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Fly On The Wall: Leo Houlding

Leo Houlding has been smashing world records since his teenage years. Aged 18, he became the youngest person to free climb Yosemite's El Capitan — one of the toughest walls in America. In 2005, he made the first free ascent of Cerro Fitzroy’s North Pillar in Patagonia. In 2010, it was completing The Prophet route on El Capitan in Yosemite, pegged as one of the hardest routes in the world. In 2013 he made the first ascent of a new route on what is thought to be the most technically demanding peak on the harshest continent — Ulvetanna, in Eastern Antarctica.

Now he is ascending The Spectre in Antarctica — a jagged granite spire that juts out of the world’s most remote mountain range, the Gothic Mountains — before traversing 1,200 miles across the continent by ski and kite. The area is beyond the reach of most independent expeditions, with the closest human habitation at the South Pole’s Amundsen base, 310 miles away. For 69 days he and his team — alpinist Jean Burgun and cameraman Mark Sedon — will be alone and unsupported. Our news editor, Olivia Lee, catches up with Leo prior to departure as he packs 73kgs of bespoke FIREPOT meals in his Lake District home.
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The Spectre team: Leo Houlding, Jean Burgen, Mark Sedon

If you could be a superhero, who would you be?
Wolverine — I’ve always been fan of the anti-hero, plus it would be great to heal immediately.

What single trait would you change about yourself?
I’m not an early morning person. I wish I were.

How cold is cold?
It’s totally relative. Minus 30˚C wearing a down-suit on a sunny, windless day in Antarctica is toasty. Plus 5˚C wearing jeans and hoody on a wet and windy day in the Lake District is bone chilling. That said, below 40 is cold however you dress it up. Being skinny doesn’t help.

You’ve reached the summit and can make one call to a hero dead and gone — who do you ring?
My late father-in-law, Jackson Corrie. He was a lifelong climber, an adventurous soul and a strong proponent of the micro-adventure long before that phrase was coined. Thanks to him my wife is the woman she is and my two beautiful children exist.

Are you a man to go by the rules?
No.

Is the world coming to an end?
Everything’s always moving. Eventually it will end, but not for a very long time. Earth knows how to look after herself — it’s us humans that need to be worried.

If you could add a backing track to your greatest climb, what song would you chose and why?
The first big independent film I produced with Alastair Lee — The Asgard Project — features a track called Beautiful Lies by B-Complex. It’s the backing track for a couple of awesome sequences. But if budget allows (which it won’t!) I’m keen to licence an iconic track for the Spectre Expedition film — something like Live Forever by Oasis. It was the soundtrack of my teen years and really strikes a chord.

When has failure really hurt?
At 21, when I fell off Cerro Torre in Patagonia. I smashed the talus bone in my ankle, leading to a three-day crawl back down the mountain, major surgery, six months on crutches and a year with no climbing. It almost ended my career before it had really begun.

Do you believe in fate?
No, I believe we navigate our own destiny. The more passion and drive we put into life, the more likely that circumstance will be there to lend a hand.

What’s your definition of ‘important’?
For me right now, I’m consumed by Spectre — the precise and optimum compromise of skis, boots, bindings, how many tent pegs to bring, what socks to wear. It’s dominating my thoughts!

But in truth, my greatest concern is being away from my one-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, leaving my wife to hold the fort on her own for nearly three months. They’re the most important part of my life.

On another scale altogether, the refugee exodus in Myanmar, the wars in Syria and Yemen, the overpopulation crisis strking sub-saharan Africa — they’re very important, and put a three month, incredibly expensive expedition back into perspective.

When was the last time you cried?
Watching Gladiator for the thousandth time on the plane a few weeks ago. I never used to be very emotional but since becoming a Dad, I can’t help it.

But the last time I truly cried? When my great friend and climbing partner Sean ‘Stanley’ Leary died in a wingsuit flying accident, in 2014.

If we could do a 5kg air-drop of food rations once you’ve reached the summit of The Spectre, what would it include?
Three bottles of Champagne and huge slab of fresh meat please.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Flakiness. I hate it when people say they will, then they don’t. Though violence is much worse — there shouldn’t be any need for it anymore, but it’s always there.

Is there an occasion you regret?
Not really. Our actions and decisions lead us to where and who we are. We learn more by mistakes and failures than by successes.

What’s the hardest you’ve ever worked?
I’ve always lived by the saying, ‘Find a job you love and you never have to work’. Combining a passion and profession does come at some cost, but it’s far better than ‘being down the pit’. That being said, some of the tasks on expeditions are pretty hard work. Carrying really heavy bags up really big hills is brutal. Even worse when you’re hauling them up giant walls.

Fear: what does it mean to you?
An extremely valuable tool to highlight the severity of a situation. It tends to make things more exciting too.

Are you a loner or a team-player?
Partnerships and small teams are where I flourish.

Describe a single place in your homeland that means something to you, and why.
The Cathedral Quarry in Little Langdale. It’s a magnificent cave where we often go for family walks. It’s also where Jessica and I were married, in a fairytale ceremony 11 years ago.

What’s the closest you’ve been to heaven?
Literally? Watching the sunrise from the summit of Mount Everest — you can’t get much closer to Heaven than that. But for me, that wasn’t an especially significant climb, so I’d say reaching the top of The Prophet on El Capitan, after an all-free ascent. That’s the closest. It was the hardest climb I’ve ever tried to achieve in my life, and I only just managed it against ridiculous odds. The further out of reach the goal, the harder you push, and the more rewarding the victory.
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