The poster boy for modern British adventure, free climber and BASE jumper Leo Houlding has scaled some of the most technical peaks and biggest walls in the world – but he’s still hungry for more.
Rock climber, alpinist and adventurer Leo Houlding is a veteran of many epic ascents including Everest – he climbed it in period equipment as Sandy Irvine for 2010 movie The Wildest Dream – but specialises in free climbing the most technical peaks and biggest walls in the world.
An experienced BASE jumper, he is at the forefront of Para-Alpinism (climbing up then flying down), made the first ascent of Antarctica’s Ulvetanna’s mile-long north east ridge and devised and completed a challenging route up Yosemite’s legendary granite monolith El Capitan. His first book, Closer to the Edge: Climbing to the Ends of the Earth was released last September.
You grew up in the Lake District and started climbing aged 10. What do you remember about those early climbs?
I remember the intense feeling of exposure, the thrill of danger and the lightning-fast access climbing grants to real adventure with challenge, uncertainty and risk. It was extremely physically, psychologically and cerebrally engaging, requiring complete focus and presence. It was love at first sight and I knew I’d found my passion, although I never dared to dream it would one day become my profession and lead to so many wild experiences.
How do you train for a big climb and keep at it when the going gets tough?
I live in the Lake District and am out every weekend on the fells, mountain biking, climbing, paddle boarding, hiking or some other energetic outdoor activity. I try to climb two or three times a week, more when a goal is approaching, mostly indoors during the winter and on rock too when the weather allows. I actually prefer it when the going gets tough and really start to come alive the gnarlier it gets. You find strength in adversity and when you get in deep, the only way out is to push on through.
You famously raced against Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. To what extent did that raise your profile, and pique people’s interest in rock climbing?
At the time, 2005, Top Gear was one of the most popular TV shows in the world. Our race was a particularly well-produced and dramatic piece of telly that showcased speed climbing, BASE jumping and my skills in extraordinary fashion. No doubt it did my profile and credibility no harm.
Around the same period, more and more climbing walls were appearing in every city, bouldering was taking off, making climbing much safer and more accessible and beginning the transition from an alternative counterculture to the mainstream Olympic sport of today. Though climbing remains an immensely broad church, indoor bouldering and Polar big walls are as different as goldfish and great whites! The more adventurous styles I prefer have maintained their in-fringe feel.
Back in 2010, you completed your longterm Yosemite project, The Prophet, on El Capitan. To what extent does that climb still resonate with you?
That was definitely a high point in terms of pure rock climbing difficulty on a grand scale. El Capitan is probably the most famous cliff in the world and the hardest section of the Prophet, the A1 beauty pitch, is as beautiful and perfect as anything on the great stone. It is also the hardest 100 feet of climbing I’ve ever done anywhere and is almost 2,000 feet up the wall. We endured a serious storm during our ultimate ascent, rescue seemed more likely than success, but I somehow pulled it off.
It transpired to be the end of my Yosemite era and the beginning of the major expeditions. I’ve done a big trip to uber remote summits most years since 2010 and some of them have been the stuff of dreams and fantasy: skydiving into Mount Asgard and unclimbed walls taller than El Cap in the high Arctic; kite skiing for thousands of miles across Antarctica; and mile-high cliffs that took months on the Ulvetanna mission. Each expedition has been unique, unforgettable and a career high.
You’ve previously said western society has become so sanitised. How would you encourage us all to take a little more risk in our lives?
Go spend some time somewhere you can’t get to by car with no phone signal. Look after you and yours for a few days alone, without buying anything or asking for anyone’s help. Set yourself a challenge that’s a little out of reach and try your hardest to achieve it. Carry a heavy bag up a big hill, sleep in a tent away from everyone else, cook on a fire, get cold, get tired, get hungry. I guarantee you’ll feel more grateful, fulfilled and better for it.
In your book Closer to the Edge, you talk about how you assess risk. Can you elaborate?
I’ve found the deepest, most rewarding experiences are the ones where you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, when you are pushed to your limit but succeed, when you get as close to the edge as possible but don’t fall. Figuring out where that edge lies is unclear until you cross it, which rarely ends well. It takes a lifetime of experience and experimenting, success and failure to find the edge and even then, by the nature of always pushing closer, the precise point remains elusive, but the search keeps me motivated!
What sporting ambitions do you have left?
The list is long! I’m hoping to go back to Mount Asgard this summer to have another attempt at free climbing the mighty North West face. I’m also really enjoying family adventures and expeditions. It’s surprising what young children are capable of given the opportunity and encouragement. We’re going to take the kids out of school for a year in 2024/25 and plan lots of exciting journeys into the wilderness doing things few adults have the desire or ability to achieve.
The original version of this story ran in Jetsetter Magazine
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