© Houlding collection
Leo’s name is synonymous with adventure climbing; he has consistently pushed at the limits of this game and in the process has carved out a media profile which has seen him appear on Top Gear and be pitched as one of Britain’s top ten adventurers by The Telegraph. But don’t get the wrong idea, all this media attention is well deserved – Leo is without doubt the ‘real deal’.
He grew up in the Lakes and started climbing in 1990 at the age of 10. Just 6 months later he acquired the taste for adventure climbing when he made the youngest ascent of the famous Scottish sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy with his dad. By the time Leo was 15 he had become the British Junior Indoor Climbing Champion. In 1997 he moved to North Wales and started to make a name for himself, onsighting bold trad climbs such as Master’s Wall E7 6b on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu.
In 1998, still aged only 18, Leo landed in Yosemite with the similarly youthful Patch Hammond and made a landmark, virtual onsight repeat of the Huber brothers’, El Nino 5.13c, just days after they had made the first free ascent.
Back in North Wales he headpointed the first ascent of Trauma E8 7a on Dinas Mot, and got the second ascent of Bungle’s Arete F8b on the Rainbow Slab in the Dinorwig slate quarries. The challenge of bold, technical gritstone routes also appealed and Leo showed good form onsighting Deathwatch E7 6c at Ilkley and Strangeness E7 6c at Caley. However, his true desires lay on the big walls and in 2001 he proved this again by free climbing The West Face of the Leaning Tower 5.13a in Yosemite.
In 2002 a nasty 20m fall on Cerro Torre in Patagonia put Leo out of action for a year with a badly broken ankle. The story of the fall became the subject of a BBC documentary and opened him up to a whole host of TV and film opportunities including his very own television show. He returned to Patagonia in 2005 and with Kevin Thaw and made the first free ascent of the huge 1400m north pillar of Fitzroy.
In 2007 he summited Everest during time off from playing the role of Sandy Irvine in The Wildest Dream docudrama.
Rope jumaring on Ulvetanna © Houlding collection
In 2008 Leo was back on the big walls, making the first team free ascent of both the North West Face of Half Dome and The Freerider on El Cap in a single day - most strong teams would require at least a week to achieve this. The following year saw a free attempt of the mighty North West Face of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, documented in Alastair Lee’s blockbuster movie The Asgard Project, which went onto win 20 awards.
Then in 2010 he topped it all by completing his long term Yosemite project. The Prophet E9 7a/5.13d R on El Capitan is a truly impressive route, and one that Leo had tried on a number of occasions since his first attempt in 2001. Success on it is a lifetime achievement and a real highpoint in an already remarkable climbing career.
Changing tack in early 2012, Leo headed for an Indiana Jones style adventure in the depths of the Amazonian jungle in Venezuela. Here he made a first ascent of the east face of Cerro Autana. The resulting route, The Yopo Wall, rated E6 6b/A1. Check out Alastair Lee’s film of the expedition: Autana.
A year later in 2013 Leo lead an international team to success on the first ascent of a major new route on the remarkable Antarctic peak, Ulvetanna. The mile long north east ridge of the mountain has been described as one of “the last great climbs” – it gave a challenging E6 6b, 5.12, A2 (C2) which was completed in some very harsh conditions.
Leo’s biggest project for 2014 came in the shape of a 3D adventure TV series for the Discovery channel. Lost Worlds with Monty Halls and Leo Houlding will be shown in January 2015. In April he was in the Amazon jungle of Guyana and then he went to the Mulu cave system in Borneo where he visited the largest cavern in the world; The Deer Cave. While there Leo climbed a 300m new route up a virgin limestone wall in remote part of the jungle where nobody had climbed before, as he explains: “Lost World went at E5 6b, with lots of tufas and stalactites, some bolts and a great bivi ledge half way up." In August Leo joined Chris Bonington in an ascent of The Old Man of Hoy to celebrate Chris’ 80th birthday.
Wherever there is adventure to be had you will find Leo; for example, he has been a keen pioneer of para-alpinism, a climbing method he demonstrated on Top Gear when he and Tim Emmett climbed to the top of the Verdon Gorge then base jumped back to the bottom of the route. Deep water soloing is another passion; check out the film Depthcharge which features Leo alongside Chris Sharma and of all people, Jack Osbourne! He does motivational speaking too – check out his website for more details: www.leohoulding.com
These days Leo lives with his wife Jess in a quite corner of the Lakes – a peaceful antidote to his adventure superstar day job.
Leo on the A1 Beauty pitch of The Prophet E9 7a, El Capitan, Yosemite © Alastair Lee
“The A1 Beauty crux of the Prophet is the most perfect pitch I could ever have imagined. Such an aesthetic line in an unequalled position, so desperately thin and painfully close to my limit. Succeeding on the first ascent is a dream come true. If I never climb anything harder I will not disappointed."