Mark Vallance, founder of the U.K.-based company Wild Country and instrumental collaborator in the production and manufacture of camming “Friends”, passed away peacefully at his home in Switzerland on April 19 following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 72.
Among his many contributions to the climbing industry, both in his home country and across the world, his most notable and innovative accomplishment, achieved alongside American Ray Jardine, was bringing the revolutionary camming “Friend” to market in 1978.
A serendipitous meeting with Jardine in Colorado while the duo were working for Outward Bound in 1972 started the long six-year road to large-scale production of Friends. A heavily protected secret at first, Vallance was one of the few people privy to the first iterations of Friends. The unnamed devices were given the code name Friends to keep them secret from other climbers, and the name stuck.
Jardine failed to obtain funding to produce Friends in the U.S. and so asked Vallance to manufacture and market the Friends in England.
“Now I had to go for it, the long unprotected lead,” wrote Vallance on the Wild Country website. “I borrowed all the money I could and got the bank to give me a second mortgage on my house. I had some stationery 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.”
Vallance famously look a lead fall at Millstone Edge in the Peak District to demonstrate the holding power of his Friends for the U.K. science and technology program Tomorrow’s World shortly after the Friends were released in 1978.
Within six months of their release Friends were being exported to sixteen different countries. The Friend, and other devices built in their image, went on to change the world of climbing. They allowed climbers to climb harder, bolder routes more safely, pushing the limits of what was achievable in climbing.
“Anyone who’s ever placed a cam owes Mark a lot,” writes Terry Fletcher on the Climber’s Club website. “I remember the first time I saw him demonstrating his new-fangled Friends on Tomorrow’s World by jumping off Millstone. It wasn’t quite hover boots but it still looked like science fiction when all you’d had was hexes and wires.”
In the U.K., as well as founding Wild Country and bringing Friends to the general market both in the U.K. and abroad, Vallance worked for several years for the British Antarctic Survey, co-founded the Foundry Climbing Wall in Sheffield—the first modern climbing wall in the country—worked as an educator for the Peak District National Park, owned an outdoor shop in the Peak District, and, after his Parkinson’s diagnosis slowed him down, was President of the British Mountaineering Council. He also published an autobiography, Wild Country: The Man Who Made Friends, in 2016.
Despite his heavy involvement and hands-on approach to his work in the industry Vallance was an extremely accomplished climber and mountaineer. He climbed on all seven continents, summitted 8,000-meter peaks and scaled world-class rock faces, including the Nose of El Capitan.
“Mark was a true gent and kept going through his long illness with grace and humour. Always a smile and a twinkle in the eye,” writes Andy Say of Vallance on U.K. Climbing. “His book is a must read for anyone interested in the warmth, humanity and insight of the guy.”