Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Nick Bullock Interview | How The Alpinist Escaped His Life As A Prison Officer

British climber Nick Bullock has spent more time in prison than some murderers

Illustration: Olivia Jorgensen. 

“I cradled the man’s head in my hands. His hair was wet. Blood seeped between my fingers. Strings of cerebral fluid hung from his ears and nose. Grey sticky stuff dripped from my knuckles. Sprawled on the floor, the inmate writhed.”

So begins Echoes, the debut book from acclaimed British alpinist Nick Bullock, who at the age of 37 left behind his career of 15 years as a Prison Officer to live in a small green van and travel between Llanberis, Wales and Chamonix in the French Alps to climb full time.

“The price for the hit was twenty quids’ worth of crack cocaine”

The prologue to Echoes goes on to explain that “a contract had been taken out on the inmate” by a dealer who trained with the victim, until he had found out he was a paedophile.

“The price for the hit was twenty quids’ worth of crack cocaine,” Bullock writes. “The dealer had needed to save face.”

Close to the summit of Denali. Credit: Andy Houseman

The hit happened in the gymnasium of the high security Gartree Prison, while Nick was on shift as the P.E instructor.

Having read that opening passage, you’re probably not too hard pushed to imagine why Nick decided to leave the prison service. But it’s one thing leaving one career to pursue a different line of work. It’s another thing entirely to abandon everyday work at the age of 37, and the security and paychecks that comes with it, to live in a van and climb for the rest of your life.

“I’d paid my mortgage off so that was amazing,” Nick says. “A lot of people in life work all their lives to pay a mortgage off and a lot of people can’t even afford a house nowadays.

Taken on the first ascent of the North Buttress of Nyainqentangla South East. Credit: Paul Ramsden

“But I did have massive doubts. It was very stressful. There was a lot of ‘what am I doing? Am I making a mistake?’ but it was just something I felt I had to do. When you’re brought up to believe in a certain life, and you’ve got a house and you’ve got a job for the rest of your life, and that security, and then you leave that, it’s terrifying. When you’re brought up with that in life, that’s what you’re chasing – for all of your life.”

Bullock has since become a renowned, audacious climber. He’s made multiple first ascents in the Scottish winter, the Greater Ranges and the Alps. He received a Pilot d’Or – an “Oscar of mountaineering” – along with partner Paul Ramsden for their ascent of Nyainqentangla South East in Tibet, China in 2016, via the North Buttress. UK Climbing called the seven-day expedition “a leap of faith on an unclimbed peak in a virtually unknown valley”.

“I used to go to work in the morning and I would sit there in the car park and almost drive away. I found it so stressful”

But the climbing didn’t start for Nick with 7046m mountain faces in China, of course. It was while training to become a Physical Education instructor in the Prison Service that Bullock first discovered rock climbing, and his love for being outdoors and on the wall.

“I had been trained as a prison officer when I was 21 and 22 years old, and then I was a prison officer working on the landings for about four and a half years. In that time I started going into the gymnasium and discovered that I could do gymnastics,” he says.

Nick Bullock doing bits in Wales. Credit: Ray Wood

“I was really unfit and I was basically getting close to alcoholism and smoking loads so it took me a long time to train to do the P.E course at the prison. You take a year out and it costs about £28,000 to train a P.E instructor, so it was a big commitment for the prison and the prison service to do that. I was about 26 or 27 years old when I got in the course, and it was during those three weeks in North Wales where I discovered climbing.

“It was when I qualified as a P.E instructor in 1992 that I knew I just wanted to go climbing and that I wanted to be a climber.”

“Some murderers did less time in the prison than I did in there”

I ask what impact working in a high security prison for such a long period of time has on a person.

“It had a lot of impact on me,” Nick admits. “Especially when I was a prison guard before qualifying [as a P.E instructor], it had a massive impact, because I worked down the punishment block for 18 months at Gartree, and it was horrific. I was probably about 24 then and we were fighting most days. It was a horrible time. I used to go to work in the morning and I would sit there in the car park and almost drive away. I found it so stressful.

Credit: Paul Ramsden

“A P.E instructor is the best job in the prison service really, but it’s still stressful, because when you’re interacting with people in a jail everyday, you’re always going to get something happening at some point of varying degrees.

“I became quite insular and separated when I was working loads. I would just go home at night and lock myself away really. I didn’t really see much of anybody else.”

The solitary nature of the job is made imminently clear in Bullock’s writing, particularly in Echoes.

Nick on Defenders of the Faith (IX/9), Scotland. Credit: Andy Nelson

While the stories of climbing are often laugh-out-loud funny, and the passion for the sport and the lifestyle is clear, the tales of prison stories often read as stressful and exhausting. The language of Bullock in these passages is the language of an inmate, someone who is trapped. There is frequent talk of “sentences”, “freedom” and Bullock’s need to “escape”.

I ask if this is just appropriate word choice or if such a length of time working in a prison makes you view the world in those terms.

“Not everyone can do what I’ve done and not everyone will have the opportunity.”

“It certainly was word choice to some extent,” he says, “but definitely, it felt… you know, some murderers did less time in the prison than I did in there. It definitely felt like it was a bit of a sentence and it did make you feel along those lines at times.

“It did make you feel like at times you were doing more time than some of the people you were looking after, so it came naturally to use that type of language. I wanted to get those things across.”

Kyashar, Nepal. Credit: Andy Houseman

For Nick, the cathartic nature of writing is one of the main reasons his books exist at all, something that comes across clearly in the honest, at times blunt writing style in both Echoes and his second book, Tides, which was just released in November.

“I love writing,” he says. “I find it very cathartic. Writing, I couldn’t believe how cathartic it was and how much you had to start looking into yourself. If you’re writing honestly you really have to look at yourself and look at why you do things and that was very cathartic.”

“A big bag of Super Skunk”

In Tides, as in Echoes, this catharsis manifests itself within the first page. The prologue of Tides focuses on a question Bullock once heard his father ask: “do we live too long?”

I ask Nick, why open with that line?

Credit: Paul Ramsden

“It’s a damn good question, and it gets people thinking,” he says. “At what stage in life have you lived too long, and have you lived the quality of life that you wanted? If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a good quality of life, or made one, then is there ever a point where you’ve lived too long? There possibly isn’t. But if you’re not happy, then maybe there is.

“The second book is about life and choices and giving people hope. The first book was criticised a little by some people, and rightly so, because there’s a thread: I couldn’t understand why other people who had that opportunity to go and make these choices in life didn’t. But there are so many things going on and you can’t judge people’s lives.

“There are always special moments that make life worthwhile”

“I was being quite critical. And people did pick up on that and they were right in saying “well I’ve got children and I’m happy”. The second book addresses that and I hope it gives hope to everybody, however their lives are lived. There are always special moments that make life worthwhile. There will always be people whose life is a hell of a struggle.

“Not everyone can do what I’ve done and not everyone will have the opportunity.”

Nick is no stranger to taking on the Scottish winters. Credit: Tim Neil

Tides certainly captures just how much Bullock’s life has changed since the prison days. One particularly memorable story centres on a moment Nick and two others were stopped by a police roadblock on their way to a climbing session at the Great Orme in Wales.

With one of the climbers announcing to the others that they had brought “a big bag of Super Skunk” and “put it under the seat”, the trio were understandably anxious about the blockade. Try as they might to persuade themselves that the police wouldn’t bother to search their car for drugs, the story leads to one of the laugh out loud passages of the book:

“A police van had pulled up and a dog jumped from the back wearing a yellow coat, and on the dog’s coat in big black lettering was a word, and unless the dog’s name was SNIFFER, I had the feeling we were fucked.”

It’s one of many fantastic, fascinating stories in the book, and leads naturally onto a question about how Nick looks at the extreme contrast between his current day to day and his past life.

Pictured: Nick Bullock

“It’s crazy,” he says. “I’ve now reached the point where I’ve been full time climbing and writing longer than I was a Prison Officer. Just over 15 years. And it is a very surreal thing. My life is just completely the opposite now and I’m hopefully a much better person for it too.”

Nick never was able to use the climbing training he received on his prison P.E course to take inmates from the high security jails up walls of course – “you’d be reading about it on the front page of the Daily Mail if I did!” – but he does speak passionately about the benefits of outdoor activities for prisoners, and the lessons that he learned himself as a prison guard.

I ask if, had Nick got a less stressful job to begin with, he believes he would have still ended up living the van life, and travelling the world as a climber.

“All I can say is that I do actually value that prison service because it did give me climbing and it did give me a good wage and it allowed me to save money and pay my mortgage off, and I also got a lot of time off, even when I was working full-time, so I was doing a lot of climbing and even Himalayan trips even when I was in the prison service.

“For me personally, climbing is open spaces, it’s freedom”

“I had made a security for myself, owning the house and not having any debts, which gave me the freedom to then go and pursue a life that I wanted to explore.

“[Working as a prison guard] made stressful, risky situations on the rock and in the mountains actually not feel as bad as they were too, because what I was facing at work a lot of the time, for me, was more stressful. I got to a certain level of coping with stress and every time I went out on rock and in the mountains it just felt like a relief and enjoyable really.

“For me personally, climbing is open spaces, it’s freedom, it’s the ability to get up in the morning and go out and do something where I don’t quite know how the day is going to end.”

For Bullock, the retired prison guard, it often comes back to freedom, and the unpredictability of a life spent not just outside of a prison, but outside the realms of all security, whether that be in a van, on a rock face in Wales, or halfway up a little known mountain wall in China.

You May Also Like

The Tony Alva Interview | Drugs, Death, and Dogtown

Grief, Mountains & Light | Sir Chris Bonington on How Climbing Saved Him


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.