Leo Houlding : “I found a way of reconciling my expeditions and my family”

Known for his many expeditions and bigwalls on the other side of the world, British climber Leo Houlding, 43 years old, is also a husband and father. He mentions this on his Instagram account, and is keen to show that going on expeditions with the family, climbing beautiful walls with young children, is possible. This is demonstrated by his latest film Two Point Four, shown for the first time in public at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Interview.

« If modern British adventure has a face, it looks a lot like Leo Houlding“, reads the Leo Houlding website. The climber, mountaineer and adventurer is known for having climbed some of the world’s most technical routes. From Antarctica and Venezuela to Patagonia and the Gorges du Verdon, Leo Houlding also ventured – with Conrad Anker, in 2007 – in the footsteps of Mallory and Irvine on Everest, to find answers to their mysterious deaths.  

At the same time, he specializes in family expeditions with his wife and two children. High-level stuff for the average person, but not for Houlding’s descendants! Interview by the fireplace in Banff, Canada.

Two point Four
a family adventure

Alpine Mag : You are here at the Banff Film Festival to present your last movie Two point four. Tell us a bit more about it!

Leo Houlding : This year, at the festival, I have my first book Close to the edge, a presentation about my work and my new film’s world premiere : Two Point Four. It’s a little different from my other films because it’s a family adventure. I have two young children : Freya who was 9 years old and Jackson who was 5 at the time of the movie. We’ve climbed a beautiful rock spire in Norway called Stetind. A beautiful 13-pitch 600 meters high wall, of 5.10. It was an amazing and challenging adventure!

Leo Houlding, November 2023, Banff, Canada. ©Zoé Charef

What i like the most
are huge cliffs in very far away places

What is your vision of climbing and expeditions now, maybe compared to what you did before?

L. H. : I still go on a lot of big expeditions, and I’ve pushed more and more into expeditions, adventures and climbing. What I like the most are huge cliffs in very far away places, with interesting journeys to get there. But in some ways, some of the expeditions I’m doing now are harder and more dangerous than ever before. But, at 43 years old now, I have done a lot of stuff so I feel like my experience and knowledge can offset the danger. When I was 21, I could be on a straight forward expedition taking huge risks because I was a stupid 21-year-old adrenaline junkie.

I learned the hard way, with a terrible accident on Cerro Torre in Patagonia that was avoidable. The trips I am doing now are hardcore and really serious but we are not being reckless. We are doing extreme things, but with a very high level of caution and experience. It’s a different danger. The Spectre Expedition was by far the most hardcore thing I’ve ever done. But I think we were doing it with more intelligence and experience than before.

Leo Houlding in Banff’s climbing gym. ©Z.C.

I can not just pause my carrer
to raise my children

On your Instagram account, you present yourself as a climber/explorer, husband/father. How do you manage to do all these?

L.H. : It is difficult. I’m a professional full time climber and explorer and that requires traveling a lot. I love to do it, but I feel a conflict in my heart between this and being a good father. What children want is your attention, not your money or your fame. They just want your attention and time.

But at the same time, it’s not like you can just pause a career like this, which is the dream I’ve had since I was a child. I cannot pause it, raise my children for 15 years and come back on expeditions that cost a hundred of thousands of euros. It doesn’t work like that.

And I have the life of my dreams. It’s just trying to find that balance. I still do travel a lot, but when I’m at home, I never go to the pub with friends, I spend every week-end with the kids, I actually don’t climb that much in the week-ends to stay as much as possible with them. And I try to never be away more than 6 months in a year, but it’s also never less than 3. Which is a lot of time. 

Is this also why you’ve been doing expeditions with them?

L.H. : Definitely. But my wife is also a climber and an adventurer and she was getting really squeezed because she looks after the kids when I’m gone and once the holidays come, we did not want to give the kids to the grandparents and do our things without them. 

I thought let’s see what we can do together as a family, and my wife was as much a driving force as me. She did not want to do small single pitch climbs with the kids. She wanted to go into the mountains and on adventures.

Even when the children were very small, like 5 and 1 year old, we tried a proper adventure in Slovenia, a long semi-technical via ferrata. We spent five days in the mountains, staying in huts. It was wonderful and it worked well! So we started to build on that system and climbed other things. You obviously have to be very selective with the objectives if climbing with small children, and ridges are the safest way of mountains. Also, the weather forecast is so good that you know what’s going to happen for the next 2 days, so you’re not going to get caught out in a storm while in the mountains. 

La famille Houlding en vacances-expédition en Norvège en 2022. ©Coll. Houlding

I found a way of reconciling
my expeditions and my family

We are climbing walls as a family, which is quite amazing! I found a way of bringing and reconciling that conflict of expeditions and family and it’s been extremely fun and every summer we’ve been doing something amazing. 

There is something about multi day and multi week expeditions. It changes, it’s not just a day running around in the mountains. You start to connect with the landscape on a different level. You became a real expedition crew. After our first adventure I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to do a proper expedition as a family like the one I do with my friends!? So I had this idea : the Wind River Ranch in Wyoming.

But the problem with wilderness expeditions is all the gear and food you have to bring for a family. This being said, I can’t carry more than 40 kg max and I have to carry everything because my wife still has to be able to carry my little boy and I don’t want my daughter to have anything. So when you have rock climbing, camping equipment, food, survival gear, everything for 14 days in the wilderness, that’s a lot, approximately 100 kg. During our trip in Europe, we rented llamas, which are perfect because they can carry 30 kg, it’s easy to look after and it is super fun for the children. We’ve been able to do some real climbs, like the east ridge of the Wolf Edge, a classical climb in north America!

Affiche du film House of the Gods sur l’expédition de Leo Houlding dans la jungle vénézuelienne. 

I think that most kids can, if you push them but keep it fun. We play games constantly. The favorite one is “20 questions” : you think of an animal and you have to guess what it is. And the secret one we keep when they get tired is story books. Harry Potter was the one we had that summer : I have it on my phone, I play it out loud, I have the phone in my pocket and we hold hands and they listen to the story so they keep up! They still have awareness and still can hear the sounds of the birds and the mountains.

We’re going on a one-year adventure

And what’s to come for you now?

L.H. : I am currently recovering from a big summer of expeditions with friends and my family. We are taking the children out of school for a year of adventure, beginning in July 2024. When they start school, we only have the holidays with them, so we decided to do this to be able to do amazing things all around the world with them. We need to prepare everything for this next step but I’m used to that. The plan is to do a big expedition every month, one that one would not really imagine doing with small children. I am really excited.