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?
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