What It Means To Be A Mountaineer

When Lee Gosling was barely out of his diapers, he had a knack to explore. Even if his neighborhood haunts limited his opportunities for outdoor adventures, Gosling would find “anything resembling nature” such as climbing trees surrounding an old pub two streets from his boyhood home in Bolton, Lancashire, England.

There, Gosling traversed “a bowling green, trees and a deep drainage culvert,” he recalls. “The walls were all made of rough-hewn gritstone, and I would climb the facets and cracks between stones and then over wrought iron spiked railings to access different sections of the culvert and get into the wooded area. I still remember how the rhododendrons and brambles scratched my back and arms as I fought through them.”

At age 5, he wandered off during family beach vacations with exploration filling his heart. Once in Kent, “we spent a day at a secluded bay in an area where smugglers had once built caves to hide their contraband. Whilst my parents were relaxing on the beach I managed to climb the 12 feet or so into a small cave near the foot of the steep white cliff. Looking back at the grainy photos from that day, it was a good 5a boulder problem!” Gosling says.

At the back of the cave, Gosling pushed through a tiny hole that careened through tight passages until he came to the end where it dropped to the waves crashing on the rocks below. Unafraid, Gosling simply sat with his legs dangling from the edge and enjoyed the view. Soon, he spotted his parents on the beach. “I waved at my parents as they looked up to see their son perched nonchalantly 150 feet vertically above them,” he says. “I was in trouble.”

Gosling has taken that love of adventure and transferred it into nearly 30 years of mountaineering. It made us curious, and we wanted to know: Have mountaineers always considered themselves adventurous? What does it take to move beyond an adventurous spirit into becoming a full-fledged mountaineer? Inspired, we launched a series on mountaineers to answer those very questions. This is Gosling’s story—a story of mountaineering despite warnings against it.

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When did you get the idea that you wanted to climb a mountain?

[Even as an adventurous child], I still wouldn’t have thought of myself as a climber, or even considered the possibility of climbing a mountain. Mountains were big things, far removed from a smoky mill-town and only seen on the TV News.

At primary school, we had a headmaster who had called us in one day to the main hall to tell us all very sternly NEVER to go into the quarries on top of the hill or try to climb the rocks. Climbing was bad, and we were never to go climbing. Some older boys had apparently been killed doing this. I took his warning very seriously.

My grandfather, Harry, would take me for long walks over the Lancashire moors in all weather from the age of 6 onwards. I loved being out in the fresh air. But this was still just ‘walking’ to me. I didn’t associate it with mountaineering, even though it was laying the foundations. If I had to trace it all back to the first bit of real inspiration linked to “proper” climbing and mountaineering I would have to look back even earlier.

I have an incredibly clear memory of lying on the patterned carpet under a formica shelf. I was in front of a three-bar electric fires with fibreglass coals and a red light-bulb inside that spun a silver windmill as it radiated heat to create a flickering effect. I was watching our black-and-white television intently, fascinated by the marathon BBC outside broadcast of Chris Bonington, Tom Patey, Joe Brown and the gang climbing the Old Man of Hoy. I remember my concerned mother leaning over me as I watched. I remember her sternly making me promise that I’d “never do anything like that.”

But in my head I think a psychological switch had been flicked.

How did you get from that flicker to being a mountaineer?

It was a long, long time after that day in front of the grainy black and white screen that I actually discovered climbing and mountaineering. I had taken up a number of sports and performed well at judo, rugby and football, and I was good at athletics. I was doing well at school and was accepted to study Marine Biology at Liverpool University. It was as I neared the end of my time at university that I took a job with an outdoor activities company. I still enjoyed walking and had hitch-hiked around festivals, camping and bivouacking. I had spent a summer working with a youth group. I fancied a summer working outdoors and having fun.

I quickly found myself moving from leading gentle hill-walks to wanting to do more serious and harder things. I did some scrambling, soloed a few routes and bought a pair of army boots. I learned some basic rope-work and got an old pair of B4 boots with “sticky rubber” and a Troll Rock Master harness, and suddenly I was hooked.

I was ideally placed for mountaineering as I was living in Liverpool. I had access to North Wales and eventually moved to Llanberis, throwing myself into one of the most colorful and exciting times there had ever been for British climbing. The “slate explosion” was happening in the quarries. [Editor’s note: It was about this time that Gosling returned to the same quarries he once was forbidden from climbing near his school, the Wilton and Brownstones quarries. “Some of the finest in England,” he says.]

Johnny Dawes, Paul Pritchard, John Redhead, Trevor Hodgson and a host of others were pushing grades on slate and on the mountain crags of Llanberis Pass and Cloggy. By comparison, I was a talentless buffoon on the rock—but surrounded by legends who I shared occasional banter and games of pool with, though rarely a rope! One of the legends I did climb with on occasion was Geoff Turner. He’s pictured in the 1987 Llanberis Climbing Guide Book leading Lubyanka on Cyrn Las.

It was with Geoff, whilst working alongside him at the outdoor activity company, that I first discovered winter mountaineering. He was important in my early development as a climber and mountaineer. I remember one day laboring up on to the Aonach Eagach ridge in full winter conditions and zero visibility, and all the time Geoff was quietly singing, “Woke up this mornin’ feelin’ fine… Somethin’ tells me I’m into somethin’ good.” I still play that song over in my head to this day when I need to ignore the cold or exhaustion or fear and “sort my head out” on a route!

After that, I moved to the English Lake District, and again the progression continued. I was fortunate to have technically excellent people around me. I became a member of a Lake District Mountain Rescue Team and qualified to lead others in the mountains—something I do to this day. My climbing progressed more and more into multi-pitch rock and winter climbing in Scotland and the Alps. The rope work was always a thing I have relished, and vertical caving was also a great help in developing technical rope skills.

Is there a moment you can define where you said, "OK, now I am a mountaineer"?

I don’t think there was ever really a moment when I actually said to myself, “OK, now I am a mountaineer.” It has always been a progression. I think being accepted onto a rescue team made me think, “Oh, I can’t be too bad then.” But so did the first time I had to use technical rope skills to rescue another party, a couple stuck and benighted on Gimmer Crack, whilst out climbing for myself.

There were similar feelings when first heading out onto the West Highland Way, decades ago, and passing the sign that, like the one on Hoy, advises you to turn back if you are not an experienced mountaineer.

To be a mountaineer, I think, is to be part of a “broad church.” The British Mountaineering Council and Mountain Training Association consider a mountaineering instructor to be someone teaching on mountain scrambles and multi-pitch climbs or teaching on snow and ice. In Chamonix, a mountaineer would be someone who crosses glaciers and climbs rock or ice. In the Andes or Himalaya, there are greater problems with altitude, cold, remoteness, etc. I think a mountaineer is one who “goes regularly into the mountains” and has a level of competence that enables them to go beyond what used to be called “the tourist path.”

So in many respects. I have been a “mountaineer” since my very first lead climb (Tennis Shoe on Idwal Slabs) and yet still would never think of myself in the same category as Whillans, Brown, Pritchard, Clough, Steck, Honnold, Kirkpatrick or Houlding, or anyone who I consider a real mountaineer. Wasn’t it Groucho Marx who said that he’d never want to be part of a club that would have someone like him as a member?

There are different leagues, and most mountaineers will play their game as mortals rather than gods. But in mountaineering, gods and mortals play their games alongside each other under the same sky, and often meet up in the bar afterwards to share tales.