The Times They Are A Changin’

 

Ricky Bell, a ,man with a big moustache, a van with character and the ability to hold hard and pull down. No change necessary!

For approximately twenty years I have climbed rock. And after this time you would think nothing new could be learnt. In reality, the opposite is true, especially for someone who did not ‘pull-on’ properly until his thirtieth year.

I had a good grounding. I began weight training aged nine and at the age of eleven, I became a gymnast. Years later, I benefit still from both of these activities. Muscles, joints, nerves, neurological pathways hold-on – hold on like fingers gripping small edges – my body clings to movement instilled from very young. Automatic, it’s like hitting the keys of a computer and watching the words move along the screen.

In my time, I have shared overhanging and slabby, walls and caves and corners, cliffs, some clean and some not so clean, cliffs formed of Rhyolite, Quartzite, Dolerite, Slate, Shale, Mudstone, Limestone, Quartz and Granite with Seabird and seal and Pippet. I have also shared the same cliffs with many top-end rock climbers and almost all, without exception, have started climbing from a young age. Over and over, I witness a flick of the switch, they change into a bird of prey; eyes spot formation which transfers immediately to brain. Brain sends information to the joints and muscles and a conditioned body strikes. I pay out rope in admiration and awe. Twist, turn, stoop, press, tighten, strike, relax, extend, flex, contract.  More often than not, the outcome is successful passage. Of course there are other nuances. The ‘head-games’ for one, but that is another story.  

I have always found my movement on rock, more mechanical than intuitive, more levers and strength, more straight-on plain – pull-down, reach-up, grab-hold, step-up, pull-down…  that natural flow I see in others, is at times, forced. I put this mechanical anatomical monotony down to weight training and gymnastics from early years combined with being a late comer to climbing.  I can almost remember the few occasions over the last twenty years I have completely entered into a state of natural flowing progression on climbs at the top of my ability. A state where I do not have to stop and think, I do not have to move-up, climb-down, move-up, climb-down. And it is these times that have been the most rewarding.

There is another factor to my mechanical and this is the self-taught, no climbing wall factor. Approximately at the age of thirty, when I began to climb I did not have a local climbing wall or a climbing partner, so I took myself away and on-sight soloed routes. At that time, climbing routes was what rock climbing was about. I didn’t watch others or experience steep ground in the safe environment of a climbing wall. There was no drop-knee, flag, twist, gaston, heel-hook, knee-bar. I didn’t learn subtle movement while bouldering and I did not learn to pull really hard or push down and continue pushing down when the shoulder reaches the same height as hand. I did not learn to rock-over with the bodyweight directly above a toe or heal or to turn a knee inside or out. I did not appreciate the footwork is as important as the handhold.

Only recently, twenty-two years down the line have I begun to learn the art of really seeing a hold and using it in the best available manner. Only recently have I begun to grip a hold and really bloody hold it. Trying exceptionally hard when rock climbing is not so natural, years of teetering above marginal protection have installed caution and shoulders, strong from weight training, have given me the ability to reach, teeter, reach, inch, inch and finally at full stretch, pinch. You would think this has brought about a mind-set to not let go and really fight, but it has possibly produced the opposite, when that extra inch of effort is required, something slightly extraordinary, I can’t see it, it feels impossible, unless practiced first, like a gymnastic movement and so falling is often the outcome.

I have taught my body to climb on rock successfully at a standard, but seldom push into a higher level, a level incorporating specific skills. Trying hard  also brings failure and for a lot of my climbing, failure spells serious injury or the feeling of, well, the feeling of failure, and this  brings about other aspects of climbing from my earlier years that have also affected performance, which is this fear of failure, or at least the fear of being seen failing, which I suppose is about ego and acceptance and wanting to feel good about yourself.

“You’ve changed.”

Over the last couple of years I’ve often heard this, because of course I have, I’ve become older and a tad wiser for sure. Since beginning to rock climb, I’ve shuffled, crawled, crept, minced and on those marginal weather days, I’ve hunted dry rock and when dry rock could not be found, I’ve slithered. But over the last couple of years, with a massive amount of climbing logged, instead of scratting on marginal days, I’ve started to train and boulder with specific goals and in doing so, when returning outdoors, I have, for the first time, actually gripped like I mean it and when the climbing becomes difficult my brain has at last realised you have to try really hard and definitely concentrate on weighting that foothold.        

Fortunately I now feel OK about myself and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Some of this I’m sure is brought about by experiencing so much, but it is also about growing up and growing older and realising I’m human, just the same as everyone else… I flail, fail, fall, trip and at times my mind questions and becomes scared but the ability to push on is still there, but it is more about confidence now in new found fitness and skills and less about trying to prove myself to myself and to others. Yes I’ve changed; I’m older and happier and more content and certainly climbing rock better than ever.     

John Orr on the spectacular first pitch of Maiden Voyage, a climb that requires technical skill, stamina, and the ability to bone-down hard and then give that little bit extra… No shuffling here, no siree

Lolo,The Belgian, approaching the crux of Maiden Voyage.

Lolo on the crux of Maiden Voyage. 10 out of 10 for effort and persistence and trying over and above what you think is possible.

Myself on Hells Kitchen Arête. The first of the three routes I really wanted to climb this year at Fair Head. Pic credit, John Orr.

Myself on Hells Kitchen Arête. Pic credit, Mike Hutton.

The main event of the week. A four pitch beast which required a whole load of skills to get-up clean on a bloody cold day. This was the climb of the week and deserves to be up there with the very best. Technical, strenuous, sustained, magnificent. The second ascent. Well done to John and Paul for putting this one up.

Abseiling into Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Pic Credit, John Orr.

Myself on the first ‘easy’ pitch. Pic credit, John Orr.

John Orr on the second pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre.

Myself before entering a world of overhanging three dimensional on the third pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Knee bar and burling de-rigour. Pic credit John Orr

John Orr having pulled out of the overhanging of the third pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre.

John Orr on the fourth pitch of Un-Jour-Peut-Etre. Don’t be fooled by the 6a grade, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings!

Heather Florence proving that starting young helps while smoothly seconding The Mask.

An old dog incorporating some new skills. On-sighting the Pat Littlejohn and Eddy Cooper uber classic, Above and Beyond. Pic credit, John Orr.

More proof that its good to start young. Tom Livingstone on the crux of Primal Scream.

Cheers to John Orr for a great trip and use of the pics.

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The French Connection.

The woman, I guess, was in her seventies. Her hair, which had been straightened and dyed blond, hung in a long bob from beneath a black leather cap which matched her black leather trousers and her black leather boots. She leant on a wooden walking stick while inspecting dirt covered vegetables stacked in pine boxes. Only in New York could pensioners look like rock stars while vegetable shopping. Looking out of the other window in the yellow cab, to my left, The Empire State Building busted from beneath the New York undergrowth, injecting the grey cumulous with a shot of smog. The taxi drive, directly through the centre of Manhattan was, I must admit, a bonus in a whole catalogue of travel fuck-ups.

The evening before, while sitting in the tranquillity of The Canadian Alpine Clubhouse, situated above Canmore in Alberta the realisation that the return journey back to Blighty was going to be near impossible, hit hard. Will Sim and I read, with growing disbelief – the itinerary that Opodo had sold us and we had unsuspectingly hit the buy button on months earlier was crazy. In our ignorance with travelling procedure  while entering the USA from Canada via Toronto and New York we hadn’t realised how much time was needed and where the exact location of the airports in relationship with each other were. “Surely they have not booked us on connecting flights from different airports and on different carriers with only a couple of hours to get across New York?” But they had, and this was after they had expected us to successfully navigate an hour’s transfer between flights in Toronto where the USA immigrations and border had to be cleared and a visa for entering the USA, all be it just for transfer, had to be bought. Needless to say, I missed my connecting flight and in doing so, lost all of my baggage. Will, having just scraped on the designated connecting flight, was now travelling somewhere an hour or so ahead. Neither of our phones worked so contact was impossible – freestyle, free-for-all, let the best man get home – and after filling a lost baggage report at LaGuardia Airport, here I was on a whistle stop of Manhattan via a $124 yellow taxi cab, certain I would miss the final flight as the suggested, arrive three hours ahead for your flight time, had begun as my plane took-off from Toronto.

I pleaded my ticking clock with the cabbie, a fifteen year NYC veteran and larger than life in character and waist-line and he informed me we had no chance to reach Newark Airport in time to board the third plane, but then he transformed to become a superhero and proceeded to give it a go. Road signs and places, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, places engrained in my memory from Martin Scorsese films blurred along with the names of the films – Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas – we weaved across several lanes of traffic, jumped red lights and suddenly the North Face of Alberta paled and the real adventure was here, here on the packed streets of the Big Apple and I was a character in the central role of an all-time favourite film, The French Connection, I was the obsessed Popeye Doyle racing adversity and trains and along streets and fighting traffic with an impossible final objective and all I wanted was to pull my service revolver and stick it up the nose of the idiot from Opodo that had booked this near impossible and costly itinerary.

Time, what is it about time? It never stops and it’s the same for everyone and, at some point, no matter who you are, it will end.

Fast forward a few months and here I was once again racing the clock, and once again thoughts of the film, The French Connection were strong. Jeff Mercier, the very talented French mixed climber, Alpine Guide, Gendarme and member of the small and highly professional team of the Chamonix PGHM, lounged on a ledge somewhere below and I was starting to think my first impression after he savaged me on the internet in 2009 was correct.

My arms were a time bomb. I hung from axes battling the pump, battling the clock. The overhanging icefall of the Argeantiere Glacier to my left exploded. “You French Bastard.” Jeff looked up, smiled and gave a small but decipherable Gallic shrug. My racist yell bounced from his sturdy shell appearing not to concern him at all.

I was attempting the second ascent of a route in the Rive Gauche Jeff had climbed for the first time two weeks previous. The route was called Sanction Stylée and the grade he had given it was M9, making it one of the most difficult of the Rive Gauche routes, but unlike most dry tool type of climbs, to keep the Rive Gauche routes in character, or at least the routes on the Rive Gauche that Jeff and I had been involved in putting-up the first ascents, there were no bolts – they were all traditionally protected.

Earlier that morning, after walking from The Lognon Ski Station, we stood at the end of a pisted track above the crag and the more well-known climbs of Nuit Blanche and Tequila Stuntman. The climbs on The Rive Droit opposite, Shiva and Icelander were holding in, but only just, and by the end of the day they would be gone until next winter. The unshaven and deeply suntanned Mercier had passed me a handful of hardware, “This is zee geeer.” I grabbed the handful of metal. “Merci.” Then clipped a double set of cams and two quickdraws to my harness. “Are you sure this is zee geeer Jeff? It looks a bit light on quickdraws and nuts?” “Qui, zat iz exactleee what you require.” As an afterthought I clipped a double set of nuts and three hooks I had brought along as a get out of Jeff’s jail.

Sanction Stylée is three pitches with the second pitch being the very sustained and highly technical crux, this was the pitch I was now attempting and at about the half way mark my arms, shoulders but most of all my mind were on the edge of implode. This was one of those moments on a climb when you feel you’ve done enough to warrant the grade and you deserve an easy ride, but this pitch was as tenacious as the small French man who had first climbed it and who lay basking like a shark on the snowy ledge below – it just kept coming and coming and my mind was becoming a pan of pasta on the point of boiling-over.

Myself on Jeff Mercier’s superb Sanction Stylée pic credit, Jack Geldard

I hunted and found another marginal hook with the left axe. Weighting, testing, weighting, pulling. The left axe blew – I held the swing and the panic and once again tried to relax. My hefty British body had to heave and pull. Taught. Tense. The foot holds were not footholds, they were orange peel. I looked at an in-situ peg and wondered what I had to clip it as my two quickdraws had been used below and years ago. “What a bastard, what a bastard – two quickdraws, two fucking quickdraws…”  I removed and clipped a bulldog hook into the peg and clipped the rope.

I was angry, but not with Jeff, with myself. I should have known better, but time and time again I made the same mistakes, when will I ever learn, or maybe this is a part of what keeps life interesting, we don’t always learn, which sometimes means we are ready to move-on and forgive, and the continual re-learning is what keeps us sharp.

In 2009 when Jeff had written his scathing piece about me on the internet I never imagined we would climb together, but here we were, and I was enjoying his company and his sharp understated humour. I placed a perfect number 7 nut which slotted into a keyhole crack; it was as good as a bolt. “What the fuck, look at this Jeff, it’s as good as it gets and I don’t have anything to clip it with you bastard.” “I don’t know how zose thingz work, so I don’t uze zem.” I moved on without clipping the nut as the single rope – another mistake – would have resembled a cat’s cradle and the last thing I needed was a cat’s cradle.

Jack Geldard and Nick Brown who had arranged this outing with Jeff and myself, swung above and to the side filming and I could tell they were both expecting or even hoping for a monster lob to increase the click count on their website UK Climbing. I was determined to try as hard as I could not to give a grand finale, but I wasn’t sure I could, this pitch did not let up.  

As I inched higher, the placements became more marginal and difficult to find, and my arms were burning and the fall potential was increasing and the last time I placed a cam felt like yesterday and being one of Mercier’s cams, I just stuffed and hoped as the sizes were all over the place which I didn’t recognise. I was losing patience slightly quicker than the ability to hold on. The fall, should I decide to let go, was going to be big and bruising, I would certainly resemble Robert de Nero after a fight in the film Raging Bull should I take the ride and to top it, I was now battling a whole series of ticking clocks and the loudest one was the thought of failure after trying so hard.

Several hours later, Jeff pulled another four bottles of beer from the fridge. He passed a Heineken to Nick Brown, a Hoegaarden to Jack Geldard and a Leffe to me. What a truly great and surreal day. Here I was getting flash pissed, surrounded by coppers, while sat in a bar in the back room of a police station in the middle of Chamonix. Everyone had told me I would get on with Jeff and they nearly always followed this by saying; he’s a French version of you Nick, really opinionated and vocal. I would have preferred them to say, “Nick, you’re an English version of Jeff and climb as well,” but they didn’t and I don’t.

Jeff Mercier and a Leffe blurred me in the police pub after climbing. Pic credit Jack Geldard

 

My final climb of the alpine winter was yet again a countdown and yet again it was with larger than life characters but instead of the glass and concrete of New York and OAP’s in leather and my imagined scenario of Robert de Nero beating Opodo executives with baseball bats, this time it was granite and ice surrounding Jack Geldard, Tom Ballard and me.

Jack and I had climbed together several times this winter and I really enjoyed being on the hill with him so when he invited me out to join himself and Alison Hargrieve’s son Tom Ballard, I jumped at the chance.

Earlier in the day, the three of us had stood beneath The East Face of the Tacul and decided Scotch on the Rocks would be our climb as there were four parties queuing for Pinocchio. Unfortunately there was one short step to reach both climbs and we were at the back of the queue. Unperturbed, we waited and chatted and eventually the queue curtailed and we headed-up. “Headtorches?” “No, whenever we reach the point that we’ve done enough or it’s an hour before dark we can abseil.” Said Jack, but he hadn’t taken into account the Ballard and Bullock effect. Tom had not climbed Scotch before and I, having climbed it twice, was of course Popeye Doyle, obsessed and driven.

Jack Geldard seconding the second pitch of Scotch on the Rocks.

Tom Ballard leading the crux of Scotch on the Rocks dragging a large fishing net float for extra training!

After four pitches of great climbing and banter, I hung from a belay having just led the fifth and penultimate pitch. The point of an hour before sunset had arrived. I looked up at a massive plinth of granite making a bridge across the top of the chimney above knowing this was the end of the climb and knowing I wanted to go there again. Tom reached me and it quickly became obvious he did as well. Abseiling in the dark without headtorches it would have to be and as Jack rolled-in to the belay, he didn’t have a say a word and accepted we were in for another late one.

Half an hour later (I’m being very optimistic with my time keeping here) the three of us sat beneath the plinth and watched the sun set on a glowing and deserted Valley Blanche. I memorised ski tracks and where the slots were for our night time ski descent that could not happen soon enough now we had finished the climb. The four teams on Pinocchio had long gone, I’m reasonably sure none had gone to the top of the climb in preference to a train ride back to the valley, ‘lucky buggers’

Tom Ballard settling with the realisation that this is as slow as it can be when using a rope!

One by one we began the descent and after the first abseil it became dark and the feeling of isolation grew. By the third abseil we were using Jacks mobile-phone for light and it was quite amusing. Eventually, after all of the abseiling, the final snow-slope presented and somewhere there was a deep bergschrund. Not knowing where it was, I shouted to Tom for directions and Tom nonchalantly shouted directions which were obviously, nonchalantly wrong, because he really didn’t give a shit as he was so desensitised to danger, so used to moving around the mountains by himself, he could not see why reversing into a deep slot would be a bad thing.

At last we were all stood together and clipped into ski bindings. The night time VB emptiness and dark always amazed and excited after how crazy it was through the day with its hundreds of people.   Skiing, Tom took-off as fast as Gean Hackman had in that famous car chase and after I caught him I said, “You’re pretty good at this skiing malarkey then, when did you begin?” “I was five years old and yes, I’m good.” Later as we skied through the Geant Icefall, I stopped again as my legs were screaming. “You’ve probably noticed, strength is my friend, my technique is not so good.” Tom’s reply was once again less than measured, “Yes, I’ve noticed you’re not very good.” I laughed and set off, avoiding slots and battling the burn. Tom was certainly very talented and confident but I did think that living for so many years in a van with his dad had made him a little lacking in social skills. ‘Can’t have everything I suppose!’ And at least you know where you stand having someone that tells you the truth and holds no punches.   

Time paled and lost importance as the three of us walked the Montenvers Railway tracks back to the valley. Chamonix below was a flickering map of roads and buildings. I had done this walk many times and I was actually enjoying and savouring the conversation with Jack as this would be the last time we spent together this winter and I had grown to really enjoy his company. I laughed and joked with Jack that we had brought down one of the quickest climbers in the Alps and dragged him to our level. “One day The Colton/Macintyre in three hours, the next, Scotch on the Rocks and walking the train tracks back to the valley in twelve!”

A week later I was once again travelling, both physically and mentally. The winter for me was over, but instead of returning to North Wales I headed south to Cataluña in the hope that clipping bolts would kick start arms that hadn’t crimped since the end of November… time as they say, will tell and If I have learnt anything over the latter half of 2014 and the winter of 2015 it is this; we can all make mistakes, even Popeye Doyle shot a good guy. Good can often come from bad. Always be prepared to give people a second or even a third chance as there is often underlying issues that make people act in a less than positive manner. No matter your age, you can always wear leather and finally do yourself a favour, never book a flight with Opodo. 

*

There will be a major article later this year on UKC featuring Jeff Mercier and me which will have interviews and film of the ascent of Sanction Stylée amongst other stuff.

Thanks to everyone mentioned in the above for a great and memorable winter :-)

   

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The Free Bullock Definition.

Al Powell holding his frost-nipped toes after a three day push on Quitaraju.

I was approached a while back and asked if I would write “a couple of sentences or more,” to be included in an article about the changing face of British Alpinism.

The first thing that came to mind was how is it possible to put into ‘a couple of sentences,’ and give a true and reflective answer to such a grand and subjective topic and the second was, if I am to be quoted in a couple of sentences and then my words are to be surrounded, dissected, possibly pulled apart, I may as well write the article myself, or at least, I can give my opinion and the message will not be used out of context. I’m sure this will not happen, but it’s difficult to be approached and then only give a very short answer. Below is a serious but slightly tongue in cheek look at the question, what is and what is not alpinism.        

My immediate reaction was to answer a question with three questions of my own:

Is there a changing face of British alpinism and if so, when is it changed from and what has it changed onto?

In the time I have climbed in the European Alps there has only been a small group of people involved in what I would call alpinism and it appears to be similar now. In my experience there is possibly an even smaller group of people at the moment than when I began climbing in the Alps, but this number of course will fluctuate. But, to really get to the heart of the question, or for me, the more interesting question should be, ‘What is Alpine climbing?’

Alpinism

The climbing of the Alps or any equally high mountain ranges

(The Free Dictionary)

What is alpinism? A subjective question and one that will mean many things too many people and because of this there will be many answers and of course who is to say which answer is wrong or right – there is no definitive answer, the true answer remains with the individual. The glitch comes when one person sees more value in their take of what is alpinism and possibly feels a less worthy style is receiving unjust credit. This also brings about other questions; why should this affect people, why should people getting credit from a different style of ascent concern and annoy?

What I see as alpinism is a lot deeper than The Free Dictionary definition suggests. Alpinism to me suggests certain ethics, or it could be called self-imposed restrictions which add to the challenge and experience and make the activity, in my mind, and the minds of many, much more rewarding. Alpinism for me is the activity of approaching via walking or skiing or paraponting, to the base of a large mountain face, climbing a route in a single push – going from the bottom to the top without returning to the bottom until what is designated the top is reached. The climb will finish on a summit ridge or a summit while everything you need is carried on your back. The descent can be down the line but it is more aesthetically pleasing to descend a different line and into a different valley than the one used for the approach and ascent. Generally the line chosen will require at least one night sleeping at the base of the face, on the face, on the summit or sometimes in a hut before or after. There are some very fit and skilful Alpinists that appear to be operating on a different level than almost everyone else; these people are able to climb big routes very quickly without needing to bivouac, this also counts!

Under my own definition, Alpinism is not any of the following, but let’s make it clear, I’m not saying I don’t take part in some of these styles of mountaineering, what I’m saying is, in my mind it’s not alpinism in my understanding.

Bolted clip ups.

Bolted clip ups are glorified sport climbs at altitude. Undoubtedly fantastic technical and personal achievement and very worthy of recognition, but this style of climbing on alpine faces is as far from alpinism as love is from spending the night with a prostitute.

Fixed rope ascents.

Ascents where hundreds of metres of rope are fixed and beds, sofas, fridges stocked with a week of food, big sleeping bags, big jackets and all of the comforts of the valley are transported to the cliff-face and pitches can be redpointed is not alpinism and the reason it is not is because alpinism is the ticking clock, the countdown, the time-bomb. Alpinism is the shift in the weather and the internal psychological battles that comes from looking up and seeing a mackerel sky reflecting from stipple cloud. Alpinism is a flip of the stomach when out on the horizon a flash of lightening flicks the switch. Alpinism is the seemingly never ending night and the seemingly shortening daylight hours. Alpinism is uncertainty and worries and fear of becoming crag fast and deep routed thoughts of escape. Alpinism is dwindling mental strength and depleted physical energy. These factors are almost deleted by fixed rope – it’s a game changer, it takes away what for me is the true essence of Alpinism, being committed. My old mate Al Powel always used to say if jumars are taken its not alpinism.  

Alpinism is not cragging.

The main concern and constricting factors for someone climbing in true alpine style, and the worry about getting up and over are not really an issue when cragging in the Alps and often, even the top of the route is forsaken in preference to catching the last lift. Not only is this not alpinism, it’s certainly not climbing the route!       

Internet Alpinism

The internet has changed alpine climbing and I suppose it has made the way for quick alpine hits where the outcome is almost certain. For a large percentage of modern alpinists, it appears there is no longer a mind-set or a willingness to take a punt with conditions, the weather and their own gut instincts which in my mind is a great loss. Sticking your neck out and taking a chance and pulling one out of the bag, for me, is one of the most rewarding aspects of alpinism. Maybe this is a reflection on a change in society as a whole where modern technology has dumbed down climbing and taken away much of the challenge?

Helicopter Alpinism.

Unless injured, catching a lift in a chopper to or from the mountain is not Alpinism.

*

Alpinism has changed and so have Alpinists. For many now it appears a nicely wrapped and guaranteed ‘adventure’ with a nice set of images to post to their Facebook profile or a super difficult and newsworthy, but super safe technical achievement without much in the way of discomfort and uncertainty or commitment is now considered the way forward. Call me a dinosaur, and many do, but the loser in all of this I feel is the participant but, there is of course a different alpinism to be found for the individual if it is chosen and the imagination is opened.             

 

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A Different Game… The Dru Couloir Direct.

Just found this pic from the original ascent. Me on the bivvy above The Nominee Crack. Guess the stove was not my trusted MSR then and yep, I certainly look younger. Pic Credit, Paul Schweizer

 

I had driven from Leicestershire to Chamonix to meet Paul Schweizer, it was September 2000. Paul was a reasonably affable American with a penchant to rant – we connected.  Old – older than me anyway – a tad crusty, goatee sporting, round wire frame glasses, straggly hair sprouting from a thinning, quirky, off-the-wall, (no pun intended) Edinburgh University Lecturer in computer logic which, fifteen years down the line, is still a subject I don’t understand the meaning. To be honest, I think I’m incorrect by calling the subject Paul lectures as, computer logic, but this is my limited capacity for understanding what it is he does lecture. Anyway, I digress. I was meeting Paul, a climber who I liked and a person who made me laugh to climb the Eiger North Face – yes, I know, Chamonix is the wrong place for The Eiger, but we thought Chamonix would be a good starting point before travelling to Grindelwald.

For me, 2000 was a good year, it was the year I first visited Peru and Canada – both with Bruce French. It was the year I began writing and the year I climbed two Redhead routes on North Stack Wall at Gogarth – The Demons of Bosch and Flower of Evil – and it was the year I climbed The Dru Couloir with Paul. 

[Paul on that dreaded bivvy looking for the logic.]

Paul, heavily laden, stepped from the Grand Montets telecabine, a clumping and bowing six-foot something dressed in black with purple Scarpa Vega boots. His weight caused the snow-dusted, wooden floorboards to sag. It was 4pm and outside the wind and snow and cloud were blowing, falling and gusting. This was the last lift of the summer; the téléphérique was now closed for maintenance before the winter season started in December. We hung around the station planning to sleep in the toilet and approach the Dru Couloir in the morning. A friendly guy from the café gave us left over food including cake and then departed on the last lift to the valley. The cake, eaten in the dissolving warmth of the long drop, lost a little of its French eloquence, but it was still tasty.

We left the cloistering stench of the toilet early, I don’t remember exactly what the time was or anything about the approach or even anything about climbing the initial snowed up granite slabs, but I can still smell those toilets. Being American, I pointed Paul at the Nominee Crack… A1, no problem for a 70′s Yosemite Valley dwelling Septic, but Paul forgot to say  that at the time he dossed in the valley, he was one of the new breed of free-climbers – living, smoking, drinking, partying hard but not aid climbing and he had as much an idea about aiding as I had about computer logic.

Six hours later or maybe even longer Paul made it to the top of the Nominee Crack, a bowed overhanging crack, by thrashing and back cleaning, leaving me little to grab and so, many years before big handled axes and no leashes, I attacked the crack in a free/thrash/grunt style while still wearing my monster rucksack.  Needless to say I struggled and in one moment of pulling-like-a-train desperation, an axe ripped and the massive adze of my straight shafted Grivel Super Courmayeur smashed me in the face with a resounding thud, ripping open my cheek and making me think I’d broken the inferior orbit, just below my eye. 

Eventually I flopped onto a sloping ledge alongside Paul a sweating, bleeding mess and that was where we stayed for the night. I’m sure we would have melted water and cooked using my MSR XGK2 Multi-Fuel stove which I was very proud and no doubt by using said stove we would have burnt, gassed and nearly blown ourselves up. In the night it began to snow the biggest and most beautiful flakes ever and in the morning it continued to snow but we decided to move up anyway. Following an old description and after most of the morning, Paul, on the sharp-end, and getting very close to the ice in the continuation of the couloir was also squinting and clearing condensation from those round wire framed glasses and looking at some desperation that lay between him and easier ground. Blankets of powder fell making the steamed up spectacles even more of a problem. “Fuuuucking hell man, this is shit.” Paul drawled while balancing, cleaning glasses and moaning, before being hit by another cloud of powder. Eventually we decided it was time to bail, which given the avalanches pouring down the couloir above and the wide slabby area below, we knew was not going to be easy.

Descending into the grey open arena, hunting for anchors, I remember being on full rope stretch but stood on a reasonable step kicked into the snow, so in my wisdom, and to save time, I unclipped to allow Paul to come down while I set up an anchor. Paul set off and while on his way down suddenly yelled and for once it was not a laid back American Hippy drawl, his voice sounded sharp and intent and nearly manic. “WATCHOUT MAN, AVALANCHE.” Looking up, I had time to see a whole load of white pouring from the top of the most beautiful and direct cleft to my right – a cleft so steep and overhanging with a smattering of ice and flakes and enclosing walls of compact barrelled granite, so narrow and imposing it almost mesmerised me, this was The Dru Couloir Direct – first climbed by Tobin Sorenson and Rick Accomazzo in 1977 (A great account by Rick Acomazzo here  ) – but coming from this femme fatal was roaring white and as the snow hit me, I reached up and grabbed the ends of the abseil rope and twisted them around my wrist. The snow thudded and built and poured and hissed and my shoulder complained and the snow piled over my head and down my sleeve and down my front. I tucked my chin to my chest and tilted my head and managed to gulp air and after about two days the snow slowed and at last stopped.

Reaching the Dru Rognan beneath the West Face still shrouded in cloud, we stripped off layers in the warm sun. What had just happened was another world, this was like being given another life, a new beginning, a better warmer safer existence and the next day we thrashed the giant rhubarb and down-climbed rubble, (we didn’t know about the ladders leading safely to the glacier), and caught the Montenvers Train for a return to the valley.

Armed with a more up-to-date description of the route Paul and I returned several days later to the Dru Couloir. We had a bivvy before, a bivvy on route, a bivvy at the Brèche and a bivvy on the Charpoua Glacier when we abseiled too low onto the glacier and missed the hut. But we had successfully climbed The Dru Couloir and we were happy.

Going lightweight!! The successful 2000 ascent. In the upper couloir. pic credit, Paul Schweizer.

A few days ago, after a leisurely approach on a sunny afternoon, Jack Geldard and I had a leisurely bivvy on the glacier beneath the Dru North Face. We cut depressions in the snow to allow our blow up matts to sit, we chatted, quickly melted water with our very efficient gas stove, drank tea, ate biscuits and at 4.30am, left to climb that wonderful, steep, channel, cutting a direct passage from the slabs and ice below to the couloir above. At approximately 3.30pm we both stood in the Dru Brèche, before a leisurely return to our bivvy on the glacier by abseiling the line. After a leisurely night we casually booted back to the Grand Montets station and returned to the valley where Jack very generously bought me lunch, he said it was in return for me leading most of the hard pitches on the two climbs we had done together in the last week, I’m not sure I had but I wasn’t turning that offer down especially as it had Affligem mentioned.

Times and conceptions change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Alpinism has moved on, but some things will remain the same. When Jack and I climbed the metal steps with the rubber matting and back into the Grand Montets station we walked past the toilets that I had stayed with Paul 15 years previously and the waft hit me, that sweet sickly odour, and it took me back in more ways than one.

Thanks to Jack Geldard and Paul Schweizer for the company and the use of the pics :-)

 

Partner in crime, Jack Geldard looking happy with all of the 2015 bivvy comfort.

Jack entering the start of the direct.

One bag with not a lot in, between two… How times and conceptions change.

Jack getting us going.

Pitch two. This pitch could have been linked with the first pitch but Jack thought it may be getting tricky and did one of his 30m pitches, but it was easier and more pleasant than the pitch he had already lead. Bad tactics from JG! Pic credit, Jack Geldard.

Myself on pitch 3, a full 60m pitch of overhanging trickles of perfect ice. I think this pitch is up there with one of the most satisfying and unusual mixed and ice pitches I’ve ever climbed. Pic credit, Jack Geldard.

Jack Geldard seconding pitch 3 of The Direct.

Jack Geldard higher on pitch 3 of The Direct.

Myself on The final pitch of The Direct. Well protected and steep. Memorable! Pic credit, Jack Geldard.

Having climbed quite a bit of steep ice, I never thought that pulling onto overhanging schrooms could feel so exposed. The second of two very special pitches. Pic credit, Jack Geldard.

Jack on the steep bit in the upper couloir.

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Stupenda.

Stupenda: Italian for marvellous, wonderful, stupendous, wondrous, terrific, stunning.

I was acting like a truculent teenager. ‘We should be on The Dru. We should be on The Grande Jorasses. The weather is perfect; we should not be climbing a three hundred-metre day route called Stupenda. And what the hell is a Stupenda anyway?’

I sat on the wall by the Midi Téléphérique Station, while Jack Geldard, my partner for this climbing outing had gone in search of boulangerie goods. Warmed by the afternoon sun, basking, the Chamonix hubbub was going on behind – revving cars, clacking ski boots, clacking pole tips, barking dogs - and I could not help but try and  remember how many other times I had done this, how many other times had I sat and waited for a téléphérique to take me climbing and I couldn’t help but think how some of the innocent magic had disappeared. Life can be a bit of a runaway – one moment its the jitters and nervous anticipation and excitement, its the first swig of beer, fumbles in the dark, into the unknown and then, its routine, run-of-the-mill, the usual, casual, comfortable.

I watched a couple of workers chipping and spreading salt on an patch of ice that looked like the outline of an island – hard, pocked, brown, jagged around the edge, shrivelled, shrinking, cracked, withered – water trickled away from the ice patch and disappeared into a crack between slabs.  

Jack and I, laden with heavy climbing sacks, skied the deserted top half of the Valley Blanche. We skied past the Super Couloir with its thread of grey and then on through the blue Séracs du Géant before turning right and skinning in the sun,along the Leschaux Glacier, heading for the silver metal hut that I had stayed many times and with many different friends.

Following ski tracks, the only sound a swish and click and heavy breathing and the rumble of rocks loosened by the sun. On my left I passed a single ski tip sticking out of the snow. I skied to it and checked to see if it was an Atomic, one of the set I lost when airlifted with a broken ankle from the Petites Jorasses in 2004. It wasn’t.

Jack Geldard skinning the Leschaux Glacier heading for the hut.

The Grande Jorasses was to my right, massive and austere, so big it looks like an optical illusion, a gateway to Italy that closed the door to the Leschaux Glacier making this a cul-de-sac. But there was no red T-sign here in this dead end, no semi-detached, suburban living.

I was always impressed by the Grande Jorasses, the ice and spurs, the castellated skyline. Looking at this mountain took me back years, it took me back to reading books by John Barry and Desmaison and Bonington and epic accounts of The Colton/Macintyre. It took me to my first Alpine trip, The Croz Spur and The Shroud with Owain Jones and it was easy to remember that night of being inside a bivvy bag with no sleeping bag or sleeping mat and bouncing all night like a big green kidney bean because we had not been able to find the hut. I can still feel the intimidation and excitement and the cold oozing from those high walls, I could still sense younger exuberance and I missed it.  

Jack and I climbed the ladders and traversed the snow slope and settled in for a night in the hut. We shared the small box with an Italian who was taking pictures and film of Tom Ballard soloing the Colton/Macintyre and some friendly Polish guys who had white sun-creamed smothered faces. At 4am we rose and ate dried Pain au chocolat, washed down by instant espresso coffee that came from a small paper tube before leaving the hut at 5am.

The first two pitches were avoided as the ice was not at home, leaving me to begin pitch three of the final five pitches, the meat of the route. Pic credit Jack Geldard.

I removed the gloves which were stuffed down my front and swung the rack of gear, clipped to a sling around my neck, to the side – unfortunately the food in my chest pockets and the bundles of blue, 4mm tat, still bulged like a paunch and my jacket dragged and caught as I pushed and squirmed, pressed tight inside the granite chimney.

Jack and I had climbed and down-climbed a snow ledge to the right to avoid the first two easy ice pitches of Stupenda because they were not there, or at least the ice wasn’t and neither was the styrofoam we had read about in Philippe Batoux’s, The finest climbs in the Mont Blanc Range, book. Stuck to the dark, beneath the numerous overhangs, when we were lucky, was clotted meringue, but most of all it was sugar that dissolved when stirred.

The day before, on the approach from The Midi, I rejoiced in the quiet, because on many occasions through the winter, this high mountain wilderness can be a circus of groups being led on a guided conveyor. I use the téléphériques, and most handy they are, but at times I wonder if the mountains above Chamonix would be better without them and only then would the most determined enter – but I also know the lifts give employment and bring wealth and I know how much I enjoy them when knackered and even when I’m not, so maybe it is just a problem I need to deal and on the occasion when the hills are quiet, celebrate.

I feel climbing has become a similar conveyor, due mainly to the internet. People ask for condition reports and only experience when they know a climb – especially a climb with a certain reputation – is in exceptional condition. The modern Alpinist appears less concerned about an unknown experience, it appears unimportant to sample goods untested and like many of the skiers, who are happy to form queues, and sit in groups rubbing shoulders with literally hundreds of other people on the Valley Blanche, many Alpinists today appear to place the experience of solitude and the feeling of being out-on-a-limb, way down the list of importance. Alpinists of today appear happy to live exactly the same experience as many others simply to guarantee a tick. I find this hunger for knowledge and information before experiencing a climb, difficult to understand as for me, popping my head above an overhang, not sure of what I’m getting is very important, but as my friend said a few days ago, “Nick, you’re a dinosaur.”

Jack Geldard feeling blurred while contemplating the chimney of pitch three.

Jack in a chimney. Pitch three of Stupenda.

Stupenda is given a grade, V A2 M5+ WI6, I’m not sure what this means as grades in the mountains, I think, are superfluous and most of the time not relevant, and as I climbed higher, passing overhangs so steep that my legs dangled and I locked at the shoulder like being in the gym, so sure I had just free climbed the crux I shouted down to Jack, “Hashtag, first free ascent. @HERO.COM” But as I pulled into a crack, hardly wide enough to fit, and looked up and saw flared and overhanging off-width with smooth walls on either side and a rounded mouth and sugar in its gullet, my hashtag hubris kicked me in the balls and the rising bile burnt my @ego.

Setting off on the crux pitch four. #no free ascent!

Myself on pitch four, “It cant get much steeper than this can it?” … Yes! pic credit Jack Geldard.

On the right wall were two bolts, this I imagined was the A2 section and the bolts had been used for aid. I squirmed and began arm barring and leg barring and body barring until I could bar no more. I remembered climbing with my friend Dan McMannus one wet weekend in North Wales as he prepared to travel to Yosemite and we tackled every off-width test piece The Llanberis Pass had to offer. A desperate body eating crack called Fear of Infection had me vomiting as I slithered in the rain with Dan laughing above me and pulling hard on the ropes. The walls either side of this Stupenda were smooth and Fear of Infection came back to me in a rush but this time I was wearing crampons, had axes, several layers of clothing and gloves and the rain was substituted with cold but the nausea was very similar.

Jack Geldard seconding the crux pitch.

My torso was above the highest bolt and I was still free. Over and over and over I attempted to stick a clear slither of ice, welded to the back of the off-width with a pick, but each time, only a tooth snagged. I needed to escape the constriction, I had to lean out to make upward, but my left foot, shin, thigh, failed to find purchase and repeatedly I slithered back to the one foothold inside the crack. ‘You can do this. You. Can. Fucking. Do. This.’ Suddenly I realised how important free climbing this stupid Stupenda had become and my determination scared me. Up again and once again I grabbed the axe which was stuck to a few millimetres of clear ice. Breathing, thrutching, panting, sweating, I made a few centimetres and fished with the left axe for something solid. I hung there wedged, breathing deep, sucking, panting and stuck in place by means of a twisted thigh and upper body tension pressed to the inside of the crack, but no matter, I could not hook anything other than sugar with the left axe. Looking at the bolt level with my right foot – it had a carabineer clipped, – it looked so tempting for a front point, but I couldn’t, I just had to give everything because the personal reward in climbing this aid pitch free suddenly meant so much. I matched the axe with its pick in the clear ice with both hands and pulled and squirmed and made millimetres. The right leg flailed and then caught and a few more millimetres were made and as I pulled higher the axe blew with spiralling  glass shards and I expolded, and as I flew, being scared did not enter into my head, but for a second, just one quick plummeting second, being disappointed, being not good enough did. But the disappointment was only for a second, and it was  in that same second that I flew twenty-five feet, but then pulled back up by using the rope, and this time, by using a front point neatly placed into the karabiner, I managed to find something to hook with the left axe and pulled and began squirming and instead of falling, this time I continued and eventually caught hold of the belay.

Myself climbing the easy and pleasant pitch five. Jack did climb the first 30m then belayed when it became steep and scary. Pic credit Jack Geldard.

Jack making amends on pitch six after jibbing from the pitch before.

Just when you think you deserve some easy, you get run-out and desperate. Pic credit Jack Geldard.

Three more bold and demanding pitches followed, this Stupenda did not give up, and as I eventually stood in the brèche, encompassed by dark and completely exhausted, I knew I could not have given more, but this is what I had wanted wasn’t it? Had I wanted the same experience as the queues that this route will undoubtedly see when it becomes an ice romp, I would have waited, but crowds are not my thing and a different experience is more important.

*

I lay on a wooden bench looking at the stars. Jack lay on a second bench doing the same. There were millions of them, absolutely bloody millions but each star was different. It was half past midnight and we had skied the bottom section of the VB and walked the steep snow slope leading through the woods to the small wooden hut at the start of the narrow and zigzagged James Bond Track. The track would lead us back to Chamonix centre. I sat up and looked across the orange glow and the moving white headlights of Chamonix and on to the snow slopes of Brèvent and Flégère on the opposite side of the valley. The piste bashers were out like some alien, War of the Worlds invasion – flashing yellow lights and powerful white beams smoothing and grooming snow and moving around the steep valley sides.

“How you feeling?” Jack asked.

“I’m totally knackered.” I replied, while not taking my eyes from the moving lights of the piste bashers that were now blurred by the cloud of condensation escaping my mouth. Then continued, “Bloody love this shit, this feeling, this life, never want it to end.”

But of course it will because I was stood in the same queue as everyone else, and this thought almost made me weep.

Back on the glacier.

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Shine On.

 

At the base of Crack Baby in less than perfect conditions. Pic credit, Andy Houseman.

 I walked through the front door of my home for the winter, a modern two bedroom apartment in the centre of Chamonix. Neil Brodie and Kenton Cool were waiting. “Come on, pack your stuff.” They were about to whisk me away to Kandersteg in Switzerland to climb a 340m icefall called Crack Baby.

I had just returned to the apartment from two nights out climbing the Ginat on the north face of the Droits with Ross Hewitt. My left wrist, the one I was refusing to believe was broken, throbbed and had taken-on a red, angry appearance. “Don’t think I’m going to make it, my wrist is killing and I’ve run out of Voltarol.” Gutted didn’t cover it, but after one thousand metres, with, what I later found out was a break running horizontally across the head of the Radius, I had maxed out on tolerance to pain.

Brodie and Kenton left the apartment immediately and returned the following evening happy and buzzing – the climb that I wanted to climb as much as either of them had lived up to reputation for quality and experience.

Nearly every year since the broken wrist winter, I’ve been lusting for a chance to get to grips with Crack Baby but it has never happened, which for anyone who knows me will understand this is not a good situation to be around and this winter was shaping up for much of the same and I was beginning to resemble a cabin fever suffering Delbert Grady from Stanley Kubrick’s, The Shining. It was a good job I didn’t have a wife and children!  

Now, call me, up-my-own-arse, which is fine, but I have never envisaged having a problem in the actual physical climbing aspect of Crack Baby, no, this has never even entered into my small brain and as long as I get to the base of the route I have always been pretty assured that it will not be a problem, but there are other, more subtle glitches ready and waiting to stop the would be suitor than the actual climbing and the guide book tip, “Bring nerves of steel,” possibly rings true if  fresh snow is encountered.   

About six days ago on a clear and bright, perfect blue-sky morning I paid my first visit to Breitwangflue, the massive and imposing walls and home to Crack Baby, but I was partnered by The Catalogue MOG, Adam George, who had already climbed my long lusted climb, so we were there to try Alpha Säule, a 250m flow to the left. We had driven from Chamonix that morning, leaving at 3.45 am, and as we passed beneath the weaving ice-flow of Crack Baby, I attempted to ignore, but in my mind’s eye the image of throwing myself into the snow and refusing to move any farther until Adam agreed to climb the route was strong. Adam being so MOG would have just picked me up and slapped me, so my teenage strop didn’t occur and by midday we were successfully back and basking in the heavily tracked snow at the base of the climb feeling content. Well, I say content, I was certainly very happy to have climbed a great climb with Adam, but I had a niggle and as we walked away on one of the most perfect weather and conditions days ever, that niggle, niggled quite a lot. I jokingly suggested maybe would had time to throw a quick lap on Crack Baby but that probably would have been greedy and Adam had just bought a new hoover which I’m certain he was itching to try.

 

Adam, Catalogue MOG, George walking in to Alpha Säule, the flow directly above him with Crack Baby to his right.

Adam on pitch one of Alpha Säule.

Adam climbing one of the more meaty pitches of Alpha Säule no-doubt getting excited with the thought of using his newly acquired hoover.

A shining Catalogue MOG and some other bloke beneath Alpha Säule on a perfect weather day.

Roll forward about six days and here I was again in Kandersteg but this could have been a parallel life, in a parallel universe to my previous visit.

The Gemmi Lodge, Kandersteg.

Andy Houseman and I had driven from Chamonix and arrived in Kandersteg at 11am and after booking into the Gemmi Lodge – a large gothic hotel that had big rooms and empty corridors and old decor and reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining – we went out to get some mileage nearby as this would be the first icefall climbing Andy had done since 2009, not the perfect preparation for a 340m WI6, but hey, this was Houseman, the most talented off the couch climber I know.

“What the hell, it’s like Scotland.” We had parked at The Ermitage Hotel and walked to the nearby Oeschinenwald and in that time it had begun to rain and the rain was persistent and the temperature rose and the ice gushed tears of despair.

I was not really bothered about climbing ice that was melting and ice I had climbed before and I didn’t need a warm up or a cold shower, but panic was setting in as the fir trees on the hillside above the town were white and the slopes above Crack Baby are notorious for being avalanche prone.

“Bugger this, let’s go for a beer.”  

The money on this two day sortie was beginning to rack up – the fuel from and too Chamonix, the train through the tunnel at Goppenstein, room 237 at The Gemmi Lodge, beers, the parking by the Ermitage Hotel – and none of this concerned me – it really didn’t as long as we climbed Crack Baby –  but as the streets down the centre of Kandersteg became a slushy-slew reminding me of Fort William high street on the West Coast of Scotland and the heavy rain fell even heavier, and the trees up high became even whiter, inside I was panicking and my mind was shouting and it was shouting, “EXPENSIVE FAIL.”

‘No, no, no, this can’t be happening.’ It was 4am and I had sliced open the pad of hard skin at the base of my middle finger on my left hand while cutting a stale baguette-nubbin. The welt, like a flapping piece of pig flesh, immediately oozed deep red. I giddily stood back and watched a little boy trundle down a corridor on a tricycle – I didn’t think the morning could have gotten any worse as we had paid for a breakfast that we could not eat because we were leaving before 7am, but here I was with a deep cut in my hand and blood soaking into my only piece of bread with images of madness running through my mind.      

We left the Lodge and immediately it became apparent how much snow had fallen. Twice before I had climbed in Kandersteg, the second time had been with Steve House – yes, that Steve House – and when I told Steve about Crack Baby he said shall we go and do it? The snow on that occasion was possibly heavier than now, but not much and I steadfastly refused because of the avalanche risk and as I drove my little red van through the yellow lamp-lit, snow covered streets in the centre of town, my head was once again shouting but this time it was shouting “REDRUM.”

The parking spot was covered in fresh deep snow, no surprise there then and the road that Adam and I had romped on compact snow and tarmac was a foot under fresh powder.

Reaching the meadow beneath the 300m, golden brown wall with blurred silver-streaks in the half light of dawn, it was obvious by the waist deep snow there was quite a lot of fresh to be had and after gearing up I swam to the start of the climb and led a 100m pitch such was my enthusiasm to get off the easier angle that would be pummelled by an avalanche. My flapping welt was bleeding beneath the glove and sticking but that was of little concern now. Houseman joined me in my safe cave by the first of several steep sections. “Do you know what’s above this climb?” “No.” I lied trying not to think of freshly loaded slopes. ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.’

Three steep and twisting pitches later I stood belaying inside another cave. Above my head large icicles sharply pointed down and all around spindrift whispered, washing waves of white. A large rumble filled the valley and over to my right I watched a large avalanche pour directly down the line of Alpha Säule, the climb Adam and I had climbed six days ago. I imagined a cascade of blood gushing from an elevator door.  At this point the most obvious reaction would be retreat, but the thought that ran through my mind was, ‘I really hope Andy had not noticed’ and as I took in the rope I worked out every argument in the book for continuing but could not come up with any that sounded reasonable, so I continued in my illusion that the larger than average slough may not have been noticed.

 

“Right, let’s get the fuck out.”

Looking down the line I first saw a swinging axe, quickly followed by a wide eyed Houseman. “Right, that’s it; let’s get the fuck out of here.”  I guess he had noticed the avalanche! “Why?” I tried to remain calm and sensible looking but feared if the icicles above my head were any lower I would be chopping a hole and shouting, “HERE’S JOHNNY!”

“WHY? DID YOU SEE THAT AVALANCHE?”

“Strong slough, surely.”

“That was not a strong slough, that WAS an avalanche.”

It was a good job the ledge we were stood was big because it was at this point I took the only option available and dropped to my knees and held up my hands in a praying action and began wailing, “PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESE CAN WE CARRY ON, TWO PITCHES, TWO PITCHES, THAT’S ALL, TWO PITCHES, I’LL LEAD THEM, YOU CAN STAY HERE SAFE AND SOUND – I’LL LEAD THEM – PLEEEEEEEEEEEESE?”

“PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEESE.”

Andy suddenly realising that avalanches were the least of his worries as he was a long way up on a deserted cliff with a madman holding two very sharp implements eventually he gave in.

I speedily set-off before Andy changed his mind while manically grinning trying to restore faith that I wasn’t really crazy, but failed, and within a reasonably quick period, with a lot of looking up, I was at the belay below the final pitch. Andy reached me and apologised for being spooked and I apologised for being obsessed and the world was once again fluffy, although we still had 60m of exposed steep to be climbed which Andy opted for and within a short time we both stood at the top of the climb feeling happy and relieved. I’m sure my relief was more than Andy’s as I began to slide downwards, down toward the next obsession, down towards the depths of my madness, down towards the next shining.    

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All About the Hashtag.

 

#Adam George Climbing Inachevée Conception in Cogne last week with his hands and feet and axes and crampons and using the rope purely for safety SHOCKER! #Amazing #History in the making #Unbelievable #Important #Not as big as the Shard.

 

Its 8am and I’m sitting on my bed, leaning against the wall, eating breakfast and listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4. The cream coloured duvet is rucked and crumpled; a few crumbs of toast lay scattered. In a flash my mind highlights, ‘these crumbs will cause me grief later’ and then it locks on to something else, John Humphrys has just mentioned rock climbing – he did, he really did. I quickly put down my mug of coffee before I choke. Throwing coffee over my bed will be a load more annoying than crumbs.

The news item that is being talked about on Radio 4 is Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of #TheDawnWall in Yosemite. After only a few seconds the age old cliché and massively over worked word, ‘conquered’ is used, and its followed with the usual platitudes and ignorance and damaging condescending jokey banter which interviewers generally revert to when talking about something they do not understand or see value in.

This is surely a dream. More coffee. I risk taking another sip but as I do, John Long, yes, THE, John Long, a climber whom I respect as much for his writing as his climbing enters into #TheDawnWall spray, “This is incredible, amazing, its history in the making.” I choked. Coffee sprayed across the room. Guess my duvet cover was doomed from the word go.

In society and media today, I know there is fascination with the lives of others, reality TV and general pap, its abundant and devoured and it could be said that two very driven and accomplished rock climbers successfully climbing a cutting edge new route is refreshing and I would agree. Also in the news this week was The Charlie Hebdo murders, Boko Haram had murdered two thousand people in Nigeria, innocent people with families and friends held hostage by Islamic State, were beheaded, two young girls had been used by men to act as suicide bombers and murdered at least nineteen people and of course had blown themselves to bits and here I was listening to a report on Radio 4, supposedly a serious news outlet, telling me how amazing and important and history making it was that two climbers had reached the top of a rock climb in Yosemite and as usual when climbing hits mainstream it wasn’t even reported correctly, “The first time El Cap has been free climbed.” No it isn’t.  

I am a climber… in fact; I am quite a dedicated climber, someone who can see the personal value in climbing for the individual at all levels and within all genres. As a personal achievement, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of #TheDawnWall is exceptional and I whole heartedly commend them. They are both very skilled, grass roots climbers and have worked exceptionally hard, the vision to climb #The DawWall is inspirational and I do not intend in any way to be insulting or derogatory to their ascent. In light of much that is reported under the heading ‘Climbing’ #TheDawnWall is at least grass roots and worthy, it’s actually a new line and climbed in good style and for once it isn’t the oldest, the youngest or the quickest and they have not attempted to disguise or hide the actual facts about the style of ascent, they did not use oxygen, so good on them.

In the very small pond, which is climbing, although growing bigger by the day since #TheDawnWall mainstream mega spray, #TheDawnWall ascent is history, but, and I say this as a person who values climbing and what it gives to those taking part, it is not “world history in the making”, and even within climbing, to sell this ascent as the most difficult climb in the world is hype and incorrect and devalues many other ground breaking climbs. Not for one moment do I think Tommy Caldwell or Kevin Jorgeson had anything to do with the majority of what was put out, but this is the problem when you give news of your dream climb to a media company, or leave it in the hands of an over-zealous sponsor.     

The mainstream reporting of #TheDawnWall is just another example of how headlines within the mainstream media industry need to be quantifiable, understandable and this is part of the problem, because the majority do not, and never will understand climbing. So they – the masses – will be spoon-fed platitudes, clichés, comparisons, trite jokes and dumbed-down. “They are climbing with only their hands and feet,”(Really!) And this ignorant reporting damages and belittles and actually makes climbers sound like ignorant obsessed fools who have no regard for what is actually real history in the making and truly important world events that affect humanity as a whole.

I do not have any issue with climbing being reported in the correct place and to an audience that understand – climbing sites, climbing magazines – these places and the people who report for them will at least understand the intricacies of what they report, but any climber that has direct involvement with the likes of The Daily Mail and Fox News - I mean this generically as I don’t know whether Caldwell and Jorgeson did - should really question their motives and integrity. In my mind these horrible racist and acerbic right-wing media outlets should be avoided like a sexually transmitted disease.

As the morning continued I became more and more ‘amazed’ yes, to me the truly amazing thing about this was not the actual physical aspect of successfully climbing #TheDawnWall, which is a brilliant effort, but let’s face it, it was always going to happen as it involved two of the best rock climbers in the world who are fortunate and good enough to be able to dedicate several years to working the moves, so of course, at some point it was going to happen. No, the most amazing thing was how much airtime and press and how many well-known climbers were jumping aboard #TheDawnWallGravyTrain to be interviewed and appear in, and on, mainstream media and nearly without exception, every one of these experts said the same thing … “It’s amazing, history in the making, it’s a really important, hands and feet, they shit in a tube, it’s the same as winning a gold medal, bigger than The Shard, the most difficult… “

I’m sorry, the successful ascent of #TheDawnWall on the grand scheme really is not important or amazing and it’s not like winning a gold medal – climbing  #TheDawnWall is not a competition, it wasn’t and isn’t athletics, there are no losers or winners – climbing in my mind is not sport, it’s a lifestyle, it goes so much deeper than being sport, so please don’t try to compare it with a competitive sport that a crowd pay money to watch. Once again this is an attempt to make the general public appreciate how major this ascent is for climbers, but why do we need to tell people how important this is for us? I do not really understand competition climbing and I know this is my problem. I certainly do not want to see climbing in the Olympics as I think it will dilute and affect the grass roots level of the activity, but I can see that on some level, competitions and events do pave the way to acceptance for the individual and I suppose this has to be a good thing.    

Climbing #TheDawnWall was two very skilful and driven and fortunate climbers, whom I respect tremendously doing something that is important to them, but it’s not the cure for Ebola, climbing is a privileged activity that the masses think involves a bunch of skinny and ignorant and obsessed folk who are funded by Mummy and Daddy and too lazy to do a ‘proper job.’  

Personally I think the ‘expert’, climbers appearing on TV and radio lost a great opportunity to actually say something meaningful and show the world that climbers can be rounded and world-wise and conscious of world events that actually are important? Maybe somehow, they could have attempted to explain what it is about climbing that makes it such a great activity and why climbers do what they do and why at times, may appear to forsake and try to ignore some of the inhumanity and inequality and madness. Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe I missed the reports where they did say something different and meaningful or maybe they were not given the opportunity. If this is the case, I apologise but you also had the choice to say thanks, but no thanks; you could have argued that the general public do not need the same old platitudes and clichés.

As climbers do we really need to appease the masses or act like performing monkeys? If money is that tight, and I don’t begrudge at all grassroots climbers like Caldwell and Jorgeson wanting to earn a wage, but for some of the other supposedly ‘top climbers’ out there who have been involved in forms of climbing that are more stunts than actual climbing, please make sure you sell us out for a whole pot of money that will make you comfortable for the rest of your life, don’t dumb down and ruin and make a mockery of our beloved lifestyle for peanuts, because you will only prove that we really are all monkeys.

“Good on them, they are making a living and not damaging anything.” I hear this said regularly about the ‘top climbers’ that have broken into mainstream, well I actually do think they are damaging climbing and I think much of what is being done is dishonest. Honesty and integrity appear to have been forsaken in the pursuit of lying to the public, making another headline, raising a profile and increasing the bank balance or attempting to become the next Bear Grylls or Ben Fogle. 

We can all make mistakes, everyone who has dedicated their life to a passion and activity that has costs running into tens of thousands – airfare, expedition costs, peak fees, Liaison Officer bills, environmental costs, garbage deposits and freight costs can easily be tempted, it is very easy not to see the big picture and the damage that may come from letting a PR company deal with your affairs or accepting money from a company who has no connection to climbing.

Several years ago I was part of a team funded by Samsung to attempt a new route on Annapurna III and at the time I battled with the implications of being funded by an electronics company, but in the end I accepted. The person we liaised was passionate and honest and had an understanding of what we were attempting, but it soon became apparent the company in general did not and some of their marketing strategy went against what I stood for. Fortunately nothing came of the attempt and nothing came from the marketing. Soon after our failure, Samsung moved their marketing with a lot more success to a mountain the mainstream media and the general public do associate as it has a quantifiable aspect in being the highest, even bigger than The Shard I believe, and all went well in the sale of phones because of course everyone needs to tweet from 8000m.  

I now know I made a mistake becoming involved with a non-climbing company, I was greedy and I grabbed the chance to attempt a mountain I really wanted to experience – desire got the better of me. I am now older and I have experienced and learnt, I have not been involved within a climbing capacity with a non-climbing company since and I certainly will not allow any company to act on my behalf when dealing with the press, without total control of what is being said.

If you are a climber you will know that tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have sacrificed in their endeavours and to us, ‘climbers’ this is valuable and commendable and inspirational, but once it begins to be reported in the mainstream, all of the intricacies and subtleties go out of the window.

My fear for climbing is that once we drink from the mainstream chalice, which obviously began a long time ago and has been a part of climbing ever since, we lose control. Media climbing is escalating massively given modern technology and my fear is this,  how long is it in today’s society, a society of government cuts and austerity, before the consequences of putting ourselves out into the public domain hit – how long before government takes notice and regulations begin? How long before a rope tax or a crag tax, or you have to have private health care because you are being reckless alongside those other risk takers who smoke or eat McDonalds burgers, who, dare I say, have possibly been drawn in by advertising and it is not their fault. How long before insurance companies and major conglomerates that have nothing to do with climbing, see an angle and get involved – well, of course they already have and the damage is there to be seen. How long before something that is very close to our hearts becomes commoditised and ruled by companies that have no connection or history or empathy with climbing and climbing history or climbers as individuals, companies who do not care about their effect and the damage as long as the money just keeps flowing?

Climbers appear very fond of hashtags nowadays so here are a few of my own,

#Itsnotaboutthemoney

#Getsomeintegrity

#Behonest

#Youcansayno

#Dontbegreedy

#Wedonotconquertherockormountains

 

         

 

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Fever Pitch.

 

Night Fever. M8 250m. Tour Ronde, West Wall. 8/1/15 (This is the name Matt and I will give the line if it turns out to be unclimbed)

 

In a week where innocent people are shot down in Paris for expressing their cartoon  feelings and then, several hours later, more killing – four innocent hostages and three fundamentalists are shot, also in Paris, it makes writing about a personal experience in the form of a climb, somewhat trite. How the hell as climbers do we continue to stick our heads in the rock and continue like nothing bad is going on out there and why do we continue to spray about something, which on the grand scheme, is pointless and serves no value?

I have never studied in-depth, the news, politics, economics, facts, figures, numbers, philosophy. I have never been able to get a grip of think tanks, meetings, suits, offices, scales, sales, shiny shoes, graphs, policy. Yes, I am ignorant. I am also a person with feeling and emotion; I am a human being and because of this I can tell when something is correct and when something is morally wrong. Is it right to kill people… and by this I mean all people, no matter their religion, nation, colour of skin, beliefs –  personally I don’t think it is. I believe the only way to move on and get somewhere is by listening, attempt at understanding, compassion, forgiveness, openness. In my mind, an eye for an eye solves nothing, it does not bring peace, it’s an out-dated philosophy.    

Since returning from a climb on the Tour Ronde, I have heard and read racism and xenophobia, its rampant. Not everyone who is Muslim and practices Islam is a terrorist or a fundamentalist, one of the two policemen protecting the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, Ahmed Merabet, killed at the hands of the fundamentalists, was Muslim. There is no need to call for everyone from a certain religion, faith, background, country, to be herded together and bombed and I would appreciate anyone who knows me, not to express this line – it is racist, small minded and solves nothing – what it does is escalate hate and violence and intolerance and I want no part of it.  

Maybe the questions I raised at the start of this piece are worth reconsidering; maybe climbing and climbers are a small voice of obsessive sanity amongst all of the madness. Maybe the world should begin climbing and then, maybe we will have arguments about bolts and ethics and style, but no one will be shot and racism and xenophobia will be a thing of the past?

****

On Thursday 8th of January, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Matt Helliker and I stood beneath the West Wall of the Tour Ronde. The glacier was silent. Peaceful. The West Wall – giant brown granite flakes and pillars stood proud and upright, an erect middle finger, a massive up-yours to all of the craziness and racism and for once I didn’t feel guilt. Separation from everything going on out there, gave me faith in my difference. Being in a wonderful white land, surrounded by mountains that were neither racist, xenophobic, hateful or calling for retribution, gave me hope. Each to their own as long as no-one is hurt, but people are being hurt, the world at this present time to me appeared mad –  long live personal challenge, the challenge of human spirit and the fight against gravity - climbing had suddenly become sanity.

Tim Neill and I had attempted this line earlier in the winter but after three pitches we bailed – the climbing had been difficult and committing, there was a certain amount of loose rock and there appeared to be much more difficult climbing above our high point. I would not say I was obsessed by the climb – which after study, does not fit into any description of established climbs on the West Wall and is possibly new – but the soaring overhanging corner promised a commitment of a certain kind and because of this it very much appealed.

Matt set off climbing the first two ‘warm up’ pitches and rapidly established us in the centre of the wall. I climbed the third, difficult pitch, – overhanging, tenuous, technical, something similar to the pod and crux of the E4, Void at Tremadog, with the odd loose block thrown in. Having climbed the pitch, I hang from the belay, still in place from Tim and my the previous high point, and look above, my guesstimate of two more pitches and not as difficult may have been naive, but like most things in my life, I preferred hopeless optimism over gloom and despair, it is this optimism that has seen me step from the ground on many climbs.

The second attempt at the climb had hit a few hold-ups, today was Wednesday, Matt and I were hoping to have attempted the climb on Monday, but Helliker had hit melt down and when he had messaged me at 11pm Sunday evening, vomiting and wasted, we  had to hit the pause. Today was Thursday and now I had a recurrence of a chest infection, but I have never been good at sitting and waiting and even the night before, lying in a sweat filled bed, I knew no-matter, opportunities had to be grasped.

Matt climbed a short overhanging chimney and belayed to the side of an overhanging corner sprouting loose granite needles. As I set off to climb an off-width, which sliced  a steep slab to avoid the sea urchin bristling from the corner, Matt suggested taking the clean wall above and to the right, but this I’m sure is where the established rock climb goes and all said and done, the line was the corner; anything else was copout.

The fierce light of the sun hit the wall, but it was shown short-thrift by the bank of cloud clinging to the summit of Mont Blanc. I hung from picks hooked behind wobbling blocks and hoped they didn’t prize free – there would be no redemption should anything rip – and with each cautious hook, strenuous pull and forced inhalation of breath, breath held inside burning lungs, the death and destruction happing elsewhere in the world was put on hold. I fully embraced, but beneath the surface was the same old guilt, why me, why this life, why not starving, poverty, an office, a factory, a prison cell, a doorway, mental illness. I suppose we all have our crosses?  

Matt climbed the continuation of the corner for fifty metres and it was as technical and difficult and as committing as the two previous pitches. I stood belaying in a small cave, blocks wedged into the corner were suspect and I was in the fall line. Behind me snow ravaged the Grand Pilier d’Angle and Mont Maudit had disappeared behind a wall of cloud that was driven by strong winds. When we next met,  Matt was hanging beneath a roof at the top of the corner, it was dark and snowing – the wind gusted and I felt wasted. “Are you ok to lead on?” Matt asked. I felt like saying, ‘No, of course I’m not,’ but grabbed the gear and set off sensing the end was close.

An hour later, standing together on the crest of the West Wall, the climb was done but the wind was gusting as if we had offended. Snow curled in a speeding cloud of spindrift that whipped over the whale-back ridge and it lashed soft skin and scraped eyes. I felt as blind as some of the people whose comments I had read on Facebook before starting this climb.

At 10pm, after abseiling into a maelstrom, we reached our skis and at midnight Matt and I staggered into Refuge Torino after being beaten by gales and snow and whiteout. When I told Jon Griffith I wanted to attempt this climb on the Tour Ronde, he hit me with an amusing comment and now that comment fizzed  in my brain like Coca Cola, “Nick, why do you want to go to the Tour Ronde, the Tour Ronde is for a Conville Course.” I had never attended a Conville Course, but if this is what they involved, it was obvious I had missed out – sign me up please.

When I woke and staggered from the bedroom at 8am, I was surprised to find the refuge buzzing with people – it turned out E.N.S.A. had based themselves at the hut on the ski test for aspirant guides and as I walked to the toilet I was asked where I had been climbing. I replied The Tour Ronde. “You need to go downstairs and inform the hut warden you are safe, a rescue has been called for you.”  I was shocked and still very asleep and I didn’t immediately move and replied, “Well we didn’t ask for a rescue.” I was told with short thrift that if I had needed a rescue, I would have been quite pleased to have received one, which I suppose was fair, although given the weather it was pretty obvious there were not going to be any rescues happening too quickly. It turned out that Patrick Gabarrou who had been climbing in the cirque had seen our torches high on the Ronde and given the weather, thought it advisable to inform the rescue that they might be needed. Fortunately they weren’t. Its always good to meet one of your hero’s and find he is caring.

Fear appears to be a large part of society today in Europe, fear of missing out, fear of not having the latest electronic item, fear of being unemployed, fear of cultures that are different from our own, fear of being different, fear of actually living. In these mad times climbing, something pretty pointless, gives distraction and purpose and helps me, as an individual, actually put things in perspective, it helps me look from a different perspective. The world has always had something mad going on and will continue to do so and I’m sure once the shock of this latest atrocity has passed, the majority who are fortunate and privileged will get through and continue with life, a life that should be for living and loving, not fearing and hating.

 

Night Fever. M8, 250m., Tour Rond West Wall. 8/1/15 (This is the name Matt and I will give the line if it turns out to be unclimbed)

  1. 50m. Start a little left of the lowest part of the buttress and climb a rising diagonal, left to right, aiming for the snow field beneath the obvious massive flake/corner in the middle of the face.
  2. 30m. From the apex of the snow field, climb steep cracks until a belay on the left.
  3. 40m. A continuation of the groove line leading to an overhanging pod which is climbed by back and footing to a big spike. From the spike hard moves right establish you beneath a small roof which is climbed using cracks on the right. Continue up the overhanging chimney and corner to belay after approximately 10m.
  4. 15m. follow the overhanging chimney and belay on a ledge beneath an off-width in a clean slab. (It is possible and probably better to climb this pitch together with pitch 3)
  5. 30m. Climb the off-width and at the top hand traverse left (this was climbed to avoid the spikes sprouting from the corner.) until beneath the overhanging corner. Climb the corner until reaching a pedestal and small cave.
  6. 50m. Climb the corner while trying to avoid killing your belayer.
  7. 35m. Climb left onto a snow ledge. A rising traverse to the left leads to an overhanging blocky groove in the back of the bay. Climb this and the continuation until the crest.

After reaching the crest we down climbed snow to the left, (facing out) and abseiled the spur on the left (facing out) of the line of ascent where we found two in-situ anchors.       

Matt Helliker taking us to beneath the corner on pitch two. .

Myself hanging out on the top of the spike before hard moves right and becoming established in the massive corner/flake

Difficult moves right to the bottom of the flake/crack.

Matt Helliker before entering the Void like pod on pitch three.

Matt seconding the technical moves, moving around the roof and entering the flake/crack.

The easy short pitch 4 of the flake/crack.

Climbing the corner (obviously!) of pitch 5.

Looking down to Matt climbing the off-width of pitch 5 before traversing left above the Sea Urchin and climbing the corner.

Pitch 6, Fortunately Matt climbed this really technical 50m pitch while there was still daylight. Unfortunately I did not!

10pm, and glad to be back at the skis.

Midnight after a slightly harrowing and challenging skin to the Torino. Maybe I should have done a Conville course to prepare me for this experience!

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Road Kill.

Reflections. Looking out, looking in… Refuge Torino Bar.

 

When I was a teenager I kept ferrets and to feed them, I would pick up road kill or hunt rabbits or shoot starlings with an air rifle. At fourteen years old, Starlings were scrawny scavengers with no beautiful song, Starlings were ferret food.

I’m forty nine years old now, it’s four days after my birthday, the 29th of December 2014, and half an hour before I leave to go to the church for my Mum’s funeral.

I stand in the kitchen of my sister and her partner, David’s house. Its quiet and I lean over the sink washing a white cereal bowl while looking through the window to a frost covered garden. Suspended by a thread, fastened to an ornate, imitation iron pole, a Starling hangs from a half coconut shell. The bird’s chest is shining black plumes smattered with white flecks. The Starlings chest is an oil slick of green, blue, red, purple and in that puffed chest, the white flecks are stars and planets and satellites that flicker and move in a black solar system and as I place the cereal bowl on the draining rack I’m transported…

The cold, thin air burnt infected lungs. My breathing was laboured. Tim Neill was up front and on occasion I saw his headtorch shine my way. We had left the Refuge Torino at six thirty heading into Cirque Maudit with the intention to climb Fantasia per a Ghiacciatore, an enclosed ice and mixed line I had climbed previously. My lungs sucked and I wondered if this was the same strain of infection that my Mum had caught, the same strain that had killed her? In my mind’s eye, I saw Mum lying on a trolley in a hospital corridor tended by ambulance men. Lesley, my sister had been with her, she said they were in the corridor for three hours before being taken to the intensive care unit. My skis cut the snow and my breathing hurt and in the dark, all around I could see my Mum lying on a trolley in a corridor.

Choughs circled, their wings spread wide to catch the breeze. It was light now and in the distilled red and blue striped horizon were jagged mountains. The holes in the snow at my feet filled with powder. Tim and I geared up, the same as I had geared up a million times before, the same as I had geared up beneath this climb a few years earlier.

Mum was tall and slim with dark Mediterranean features but in that frame was strength and determination. I sat on my rucksack fitting crampons to my orange ski boots and I could see the deep scar in Mum’s leg where as a child I had opened all of the draws of a steel filing cabinet and as it toppled forward, she jumped in-front taking the force of the falling cabinet and supporting it as it pinned her on the floor with me still below until someone came and lifted it from us. SNAP, the crampon locked to the orange boot. Once, arriving home from school I found Mum covered in oil under her blue Hillman Minx changing the starter-motor.  It was  a time when diesel cars were not popular and an old diesel engine had been fitted to the Hillman and the starter motor was big and heavy, “Pass me that spanner love, I’ll get some tea on in a bit …”

Tim set-off, wading deep snow and crossing the bergschrund beneath the jet stream of ice clinging to corners and dripping from overhangs until the ice hit the col beneath the summit of Mont Maudit. I followed in his steps and clipped to a belay the big guy had built by the side of the first steepening.  

There were many times I thought I would not outlive my Mum, I thought she would be in that unenviable situation which, I’m sure, most parents dread, of outliving one of their children. I was wrong and as Tim and I climbed higher and the wind on the col increased, throwing spindrift and the odd rock down the line, the situation felt different this time and I realised for the first time in my climbing, if I died, there of course would be sadness and upset from friends and family, but the one person who would have been devastated was now gone. Mum always took a delight and interest in whatever activities my sister and I were into, to the point that when I became interested in mountaineering and climbing, within months she could name mountains, mountaineers, Scottish winter climbs, summer rock climbs, Alpine climbs, Himalayan climbs, South American climbs – the lot, and she could enter into conversation about the subject with confidence. This of course was not always the best, as pulling the wool over Mum’s eyes about some of the climbs I attempted was now impossible.  I’m glad she never found out about my fascination with The Bells, the bells! That would have worried her.

Leaving the sun, climbing into the shadow, into the confined icy corner – images and memories flow with every drag of the pick, every kick and swing and pull… I could see Mum now, totally worn-out, falling asleep in a comfy chair with a half filled mug of strong coffee balanced by her side, sometimes, so tiered, the mug fell from her hand. Strong, instant coffee was certainly a big part of Mum’s life and she was seldom without one and it was generally partnered with a super long cigarette. It says something to her drive and determination, that after nearly fifty years of smoking, one day she decided to give up…

… up, up above, spindrift rips into the blue sky, it swirls… clouds like kettle steam, like Starling murmuration, like cigarette smoke,

like ashes…

… Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire feels fitting as I stand in the damp cold with my nephew Jake, Kyle, my niece’s husband and Farmer Tim, my sisters long-time friend and wait for the hearse.

Mum retired in her early sixties, and still full of zest for life, decided with Dad to sell-up and live a nomadic lifestyle on the canals. They had their first narrowboat commissioned and called her Emma after her grandfather, Captain Barrett’s ship, which had been shipwrecked off the coast of Flamborough head and they both travelled extensively around the English canals. Always ready for a challenge they tackled the tidal Thames on numerous occasions and then decided it would be ‘more fun’ to have a larger boat and bought Jasper, a 70ft traditional narrow boat. They continued to travel around the canals with Mum jumping on and off the boat to open all of the locks until old age caught up and eventually they moored up at stoke Bruerne and didn’t move again.  

The skeletal trees stand either side of the wooden church gates and in the branches above are Starlings, such beautiful intelligent birds, certainly not ferret food and like the rest of us, deserving of life .

The crux of Fantasia per a Ghiacciatore. Credit Tim Neill.

Climbing into the shadow.

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The Day Before the Solstice.

Skis cut a twin track, a track pointing toward Tour Ronde’s West Wall. Scalloped sastrugi, fill with powder driven on the wind. The winter sun dapples soft shadows across the glacier. Ice edges, sharp and blue and severe. Exfoliating ice crystals carry on the wind. Plumes of snow lift from corniced ridge. Brown, pink, grey, stark and sharp – granite spires from another time stab into the blue balloon sky. Whispering powder settles in steep couloirs. Steep empty graves with white. Snow to snow. The day before, when we skied and looked, the great big wide sky was latticed with white bread clouds. Clouds threaded with shapes of animals and people and countries and seas and friends and family. No flowers, no soil, no grass, no trees. Just white and cold and ice. Dust to dust. Beautiful isolation. Cold inanimate rock.  Tim cries, literally cries as his heart pulses blood to fingers. The promise of warmth delivered by the sun is false promise, like life’s false promise for many. Tim and I hang beneath an off-width with wind pelting for company. Cirque Maudite – deserted, lonely, cold. Dark on this day, the day before the solstice, comes quick. Like death. 

Until time runs out,  until the next time.

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