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Author interview: Nick Bullock, Tides

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Denali summit. Words cannot express the feeling of reaching this summit after some of the most sustained climbing while in such a serious situation. Photo: Andy Houseman.

One of the UK’s leading climbers, Nick Bullock has dedicated himself to a life at the crag since leaving the prison service in his late twenties. His eagerly awaited second book, Tides, is a document of his first ascents and daring repeats on many of the world’s most prestigious routes. In this blog, we spoke to him about the impact of discovering climbing later on in life, his climbing partners, future adventures and dabbling in fiction ...

You began climbing full time when you left the prison service, is climbing very much about escapism for you? 

When I started to climb, or at least a short time after, I was working full time in the Prison Service, at that time I would say a big part of climbing, but by no means the only reason, possibly was escape, or at least to have a break. Now and for a long time it has not been an escape at all, how can I escape my life that is climbing almost as much as I want and a very rewarding way to live? As I’ve aged I realised escape is the wrong reason for me to climb anyway. Escape suggests getting away from something and I don’t have anything to get away from and the problem with the time when climbing was used to get away, there was always the return. The best way for me is to face fears and problems and deal with them immediately, using something to mask problems is not an answer for me, because they are always there even when doing something more enjoyable so it’s best to face them and get it sorted. 

Given you didn’t discover climbing until your late twenties, does it come naturally to you or does it still require hard work? 

I think starting climbing late in life has had disadvantages and advantages. I do have to work hard to maintain the level I climb, (which isn’t that high). I don’t have the inbuilt pathways that people who started young appear to have. Kids today grow up climbing and their muscles and minds appear to see and complete moves I have to work and repeatedly do before my body realises what is needed. Being older though has meant I’m still very keen even in my fifties and I’ve remained fit through training in the gym in preparation for mountain climbing.

Did you then feel that you had to focus where you climbed in order to tick off the climbs you really wanted to do? 

I have generally always focused at certain aspects of climbing because, for whatever reason, I cannot maintain what for me is a high standard by flitting from one genre to the next. I go to the mountains and my rock climbing standard falls. I go rock climbing and my overall fitness falls. Generally, the only aspect of climbing I appear to maintain a reasonable level, even off the couch, is winter climbing in Scotland or on ice. This aspect of climbing has almost always been at a level where I most naturally perform. This is possibly because it’s less skilful and more a matter of shutting off the voice in my head and going for it.

You were awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or with Paul Ramsden for your first ascent of the North Buttress on Nyainqentangla South East in Tibet. Was this your favourite first ascent? 

Climbing in Tibet with Paul was a really good and enjoyable trip, in retrospect anyway! But was it my favourite? It would definitely rank as one of the highlights I suppose, but Chang Himal North Face with Andy Houseman would certainly be up there and the two new routes I climbed in Peru with Al Powell would also be high. The climb does count for sure, but it’s also about the person I’m with and the country and the people I meet. I very much enjoyed visiting Peru with Al and making friends there and the same for Nepal, the people and the country are great and being alongside Andy who is a good friend made it even better. 

Your climbing partners have included some big names such as Kenton Cool, Andy Houseman and Jules Cartwright to name a few. Has climbing with some of the best in the sport lived up to your expectations?  

I’m not sure I had any expectations about my climbing partners, or really what I should say is my friends because that’s what they are, I have always just gone climbing with friends and we do whatever is necessary to try and climb a route on a mountain. The only person I suppose I did climb with who was not a close friend at the time was Paul and he certainly lived up to expectation! He’s also a Yorkshire man and makes good tea in the mornings and that’s coming from a coffee drinker.

What are the downsides to a life dedicated to climbing?

The downsides to a life dedicated to climbing? Well there are a few which have been investigated in Tides, maybe the best way to answer this is by saying read the book! The truth is though, unless you are taking some kind of drug that gives a feeling of permanent euphoria, no matter who you are there will be ups and downs. I’m very happy and content with my life and moaning about small things makes me sound and feel like a chump, so I try not to do it. It’s almost a cliché to say it, but there are so many people in the world who fight to survive on a daily basis, who struggle to find enough food and water to live. There are people who have no home and live in fear of being bombed. I have absolutely no complaints, I’m very lucky and privileged to live the life I live.

What do you do to keep fit when you’re not climbing?

I have always gone out running or cycling or circuit training when not climbing, it’s a continuum from being a PE Instructor, I’ve trained and attempted to keep fit no matter because I enjoy the feeling of being knackered. Unfortunately, with getting older, I train a lot less than I used to because the body breaks down. 

How do you find the time to write and is there a particular place you go to for inspiration? 

My writing is something similar to my climbing, I decide I’m going to write and that’s that, it takes precedent over everything else, I dedicate however long I have decided I need, to do whatever it is I’m doing. When I write I love been in places where I can look out of a window and see countryside, wildlife or mountains. Ynes Ettws in the Llanberis Pass has always been one of my go-to places for inspiration. 

What’s next on your climbing and writing agenda?

Unfortunately, Paul Ramsden has convinced me to go on an expedition with him once again in October, this time to a hill in China. Once I’ve finished with the Tides promotion and fallout I have an idea for a book which will be called Fiction and it will focus on gamekeeping and prisons and if I’m skilful enough, which possibly means it will never happen, I hope to run a thread through it where the main character grows up living a life that is false and cruel, but as the story continues he becomes a different, more kind and wise person and the moral of the story is … Hmm, maybe I’ll just write a novel that plagiarises Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and stays brutal and cruel all the way through but if I did that Jon Barton would not be able to read it and he certainly wouldn’t publish it!                 

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