Interview with alpinist Matt Helliker

Close-up of alpinist Matt Helliker smiling

Matt, we hear you are back in the UK for two weeks, can you tell us where you are and what you’re up to?

I’ve been back in the UK to rock climb and to also do a series of lectures and to show my last film that I featured in “Citadel”

Do you come back to the UK often or is the draw of the European mountains too much to resist?

Yes often, climbing in the UK is very important to me, I don’t know anywhere where else where the rock types and the landscapes are so diverse.

Climbing on our sea cliffs and mountains really gives a magical experience and one that can be taken for granted if you only climb ther.

I guess, because I've climbed all over the world, I can see now what it is we have on our own doorstep, and is something I’m trying to take a greater advantage of.

Do you still like to climb in the UK, if so where are your favourite spots?

Growing up in the SW and the adventures I’ve had rock climbing in these areas makes places like the sea cliffs of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and South Wales along with the inland outcrops in Somerset like Cheddar and Avon Gorge all favourite spots for me.

But as well as these places, I love climbing and just being in our mountains, Snowdonia the Lake District and, of course Scotland, a place where I truly learnt all the skills to become a Alpinist.

Scotland in winter really does toughen you up and once you have a few Scottish winter seasons under your belt then you will find climbing in the Alps and the Greater Ranges a much more feasible prospect.

You must have been chuffed when climbing became an official Olympic sport this summer. Can you give us some of your thoughts on this?

That's an interesting one. Within the climbing community, there are really mixed feelings on this.

Myself, I can’t say I’m chuffed, I see climbing in all its forms, Rock, Ice, Mixed, Indoor, Boulder as a “free sport” like surfing, and for people who don’t understand the sport, see “climbing” as one thing, hence why the format for the Olympics really is strange as 1 athlete will have to compete in all events, technical, speed and boulder.

Anyone understanding the sport and how you train for these things would know that these are completely different events to prepare for. I think for climbing to go down the whole commercial route for the shake of Olympic fame would but a shame I think.

Can you give us a bit of an insight into a climber’s life? How many days a week do you climb/guide? How many hours a day do you spend climbing/guiding?

As a professional climber, ever day is pretty much full of either climbing or training for climbing and yes also guiding. Climbing is a lifestyle and defiantly something that I live and breathe, If i’m not doing it i’m thinking about it, its an obsession for sure.

How important is preparation for a climb and what are the most vital contents of your rucksack when you head out?

Preparation is so important for a big climb, if i’m not well trained and fuelled for a route then mentally it already becomes a bigger challenge.

When packing for a climb where you will be carrying your pack then keeping things light is so important and apart from carrying the vital pieces of equipment for climbing, having the food that keeps you going going is key.

At times on a big cold hard alpine face, your mind can go from feeling positive to “get me out of here” in the space of minutes, having the correct nutrition in these “negative” moments can be the difference between abseiling off or cracking on!!

In terms of nutrition, how do you keep your body fuelled on a long climb?

If I’m doing a route in the mountains, it's important to keep up the power levels to stop that “hitting the wall” feeling.

Alpinism is not like a conventional sport where if you have enough or just feel wasted you stop. With alpinism, if you stop because you feel tired, you die! So I fuel myself on these type of routes with energy gels and a few home made energy balls made from Purition. They are lightweight to carry and get into the system quickly.

When I stop for an overnight, I have a dehydrated meal and before I sleep, a Purition shake, which I just mix with water, which helps with my recovery overnight to feel charged again for the next day.

How important is your all round day to day nutrition for helping you reach your personal goals?

Being a climber, strength to weight ratio is super important and really is the difference between topping out or not on a climb. I take my nutrition very seriously. I’m a vegetarian and really watch what I eat and when I eat it.

I feel my nutrition is very complex, due to the fact that because I take part in all disciplines within our sport, it's really hard to get the food right to feel light on a climb but then to also feel strong on a long walk in to a mountain with a heavy pack. But for sure, I feel if I get my training correct for a project, then my nutrition must also be adapted and match my training and project goals.

It really is a deep subject, but yes in short I feel that training and nutrition are equally as important to reach my goals.

Do you follow any particular kind of diet – paleo, vegan, gluten free etc?

I’m a vegetarian and over the summer I’ve been experimenting with a ketogenic diet, I liked it, and felt that I really leaned out, but kept my power levels up, it didn’t give me the “downs” of crash dieting for a climb to get light which I had done before but I felt that my weight dropped and has stayed consistent.

I went from 75kg to 70kg in 3 weeks. I didn’t lose much fat as I've not got much to lose but I felt that I lost muscle bulk, but I still kept my power. Its a diet of 5% carbs, 25% protein, 75% fats, It's really hard to get the balance, especially the carbs, as there are so much of this in everything.

I used a App called “MyFitnessPlan” to measure my intake, which helped a lot.

Some top tips for those looking to get into climbing?

The UK is a amazing place to climb at all levels and we have some of the best indoor walls to learn on. If your keen to start, then watch out because its addictive but I would say that going to your local wall is a good start to learn the basics of movement and rope skill if its roped climbing your wanting to get into, or if its bouldering then thats even easier, most walls have areas for both.

Once you master indoors, then get outside to our sea and mountain cliffs for the full experience but maybe before you do its worth getting some advice and to take a course from a national mountain centre a local guide or instructor.

At what stage in your climbing career did you realise that nutrition impacted on your performance?

About 5 years ago, when I felt that my training had plateaued, I felt that I needed to change something else to improve my climbing and it was my nutrition, I became a vegetation and really started to work out what was best for my power levels and weight management. It worked…I’ve never been climbing so hard!

Do you always pack emergency food and drink supplies in case of emergencies? 

Maybe a extra bar but nothing more, just counting on there won’t be any emergencies i guess!

What nutritional advice would you give to anyone looking to become a serious climber?

Eat smart, eat natural, stay light, stay hungry!

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