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Author interview: Mick Fowler, No Easy Way

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

In 2007 during our Manamcho expedition we became the first Westerners to see this lake and these unclimbed peaks. Photo: Mick Fowler.

Mick Fowler is a pioneer of the small, remote Himalayan expedition and a master of work-life balance. Juggling duties as Alpine Club president and a full-time job in the tax office with his passion for exploratory mountaineering, he has been at the forefront of a pioneering approach to alpinism for over thirty years, collecting Piolets d’Or awards along the way.

Following the release of his third volume of memoirs, No Easy Way, we caught up with him to talk about his love for Himalayan climbing and how his battle with cancer has impacted his plans for future expeditions. 

What is the lure of the small, remote expedition? A possible first ascent, unexplored territory or just the joy of being in the mountains and escaping the crowds?  

A bit of all of that. The climbing objective is the first consideration but visiting a remote and ethnically interesting area that I have not been to before is very important too. And, for me, going as a small team is essential to fully savour the experience. The trip I did to East Tibet with Paul Ramsden, Steve Burns and Ian Cartwright summed up the kind of trip I love. Small team of friends, first ascent of Manamcho (an eye catching peak), culturally interesting area, no other westerners, wonderful exploration and the icing on the cake - meeting a local headman who told us that he had never seen white skinned men before, except on his satellite television. 

You were introduced to climbing by your father, was there a particular moment when you fell in love with the sport?

As regards alpinism that would be in 1976 when I was twenty and went to the Alps for the first time with friends. Up until then I had only climbed routes up to AD or so with my father but that summer, Howard Crumpton and I climbed the Cecchinel Nominee on the Eckpfeiler. We had an orange plastic bag as a bivouac shelter, my socks were visible through a hole in my boots and my old rucksack had gone rotten and was tearing across the top in a way that risked emptying its contents down the Italian side of Mont Blanc. It was the first time that either of us had ever done a climb like that and I will always remember standing on the top of Mont Blanc in my threadbare moleskin breeches that failed to reach the tops of my socks thinking ‘that was absolutely brilliant!’ If there was a moment I fell in love with alpinism it was probably then.

What advice would you give to anyone attempting to make a first ascent on a technically challenging route?

First and foremost take care. Take time to assess the dangers and consider what you are going to do if it all goes wrong. Consider how committed you are going to be, what the objective dangers are, whether you will be able to descend safely in bad weather, whether you are comfortable with any avalanche risk ...  The list goes on but what I am really saying is choose your objective carefully and do everything you can to ensure you extract maximum pleasure from it.

Did you ever consider giving up the day job and becoming a full-time climber? 

I did once think of trying to become a climbing instructor at Plas y Brenin. Looking back now I am so glad that I didn’t. I just don’t think I would have had the motivation to climb all day as a job and then want to climb as much as I have done in my spare time.

How would you feel if one of your children got into mountaineering?

That depends a lot on what sort of mountaineering. I would support them whatever their choice but I think I would feel anxious if they showed enthusiasm for serious mountaineering on 7,000m+ peaks. As it happens they both like the mountains but have shown no interest in taking up serious mountaineering. I am comfortable with that.

How has your cancer diagnosis impacted the type of expeditions you go on? 

I am hoping that it won’t have any impact at all and Victor Saunders and I are currently planning a trip to the Himalaya next April. After a major operation I am hopefully cancer free and if my recovery goes well the only issue will be that I will be left with a stoma. That will make life difficult in some situations but then it could well be an advantage when caught short on tricky bivouacs. Every cloud has a silver lining! 

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