Nick Bullock talks ‘Strawberries’ and ‘climbing-vagabond’ lifestyle with Ian Parnell – EXCLUSIVE

Nick Bullock should need little in the way of introduction. One of Britain’s finest alpinists and rock climbers, known for bold and audacious ascents, a writer and occasional poet. A man who had already opted for one of life’s tougher careers as a PT instructor for HM Prison Service only to give it all up, along with the regular salary and house to live in a van and pursue his passion for climbing.* Ian Parnell caught up with Nick to chat about pushing boundaries, living out of a van, plans for the future and upcoming second book.

Nick, you’re best known as an alpinist and winter climber, and in terms of rock for very adventurous climbing – what made you want to try the Tremadog test piece Strawberries, isn’t it far too solid for you?

Yes, it’s certainly too solid and that’s why I have not yet climbed it clean! Have I been placed in a pigeon hole then? Can I not try hard and technical test piece climbs? Strawberries is a Welsh classic with undoubtedly a great history and as a climber who spends a lot of time climbing in Wales I thought it was about time to see what it was all about, plus as my rock climbing is improving I thought I may now stand a chance of getting up it clean… obviously I was mistaken! It does make a great project to get fit on next spring though.

You’ve written about how the element of doubt – not knowing if you can get up a route is one of the key elements of adventure. How important is this for you in climbing?

It has to be one of the most important factors, or at least on climbs that are close to the top of your personal ability, especially if pushing your boundaries is one of the key aspects of climbing. I try to focus on the whole experience of the climbing day, not just the end result, so entering into the unknown is all part of it and it’s all part of challenging myself and life in general.

Do you think it’s something missing from modern climbing, what with the ground up approach largely eliminated from the cutting edge by head pointing? 

Not really, climbing is for the individual and if you chose to have an adventure, you can at whatever level. If you had rephrased the question and asked, is the general approach to climbing changing and does it appear to be becoming tamed, I would then answer yes, and I do feel people who have not experienced the adventure side of climbing or do not realise that there is a side of climbing that can be something other than a controlled experience, are possibly missing out. As for top end, well each to their own, I’ll just keep doing my thing thank you and try not worry about what others are doing, well, not unless it has an effect on what I do then you will be the first to hear!

What do you think are the fundamental reasons why you are drawn to adventure? 

Good question although answering it is quite difficult. What makes one person live differently than another, what makes one person like punk rock and another like techno, why does one person like Shakespeare and another Fifty Shades of Grey? Life is an adventure, it’s a one time around affair, now we are here, then we aren’t. For me, pushing my personal limits, be it a ten metre route on the Vector Headwall and to be seen falling, or climbing a one thousand metre mixed climb in the wilds of Canada or writing a brutally honest piece of prose that opens myself up, is life enhancing, it makes me look at myself and be honest with myself – its memorable, and for me, especially as I have grown older, I have found this is the only way, the healthy way, the most satisfying way. We are on this planet for such a short time, so why faff around being dishonest and doing stuff that does not feed the soul and enhance life?

What would be your perfect day out climbing? (where, with who, what etc)

A remote sea cliff in the North of Scotland with crisp and sunny autumn conditions and a breeze to keep away the midges. Nearby would be a deserted beach with Oystercatchers and a huge horizon. After a great days climbing some multi-pitch esoteric pile of choss, where my climbing partner and I would escape by the skin of our teeth, we would park up my Peugeot Boxer Swift camper van on the beach and spend the evening eating salad – avocado, toasted seeds, Olives, Feta cheese, sundried tomatoes, Balsamic vinegar, vine tomatoes, etc and drink a Leffe beer before a bottle of wine – an Argentinian Malbec, and settle down for the night to watch the sunset… and did I mention my climbing partner would be Anne Hathaway.

In the US the ‘climbing-vagabond’ lifestyle – living out of your van to maximise climbing etc is widely excepted, but here in the UK you are one of the few British climbers still committed to that way of life – why do you think that is?

Big question…

In Britain, especially since the Thatcher era, many people in the UK have been led to believe owning things makes their life better. They have credit cards and loans to buy these things and mortgage themselves to the hilt to buy a house. People have been told owning a house is where it’s at, no-matter the personal price, and when you move into that house you surround yourself with stuff, and this shows how successful and happy you are, but it doesn’t stop, because we are brainwashed into believing we have to continue to buy and buy and buy bigger, faster, better, larger, quicker – when really this is not necessary, and all of this buying provides a prison cell with debt as the jailer. Owing money to big business also places us in a position where we can be controlled by people in power – the bankers, the politicians, the multi-millionaire business people, the multi-national companies. Today, many people in the UK live scared, scared of not owning stuff, scared of falling behind, scared to actually live… and also scared of not being able to pay back the interest on the loans and debt they have accrued. It is my opinion this is how government wants us to live because this fear stops us from living to our true potential and makes us work for big business and the politicians..

People who dare to live different and kick against the type of lifestyle I have written above are generally condemned by people in power and big business, who then use their power to spread the word and convince a large part of our society this type of lifestyle is not acceptable or worthy and words like sponger and fraud and benefit cheat are used like weapons because the politicians and bankers know if we all live free from debt, if we all suddenly bought out of buying in, we would not be controllable anymore. People who kick against consumerism are vilified in the right wing press and by politicians and bankers and made to feel like outsiders by a large part of society, because the people with money want to continue controlling and making their millions. These people want the general population to be scared and it makes me sad to think many people will wake up when they are in their autumn years and realise they have been duped and have existed but not actually lived and all they have is stuff that on the whole is not really worth anything.

I know I live in a society that is run by consumerism and yes I much prefer this than some of the alternatives but I wish this system we live by was more fair and open and there was less inequality. The very nature of big business is to continue growing and getting bigger and amass more and control and consume and I don’t include the smaller climbing companies which include my sponsors, I am talking about multi-national behemoths who often have politicians and the people who run our country on their board of directors. My philosophy is to live with less – live healthier and happier with more understanding for fellow human beings and to speak out against inequality. Time is our most important commodity and that time should be used wisely to experience. I also know living this way of life is made easier by having great friends who are very supportive and I do realise I’m very lucky to have these people. I’m also fortunate to have had a solid and stable childhood which gave me a strong work ethic and has given me confidence and a platform to take risks and expand. Some people have not been this fortunate and will never be confident enough to take that leap no matter how much they want to, and this is important to realise and understand also.

I think different to many people in the UK and almost from the time I first found climbing, I have structured my life to live the way I now do and I do understand for many people this way of life is not possible because of choices they have made or their upbringing, but I do believe many people could live a more happy and healthy and rewarding life if they dare take a few risks and possibly make what they perceive as sacrifice which may not be much of a sacrifice once they have made the move.

I do think many climbers think differently than a lot of people who are not climbers but to take the plunge, to live no fixed abode and climb full time is a big and scary step, one which takes strength. Times and attitudes and climbers have changed, some for the better and some for the worse and living a nomadic climbing life is possibly less desirable in the rush and push of our society today where commodities and trophies appear more desirable than experience. I made a plan and worked full time after leaving school at 16 and for a majority of that time I was in a job that I hated, but I continued to see my plan through and I am fortunate to own a house that I bought when house prices were low, in comparison to what they are now, and I have savings from working in the prison service. Whether these things will see me through to the time I die I don’t know, but I firmly believe if you have courage to take a leap you will make your own luck and it will work.

I have had fortunate breaks, luck and received great support from friends, family and sponsors. I have trained and I have fitness and determination and health on my side and I appreciate not everyone will be this fortunate or can be this focused.

If I died tomorrow I would not have regret and I have done more in my twenty or so years as a climber than I ever imagined possible, so this, in-itself, has made any small discomforts worthwhile.

Finally, to return to the original question, I suppose experiencing and witnessing and living with everything going on in the prison service made me really appreciate how testing aspects of life can be and when the chance became available to jump and live a different life, a much better life, I grabbed it with both hands and experiencing that previous life make me appreciate and has given me the courage and strength to continue doing what I now do.  It probably isn’t so easy to make a big change if the life you are living is ok, but not brilliant, for me it wasn’t an issue.

You’re maturing well as a climber how long do you think you can stay committed to this way of climbing and living?

I don’t know is the honest answer. I love my life and I’m very happy. I still enjoy being able to go anywhere at any time, sleeping in my van and waking up to peace and a new view and the time to try to climb anything I wish, but who knows when poor health or old age may curtail my lifestyle or when the right lady may walk into my life and I decide to stop sleeping in my van because I prefer being with someone I love in a fixed base. All I know is, I feel very privileged and lucky to have lived the life I have and when it changes, so be it.

How is the writing going? There are rumours of a second book?  

Love the writing and yes, I’m working on book two as we speak.

What’s in the pipeline for you for the rest of the year?

I’m in Chamonix at the moment but I’m just about to head south to clip bolts at Gorge du Tarn before heading out to Canada for a month of writing at the Banff Centre after being awarded the Fleck Fellowship, which fully supports me and allows me to work on book two. Greg Boswell is meeting me after the writing and weather permitting we are climbing for three in the Rockies. Winter will be Scotland and Patagonia or the Alps and next year Paul Ramsden has decided to take a sub-standard partner after climbing with Mick Fowler for all of these years and we are hopefully out to try something in Tibet.

* Mountain Equipment

Read more.. Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

FIRST LIGHT – Personal Project – #GetOutside

I’ve been shooting at sunrise for over 60 days straight now, it’s hard. And finally I’m happy to share with you for the first time just a few images from my ‘First Light’ photography project.
This is also my pledge to #GetOutside and shoot more images and be more creative this year as part of the Ordnance Survey‘s campaign, launched to urge people off the sofa, to ditch the car and to enjoy the Great British outdoors.
Mind you though, I will be travelling all over the World.

Have you ever wondered if you’re missing out on something by not getting up before the sunrise? The world in the morning looks different… sometimes tranquil and beautiful… sometimes miserable and wet! It’s a creative challenge for me personally but I’m also hoping to showcase a world ‘rarely’ seen. There’s a running joke among photographers that shooting sunsets is cheating, therefore I have decided to shoot sunrises for at least the next 6 months… Everyday I get up before the sunrise and I try to shoot at least one picture, if the light is good definitely more. At the moment I’m concentrating on the beauty of the morning light but over the next couple of months I would really like to explore more what sunrise means to different people.
At the end, I would like to present a story of beauty and morning struggle,and perhaps hope too, because simply sunrise marks the beginning of a new day and I would like to explore human relationship with this particular time of the day.

From sunrise above the Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia to my local back yard in the Peak District National Park, Cape Town’s penguins to aerial view of the West Coast of Sweden – Morning light can be so beautiful!

All Rights Reserved – Lukasz Warzecha

Read more.. Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

NEW PORTFOLIO 2015 – website update

I’m very pleased to present a long overdue portfolio and website revamp with new galleries from our recent adventures. Enjoy!

A lot of hard work went into this update and frankly I couldn’t do it without a professional help from Peter Dennen (Pedro+Jackie Photo Consultants), skilful designers and helpful staff at (our website host and provider), my friend and writer Nick Bullock (thank you for the BIO note) and Kirsten Schultz (kick ass graphic designer) for putting the final touches.
Lukasz About ME pg v3.web

Read more.. Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Roundup: 2014 – National Geographic | Wild Atlantic Way | EpicTV’s most watched clim

Phew! 2014 was jam-packed: we have worked on 3 continents on a multitude of projects. We laughed, we cried, we worked hard and had a lot of fun doing it.
So after taking a quiet moment to reflect, here are our favourite bits from a great year.

Thanks to all our lovely clients, subjects and collaborators.
Here’s to 2015!

Wild Atlantic Way
Summer saw us spent two weeks working with Adventure Travel Trade Association and Failte Ireland to capture the spirit of the Wild Atlantic Way (Ireland’s longest defined coastal routes) ahead of their 2015 PR campaign.
From sea kayaking to mountain biking it was an opportunity to show the diversity and richness of stories from Ireland.

National Geographic Talisker Storm Adventure
Our challenge for National Geographic Talisker Storm Adventure was to join Alastair Humphreys and his team as they attempted a circumnavigation by land, sea, foot and bike of the Isle of Skye, and capture on film, stills and live web updates this extraordinary expedition.
It’s a challenge that pushed our skills, nerves and equipment to its limits. But a million YouTube views was a testament to its success.

EpicTV’s Most Watched Climbing video of 2014
When we saw the footage of John Freeman taking a 60 ft fall when the ice pillar he was climbing collapsed we knew there was a unique story to tell. We were honoured that John has placed his trust in us.
Working on this story was an emotional journey for all of us and we’re pleased we were able to share it with everyone.
1.2 million views and EpicTV’s most watched climbing video of the 2014.

Read more.. Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!

Christmas Card 2014

Read more.. Thursday, December 25th, 2014

Inside Devil’s Arse with Hardside 400

If you didn’t know… I’ve been lecturing a lot lately and after one of my recent lectures, during a Q&A session someone has asked – ‘What kind of personal work do you like to shoot?‘ I thought to myself ‘What an interesting question!’ while I was struggling to come up with a quick answer… I should know that, shouldn’t I?
And honestly I do but the answer is not as simple as you might think.
In my ‘personal work’ I like to challenge myself… Take myself, the gear I’m using and how I carry it outside of my comfort zone. On assignment I’m most likely to be executing the images and as much as I like to push myself and the vision, work time often isn’t the best time to experiment.

Key to Creativity is Error Recovery, Not Failure Avoidance!
The Dean of Pixar University, Randy Nelson

A huge part of being an outdoor/adventure photographer is the ability to be part of the action yourself.
Practising the sports and experiencing the environment we’re shooting is the only way to get to understand the small nuances and tricks of trade. Let’s face it, these small details make all the difference and make the images more authentic…
I’m not a caving photographer but I was drawn to the challenge of shooting underground. I knew I won’t create iconic images first time… but we all have to start somewhere and shooting the most obvious images is often the way to start.

I would also like to announce my new longstanding relationship with Lowepro, a company with 47 years of heritage in invention and innovation in photography bags.
DSC_2081 copy copy
For our caving adventure I have had a chance to test first hand Lowepro’s Hardside 400 – the largest in the range of brand new hard cases from Lowepro. There’re not yet available on the market so I was happy to put it through it’s paces in one of the harshest environments I’ve ever been to… hands down. More detailed review coming soon.
DSC_2058 copy copy
Big thank you to Rob, Jimmy and Ulrika… amazing and fun crew.
Also special thanks to Lyon Outdoor for supplying all the caving equipment and Lowepro for the opportunity to test their latest products.
BTS images copyright Jimmy Hyland.

Read more.. Monday, November 17th, 2014

January in Snaps

January has been full of extremes… a real mix of cultures and overall an eye opening experience!
It was great to shoot and hang out with Rebecca Dent, Leah Crane, Neil Gresham, Wojtek Kozakiewicz, David Murrie and the UIAA IWC athletes.
Next stop Sochi and Winter Olympics!

Read more.. Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year 2014

Read more.. Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Power of the Human Presence!

Maybe a little bit flippant view on my own work today… but take the human element from my photographs and I’m lost.
I would be a terrible landscape photographer.

I’m grateful that over the years I’ve been blessed with opportunities to shoot with so many talented people. Visually I’m striving for simplicity, trying to compose the frame with little distractions, hoping that by doing so I create a perfect scene for the athletes to ‘shine’.
Sticking to classic rules of composition or breaking them completely and capturing raw beauty of light the human element fulfils the frame. Take that human element away and those carefully composed images loose scale and become meaningless.
I have photoshopped few images to show you what I mean…

Visit my portfolio to see the originals.

Read more.. Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Climbing 2020 access denied

Today came the news that climbing won’t be included in the 2020 Olympics – even worse – it didn’t make into the second round! Those of us supporting the Olympic bid could give at least 10 reasons why climbing is better than squash/wrestling/baseball and I’m sure those other sports could do the same… but lets leave it at that.

For us climbers, those wanting to see sport climbing at the Olympics, it should be a wake up call!
The World Squash Federation (WSF) has already failed twice to make squash part of the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Two years ago in July 2011, the WSF hired Vero Communications lead by the strategist Mike Lee to help squash win a place on the Olympic programme.
Vero Communications was appointed to help put together a compelling case to the IOC Programme Commission, drawing upon Lee’s experience in a series of bid victories, including successful campaigns for London, Rio and Pyeongchang to host the Olympic events.

Sport climbing is a spectacular sport. I have experienced electrifying moments shooting various IFSC events over the years, but when WSF was hiring one of the World’s best agencies, the IFSC were approaching me for free images to promote the sport. I don’t want to make it about the money (or at least not about money alone) I’m trying to show you the contrast in professionalism.
The reason why climbing stood no chance is right here… just watch the video below…

The truth is that we are still a scruffy bunch. Nothing wrong with that… climbing, adventure and being scruffy go hand in hand – that’s what I love most about climbing.
There aren’t many climbing photographers travelling the Globe shooting climbing competitions – I’m one of the few, so therefore, I have some inside knowledge. I’ve decided to write this post not to criticise the IFSC; I have no doubt they did their best and I have tremendous respect for Marco Scolaris and his team.

The future… well, we can either crawl back into our hole or start thinking at the Olympic level.

Read more.. Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
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