On Belay With ... David Hillebrandt

Jeremy Windsor

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jul 08, 2018

Welcome to "On Belay With..." the first in a new series of short interviews with mountain medicine folk. There's nothing clever about it - they're simply a set of questions we've probably all pondered at a belay. If you'd like to take part please get in touch!

We've managed to persuade David Hildebrandt to start us off. Thanks David! Based in rural Devon, David is a semi-retired GP. Well known to many, he is the honorary medical advisor to the British Mountaineering Council and the British Mountain Guides, ex-president of the UIAA Medcom and vice president of the ISMM. In 2003 he was involved in establishing the UK version of the UIAA/ICAR/ISMM Diploma of Mountain Medicine. David currently works as medical advisor to a commercial expedition company. His climbing and hill-walking experience spans 40 countries over 50 years. As he says, "my body seems to be wearing out but I still have a list of hill objectives and the NHS replaces body parts as required so I'm now enjoying new routing at an easy standard on cliffs spotted from my kayak."

What was the last mountain you climbed? 

Crimpeau (475m) above Capel Curig. Is it a mountain? Does it matter? It was grabbed on a lone walk plodding along at my own pace between lectures in high winds during the May diploma of mountain medicine course at PYB. I love this area since it is rarely walked, gives great views down the Ogwen Valley and over PYB to Moel Siabod. The ground is complex and it feels wild. The walk down next to a small stream is green, lush and has evidence of old farming practices.   

What does the perfect mountain day consist of? 

Good company. I remember one day when I was driving to Bosigran in West Penwith from Devon for a day on the crag. I dropped in to pick up a friend just as the rain started so we decided to put on the kettle and open some chocolate digestives. We then started browsing his collection of mountain books. I left as the rain stopped about five hours later. We had had countless mugs of tea, two packets of biscuits and read each other sections from classic books. In our imagination we had climbed new routes in Nepal, bivvied on Alpine faces, gone cragging in the Lakes, ice climbed in Scotland and Wales and dabbled elsewhere.

A fantastic day, we were dry and we had travelled the world.    

What's been your worst mountain mishap? 

On a trip to Northern India we ran out of tea bags. By luck, and with some forethought, I had dried some out in the sun on my guy ropes. Three bags to one mug but saved the trip.

More seriously I have been on a three person trip when one person fell to their death. Sad. I am still in touch with his parents 35 years later.  

What's been your best mountain day? 

So many, so much variety, so many different places in the world. I have been so lucky. Was it an ascent of the Firmin Hicks route on Mount Kenya with a bivvy on the route down when my recently met partner admitted he had just come out of prison after 8 years for GBH? I had no hesitation in offering to go back up when the abseil ropes stuck and he seemed a bit frustrated. Was it the first ascent of Roncagli on Tierra del Fuego, was it with my family climbing Pen Y Fan very early in the morning from a high summer camp the night before at Lyn Cwm llwch or an ascent of the same mountain on skis with descent to the road or an ascent of the same mountain by its north a face one winter, or, or or........?

What mountain changed your life? 

Every mountain or route climbed gives another experience. The hardest expedition of my life was on ICUs in Exeter and Plymouth. It must have affected my attitude to some degree but in reality I think it just confirmed my previous ideas.  

What's been your best bit of mountain kit? 

My old, battered DMM Cirque Ice axe. I get excited just going to my gear shed and holding it. It has been to many places, is a great all round alpine axe. We have a deep and meaningful relationship. I also stop to caress my pair of old simple DMM Flys for steeper routes with leashes and none of these modern grips at the base of the shaft which mean one cannot plunge them into scottish crud when scared.  

What makes a great climbing partner? Has anyone come close? 

Shared dreams and shared experiences. Yes several people. 

What's been your biggest mountain disappointment? 

After four, or was it five, attempts to climb Aguillera on the west side of the Patagonian Ice cap we had found the way be an unexplored valley from the sea. I then became ill and couldn't undertake more trips. A team of five from Chile and the USA climbed it in winter a few years later using satellite images, very accurate weather forecasts and an approach from Argentina. A fantastic effort by them combining mountain knowledge with modern technology. I have met one member since. They deserved the success.

What is your "dream" mountain objective? 

Sadly with decreased mobility, two new knees, lung damage from a long spell on a ventilator and other issues I now only dream of big objectives. Some lines are still in a little book I keep but I am now sometimes willing to point others towards them. When unable to speak, stoned on an ICU cocktail and recovering from illness people in neighbouring beds had no idea I was lying apparently helpless but reclimbing many routes in my mind. You never stop dreaming. I am currently slowly working away at easy lines on a stretch of unclimbed coast in North Cornwall. I found them last summer when out kayaking in the evening light. When I have done the easy lines I will write them up and others can move in. The most recent one is 160m at VD and called "There and Back". An adventure.   

Give us a mountain "tip"! 

Remember there is more to life than the mountains. (But not much more). 


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