclimbed Himalayan objectives around the 6000/7000 metre mark, many of which provide challenging, multi-day technical ascents; possible for two well drilled unsupported climbers to attempt, and importantly without recourse to using bottled oxygen to climb or as an aid for sleeping and physical recovery.
‘No Easy Way’ was a must read for me, as many of the Himalayan regions featured in the book I have also been fortunate to visit, albeit not to attempt the kind of technical climbs achieved by Fowler and a partner. The book begins with an illuminating chapter on how since joining the Inland Revenue in 1977 the author has managed to deal with the competing priorities of his life. Somehow he has managed a work life balance that most climbers will envy; marrying, raising a family and moving up the Civil Service grades whilst continuing to climb at a high standard, particularly in achieving greater-range ascents, with such a trip planned almost every year.
In this first Chapter he mentions the climb he and Paul Ramsden made in 2002 of an impressive ice streak on Mount Siguniang in China’s Sichuan Province. I think it was this climb which was to be the basis of his approach to similar challenges from thereon; noting that the ideal objective should boast a striking line leading directly to a summit, be unclimbed, be visible from afar, be technically challenging, be objectively safe, be on an eye-catching mountain, be in a remote interesting area, somewhere he had not previously been to, and have an aesthetically pleasing-and different descent route. Phew! I have been to Mount Siguniang and the ice couloir that he and Ramsden climbed meets all of those criteria, and over the years the author has gathered a huge file of many such potential objectives throughout the Himalaya.
'The Stone Bell Tower' : Southern Altai Mountains of Xinjang; DG
Also noteworthy is how in his later life when he moved to work in the tax office at Nottingham, he settled with his family to live in the Peak District, and where to keep his body trim and increase his stamina and general fitness for climbing he took up fell running. However he was already trim before this, being just above medium height, rangy and bony.
Somehow by an ability to manoeuvre his work commitments, right up until his recent retirement in 2017 he managed to save up a sufficient holiday entitlement each year to around 30 days. Enough time for the author and a companion to attempt a major Himalayan ascent. And what is most impressive for me is the same tight circle of climbing friends he has been able to draw on to take part in his different climbing activities; chalk climbing on the White Cliffs of Dover, shale climbing in the South West, rock climbing in Orkney, ice climbing on Ben Nevis, ascents in the Andes of Peru, and of course the Himalaya. This was borne on me the first time I attended in the 1970’s at the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Kings Cross where the North London Mountaineering Club used to meet and this was where Fowler and or his friends usually met up (later at the Sobell wall, and later still The Palm Tree in Mile End).
Present were Ben Wintringham and his wife Marian, Slippery Vic Saunders, Chris Watts, Mike Morrison, Steve Sustad etc all of whom apart from Ben (who died in an abseiling accident in Morocco) appear in ‘No Easy Way’. I grew to marvel at their planning to take off on a Friday night after work to drive to destinations like Ben Nevis, Kintail or Cornwall, climbing through Saturday and Sunday to arrive back at work on Monday morning. The author claims they never missed that deadline which if true would be an impressive tribute to their driving skills.
There are in the early chapters of the book two impressive climbs on mountains in Eastern Tibet, Kajaqiao 6447mtrs and Manamcho 6264mtrs, the reader may be wondering how Fowler knew about such objectives?
The internet has changed such research, and a key figure in identifying suitable objectives is the Japanese Tom Nakamura. A retired business man he spends a large slab of time each year trekking with companions like him of an advanced age, through different unexplored (for climbing) Himalayan regions, and subsequently publishing photographs and maps of the surrounding peaks he has noted on his travels. It is from such that many impressive objectives have been garnered by those keen on Himalayan ascents in Alpine style. However gaining permits to climb in these areas is fraught with bureaucracy and needs patience, contacts and good luck to achieve a successful outcome.
There are some light hearted chapters away from the multi-day high mountain ascents; a sea cliff extravaganza with Steve Sustad to South Orkney, a short lecture tour and climbing jaunt in Ireland , and two chapters about participating in the Paps of Jura fell race. The first detailing his failure to successfully complete the race being timed out, the second a year later when after some more applied training he was successful in completing this gruelling 28kms race, and the thousands of feet of ascent and descent within the time schedule. I have not so far noted Fowler’s ability at writing with a wry humour, and it shines through in these diversionary chapters away from the high mountains, including secretly climbing the walls of Nottingham castle with Paul Ramsden who like Fowler worked in that city.
On the second occasion they were apprehended after completing their climb early one morning by a security guard, who sent for the police. This ended amicably when the police decided they really could not charge the two miscreants for they had caused no damage but suggested that in future they obtained a permit to climb from Nottingham Council!
Another engrossing chapter away from the remote-ranges is the one about the bizarre events that led the author to become President of the Alpine Club. When first approached to stand for election he was undecided about accepting aware that it would mean a lot of extra work, but eventually he agreed. A few weeks later he was stunned to learn that an older, more senior member, Col Henry Day had decided to stand against him and it was suggested because of decorum he should stand down, for it would be the first contested election in the 150 years history of the Club. But bolstered by his proposer Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite and his second Joe Brown he decided to take this on. I attended the AGM meeting having been lobbied to be there or else dire consequence might befall, for only those attending could vote and our man Fowler was appointed. This meeting was typical of the theatre which occurs about once a decade at the Alpine Club. Passionate speeches, one by a senior judge, another by a lawyer, and yet another by a young tiger made for a truly memorable event, leaving the author with the task of mending fences and getting on with the reforms he had promised in a Hustings speech.
Back to the greater ranges and in 2010 a trip to the Chinese Tien Shan mountains in Xinjiang, which the author confesses he knew little about before his visit which had been difficult to organise due to the riots of 2009 in Urumqi, when the internet and international phone connections had been closed down in that City the capital of the Province. I was there during the riots when 200 people were killed and a 1000 injured, mainly Han Chinese. I am afraid for once Fowler has some detail about the history of the Province wrong, particularly viz a viz the Uighurs and the Han the two biggest ethnic groups (there are 12 others). The Uighurs do not make up only thirteen per cent of the population as he states, they are the largest grouping and make up almost 50%.
It is outside the scope of this review to explain more, except to inform that I have travelled throughout Xinjiang, been there 10 times and undertaken two research projects in this the biggest Province in China. It is the most impressive place I have ever been to with five mountain ranges and the two big deserts of the Taklamakan and the Gobi. My ‘discovery’ of Keketuohai situated in the southern Altai on the border with Mongolia in the autumn of 2009, has led on to visits there by Tommy Caldwell of Dawn Wall fame, Jeremy Collins and Mark Jenkins reporting for National Geographic who declared the valley ‘awesome’. Mike Dobie an ex-pat climber has also become a visitor and the valley is now referred to as the Yosemite of China with its impressive granite walls, domes and towers?
The objective for Fowler and Co in the far west Xuelian mountains of the Tien Shan was a mountain called Sulamar 5380 metres and partnered once again by Paul Ramsden, the author had an almost near death experience whilst crossing a snow covered glacier and falling into a deep crevasse. Despite being roped up the fight to get out of this predicament nearly cost him his life. Post this trip Fowler and his friends found it ever more difficult to obtain climbing permits to Tibet or the Tien Shan and their expeditions were from thereon in West Nepal and the Indian Himalaya. At the first of these destinations they headed for a mountain Mugu Chuli 6310 on the Nepal/ Tibet border, and once again just as in Nick Bullock’s book ‘Tides’ appearing in yet another cameo role is one ‘Streaky’, Graham Desroy.
I suspect if I was persuaded to watch ‘Love Island’ (unlikely) there on the beach would be a character wearing a bandana on his head and sporting a flower shirt and white painter’s trousers. He does rove far and wide and last night I received a mail from him on a climbing visit to Madagascar. Post this ascent there are impressive further climbs detailed in the Indian Himalaya, on Hagshu 6515 mtrs, the Prow of Shiva 6142 mtrs and in the north-west of Nepal to Gave Ding in 2015.
For me the most amusing, finest writing in the book is the final ‘big’ climb, Sersank 6050mtrs in the Indian Himalaya when Fowler teamed up again with ‘Slippery’ Vic Saunders, their first climb together since the Golden Pillar of Spantik, Pakistan in 1987; a climber of equal merit and achievement as the author. Their getting back together starts with their reliving a boxing match between them to settle a dispute in a seedy east London pub, but at which they were jeered at during their fight for a lack of aggression by the audience, which led to them being replaced by a stripper!
In 2016 Fowler was coming up for retirement aged 60 and Saunders was 66 years old. They were like a couple of escapees from Dad’s Army, and they certainly could have moonlighted as the ‘odd couple’. But they completed a difficult climb of the 1100metre north buttress of the mountain in eight days in a round trip from Base Camp. To report that the pictures of the route are gnarly is a half truth and the author’s advice that you are ‘Never too old’ seems to hold good.
'The Royal Arches'.. Xinijang; DG
The book is replete with colour pictures and is well designed and produced, meeting the standards we have come to expect from Vertebrate. But it concludes with an Epilogue on a truly sombre note as the author is diagnosed with anal cancer, and needs to undertake both chemo and radiotherapy to combat this, torpedoing his plans for a trip to Sikkim, again with Slippery Vic. Post treatment after two clear scans, a further monitoring visit reveals the cancer is back, and an operation may now be necessary. However he remains as ever positive, and his dream of visiting Sikkim is still being planned as he decides, ‘anything is possible’
This historically important work is a book to savour, and one to recommend any tyro reading as they start out wishing to also emulate such an adventurous life style. I applaud Fowler’s attitude to bolts, he eschews them in the high mountains and explains why, and although he has been awarded three Piolet D’Or, the so called Oscars of the mountaineering world he appreciates the limitation of such awards, and likewise as when he was awarded the soubriquet of ‘The Mountaineer’s Mountaineer’ in a poll conducted by the Observer.
Mick Fowler: Image BMC
Times change and he was lucky to be active when world travel made such ascents possible in a short holiday time span. Whatever, as long as the sport of mountaineering continues to be keenly followed worldwide Mick Fowler will be a name to give tribute to, the more so for the adventurous way and the spirit in which his climbs were achieved.
Dennis Gray : 2018