6 Jul 2017

Leo Houlding: the magic of extreme climbing

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 6 July 2017

British climber Leo Houlding has made a career out of pulling off some of the toughest climbs on earth.

There's something deep and powerful about reckoning with a giant cliff in remote wilderness, says Houlding, who is the keynote speaker at this year's NZ Mountain Film Festival.

Rock climbing is on the rise thanks to the fashion for indoor climbing walls in cities – where most people in the world now live, Houlding says.

But while he enjoys giving his forearms a workout in a heated gym, a couple of times a year he heads to the other end of the climbing spectrum – kilometre-high peaks in remote places with often hostile conditions.

"Over the years what really started to float my boat is going to these incredibly wild places, really they are the furthest corners of the earth."

"A mate of mine really hit the nail on the head. He said it's almost like the climbing is an excuse to go on an incredible mission."

In 2009, Houlding's crew headed for Mount Asgard which is 100km from the nearest small Inuit community on Canada’s Baffin Island.

They chartered a plane which airdropped their stuff in, then skydived down.

"I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think we pulled that off on really quite a limited budget, maxed out credit cards and very limited standby options should something have gone wrong. It was a James Bond opening sequence-type expedition."

Some of his most powerful experiences have been the ones that didn't go to plan, says Houlding.

"The really memorable ones are the really hard ones where everything goes wrong. You get whacked by a massive storm and kind of becomes a fight for survival.

"You wouldn't go out and do that on purpose because that would be reckless and foolish, but when you do get caught out in those situations and you really have to dig deep not just to succeed, but to survive, they're the stories you end up recounting when you run into an old mate in the pub."

Houlding says he once learnt a "fairly brutal lesson" at Yosemite National Park while climbing in shorts and a t-shirt.

"A friend and I ended up hanging underneath a bush on the cliff cuddled up to one another whilst it snowed a foot outside in a massive electrical storm."

Extreme climbing has a spiritual element and Houlding's journeys can include cultural rites of passage.

To navigate the jungle surrounding the 1,400m peak Cerro Autana in western Venezuela – where you're travelling days per kilometre, rather than kilometres per day – his crew enlisted the help of the Piaroa, a local Indian tribe.

Cerro Autana is sacred to the Piaroa, who also hold sacred a hallucinogenic plant known as yopo.

"They wanted us to partake in this ceremony to see if our souls were pure before climbing the holy mountain. And I was not very well prepared for what happened that night."

It's a bit paradoxical that it is while doing risk sports like extreme climbing, you've also got to be at your most vigilant, Houlding says.

"They are really dangerous so the only way to do it safely is to be extra, extra careful.

"If you do the cost-risk analysis on a piece of paper it is quite hard to add up sometimes, but there is something magical going on there, there's something deep and powerful about it."