[Photo] Chris Van Leuven
While attending the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah, on January 21-24, I sat down with Stevie Haston, the fiercely strong British climber known as much for his standard-setting ascents across the genres as for his often blunt-spoken manner. As a child, Haston grew up in London, England, and on the isle of Malta, south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. “These two are opposites: one is just cliff and one is just buildings; I climbed on both,” Haston said.
In 1978, he moved 238 miles away from London to Llanberis in North Wales, a “village that has produced some of the greatest climbers in British climbing from Joe Brown onwards,” Haston said. Today he lives on the island of Gozo, thirteen miles north of Malta where he first learned to climb. “I’m a Londoner. I’m a Cockney. I’m London scum,” was one of the first things he told me. Haston is known for his bold routes on loose rock and his intense training regimen, which at one time consisted of 2,000 pull-ups and 3,000 push-ups a day. Although these days he rarely does such systematic training, every month he’ll still whip out a big session of 1,000 to 1,500 pull-ups. We were there to talk about his love for the Utah desert.
In the 1970s Haston started climbing on Malta’s loose sea cliffs and was a pioneer on the UK slate. He began soloing hard routes but slowed down after his friends Jimmy Jewell, in 1987, and Derek Hersey, in 1993, died from ropeless falls. Over the years, Haston has completed the second British winter ascent of the Eiger Nordwand (1979); established eight routes that have since crumbled into dust, including the offwidths Fear of Rejection (5.12a) and Lost Castle (5.13c); established the first Scottish Grade IX, Terminator at Crag Du in Wales; put up the first M10/M11, The Empire Strikes Back, at Val d’Aosta, Italy; and climbed three or four 9as (5.14d), depending on whether they hold the grade. He also put up Cannabis in the French Pyrenees, a 70-meter 8a rock climb to an M8 ending on Scottish Grade VI+ terrain.
[Photo] Berthold Werner
Ever since reading Haston’s account of the first free ascent of the 1,000-foot Titan, via the Sundevil Chimney (5.13a), in Utah’s Fisher Towers in Alpinist 8 (Autumn 2004), I’ve been inspired to try to free climb those dusty, crumbly spires.
During the interview, Haston said that the routes at his Maltese home crag are on such bad rock that climbing in the Fishers feels normal to him. “Malta has some of the best rock and some which makes the Fisher Towers rock look like granite,” he said. The Fishers, with their decomposing Cutler sandstone, are considered the muddiest, loosest and scariest towers in the United States. Over several years, I’ve attempted three different free routes and struck out all three times, though I did manage to reach the summits using a mix of free and aid.
The day before we officially sat down to talk, I met Haston at the Grivel booth and we rapped informally about climbing and his upbringing. Haston wore a harness with dangling carabiners. Some of his early climbing memories were watching “dwarf fisherman with giant forearms” soloing large, loose cliffs with a bucket of fish in one arm while they clutched the rock with other. They were free soloing to get pigeons and pigeon eggs, up lines on which roped, technical rock climbers might struggle.
The next day, we found a table tucked inside the Liberty Mountain booth, and as people reached around us for small giveaway items, Haston, wearing a snug-fitting yellow T-shirt, talked while I typed. He was cleanly shaven and wore reading glasses pushed up on his forehead.
Alpinist: How old are you now?
Stevie Haston: 57 going on 58. I’m ancient, man. I’ve seen mammoth.
Alpinist: How long have you been climbing?
[Photo] Denis Egan
SH: It’s my forty-fifth year of proper-rope climbing. Without a rope, probably fifty years.
Alpinist: Tell me about your early climbing years.
SH: North of where I grew up, the fishermen climbed the rocks and have been for thousands of years. It’s not foreign. The rock there is brittle, and loose. It makes the Fisher Towers look really, really solid. They’re subsistence farmers there–if they saw a pigeon, they wanted to eat it. My family had forty pigeons flying around. My granddad did a bit of this. It seemed very natural to me. I can’t remember the first time [I went] up rocks.
At six or seven, I started fishing, pigeon hunting and bird nesting–catch and sell them. I was doing 100-foot barefoot soloing with a pigeon up my T-shirt. I got into roped climbing at fourteen. I never considered myself wild until I came here to the States. How can you be wild when sixty-year-olds are dancing longer than you?
Alpinist: What’s that scar on your arm from?
SH: There are scars everywhere. I have like hundreds of splits from ice, and a fucking weird one on my forehead. That was from smashing into the rock. There’s nothing in there [pointing to the inside of his head–Ed.], so I can’t get knocked out.
Alpinist: When did you first come to the States to climb towers?
SH: I came in ’96. I only came to America to visit the desert. I wasn’t interested in Yosemite.
Alpinist: Can you tell me about your free-climbing success in the Fisher Towers?
[Photo] Chris Van Leuven
SH: I freed the Hindu [nearby in Onion Creek] first–5.13a or might be 12d. Then I did a Tower called the Sail. It’s 5.12c or d and it’s probably X. It’s a very dodgy climb. [The climb’s bolts] are those really long nails, and I also used hooks for protection. That was really hard.
Then I freed the Titan [via Sundevil Chimney] and Phantom Sprint [on Echo Tower], but I failed on the Finger of Fate [on the Titan]; I used four points of aid.
I just bumped into Ben Bransby, who freed the Finger of Fate with Pete Robbins. I pointed them to it, and they did it. We’re all from the same village in North Wales. It wasn’t an American team [who first freed these routes]; it was these guys from this poxy village of 2,000 people.
After the Finger of Fate, I switched to the Sundevil. My girlfriend [Laurence Gouault] was fed up with being stuck in the shade. One route’s cold, and one’s warm.
I took two 60-foot falls on the first pitch of Sundevil. I had a small rack but had two big hooks. I fell 30 feet onto a hook and took another 30-footer onto a jammed nut key. I didn’t have any pegs. It had just gone hammerless by Andy Donson, a mate of mine, so I didn’t think I needed any pegs.
Alpinist: Tell me about your snowboarding crash in 2003.
SH: [After] I fell off my snowboard–going 60 mph–and had three operations, I was a bit buggered. I broke my knee, Achilles, broke my ankle and did damage to my lower back. It did affect my climbing; I wasn’t that great for a bit. Everything used to hurt. I had to do a lot of gym work to get going. I guess I’m fine now. At the moment I’m climbing 8a+ on the limestone in Malta. I’ll be doing a lot better soon.
Alpinist: Have you been trad climbing?
SH: I don’t climb much trad these days. Most trad is like a bicycle to me. It’s climbing harder than 13b on that is the problem.
Alpinist: Anything else you’d like to add?
SH: If you have any info on freeing Brer Rabbit [on Cottontail Tower in Fisher Towers] or any of those other towers out there, let me know. I wouldn’t mind doing another free route. I wouldn’t mind getting my trad rack out again. I’m planning to come back out this October.
Next week, alpinist.com will repost Haston’s story on freeing the Sundevil Chimney, from Alpinist 8.