Interviewing Leo Houlding

We talk adventure, fatherhood, and risk with British climber Leo Houlding...

Berghaus athlete Leo Houlding is one of the best climbers in the world. Climbing since the age of 10, he’s taken on some of the most audacious vertical challenges on the planet, including becoming the first Briton to climb El Capitan at just 18 years old.


In 2015, Leo and a team of British climbers took on a previously unclimbed route on Mirror Wall, a 1,200m granite wall in Greenland. In his new tour, “Reflections: The Mirror Wall”, Leo explores the conflicts between a life of extreme adventure and the responsibilities of being a father.


We were lucky enough to ask Leo some questions about adventure, risk, and the Mirror Wall.


Does being a father change your willingness to take risks when you’re climbing or on an expedition?

Short answer; Yes. But to quantify that a little the adventure game is not simply about taking risks, it’s about making judgments and decisions that manage and reduce the level of risk involved in a given objective. Knowledge, skill and fitness can go a long way to offset the danger inherent in a climb or expedition.  Nobody sets out to get hurt and having experienced a serious accident early on in my career I learnt the hard way that small mistakes can have life altering consequences.


In some ways the adventures I undertake today are my most serious and potentially hazardous so far, yet I feel these days I am operating with a higher margin of safety thanks to the wisdom gained through hard earned experience. That said there does comes a point when all factors have been considered and risk mitigated as much as possible leaving the simple decision; go or no? I think fatherhood and a few other heavy life experiences in recent years have made me a little more conservative.


Is your life at home with your family equally full of adventure, or is it more domestic and chilled?

Both. My daughter has just turned three and with her I’m rediscovering the joy of less ambitious adventures. The Lake District is a wonderful place to live, in spite of the sub-optimal climate! There’s plenty of opportunity for adventure big and small be it looking for fairies in the valley woodlands, SUPing on the Lake or hard climbing on some of the best crags in the UK. I still spend several months a year in the harsh beauty of expedition life which I find stimulates a strong craving for domestic comfort. A month in the wilderness really makes you appreciate a kettle and a shower!


Can you describe the Mirror Wall to us? And why was it such an important challenge for you?

The Mirror Wall is a giant, gently overhanging, golden tombstone towering over a seldom seen glacier in a very remote corner of Arctic Greenland. So named because of its glass smooth surface, at first glance the main face appears completely featureless and apparently impossible to climb. Climbing a new route on a cliff three quarters of a mile high that is so steep and so hard is a major undertaking anywhere. Throw in the extreme remoteness, Arctic conditions and zero possibility of help in an emergency and you have yourself a very serious challenge.


I was by far the most experienced member of the crew putting a considerable weight of organisational and leadership responsibility on my shoulders especially given the great deal of unknowns associated with exploratory adventure of that nature; how to get onto the wall, which way to go, will it even be possible? But to be with a small crew of mates, so isolated from the rest of humanity, in such magnificent, raw nature, faced with such a massive yet simple challenge is a very special experience and something I hope to enjoy for the rest of my life.


How did you train for the Mirror Wall trip? Did you use other disciplines to get into shape?

I’ve never been a huge fan of working out, I prefer to get out and play in the hills as much as possible. I like to mountain bike for cardio / general fitness. I’m lucky to have brilliant riding right on my doorstep here in the Lakes. I have some metal work in my ankle which doesn’t agree too well with running. Of course climbing is essential training for climbing expeditions. Getting out on rock and placing gear as much as possible is important. I also have a small bouldering wall in my village, kind of a co-operative that I try to hit a few times a week. It can be hard to find partners mid-week so I get out alone to some of the Lakeland high crags and climb on a rappel rope which is fun and very practical practice. There’s a lot of rope work involved in a climb like the Mirror Wall. You can measure the amount of jummaring in miles!


How does the Mirror Wall challenge rank in your top most difficult expeditions?

Although physically it was a tough expedition, I must say it was very well planned and very well executed therefore there wasn’t too much desperation or drama. Psychologically however it was probably my hardest so far. There was a lot of objective danger, crevasses, seracs, rock fall and the like. Not only was it my first expedition as a Dad, it was the first since my great friend and partner Sean ‘Stanley” Leary died in March 2014 leaving behind a pregnant widow. Combined with feeling responsible for the safety of the crew I definitely felt a pretty heavy psychological load. Aside from the fear of something dreadful happening, I felt far more homesick than ever before and really missed my little girl, especially when tent bound for days on end in bad weather.


I’ve done a couple of other big trips since Mirror Wall and am starting to get used to it but still departing on a long, potentially dangerous mission is heartbreaking!


How did it feel to reach the summit?

We weren’t the first team to reach the summit. A Swiss team claimed that prize in 2012. We were the second but the first to climb via the main, most difficult face of the wall. For me the summit was a little anticlimactic. We’d overcome the major difficulties of the climb a couple of hundred meters below the top, a couple of days earlier. At that point I knew it was in the bag and kind of experienced the summit emotions then, touching the top was almost a formality. Of course there is a great sense of accomplishment at having achieved your goal, not to mention the special feeling of being one of only a handful of humans ever to set foot on such a spectacular corner of Earth. However it’s not like winning a race, there’s nobody there cheering for you and the reality is you’re still a long way from home and safety. It’s a pretty complex logistical process getting down such a huge face with so much stuff and no sooner had we topped out than my mind was completely occupied with the details of the descent. I think the other guys had a more celebratory feeling since none of them had ever done anything like that before.


Will fatherhood, or anything else, stop you taking on challenges like the Mirror Wall?

No. There may come a time when the adventures are less frequent and perhaps less audacious but that time has not yet come. In fact my next mission is by far the most audacious yet...


Are there any guilty pleasures you just can’t do without on an expedition?

Lots! I’ve done enough roughing it over the years to know that a few key bits and bobs can really smooth it! I’m a bit of a coffee knob and always bring decent fresh coffee and a big stove top espresso maker for Base camp. A really good sleeping set up is key for long trips. Rest is so important. I always bring a 3mm foam tent floor, a closed cell foam mat, an inflatable air mattress, a good down sleeping bag, a liner in case it gets cold and  lightweight bivvy bag. It’s as comfortable as a real bed. It’s nice to have plenty of chocolate and goodies as tensions run high when these are in short supply. A few bottles of single malt never goes amiss. A pair of comfortable camp trainers is also a winner.


Why have you chosen to name your tour after the mirror wall climb?

We called our climb on the Mirror Wall, Reflections. Obviously there’s a Mirror pun in there but it’s also a nod to the deeper aspect of expedition life. For me as I’ve already mentioned there was some deep reflection during the trip on the conflict between a life of hardcore adventure and the responsibility and joy of parenthood. I explore this theme a little bit in the show. For the other people and for anybody who steps out of everyday life and into a serious expedition environment, that relocation can really give a much clearer outside perspective of your everyday life. For example one of the guys decided to propose to his girlfriend whilst we were out there and is getting married next year.


What can people expect from your Mirror Wall tour?

As well the Mirror Wall expedition there will be some material from a major Discovery Channel adventure TV show I fronted in 2014 called “Lost Worlds”, as well as a few other epic bits and pieces. Expect Inspirational imagery and film of amazing places you never knew existed; a bit of behind the scenes insight into adventure TV production and how it differs from genuine expedition film, tales of truly hardcore nu-skool adventure, tips for your own missions as well as some slightly deeper reflections of why adventure is important and finding the balance between home life and the high life.

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