On The Hill With … Andy Tomlinson

Welcome again to this occasional series, this time we hear from Club President Andy Tomlinson.

About to complete his first year in post, although it probably feels longer given what we’ve been through. Andy has climbed around the world and here tells us something of his climbing background, and as a bonus, gives us a guide to outdoor fashion over the last 60 years or so …

On Great Calva, April 2021. Photo Andy Tomlinson collection

How did you get into walking and climbing? My dad. He had been a very active climber during the Second World War where, when stationed in Tehran, he fell in with Griff Pugh (Physiologist on the 1953 Everest Expedition) who taught him to rock climb and look after himself in the mountains. The first trip I remember was Tryfan when I was eight…the sight of someone jumping from Adam to Eve was awe-inspiring! I was taken climbing a couple of years later and that was it, I was hooked. We had a one week mountain holiday in Wales or the Lakes most years, which was my annual treat as we lived in the Cotswolds…very frustrating for this teenager!  Immediately before university I spent two weeks at the Glencoe School of Mountaineering under the watchful eye of Alan Fyffe. He was an inspiration and great mentor at the time; perfect preparation for university club days out.  

A Family Holiday in Lakes early 1960s, some Tyrolean influence, perhaps from reading Hermann Buhl’s Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage. Photo Andy Tomlinson collection

Although some at the dinner meet speculated it was more likely The Sound of Music, or even Rupert Bear!

 Three Pebble Slab, Froggatt 1975…note the flairs…and gear! Photo Eric Almquist

Who has had the most influence on your mountain experiences? Inevitably my dad had a great influence, especially in my early years and, through him, Griff Pugh and his early physiological studies on exercise, nutrition and recovery. Dad brought the principles developed to our mountain trips and I have stuck with them all my mountain life….as well as that of my children! Basically, it is regular short stops to refuel; 10 mins, or less, every hour or so.

I arrived in Chester in 1976 and soon met Dave Cowans who, without doubt, had the greatest influence on my climbing career. He was completely different from anyone this southern lad had ever met before…outgoing, talkative, hard drinking, competitive and blessed with an incredibly sharp wit, yet crucially, warm, welcoming and generous. He soon convinced me I could climb far better (and harder), than I thought possible! He took me under his wing and introduced me to the Black and Tans…my life changed for ever! Looking back, these were formative years and, guided by Dave, I saw my climbing standard rise significantly, but not to the level he was aiming at…I used the excuse of a young family and work for my post-graduate exams!

Later, Alf Gleadell became a very close climbing friend [another ‘Tan’] and had a big influence on my climbing in the 1990s-2000s.  

In 2010 I joined the Diploma in Mountain Medicine course and, through that, met Parminder Chaggar [see his ‘On the hill with’] and later Jeremy Windsor. Both helped rekindle my interest in the Alps as well as, importantly, ‘getting me out there’ amongst the big hills with many memorable days out over the last 10 years.

Parminder on the Rochefort Arete, 2012. Photo Andy Tomlinson

How did you come to join the RC? Through Dave Cowans and the Tans…it was obviously the Club to join. I also remember the elation when my membership application was approved…I was turned down on the first occasion on a technicality, having not done the ‘right’ 3 Meets!

What does a perfect ‘hill’ day consist of? Banter and being with friends you can trust and rely on if things get difficult; a long day with a sought after goal achieved [I have come to accept I am goal directed…sad but true!] and a bit of excitement always helps too; oh and ideal weather…I have to admit to not enjoying getting wet and/or cold!

Dave, Eric and me on top of Cloggy after climbing White Slab. Photo Eric Almquist

Leading White Slab – everyone had Ron Hill Tracksters in the early nineties. Photo Eric Almquist

With a busy professional and family life, how did you manage to keep active in the hills?

It was always a juggling act! In my late twenties and early thirties I was busy training as an anaesthetist along with a young family. After Chester, I worked in Sheffield for 3 years, but was unable to make the most of the climbing opportunities available as I had to knuckle down to my career! I then spent a year working in Kathmandu with two young children, which was fantastic both professionally and as a ‘life experience’. Climbing was out, though we did have fun trekking. I returned to Southampton and after 18 months out of rock-climbing was on the verge of giving up when a colleague persuaded me to go to Boulder Ruckle [Swanage]…I was hooked again and realised that climbing was a very important part of my life, as was my career and family. The only answer was to get a job close to climbing and one came up in Stoke. It was a no brainer as it was the nearest big hospital to the Roaches, one of my favourite crags…and I was appointed! For many years, it was climbing in the evening [frequently at a Club Wednesday evening climbing meet] or a day at a weekend.

Whilst at university I struck up a long-lasting friendship with Eric who was an American climber living and studying in London. Our families got on well and we managed many family holidays together either in the US or Europe between the mid 70s and 90s, during which Eric and I managed to sneak off climbing for a couple of days each holiday, grabbing some of our much sought-after routes!

Simo-rapping Tricouni Nail (5.9) with Eric, The Needles, South Dakota 1993. Photo collage Eric Almquist

1984 after Central Buttress, during Andy’s self-confessed Val Doonican phase (Hullo There!). Photo Eric Almquist

Eric was also very busy with work but it did bring him to the UK, so we would grab the odd long weekend away. I had realised that, whilst climbing was a key part of my life, I had to share it with family and my career both of which were also very important to me…hence the ‘tension’ and juggling continued. Eric was of a similar disposition, helping bond an even closer friendship. This is not to say I didn’t get away with others…as the children got older I had some great mountain holidays with them, whilst Dave and Alf ensured I got away too, mostly for short weekends…before they finally got me to Yosemite!

As I got closer to retirement I decided to enroll on the Diploma in Mountain Medicine course, neatly combining medicine and the mountains!

Over many years in the ‘hills’, what have been the most memorable times?

I have always valued escaping to the ‘hills’ and it has played a major part in my life, both work and play. Long before the importance of mental health awareness became well recognised, I used to escape to help ‘clear my mind’ particularly as a means of dealing with difficult clinical situations I had coped with at work.

I also look back on some magical ‘stand out’ days/times…including

  1. The Cuillin Ridge in a day also in the company of Dave, along with a work colleague too; done lightweight, moving quickly and freely in almost perfect conditions. We were back at the Sligachan for beers after leaving there earlier that day

With Dave and Vere (Carlin) on Gars Bheinn after completing the Skye Ridge, 1994. Photo Andy Tomlinson

  1. Grabbing great mid-west routes with my long time American friend, Eric, whilst on family holidays to Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado
  2. Traversing Mont Blanc in 1999 with my son Matt when he was just 16…he had spotted it when we were skiing one winter and said he wanted to climb it when he was 15…I added a year for good measure!

Alps 1999 with  Matt acclimatising in the Ecrin prior to Mt Blanc. Photo Andy Tomlinson

  1. Climbing Royal Arches followed by Crest Jewel (Yosemite Valley) in a day with Matt in 2003…20+ pitches of fabulous granite climbing, followed by a descent that included fighting through Manzanita’s followed by the infamous North Dome Gully. An early start had been key to this fantastic day, celebrated by beers from the cool box of a welcoming pair of American climbers we met walking back.

Matt high on Crest Jewel (5.10a)…a sea of granite! Photo Andy Tomlinson

  1. The NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral, Yosemite, with Alf…as we left Camp 4 early in the morning we were asked by an American climber where we were heading and the reply came “now that’s a real Valley 5.9”! A long day, a fantastic line and a 5c off-width pitch [no it was never 5.9!], fortunately Alf’s lead, and finally arriving at the top knackered but happy after a very physical day with one of my best mates!

Alf high on NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral 2001. Photo Andy Tomlinson

  1. Climbing the Nose on El Cap with Mike Ryan, the perfect companion on this awesome route. The Great Roof pitch was the highlight…not just a stunning place to be, but also I finally clicked with the aid climbing game! [see Fourth Time Lucky RCJ 2008]

The great roof pitch…finally aid climbing clicked! Photo Andy Tomlinson collection

Safely down, Andy and Mike, tired but very happy! Photo Andy Tomlinson collection

  1. Completing a solo overnight crossing of the M-E double in perfect winter conditions, with snow on the ground and a full moon. This made navigation straightforward [I hardly needed my torch], however the hidden ice kept me on my toes!
  2. Many treks in Nepal, firstly with my children in the 1980s…not hard or difficult, but always fun and a perfect way to integrate with local life. More recently trekking with RC friends in the Everest region on two occasions…particularly memorable was our crossing of the Tesi Lapcha following the earthquake that devastated Nepal in 2015 after I had volunteered at the IPPG Rescue Post in Machermo [see A Himalayan Journey RCJ 2016].

Everest, Lhotse and Makalu from the Renjo La, 2015.  Photo Andy Tomlinson

  1. The Italian Ridge on the Matterhorn…a goal finally achieved and what a day! [see Alpine Adventures with My Chimp RCJ 2019]

Jeremy starting the descent of the Italian Ridge 2019. Photo Andy Tomlinson

 Have you had any mishaps in the ‘hills’?

I am grateful to say that I’ve not been involved in anything serious. I have, however, had two narrow escapes, which taught me important lessons. The first was on my first alpine trip in 1976…we had completed the traverse of the Courtes, which had been a fairly harrowing day for us alpine newbie’s.

Alpine ‘newbie’, summit of Moine 1976. Note the breeches! Photo John Dennis

It had been a very hot summer, so conditions were as you might find nowadays…little snow and what was there was thin and brittle. The descent gully usually snow filled [at least so it appeared in Rebuffat’s 100 Best Routes in the Mt Blanc Massif] was, instead, full of large loose boulders so we move down one at a time and arrived back at the snow-covered base mid-afternoon…not a good time and we were tired. I ran down the snow quickly, following a vague path when I suddenly saw a yawning gap immediately ahead. There was no option but to jump, which I did. Landing safely on the other side I looked back in horror to see I had jumped from the edge of a rapidly thinning arch of snow well out over the crevasse. I was able to prevent John doing the same thing and we managed to rope up and protect him before he crossed. Suitably chastened, I’ve never treated glacier crossing lightly since.

The second instance was in Yosemite with Dave. We had failed high on the Steck-Salathe and were rapping back down. On the penultimate rap I went first and Dave followed. When he arrived at the narrow stance he suddenly said ‘and what are you tied in to?’…the answer was, of course, nothing. Fortunately I’d been resting against the rock. I have treated abseiling even more carefully since then. Tiredness was a significant factor in both.

 What makes a great ‘hill’ partner? Has anyone come close? Someone I can rely on when times get tough! A sense of humour and mutual trust are essential assets too: Dave, Alf, Eric and Mike on long days out on rock; Parminder and Jeremy on big alpine routes.

How do you keep active in the hills? It gets increasingly difficult to keep motivated…but I do! For me to be active I need to keep fit and I don’t really like gyms these days. I look at everything I do outside as an opportunity to help keep fit…we have a large garden and Judi can’t help move/rebuild walls, raised beds etc, so barrowing heavy loads is good exercise, as is cutting the grass with a 10kg rucksack on to add to the ‘training’ load! Inevitably I also run and bike. I try and get away regularly too, though that has difficult this last year.

What future ‘hill’ plans do you have? I’ve ‘discovered’ the Munros over the last couple of years and, having only done 90, have plenty to keep me active! The great thing about them is that they take me to places I would never have considered visiting…a long traverse of the Fannichs last year was a perfect example, and another very memorable day. I look forward to plenty more. I also peruse guidebooks endlessly and often pick up Hard Rock to contemplate the HVS and E1 routes I’ve still not done…it may be that Classic Rock would be a more realistic read these days! Then of course there are the Alps and trekking in the Himalaya. As has often been said, ‘to much rock, to little time’ so it is about enjoying every day I’m out…and dreaming, which is cheap! Increasingly I’m looking at ways of continuing to enjoy the hills whilst trying to reduce my carbon foot print…a real challenge.

Out enjoying climbing the Classic Rock route Black and Tans, Roaches, July 2021. Photo Tim Taylor

Do you have any regrets/missed opportunities? I guess we all do to some extent…yes, there are rock routes in the UK I wish I had done as well as a small regret that I didn’t get to Yosemite when I was a little younger. However, my family, professional and climbing life has been both busy and very rewarding. I could only do so much so, ultimately, would not change anything. I have also achieved the three goals I set myself many years ago when busy with work and family, which were to try and climb: a 7000m peak; the Nose on El Capitan; the Italian Ridge on the Matterhorn. As I have said, goal directed! I have been very fortunate, so no regrets.

Heading to the summit of Dhaulagiri VII (7249m) Autumn 2013. Photo Neil Short

What have been the benefits of RC membership? Meeting such a wide variety of like-minded people from different walks of life leading to life long friendships which have had a profound influence on my life. The breadth of Meets; what other Club offers such variety? From walks of all types, though climbing to biking, canoeing and ‘other’ activities…all with experts in their field. The ‘local’ Wednesday Climbing Meets [summer and winter] have been invaluable to me, as have the Huts…a fantastic asset and were definitely an attraction early on.

…and finally, how is it being President? First and foremost it is a real privilege to be President of such an old and established Club. My term has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, making for interesting and challenging times for a Club such as ours. Nevertheless, I am sure there have been many such similar times over the previous 119 years the Club has been in existence! Ultimately, I am trying to do my best to steer us through these choppy waters, whilst maintaining the ethos of the Club…‘getting out there’ and also ensuring I do as well, as this was what brought me to the Club in the first instance!


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