EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Leo Houlding

We caught up with Leo Houlding just before the world premiere of his film: Spectre: To the End of the Earth at the Kendal Mountain Festival.

The film documents Leo’s expedition to Antarctica, which included travelling more than 1,000 miles and climbing Spectre, one of the most remote mountains in the world, in the Gothic Range of the Transantarctic Mountains. The trip took 65 days in up to -40 C temperatures. Leo was accompanied by Jean Burgun, a French climber, and Mark Sedon, a Kiwi cameraman.

Are you enjoying the Kendal Mountain Festival?

I’m a patron of the festival and it’s local to me, so we [his family] can all come down together to enjoy it. The great thing about this festival is that it is not elitist, it is really down to earth. I just saw Doug Scott, a legendary man, walk past. It’s a place where I find myself standing next to my heroes at the bar and can just start a conversation with them. In golf and tennis, that doesn’t happen. This sport is much more egalitarian.
It’s also super cool that my film can be shown for the first time here and that it has sold out.

What was special about this particular expedition?

This was a culmination of a lifetime of adventure, to try to do something that has never been done before and is nigh on impossible in some ways but not actually impossible. Something that I knew we had a realistic chance of achieving.

Spectre is almost a single crystal. It’s also like its own geode and it’s unbelievably spectacular and perfect. Less than 10 people in the history of the world have ever seen it.

Why did you choose Jean and Mark for the trip?

I needed an elite team of individuals and there are only about 10 people in the world who could do it. How many people do you know who can kite ski, climb, have polar experience, use a camera and have a spare three months over Christmas and New Year?

In the end, I had to make a late substitution – which was Mark. This meant that Jean and Mark had never met before the trip. I’d been to Norway with Jean, where we got to know each other, and I got to know Mark in a different situation. I’m a good judge of character and I’m also a good judge of the vibe and I knew it would be OK.

I am not a religious man and I don’t believe in fate, but sometimes the stars align, and it was a perfect set of coincidences, which led to the perfect situation.

The truth is, it was the hardest trip I’ve ever done. It was the longest trip I’ve ever done. It was the coldest trip I’ve ever done. The film captures the good time we had.

The best part – which when you are in the adventure world is a really big deal – is that if when we finished the trip someone had said go and do the trip again, Jean, Mark and I would have happily started again with each other.

Left to Right, Jean Burgun, Mark Sedon and Leo Houlding

How challenging was it?

We didn’t think it was going to be easy. You want it to be hard, really hard. We wanted to push ourselves and we are all extremely experienced climbers, so for us to push ourselves is not an easy thing to do and we got totally spanked – be careful what you wish for.

How successful was the expedition – did you achieve everything you set out to do?

The climb that I organised this expedition to do was the South Pillar of Spectre, which is a prominent edge, 2,500 feet tall. It is probably the finest unclimbed line of its kind on planet earth.

We got there, we stood at its base. And we came to the decision that going up that side would be the wrong thing to do. If we had gone up, it wouldn’t have ended well. The best-case scenario was that we would get a little way up ¬– and this is echoed very clearly in the film – and then we would have had to come back down again.

The worst-case scenario: we would die.

Another projection, we get halfway up, we get frostbite in our toes, we come down, we initiate a big rescue, we don’t finish the second half of the trip.
If we were lucky, maybe we would have got to the top and got back down. But this was not a time to rely on luck. Sometimes you need luck, sometimes you get lucky, but you shouldn’t go into a situation relying on luck and we knew that.

It was heartbreaking because we were literally touching this thing. However, we’ve both done a lot, we’ve both got young kids and we knew this was not going to end well. And we still had another 800 miles to go.

I am proud of the decisions we made. If we did the trip again, which I hope to, I’ll bring a portaledge [a tent that hangs off the side of a mountain] so that there would be shelter from the weather if it became unstable. And then we could have another crack with an acceptable level of safety, without stacking the odds against ourselves.

We did do some hard mountain climbing, although much easier than the South Pillar. We climbed another unclimbed route and we kept enough in reserve to complete our outbound journey. It was a very mature set of decisions, which led to a safe and successful trip.

Were there any particularly bad bits of the expedition?

The worst times were when we couldn’t do anything. On this trip, two things held us up: extreme weather and no wind. It’s alright for a day or two but after a week of it, that is when you think, ‘I should not be missing out on my children’s childhood for this’.

The longest time we were stuck for was four days at the start of the trip. That was due to bad weather and it was seriously a survival situation. The other time was after Christmas when we were meant to be kite skiing and we lost the wind. Progress was desperately slow. We barely travelled for 10 days and were getting impatient. I’m not a patient person.

That was the only time when there were any tensions. It was nothing serious, just after 10 days of barely moving we were all starting to get annoyed. Then it came good and the wind got stronger and we kite skied 700km in just four days – almost half the trip. Going over 50km an hour for hours at a time was amazing.

Jean Burgun and Leo Houlding during the Spectre expedition

You were living in very close proximity to Jean and Mark. How did you all cope? Did they have any annoying habits?

We had two tents that we rotated so everyone had a chance to have some space and sleep alone for a night. Even the best of friends irritate each other.
One thing that hugely bothers me is that I can’t stand noisy eaters. I suffer from it quite acutely. It’s an actual condition, it’s called misophonia. So, I made it quite clear at the beginning of the trip: “Look, I’ve got one little weird problem. If you are a noisy eater, we need to manage the situation. I can’t handle it and I will lose my temper.” Thankfully, Jean isn’t a noisy eater at all and Mark, who is 10 years older than us, is a responsive person. Now, he IS a noisy eater and he IS a noisy drinker – he slurps his tea – but he took active steps so he wouldn’t annoy me.

Speaking to Jean earlier, he mentioned you had your own annoying habits…

Yes, it’s all in the film. I had to spend Christmas in the deep field and I had to do it with two Scrooges. And I like Christmas, so I brought baubles to hang up and a playlist of Christmas songs. It’s really funny in the film – they can’t stand Christmas songs and couldn’t bear me playing them loudly in the tent. Bah humbug.

Finally, does it surprise you that more people don’t do what you do?

Well, we wouldn’t survive as a race if everyone did what I did.

More seriously, life is a colourful tapestry. There are lots of opportunities to do different things and I’m really glad that not everyone has the same view of the world, otherwise it would be a black and white place.

And I really don’t want my children to follow in my footsteps. Some of my footsteps but not all. I definitely don’t want them to follow my path, it’s too dangerous. They need to find their own path to take. However, I do want them to have adventure and fulfillment and I will give them the skills to be good at it if that’s what they choose.

Let’s get social:

Facebook – Facebook.com/berghaus
Twitter – @TheRealBerghaus and @LeoHoulding
Instagram – @berghausofficial and @leo_houlding