Articles - “I can climb F8a until I’m 70.” The Climber Interview: Stevie Haston
Andy McCue - Posted on 21 Sep 2009
In truth I had been more than a little apprehensive about meeting Stevie, the mere mention of it to various people before I left consistently met with a “good luck with that” and a knowing look. While undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest all-round climbers he’s been relegated in recent years by many people to the role of pantomime villain and outcast because of his outspoken and bitter attacks against various ‘untouchables’ of the British – and world – climbing scene and their achievements. As Colin Wells puts it in Stevie’s entry in the Who’s Who in British Climbing: “Louder than a Trinity Lighthouse foghorn, as opinionated as a pissed Jeremy Clarkson, and more irritable than Julie Birchall with a period.”
Now aged 52, a granddad, and seemingly written off from his ‘80s peak after a serious snowboarding accident in 2003 Stevie thrust himself back into the spotlight last year after climbing F8c+ and declaring his intent to hit the magic F9a. Looking younger and leaner than his years, his punishing training regime keeps him in peak fitness and he’d put many of the young pretenders to shame with his athleticism and dedication. In fact Stevie reckons he could exceed his previous levels achieved in alpinism today.
Briefly revived by black coffee we head over to the Grotte de Sabart and Stevie ‘warms up’ on an F8a roof climb. “Your belaying’s crap,” shouts Stevie as I do my best to hamper his progress by failing to pay out enough slack at the appropriate moments. The Grotte is a spectacular cave in the hillside above Ariege with virtually nothing that isn’t horizontal. If the upside down stuff and big arms aren’t your bag this place isn’t for you. Now Stevie, still feeling rough, moves onto his F9a project and works a few of the desperate-looking moves. To create it he bolted an F9a/9a+ into an F8c+ with another link for 100 feet of roof climbing.
(Stevie Haston on Descente en Enfers (F8c+), Grotte de Sabart, aged 51. Photo: Laurence Gouault Haston)
“It doesn’t really matter about the numbers because the big deal about this route is it is a work of art. It’s a total work of art. It might make me really happy if I ever do it. I actually just like working bits of it. Every move is possible, every move has been done. At the moment I don’t seem to have enough power for the start, I have more stamina. I’d actually like to do it but equally there’s probably not the slightest chance which is why I thought I’d call it The Immaculate Conception, man, because it’s about as likely.”
He came close to doing it at one stage but says he probably needed another five months of training and to get his weight down from 75kg to 62kg. Without sponsorship, he says, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to devote the time and effort needed to achieve that. When he was training for his F8c+ route Descente en Enfer last year Stevie was doing 2,000 pull ups a day, doing sets of between five and 20 with rests in between for hours and hours and came close to doing the F9a section.
“At that kind of level I think I am seriously risking my health and I might look pretty fucking strange. I had already done nine months of solid training so I needed another five months.”
It’s a brutal training regime to lose his muscle bulk and get down to that sort of weight. “Last year I failed to get below 67kg. I get really ratty and horrible. You have to try and do the same training that you were doing when you were eating a lot of food but you have to do it on about 700 calories a day and your body then cannibalises some of the stuff that you don’t need. It will eat some of your thigh, which you don’t need for climbing. You get very ratty because 700 calories doesn’t allow very much carb.”
It helps that Stevie’s wife, Laurence Gouault – herself a renowned alpinist and mixed climber in her native country – is often also following some brutal training and dieting regime. “We’re both miserable twats but we’re used to being miserable, getting on each other’s nerves, so you try to help each other.”
It’s this obvious dedication to climbing that makes him so bitter. “It’s hard because I don’t get paid a lot of money and it’s really hard because no-one seems to understand the level of excellence you then reach. I really get fed up being treated like a complete c**t by people who are of a really low standard or who just don’t understand this kind of thing. It’s not being big-headed, it’s just having pride in your workmanship. I’m a pro.”
As a teenager brought up in a tough east London environment, Stevie’s own love affair with climbing began not on the gritstone edges of the Peak District but through “romantic bullshit” in Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless and other books by the great French alpinists.
“I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be like a French alpinist – superfit, superquick, supercompetent. I wanted to cop off with all the birds. I didn’t want to be like this understated English guy who climbs HVS with an oversized sack who took three times as long as everybody else.”
It began with Stevie heading to the Alps aged 16 and soloing winter routes before progressing onto harder stuff and then the Eiger in the late ‘70s.
“Everything was so rudimentary – the techniques, the equipment was terrible. I realised that it was just a big balls up. You had to cut through a lot of this crap, carry less and be much stronger and faster. It meant that you could do a three day route in three hours. It meant you had to go running and you had to be fit and you had to be competent. You had to be quite good at rock, you had to be quite good at ice and you had to be really brave. And, strangely enough, I am.”
Modesty, as you’re no doubt learning, isn’t one of Stevie’s natural traits but his tick list across all disciplines - trad, sport, ice, mixed, alpine – over more than three decades speaks for itself. Highlights include soloing the Walker Spur in winter in eight hours, going to the US and destroying what at the time were claimed to be the world’s hardest ice routes Octopussy (M8) and Amphibian (M9) and then, in 2000, putting up The Empire Strikes Back (M10+/M11). All the while still climbing at the top end of sport climbing – for a Brit.
Which neatly brings Stevie onto the current state of British climbing and what he claims in no uncertain terms is “the great E-grade scam”.
“What the fuck is that all about? You cannot have a trad route that you practice. These two things are contradictory. So automatically these E-grade routes aren’t E-grade routes because they are not trad any more. You cannot practice a trad route for two years and then do it. It becomes an exercise in sport, so you might as well give it a French grade or whatever grade you want but please don’t give it an E-grade. Are people really climbing above E7? From my position it just looks like the E-grade scam. We’re trading off this trad tradition, trying to tell the world we’re good at something when actually we’re second rate at rock climbing. I’m being very generous. So in some ways you can’t say that trad climbing in Britain has improved since the 1980s. It’s really dangerous ground because it sounds so disrespectful. Maybe it’s true.”
(Stevie Haston on the first ascent of The Empire Strikes Back (M11) in 2001. Photo: Laurence Gouault Haston)
Stevie and Laurence abandoned Chamonix for Ariege after seeing too many friends die in the competitive alpinism environment there.
“If you have that competitive ‘I want to be king of the mountain’ thing that went on in Chamonix you’re going to expect nearly everybody to die. And, you know, I’m actually pretty happy to be alive. That’s the reason we left Chamonix. It was to make sure Laurence or I didn’t die. I miss that but Laurence doesn’t. It’s nice being alive, it’s nice not being a cripple, it’s really nice being able to do F8as. I was really happy last year when I did my first F8b again and my first F8c. I thought it was never going to happen again.”
Aside from climbing, their daily life in sleepy and rural Ariege revolves around the many animals they breed.
“Laurence is very happy at the moment, she climbs F8a+, she’s got like 10 different breeds of chicken going. I’ve got really great champion rabbits. We are totally penniless. We can go climbing as much as we want because we’ve got some of the best crags in the world near us.”
With the likes of Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra and Paxti Usobiaga pushing the limits of sport climbing, how hard can we go?
“I’m very shocked at the level it’s reached now. I’m quite impressed with above F9a, it’s seriously good. That’s a gifted person who is very fit. And it’s the girl’s too. Girls who can do F8c+ and they style it. I’ve been on some of these routes these birds walk up and it’s humiliating. But I find it impressive and it makes me really happy.”
("You lookin' at me?" Stevie has a word with his prize rabbit Iggy. Photo: Laurence Gouault Haston)
And as for his own ambitions? There’s no pipe and slippers retirement planned just yet. “I think I can climb F8a until I’m 70, I really think that’s weirdly possible which would be as funny as hell – guy in his zimmer frame bursting out through a big roof and I might be skinnier by then.”
Stevie Haston on...
“People talk about British all-rounders and I’m not included on the list and they say ‘Stevie’s not British he lives in France’. How come everyone I know in Ariege does F8a? At F8b people don’t even bat an eyelid over here. At F8b you might as well say you were picking your nose this morning, they’re not even going to put down their morning paper. I know three professional gardeners here who have done F8c. It’s not the water we drink here. Don’t ask me why it doesn’t happen in Britain.”
“I was a very good boulderer. But it was like being good at tiddlywinks when you wanted to be world chess champion. I was one of the best boulderers in Britain – at least in the top five. I did the first 7c+ font boulder problem, maybe harder in 1978. There were quite a lot of people in Britain who were really fucking good. There was me, about three lads in Yorkshire, there was Cubby Cuthbertson in Scotland who did the first E7 in Britain.”
“Train hard, rest, don’t eat. It’s a power to weight thing. In fact it’s a weight to powerful fingers thing. It’s not rocket science. Laurence went from F6a to F8a+. Any man or woman can climb F8a within a year in my opinion. All they have to do is everything in their power to do that and not get injured.”
“A pro athlete is a performer. A pro athlete who isn’t paid is a poor clown. If I was going to die I wanted to die with some money in my pocket. In 78 and the 1980s this wasn’t possible. So I thought, fuck it, what’s the point? When I re-entered the sport when I went to live in Chamonix in 1990 there was money there and I thought, as I’m the best, I want some of it. If they pay me a lot of money I will perform better. That’s a fair exchange for me.”