My long-time friend, Mark Vallance, died the week before last, aged 72, and obituaries are appearing in the mountaineering world. I would like to add my own recollections of the man I have known for over 50 years.
We met in 1966 at Goldsmith’s College, London, where we both lived in the same men’s hall of residence. Although only two years older than me, Mark was already well-connected in British climbing circles, had an impressive list of rock climbing and mountaineering ascents to his name and had lived and worked in India for a year.
From the outset I found Mark to be forthright, determined and generous with his time. He introduced me to the major climbing areas of the Peak District, Snowdonia and Cornwall, encouraged me to attempt climbs that he judged suitable for me and dragged me up a few that, with a less experienced and/or patient companion, would have been way beyond my capabilities. (The only quid pro quo in this climbing relationship, but one that still pleases me, is my introducing him in 1968 to my old stomping ground, Portland – now a major English site but then home to only a handful of routes).
I remember Mark buying ‘Sgt Pepper’ in 1967 on the day it was released and listening to it with him in his room in silence and shared admiration. I also remember introducing him to Jack Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’ which I thought he might find far too debauched and undisciplined but, with its strong Buddhist influences, appealed to him greatly. He told me that he had read it bivouacking on Chesil Beach and watching the sun set over West Bay the night before visiting me in Dorset in 1968.
Mark lived a full life and accomplished much. I loved receiving the occasional letter from him in Antarctica when I was settled into my first teaching job on a dreary winter’s morning in the Home Counties. When he returned a few years later, now married to my friend Jan, we kept in touch and met up every now and then. In 1977, over dinner at their Peak District cottage, Mark revealed that he was going to re-mortgage his house, give up his job and sink all he had into manufacturing a revolutionary piece of climbing equipment. He would not be drawn into saying more but then, at the end of the evening, and swearing my then wife and myself to absolute secrecy, he went out to his shed and returned with an object covered by an oily rag. He unwrapped it to reveal the ‘Friend’, a sophisticated piece of machinery – camshafts, cables and moving parts. It almost seemed to require two hands to hold and operate it and I could not imagine anything so heavy and cumbersome (and potentially expensive) hanging from a climber’s harness. On the drive home afterwards, I feared that Mark had made a terrible, disastrous misjudgement.
Mark’s ‘Friends’ quickly became a worldwide sensation and a vital piece of every climber’s equipment! They were soon hanging from my belt as well and enabling me, in middle age, to push up my standard way beyond a level I had ever expected.
We met up every few years for an afternoon’s climbing, a walk or just a meal and a drink. In the 1970’s we debated politics and industrial relations (Mark was the only entrepreneurial businessman I knew). In the 1980s he donated some of his rapidly-expanding firm’s new line in tents and sleeping bags to the Greenham Women via Buxton CND. Around the end of the millennium, he told me of his Parkinson’s diagnosis and his plans to remain as super-fit as he could for as long as possible. In grim weather on Boxing Day 2002, as we took a 15-mile walk through the Peak District (down from his customary 30-milers), he told me of his plans for the British Mountaineering Council as he prepared to become its President (“my last mountain”). And I was delighted when he came to my 70th birthday eighteen months ago and presented me with a copy of his newly-published autobiography, ‘Wild Country. The man who made Friends’.
Last month, with Jan, we reminisced about some of these moments and others over the fifty years and finished by saying ‘good-bye’. Good-bye with a capital ‘G’.
Jan and I had lunch on the western edge of Sheffield afterwards and talked some more while one of the very first days of Spring attacked the remains of winter in the fields and hedgerows with a savage vitality. Mark was a significant figure in my life and in the lives of many people. He often surprised me, sometimes amazed me, with his creativity and ambition, drew me into lengthy conversations on weighty matters as we travelled on through life and amused me with his dry wit.
Thank you for all these memories, Mark. Thank you so much.