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The Bells, The Bells!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Andy Pollitt
Andy Pollitt

Ahead of the release of Andy Pollitt’s biography Punk in the Gym, Vertebrate’s Jon Barton speaks with Mark Leach who belayed Andy when he made the first onsight ascent of The Bells, The Bells! (E7).

Andy Pollitt’s second ascent of The Bells, The Bells! (North Stack Wall, Gogarth) and the first onsight ascent is one of those iconic moments of 1980s climbing. Even today an E7 onsight is extremely rare. I tracked down Mark Leach, long-time climbing partner and friend of Andy’s, and belayer on that day.

Jon Barton: Tell me about the day Mark?

Mark Leach: I can’t remember very much. I recall walking over to North Stack Wall – Andy got a massive nosebleed and I thought that this could be a prediction of things to come. Andy was about to undertake a serious outing and I was just the belay boy. I also remember that the route took ages, like really ages. At first I naively thought, ‘This looks good, I’ll have a go at it.’ But by the time he’d finished the sun had gone, I was freezing and decided to just jug out, which probably saved my life.

JB: Were you aware how dangerous Andy’s predicament was high on the route?

ML: I nearly killed him. I was stood on this big rock belaying, and as the hours ticked by I got bored and noticed a bit of gear lying just out of reach. Leaning over to pick it up, I very nearly lost my balance and fell off the rock, which would have pulled Andy off the route … not good. I have never mentioned this fact to Andy, strangely.

JB: Has the historical significance of the ascent been something you’ve ever considered?

ML: I guess not. We just went climbing and that was the route Andy wanted to do that day. I sometimes think the eighties have been ignored in terms of climbing history; there was a point where, almost overnight, we decided to stop yo-yoing routes and start redpointing, and while the Welsh scene was doing the trad thing – which was atomic in significance to bold routes – the Sheffield scene was way ahead in terms of stepping up the sheer physical technical difficulty. We were all in the limelight back then, climbing hard routes all the time. But it was a very narrow light wasn’t it? I knew The Bells! was difficult, and had a big reputation, but Andy was an extremely good climber. We were all climbing lots of routes. Looking back now it was of real historic importance and I am humbled to have played a little part in that segment of climbing history and in Andy’s life.

JB: Do you still keep in touch with all the old guys from those days?

ML: We do. Of course, most of us never left Sheffield like Andy did. Although I don’t see Andy, sometimes we catch up by phone and email. I never really understood why he stopped climbing. I’d like to know that. Was it something I said, Andy?

Andy Pollitt's autobiography Punk in the Gym will be published on 4 April 2016 and is now available to pre-order.

Punk in the Gym by Andy Pollitt

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