Me & Stevie
August 28, 2010
I noticed tonight when looking at my website stats (yes that is very sad) that a lot of searches that bring people to this site are via the words, Stevie Haston. I imagined the rage in the man, to know that people looking for him were, in fact, winding up with me*.
Stevie Haston - just his name strikes fear into my heart. He is my boggy man. A climbing monster. A creature. Myth. He’s also my hero.
The other day, while in a climbing shop with my kids, I picked up a copy of Climb magazine and on seeing a picture of Leo Houlding I said ‘hay kids do you recognise who this is?”, The reason being that last time I’d described Leo as a climber, my daughter had corrected me that he was, in fact, a base jumper. On seeing the picture, Ella frowned and in front of a lot of people said: “God dad, you’re obsessed with Leo Houlding, can you stop going on about him all the time!”
You see I do have a tendency to become a bit obsessed with stuff, and sometimes with people (although I’d say in my defence that I’m not that obsessed with Leo). That list included nice people who I bear a grudge against (Bear Grylls and Ben Fogle), and others - that will remain nameless - who I just find fascinating. But one of these, and maybe the climber I’ve been fascinated by the longest is Stevie Haston. You could say I’m his biggest fan… but not in stalking in a ‘Play misty for me’ way.
Climbing’s changed so much in such a short time. This change isn’t due to climbing technology, or training, or travel, but down to communication. “Everything that is known can be known by everyone”. Nothing is too small to be shared, be it tip, news, rumour or image. The internet allows a climber in Chile to know what gear he may need on Vector, while a climber in Oban can download a topo of a jungle wall in Brazil. The only things that are unknown are things that are yet to happen, or things that have yet to be recorded (but eventually they probably will).
When I started, there was only High, Climber and Mountain, cringingly unsophisticated by comparison with a magazine like today’s Climb, with their small, poor quality black and white pictures, or out of focus colour ones, the text is written in an old school manner, meaning everything was underplayed. Back then the first ascent of Indian Face got no more than a postage stamp picture and a postage stamp description, coverage that would fit in a single image caption to Dave Macleod’s fourth ascent. The only place where climbs came alive was in stories told, generally shared in crap but much loved climbing walls, and in pubs, at night while making a pint last until closing time. There is no journalism in storytelling, no place for any truth that interrupts the flow - interrupts what your heart desires to happen next. The tale is greater than the deed. This is where stories about Mick Fowler were told, Ron Fawcett, Andy Perkins and Johnny Dawes. I guess this is where I learnt to tell my own, or at least have adventures like theirs.
And so the landscape of what was known was patchy, with few history books to tell you what had happened, let alone what was happening, and virtually no climbing media (the only climbing films were VHS videos of Leo Dickinson movies). And so a picture would have to be built up using all available means, mainly books, magazines and stories, and more often than not the best source of knowledge was simply looking at the first ascent list in guidebooks.
I loved learning all the links within climbing, climbs and the people who made them and repeated them, their relationships with each other, their triumphs and secrets, joining it up, discovering the map of British climbing.
Just as football is more than kicking a ball, climbing is more than pull-ups, and it is this which makes it more than a sport.
Back when Stevie was only known by people who knew Stevie, or had heard the many wild tales about him, or bent over some face or cliff - guide book in hand - and marvelled at the madness of the man. But Stevie was always more than just the climbs he did.
He was world-class, and he knew it, yet felt trapped in mundanity, ignored, passed over for lesser men. I also think he was the type of man who revelled in being a dark horse, and his ego was both offended by the lack of fame, but too big to seek it. And yet if you had top trumps in climbers, and you knew about climbing, then Stevie Haston was a card you’d want to have.
The first time I saw Stevie in the flesh was at a slideshow at the Foundry in Sheffield. It was a cold evening, and the wall had the ambience of a bucket, not helped by the size of the audience. We cowered in Stevie’s presence - a knot of a man, in jeans and a fleece, hair tied back, an exotic creature just in from Chamonix, a spring coil. He looked like he could be touring with some 70’s supergroup - or tango dancing in Buenos Aires - but you knew he was special. The small audience felt Stevie’s rage as if their very presence was an indictment to the lack of love the rest of Sheffield had Stevie. It was as if God himself had chosen Sheffield as the first night of his one-man show, but no one had turned up. But then that’s just Sheffield.
For an hour and a half Stevie railed against the French, the Scots, the English, signalling out Jean-Christophe Lafaille for extra special treatment, describing how he made the second ascent of Lafaille’s hardest mixed route - then soloed it. You got the impression that if Stevie had died doing it, then it would have been worth it, just as long as he got his chance to prove he was the alpha male.
At the end of the talk, Stevie barked a command for questions, at which point heads were withdrawn into necks. It was like being asked for volunteers for a suicide mission. I put up my hand.
“Ummm” I started, only to realise my mouth was so dry with fear no words dare show themselves.
“err hmmm” I continued, forcing in a squeaky voice “What climb are you most proud of?”
“Free soloing the Walker spur in winter” fumed Stevie “And no fucker knows about it”.
After that night Stevie was my hero.
The problem with Stevie is that he was born about twenty years too early, which in many ways was a blessing. If he’d been the Dave Macleod of today, he’d no doubt of got himself killed, as often it’s a lack of money that keeps you out of harm’s way, rather than skill and judgement. Never the less I guess Stevie knew that although he was playing in the premier division, he was living on a fourth division level of sponsorship. It was when climbing began to change that Stevie broke out of his bondage of obscurity and made a break for the limelight.
The first time I met Stevie face to face was in Outside. He didn’t meet me though - I was just some till monkey. He was in a bad mood about something. Seemed angry, ready to kick-off, but it was like meeting a pissed Shane Macgowan, he was everything I’d expected him to be. He was at the height of his fame, the mixed master in bendy boots and power stretch tights - well in photos anyway.
He was fingering some crampons when I stalked up to him and said - without introduction - “What do you think El Niño would do in the Alps this winter” wondering if this South American weather pattern could affect conditions. Turning with a face of fury - as if he was going to bash my teeth out, he said in a demanding voice “Who is he!?”, As if this unknown upstart El Niño could be a threat. I knew Stevie was an intelligent guy, so just put this down to a bad day or my Hull accent. But again, I wasn’t disappointed.
Things took a twist in this story of Stevie and me when I repeated Lafaille’s route on the Dru. Parnell and I got a lot of coverage - as we should - after all, it had been trumpeted as the hardest wall in the Alps the year before, and we were far from the hardest climbers. Maybe we stole some limelight, or the aid climbing offended him, but we felt the wrath of Stevie after that.
I’ve not seen Stevie again since then, but it always warms my heart to read about what he’s up to, always upsetting what is to be expecting, always pushing, pushing, pushing to be better, both himself and British climbing - he will always be the most extreme of extremists.
As for Stevie and me, someone told me he’d read my book and thought it was great, and I hope he writes his own soon, warts and all. It’s hard when your heroes hate you, But I hope when Stevie finds out that the seed of that repeat, of the Lafaille, was sown in his slideshow, that we’d set out to prove Stevie the better man, and that the Lafaille route wasn’t so hard, he’ll give me some slack. After all, I am his biggest fan.
*Stevie’s site is here, and is well worth visiting, especially if you like pedigree rabbits.