In this interview, experienced climber and debut author Charles Sherwood tells us how he found the process of writing his first book, Seven Climbs: Finding the finest climb on each continent, how he chose and defined these climbs and shares his top tips for anyone trying to juggle a career with a passion for travel and the outdoors.
From the outset of your journey to find the continents' best climbs, over how many years and can you remember how many mountains you climbed before you found your 'seven'?
My initial attempt on the Eiger’s North Face, the first of my seven climbs, was in 2005 and I completed the crossing of the Salvesen Range on South Georgia in Antarctica, the last of the seven, in 2018. So, that’s thirteen years. Oh dear, unlucky for some. But, I suppose you could date it back much further if you take into account when I started to climb in the UK or first visited the Alps. As for how many climbs it has taken to complete the seven, that is a more difficult question. Rather like Dick Bass and Frank Wells with their original seven summits, I knew what I was planning to climb before I headed out to most of these places. Even in Europe, where I have done innumerable climbs, I always knew the Eigerwand would be that special route. The one exception, I guess, was New Zealand, where I was genuinely unsure, when I arrived there, whether I should focus on the South-West Ridge of Mt Aspiring/Tititea or the Linda Glacier Route on Aoraki/Mt Cook. So, I climbed both. The local significance of Aoraki/Mt Cook and the unforgettable, near twenty-hour summit day tipped the balance.
What's your criteria for a good climb?
At one level, each of the seven climbs had to stand alone – or stand out alone: for its mountaineering challenge, its natural features – whether that was its aesthetic smile or ascetic grimace – and its historic significance. Plus the ability of all those qualities to reflect something of the continent itself and the type of climbing typical of that continent. But, at another level, it was also important to me that the seven climbs fitted together as a group, capable of conveying something of the huge variety in styles of climbing that there are out there. I didn’t want them all to be of one genre. And, so the routes were deliberately diverse: ‘trad’ rock climbing in Kenya, aid climbing on El Cap, ice climbing on Alpamayo, Himalayan expedition-style climbing on Ama Dablam, mixed climbing on the Eiger and Aoraki/Mt Cook, and ski mountaineering on South Georgia. That variety is one of the reasons I never seem to bore of climbing.
Is climbing really just an excuse to have a good time with your friends?
Yes. Or, at least, that is a very, very big part of it. Fun and friends go together and I cannot really imagine climbing without them. Andy Kirkpatrick has tried to talk me into soloing – clearly a comment on the very poor company I offer! But, this has never appealed. I know Andy loves it, but for me, personally, it just misses the point. A ‘triumph’ achieved alone, by my reckoning, is not a greater, but rather a diminished triumph. That will sound perverse to some, but it’s the way I am. You can’t celebrate in the pub alone. After all, there is no one to buy the second pint.
Which is your favourite climbing location?
My favourite climbing base is the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel at the foot of the Llanberis Pass. It offers access to such a variety of climbing from the comparatively benign Tremadog crags and Ogwen Valley to the committing sea cliffs at Gogarth and the dark brooding shale-strewn features of the Pass itself. I have a love-hate relationship with the last of these. The Pass has always struck we as an evil-looking place, but it draws me back nonetheless. Last year, after four decades of contemplating that extraordinary ‘open book’, I finally led Cenotaph Corner – but not without taking a twenty-foot leader fall off the crux at the top. The love-hate relationship goes on.
This is your first book, how did you find the writing process?
I enjoy writing. This book was my first, but I have kept a daily journal for twenty years. And, as a fulltime student at the LSE, I of course have the dreaded essay deadlines! So, I am used to working to a timetable. For me, writing about mountaineering is both a creative exercise and a way a reliving some fond (and a few less fond) experiences. I get to do the climb all over again (for better or for worse!).
What advice would you give to anyone trying to balance their career with a passion for travelling and outdoor sports?
That’s a dangerous kind of question to ask a philosophy student. You are likely to get a ‘meaning of life’ type answer. Seriously though, I believe a balanced, happy life – at least a balanced, happy life for me – requires a combination of three things: intellectual challenge, physical activity and a sense of community (friendship, family and wider society). Very few careers offer all of these, so if you allow yourself to be totally absorbed in your career, then you are going to lose that critical balance. And, far from benefiting your career, you are likely to put it in jeopardy. Climbing, and other outdoor sports, have played a crucial part in maintaining that balance in my life. Apart from anything else, they have proved an essential escape valve for the build-up of work-related stress. Funnily enough, when you are clinging to a rock a thousand metres above the valley, the apparently insuperable problem of the coming year’s corporate cash flow profile is not high on your mind. I enjoyed a three-decade long career in business and am now embarked on a second career of sorts, as an academic. I don’t believe that would have been possible without my passion for outdoor pursuits from climbing and skiing to paragliding and scuba diving. So, my advice is ‘get out there’.