Articles - Interview: Rab Carrington
Rab Carrington. Photo: Tim Glasby
John Horscroft - Posted on 05 Aug 2010
I had good reason to be more than averagely nervous about interviewing Rab Carrington. A few years ago, involved in the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) Peak Area Meeting and anxious to find a new volunteer for the National Council, I ended up spending an evening with Rab, ostensibly to assess his suitability for the task. Fat chance. Turning the tables, Rab wanted to know exactly how the BMC worked, what his role would be and how much time it would take. I ended up giving an impromptu half hour lecture on the structure and mission of the BMC.
A man of fierce intellect, Carrington doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is, in the best possible way, a bit of a tough cookie. The same steely determination that saw him summit Yerupaja in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru, climb The Pinch on the Etive slabs way back in the '60s and redpoint F8a shortly before his 60th birthday also created an iconic climbing equipment brand. Climbing isn’t short of renaissance men, but how many boast such a CV?
So diverse is Carrington’s life, I suggest it seems fitting to break it down into separate eras - Alpine Rab, Business Rab and Sport Rab. There’s a chuckle before he answers: “Well, yes, maybe Irresponsible Rab, Business Rab and Retired Rab is nearer the mark. My alpine career coincides with meeting Al Rouse, he was the catalyst. Up to then I’d been a fairly decent rock climber but Al had further horizons and we built up a real partnership because he had some great ideas and I was the pragmatist.
With pretty much only a copy of Rene Desmaison's 342 hours on the Grande Jorasses in hand they headed out to Chamonix in December 1974 wondering what to expect.
Carrington admits he and Rouse didn’t even know how cold it was going to be: “So we walked up to the Aiguille Rouge to bivvy and try it out. Next we did an easy route called, I think, the Col de la Jardinière, then the Gervasutti Pillar.” Their progression was rapid and included an ascent of the Aiguille des Pelerins (ED).
In 1975/76 they went to South America and climbed in Patagonia, Bolivia and Peru. Already the margins were getting slimmer and slimmer as they stuck to the alpine ideal of lightweight climbing. “We were travelling light, allowing ourselves minimal bivvies because speed was everything. We’d pack a rucksack then almost immediately start discarding stuff, taking only three days’ food, limited gear, two ropes. On Rondoy we were many days out when we encountered terrible snow. We couldn’t retreat so we continued, summited and ended up doing a desperate traverse of the ridge. It had been climbed once by the London School of Economics who described it as the most dangerous thing they’d ever done.
"We climbed Jannu, a very complicated mountain, in Nepal with Roger Baxter Jones and Brian Hall in two pairs for greater safety, and at one point Al and I were discussing whether to retreat, turned round and there was the rope snaking out, Roger having already set off. We thought, 'Oh shit!' but we had to follow. If the weather had turned bad, we were dead because there wasn’t a climber within a hundred miles, nobody knew we were there.”
Not only was the climbing becoming increasingly untenable, but Carrington and Rouse were growing apart. Rouse was increasingly seduced by publicity and big expeditions, anathema to Carrington, and in 1979 the two went their separate ways.
Rab Carrington. Photo: Tim Glasby
The birth of Rab
With a new born daughter and no job came the next manifestation - Business Rab. "Luckily, I’d been staying with a guy called Hector Vieytes in Buenos Aires. He manufactured sleeping bags so I offered to help out to thank him for his hospitality. Seven years later I started making them for myself, initially in the attic of our house, feathers drifting down the stairs.”
The Rab brand eventually became the equipment of choice for many climbers. Carrington sold it later and while he doesn't miss the stress of running a business, he does miss the people. "They are both the best and worst of being in business, but they did me proud. I’d be planning a new product so I’d say to the machinists, ‘How do you do this’ and they’d show me. When the opportunity came to sell, frankly, it was a relief. I couldn’t face the thought of moving to a Chinese manufacturing base. I’m glad that the company is still going, that many of those who worked for me are still employed. There was value not just in the brand but in the personnel.”
Carrington is patently loyal, not just to his ex-staff but also to his climbing partners. He’s been climbing with Martin Boysen since 1981, which brings us neatly to Retired Rab, perhaps a spurious designation because there is an unchanging core to Rab Carrington’s life. His affection for rock climbing is undiminished after all these years and his Presidency of the BMC lends his career a pleasing circularity, a chance to repay the debt he feels he owes climbing.
What captivates him about climbing? “There are broadly three aspects. There’s a beauty in the actual move, a great pleasure in finding an easy way to do something difficult. Secondly, there’s the beauty of the situation. Climbing takes you to some wonderful places whether it’s Stanage or a remote part of Venezuela. And last but definitely not least, the friendship. If you can get two of the three at any one time, it’s a good day out.”
The 'good old days'
Carrington may have plied his trade in a different era but he has no truck with any notion of 'the good old days'. “It wasn’t better in the old days it was just different! I’m lucky enough to be climbing with Steve McClure a lot, he climbs at one level, me at another, but our reasons for climbing are broadly the same. I’m inspired by Steve and many other young climbers. Ethics are stronger now than they’ve ever been. Obviously we can’t change what they were in the past, they fitted the time and equipment that was available.”
Not that Carrington is dismissive of the old days. “We did some incredibly silly things climbing onsight. When I did The Pinch on Etive Slabs, all I knew was that Jimmy Marshall had tried it. It was a 200-foot pitch and I set off with a 150-foot rope, I had no idea if there was any gear and I remember thinking if it all goes wrong, I can jump down onto Agony Corner, which was madness because it was fully 20 feet away! Sadly we’ve lost sight of traditional climbing in the press. It’s not newsworthy for someone to do a ground-up E6 placing the runners but a head-pointed E8 is. There’s a media fascination with numbers.”
F8a aged 60
The move to sport climbing is indicative of one other inevitable consequence of advancing years. “I’m not as brave as I used to be so the climbing challenge has changed," he says. "Redpointing is very demanding, climbing as hard as you can followed by the psychological challenge of the clean redpoint. I was very lucky to climb F8a because I was on a winning streak. I went to Malham where I’d only ever climbed the trad routes on the wings and found a whole new catalogue of climbs were available. Every week, it was a new F7a or F7a+. A year of that was followed by a couple of F7c’s, an F7c+ and then New Age Traveller (F8a), which only took three days. Strangely, I’m convinced I was a better climber in 1974 than I am now and I’m sure people underestimate how hard people were climbing back in the day. Go to Stanage now and it’s rare to see anyone doing the hard routes put up in the '70s. There’s a clear move to specialisation. When I started climbing, you rock climbed in the spring, went to the Alps, came back, did more rock climbing and then in the winter it was walking or Scotland. Livesey and Fawcett arrived on the scene and went rock climbing all year round. The rest of us said, bloody hell, of course you can climb hard if you climb all year round! Now there’s even more specialisation. Bouldering is a sport of its own.”
Carrington is patently relaxed about the direction modern climbing is taking. “There’s a pleasing democratisation of climbing – look at the walls, full of women and, increasingly, ethnic minorities.”
Last April, the election of the BMC President was, for the first time in living memory, a genuine contest between Carrington and Doug Scott. Did he feel the hustings had been a positive experience for the BMC? “It’s fabulous that more people know who the president is now than ever before and I even get recognised at the crag. The process of selecting the president is much more drawn out than most people imagine. The progression tends to be from vice president (VP) to president. We tend to select VPs to reflect different skills and different attitudes to climbing. We have Pat Littlejohn, a professional guide and a strong traditionalist who has the most fantastic CV of first ascents. We have Audrey Seguy who manages a climbing wall, is incredibly efficient and, not least, is female. We have Rehan Siddiqui, established climber of a certain vintage with good business acumen and he’s also of Asian extraction. Ideally one of them will progress into the presidency.”
What did he think of the labels that were quickly ascribed to him and his rival? “Doug was put forward as the great traditionalist and I was characterised as the person keen on sport climbing and comps, coaching etc. However, that’s probably a distortion of the truth. While I may be ‘broader church’ than Doug, I’m also a strong supporter of traditional climbing. I’d also spent time being VP learning the ropes, something Doug would have had to do if he’d won. The president can be a figurehead, turn up on the day, chair meetings, press the flesh and nothing else or go in every week, spend a day at the office, know all the staff. I felt I was better placed to do that.”
Was his business acumen a factor? “It wasn’t essential that the incoming president was somebody with a business background because the BMC had hauled itself back from the abyss that was Rheged [National Mountaineering Museum], it’s now on a firm financial footing. However, we need to keep it that way.”
Carrington adds that the BMC also needs to make itself relevant to the enormous numbers of walkers and climbers who still don't think the BMC is worth joining, plus the 30,000 club members who have felt ignored for too long.
So maybe the latest manifestation of Rab is Inclusive Rab. He’s patently still in love with mountaineering, possessed of an almost evangelical zeal for the sport. The BMC finds itself with a powerful champion, a man steeped in tradition yet utterly in tune with modern climbing. Genuinely a man for all seasons.