Mark Vallance has died at age 72 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Among his many contributions, he will be remembered for bringing Friends, the original cam, to the world of climbing after founding the company Wild Country.
He was an accomplished and very experienced mountaineer who’d climbed on all seven continents, including major expeditions in the Himalayas.
For decades, Vallance and mountaineering were 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 20 years.
His best moment, he said, was “reaching the summit of Xixapangma, the highest mountain in Tibet at 8,020 m in 1990.”
Vallance was born in 1944 just across the border in the Cheshire town of Altrincham, but had spent most of his adult life living in the Derbyshire Peak District.
He climbed for over five decades, 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.
Vallance was educated at Abbotsholme School, just south of Ashbourne and then at Goldsmiths College (now University) in London where he met his soon-to-be-wife 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.
He 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 1972, Vallance 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, Vallance 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 called Wild Country in Tideswell in January 1978.
Vallance said the following about how Wild Country got started:
“When Ray left for California in September he must have thought that yet another attempt to get Friends off the ground had failed, but a few weeks later everything started to fall into place. Now I had to go for it, the long unprotected lead. I borrowed all the money I could and got the bank to give me a second mortgage on my house. I had some stationary printed and started to place orders for tools and components. Finally, in November, I took a deep breath and gave up my job – no runners on this climb – either success, or a big, big fall: and that’s how Wild Country and the Friends revolution was born.”
The Friend was the most successful of the equipment manufactured and marketed by Wild Country. It used a radical new design concept, ingeniously incorporating a series of cams which guaranteed additional grip and revolutionized rock climbing safety throughout the world. It was launched in January 1978 and within six months was being exported to 15 different countries.
The company manufactured other outdoor products like tents and camping equipment and Vallance opened another branch in Alfreton , at one time he had 90 employees on his books.
Despite the success of Wild Country, he 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 115-kilometre course in the Lake District during which he scaled all 42 summits, totalling 7.3 kilometres 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 14-metre-high climbing wall was his brainchild and is in an old foundry, where it has been an increasingly popular training and practice venue for both novice climbers and experts alike ever since.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
In April 2006, Vallance ended a three-year stint as President of the British Mountaineering Council, the representative body for mountaineering in Britain.
Countless climbs, from single-pitch to alpine big walls, were opened and established thanks to the equipment that Wild Country brought us.
Vallance was much more than just a mountaineer and his contributions to the sport of climbing forever changed its history.