“There were no girls when I started climbing [in England],” Alan said, in a tone more serious than joking.
I’d just met Alan Carne only twenty-four hours before, on a warm September day seeking refuge in the shade of the 4×4 Wall at Indian Creek, and we instantly became friends, that kind of instant friendship that only the climbing community provides. He was rolling solo, and we had a little crew, and he began talking us up.
by Luke Mehall, author of American Climber, and publisher of The Zine
This story is published in The Climbing Zine Book, now available.
We were at the wall doing some filming for a project we were wrapping up, “Last Thoughts on the Dirtbag,” which was my own response to several articles and films that had been made in the last couple years debating whether anyone was really a true dirtbag anymore.
Alan, who is originally from England and is fifty-five years old with forty years of climbing experience, was like the answer to all my searching.
He had all the answers, but there was just one thing I couldn’t wrap my head around. No girls around. That must have been the worst part of climbing in England “back in the day.”
There are some people that roam this earth who are clearly given an excessive amount of energy and enthusiasm. They can be the best, or the worst, the most inspiring, or the most annoying; it can be a blessing, or a curse; the energy can be properly channeled or funneled into negative behavior patterns. Alan Carne is one of those people; his enthusiasm runs so deep it’s impossible not to notice it immediately upon meeting him.
Enormocast host, and kinda famous climber, Chris Kalous has known Alan for a decade plus. Kalous seconds the notion of how the sport fits Alan: “I can’t imagine him operating in any other world. He’s really quirky, kind of like an absent-minded professor. His enthusiasm is like that of a little kid. He’s so built for climbing, and climbing is so built for him. Without trying to sound cliché, he’s someone who has truly found his calling.”
This last fall, Alan, who lives in the South of France, had a banner season. After starting his trip to the States in Indian Creek, he quickly shot over to the Black Canyon, where he flashed Tague Yer Time, a 5.12+ Grade V, that attracts plenty of suitors but rarely sees someone send the crux pitches first try. After that, he made his way to Yosemite, where he teamed up with Brette Harrington and Marc-Andre Leclerc, sending 5.13 pitches with climbers half his age.
The roots of the legend that is Alan Carne are like that of a flower growing in the concrete. He grew up poor in the Salford area of Manchester, England, one of five children raised by a single mother. “My dad abandoned the family, and we all learned to be self reliant. We just figured things out. It was a rough existence; everyone was really poor and had been for over a hundred years. There were no jobs, and the schools were terrible.”
Like a glimmer of hope in the distance, which may or may not have been real, were gritstone cliffs. Young Alan made his first trips out to the cliffs by bicycle, putting in forty miles just to go up there and hang out. “Mom was concerned, but she was so busy, it was easy for us to take off.”
Eventually, he spotted some climbers out there and decided to team up with his mates to pull their resources. They collected an old-fashioned sailing rope and used hip belays, while climbing in hiking boots. He learned to tie a bowline knot out of a book at the local library. “And that’s how it started,” he added.
He noted that he had to grow up quickly because of his situation. “I get the impression you’re younger for longer these days; kids aren’t as self reliant. We just had to be adults a bit more earlier.”
The late Derek Hersey, a prolific free soloist, who would later gain notoriety for his solos in Colorado and Yosemite, was one of the climbers around in Alan’s younger days. So was Jonny Woodward, another legend who left his mark on the American desert and beyond.
Stoney Middleton, in the Peak District, became the central meeting place for his crew of climbers. No one had a car, and everyone was living poor. “We lived on the doll, on like twenty-some dollars a week, and we were just hitchhiking everywhere.”
It was true dirtbagging—the kind of living that makes modern dirtbagging look like a vacation. “We would sleep in caves and all sorts of strange places. If there were no other option, we’d even sleep in bathrooms that were warmer than sleeping outside. The gear was crap, routes were dangerous, and the weather was (often) shit. They were dark times. The good ol’ days weren’t always that good.”
Eventually Alan managed to get into a university. “The government would support you,” he said. “I did that for a couple of years but dropped out because all I wanted to do was go climbing.”
Everything changed for him in 1979 when he took his first trip to the Verdon Gorge. Motivated by a Mountain magazine cover photo he saw of Ron Fawcett, he just thought, “Whoa, I’m going there.” True to form and necessity, he hitchhiked there. Who would he come across shortly after arriving, but Fawcett, who he described as one of the best climbers in the world at the time. “He asked me if I wanted to go climbing the following day, which totally blew my mind; it was a huge boost and validation. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, [the Verdon] made me look beyond England and The Peak District. I started to see that climbing was my future and my whole life eventually; it was the only thing that was truly driving me.”
In 1985, he met his future wife, Kate, who was also a climber. They started traveling all over Europe. Always, in the back of his mind was the Verdon. “I wanted to live there but never figured out how that would happen.”
In the early nineties, with a small inheritance, he was able to buy a house there in a tiny village next to the gorge. He learned French. He began guiding there, and eventually they were able to move to the Verdon full time.
Just like dreaming of the Verdon while still in England, he had visions of the United States. Hersey had gone, and never came back. Woodward was there too. “I always wanted to go there, but I could never afford the plane ticket,” Alan said.
Of course, he went to Yosemite, first in 1985. In 1999, he climbed the Salathe Wall on El Capitan and enjoyed the experience but wasn’t sure if aid climbing was his thing. “It’s hard work, heavy, and slow,” he said. “It’s not what suits me.”
The most defining moment of his climbing career came in 1996 in the Verdon. He was rappelling in to climb the classic Pichenibule, and at a hanging belay, they pulled the ropes from the previous rappel. The knot joining the two ropes got caught in a crack, and he rushed the process to free it, tying in to the free end and getting belayed up. He unstuck the knot and rigged the rappel, again in rushed manner. Then, as he was rappelling down, the unthinkable—he rappelled off the end of his rope. He had hastily forgotten to re-equalize the knots back at the anchor.
He fell by his partner, Emil Mandysczewsky, hitting him, which slowed the fall.
Somehow, someway, like a cat that always lands on its feet, he caught a foothold, and then latched onto the wall. The ground was over six hundred feet below, certain death, and if not death, worse than death. His ankle was broken in the impact. He had fallen almost sixty feet. Still, he managed to claw his way to the belay, and the two climbed out, broken ankle and all.
“The huge adrenaline rush really like slowed down time, and I was able to react properly,” he said. “I can still remember what it was like to be falling in air, down the wall. It was so traumatic.”
Alan was out of climbing for four months but was eager to get back into the game. He gradually got back on lead, but his head was “totally gone.” “I could barely lead bolt to bolt on 5.10s at first.” Within a month of getting back to it, he was already climbing 5.12c again.
“I could have given up climbing for good then. But, I realized, I was alive, and I had a future. I was more overjoyed than ever to be alive and to be climbing. More than that, it was time to slow down a little bit. From that experience, I learned to think things through more. I was in a rush [when the accident happened], too much of a rush. I take my time more now. That’s also part of getting older, being more thoughtful and also being less self obsessed.”
He added, “It’s also interesting to note that at that time I had been climbing in the Verdon for seventeen years, and was completely at ease in this big wall terrain. I was oblivious to the exposure and performing all the regular safety and rope maneuvers unconsciously, without a second thought. I wasn’t thinking the process through anymore and an accident like this was waiting to happen to me. I was as comfortable on those walls as I was walking down the sidewalk. The problem is the consequences of a slipup on those walls is different to slipping on the sidewalk.”
In the few days I climbed with Alan in Indian Creek, that thoughtfulness he later cultivated after the accident is apparent. Never have I seen a more precise crack climber. Kalous, who was with Alan when he flashed Tague Yer Time in the Black Canyon, described his prowess as one that comes from forty years of being on the rock: “It’s a well of experience that he’s digging from, and not just power. He can dig super deep. There’s this singularity of focus that Alan has; he really knows what’s coming and knows how to read the rock. I think a lot of this comes from being an old school climber in England. Back in the day, you had to have this control; this precision, traditional climbing demanded that. His climbing is really marked by that control more than anything.”
Brette Harrington, a young professional climber, who was up on the Muir Wall with Alan, met him after he sent one of her projects in Squamish. “I was so impressed by this small British man with so much energy and a big smile,” she said. “He has so much enthusiasm, motivation, and optimism about climbing. We’ve talked about the different generations, and I’ve been deeply inspired by his outlook. Alan continues to learn from the younger generation, and takes what he knows from the older generations. He’s special in that he has never lost his spirit for climbing and can connect with people of all ages because it is climbing that brings us together.”
As a community, we respect performance, and when that stretches out so long, as it has for Alan, some might wonder where the secret lies. Without a doubt, for Alan, it is, at least, partly his enthusiasm. He’s never looking behind for his greatest days, he’s still striving for them in the moment, and the near future. Of course like anyone living so close to the edge for so long, luck is another factor. But what does he think?
“Well, for starters (other than the broken ankle) I’ve never had any serious injuries. I never had kids and those types of responsibilities either, which means I never really stopped climbing. When I’m not climbing, I don’t feel alive in the same way, so I keep climbing.”
A singular focus is something both Kalous and Harrington referred to when describing Alan. Even in the short amount of time Alan and I spent in Indian Creek and interviewing him over the phone, that word—singular—comes to mind. Each and every time we interacted, it always came back to Yosemite and free climbing on El Capitan.
“Alan has told me that the long-term projects are the most worthwhile,” Harrington added. “To choose the line that inspires you more than any other and that it will take dedication. Don’t bother with the easy ones because those memories don’t last, but go for the challenge and put in the time; it makes the difference in the end.”
His eyes, and his heart, are now set on the Pre Muir, a variation of the Muir Wall, which he feels is a better, more aesthetic line. He likes the idea of doing Freerider as well but noted that “the crowds kind of put me off for that one.”
Alan also noted that his true dirtbag roots still play to his advantage, being able to live and travel frugally and hunker down in a tent when necessary. “I don’t need a plush van, like everyone seems to have these days. I can still be a bit tough when I need to. Living in a tent allows me to be closer to nature as well, I suppose.”
And then he added, “Maybe when I’m old, I’ll get a van.”
This piece is published in The Climbing Zine Book, now available.
Ah Carne that’s a name from a long time ago, I used to climb with Alan , Mark Davis, Dirty Derek and we used to stay st the wood shed at Stony. Glad your still climbing, keep it up.