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Mark Vallance - Peak District's `Man of the Mountains'

Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2007

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Mark Vallance

`Mark Vallance is much more than just a mountaineer'

Describing Mark Vallance as a mountaineer is a bit like saying that Gary Linaker is just a footballer; of course the ex-England soccer star is much more than `just a footballer’ - but by the same token, Mark Vallance is much more than just a mountaineer!

In April 2006 Mark came to the end of a three-year stint as President of the British Mountaineering Council, the representative body for mountaineering in Britain; he is also a former Base Commander of a British Antarctic Survey team; and developer and manufacturer of the `Friend’, an innovative and invaluable rock-climbing safety aid for which his company, Wild Country, received the Queens Award for Export in 1987.

Mark & his wife Jan currently live in the village of Elton which sits high in the hills of Derbyshire’s White Peak - and could justifiably claim to be the mountaineering capital of the county.

Their home at West End Farm stands opposite a stone cottage bearing a blue plaque telling that this was once the home of Alfred Gregory, the official photographer on the Everest expedition, led by Sir John Hunt which became the first to conquer the world’s highest mountain in 1953.

`his name is legend to the rock climbing and mountaineering fraternity throughout the world'

Mark himself is an accomplished and very experienced mountaineer and has climbed in all seven continents, including major expeditions in the Himalayas. In fact, Mark and mountaineering are synonymous, and his name is legend to the rock climbing and mountaineering fraternity throughout the world, if not for his climbing exploits then for the equipment made by Wild Country, the manufacturing company he ran successfully for twenty years.

Yet despite reaching the heights of commercial success in the business world, Mark prefers getting high by climbing mountains! His best moment, he says, was `reaching the summit of Xixapangma, the highest mountain in Tibet at 8,020m in 1990”.

Mark was born in 1944 just across the border in the Cheshire town of Altrincham, but has spent most of his adult life living in the Derbyshire Peak District, moving to Chesterfield when he was fifteen, and then to Hope, Foolow, Bakewell, and finally, three years ago, to Elton.

He has climbed for most of his 61 years, being introduced to the mountains of the Lake District as a boy, and his passion for the wild places of hills and mountains – and for climbing them, has remained with him ever since.

His parents were both ministers of religion serving the Unitarian and Free Christian Church, and his father, Rev. Arthur W Vallance was an eminent theologian and the author of many religious works; he was also a much loved and greatly respected minister to the congregations at both Great Hucklow and Elder Yard Chapel, Chesterfield from 1959 until 1984.

Following his father’s retirement, Mark’s parents emigrated to New Zealand where his mother, Rev. Elspeth Vallance continued to serve the local Unitarian congregation in Blenheim.

Sadly, Arthur Vallance died aged 88 in 1990 and there is a memorial to his memory in the grounds of the Unitarian Chapel at Great Hucklow.

Mark was educated at Abbotsholme School, just south of Ashbourne and then at Goldsmiths College (now University) in London where he met Jan, who was then a drama student. He left with a teaching certificate in physical education and in 1969 joined the British Antarctic Survey team at Halley Bay, whilst Jan, who holds a first-class honours degree in English and a Science masters degree went off to the Falkland Islands to teach at the Secondary School in Stanley.

Mark spent two years at Base Z, the most southerly of Britain’s Antarctic bases, the place where the hole in the ozone layer was first discovered.

In his first year he was employed as a mountaineer to help the scientists, and drove teams of huskies, transporting men and equipment from place to place in the frozen wastes. In his second year he was appointed Base Commander, with responsibility for the safety and management of twenty-three men who all lived and worked in a series of inter-linked buildings thirty feet beneath the snow & ice. Access was down shafts from the surface, and most of the work done there was geophysics, ionospherics, meteorology and glaciology.

In 1972 Mark went from the Antarctic to Colorado in the USA, stopping off in the Falklands where he and Jan were married, before spending the summer as an instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School.

In Colorado he met and worked alongside American mountaineer Ray Jardine, who had invented a new rock-climbing safety device and they worked together to develop and produce it, but couldn’t get the funding in the U.S.A.

Back in Derbyshire, Mark was the Education Officer for the Peak Park, and after five years with Derbyshire County Council as Youth & Schools Liaison Officer he launched his own company, `Wild Country’ in Tideswell in January 1978.

“Actually, I gave up my day job just a year after our daughter Jody was born and started manufacturing mountaineering equipment at the old boot factory in Eyam, before moving to the industrial estate in Tideswell”, he explains.

The most successful of the equipment manufactured and marketed by Wild Country was the rock-climbing safety device known as the `Friend’, which used a radical new design concept, ingeniously incorporating a series of cams which guaranteed additional grip and revolutionised rock-climbing safety throughout the world. The `Friend’ was launched in January 1978, and within six months was being exported to fifteen different countries around the globe.

It featured on BBC Television’s `Tomorrow’s World’ programme, and was so successful that company manufacturing doubled every year for eight years, and in 1987 Wild Country received the prestigeous Queens Award for Industry.

The company manufactured other outdoor products too, including tents and camping equipment and Mark opened another branch in Alfreton to cope with demand, and at one time had 90 employees on his books.

Despite the success of Wild Country, Mark still found time for his own outdoor pursuits and thrived on the physical challenge they presented; in 1982 he achieved the almost impossible by completing the Bob Graham Round – a 72 mile course in the Lake District during which he scaled all 42 summits, totalling 24,000 feet in just 24 hours!

In 1986 he opened a shop in Hathersage called `Outside’, which sold climbing and other outdoor equipment and clothing, and five years later, along with Dick Turnbull launched `The Foundry Climbing Wall’ on Mowbray Street in Sheffield. The 14m-high climbing wall is Mark’s brainchild and is sited in a 5,000 sq.ft old foundry, where it has been an increasingly popular training and practice venue for both novice climbers and experts alike ever since.

Mark’s passion for climbing continues undiminished but his `day job’ lost its attraction when he reached his early fifties; he says modestly,

“I was never a businessman, I simply learned as I went along and everything I did from the very beginning was hands-on; from staff employment and deployment to designing, testing, manufacturing and distributing lots of different products. With Wild Country and The Foundry it was all hands-on; to run a successful business - or to run a business successfully - you need to know exactly what’s happening so it must be hands-on”.

Mark found that after reaching fifty and with virtually three inter-related businesses to run, `hands-on’ was becoming increasingly impossible; he was having to rely on other people’s judgement, and in 1997 he decided it was to be `hands-off’, so he retired from business altogether and sold up.

The following year he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, yet despite this and surgery on his spine last year, which says Jan, has “slowed him down a bit” Mark still keeps in shape with frequent trips to the gym, and by walking - and goes regularly to the climbing wall he developed at the Foundry in Sheffield.

These days, as well as being President of the British Mountaineering Council Mark is also a council member of the UIAA, an international body of mountaineers, whose latest project continues to push the boundaries of innovation. He and his team have recently produced an indestructible map, and he says enthusiastically:

“ It’s a mountaineering map of the Lake District, published by the British Mountaineering Council, and it has just won the `Product of the Year’ award from the Outdoor Writer’s Guild, - in the first three months since publication it has sold over three and a half thousand copies!”

A man of many talents, Mark is giving a series of illustrated talks this spring on behalf of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust about his adventures in Antarctica.

`Penguins & Huskies’ is scheduled at a variety of venues in the Peak and offers not only a knowledgeable and enthralling evening’s entertainment, but also an opportunity to meet Mark Vallance - a man who is much more than `just a mountaineer’!

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