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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ian 'Spike' Sykes

Friday, 13 May 2016

Ian 'Spike' Sykes has led a remarkable and varied life. A long-standing member of Scotland's Mountain Rescue teams, he was involved in some of the most legendary call-outs in British mountaineering history. After leaving the RAF – which he had joined at the age of sixteen – Spike spent two-and-a-half years with the British Antarctic Survey, where he ran a dog team and worked as a guide to the Survey’s field scientists. Upon his return to the Highlands, he opened the first Nevisport shop, with his close friend Ian Sutherland, and was instrumental in the development of the Nevis Range ski area. In this blog, we caught up with Spike to talk about some of the highlights from his autobiography, In the Shadow of Ben Nevis, which was published on 15 February 2016.

How did you get involved with the RAF Mountain Rescue teams at the age of sixteen?  

I chucked university in Leeds on impulse when a clever recruiting sergeant said I could get on to Mountain Rescue. In reality they posted me to RAF Marham in Norfolk, the flattest spot in the UK and I spent most of my first year loading V-Bombers. I finally got a trial at RAF Kinloss where John Hinde had just taken over as team leader. John was one of the most enthusiastic mountaineers I have ever met and he offered me a full time job on the team. Equipment in those days was very primitive but there was great camaraderie among the members. We had some great climbers in the team in the early 1960s, Ian Clough and Terry Sullivan were the stars. Civilian rescue was very much in its infancy and was mostly done by local shepherds and the police. Half the members of the team were National Servicemen.  It was a great life with free food and transport in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. 

You mention in your book that call-outs had a habit of happening at the most awkward times; can you tell us about one of the most memorable? 

Most rescues seem to take place at awkward times: Easter or New Year or just as you sit down to Christmas dinner; it’s not good for family life but a great way to keep fit! In the forty years I was involved the teams were averaging about sixty call-outs a year and I was out on about two thirds of these so it’s hard to recall the most memorable. In the early days, before we had the use of helicopters and good radio comms. it was mostly searches for lost walkers. The big call-out at New Year on Skye in 1963 when three climbers from Glasgow lost their lives on the Cuillin was very memorable and the young honeymoon couple who fell into Five Finger Gully on Ben Nevis in appalling weather conditions. I have written extensively about these in my book.

Following your two-and-a-half years with the British Antarctic Survey, what prompted your decision to open a small business in Fort William? 

My years in Antarctica were some of the best of my life. Living with a team of sledge dogs was extraordinary and a great way to being self-reliant. When I got home I found myself on the dole and then back to my old jobs as a climbing instructor. Ian Sutherland rented a small shop in Fort William High Street on a whim and never looked back. We really only intended the shop as a way to fund our climbing. Neither of us had any experience of shop keeping or business but there were very few climbing shops in those days and Nevisport became a great success. 

You were involved in the first lower down the North Face of Ben Nevis to rescue two stricken climbers in the middle of winter; can you tell us about that epic descent? 

The first big lower on Ben Nevis happened in 1974. Two climbers, John Beatty and Barry Thomas got off route from Observatory Ridge and finished up in Zero Gully where Barry took a fall. They spent an uncomfortable night in a very awkward position. Ian Sutherland and I were lowered down the gully on three five-hundred foot ropes tied together. It was quite exciting with the rope sneaking up into the mist and felt like being on the end of a giant yo-yo. All went well however, the guys on the top of the cornice had a desperate time paying out the ropes in a blizzard while we were in comparative shelter.

Though Nevis Range initially met with some setbacks, over many years it became a great success. When did you notice your hard work paying off?

Nevis Range has been a fascinating project. I think if I had any sense I would have packed in the idea fairly quickly instead of spending the first nine years banging my head against a brick wall. However the year of its construction was very exciting. We had to build the whole thing in eight months or go bust which was nerve wracking. It was a great moment when the Queen opened the resort and the first skiers started to use the lifts. I think the opening of the Brave Heart lift into the Back Corries was the highlight for me. It will be an even bigger thrill when we manage to build a new lift round into the Back. 

Click here to find out more about Spike's book, In the Shadow of Ben Nevis.

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