Andy Pollitt, pioneering rock star who put up some of the hardest British routes of the 80s and 90s, died from a stroke a week ago. Sarah Stirling speaks to his childhood friend, Jerry Moffatt, and gathers some brilliant stories from Andy's climbing life. There will be a memorial service on Sunday December 1 in Sheffield. Jerry Moffatt told us: "All welcome. It's going to be a great event for climbers to get together."
The memorial service for Andy Pollitt will be held in the Mowbray, near the Foundry Climbing Centre, in Sheffield. It starts at 5pm and there will be speakers for an hour from 6pm. All welcome.
Andy grew up in Dyserth, near Rhyll and was very lucky, in those days, to have a climbing wall at his school. This determined his future. His extrovert, addictive personality (he came from a family of stage and TV actors) would find a home on the 80s climbing scene, where he loved lycra, ladies and leaping on routes that filled others with fear.
Amongst his shining achievements were: Freeing Mayfair 7a+ with Jerry Moffatt when they were both just sixteen, and soloing Great Wall at Forwyn E4 5c aged eighteen;
Making the first repeat of John Redhead's route, The Bells, The Bells! E6 6b, which other E7 leaders called 'death on a stick' and 'utterly ridiculous';
Making the first ascent of Knockin' on Heaven's Door E9 6c, one of those 'Last Great Problems';
Ticking the big roof of Thormen's Moth 8a
Andy's teacher, Andy Boorman, remembers his school days
April 1978, 0900, Prestatyn High School, Neptune House, Class Registration…
“Adele Battershill?” — “Yes Mr Bowman!”
“Stephen Collins?” — “Here sir!”
“Trevor Cotterill? ... Cotterill?” — “Sorry sir, Mr Blueman, sir!”
“Ian Jones?” — “Yes sir, Mr Boorman, sir!”
(Heck – this is a dire task; there are 30 of the little monsters, just a surname will do...)
“Yes sir… Mr Boorman… Mr Ketcher says you go climbing, I’ve seen you on that funny brick wall in the Sports Hall.”
(Who’s this vibrant, cheeky little squirt? I can’t get through the register without him popping up and down...)
“Please sir, are you the new outdoor teacher, do you do climbing? When can we do climbing sir? Do you know Gaston Rebuffat sir?”
“Prendergast?” — “Yes sir! That rock climbing sounds great…”
And so it began.
A Mountaineering Club was formed. The most important allies in the school were recruited: John (the Bursar with access to cash) and Martyn (RE Teacher, with connections on high). By June there were regular evening trips to Craig y Forwyn, just half an hour up the road. One lad was always first at the minibus and never wanted to go home.
Back row L to R: Andy Pollitt, Trevor Cotterill, Chris Jones, Brian Connelly, Dave Prendergast, Ian Jones. Front row: John Worsley, Andy Boorman, Martyn Carr. Photo: John Worsley
Over the summer AP badgered me to take him to Snowdonia. We went to Bochlwyd Buttress; he lapped it up. That autumn and winter he endured hours and hours of cold weather whilst we explored and began to document the neglected parts of Craig y Forwyn. We ventured to Llandudno’s Ormes, The Pass, then Gogarth and beyond.
Within months Andy had inspired a large gang of peers to join his escapades and explorations in the local area. Most days after school he’d persuade one or two to join him for rope-work and multi-pitch traversing all over our brick and concrete climbing wall.
By the end of his first year on the rock Andy had connected with many good local climbers, including the Llandudno Lyons and Mike Owen, plus a bunch of St David’s College kids (one lad was called Moffatt...). Andy was at first a little shy and certainly respectful; his polite insistence and steely determination impressed all those he met, whilst his effervescent personality, energy and playfulness inspired them. He was also an avid learner, soaking up information from any source available.
Andy Pollitt, Main Cliff, Gogarth, 1980. Photo: Pete Bailey
Andy made rapid progress through the grades and was soon a technically competent, physically strong and fairly experienced rock climber. In Pembroke by the early 1980s Andy would exhaust two or three companions a day, zapping up Extreme after Extreme whilst Pete Bailey, Norman Clacher and I struggled in his wake... and then he’d spot a line for yet another new route…
If you want to be a very good climber you must be blessed with a fair degree of talent, both physical and mental, and must develop serious dedication and resolve. To attain greatness one must be obsessed, possess high levels of self-belief, and must work and work and work. To become the original ‘Rock Star’ Andy also needed flair, personality and originality: the eyes, hair and cheekbones helped too... and his warmth, enthusiasm, openness and magnetic charm captivated us all.
Continued further below...
Photo: Martin Atkinson
Jerry Moffatt recalls childhood friend Andy Pollitt
Sarah Stirling interviews
SS: What a legend. And quite young.
JM: Yeah, I know. He was stood in the pub at 6 o’clock with all his mates. He went to the pub like he always did and was stood at the bar when he had a stroke and never regained consciousness. They turned the life support off on Monday. He was 56, exactly the same age as me.
I first went climbing with Andy when I was 16. I was at boarding school in Wales, Andy lived near Rhyll and we met at a crag. I ended up hooking up with him and going climbing at weekends, sneaking out of school at weekends on my pushbike.
We had Saturday afternoons off, I just had to get back for role call. Most kids went into town to look round shops. They had no idea I was going climbing. Can you imagine how dangerous that is at 16? There’s no way in hell I’d let my son do that.
Verdon Gorge, Andy is back row middle. 1982
SS: Ha ha, would you not?
JM: Jesus no, this was all before bolts or anything, we were leading stuff, and Andy was always keen to jump on things that were way too hard for us. In those days, it was Andy who had the foresight, I was as good as him but he was more pushy than me.
One of the major things Andy and I did was the first ascent of Mayfair just before my 17th birthday. Andy kept going on about this route, I assumed it was HVS or something, it was an aid route on Upper Pen Trywn and it turned out to be E3 6a (now graded 7a+), which was very hard for those days. Andy hitched there from his place, which took at least two hours!
SS: Did his parents know where he was going? Were they quite liberal?
JM: I think yes his parents probably knew where he was going. Yeah, they were quite liberal, and he was in a climbing club at school. His school had a climbing wall before any schools had them. He was obsessed with climbing. He got good really quickly on this climbing wall.
One weekend we dossed on the Orme in some lookout bunkers. Andy was working for a biscuit company so he got tons of biscuits, that was our food for the weekend. The weather was bad so we hitched all the way to Bristol and slept in the toilets at the bottom of Avon Gorge. There was a hand dryer so we jammed that on. It was a normal thing to do then, hitch to a crag and sleep in the public toilets.
SS: What was he like then?
JM: Andy? If Ron Fawcett was there I’d be all shy and Andy would go straight up to him. He was an extrovert. He loved to love women. Ron Fawcett was our hero. Andy had a Union Jack hat like his and would dress the same, if he picked up a magazine and Ron was wearing certain trousers, well Andy would go straight out and buy the whole outfit.
SS: And you stayed friends?
JM: Yes, when I left school at 17 we both hitched to Tremadog and spent three months in the barn there. Ron Fawcett was there, Pete Livesey, Pete Gomersall, Strawberries was being done, it was a golden time.
WATCH Statement of Youth, a film about the Golden 80s era of climbing:
JM: He pushed me so much. He wanted to try routes I wouldn’t have tried. The day I arrived at Tremadog he said, "Come on let’s try Fingerlicker; it was E4 6a, horrifically hard. He hung off every runner."
SS: Did you have any falls or close calls in those days?
JM: One day we went into the cafe and Pete Livesey was there. He’d made the first ascent of one of the hardest routes at Tremadog, in the whole country: Zukator. Andy came running back saying, "Pete’s told me how to do it!" [in a boyish squeak]. Pete had told him [Yorkshire accent], "There’s a groove, but you don’t follow that, you take the crack out left." So he went straight up there and it was a complete sandbag, the crack went to nothing, he fell full distance. That was classic Pete.
We never ate properly - white rice because it was cheap, packets of curry mix you add hot water to, £1 a day! We didn’t have a single shower in three months. I wore the same clothes. When I got home my mum said, “Good God, go and shower immediately!”
Then we got a house together on Hunter House Road in Sheffield, we were 24 then. We lived with Basher (Martin Atkinson) and Chris Gore. And this was before we had cars. You could walk to the bottom of the hill from Hunter’s Bar Roundabout and hitch from there, or get the bus to Fox House, that's why people wanted to live there.
Photo: Chris Gore
SS: And what were your favourite places to climb in those days?
JM: We’d go where it was easy to hitch to, so we rarely climbed Grit. Nobody goes to Stanage, so we’d hitch to Stoney Middleton, Rubicon, Cheedale; climb on limestone stuff.
SS: How did you fund those days?
JM: We were on the dole. We got £15 a week when I first started, you could live off that quite OK. We never spent anything, never went out drinking.
SS: Just climbing climbing climbing!
JM: Yes. And then Andy injured his shoulder and didn’t climb for a year or two and that’s when he started the drinking. He would go to the off licence and buy a six-pack of beer, close the curtains and sit in the house smoking and drinking. That was the start of it. He was an alcoholic.
SS: An obsessive person?
JM: Yes. He loved to love women, too. And he smoked 60 a day. Then he went to Australia and couldn’t come back as he couldn’t face the flight without smoking. It was about ’92 when he went. I went there a year after he went.
SS: He had a caravan there, is that right?
JM: Yes, he lived in a caravan and we were in tents. He picked us up from the airport, me and Shaun, and we went to Arapiles. He wanted to climb Punks in the Gym. I did it just before him, then Shaun did it, then he did it.
SS: Then he famously gave up climbing the next day — why?
JM: Punks in the Gym took him two years, he kept falling off the last move. After that he gave up climbing, he’d found that climb too stressful. He moved to Melbourne and filtered into rope access work.
One thing Andy did is that in ’88 he built a little board, three foot by two, with all the holds numbered, in his garage. He’d sit on the floor and go 1 to 6, 6 to 3. We didn’t figure out to lift feet off the floor but that was the precursor to fingerboards and climbing in cellars. Then I built a 45 angle wall in my garage. The point of that was, he was keen, and he thought outside the box. He was a real pioneer.
WATCH Andy Pollitt climbing in Arapiles:
Jon Barton, Vertebrate Publishing
Vertebrate published Andy's book, Punk in the Gym
"There he was, leaning back in his chair, drinking tea in Pete’s Eats. Andy Pollitt, the guy from the posters and the magazines. I was at college and he was the first rock star I’d ever seen. While I knew from the very first moment I climbed I wanted to be a climber, I knew when I saw a rock star up close I’d never be a climber like Andy was. I was just happy to be in such close company.
A few years later I found myself in Australia, where Andy was resident at Arapiles. He became a regular climbing partner. We had enormous fun together – bouldering, new routing, socialising, training, along with Robin Barker he took us around crags in the Grampians, hiking us in to Taipan Wall, Hollow Mountain and other places, driving us around in HB’s Torana. Massive fun.
Andy just had that flair. He could tie in with that one-handed flick trick with a bowline – so cool, he could jump between holds, and he encouraged me to push grades, try harder climbs and fight!
Years after that he started to send me hand-written reminisces about his life and, raw as they were, I learnt a lot more about him and the reasons for his climbing, his lifestyle and his energies – often high, sometimes low, and always supporting.
I learnt more of him from Jerry’s book and of course from publishing his book and times we’ve spoken since. But, most of all, I remember our days at Arapiles, the happiest of my life, climbing like we were rock stars. I often go back to those days.
Thanks Andy for everything and that email you sent last month with those parting words:
‘Cling on for dear life, sorry, that’s all I’ve got, Best Andy P’."
Louise Shepherd, writing in 2015
Louise was a pro climber, casually pulling out Welsh E6s back in the male-dominated 80s. She moved back to Australia, and Andy stayed with her when he first went over. She wrote the below for his book, Punk in the Gym, in 2015
"It's summer in the Wimmera.
The fields of wheat stubble are bleached to straw.
At Arapiles, eucalyptus leaves are slowly swivelling on their stems under the relentless sun.
In the middle of a dust bowl is Andy Pollitt's caravan, his old Holden parked next to it. On the little table inside are the breakfast remnants: an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and some stubbies. Andy's philosophy is that you can eat or you can drink but you can't do both. Food was the big loser.
It's 1992. This was a time when climbers sent postcards back home; they didn't send routes. There was no such thing as working a route. The term had not been invented.
Andy's battle with Punks however, seemed like work. By late summer he had surpassed the Roman siege at Masada. Punks was becoming as much a grind as a foot soldier building a giant ramp in the Judaean desert.
Andy looked forward to his downtime with the same anticipation of every wage slave. One of his favourite pastimes was an evening of Trivial Pursuit out the back of the Delaneys' milk bar in Natimuk.
Marion and Cec Delaney and their four kids had played the game so many times they knew half the answers. Andy and a few of the local climbers would be roped in to make up the teams. A closely contested game got more adrenalin flowing than rock climbing.
'Which letter is on the Rwandan flag?'
'It's K,' said Marion with an air of certainty, 'Africans are crazy about K.'
Nobody argued with Mrs D.
'Wrong – it's R! We won!' The table erupted, the last dregs of beer were downed, the last lungful of ciggie smoke exhaled. Andy drove back out to The Mount, ready for another day at work.
2015. In Natimuk, the milk bar is still there but the Delaneys have long gone. Cec died of lung cancer more than a decade ago. The kids grew up and left home, and Marion moved away.
The campground at Arapiles hasn't changed a lot in the last thirty years. The vegetation has thinned, a legacy of thirteen years drought from the mid-nineties to 2009. Half the pine trees in the Pines campground have died from old age and soil compaction.
But one area that has thrived is the copse of native pines, hop bush and eucalypts on your right before you get to the Plaque area. Sometimes you see a goanna wandering through there. Fenced off and replanted decades ago, it has regenerated so well it's hard to remember that it used to be the dust bowl where Andy's caravan was once parked."
WATCH: A recent interview with Andy
Andy Boorman remembers Andy Pollitt, part 2
Andy Pollitt's former teacher visited him regularly in Melbourne
Andy’s achievements are well documented and highly respected – he was one of the most visionary, inventive, bold and productive British rock climbers of the 1980s and early 90s. In 1993 he totally vanished from the UK climbing scene and emigrated to Australia, his flame for climbing burnt low and finally extinguished, doused by multiple efforts to lead Punks in the Gym, at that time one of the hardest routes in the world.
AP's Diary Entry: 5th May 1992: Today I finally did ‘Punks’ and retired from climbing…
Andy made a brilliant new life for himself in Melbourne, becoming one of the most respected designers of rope access systems for high-rise buildings. However (yes, there’s often a ‘however’ label appended to the most talented) despite all his remarkable achievements in the field of rock climbing and rope access his addictive personality meant that success seemed not enough. The partying, the beer and the tobacco all took their toll, but it was his Bipolar disorder that disrupted his life most…. He’d take to his bed for days and days, battling the darkest depths of worthlessness. Then he’d emerge refreshed and elated, and we all got our Andy back again.
Andy in 2005
In 2011, whilst on a visit to Melbourne, I renewed my close friendship with Andy. Instead of climbing routes together we worked harder than ever before…. by 2016 it was ready: Jon Barton’s inspirational title Punk in the Gym framed a book packed full of the ‘real’ Andy Pollitt. The cathartic process of putting the manuscript together re-ignited Andy’s interest in the climbing scene, and the world discovered him once more.
Over these trying days since Andy’s passing, it’s become apparent how much he meant to so many of us…. his friends, his peers, his workmates; but also those he’d made a lasting impression upon… those who glimpsed him floating up a crag or eating egg on toast in the café, who chatted to him on routes, listened to his lectures, admired his image in glossy magazines, read his blogs, saw the films, heard the tales….
Sisters Sarah and Lizzie, and brother David, knew that Andy was a famous climber; now they also understand that he was loved and respected by many: www spreads news with incredible rapidity and gathers comment in a flash: the warmth and depth of feeling expressed, the respect shown for this man, the sincere and honest condolences which are offered should not astound us…. Andy Pollitt inspired a generation of climbers and will continue to do so for many years.
“Will you take me climbing please AP?”
Andy Boorman and Andy Pollit, seven weeks ago. Photo: Ann Boorman
CHECK OUT: The Facebook event for the memorial service