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Wimbledon Clinics

Off piste and personal… with Matt Helliker, mountain guide

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What do you spend your time doing?

I’m a professional climber, based in Chamonix – alpinism is my thing. Around 90% of my time is spent climbing, and 10% of the time I’m mountain guiding. During the winter it’s really ski-intense: lots of off piste, heli-skiing, ski touring; then in the summer it’s all about rock climbing. It’s a good balance.

How did you get into mountaineering?

There was a cliff where my parents lived in Somerset called Split Rock, and I would bunk off school to go and climb it. My math teacher found me there on a number of occasions. I left school the following year, when I was 16 and went straight to the Alps – I just wanted to climb. For years I was a climbing and ski bum, then I did some really cool things, like first ascents, which got me noticed and led to sponsorship. But I was keen to become a mountain guide too; just so that I would have something in my back pocket when the sponsorship dried up!

Has it been a good season?

We had a slow start: last summer was incredibly dry; so all the glaciers were in a bad condition by December. Crevices were open; there was lots of rock fall. Normally all of that freezes up and stabilises with the snow in the winter, but this year that didn’t happen. As the season has gone on, we’ve had some decent snowfall – though the freezing level been really high. Chamonix sits at 1000m, but this year the freezing level went up to 3,700m on some days! When there are such huge changes in the temperature and the snowfall is intermittent, the risk of avalanches shoots up.

Are avalanches a consistent fear factor?

The more you know about snow and about avalanches, the more paranoid you become. That’s not a bad thing though! The biggest danger is when people go off piste skiing without the necessary experience to assess the snowpack and determine its safety. Equipment too: if you’re going off piste you need probes, airbags, shovels and transceivers.

What gets you excited?

My passion has always been going to the greater ranges – Alaska, the Himalayas, South America – and climb an un-climbed route. People tend to think that the mountains are all climbed out but they’re not – if you know where to look, you can find them. It’s about looking at the line with a different eye; then it’s possible to discover something new.

What’s your most memorable ascent?

Each climb is memorable in its own way. Maybe you had a mini epic, a real laugh, a great partnership …. About three years ago I climbed the Cartwright Connection on the north buttress of Mount Hunter, in Alaska. It was really intense, a 6-7 day expedition, with some very hard and very scary climbing. We actually produced a film on that, called Moon Flower.

Any ascents you’d rather forget?

Last year in Patagonia. I thought I would be really organised and ship my equipment over beforehand, so I used TNT to freight it out there. When we arrived in Patagonia, the gear wasn’t there. Timings are so important on an expedition, and we ended up having to bail. The equipment showed up seven months later.

When’s your favourite time of year to climb?

I love it all. Climbing a sunny cliff with your shirt off in the summer…. That’s very cool. But so is cascade ice climbing in the winter, using ice axes and crampons, and being with your mates. There are a handful of people that I climb with: it’s not something that you want to do with just anyone – you’re investing a huge amount of trust in those people that you go with; you’re trusting them with your life.

Does greater experience mean that you take more risks?

Certainly as I’ve grown older I’ve become a better climber, that’s because I’m more experienced now to make the right decision. I got away with some crazy things when I was younger. Nowadays, I see myself less as being risky, and more as being very calculated. Climbing is about joining the dots, and if you can join them within a margin of safety, you’ll get to the top. If you can’t, then you abandon it.

What injures have you sustained through mountaineering?

Quite a few: broken legs, fingers, even my jaw – a lump of ice hit me in the face doing some mixed climbing in Scotland a few years back. I pretty much have dents all over me! And as you get older, recovery gets harder. My worst fear is that I injure myself in a way that stops me form training. Everything that I do requires masses of training… If I get a finger injury, say I pull a tendon, that’s a disaster – then you can’t pull down on crimps when you’re climbing. Something as simple as opening a can means that I have to be careful! 

How do you train?

Mountaineering is a full-time job, so there are many aspects that you need to train for. I do lots of sessions at the climbing wall, lots of circuits, and plenty of campus boarding – this is when you’re foot-free, and have to pull your entire weight up, using the strength of your fingers (sometimes you do it with weight vests on). Your shoulders are very important too, so I do free weights. Climbers tend to be lean, so your strength to weight ratio is crucial: the last thing you want to do is put weight on. On top of that, you have cardio – this is what preps you for days and days of long approaches carrying heavy rucksacks. In the summer I do a lot of hill running, and in the evenings I go off with my skins and a head torch!

Top safety tip on the mountain?

Go with your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Similarly, if your mind and your body aren’t working in parallel then don’t push it. I’ve been in the game long enough now to know if something doesn’t feel right, and I’ve lost many friends to the mountain. You don’t want to mess up for the sake of your family.