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In The Shadow Of Ben Nevis - Ian Sykes

30th Sep 2016

Ian Sykes is a guy you have probably never heard of. He's not climbed big grades or big mountains so he's never really featured in any of our magazines or websites. But he's now in his seventies and has written an autobiography. What might he have to tell us that's of interest if he hasn't achieved much? Rather a lot it seems.
He spent two years on the British Antarctic Survey as a dog sled driver, has climbed adventurous  (but not cutting edge) rock climbs all over the world, started up the outdoor chain Nevisport and ran it for 30 years, and was one of the masterminds and driving forces behind the Aonach Moor ski area. He has also spent much of his life on various mountain rescue teams in Scotland, and been responsible for a good few lives saved. Individually one could argue that each of these achievements, though impressive, is not beyond the realms of 'ordinary' folk, but when you combine them together into one lifetime, there's clearly a drive and ambition there that's worth reading about. Oh, he has also written another book, Cry Argentina, a semi-fictional account of the build up to the invasion of South Georgia in the Falklands war.
Many moons ago when I was just starting out in climbing Ian paid us a visit in Snowdonia. He knew my folks as they grew up in the same era when everybody knew everybody in the climbing world, and also did business together, my folks supplying Nevisport with goods for their craft shop. It was October. I was, I think, 19 or 20, my brother 3 years younger. We decided to head up to Cloggy as a foursome, my Dad making up the numbers. Who's decision it was to go to a North facing crag in October I can't remember, but it was cold and wet. My Dad opted not to join us on Great Slab, VS - it looked horrible and greasy. So it proved to be as Spike, as we and others  knew him, lead off up the first pitch, slipped, broke his ribs on his gear he was carrying on a bandolier over his shoulder, and retreated. We should have just headed home, but we were young and reckless, and he was adventurous even if in pain. I took the lead and we headed on up. We eventually topped out, climbing in the dark - we'd forgotten head torches - and used his car-phone (very snazzy back in the early 90's) to call off mountain rescue that my Dad had just mobilised. The following morning before he left for Fort William Spike gave me a size 2 rigid Wild Country Friend as a parting gift. I still have it.
Spikes book is full of such stories, though sadly mine didn't make it in ;-(. It follows the timeline of his life, and is broken into distinct chapters that focus on the elements described above. I particularly enjoyed the closing pages where he muses on changing times, feeling like a dinosaur, but maintaining his love of the great outdoors, and climbing in particular. Definitely worth a read if you enjoy climbing autobiographies, and fancy a change from those in the limelight.

Published and available at Vertebrate Publishing