This week the Footsteps on the Mountain team was privileged to catch up with champion rock climber Bill Scheidt, who has completed many first ascents on bold new routes whose names speak for themselves: Certain Death, Mile High Terror, and perhaps his defining achievement The Devil’s Bowels After A Curry, a dark and forbidding route known for its unpleasant stonefall.
Bill is known for a very pure style of climbing, and over the years has become an outspoken critic of climbers who employ artificial aids to enable them to complete an ascent. But it’s not just use of pitons and supplementary oxygen that make his blood boil. In today’s interview he turns his attention on sunbathers whom he sees as bringing the ancient art of sun worshipping into disrepute through unfair means.
FM: Bill, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. What is it about modern holidaymakers that so annoys you?
BS: What annoys me is the slipping of standards, and gradual acceptance of cheating as the norm. Rarely a day goes by now when I don’t log into MyFace and see someone praising someone else for their wonderful holiday to some beach on an island the other side of the world, and congratulating them for the amazing sun tan they acquired while they were there. What that someone else doesn’t say is that to reach that island they got on a plane piloted by someone else, and arrived at an airport where they were met by another person who drove them to their hotel. When they arrived at the hotel, they even had a porter to carry their suitcase up to their room for them. Oh, and that’s another thing. Some of those suitcases have wheels – they’re not even proper suitcases these days. By the time they arrive on that beach, before they’ve even started to sunbathe, what they don’t tell you is six, maybe seven other people have been involved in getting them there, and they’ve used all sorts of artificial aids in the process.
FM: But is that such a big problem?
BS: Well, you could argue that sunbathing is an individual sport, and that person didn’t actually sunbathe on that beach by themselves, or you could argue the other way and say that sunbathing is a team sport, and that person ended up sunbathing as a result of teamwork. I can accept that argument, but there’s more. As soon as that person lies down on that beach towel, he starts applying suncream. Now using suncream shields you from the sun, so it lessens the risk, the danger involved in the act of sunbathing. It can also help to boost your tan, so straight away you can say that copper colour has not been acquired by fair means. Use of sun cream is doping, without question, and has no place in the sport of sunbathing. Any claim to achievement is negated by the use of suncream. And to make matters worse, many sunbathers don’t even apply their own suncream onto their backs; they employ a Sherpa to do it for them.
FM: When Hollery and Turding completed their pioneering first 24 hour sunbathe at Mercury Bay, the world’s hottest beach with sand so warm you can fry eggs and bacon on its surface in just 16 seconds, they used Factor 50 throughout, and even had a support team to come over and splash on cream at regular intervals. It was almost like a military campaign, but it had never been done before and few people thought it was even possible to sunbathe without shirts at that temperature. Are you accusing them of being dopers?
BS: I’ve made my point clear. In those days nobody knew any better. Sadly 60 years later there’s still a lot of ignorance about. Many of these so-called sunbathers go on to make careers as nutritional speakers. They tell an enthralled audience of non-sunbathers about how they acquired that perfect tan. But that audience doesn’t know any better. They applaud and idolise the person on stage for their tan, but nobody picks them up on the means by which they acquired it. So they went to such-and-such an island on the other side of the world, and lay on a beach and became as brown as a wholemeal mud sandwich in chocolate sauce. And that’s all that matters, not that somebody else virtually dragged them onto that beach, and they used performance-enhancing substances when they got there.
FM: You made your name completing death-defying routes with 360 degree overhangs, solo, and with no artificial aids. Furthermore, you did many of them practically naked in sweltering heat. There are some amazing old photographs of your climbs, and if there were colour cameras in those days, I expect your skin would have been rosier than a blushing strawberry in a vat of tomato ketchup. Tell us a little bit about those days.
BS: When I climbed up Lady Widdecombe’s Chimney on the Grippelhorn in just my underpants, the thought of attaching my nuts to a carabiner didn’t even cross my mind. It was anathema. Use of any artificial aid is an insult to other climbers who have ascended the route by fair means, like hanging by their fingernails, or jamming parts of their anatomy into whatever cracks are available. When I got down from that climb I remember lying in my tent shedding my skin like a snake. An entire layer of me peeled off like I was being skinned alive. It was painful, and there wasn’t an inch of me that wasn’t in agony. I felt like I had been flayed with a cat ‘o nine tails and smeared in salt while a family of epileptic tailors tickled me with needles. But the tan I had afterwards made me feel very proud. That tan had been earned like few people earn them these days. When I think of those cheaters doping up with sun cream it makes me mad. Man, it makes me mad.
[At this point we have to pause the interview. Steam has been gradually rising out of Bill’s ears as our conversation has progressed, and imperceptibly singeing his forelock. For a few brief seconds, neither of us realises his hair has caught fire. Suddenly he jumps up from his chair in a panic. I douse the flames with my glass of gin and waft the smoke away with my handkerchief. Bill has been badly shaken by the incident, but true professional that he is, he sits down again and calmly continues.]
BS: Man, those cheating scumbags, lying on the beach minding their own business and using sun cream while I toil my way up a sheer cliff in just my underpants, trying my damnedest to make things as hard for myself as possible. And what makes me absolutely furious is just before I reach the top some idiot peers over the edge having walked up using the tourist route. It would not surprise me to learn they had sandwiches on the way up to provide an artificial energy boost. I swear they’re laughing at me, and yet they wouldn’t know a technical problem if it slapped them in the face with the straps of their climbing harness. Unless they’re software developers or engineers, of course.
[I look up from my notebook and scratch my head.]
BS: I should point out that I would never use a climbing harness.
FM: Have you ever had any regrets?
BS: Well I sometimes wish I’d never climbed in my underpants. My crown jewels have never been fully exposed to the elements like they might have been.
FM: What do you say to those people who say they don’t care if they use sun cream because it’s not a competition, so the concept of cheating is meaningless. They’re just there to have a good time and enjoy themselves, and applying sun cream makes it safer and more relaxing. They can simply lie back on their sun loungers and read their copies of Hello magazine without having to worry about skin cancer.
BS: They use sun loungers? You don’t know how much that question maddens me. When I was a young boy learning the sun bathing ropes lying on Cojones Beach back home in Scrotum County I used to dream of getting skin cancer. I used to thrive on that element of danger, and sun bathing isn’t true sun bathing without it. And as for competition – are you telling me those people don’t go back to work and show off their tans to their colleagues, comparing forearms? Are you telling me they’re not just doing it for the bragging rights? It’s a competition all right, only they don’t tell anyone they used sun cream. They don’t want anyone thinking they’re dopers. The bronzing of their flesh is all that matters, not whether they acquired it by fair means.
FM: You’ve completed many groundbreaking ascents over the years in a pure style, often with your shirt off. Is it becoming harder to acquire a really good suntan as the years go by?
BS: Well, my face is quite pale these days, and some people say it’s because the longer I’ve clung to my views the further my head has disappeared up my ass, but I think that’s harsh. There are times when I wonder if I’m losing my grip on reality, missing out on the alternative perspective and losing sight of the wonderful diversity which exists in the world – that some people actually like lying on the beach doing nothing and I should let them be, and those hikers who walked up the tourist route had a perfect right to climb the mountain in a way that works for them. But I don’t think so. I’ll keep climbing in my underpants because it’s the only way I know. The skin on my thighs is often so raw that it peels off in sheets, but will I apply suncream there – and call myself a doper? No, I will not. I’ll never compromise on my principles. Imagine if Lance Armstrong robbed your grandmother – that’s how bad I would feel.
FM: Bill, thanks for your time today. It’s been a fascinating discussion. In next week’s interview we’ll be talking to Lord Lucan about whether Father Christmas is a Sagittarius.