Ice screws, crampons and dubious first ascents – An interview with Stuart Howard

June 9, 2021
Climbing Centre South East Interview with Stuart Howard

Stu Howard is a familiar face at Chimera. You’ll certainly have heard his Northern twang as he coaches on the mats, a ready smile never far away as he puts kids and adults alike through their paces. But his climbing journey didn’t start with brightly coloured plastic holds and nice soft bouldering mats. Instead, he cut his teeth on the gritstone and the granite, through the ice and the snow and upwards towards the looming mountain ridges of the Alps…

“My neighbour introduced me to climbing” Stu says with a grin. “You had about an hour of ‘here are some nuts, here’s how you place them’ before you were left on your own.”

That was in the late eighties at Wilton Quarry in Lancashire. With barely a handful of indoor climbing gyms in the country, the vast majority of new climbers were introduced to the sport by facing up to some sheer, vertical rock with a slightly laissez-faire attitude to safety. Learn fast was the motto, or take the fall. Fortunately Stu took to climbing like the proverbial duck to water, and was soon making forays into North Wales and down to the Peaks.

But it was a career in teaching that opened the door for new possibilities, as Stu took advantage of the lengthy summer holidays to plan some longer adventures. Having fallen in love with mixed climbing in the Alps, and having experienced the harshness of Scottish winters, ice adventures beckoned.

He took off for Greenland first with a friend and climbing partner, David Swinburne. In the days before mobile phones, internet access, a longitude and latitude reading were given to the long-suffering pilot who left them in the middle of nowhere, and was due to pick them up again in four weeks’ time. Then they set off, with heavy bags laden with food, water and gear.

Forget topos or any sort of guidebook – the duo had written to NASA to see if they could garner some satellite images of the terrain as they embarked on their adventure. Incredibly, NASA had sent two photos, but with a scale of 1 to 250,000, they weren’t exactly the most helpful of possessions. Nonetheless, these were duly photocopied, laminated and treasured as they set off to claim some first ascents.

In the end they managed to ‘put up’ 15 or 16 new routes, but they weren’t without incident. Bivvying one night on a narrow ledge, Stu dislodged a rock that split Dave’s little finger. At minus fifteen and halfway up a sheer ice cliff, the sensible course of action was to bandage it, chuck some duct tape on and worry about it later. But the next morning when they’d abseiled back down and started to deal with it, that later suddenly didn’t seem so rosy.

One infected little finger with a deep cut that needed to be stitched was dealt with stoically, as Dave stuck it in the snow for long enough that he could pass one stitch through with a blunt needle, before the process was agonisingly repeated. Stu could only watch, riddled with guilt but at the same time, relieved that he wasn’t having to endure what looked like some sort of Medieval torture technique.

Amazingly the two remained friends – and soon decided to submit the tales of their adventures to the Alpine Club. They incredulously discovered that there were grants available for these sorts of madcap adventures, and so was borne a series of summers spent in far flung places, bagging more first ascents.

The two friends became slightly more circumspect, choosing one or two lines from each trip of slightly higher quality – when asked if any of those original FA’s from Greenland have been repeated, Stu laughs loudly with a “doubt it” thrown in for good measure. To get funding, you either had to put up a route of ‘significance’ or a first ascent, so it is easy to see why they opted for the latter.

Their later exploits were certainly a better shout for repeats. Trips to Kyghyzstan, China and Alaska were funded, as the duo set off for ‘Alpine style’ ascents leaving a minimal footprint. But as is the way with the high mountains, adventure and disaster go hand in hand.

From being held at gunpoint in Bishkek, to retrieving the bodies of fallen adventurers from the snow and ice, and even seeing such accidents occur – some of the stories make for grim telling.

But interestingly, the closest Stu ever came to disaster himself wasn’t in the back country, but closer to home. On a multi-pitch in Scotland, conditions were too warm and he knew it. Slush was emerging every time they were trying to drive in an ice screw, axes not sinking in like they should. In the end he got lucky, falling 46M and pulling out two ice screws on the way. The third screw at the belay held which saved his bacon – and he was able to get himself off the mountain, a badge of honour in itself with no one really wanting to be that person who has to call out the rescue team.

He was patched up at Fort William A&E, some ripped ligaments the price paid for a moment of over-confidence. But it didn’t deter him for too long, as the Alps were always calling.

These days, with 21 first ascents to his name and countless stories, a change of pace is required. While time in the mountains is undoubtedly good for the soul, hauling gear up and down the steep slopes isn’t so good for the knees. While he still spends a week in the Alps every February, that’s the length of time it takes before his body starts to demand rest.

But even so, the high mountain days can be swapped for sport and trad. The Peaks still contains plenty of projects, and being based at a climbing gym means Stu has access to facilities he didn’t have when he first took up the sport.

“I’d be so much better,” he says with a chuckle. “You don’t have time to develop much technique on the rock when you’re petrified, you just cling on for dear life. Now, the kids can come through so much stronger.”

A career in teaching has given way to that of full-time instructor, with helping others develop still a passion that runs deep. But now he can teach his favourite subject, climbing.

The person he most enjoys teaching is his daughter Iona. Already a prolific climber at the tender age of just nine, Iona has a string of multi-pitch climbs to her name and has set foot on her first glacier. She’s certainly showing signs of following in her Dad’s footsteps – but would Stu really want her let loose in the high mountains, where danger is an ever-present companion?

“I wouldn’t ever discourage her, that would be hypocritical,” he says thoughtfully. “But I’d be much happier if she decided to be a sport climber.”

Describing Alpine conditions as “grim,” it’s not a surprise he feels this way. From the body-wrecking hauling, the bone sapping cold and the inherent risks, the mountains take as much as they give.

But if he could go back, would he do anything differently?

“Not one damn thing. Do what you love, love what you do.”

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