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Hanging On: An interview with climbing legend Martin Boysen

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

In the seventies British climber and mountaineer Martin Boysen played a key role in some of the most high-profile Himalayan expeditions of the time, including the first ascent of the giant south face of Annapurna in 1970. Here Martin talks about the highs and lows of his climbing career and the challenge of writing his autobiography, Hanging On.

I always had a love of the outdoors. Coming back from a bird watching holiday walking over the Cairngorms, I was thumbing through a youth hostel magazine and saw pictures of climbers on the local sandstone rocks near Tunbridge Wells. Southern sandstone was all I had to climb on for quite a long time. Getting away to Wales or the Peak District was pretty difficult in those days. I loved it and still enjoy going back. There are some fantastically good bits of climbing which hold up to anywhere really. 

In the sixties and seventies I did a lot of decent routes – nothing mind-blowing but at the time they were quite hard. You forget the awful gear we had in those days. I was still threading slings round pebbles and inserting pebbles in cracks rather than having a decent set of nuts. We were climbing from the ground upwards. Nowadays you’d abseil down, clean everything thoroughly and then climb it which no doubt would achieve a better end but it was a bit more adventurous climbing ground up. 

I have lots of good memories. 1959 is one of the best. It opened out all of the hard climbing of the day. Joe Brown and Don Whillans’ routes were being climbed for the first time. It was very exciting and I felt I was really breaking into the scene.

Discovering Gogarth ... We were staggered that such a huge crag with obvious features and lines like that had remained undiscovered. At first we thought the rock must be terrible. To some extent the route we chose to do proved the point that it was pretty bad, but it was a superficial looseness. We found out later that the rock was fundamentally sound and provided superb climbing. 

Going to the Annapurna south face in 1970 was immensely exciting. It had always been my dream to climb in the Himalaya. Having climbed with Chris [Bonington], when expeditions to the Himalaya eventually became a possibility after a long period of wars and political problems, I was in the right place and knew the right people. Attempting for the first time to climb a mountain by one of the harder routes was quite a breakthrough. It was fantastic – there were no teahouses, it was camping in the jungle and the actual climbing was a marvelous, eye-opening experience.

The day we set off from Camp 6 on Everest’s south-west face in 1975 I’d been feeling very fit but all of a sudden I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. My oxygen set wasn’t working so I went back to the tent whilst the others went on. I popped my head out and could see Pete Boardman, Pertemba and Mick Burke slowly going up to the summit. Then the tragedy … slowly the weather started deteriorating [and] I realised that they were going to have a hell of a bad time getting back. Pete and Pertemba got to the summit and back to the south col and met Mick, who was still slowly plodding upwards, carrying a lot of heavy film kit. They waited as long as they could and he didn’t come back. Eventually they struggled back down through the storm and came back in a bad state. At the time I thought, ‘Will Mick make it?’ and as the night progressed I realised it was unlikely he would ever come back. He never did. What happened we can’t know, but it was a pretty nightmarish scenario.

Just surviving at 27,000 feet was not easy. The tents were being slowly crushed by the accumulating snow. We were running out of fuel and food and slowly getting weaker and weaker so when eventually the storm did break we realised that was our chance to escape. I had a hard job battering out the fixed ropes so we could descend and got quite bad frostbite in my fingers. We eventually made it back down but that was it – the end of the expedition. 

Writing the book took a very long time – thirty years, maybe longer. I got quite keen on it and then it faltered and I lost interest. People who’d read early chapters kept nagging me. I found someone willing to type up my illegible scripts. I felt a bit guilty about not getting the damn thing finished and I’m pleased I have done.

Climbing has changed a hell of a lot but in essence it’s the same – you’re on a boulder problem and the joy you get is no different. Moving well over a bit of rock still gives me the same excitement it did fifty years ago. 

Click here to read more about Martin’s autobiography, Hanging On. To find out more about the 1970 ascent of Annapurna’s south face, check out The Hard Way – Annapurna South Face 1970 available on SteepEdge.com.

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