School of rock
Published: 04 Jul 2016
Ian Sykes has spent his life reaching for new heights. Natasha Mckim chats to the mountaineer about his adventures, both in business and on the mountains.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT MOUNTAINEERING THAT YOU LOVE SO MUCH?
I’ve been climbing since I was about 10 years old. It’s a way of life. I like the outdoors and I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to make the things I like doing into a business as well.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH CLIMBING SO YOUNG?
I was in the boy scouts and the scout master was a climber. Scouts was more of a climbing club than it was a scout troupe. We used to go and get the big lads to take us up.
HOW DID JOINING THE RAF HELP YOUR CAREER?
I was doing geology at Leeds University, and then I made the mistake of going into a recruitment office and chatting to them, but without any intention of joining. They offered me mountain rescue and I joined instantly. It’s the best thing I ever did.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY?
For a while I was a climbing instructor at Outward Bounds schools when I left the RAF. I was quite friendly with quite a famous climber called John Cunningham, who had been to the Antarctic. He just said: “You would love it if you could get yourself down there.”
I applied to British Antarctic Survey and I was very lucky; in those days there was thousands of people trying to get down. I was one of just three or four mainly because of my climbing experience. I went down as a dog driver, having never driven a dog in my life, and I did about three years on the ice, running a dog team and looking after scientists.
WAS A SELECTION PROCESS INVOLVED IN THE APPLICATION?
There was quite a long process. I thought who would take a blithering idiot like me, but they seemed to like it.
I suppose a lot of it was to do with the fact that I’d been quite involved with rescue work and general mountaineering. They were needing people to guide scientists in the field, and I sort of fitted the bill.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING ON A POLAR ICE CAP?
Oh, fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. It was the best three years of my life; it was the golden age.
Within five years of me finishing they did away with dogs and became mechanical, but I had the best part of it. Just wonderful.
It was a great experience, and of course it was a great way to earn money because, even though it wasn't paid very well, you couldn’t spend it, so I saved enough from that to start my business when I got back.
WHAT MADE YOU START YOUR COMPANY, NEVISPORT, WHEN YOU CAME BACK?
I was instructing again back in an Outward Bound school in Fort William, then a shop came up. I don’t know why but two of us sat up and said: “Oh, we could start a little shop and sell climbing gear,” and it exploded into a national company.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN A DANGEROUS SITUATION WITH THE MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM?
While I was involved in the mountain rescue team in Fort William we probably had about 60 call-outs a year. So over 40 years I was on an awful lot of rescues.
I can’t remember a lot of them. In the book, I’ve written about half a dozen or more of ones that were very memorable, but there are as many others as you could think of.
It wasn't a death-defying thing; it was a way of keeping fit and going out on the hills. Going on call-outs was a very interesting way of keeping going. You very rarely got seriously involved with the people you were rescuing, although it did occasionally happen.
HOW DID YOUR FIRST BOOK, CRY ARGENTINA, COME ABOUT?
I worked on South Georgia for a while when I was with British Antarctic Survey. It was the first place that was invaded by the Argentinians during the Falkland war and I got very interested in what had happened.
I decided to write down the factual history of it and, as I was writing it, I got more and more interested in the Argentinian side and what happened there, so I started trying to piece together the Argentinian side of as well.
In the end, to put it together properly I couldn’t get all the parts because the Argentinian’s were so secretive, so I began to piece it together.
It wasn't totally factual so I turned it into a novel, but it is a very accurate novel; there’s not much in it that isn’t exactly what happened.
HOW DID THAT COMPARE TO GOING ON AND WRITING THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
It was very different. One was a lot of research, the other was trying to use the memory, which is not that great.
I’ve never kept a diary or anything like that, so I had to do quite a lot of checking up as to how accurate I was getting things.
I did find that I’d got names and places a bit mixed up at times and I had to do a bit of checking around, but it was more a series of essays on different things that had happened rather than a really serious biography.
I tried to make it fairly humorous and not too serious.
WHAT IS THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE BOOK?
I think when we are on Deception Island at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula and it erupted. It was like standing next to an atomic bomb going off. It was really a horrendous thing, but very exciting. We actually thought we weren’t going to get away from it so we had a very lucky escape from the island.
That was about one of the most exciting things that had ever happened. Probably the other one was when I was on Antarctica sledging in the winter, actually by moonlight, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. That was really very exciting in a different sort of way.
ANY MORE PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
I’ve been thinking of doing a sequel to Cry Argentina. But most of my subjects the entire world would look at in wonder, but there you go.
WHAT WOULD YOUR ADVICE TO CLIMBERS WHO ARE JUST STARTING OUT BE?
Just get out there and do it.
These days people tend to go off on outdoor courses; they didn't really exist when I started but it’s a good way and means that you can learn to do things correctly.
One of the great things about it is that there is a lot of friendship and comradery.
I’m still climbing. I’m 73 now and I’m still climbing well. I go out to America every year to Yosemite Valley and climb away.