Interview with Mountain Guide and Mountaineering Instructor James Thacker:

1.What age were you when you started climbing mountains?

I first started walking with my parents when we moved to Derbyshire in my early teens.  We spent most weekends exploring the moors of the Peak District and later climbing on the grit-stone edges.  My parents despite being active weren’t walkers so we started together really, learning to navigate and look after ourselves on the hill.

-What was the first mountain you climbed?

Most likely Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, but the ones I most vividly remember are Tryfan in North Wales and Ben Nevis in the Highlands.  Tryfan was particularly exciting as it involved a lengthy scramble up the north ridge and I had never experienced anything like that before.  Ben Nevis I also remember as we turned back from fairly close to the summit in bad weather, we were worried about the large cliffs of the north face in bad visibility.  Turning round was a good learning experience an something that might be essential on any mountain.

Mont Blanc du Tacul

2.What are the most impressive mountains you have climbed?

Argh, hit me with a difficult question there.  This is a tricky, I guess for me I like the variety so it’s nice to climb summits in Derbyshire, remote Scottish Munros and peaks in the European Alps.  The ‘Steeple’ in the Lemon Mountains of East Greenland stands out as one of my best achievements, it’s fairly low and technically relatively easy by modern standards but is very remote.  I climbed this route in 2000 on an expedition to Greenland with some friends, all in their 20’s at the time, making a number of first ascents including the Steeple which had been attempted previously by Chris Bonington.  22 hours after starting we were back at our skis having climbed a fantastic icy couloir line aided by the “midnight sun” of the Arctic Circle.  Some seven or eight years later I went on to climb the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland with Nick Wallis, a route with a considerable reputation and standing out as a definite high point for me.  Firstly, because of the route and secondly getting to share it with Nick – we had a great time and everything went well which was great as we had bumped into each other in Chamonix randomly.  It just felt right!

3.Any good stories of danger to share with us?

By choosing to visit the mountains we all expose ourselves to greater risk that is always present.  Certainly for me part of the appeal of climbing is trying to minimise this risk as much as possible.  Being adequately prepared, checking the weather and avalanche forecasts, choosing the right route and partner are all really important.  But inevitably some things are out of your control, or sometimes you just overstep the mark.  Getting avalanched in Greenland, was a massive learning experience, nearly getting hit by a collapsing ice fall in France meant I learned a bit more…

4.Why did you go into mountain guiding?

I always wanted to be a fighter pilot to be honest!  Having got as far as doing my aircrew selection for the Royal Air Force, I realised that the shortest contract I could sign up for was eighteen years and I was eighteen at the time.  To start such a career at the time just seemed inconceivable so I chose to go to University to study Geology instead.  Going to University in Sheffield I inevitably met some really keen climbers and decided pretty soon that I wanted to climb professionally.  As a teenager I had been on a climbing course at my local outdoor centre, the course being run by a British Mountain Guide – this was a really positive experience and the first time that I realised that there were people out there who could take you to amazing places or reach elusive summits.  

5.Whats next on the list to climb?

Today I am checking the weather forecast to see if I can climb Mont Blanc over the weekend.  I then have a week with a friend and regular client Martin, we are yet to decide on exactly where to go – but we could go anywhere and thats the beauty in guiding with a person you know well.  Later in the year I am off to Ama Dablam in Nepal.

6.What needs to be done to save our mountains of the world from problems such as litter, etc.?

As individuals I think we just need to be a low impact as possible when visiting the mountains.  That might mean taking your litter home or making sure that you employ local porters and kit them out properly at the other end of the scale.  The danger is that people fail to even give it some thought.

Abseiling on Creag Meagaidh

7.How many times a week do you get out yourself on the climbs or are you mostly a man of the office now?

I am better at climbing mountains than sending emails, so I am usually out working whether it be in Derbyshire, Scotland or here in the Alps.

8. What are the most popular climbs your company offers?

Most of my work is done at fairly low ratios (i.e. one or two people) and is pretty flexible in it’s nature.  As a result I get to go to lots of different places and do different things.  Of course some climbs, summits or itineraries are more popular than others so I often find myself on Ben Nevis winter climbing, on Mont Blanc or in the Swiss Valais for example.  This year I have already got some requests to go Ice Climbing in Norway, rock climbing in the Lofoten Islands and mountaineering in Nepal…

9.Is there a particular big or difficult climb that you really want to do in your lifetime?

I have always wanted to climb the six classic North Faces of the Alps: The Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Cima Grande de Laverado, Petite Dru and Piz Badile.  I have done four of the six so the remaining two i.e. Colton/MacIntyre on the Grandes Jorasses and the Schmidt Route on the Matterhorn.  The Colton/MacIntyre was climbed in 1976 by British alpinists Nick Colton and Alex MacIntyre and remains a classic and highly saught after prize today.  By chance I bumped into Nick Colton the other day and was dying to ask him (again) about the story of the first ascent.

10. What do you bring with you on a long climb?

On a big route, quite simply as little as possible.  The lightest equipment is the stuff you left behind.  On big alpine routes there are a few things that always go with me, the first is some abseil tat (i.e. cord) and a knife incase I need to retreat.  The second is a MacDonalds straw – sometimes these can be really useful for collecting melting snow which saves on the amount of gas you might need to carry.

11.What brand do you think offers the best quality mountaineering gear?

Well I have been supported by Haglöfs and Edelrid for a while now, both of whom make very good clothing and equipment which I would now find difficult to be without.  The reality now is that the mountaineering market is so competitive that bad equipment or brands just don’t flourish or even survive.  The result is that we have so much good gear available now to make our lives easier (or more comfortable) on the mountain.  I’m glad to have been a small part of that by providing product feedback for Haglöfs and Edelrid.

12.What does the UK have to offer the mountaineering folk worldwide?

The UK has a great mountaineering pedigree.  We are used to putting up with bad weather and making the most of it, and sometimes just toughing it out a bit with a slow and stready approach.  That results in British alpinists having a really good expedition record in the greater ranges but also an ability to miss the telephriques in the alps and get benighted!  The British Mountaineering Council run a popular Winter Climbing International Meet in Scotland every two years and climbers from around the world are always amazed at the Scottish weather and the climbing.

13.Its a pricey sport; how long did it take you to build up equipment stocks when you first started?

It can be expensive, but so are golf clubs, paragliders etc!  One of the best things about climbing is that you can participate at different levels.  I started out bouldering and soloing on Derbyshire outcrops with a chalk bag and a pair of rockshoes (now probably available for £120) max.  Other kit can then be built up as you go along, and or be split with a climbing partner.

14.Did you ever have any accidents while out on a climb?

No yet! But I did badly break my leg skiing.  

15. What is the average age group of your clients?

I have worked with everybody from 12 years – 65+ and age isn’t a barrier to climbing really if it’s your thing.  Most clients are 35-50 I would guess.

Mont Blanc de Cheilon

16. Is fear still a factor for you after so many years experience?

Fear, yes definitely.  Ultimately, fear is what keeps us safe.  I think you become better at managing it and deciding whether it is rational or irrational and then getting on with the task in hand.

Check out Jame’s website and Twitter @jamesthacker.

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