Pete Graham Interview | Why Climbing Remote Peaks is More Rewarding
Fjallraven ambassador Pete Graham is one of Britain's best-respected mountaineers. So why does he prefer to stay out of the spotlight?
Pete Graham was halfway up the tallest of Cerro Fitzroy’s rocky pillars when the ice bombardment started. The mountain’s jagged granite pinnacles, which sprout vertically from the glacier like giant stegosaurus spines, have made it one of South America’s most recognisable landmarks. They’re also catnip for serious climbers. But the length of the approach, combined with the often-brutal Patagonian climate, means scaling them is far from straightforward.
“There'd been so much bad weather a lot of ice that had formed near the top of the pillar," Pete tells Mpora. “This sort of rime ice that you get in Patagonia, it forms because of the wind and moisture. It started melting off in the heat of the afternoon so we were getting bombarded by some quite big chunks. I remember just getting hit on the head by this sort of melon sized block of ice, and kind of like going a bit dizzy…"
“You're 100 miles from anyone [and] I find that quite liberating. You know there's not much chance of being rescued, so it's all on you"
It was day two of the three-day climb, the final mission of a gruelling six-week long trip which had seen Pete and his long term climbing partner Ben Silvestre bag a couple of significant Patagonian peaks, but also suffer several exhausting defeats that had taken it out of them physically. By this point in the climb they were suffering. “Our battered shoulders begin to ache, our tired limbs hang heavily by our sides," Ben writes in his expedition report.
Most people would consider taking blocks of ice to the head while clinging to a Patagonian cliff a pretty scary experience. Yet incredibly Pete begins this story by saying “Well, I haven't really done anything super sketchy..." and it takes a bit of prompting to persuade him to tell it at all.
It’s not that Pete doesn’t like talking about climbing - once he gets into the flow, his enthusiasm is obvious. It’s just that over-egging his achievements isn’t his thing. In a world where raising the funds for expeditions increasingly depends on Instagram likes and an ability to self-promote, this kind of self-effacing modesty is genuinely refreshing. Climbing, and the adventures that come with it, are something that Pete just gets on with it seems, without feeling the need to hashtag adventure everywhere.
It’s perhaps not surprising that he doesn’t feel the need to shout about it from the rooftops - climbing is something that’s always been there for Pete. “I first got taken climbing when I was maybe about five, I started with my dad, [who's] been climbing since he was about 15. He’s done a lot in the Lake District [where Pete was born] and in the Alps." At one stage, Pete’s dad ran a climbing shop, and he grew up in a house full of mountaineering books.
Yet if climbing was in the Graham blood, it took a little while to manifest itself in young Peter. “I didn't really get interested in climbing until I was a teenager. [That was when] I started getting something out of it.
“I first got taken climbing when I was maybe about five, I started with my dad"
“I was into hill-walking at quite a young age, I'd always been into the outdoors. but when I initially got taken out climbing as a child I used to find it scary and not really like it. But then I started to gain something out of it. I started to enjoy the movement and the being outside."
Teenage years spent bouldering and trad climbing round the Lake District helped fuel his passion, but it was when he moved to Sheffield as a student that things really began to escalate. “I didn't really start doing stuff with ice axes until I was maybe about 19 or 20, and I got into that myself. I started climbing more with mates and stuff, and then when I went to uni."
With the Peak District on its doorstep, the Steel City is a natural gathering point for climbers from all walks of life and is well-known for having one of the largest and most lively scenes in the country. It’s also got a reputation as a place to party. “There’s a lot of crossover," says Pete. “A lot of the climbers in Sheffield are into that." In fact, Pete first met Ben Silvestre through the rave scene.
There are a lot of similarities, he believes, in the kinds of people who are into climbing and raving. “Like a sort of breaking the rules sort of thing, [there’s] definitely a bit of that attitude. And doing something that's kind of a bit outside of normal culture, [they’re both] slightly alternative. Especially in Sheffield it's a really big thing. The Climbing Works, the wall there, they put on a big party there round Christmas time that's really popular. You get around 1,000 people there and it gets pretty loose."
Big nights out helped forge Pete and Ben’s friendship, but it was climbing together that really cemented it. Because if there’s one thing that’s going to make you feel closer to someone, it’s going on an expedition with them. Not only are you putting your life in their hands (quite literally) as your belayer, you’re also spending a lot of time together in very close quarters. “When we went to the Revelations [a range in Alaska] we had about a week stuck in the tent together because of a storm. And we did get pretty cabin feverish by the end."
What do you do to pass the time in those situations, I ask? How do you avoid being at each other’s throats? “Play chess? Read?" says Pete chuckling. “But I guess we've climbed together a lot and we're just really good mates. You build up a relationship with someone."
The intensity level is definitely upped by Pete and Ben’s preferred choices of location. The Revelations are pretty much the definition of remote. Searching for it on Google Maps I think my internet must be broken at first. There’s a pin dropped in the middle of a blank space, and I have to zoom out to the point where 2cm is 20km before I can see a road or a settlement of any kind.
“In Alaska we had about a week stuck in the tent together because of a storm."
“You fly to Anchorage and then drive for about three or four hours and then get a seaplane from there which takes about an hour. You're 100 miles from any other people really."
This kind of extreme isolation means help is a long way away. You’re totally reliant on each other and your own skills should the worst happen. Isn’t that a pretty frightening prospect? “It is scary, but I find it quite liberating in a way. When you're climbing and you know there's not much chance of being rescued or anything like that it's all on you. I find that it makes you climb really well [and] feel really focussed. Because it's so serious, all your decisions are really real. Everything really matters."
The result is that Pete finds climbing in these far-flung locales, miles from anywhere, much more rewarding. “It definitely is, yeah. The consequences are higher but I find that when you have to do something, you just do it. You don't question it."
It was under these conditions in the Revelations that he notched up one of the crowning achievements of his career so far - a new, never-before climbed route up the East Face of a peak called Jezebel. The climb, involving 1,200 metres of technical crampon and axe work on less-than-stable ice, took Pete and Ben three days to complete. “There were a few pitches that were quite delicate ice climbing. You had quite scary columns of ice that you had to be a bit careful with."
It was exactly the kind of challenge that appeals to Pete, a precise, deliberate climber who likes to take his time over moves. “Ice climbing often feels like a tactical game of chess," he writes on his blog about the ascent. “Hack the wrong bits off and you could find yourself checkmated with nothing left to climb."
“The feeling of isolation makes the climbing feel a lot different. It's a lot lonelier than climbing somewhere like the Alps."
If his technique is a good as a Grandmaster’s, Pete doesn’t take himself too seriously however. He and Ben decided to name the new route ‘The Hoar of Babylon’, after the prostitute from the book of Revelation. They wanted “to keep in line with the area’s biblical chapter theme and with the British tradition of mixed climbing puns," he explains on his blog.
The sheer technicality meant the feat attracted a fair bit of attention among the British climbing community, despite the amusing name. But Pete is typically self-effacing about the scale of the achievement. “We gave the crux a grade Water Ice 6 [meaning “highly technical"]. But it's always hard to say, I'm not really very good at grading."
He laughs when I suggest that, like a good surfer in big waves, he’s probably underestimating it considerably, and it strikes me again how little Pete is interested in fame or fortune.
Since climbing The Hoar, he and Ben have gone on to notch up several other notable firsts, including the first British ascent of another highly technical Alaskan route known as the Infinite Spur, on Mount Foraker.
These days he’s lucky enough to be sponsored by Fjallraven - the Swedish brand supports his expeditions and he’s helping with the design of their forthcoming Bergtagen high alpine range. But when he’s not on expeditions, Pete is more than happy returning to work as an engineer on building sites, a profession which no doubt appeals to his meticulous mindset. He certainly has zero interest in plugging his exploits on the after-dinner speaking circuit, or turning climbing into a full-time career.
“If I was doing it all the time I'd lose the genuine motivation and it'd feel like I'd forced it. I don't want [climbing] to become forced." Tellingly, the two climbers he admires the most aren’t universally-recognised figures like Alex Honnold or Tom Caldwell, but Mark Westman - a Park Ranger in Alaska - and Rolando Garribotti, a locals’ local from Patagonia who wrote the guidebook on many of the area’s most famous climbs.
Climbing for Pete, it seems, is a true labour of love. Something best enjoyed as far away from civilisation as possible, in the company of a few close friends. Patagonia, Alaska - why is it, I ask him, that he’s drawn to the remotest corners of the world? “I guess it's the feeling of isolation. Places that I've been to, like the Revelation Range, it makes the climbing feel a lot different. It's a lot lonelier than climbing somewhere like the Alps. You're really out on your own." And if that means having to tough it out when ice is falling on your head? Pete Graham wouldn’t have it any other way.
You can read about Pete's climbs in more detail on his blog.