Chris White: an ice climbing portfolio manager

Chris White, Portfolio Manager, Nezu Asia

Chris White

Chris White is currently portfolio manager at Nezu Asia Capital Management in Singapore and an active ice climber. Earlier in his career he has been active in a variety of roles including portfolio management, quants and risk at Elmwood Advisors, Alpha-Pac Japan, FRM, Schroder and Cazenove. Hedge Funds Club decided to catch up with our favourite ice-climbing portfolio manager.


Tell us about how your passion for ice climbing and alpine mountaineering started.

I grew up close to the Peak District in the UK, so getting out to the hills was always normal for me when I was young. My school was also very involved in organising trips to the mountains and other outdoor activities. I used to sail and canoe competitively as well. Inevitably, though, career took precedence for a long time, and so it wasn’t until early in the noughties that I started getting back into alpinism in a serious manner. The ice climbing was a natural outgrowth of what I’d been doing in the mountains in Japan for a long time. I found myself doing more and more solo winter trips in steeper and more challenging terrain, so it was a natural evolution to start climbing ice. At least, it seemed natural to me.


Is this something you are competing in or are you just doing it for fun?

I wouldn’t knock anyone who is a competition climber, but bashing up a wall or a bit of ice in the fastest time isn’t really what I’m trying to get out of climbing. I enjoy the whole process, from training and preparing right through to lugging your kit up thousands of meters of mountain, staying safe and alive and finally reaching the objective (sometimes). I get a huge kick from developing the skills to survive in hostile climates where humans were never really meant to live and doing things that we were never designed to do (like climbing vertical ice falls). There’s also an important testing element to the activity. Al Alveraz wrote a book called “Feeding the Rat”, where he talks about the need to test on occasion the comfortable assumptions about who and what you are, and how alpinism and climbing are good ways to stress those assumptions. It’s easy in this day and age, especialy in our industry, to develop this overblown self-image – the idea that you’re pretty handy and tough – and it’s good to actually put yourself in potentially dangerous situations where your actions have life and death consequences, and to see how you do. It’s frequently a humbling experience.


Which was your best climb ever?

It’s hard to name any single climb as being best – each one has something special. But the most personally impactful climb was probably the first solo winter climb I did in Japan, which was Mt Tsurugi up in the north Alps. It really opened my eyes to what was possible both in Japan and by me just working it out on my own. It was a really punishing three days, during which time I saw absolutely nobody, and it felt very “out there”. It’s not often that a country as crowded as Japan that you feel utterly alone.


Is there any place in the world where you haven’t been which you would like to climb?

I’d love to do Alaska for a winter. I’ve also got friends in Finland and Norway who are constantly trying to get me to go up there and do some ice climbing in the Arctic Circle, and that would be amazing. There’s also a long-standing plan with a fellow manager to get down to New Zealand and climb Mt Cook at some point. Further afield, I’d love to try something in Torres Del Paines in Patagonia, it just looks otherwordly down there.


Do you have any climbing and mountaineer heroes?

Mark Twight, the American alpinist and ice climber, is at the top of my list. He pushed the sport so much further and harder than anyone before him, and with tremendous attitude. Very punk rock, and I think it really shook the sport up. Will Gadd, the Canadian, is the complete antithesis of Twight in attitude but is definitely putting up some of the most innovative routes right now, like the Helmcken Falls spray ice climb. And of course Ueli Steck, the Swiss Machine, just amazes me – the North Face of the Eiger in under four hours, and then to go back the next year and do it in under three hours, is to my mind one of the peak endeavours in human physical and mental achievement. Finally Andy “Psychovertical” Kirkpatrick should be on everyone’s list – how some short, chubby bespectacled guy from Hull has done what he has done, and with such bling humour, is incredible.


You are 40+ now. How long can you keep your hobby up? It’s not exactly chess you’re playing…

Hey, what way to kick a guy on his 41st birthday… It’s a question I get asked a lot, though. I don’t know what the upper limit is, or even if there is one. I’ve met a guy in his 80s climbing a mountain in Japan (he did it near daily – all 1,800m of it!), and it’s not infrequent to meet people in their 70s still climbing pretty hard. I’ve seen a video of Chris Bonnington ice climbing Cascade de Lillaz in Cogne, and he’s almost in his ninth decade. And that’s the nice thing about the sport, it kind of adapts to you just as much as you adapt to it in many ways. I don’t think my love affair with climbing ice will ever end, but it will probably change over time and I’m fine with that. For the time being, though, I’m still making positive progress; each year I climb a little bit harder than the year before in general, run a little faster, and bench a little more weight. Probably the bigger element in dialling back the risk is that I’ve a young family now – my daughter is 18 months old, and so I’m more conscious than ever of the fine line between adventure and foolhardiness. I still like to push myself, but I’m less willing to trade in more marginal situations. More than anything, I’d love for her to develop her own relationship with the mountains, and I don’t want to screw that up for her by doing something dumb before she’s had that chance.


You are currently based in Singapore and have earlier worked in London, New York and Tokyo. Are these really good places for an ice climber and alpine mountaineer to be based? Or would you rather just sit in a mountain hut in Grindelwald or hang with the locals in Tasiilaq?

The ice climbing season in Sinagpore is pretty short, so I wouldn’t describe it as ideal. But it’s a good “base” in that you can get to a lot of interesting places relatively cheaply and quickly. I’ve left Singapore in the morning and been in a tent at the bottom of a mountain in Japan by the evening, for example. And the sport climbing in Krabi, Thailand, is about as good as it gets anywhere. Ideally? Tokyo is such a good place to be based. People forget that 90% of Japan is mountainous, and the breadth and access you have from Tokyo is superlative. Plus the hot spring onsens – it’s very hard to contemplate climbing in a country where a huge natural bath doesn’t await you on your return.


In your day job as a hedge fund portfolio manager, have you ever faced key-man risk questions relating to your outdoor interests?

In truth it’s never come up. I’m quite open about it, as anyone who’s looked at my LinkedIn profile will see, and occasionally clients have asked about it out of interest but not concern. It’s also surprising how many people within the industry are climbers, probably more than you’d think. Many of the guys I climb with regularly are in the industry in some capacity, but you’d never know it. There’s clearly something about the sport that attracts the same kind of people who are attracted to finance. It’s probably the combination of controlling risk, puzzling out strategies for success, and dealing with the psychological enormity of the task.


Do you approach risk in the same way on a mountain as you do in the trading room?

All risk-based endeavours must share common ground I believe. And like war, both trading and climbing are comprised of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of abject terror, so I suppose a mindset that can deal with that is a mindset that might work well both on the desk and up a mountain. That said, I’ve always believed in the markets that having edge was not enough; you need a process that manages the volatility of that edge if you’re to survive long enough for the law of large numbers to kick in and allow you to realise your goals. It’s the same in the mountains. I may not be the most talented of climbers, but I take a very methodical approach to managing risks when I’m out there. That said, it might be simpler than that; Jon Tinker is quoted in the marvellous book “Summit Fever” as saying that the essential attributes for a mountaineer are “the ability to get up early, carry heavy loads, and put one foot in front of another without complaining”. That sounds very like working in the markets.


Apart from climbing, mountaineering and the financial markets, what other passions do you have in your life?

My daughter is my other big passion. I was pretty much resigned to not having kids, and I’d gotten used to that, so when it happened I was utterly unprepared. I’m pleased to say that the indications so far are that she’s going to be quite athletic…

(Mar 2014)