Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Malcolm Bass - The Enigma


I had never heard of Malcolm Bass till one day I got his mail that made me realize I would soon be heading for an exciting adventure into the Indian Himalaya with Malcolm as the leader. His CV looked impressive and he had exactly equal number of years as I in the mountains. After a bit of Googling and calling up some of my other British climbing friends, I realized much to my delight that Malcolm was nothing short of an enigmatic legend in the vertical world of UK climbing world. What surprised me though that despite my frequent trips to BMC meets and Scottish winter climbs and the Lakes, our paths had never crossed before. When I met him in the library of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, he won me over from the word go. It’s impossible not to like Malcolm. He has a boyish charm and a child like enthusiasm about everything within sight and then some that is outrageous and riveting in equal measure and draws even the most stoic onlooker into his exuberance like moth to flame. What instantly bonded me to Malcolm was the fact that he soon emerged as one of those rare individuals I had ever come across who could match my verbosity and wit measure for measure. I always laugh and smile at everything, and Malcolm never stopped laughing. He seemed to know something about everything.

A clinical psychologist (whatever that means) in his normal horizontal occupational avatar, Malcolm is a bundle of energy and his short frame never sits still. En route to our mountain as we walked through the crevasse riddled Gangotri Glacier I was amazed at this vast knowledge of the mountains across the globe and about Indian Himalaya in particular. In the ensuing days as we climbed, camped, and joked together and did what we did best, I grew to admire and respect him not only as a fellow climber but also as a fellow human who genuinely liked what he did and enjoyed life to the brim. Never a dull moment with Malcolm around and at the helm of our expedition, the Vasuki Parbat trip turned out to be one of my most enjoyable and memorable Himalayan excursions. The summit of this incredibly beautiful and frighteningly challenging peak was never for a moment the end of the road for us, instead it was the beginning of a new and endearing friendship among different people with different outlooks and dreams, all bonded like a tight knit family under Malcolm’s guardianship; for an endearing adventure that would perhaps sustain the lifetime of each one of us.

Malcolm created magic all the way up to the summit and down and choreographed one of the finest Alpine ascents in the Himalaya I had ever witnessed. I can easily claim the Vasuki West Face ascent as the finest climb done in the Indian Himalaya in the last five years, if not in the last decade.

Men like Malcolm rekindle my belief that life is all about living in the moment and making most of what we have, even when we have nothing. Malcolm had told me on our first meeting that he is not famous in the general world, and I hope this post will do something towards it; though I must assure you all my readers that Malcolm doesn’t seek fame but then men like him should be emulated. Rarely do we find men who are living inspirations for us to follow. Here’s the man, the machine and the maniac called Malcolm in a freewheeling interview where he takes us into his heady world and leaves us right where he belongs – at the top!

1. How, why and when did you start climbing?

I have always climbed things because I wanted to. My parents took me walking and scrambling in the hills from an early age. I did my first roped rock climbing when I was 12. I have no idea why, it just drew me in.

2. What or who has influenced your climbing style and objectives?

If we’re thinking about alpine climbing a myriad of people have influenced me in different ways. Mick Fowler and his various partners for their “just get on it and go” style, their superb choice of steep, buttress objectives that are hard; but safe, and their light hearted accounts of their climbs. At the other end of the spectrum Mark Twight and the North American Brotherhood (House, Backes, Blanchard etc) for taking it all so seriously, training hard, caring about partnerships, and super intense writing style. The “not so young British alpinists” (Rich Cross, Ian Parnell, Jon Bracey, Kenton Cool, Al Powell, and the late Jules Cartwright) for having so much fun and getting up so much. And Marko Prezelj and partners for being Slovenian (cool enough in itself) and brick hard.
Sport climbing wise I would like to emulate a climber from my local club called Richard Waterton. Precise, strong, long limbed, great move memory: a joy to watch and 6 grades above me!

3. Why do you mostly climb new routes / faces and first ascents?

The prosaic answer is that the UK and other grant giving bodies (MEF, BMC, Shipton Tilman) only give out grants for new routes and first ascents, and without grants Himalayan/Alaskan climbing would be too expensive for me. On a more emotional level I have always been excited by exploration and discovery from my caving and cave-diving years through to when I took up climbing. On new routes you can always cling to the hope that things will be easier than they look! Plus I like getting the bit of attention and publicity that comes from a successful first ascent.

4. Have you ever been scared during any of your climbs or in life in general? Is there anything that scares you?

Plenty. In general life I get scared when I feel I’m failing to represent the interests of people whom I lead. Back to the climbing, I am scared of heavy snowfall when we’re high on a route, and I hate rock fall. Before starting a big climb I am scared for days. I find the prospect of dangerous situations worse than the reality of being in them. Once I have calculated a risk and decided to go for it, I can usually put fear to one side.

5. Have you ever felt during any of your climbs that you were certainly going to perish? What were your thoughts during such times?

Near the top of our new route “The Prey” on the east face of Mount Hunter in Alaska (with Paul Figg), I found myself traversing around a snow mushroom on vertical snow ice (snice) with my sac on, when suddenly the band of ice at crampon level stopped supporting me. All my weight and the sac’s weight went onto my arms. I carried on traversing but I was swinging footless from tool to tool hoping to find something solid, and I’m not strong enough for much of that. The belay was non existent. I was sure I was going to fall and rip Paul from his stance. I felt a terrible sense of guilt towards Paul and his family, and sadness for my wife, Donna. I’d nearly given up. But then a line from a favourite song came into my head: “I’ve walked on water, run through fire, can’t seem to feel it anymore”, and it made me remember all the hard things I’d been through before, it made me proud and hard, and determined not to die. So I made one last desperate axe placement, swung across, and my front points found solid ice.

6. At a personal level which has been your most rewarding climb ever and why?

Thinking about the rewards after the climb, Vasuki Parbat (with Paul Figg) has been the most rewarding. I had never been to that area of the Garhwal before, so everything was new and exciting. The face looks pleasingly improbable and the traverse of the sharp, serpentine summit ridge made the whole thing into a satisfying long journey. But the cold meant our sacs were heavy so at the time some of the climbing felt a bit laborious. For rewards at the time, I would vote for an 1100m unclimbed couloir that I climbed on Kahiltna Queen in Alaska (with Simon Yearsley), which we called Distant Lights. Because of the near 24 hour daylight at that time of year in Alaska, we climbed without bivouac equipment in a 40-hour round trip. It was a south face, so it was nice and sunny. With light sacs, you get a lot more pleasure out of the climbing. And we saw the northern lights.

7. How do you select your mountains / lines / routes out of so many around the world? What do you look for in particular before picking up the one that you want to attempt?

The main driver is that it is unclimbed. Ideally, I like to have seen the line with my own eyes but the process, I am afraid to say, is more usually one of laborious research, a task made easier by the generosity of fellow mountaineers from all over the world. I look for strong lines that run up buttresses, spurs or couloirs following a natural weakness. Thinking I might be able to get up it, and the route being in a country I want to go to (i.e. that has good food!) are both important too. I avoid routes that look like they will need aid or big wall tactics because I don’t know how to do these things! Menacing seracs are a turn-off.

8. Have you ever had a premonition / gut feeling of some impending disaster and called off the climb?

No

9. Does being a clinical psychologist help you to understand your climbing partners and get the best of them?

I think being a clinical psychologist helps me understand myself a bit better, which is a good starting point for working and climbing with people. I am comfortable discussing emotion and motivation and I hope this makes it easier for my partners and I to understand one another.

10. You are into bouldering, big wall and trad climbing, ice and mixed climbing, and high altitude Himalayan peaks as well; each of these style need specific kind of training. How do you train yourself for such a varied range of styles and techniques?

I don’t do any big walling because I’m not a very technically minded person. I think I would get into a terrible tangle of porta-ledge, leading rope and haul lines (as per your next question!). As for the rest, I do enough to maintain my fitness for all of them all year round, and then do concentrated bursts of more specific training for a particular target. So in 2010 I did a lot of mixed climbing January to March; a lot of sport climbing, bouldering, and finger boarding April to July; and then lots of running, cycling and weights July to September. I was pleased that Vasuki Parbat tested all aspects of my training: finger strength for the rock pitches; calves and thighs on the moderate ice; technical skills on the mixed; and cardiovascular all the time.

11. This is tongue in cheek and comes out of my personal observation of you in the mountain and out of it; you have a habit of forgetting or dropping things. Are you normally forgetful or only the mountains bring out that side of you?

I don’t think that I am normally forgetful. A lot of forgetting is a sign that I am either over-stressed/distracted or extremely relaxed. Both of these applied at times on the Vasuki trip. I am trying to deal with stress distraction by practising mindfulness and when at base camp I did formal practice on most days. The dropping of stuff was caused by gravity (that’s a cheeky reply Malcolm).

12. Outwardly you climb a vertical arena, anything that rears up into the azure above away from ground, but inwardly at a spiritual and psychological level that is not apparent to us, what exactly are you doing / experiencing?

I am mostly experiencing a sense of struggle interspersed with periods of awe/amazement at the environment and my presence in it. I am constantly struck by the improbability of my being in this very strange and wonderful place. But the vast majority of my attention is focused on the job at hand: making good placements, watching snow conditions, getting good belays, route finding, looking for bivvy sites and all the rest.

13. On a climb what constitutes a failure to you personally - the inability to reach the geographical summit or the inability to push your boundaries and techniques to their utmost; irrespective of where and how high you reached?

I think of them both as failure. I used to think that being unable to climb due to bad weather was a failure but I have become much mellower about this aspect at least.

14. What’s your summit? Where is your summit?

Living every day the best that I can. I don’t like the idea of just one summit. I think it makes more sense to invest in a wider portfolio in our lives. So for me, there are lots of summits to journey towards to do with climbing, relationships, family, psychology, leadership, fly-fishing, national health, writing and so on.

15. As a mountaineer which has been your biggest failure / disappointment and why?

I am still smarting from not having climbed a first winter ascent of a route on a magnificent tombstone of a buttress called Mainreachan in Northwest Scotland. I tried the route three times over a decade. I did the crux of the route but we failed a pitch higher and another pair succeeded a year later. I was disappointed because the buttress is so evocative of the best of Scottish winter climbing, and to put a new winter route up it had been a dream of mine for a long time.

16. If not a climber, what would you be and why?

For a lot of my life, climbing was not my main sport – caving and cave diving were. We discovered passages and chambers that no human being had ever seen before nor knew existed. And that was close to home in Yorkshire. But if my main sport were not climbing at the moment, its replacement could be anything from more fly fishing, to cycle racing.

17. What are your future aspirations; any particular routes / mountains that you have your eyes on?

I’m not telling you on here! In the short term, there are several Scottish routes I have my eye on for this winter, and next spring I want to climb a sport route called ‘Frankie comes to Kilnsey’. Immediately post-expedition, I tend to have few aspirations and most of those are local.

18. When do you think you would stop climbing at such extreme levels, as you do now?

I don’t intend to be climbing long super-alpine routes in my 50s, but I would like to be rock climbing and mixed climbing better than I am now, which should be easy enough on the rock!

19. How do you prepare yourself for the mental stress of a hard climb and how do you cope with that while on the climb?

As I said above, I do formal mindfulness practice. I also do lots of visualising of myself on the climb in difficult situations and getting through them, to inoculate myself. Now I only go on climbs when I am absolutely sure that I want to do them. I don’t go that often because it takes me a couple of years to recover psychologically from, then wind myself up again for, a big super-alpine climb. On the climb itself, I don’t usually feel too stressed as long as I can get some sleep and downtime.

20. Your most embarrassing moment ever!

Maybe not my most embarrassing moment ever, but one I can tell you about. You may remember that I am quite partial to a roti (Indian flat bread made of wheat flour) or two. On one trip, we were happily eating in a dhaba (Indian roadside eating joints) in Gangotri and I was getting through a decent number of rotis. There was a pause in the supply from the kitchen. Then one of the staff walked out, and came back a few minutes later with a sack of flour slung over their shoulder. This was of course blamed on me.

21. One thing about Malcolm Bass that no one knows (now everyone will)!

I find glaciated mountains quite alienating. I don’t for a minute feel like I belong. And I don’t like to linger.

22. You are a veteran to the Indian Himalaya. Any suggestions how we can make the Indian Himalaya more popular to foreign climbers and trekkers?

Are we sure that popularity is the right goal? For climbers, the Uttarakhand permit situation needs to be sorted out before they turn away though (as we nearly did). An easier way of freighting climbing gear into the country would be really useful.

I think the Indian Himalaya (or what little I know of it) is a truly wonderful place. I have seen great improvements in the Gangotri region since I have been visiting; the conservation measures being undertaken are really paying off. I wonder if there are ways of getting more of the foreign expeditions’ spending into the hands of porters?

My Remarks: It has been wonderful knowing you Malcolm and very well said. I have taken note of all that you have said and discussed with me during the expedition. I am making my formal recommendations to the powers that decide things in the Indian climbing arena and hopefully you would see distinct improvements on your next visit to our mountains. Till then lots of good luck, wishes and route opening supports from me and all my blog readers for all your future endeavours, both in and out of the vertical world. I will always see you on top.

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