By Sam Huby
When I was younger and part of a small group of London climbers struggling to find decent climbing within reach of 9-5 wage slaves in the capital, Mick Fowler was vaguely known to us as “that nutter who climbs the Dover chalk cliffs with ice axes”.
Thirty-odd years later, Fowler has completed his evolution into mountaineering royalty; four years as president of the Alpine Club, multiple Piolet d’Or awards and a long list of Himalayan first ascents, mostly in remote and challenging locations. Even more remarkably, the ‘climbing taxman’ has done this while holding down a full-time job. Not just any job, but a successful three-decade career with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs - not an organisation noted as a breeding ground for top-grade Alpinists.
The level of dedication involved is difficult for comparative slackers to comprehend. While our little circle was moaning about the shortcomings of the train service to Harrison’s Rocks, Fowler was driving overnight after work on Friday to distant parts of Scotland, leading desperately serious and seriously desperate routes before being back be-suited at his desk on Monday morning. Eleven weekends in a row was apparently his record.
Along the way, he’s written three volumes of memoirs, all Boardman Tasker shortlisted obviously. The latest of these is No Easy Way, documenting the previous sixteen years of exploratory mountaineering in some of the remotest parts of the greater ranges, and a few overlooked first ascents in inner-city Nottingham.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is that despite its title, Fowler does make it sound easy, at least for him. There are countless passages describing horrendous situations: stormbound and out of food halfway up a hard, unclimbed route on a remote Himalayan mountain far beyond any hope of assistance, say. Such predicaments are invariably described mildly as ‘challenging’, ‘stimulating’, ‘interesting’ ... To the non-climbing reader, it might sound no more threatening than a trip to Thorpe Park. This insouciance extends to non-climbing situations, too. For example, en route to the unclimbed north face of Sulamar in the remote Tien Shan, he mentions in passing:
“There was though one greater uncertainty – which valley was the foot of the face actually in? Our rudimentary map had disintegrated when one of our horses fell into a lake on the walk in and the answer was by no means obvious”.
The taxman in him also seems to take a perverse satisfaction in overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles involved. A week in Delhi successfully persuading recalcitrant officials to reinstate a withdrawn climbing permit is described as a high point of one trip.
In lots of ways, Fowler is far removed from the newspaper caricature of a mountaineer; his expeditions are, by the standards of the Greater Ranges, small: typically four friends, largely self-financed, climbing a 'small' 6,000m peak - not Everest, K2 or any of the other well-trodden headline grabbers. He doesn’t even have a beard.
Nevertheless, in an era when the obvious objectives have all been reached – the final 8,000m peak was climbed in 1964; Reinhold Messner had bagged them all by 1986; and last year, Nirmal Purja topped out on all 14 in a little over six months – Fowler has been setting new standards. Not through being highest or fastest, but in terms of vision, boldness, exploratory spirit and ethical purity. In Messner’s words, “He is a model and an inspiration for all future adventuring.”
The book opens and closes with the news that the author has cancer, and this too is discussed with the optimism and good humour which suffuses the book. It does not seem to have slowed his appetite for climbing big mountains. After publication, in the spring of 2019, he and Vic Saunders comprised the first documented instance of a Himalayan expedition involving a climber sporting a colostomy bag. Characteristically, Fowler later blogged about the upside: “In fact having control over when to empty the bag could even be an advantage – no urgent exits into spindrift-laden nights for me.”
Sadly, the attempt on Chombu was repulsed by severe weather, but given the man’s history and attitude, a successful colostomy-bag-carrying ascent can’t be far off.
It’s also a very funny book in a desert-dry, deadpan way, impossible to convey in a short excerpt. The final incident involves a gentle dog walk, undertaken as a start to rehabilitation from chemotherapy, during which the hound falls seven metres into a pothole. With no rope and only a mobile phone for light, Fowler descends and climbs out through ‘an overhang of Himalayan proportions’ with 30kg of panic-stricken Labrador across his shoulders. On regaining a mobile signal, his words to his wife are: ‘The dog seems tired today, Could you pick us up please.’