The Countdown.

 

The grains in an egg timer.Dad, my niece, Cloe, Mum and my nephew Jake from a long time ago. cloe and Jake are now grown up and married.

Whispering white grasped by the wind was thrown down the granite V-groove, fortunately the grey overhang capping a dog-leg in the groove, protected me. Spindrift flowed – grains in an egg timer – the snow caught in the granite cracks that laced the steep surrounding walls and made small dunes. The sand-spindrift measured time, it marked time – grains, we are all just bloody grains – a lifetime, our time, our only time… catching the last lift was going to be close – the last lift to take us back to the valley was at 4.30pm.    

Tim Neill and I had caught the first cable car from La Palud, the small village with its stone roofs and steep narrow roads above Courmayeur in Italy to exit at Pointe Helbronner and after a look at the West Wall of The Tour Ronde, we skied to the base of Pointe Adolphe Rey and a flaring v-groove. The groove had been climbed on 23rd Oct 2014 by Jean-Marc Chanoine and Denis Trento but before this, for the first ascent, the groove was climbed by the driven and tenacious Erhard Loretan who died before his time in 2011,aged 52. The groove appeared fitting for the first climb of my alpine winter.

Tim climbed the first ice pitch and I climbed the technical V-groove capped by a roof, and as I pulled into the higher groove, the spindrift for some reason stopped until I hung from two pitons and belayed. The walls were flecked with the white of quartz and the white of snow. Looking out from the confines, out across the wastelands of the Vallee Blanche, I watched clouds – like familiar old people nearing the end of their time ,slowly creeping across the glacier before shrouding the mountains.

Tim reached me and checked his watch, it was 2pm. We had to skin back to the top lift at Punta Helbronner which, given our un-acclimatised condition, was not going to be quick. “Shall we abseil.” I suggested. “You lead it, you’ll be quick.” I grabbed the rack, Tim sorted the ropes and then I set-off using my hard won Canadian drag and hook and pull technique. The climbing was easier than the second pitch but the rock had deteriorated and being quick was made even more difficult because I didn’t fancy killing Tim today as he was belayed in the groove below and anything I set free would hit him.

Reaching the crest, dervishes of snow wound around loose blocks of granite. I rigged a belay and Tim joined me before tying tat around a large spike to begin the abseiling and the weaving sprint through the deep blue crevasses of the glacier.

“It’s quarter past four, we’re not going to make it.” Tim delivered the news but apart from being expensive, it was not really that bad, the Torino Hut was open housing the workers who were working on a new cable car station. It wouldn’t have been bad anyway; I had bivouacked in  closed for the day Téléphérique stations quite a few times before.

Inside the Torino Refuge, white painted walls with hand written chalked sentences in several languages, dull yellow light, shadows, wood beams and wood furniture, stacked bags of wood chip to feed the boilers, yellow patterned plastic tablecloths – this is the world on the summit of an alpine mountain in winter. Behind encased walls, life and the world is separated. I felt like a child, safe, protected by the family home while a storm rages outside. Sorting gear in the boot room, a cat that looked like a racoon helped. Tim and I had decided to climb the next day, what was to lose, we were already up and our acclimatisation was improving by the hour.

I received the text from my sister as I woke at 6am the following morning, “Mum admitted to emergency admission unit, we’ve been called in, it’s not looking good.” I sat in the dull yellow light of the hut – the dark outside was dense and cold and lonely.

My Mum was not going to make it through the day.

Tim and I returned to the valley, the sleety-snow stuck to the thick and warped stone roof-tiles in Courmayeur. People dressed in hefty clothes walked, heads bowed. The world was dark and cold and life to me at the moment, with a million images from the past spinning through my mind, appeared short.

My Mum died at approximately 11am that morning.

 

Tim Neill skinning to have a look around Cirque Maudit .

Tim Neill approaching the line.

Tim having just pulled around the capping roof and dog-leg on pitch two..

Tim approaching the belay on pitch two.

Torino Cat helps with the rope.

Torino Cat helps with the rack.

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After the Event.

Matt Pascoe, an Australian with a particular penchant for going up at break neck (which he was very good at)… or, on a rare occasion, ejecting big time but always while wearing a smile.

The hues were golden and to the worn fingertips, the orange rock was cool. White chalk dots traced winding trails. Weeping tufas glistened in the early morning sun. The dust beneath the overhanging cliff was crushed bone and the vista, while standing and looking-out from a million year old platform of dead creatures, was autumnal – trees shone a traffic light radiance.

The climbing on, Les Bruixes, Terradets is possibly some of the most suited to my style, its physical and sustained and generally there are big holds and rests via knee bars. The climbing made me happy. On many of the climbs, the hardest move would often be at the half way point, but often there would be a sting, just one hard finale to keep you on your sticky rubber toes. Over the course of three weeks it became common to see people ejected from the very top of a climb. I let go from a few on-sight attempts while longingly looking at the chain and when this happened, I laughed and then celebrated in the effort and the battle and my exhaustion. Sometimes while being lowered I speculated if I could have tried harder, I analysed what I could have done different and how I could improve but as I hit the ground I was always smiling and enthusing… letting go meant I could do it all again.

Les Bruixes, in general, is high class and reasonably top-end and if you don’t climb 7c and above you will soon run out of objectives. Over a three week period I climbed routes graded from 7a+ to 8a and the feeling of being a climber, only of average ability, was strong. Regularly people were on-sighting 7c, 7c+ or 8a and 8a+ and 8b were grades of climbs successfully summited on, nearly, a daily basis . The crag was busy, especially at the weekend – Americans, Catalans, Canadians, Australians, Poles, Dutch, Brits, German; the craic was good, I don’t think I have ever experienced such a feeling of camaraderie and psyche for fellow climbers. I was inspired and heartened.

I’m embarrassed to say rock climbing for me was not always as enjoyable and relaxed and at times in the past I would have struggled with being average. Watching some of the people climbing on Les Bruixes, I could see a former self from about fifteen years ago, from a time when I mistakenly considered myself good because I had climbed E7 – from a time when I was not so happy in other aspects of my life and climbing, to counter the bad, was placed exceptionally high to make me feel better. This attitude was always going to lead to disappointment, because climbing, much the same as anything where so much weight is placed, will, at some point, kick you in the teeth. We are all just human and in the words of Sly Stallone, “gravity is a bitch”. In days long gone, I would quietly measure myself against others at the crag; I remember thinking, being a person who climbs harder routes would somehow improve standing, lead to popularity and acceptance, make me a better person. Failing on a climb in those days was very disappointing – I judged myself, my worthiness – I questioned if I had trained hard enough, everything was measured by how I had performed on a climb and if I was not performing to what I perceived was the best of my ability, I felt a failure. Fortunately I am reasonable strong upstairs and this feeling would not last long, I suppose deep-down, I knew that being a good climber does not mean you are a good person and I’d move on, try the next thing and celebrate in the successes. Placing so much pressure on myself, back in the day, so much pressure from something which should have been fun, made climbing at times more stressful than the stresses I was trying to escape.

Sport climbing must be one of the few activities where success and failure is so black and white – success is getting to the top without falling or hanging – failure is letting go and ejection. Sport climbing at a busy crag is spectator sport, it spotlights success, it highlights failure, that’s if you see falling as failure and not a journey, and if you push yourself and want to improve on previously climbed grades, you are going to fail and  fall and fail and fall and fail again and again but if you don’t like to fail or to be seen failing or if you judge yourself against your climbing ability, you are going to have a very mentally bruising time. Failure and accepting failure is part of pushing and learning and learning to fail with dignity and acceptance, while still in control to analyse and put into practice what you have gleened, I think, is a big part of succeeding and in the end this is what makes for a better person, accepting failure and falling with dignity and a laugh.  

I vividly remember climbing in 2000 with Tom Briggs on a busy Blue Scar in Yorkshire. I had not long been back from Peru and my rock climbing standard was low from time spent in the hills. Tom floated up an E5 that I thought I would also like to lead but when I hit the crux, the wheels fell from my psyche-bike and I plummeted… and I plummeted repeatedly. Instead of gracefully accepting that personal climbing abilities go up and down and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone apart from yourself and instead of enjoying being out with a friend, I  became frustrated and shouted to Tom in a loud voice – loud enough so everyone could hear, how I had been to Peru and how weak I felt and how I would normally find the climb easy. In the end I gave up and was lowered and Tom re-climbed so I could second but not before he said, “Well Nick, you can be sure of one thing, everyone on the crag knows you have been to Peru and would normally easily climb E5.” I’m glad to say that it was going dark as Tom left the ground because the colour of my face resembled the setting sun. 

Climbing at Les Bruixes over the last three weeks has been fascinating, watching people and the different way individuals accept failure, or don’t, and the reasons why, in some cases, that failure has resulted in screaming and tantrums, excuses, sulking and generally attempting to blame anything apart from the obvious. I’m happy to say from our group of six, the support and encouragement for each other was fantastic and healthy, there was not a single case of the dolly being thrown or performance anxiety, perceived greatness, envy or sulking and because of this healthy and supportive atmosphere everyone had a great time and a really fun trip. Climbing will bite back, no-matter who you are and accepting this, accepting that no matter who you think you are and how good you think you climb or should climb, you will never have continually improving days, it’s an impossible scenario and it’s a fact of life that some days, for whatever reason, will be better or worse than others.  

I love climbing – I love rock climbing, ice climbing, the mountains, mixed, but it has taken a lot of self-analysis and getting my life to a reasonably happy, satisfied place and growing-up to get to this point – a point where I truly enjoy and have fun and if I fall and fail, generally I scream as I fly through the air and then as I am lowered, I laugh because its fun to try and everybody fails on occasion and no-one cares and you know what, the sooner we all learn to laugh, the sooner we will all be having fun and the sooner life will become better and when this happens the climbing will be what it should be, enjoyable.

To finish, although a very well used quote, so used it’s almost a cliché, but a quote well worth repeating and remembering is the one by Alex Lowe, “The best climber in the world is the one that has the most fun.”

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It’s All About the Number 8?

8a was a grade I wanted to climb but it was a grade that alluded due to a multitude of reasons, the main ones being my inability to remain focused on a single climb, enjoying traditional climbing more than bolt clipping and taking big breaks in rock climbing while going to the mountains or winter climbing. I also think a lack of my technical ability played a part as you just can’t throw yourself up an 8a, well, I can’t anyway.  

Over the years, especially the more recent years, I always felt 8a was a gap in my CV as it is a bench mark, it’s like Grade VIII in Scottish winter, WI 6 on ice or E7 on trad, so when I successfully clipped the chains a few days ago on my first 8a it was super satisfying. The climb which popped my 8a cherry was Bon Viatge, Les Bruixes, Terradets, it took two and a half days and approximately five attempts before, on the sixth, it went. Since climbing Bon Viatge I have thought and chatted a lot about why 8a was important to me and I concluded that 8a was always a grade and style, another planet from what I envisaged was possible for me several years ago.

But, and for me it’s a big but, I can’t get past the fact that in some ways, for some people, it appears to be more about the number, not so much about the climb, the situation, the experience, the company… or does it? Many times people have said to me, “Go to this climb, that climb, find one that suits you, this one is easy touch.” Which suggests that any 8a would do as long as I could climb it, which in turn suggests that it’s not about the climb, its more about the grade of the climb and this makes me ask, is it all just about ego which in turn led me to wonder, how much in climbing is about pushing personal boundaries and how much it is about ego and is there is much difference and this led to me wondering, why improving the grade you climb, is so important to climbers in general? This is not a go at sport climbing or people who focus on climbing harder, because this scenario can be used for any aspect of climbing – traditional climbing, ice, mixed, bouldering, mountaineering – but why is pushing the grade important and is it a bad thing?

I think the difference for me on Bon Viatge, compared to the other four 8a’s I’ve attempted in the past is, I enjoyed the moves, the style and the experience and it is in Spain not Wales where the sport climbing is mediocre and the traditional climbing is some of the best in the world and it’s certainly a fact that I have always enjoyed the psychological aspect of climbing more than the physical and doing hard moves or even stepping from the ground on something that I know will mentally test me is always going to be a more memorable and rewarding experience.

Anyway, all said and done, old punter mountaineer climbs 8a, chest puffed, ego fluffed even though I’ve missed the boat and everybody and his dog climb 8a nowadays, so all in all I guess it must nearly  be time for the mountains again and to get weak ;-)

Lucy Creamer warming up on El Latido del Miedo, certainly not her first 8a!

Lucy on El Latido del Miedo

Another day in the Terradets office.

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“We all make our own lives, right?”

“We all make our own lives, right? We have made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

While watching a trailer for The European Film Tour, the above is the comment in the opening sequence. It’s a powerful and provocative statement – not thinking about the full impact, or who it was impacting upon, I possibly would have said something similar several years ago, “We all make our own lives right? We have made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

It’s a skill being interviewed and expressing exactly what you mean and hitting the target for whom it is aimed. It’s a bigger skill saying something that resonates with everyone and it’s a truly massive skill to be able to say something that inspires at all levels and continues, through time, to inspire — think Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr for this last one!  

I watched the European Film Tour trailer and I think I know what the person speaking was attempting to say, I think what was said is supposed to inspire but what I heard in my head was, “We all make our own lives right?”  and in my head the dialogue continued: Well, we do if we grow up with parents who love us, a safe and stable childhood, clean water, food on the table, an education, somewhere to live away from crime and drugs and abuse, good health and then, possibly we have a chance to actually make something of our lives and possibly rise above what is expected and deviate from the path, the path we have paved for us in a world where politicians and people with power want us to toe the line and walk along – that’s what he was trying to say I think and hope. But there are millions of people who don’t ” we all make our own lives right?” Certainly there are people who make it even though life has given them the shitty end of the stick and they should be given massive credit for this, these people are truly inspirational but for those who don’t, for those who end up in prison, addicted, falling ill, dying young, homeless, alcoholic, unemployed, outcast, well, I don’t think they should be made to feel even more shitty and they should be given encouragement and support. They certainly do not need ”we all make their own lives, right?” Their lives are made for them, right?

And as for “We have all made the choices that have put us where we are today.” Well, the privileged, educated, lucky, fortunate, children brought up in a safe environment, children given the correct support from young — these people possibly have “made the choices that have put them where they are today” and if they are unhappy with their lives, their choice, I agree, get out and do something about it but I’m sure children growing up on a deprived inner-city housing estate, or kids living in the slums of Lima, Delhi, Rawalpindi, Kathmandu, São Paulo, etc, etc, etc… will not have had any choice at all and if they were fortunate enough to actually see this trailer and hear this commentary, which they never will, I would imagine they may have another point of view from “we have all made the choices that have put us where we are today.”

It’s a very fine line we walk in our privileged lives when making films and writing, it’s a fine line between inspiring and insulting and sounding ignorant and it’s a line that constantly needs addressing ,because then and only then we will raise awareness and good will be done from what we do and lets not fool ourselves, what we do is privileged. .

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“It Takes a Big Day (Dog!) to Weigh a Ton.” Climbing The House/Anderson on Mt Alberta NF.

Just one of the historic and entertaining entries in the Alberta Hut book.

Since 2000 when I first travelled to a winter bound Canada with Bruce French, I have returned six times and with each visit my interest and knowledge of Alpine climbing in the Rockies has grown. For some reason, no not for some reason, but because of the stories, the characters, the wildness and the size of the rubbly faces, Canadian Alpine climbing has always struck me as being ‘more out there’ than alpine climbing in many other countries, lets face it, for starters it has bears that may eat you.

Canada is first world and because of this it is difficult to appreciate that it can be more intimidating and committing than in the Himalayas, but when Will Sim and I dropped onto the glacier after five abseils with only one belay plate between us, one night of food and a few bars, no sleeping bags or mats and absolutely no way to contact anyone and the car a climb, a walk, a col and another four-hours walk away and parked in the middle of nowhere – the one-thousand metre north face of Alberta looked and felt like what I imagine the moon might, but actually the moon, has had more people set foot upon it. To quote well known Canadian Alpine activist, Jon Walsh, “The north face of Alberta has only been climbed about five times since the 90′s.” And as big as it is, it only has four established lines, two of which have not been repeated.  

Hyperbole? I don’t think so, but climbing the second ascent of The House/Anderson on the North Face of Alberta [Jason Kruk and Joshua Lavigne climbed the first half of the route until going direct from the cave on day two] for me was as committing, possibly more so, than climbing The Slovak Direct on Denali where at least the rangers knew where we were and they had a chopper at hand or, also with Andy Houseman, on Chang Himal North Face in Nepal where we had Bhuddie our cook keeping an eye with a finger on the sat phone. But on saying this, people in the know and who have been involved in Canadian Alpine climbing have been sticking there necks out for years and this in my mind is outrageous and inspirational. At least Will Sim and I had a reliable weather forecast, modern clothing, modern climbing gear and the experience of others who had gone before.

Throughout the climb, which took two and a half days from leaving the garden shed that is the Alberta Hut to returning, both Will and I could not believe Steve House and Vince Anderson’s audacity climbing the first ascent of this route a few days out of ‘official’ winter. And reading the old comments in the hut book with well know names or not so well know if you are from Europe, such as Dave Cheesmond, Alex Lowe, Sean Docherty, Barry Blanchard, Jim Ezlinga, Steve Swenson, Joe Josephson and some of the more recent comments from Jon Walsh, Ian Welsted, Chris Brazeau, Raphael Slawinski and Mark Westerman, it is almost as intimidating as looking down into The Black Hole beneath North Twin knowing you are about to commit.

Time has moved on and personally I feel that some of the alpine climbing we used to think was ‘out there’ in our European back yard and even some of the Greater Ranges areas has been reduced to holiday destination because of all that the modern world has given in way of reports, information, rescue possibilities and communication. I’m glad to say that alpinism in Canada appears to be way behind and the mountains give challenges that the more solid and closer to the lifts can not and because of this I take my hat off to you gents and ladies who practice going to the hills in Canada.

And on taking my hat off, it resoundingly gets removed for Will Sim on a sterling effort of studying the camera and descent description and getting us off Alberta which was no mean feat in the dark and in a white-out. OK, we did have one uncomfortable bivvy beneath a boulder in the snow on the second night while waiting for daylight but hey…

Here is a link to Steve House’s photo blog of climbing the first ascent.

Here is a link to Joshua Lavigne’s short of Jason Kruk and himself climbing on Alberta.

Big thanks to Jo and Colin Croston for the loan of loads of camping gear, friendship, Canadian Salmon and the doss in Jo’s Dad’s condo!

And once again to the ACC for the hospitality at their clubhouse in Canmore and to the locals who have given info and inspiration.

Will making the last of the five abseils onto the glacier beneath Mt Alberta. Yes, I know we were in the wrong place!

“Wow, have you seen how wintery it looks?” Says Will. I had but I was just trying to ignore it.

Will Sim getting us going.

Will Sim approaching the headwall.

Myself climbing the first M7 pitch of the headwall.

Will Sim on the second M7 pitch of the headwall.

Having battled through a very hard roof where, no mention was made of on the first ascent so I can only imagine it was ice, we were faced with this, hard steep glacial ice and an even harder pitch of really scary collapsible ice above where I tunnelled and cut a window from inside to escape. Will belayed beneath with his rucksack over his head but I don’t think that would have helped should a thousand tons of ice hit him. There was one overhanging mixed chimney pitch after this to reach the cave.

Will seconding the really scary ice pitch having escaped from the cave through the window.

The cave bivvy. Yes please.

Day two leaving the cave.

Not believing where the next pitch goes I belay and leave it to the 24 year old. Well, you don’t get to my age without cunning!

Getting there…

Reaching the summit ridge Will begins the masterful art of getting me back to the ground.

After getting a little lost in the dark and whiteout on the descent we bivvied under separate rocks in the snow and waited it out till daylight. We then retraced steps and found the correct way.

Back at the car Wednesday afternoon after leaving it on Saturday morning.

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Bears and The Raven and The North Face of Alberta.

All done. And The Raven asks, “Why is there always carrot.”

The Raven, large and shiny black, stood in the middle of the pile of vomit. All happy, he crawed before bending and scooping another beak full. I gagged and nearly threw up myself, which possibly was what the Raven wanted.

Sleeping next to the car the night before, the rain persistently pattered onto the bivvy bag, I was half in, half out of sleep and the thought of bears was having an effect like espresso. Rattling and banging brought me from my doze – the car door flew open and  it was then I heard the loud and terrifying growl. I ripped my bivvy bag open and jumped-up screaming, which is completely the wrong thing to do when faced with a Grizzly, but hey, try it out for yourself and see how calm you feel! It took a few seconds for me to realise that the bear was actually Will throwing-up and then throwing-up again with force. In a flash I felt relieved. Well I’m sorry, but I would rather miss some climbing than be eaten by a bear.

The following day we decided to stick it out in our pull-out at the side of the Icefields Parkway and while-away the day by watching the traffic, reading, eating, sleeping and waiting to see what happened the day after.

What happened the day after was a seven hour walk with big bags and sparkling rivers, lush green and golden leaves, scree, scree and more scree – rocks, ice and moraine. The view from Wooley Shoulder was, as everyone had told us, something special – the space, the vast emptiness, the unspoilt naked beauty and the mountains in the distance with fierce reputation and history. Looking at North Twin, which still appeared to be hours away and so far removed, it made me think that the Italian side of Mont Blanc seemed almost roadside in comparison. The isolation of North Twin also made those accounts I had read of climbing it and the established climbs, The Lowe and Jones, Blanchard and Cheesmond, House and Prezelj, come home to what real balls-out and bold ascents they were. Steve House and Marko Prezelj’s ascent and fourteen-mile descent along the Columbian Icefield in a white-out particularly made more of an impact than it had already…  

“Steve House and Marko Prezelj have made the coveted third ascent of the North Face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies—the third ascent in 30 years. The two chose to climb in early April to minimize rockfall on the notorious face. They followed a new ice and rock line between the legendary and unrepeated Lowe/Jones (1974) and Blanchard/Cheesmond (1985) routes. House and Prezelj climbed the 4,500-foot wall over four days.”   Dougald MacDonald  and Planet Mountain news info here 

The view from Wooley Shoulder with North Twin and Mount Alberta to name two.

Will and I walked another hour, dumped some gear at the small shed that is the ACC- Lloyd MacKay (Mt. Alberta) Hut and then went on another hour, over orange moonscape talus and hard baked glacier to the shoulder where abseil gives access to the north face of Mt Alberta.

Will approaching the hut with Mount Alberta in the background..

Our intended line was the second ascent of the Walsh/Brazeau  but looking at the north face covered in snow we had to re-assess – rock climbing would be impossible. Looking over the north face of Alberta, my stomach churned but this was not food poisoning, this was the thought of the commitment needed and the thought of abseiling onto the glacier beneath the one-thousand metre face with absolutely no way to call for help of any kind. This emptyness made the face feel more remote to me than a lot of the Himalayan mountains I have attempted to climb and most definitely than the very busy airspace and constant phone signal of the European Alps.

Approaching the shoulder from where to abseil. The ridge on the left is the NE Ridge.

A side view of Alerta’s North Face.

An hour followed, but we could not find the abseil point and with only a climbing rack and nothing to spare for abseil anchors I felt uneasy. The other ‘uneasiness’  running through my mind was the other line we would possibly try given the conditions. The face has only three established lines and the only one possible to attempt under snow would be the House/Anderson and this was by no means a romp. We had five ice screws on our rack  and some WI5+ bullet hard ice to climb and then the thought of losing gear on the abseil and a partner who was now running close to empty after hardly being able to eat anything since emptying his stomach the night previous, set my internal alarm bells screaming, and they were screaming the word EPIC… (This use of the word EPIC is in no way the modern use of the word EPIC, which means good, this EPIC very definitely means bad.)

Personally I find mentally working up to attempting a line that is hard and bold and committing takes time to get into the correct head-space. I  was almost there for the Walsh/Brazeau line but here we were looking at something different.

“I don’t think we have the gear and are ready for this.”

Will, reluctantly agreed and it was decided to try and climb a wintery Northeast Ridge the next day, I mean, how hard could it be?  Raphael Slawinski’s old blog

The following morning dawned clear and walking back to the stash on the ridge something was different. After bashing my knee on a rock climb five days before flying to Canada, which had been causing a bit of pain, especially when walking downhill with a rucksack, I was used to being at the back and following young spritely footsteps but Will was behind and on reaching the stash this made me ask,

“Tell me honestly Will, what’s going on?”

“Well, from here on this is a gear retrieval mission, I’m wasted.”

I had absolutely no feeling of disappointment from Will’s statement and a few hours later we were on our wayout but the gear is still up there waiting our return and I have several days to drink red wine, eat salad, sleep lying down and mentally prepare for something difficult and testing as long as the weather gives us a chance.

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Steve’s Wisdom. AKA Humble Horse. Diadem North Face.

Diadem Peak North Face. Canadian Rockies

It was midnight and I lay at the side of the Icefields Parkway, that long strip of tarmac flowing through the Canadian Rockies. I was on my own, one hundred kilometres from Jasper, the nearest town, listening to the vast emptiness. Or was it having survived the last twenty-hours, I was listening for bears. It would be such a pisser to drag my body up and over my first Canadian alpine summit only to be eaten now by a bear having successfully returned to the road. Will Sim, my climbing partner had borrowed my muddy and wet running shoes and set off to collect the car, the car was parked six kilometres away where we had left it at 4am, (he was half my age!). I recalled the conversation  from the evening before as I sat in my sleeping bag leaning against the car and staring out at the valleys and trees and mountains which we would soon be experiencing,

“Bloody love all of this – the climbing, the thrill and even dossing here at the side of a road in the middle of no-where,  I’m getting old but at the moment this still works for me, bloody love it, give it up… never.”

Climbing a mountain by walking-in  up one valley, topping-out, traversing and then down-climbing and walking out of another valley is aesthetically pleasing, but when the valleys to be walked are in Canada it makes aesthetics and style totally knackering. Where are all of the telepheriques?

Humble Horse on Diadem North Face was supposed to be a warm up for bigger things but as I lay in the dark on the side of the road – shuffling jumpy legs, squirming in the gravel – I wondered if I had possibly pre-ejaculated on the alpine front. I was knackered and I wasn’t sure the three weeks we had left was long enough for recovery!

And as I lay and mulled the last twenty hours, the five hour approach, the climb, the traverse of the mountain with views of Alberta and the six hour descent, I didn’t notice a battered pick up rumble past my prone form. Brake-lights starburst the lonely-dark and the deep, many cylinder burble, changed to tick-over. Red turned to white as reverse was engaged and the pick-up burbled back until level. “You OK?” The deep Canadian gravel nearly matched the tone of the pick-up engine. “Yeah, I’m good thanks.”

I walked over to the open window to be confronted with a well-worn face, a peak cap and a big smile.

“What you doing out here?”

“Been climbing up there.” I gesticulated to the million acres of woodland somewhere over the other side of the river.

“Hell yeah, good on yer, want a cigarette, some whisky?”

I turned down both, the thought of glugging whiskey would have finished me and my lungs felt hot enough.

“Where you from, Australia, New Zealand?”

“I’m from England.”

“Hell yeah, I’m from England originally, a place called Derbyshire, left when I was one. I’m Steve, pleased to meet you.” A paw thrust from the open window and took my hand.

“Well Steve, you’ve done alright living here, I bloody love the place, the people are great and the climbing is the best – only country I’ve travelled too that I would live.”

“Hell yeah, that’s awesome, I used to climb but I’m way too old for all of that now.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m forty-five.”

“Hell yeah Steve, totally agree!”

****

Thanks to Jon Walsh for suggesting Humble Horse as a starter for this trip.

The night before THE day. Not a bad patio really.

Diadem Peak. The route, Humble Horse takes the obvious central ice-line.

Will Sim crossing the shrund beneath the route.

Starting on the pitched climbing.

Overhanging ice-offwidth. Will about to experience his first taste of Canadian steep mixed. I think this pitch could have been a bit fatter for the grade.

The second to last pitch of Humble Horse was on good ice with little gear. Welcome to Canada!.

Myself climbing the final pitch to the ridge.

Will on the ridge with the road and the car and the valley we walked in the background.

Choss to the summit.

Alberta. Yes please but maybe not tomorrow.

Will beginning the six hour walk back to the road.

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The Underground Mountain Soundtrack.

The London underground train rattles through the night. This is the soundtrack of the mountains. An empty vacuum. Rocks and ice follow deeply carved tracks and echo. Red brick walls topped with gothic turrets scrawled with natures graffiti, hem us.

The deep blue glacier cracks beneath. Stretches like polythene. Sleep. Awake. Sleep. Awake. And as we stir, stars slice through dark sky leaving trails. Life… life lived, lost life; love lost, lost love – vast empty space is consumed in a single breath and exhaled in a cloud of condensation. And in that evaporating cloud is choice. And at times, in that choice despair cries.

The underground passes through back yards, between fences, beneath windows, below roads, behind lives. The continued jointy rattle.  At times I wonder what it would be like to fall. Red lights never change for some

Cold rock beneath a thin mat is comfort. The wheels scream as the hour comes close. The stove boils and chugs. Mystic vapours swirl. A blurred face stares into nowhere from a moving window of an empty carriage. Minutes are worth hours. Hours are worth days and a lifetime can be worth nothing.

The headtorch cuts the cold. Quartz ignites. Noisy trickles of water furrow through the glacier and slow until blackness and silence. It’s nearly time to catch the final train but I’m not sure yet from which station to board or depart.

Because this is the soundtrack of the mountains.

 

The Argentière Basin. The Droites is on the right and the climb, The Richard Cranium Memorial Route first climbed by Mark Twight and Barry Blanchard is on the right side of the face. .

Following Tim’s footsteps on the lower section of The Richard Cranium Memorial Route.

Tim Neill seconding one of the steeper and more difficult pitches.

Just below the summit ridge.

Tim Neill on the Droites summit ridge setting up the first abseil of many down the south side of the mountain.

A flat rock with a great view is too good a thing not to bivvy.

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Seventeen Year Hiatus on The Grand Pilier d’ Angle

Jules Cartwright on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle bivvy studying ‘what next’ seventeen years ago.

Last night, I lay in my van which is parked outside Tim and Lou’s place in Servoz, France. The rain thumped the thin metal skin and thunder bounced from the mountains which surround the village. And as I lay, wrapped safely, the one thought which continually returned was where did the last seventeen years go?

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I had just returned from climbing the Bouchard into the Boivin-Vallençant – a combination of ice climbs on the Grand Pilier d’ Angle. It’s possible that both Keith and Tim got fed up with my recollections, but the last and only time I had climbed on the GPA, was in October 1998 with Jules Cartwright. On that occasion Jules and I had returned from being blasted by gales on the North Face of the Matterhorn only to drive into a perfect five day  weather forecast for Chamonix.

“Only one place to go.” Jules said and the ‘only one place’, was the Grand Pilier d’ Angle, but Cartwright being Cartwright that was not enough and as we both sat a night and a day later beneath a massive overhanging gendarme, just beneath the summit crest of the GPA, Jules studied the guidebook and proclaimed,

“Its not often you get to somewhere like this and after all of this effort we may as well do something else.”  

It was the way he nonchalantly said it that still makes me wonder at his tenacity, he may as well have been talking about climbing another route on Tremadog in North Wales, but he wasn’t, he was talking of the one-thousand metre, Right Hand Pillar of Frêney and we had already walked across the Valley Blanche, crossed the Fourche Ridge, over to Col Moore and down to beneath the Grand Pilier in Italy. Jules and I  had climbed a combination of routes to arrive at the bivvy and yesterday, as Keith, Tim and I left that same bivvy to climb the upper section of The Arête de Peuterey, I marvelled at how seventeen years had passed since my last time here.

Keith, Tim and I had gone reasonably heavy because I still vividly remembered climbing the enchainment with Jules in 1998 and suggested we do similar. Unfortunately the intended second route, The Innominata, resembled Patagonian ice cream instead of rock ridge and as we sat in the sun at 11am on the same ledge I had sat seventeen years before after climbing the GPA, we decided to forego the second climb for a bash up the Arête de Peuterey after a long lounge and a reflective evening.

Sitting in the sun the following day, the same sun I had sat seventeen years before outside the Nid d’Aigle tram station and surrounded by tourists, I looked at the bench, the same bench Jules and I sat drinking a Kronenbourg after three nights out and once again I was on my own with Cartwright waiting for the tram and rejoicing in the cold October sunshine.

Almost every year since 1998 I have wanted to return to the Grand Pilier and at last, here and now, with heavily fragrant tourists turning their noses, I have returned and how fitting to return with great friends Tim and Keith, it’s such a shame I never had chance to return with my friend who is still in my thoughts regularly.

Tim Neill and Keith Ball walking toward The Col de Fourche.

Study from The Col de Fourche hut.

The Grand Pilier d’ Angle.

Keith Ball soloing the start of the Boucher Route on the GPA.

[Tim Neill fighting spindrift on the Boivin-Vallençant]

Slightly more awake. My second visit to this ledge with seventeen years between. pic credit, Keith Ball.

The second day high on The Peuterey Arête.

On the summit of Mont Blanc for only my second time.

Keith and Tim, in amongst the crowds at the Nid d’Aigle tram station.

Here is a link to Tim Neill’s Blog about the climb.

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Reigniting Memories. The Tournier Spur, North Face of the Midi.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill, my climbing partners on the summit ridge of our warm up climb, The Tournier Spur of the North Face of The Midi.

Tim Neill, Keith Ball and I walk the steep path - a brushed boot track leading toward the North Face of The Aguile de Midi. This is almost my first time in the summer months among mountains that are so familiar in winter.

I look left towards the sheer Aiguille du Plan walls and see Houseman and me climbing The Grand West Couloir – a direct line straight up the centre of the face. Walking higher, my breathing becomes heavier and deeper and Cartwright is up there – up there in the deep fault soloing Sylchris – the depths of a cold winter and a chopped rope his only company. Five days later he returns to the Chamonix Valley, frost bitten and knackered but truly alive. Fil a Plomb at the back of cirque on The Rognon du Plan, an intricate but fairly easy ice-climb I soloed, takes me back to my first full winter here in Chamonix in 2004.

For a short time, I’ve left these mountains alone and returning now with Tim and Keith feels good – it feels the right thing, but how the mountains challenge even the experienced mind after being left alone.

It doesn’t take long to discover the old flow, but summer conditions are certainly different than that of the frozen winter. Rubble and booming flakes show the way -  Canadian Alpine training I think while loosening another boulder. Keith appears happy being above and ahead of my carefree transition from summer rock climber to Alpine climber. Tim, fully acclimatised after weeks of guiding, leads the way on our warm up, hopefully this will lead to more challenging things later in the week.

After five hours, the three of us step from the vertical to the well tracked Midi-Plan Traverse and again I picture Houseman and myself staggering in the dark after being on the go for eighteen hours having successfully climbed the Grand West Couloir. Each step is forced but each step draws both Houseman and me close to the wine and cheese and the big sleeping bags we stashed the day before in the Midi Station.

The final steep pull up the Midi Arête brings more imagery – Kenton Cool and me crawling and pitching what really is a path but in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds after climbing Slave to the Rhythm on The East Face of the Mont Blanc du Tacul one January, the arête path felt more challenging than the climbing. I remember slumping next to Kenton in the dark Midi tunnel, at last safe and out of the wind and never feeling so close to him having shared this serious situation.

The Tournier Spur, the first climb of a short trip that will hopefully include one or two more climbs has once again fired my imagination and re-opened memories and imagery that have been buried. And for these feelings alone, it makes the mountains and the climbs which we venture, well worth the effort.

Starting off at approximately, 7am, on climb number one, The Tournier Spur.

The North Face of The Aiguille du Midi.

Tim Neill at the beginning of The Tournier Spur.

Keith Ball and Tim Neill low down on The Tournier Spur.

At the abseil point which leads to the ice flow on the left.

Tim Neill climbing the ice-flow.

The traverse leading to the more technical ground higher on The Tournier Spur.

Tim Neill climbing the crux section of The Tournier Spur.

The Midi-Plan on the summit ridge after climbing The Tournier Spur.

Kenton Cool at midnight in The Aiguille du Midi tunnel after climbing Slave to the Rhythm and returning in one-hundred kilometre an hour winds.

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