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An Interview with Andy Cave

Andrew Mazibrada
Photography by Paul Diffley & Hot Aches Productions

To me, Andy Cave is a legend. His is an inspirational allegory of ascent from darkness to the highest and brightest places in the world which Hollywood producers have yet to stumble onto but, once they do, the rush to cast Cave will be frenetic. He left school aged sixteen with few qualifications and trod the family line of tradition when he began work as a coalminer at Grimethorpe pit. The work was brutal, and in one of his most celebrated quotes he describes how it shaped his future and his personality: “In that filthy, dangerous hell, I learnt essential lessons about teamwork; without it you could not survive.”

A year later, he was instantly hooked by his first rock climb and dreams of scaling the world’s most difficult mountains began to dominate. The miners’ strikes in 1984 and ‘85 gave him the opportunity he needed to devote his time to climbing. But he was new to the sport and his ambition fueled derision from others and, so, his desire to prove them wrong. Three years later, he succeeded on the infamous north face of the Eiger. After four years as a miner, in 1986, Cave quit his job so he could dedicate himself to climbing. He also returned to education, eventually studying for a degree in English, then a PhD in Linguistics.

He has led expeditions around the world. In the Alps he summited on ‘Divine Providence’, considered to be one of the region’s most challenging climbs (on the Grand Pilier d’Angle, Mont Blanc, a huge and remote climb with rock difficulties up to 7c/7b+). In 2000, he travelled to Alaska to tackle Mount Kennedy’s North Face in an alpine style ascent and his team succeeded where many others had failed. He and his team were nominated for the Piolet d’Or for his ascent of the North Face of Changabang in the Himalayas, considered to be one of the 20th Century’s greatest climbs.

He is the author of two award winning books, Learning to Breathe (Boardman Tasker 2005 winner, among other awards) and Thin White Line and has appeared on radio and television, as both presenter and subject including ‘Andy Cave’s Expedition Underground’ on BBC Radio 4, exploring the history and significance of the Thirlmere Aqueduct. He is a motivational speaker who is described as ‘insightful and visually dramatic’ as well as, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘inspiring’. In every sense, the ordinary boy growing up in the face of adversity to achieve remarkable things.

Sidetracked: How did you meet Paul Diffley and what made you want to work with him?

Andy Cave: I met Paul in 2005. My first book had been published and it won an award at the Banff Outdoor Festival and Paul was there showing films. He was quite new to it at the time but now he has 10 years in. We had a beer and got on socially but it took a while to get our acts together. A couple a years ago we started talking more seriously. We’re both dads, both loved Scotland and I began climbing there 30 years ago and I think I took it for granted. It was a stepping stone to the Alps and the Greater Ranges, as most alpinists thought at the time, but I think now it’s as good as anywhere in the world. We wanted to get the wildness of the place across. When Lowe Alpine agreed to put some cash into the project which we needed, off we went.

What inspired you both to make Distilled?

For me it’s about coming full circle. I remember once I was in Glencoe with clients when we were approached by a group of climbers. A girl within the group told me they were elite French climbers learning how to look after themselves in really harsh conditions. People come from Chamonix to Scotland to learn how to deal with hard conditions. The weather can turn really quickly – it asks a lot of you. You need really good team to work in Scotland. That really inspired me.

What challenges face filmmakers making films like Distilled?

Any climbing film raises major safety issues, particularly the safety of people you are filming. Are they showing off? Are they in control? You might have three cameras – are the ropes secure? Are they safe from falling ice above. Changing conditions are a major issue. While we were filming on one occasion, the weather went berserk and we had to abandon the climb and get people off the mountain. Also, it’s important to keep people warm – climbers are moving but the cameramen might not be moving, or they might be hanging off a rope for hours, so they get pretty cold. There are also technical issues – battery life and keeping technical equipment safe; keeping snow and ice off the lens. Sound is critical these days – getting the climbers miked up properly makes a tremendous difference between a good film and average film. Getting the climbers to perform but not fake it. Getting people to work as a team, you have a much bigger team on shoots like these and you need external help too. We had a local fell-running club carrying equipment for us. Petzl, Beal and Lowe Alpine gave us equipment. A guy called Luke did the cooking. The SMC allowed us use of huts. These are low budget, shoestring projects, not a huge budget film. A few thousands pounds and a lot of people giving time for very little but there’s a lot of talent there. Also, having a really good safety team is key so we can concentrate on the climbing. Finally, knowing where to position the camera – you need to capture the moment.

I began climbing in Scotland 30 years ago and I think I took it for granted. It was a stepping stone to the Alps and the Greater Ranges, as most alpinists thought at the time, but I think now it’s as good as anywhere in the world.

I was different as a kid – all kids climb, you just know how to do it – but I loved climbing trees. There were 20 odd trees outside my parent’s house. So when I discovered mountaineering clubs, I wanted in. My local scout master took me when I was 16 and I was instantly hooked.
Do you think that film is becoming a more popular medium to express the emotion and exhilaration of climbing and mountaineering?

I do and there’s good and bad associated with that. It’s much more democratic – it’s opened it all up. You don’t need a big budget. A landmark film for me was “Cannibals and Crampons” (Mark Anstice and Bruce Parry, Ginger Television, 2002). They just went into the jungle and really showed that people with a few days training could capture amazing footage. Editing is crucial as its very much about how you tell it. That’s where people probably need a hand. Like self publishing, good editorial help sets apart films which otherwise might fall down. Digital media means we have an appetite for film and short attention spans. There is a place for stills, I personally feel. I try to shoot video but in some places, I prefer to shoot stills, but overall editing is absolutely key. Sound is also important – it can really lift something.

Do you remember what first made you want to climb?

I was different as a kid – all kids climb, you just know how to do it – but I loved climbing trees. There were 20 odd trees outside my parent’s house. So when I discovered mountaineering clubs, I wanted in. My local scout master took me when I was 16 and I was instantly hooked. They had regular meets, lots of experience and equipment I could borrow. I was naive then – there was fantastic climbing and adventure in my doorstep in the Peak District so to have some thing so accessible was great. I was surrounded by mentors who had travelled the world using climbing as their hobby. They knew all about safety and they were very encouraging. I was spellbound by it.

In The Thin White Line you provide an engaging character study of Mick Fowler, the now Chairman of the Alpine Club. How important is Mick to the sport as a whole?

I have utmost respect for Mick, he’s a very good friend. He’s a living legend and possibly one of the greatest mountaineers in the world. I was fortunate to climb with him but the main thing is he always has fun – its serious but he wants to be able to enjoy it. Mick’s approach to all climbing is that it’s all about adventure. Going where no one else has been before. People are amazed that he can find areas no one has ever been before. He inspires young people too. He’s a great character and a fantastic advert and for him to be involved in the club is brilliant. He is also very organised and has focused on ensuring the club continues to be attractive to younger alpinists.

The Alpine Club recently said they were keen to attract younger members and to represent younger people coming into climbing and Mick Fowler was a key component in that. Do you see this as a positive thing? What else can the world of mountaineering do to attract younger people into the sport?

Attracting more people to the outdoors is a tricky one because people will always ask – do we want to crowd beautiful places? But perhaps we should have frameworks and pathways to get more people outdoors. It’s great for the spirit and an antidote to the stresses of work. But they are fragile places and we need to protect them. Clubs are great for this and also for providing climbing partners, but it’s not the only way now. Also, an online presence is important – twitter, advice sections on websites, particularly the Alpine Club’s (which has maps, agents details and so on). The Alpine Club is now making it easier to join. Logistics and advice, even though there is advice online, is great coming from club members. But there are also climbing walls springing up everywhere which are great social centres and useful channels to meet people. They’ve done a great job of re-inventing themselves.

What advice would you give to young people looking to climb in the world’s most challenging regions?

Myself and Chris Bonington are patrons of the Jonathan Conville Mountaineering Trust. It is a superb trust set up after the death of Jonathan Conville in 1979 on the Matterhorn, aged just 27. When you go from British mountains to the Alps, it’s a hell of a jump up and there are often accidents. The trust provides essential training in those skills – £60 for 3 days in the Alps with fully qualified mountain guides. Lots of famous climbers started out that way. Plas-y-Brenin and Glenmore Lodge both run courses which are subsidised.

One of the attendees at your motivational courses has said “the parallels between events on the mountain and in our own organization were startling. It acted as a real catalyst for us to examine our own issues.” How did you come up with the idea for motivational speaking and how much does sharing your insights impact on you as a person?

There are people out there who are good motivational speakers. I had done a PHD looking at identity in groups and how people operate in teams so I already had some grounding. I didn’t realise it when I started but the speaking has led on to me doing more workshop based stuff. Mountains lend themselves to teamwork – they are analogous to day to day problems. People are really responsive because they have to make the connections. People want to anyway, when they are doing a job everyday, and an external person gives them a fresh perspective and acts as a catalyst for them to have difficult conversations. What is it about a high-performing team – what are the ingredients to get people up and down 8000m peaks? People are interested in that.

What particularly inspired you to write Learning to Breathe?

The major point was the death of my climbing partner, Brendan Murphy, it was an emotional upheaval for me. I paused and had to reassess. Maybe the book was cathartic on that level. Also, I was aware that, after the collapse of the mining industry, I felt it was a point in time where this book would provide me with an opportunity to talk about my climbing past and my own mining past. It was a big part of my PHD. I had a lot of material I could weave into my own personal story. Darkness to light and so on, on an emotional level. I didn’t want it to be a shopping list of climbing so I had to leave out a lot of material – my first alpine experience and some major Himalayan expeditions, for example.

In 2008, during an interview with UKC, you said the perfect day would have both writing and climbing? Do you still enjoy both as much as you did back then as your first book was winning awards and your second was about to come out?

I would say that my life has been so busy recently that writing has taken a back seat. Kids are a major thing and I have a 5 year old daughter. My agent is wondering when next book is coming but, being a dad, keeping up climbing performance and getting the speaking engagements meant I got a little burnt out. Three 100,000 word pieces, including a PHD thesis, is a big ask. I want to do the very best I can in everything I do and I get committed. So it would have been tough to take on a big writing project. I need to be inspired and I have so much on at the moment, but I don’t want to get rusty.

Back then, your Top Ten included Touching The Void, The Shining Mountain and Slender Thread. What would you add to that list as the last five years have passed and do you think the quality of mountain writing has improved or is there simply now a more varied level of quality? Does that matter?

There’s more out there and editing (macro and micro guidance) is crucial. Good writing is hit and miss. Unless you are a master, most of us need another set of eyes on our work and it’s hard to get access to that. There is more onus on the writer to polish the words whereas before there’d be filter in the form of a publisher and, possibly, an agent. If there’s not a lot of investment, then some just publish it. That’s good because there are more titles out there which do not need to be stocked in a shop, but it can be hit and miss. Andy Kirkpatrick’s books are on my list to read (Andy Cave and Andy Kirkpatrick will both be speaking at KMF) as well as Fiva by Gordon Stainforth. I’ve heard it’s as gripping as Touching the Void. It’s also nice to read stuff that is not just about mountains – when I was younger that’s all I read, but now I am fussier. Freedom Climbers by Bernadette MacDonald is about Polish mountaineering behind the Iron Curtain. They had to get out of Poland and were treated like Olympic athletes, it’s really interesting. The Polish were the kings of the Himalayas – the real pioneers and hard as nails.

What does 2014 hold for Andy Cave?

I want to go away somewhere but where is uncertain at the moment. I’m hoping to get away to somewhere steep, technical and remote. I just got back from Tierra del Fuego with Simon Yates and that was great because it reminded me that there were such unspoiled places in the world. A mountain range 150 miles long and only two of us there. I want to take good mates somewhere new and different.

Andy Cave will be speaking at the Kendal Mountain Festival in a one off presentation and interview by Niall Grimes, presented by Lowe Alpine. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Also, watch the World Film Premiere: Distilled, with Andy Cave & Paul Diffley on Friday evening. The world premiere of Distilled brings both Andy and Hotaches Productions filmmaker Paul Diffley together to introduce and discuss the film, and take Q&A from the audience. Buy your tickets here.

Attracting more people to the outdoors is a tricky one because people will always ask – do we want to crowd beautiful places? But perhaps we should have frameworks and pathways to get more people outdoors. It’s great for the spirit and an antidote to the stresses of work. But they are fragile places and we need to protect them.