An Interview With Matt Helliker
One of Britain’s elite alpinists, Matt Helliker has pioneered climbs across the world. Following his return from making a state-of-the-art film about climbing in Alaska, he talks to Suzy Bennett about what’s behind his success.
Suzy: You started climbing when you were 12. What sparked your interest?
Matt: Behind my parent’s house in Wells, Somerset, there was a great cliff called Split Rock. I wasn’t very good at school, so instead of going to classes, I used to go and watch the climbers there. I learned how they tied the ropes and then managed to persuade my dad I knew what I was doing so that he would come and belay me. I didn’t have a harness, so I just used a belt from my jeans and tea-towels wrapped around my legs as leg loops. Looking back on it, the freedom my parents gave me was insane. They didn’t understand how I could make a living from climbing, yet they were still very nurturing and supportive. When I was a bit older, I got a job as an instructor teaching children climbing, caving and kayaking at an outdoor centre and then qualified as a IFMGA mountain guide.
You’ve made many first ascents in Europe, Alaska and South America. What drives you to find new climbs?
I always prefer to try something new where the outcome is uncertain, rather than something that’s been done hundreds of times before. It comes from having an ego – it feels really cool to do new things that people haven’t done before. I like to keep things as ‘clean’ as possible; I’ve never yet placed bolts on any of my routes. It comes from having a traditional UK climbing background where this style is deep-rooted.
It’s often said that European Alps are ‘climbed out’. Would you agree?
All the obvious lines are done, but with a fresh set of eyes and an open mind, there’s still a lot of potential. I climbed four new routes in the Mont Blanc massif last winter, and I’ve got a black book full of other potential lines that I want to do first ascents on.
What do you enjoy about being an alpinist?
It’s the euphoria I feel when I actually achieve something, even though that feeling lasts for 15 seconds before my mind is already onto the next thing. There’s no better feeling than the inner peace and calm from being in nature.
“It’s the euphoria I feel when I actually achieve something, even though that feeling lasts for 15 seconds before my mind is already onto the next thing. There’s no better feeling than the inner peace and calm from being in nature.”
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
It’s seeing the worry I put my parents and girlfriend through. If I’m climbing, I know that I’m OK, that I’m happy and alive, but my parents and my girlfriend don’t know that. I get very stressed and emotional before a trip. Accidents can happen, even though I make out in my mind that they won’t. Sometimes if you love people very much, and you go away … I’m even getting emotional now thinking about it. I have an amazing life and I don’t want to lose that.
What have you been up to recently?
I did a first ascent on the Citadel in the Neacola Range in Alaska with my climbing partner Jon Bracey. Adventure film maker Alistair Lee joined us to capture alpine climbing on film like never before: this will be the first mountaineering documentary filmed in 4K resolution. The film’s called ‘The Citadel’ and will be out at the end of October.
What makes a successful alpinist?
Long hair, a good sense of humour, drive and self-belief.
How do you train for a big climb and specifically how do you prepare yourself mentally for challenging climbs?
Training for alpinism is difficult to balance as it’s all aspects of climbing rolled into one: strength, endurance and power. I do weight-training, core strength workouts, weighted hangboard sessions, campusing, circuits, hill running … the list goes on.
Training my mind comes with training my body. If my body is fit, my mind is strong. I train a lot; it’s my obsession. It’s important that my body and mind are running in parallel. If the two aren’t balanced, I don’t climb.
“What makes a successful alpinist? Long hair, a good sense of humour, drive and self-belief.”
What’s the most dangerous climb you’ve ever done?
I don’t think what I do is that dangerous, but people say I’m living in a dream world when I say that. I’m risk-averse and I’m very calculated. If I do something, it’s because I think it’s OK to do. One of my hardest climbs was the Cartright Connection on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter in the Central Alaska Range. It was technically very hard. My climbing partner, Jon Bracey, and I were there for six days pushing a new line. It was really involved alpinism. We were physically really extended: I started hallucinating from exhaustion and thought I could see head torches and hear voices. Everything worked out great in the end though.
I plan to do some rock-climbing this summer that is technically hard. I’ll be climbing in the Tre Cime area of the Dolomites and in the Mont Blanc massif. This winter, I’ll try to tick off some more first ascents.
So what do you do in your time off?
I go climbing! I don’t have holidays because my life is how I want it to be. Zoe, my girlfriend, tells me to branch out, and is very good at introducing me to other nice things in life, like playing tennis. I’d like to start surfing and kayaking again, but the water makes my fingers soft, which wouldn’t help my climbing.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into alpinism?
Build up to it. The UK hills in summer and winter are ideal training grounds to progress to the Alps. I was lucky enough to have a mentor to learn from so I never had to do any courses or go with a guide. If you don’t have a mentor, spending a few days out with an alpine guide to learn the basics is super-useful, and should stop you killing yourself in your first season.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Over the years I’ve been injured from overtraining so I think it has to be: train smart: listen to your body, rest, stretch… all of which I’m yet to learn!
The Citadel – the forthcoming film from Posing Productions is released in October 2015.
For a preview clip visit: posingproductions.com
Matt is supported by Patagonia, Scarpa, Black Diamond, Osprey Packs, Adidas Eyewear, MaxiNutrition, Edelweiss ropes and LYOFoods