Climber Leo Houlding hit the headlines this summer for his family holiday with a difference. Now back home in Cumbria, he is inspiring a new generation of adventurers after a lifetime of incredible feats
It was a simple enough request; “Mum, can I go and see David?” The thing is, it wasn’t the David next door as the mother of the then two-year-old Leo Houlding had presumed, it was the David in the next village.
One panicked search later and Leo was found toddling by the side of the road two miles away from his rural home in Bolton, near Appleby, unperturbed and wondering what all the fuss was about.
It proved to be his first taste of adventure sparking a passion that continues today as he celebrates his landmark 40th birthday.
“I was always adventurous and a bit mischievous,” recalls Leo, who now lives in Staveley, near Kendal, with his wife Jessica and their children, seven-year-old Freya and three-year-old Jackson. “I was always out den building, making dams, climbing trees. I went through a Greek mythology period thinking I was Theseus, who killed the Minotaur. My dad was a carpenter and made me a sword. Unfortunately, one day, he jumped out to try and scare me and I knocked him out with it. He chopped it in half after that.”
At the age of nine Leo was inspired by stories he heard from his father’s friend Malcolm Cundy. “He was a father, a builder and a husband, but first and foremost he was a climber who had spent his whole life around this extreme counterculture.
“I was enthralled by his stories of amazing mountains that looked like something out of a fairytale or Lord of the Rings, astonishing places hardly known by the general public. So I badgered him to take us both rock climbing and he eventually agreed, taking us up Burrells Rock, near Appleby, from which point I never looked back.”
From there Leo began to make his own adventure stories which can start from the seemingly simple task of making a cup of tea.
“It’s such a pain,” he says. “You have to set up your stove, prime and light it without burning down your tent – if you get that bit wrong you can die because if you are caught without shelter in the Antarctic you won’t survive for very long.
“Then you need water. If it is from snow, then it has to be the right kind of snow. When we were in the rainforest of Guyana we camped near the big wall of the Prow of Roraima, a huge tepui (table-top mountain), we were planning to climb – but the nearest water was two miles away. Eight people for two weeks? That’s hundreds of litres of water and a lot of miles. But we found a wet mossy rock face and cut a channel in it so the water would leach out and collect on a tarpaulin. It was brown and tasted horrible so we had to filter it – just to make a cup of tea.
“These are the things you notice when you come home from an expedition, clean water comes out the taps, the kettle is an amazing invention and of course you have the luxury of a shower and a roll top bath.
“We’ll go away for weeks or a whole season and not be able to clean properly. You just zone out from the smell. But I do now make sure I have a ‘travel set of clothes’. I remember getting back to civilisation after a six-week expedition in the Arctic. I went for a shower but when I walked back into the room I was hit by a wall of smell and had to wear the same clothes which were minging.”
After securing good grades at Appleby Grammar School, Leo left home at 15 and moved to North Wales to study his A Levels, lasting only the first term. “I wanted to be a professional rock climber and my parents were really supportive saying they would give me a year to try and make it work,” he says. “They paid my rent of £25 a week for a place in Llanberis [in Snowdonia] for that year and it all went really well.”
Aged 17 he came to the attention of Sunderland-based equipment specialist Berghaus, which has sponsored him ever since. “It is a great British brand with some proper heritage and the fact I’ve been with them more than 20 years says a lot for the product. Where better to design waterproofs than the North of England, where we have our fair share of rain?
“In the early years I didn’t need that much money. Climbing is cheap. You live in a tent most of the time, you don’t need a car and you eat pasta with tomato sauce. It’s a modest lifestyle, really. It’s a means to an end and you find the money so you can go rock climbing all the time.”
It was a profession that even helped him find love. “I needed some more chalk and went to a climbing shop in Ambleside – where I met Jessica. We’ve been together more than 20 years now.”
This summer Leo, Jessica and their children made national headlines and appeared across television news programmes for their extreme family holiday.
“We’d been planning an excursion into the wilderness of the Wind River Range, Wyoming this summer but due to USA travel restrictions we changed plans to a campervan trip around the Alps,” explains Leo. “The north ridge of the Piz Badile is unique in its astounding quality, great length and lack of objective hazards. I was confident that if we had a stable weather window, we could make a family ascent and lucked out that the good spell saw us summit on my 40th birthday.
“Watching the dawn above the clouds, surrounded by everything I love the most was magical. It was a very special family adventure – as important and memorable as anything that I have done before.”
By reaching the top of the 10,853ft peak, Jackson may have become the youngest person to stand on the summit of Piz Badile, just as his father claimed an important accolade when he was 11 and scaled the Old Man of Hoy, a 450ft vertical sea stack in Orkney.
“We did get some negative comments about taking the children but they were outweighed ten to one by the positive ones saying what an amazing opportunity for the kids. People don’t realise how capable children are.”
For Leo, it’s a measured and controlled risk worth taking as he seeks a life of exploration in faraway places.
“Some people may fly over some of these places, others may visit for a day or two. We go for months and immerse ourselves in the landscape, in the storms, the sunrises, the seasons. That’s the reason I enjoy climbing so much.
“Some of the places we go no one has been before. In north east Greenland there’s the Mirror Wall which fewer than 100 people have ever visited. We spent six weeks there on our own where we were outnumbered by polar bears. We set up perimeter alarms and had loaded rifles as the bears stand 5ft at the shoulder, 11ft when they are on their hind legs and can run at 40kph. They normally eat seals but have been known to stalk and attack humans when they are hungry and we saw fresh tracks, which was alarming.”
Life really has taken Leo in all directions. He even appeared on Top Gear racing Jeremy Clarkson, who had to wind 60 miles to the top of a 1,200ft mountain in the South of France in a high-powered Audi RS4 before Leo could scale the same peak vertically. Base jumping from the top was a mere cursory detail and great TV.
“I have organised dozens of major expeditions, many of which have been world leading endeavours,” he says. “It’s a lot of work. You can’t guarantee a safe and successful outcome with meticulous planning, but you can be assured of failure or worse if you get it wrong.
These trips cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and I have to raise all the money. The swashbuckling adventurer is only half the story, I spend more time at home in the office pouring over spreadsheets like an accountant than I do out in the field.
“You have to sell the concept to possible sponsors – a marketing campaign, social media content, a film or photography – but it is on a promise that might not be delivered because of unforeseen circumstances. The weather might be rubbish and you don’t come back with the images you had hoped for. There’s a lot of goodwill needed from an expedition partner and I reserve the right not to continue if I don’t think it’s safe to do so.”
But his successful forays have seen him on the summit of Everest, crossing 1,000 miles using snow-kites carrying 200+kg loads at speeds of up to 60kmph to climb the Spectre in Antarctica, finding new routes and first ascents including The Prophet on El Capitan in Yosemite, on remote Antarctica peaks Ulvetanna and Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, all the time thriving on the experience, sharing it with others and helping develop key innovations in Berghaus’s range of performance outdoor clothing, packs and footwear.
As the company’s key brand ambassador he sits alongside fellow Cumbrian based climbers Sir Chris Bonington and Anna Taylor, with whom he climbs.
As Leo’s reputation and fame have grown, other sponsorship and endorsement deals have followed, including one with Kendal firm Whitby & Co, and the portfolio of leading outdoor brands that it distributes such as Leatherman, Princeton Tec and Klean Kanteen.
With expeditions on hold because of the global pandemic, Leo’s focus is closer to home as he considers chronicling his adventures by writing a book.
“As I said, I’ve just turned 40 and am starting to forget things that happened when I started out 25 years ago,” admits Leo, who is a trustee of the Outward Bound Trust, which last year introduced 30,000 young people from mainly underprivileged, urban backgrounds to the joy of outdoor action.
“I have always encouraged everyone to engage with adventure at any level and I’m very proud to be taking a mentoring role and sharing some of what I’ve learned with the next generation of adventure climbers – and of course my own kids.
“But I am a lazy perfectionist and might find completing a book difficult, though the stories, I’m sure, would be inspiring. I am part of a generation who have done a lot of amazing stuff and they are not all with us anymore. When we were in Yosemite we were known as the Stone Monkeys and half of them have been killed in accidents. Three good mates have died recently base jumping and I haven’t done it since Freya was born – but I haven’t got rid of my gear either.
“The thing is no one from this era has written much down. Literature has always been a rich part of climbing culture, it’s pretty much its own genre. I almost feel a duty to record and share some of the incredible adventures I’ve been so privileged to enjoy with such wild characters in the most spectacular places you can imagine.”
So the boy’s own adventures will continue unabashed prompting two-year-olds in the future, no doubt, to make a simple enough request as they go in search of their own lifetime of adventure.